Imprisoned for ‘protesting without permission’, Egyptian writer and poet Omar Hazek has since been released, but banned from travelling. To show solidarity with Omar, and other writers facing persecution, he’s the Festival of Literature’s Virtual Writer-in-Residence.
Tell us about the inspiration behind your collaborative poetry collection, Nota – Skies of Freedom…
Freedom was the principal theme. I met Abdelwahhab Azzawi during the European and Mediterranean youth biennale in Macedonia in 2009. There we also met some young poets, among them the Italian poet Nikki Datoma, and Portuguese poet Tiago Patricio. Based on the friendships we built after this meeting, we agreed to publish our poems together in our different languages.
How important do you think poetry is in helping to change the world, be it expressing different ideas or trying to change attitudes?
I stopped thinking about poetry this way. I can’t determine how poetry can change world, but it’s been a part of the human consciousness since its dawn – I can’t imagine life without it.
In 2013, you were sentenced to two years in prison for ‘protesting without permission’. What were you protesting against?
In June 2010, Egyptian police killed the young Alexandrian, Khaled Saed. A wave of demonstrations was raised, and that was my first time participating in protests, to taste and breathe the freedom under Mubarak’s suppressive regime. Our basic demand was a fair trial for the police who killed Khaled. On 2 December 2013, there was a trial and a demonstration was arranged in front of the Alexandria tribunal asking for fair punishment for the killers that also aimed to practise some political pressure. The political situation was very bad as the old Mubarak regime – the one against which our revolution in 2011 was raised – was returning with an uglier face. We were also protesting this.
How were you treated in prison?
The prison condition was going from bad to worse. Some rooms were assigned for torturing prisoners. The Interior Ministry started to intentionally maltreat prisoners and deprive them of their basic rights. There were two phases. The first phase; from December 2013 until the announcement of Magdy Abdel Ghaffar as a Minister for the Interior on March 2015. Second phase; the time after this announcement. Problems during the first phase were crowded cells and poor prison facilities, but there was no harassment. The Magdy Abdel Ghaffar era witnessed severe harassment directed at political prisoners. I didn’t face any special good or bad treatment, only the same conditions as any other political prisoner.
Were you able to write?
I wrote two novels during the first phase and was able to send the papers out with my family during their visits. During the second phase, [sending papers] was forbidden and there were a lot of inspection raids. I wrote some small poems during the second phase and smuggled them out.
Your case was raised in the media by PEN International…
Their solidarity campaigns had a big effect on me and my family, as oppressed prisoners always need to feel that people remember them and are campaigning for their right to be released. Prisoners in Egypt are totally isolated and have no way to connect with the outer world [except] through their families during a fifteen minute visit. For this, I’m thanking PEN International so much for its countable support, and all the people who remembered me and imprisoned people. Solidarity is mainly directed at the known ones: poets, writers, and known activists. There are tens of thousands of unknown political prisoners in Egyptian prisons that no one is campaigning for.
You were one of 100 prisoners pardoned by a presidential decree. Did it have anything to do with international pressure from organisations such as PEN?
I think the reason was internal and external pressure. Campaigns offer strong solidarity and sometimes have an effect in favour of the detainee, but that does not always happen. Certainly it was solidarity from the international PEN campaigns and foreign writers which were very influential factors in my departure [from prison].
Despite being freed, you were banned from travelling to the Netherlands to accept the 2016 Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. Was this legal?
[I was detained] at the airport and told that it was for security reasons. This is not legal. The law provides certain reasons to prevent people from travelling if there is an ongoing issue or a judicial inquiry. In my case I’m not subject to any judicial inquiry. But the National Security Service and Interior Ministry prevented me from travelling contrary to the provisions of law: probably as a message that I remain in their hands, or they do not want to allow me to speak in front of the international media.
Tell us about your acceptance speech and the reaction...
I talked in my speech – which was delivered by writer Alaa al-Aswani instead of me – of some Egyptian detainees, of friends, of researchers, writers and bloggers such as Alaa Abdel Fattah Ismail Alasekndrani. Also Mahinur Almsry and Youssef Shaaban, who came out later, after the expiration of their sentences. These were the first who led me to freedom as they were leading protests in Alexandria in June 2010. When Mahinur Almsry and Youssef Shaaban were set free from prison in August 2016, this was marked by a significant number of young people who celebrated, and it appeared on Facebook and Twitter.
How much has Egypt changed since the Arab Springs and the fall of President Mubarak in February 2011?
Egypt has changed considerably despite the fact that the political system has evolved for the worse and become more repressive and brutal, summoning all dirty and brutal repression tools founded by Mubarak’s military regime, and even higher than the Mubarak regime in repression and violation of human rights. But nevertheless, Egypt has changed the level of awareness of the people. People learned from it that they are subject to the critique of the military institution and that the military institution could fail. So I expect the occurrence of a popular movement soon because of the bad things that people see as a result of the suffering and distress and signs of economic collapse.
At the Festival of Literature you’ll be a Virtual Writer-in-Residence. How important is it that cities like Nottingham give you a platform to speak?
I was very happy to be invited, first because the public sphere in Egypt has been totally silenced and we no longer have an outlet to talk about our cause. This invitation is an excellent opportunity to represent the voices of prisoners who have no voice in the hell of Egyptian prisons. For the definition of our cause and our defence of freedom and our desire to live in a more humane homeland with less injustice and suffering. I also want to salute the beautiful gesture made by the festival organisers to launch kites at the event launch to greet me and other detainees in Egypt.
Many thanks to the two lovely translators who made this interview possible. You can support Omar’s residency via Crowdfunder.