During the Holy month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunset to sunrise. The month is also an occasion to stay away from earthly distractions and spend time praying or in the community. In Egypt, however, thousands of political prisoners are spending Ramadan locked up in Egyptian jails, away from their families and friends.
Ahmed* was arrested last year, accused of participating in an unauthorised demonstration. He spent eight months between police stations, Central Security detention camps, the Tora prison in Cairo, and the Wadi Natroun prison, where he was held most of the time. He never stood trial pending investigations.
Last year, Ahmed spent Ramadan in a prison cell with another 20 political prisoners who had been arrested in similar cases. In the cells next to them, other political prisoners and common criminals were each celebrating the Holy Month as they could. Somehow, inside his cell, they managed to recreate the sense of community and sharing typical of Ramadan.
Now free, Ahmed spends most of his time at home taking care of his sick mother. He seldom takes to the streets for a walk. Commuting to work or to see some friends before the suhur—the last meal at night before fasting again—is a nightmare. "At any time I could be stopped at checkpoints and thrown back in jail because the charges against me have never been officially dropped," Ahmed says, visibly worried.
Mahmoud became a wizard at smuggling anything, even pieces of cake for the inmates' birthdays. 'They would send me a request, and I would find a way to let them have it.'
His time in jail was harsh, to say the least. The dungeon-like cell had no windows except for a small opening placed at the top of one wall. It was overcrowded to the point that each prisoner had less than one square metre to sit or stand, and inmates took turns to sleep or walk. There were no mattresses on the floor. It was glacially cold in the desert winter, and steam-heated in the summer.
"Food … food was just terrible!" he laughs. "It was just impossible to eat."
Thus, at every weekly visit, prisoners would give their relatives a list of items they wanted. "Pasta, noodles, Oreos, digestives, Twinkies, potato chips, cereal bars, cheese, fruit, tuna," reads Mahmoud, a friend who took care of their supplies, from a piece of paper. "What else is missing? Do you think that the zabadi would go bad?" he used to ask to the little congregation of twenty-something friends who would gather ahead of the weekly visit. (Zabadi is the Egyptian version of the Greek tzatziki, a sauce made of strained yogurt.)
"We did not have a fridge," Ahmed explains. "So for the first weeks we had to experiment and adapt, think of what food they could bring us and what we could conserve."
The food found its way inside the prison with some intricate tricks, as well as the complicity of a bribery-prone guard. Mahmoud became a wizard at smuggling anything, even pieces of cake for the inmates' birthdays. "They would send me a request, and I would find a way to let them have it."
During Ramadan, the food had to sit on the floor of the heated cell for hours, barely protected from cockroaches and other insects.
Ramadan was no different. "The prison authorities treated us [the same] as for every other month—there was no difference," Ahmed explains. They recieved the same stone-hard and cold piece of boiled meat, eggs, or skinny chicken bones for lunch, accompanied by gooey white rice and a watery soup with something that resembled vegetables. Ful—the traditional Egyptian dish of fava beans, vegetable oil and cumin—was served for dinner with some stale old bread made with mixed flours.
"The food was really bad, but we had grown used to that," Ahmed jokes. Usually, inmates would toss away the food served out of distaste or fear of getting sick, and they would eat or cook on a small camping stove whatever their families brought them during their weekly visit.
During Ramadan, pious Muslims should fast from the first prayer of the night (around 3 AM in the summer months) until the sunset prayer (around 7 PM). With no regard to religious or traditional norms, prison authorities would keep serving the meals as usual. Lunch was served around noon; dinner around 6 PM. Many common criminals and long-serving inmates would not observe the religious fasting and would eat when the food was served, Ahmed explains. "Many of them could not care the less," he says. Otherwise, the food had to sit on the floor of the heated cell for hours, barely protected from cockroaches and other insects.
"The lunch would be already cold, so we would just put it aside because we were fasting for another seven hours," says Ahmed. "The same happened for the ful, which we would keep for suhur, the last meal before fasting again around 2 AM."
Having home-cooked meals from their families—with no need to smuggle them in—was one of the few privileges granted to inmates. But even this came with a twist. Families of prisoners would take turns preparing and delivering meals for the twenty-odd occupants of the cell. The pots and containers with the food, however, had to be delivered during the visiting hours, between noon and 2 PM.
There would be some milk with dates, yogurt, kebab halla (stewed meat), or chicken. The vegetables were usually okra, potatoes and beans in a red sauce, or mulukhiyah, an all-time favorite Egyptian dish made of jute leaves.
"The containers were hot; so was the cell. To prevent it from going bad we had to cool it down, but we had no fridge," Ahmed recalls. "We had to line up the containers under the fan and hope it would not go to waste." Otherwise, prisoners would have to turn to the lunch served in the morning that was still sitting on the floor.
For iftar, or the fast-breaking meal, inmates would line up newspapers on the floor and sit together, eating from metal plates. They would break the fast in the cell, then two people would take their shift to wash the dishes and clean up while the other ones rested. Then, they would pray together, read the Qu'ran, or tell stories they had repeated hundreds of times while detained between those walls. "We had no TV series to watch, family members to send messages to, or friends to tag on Facebook posts," says Ahmed. "For those reasons, our time was good. We had no distractions and we could focus on the true meaning and spirit of Ramadan."
He started mocking us, saying things like, 'Political prisoners … pfft! You have to learn everything,' or 'You know nothing about being in jail.' He was a murderer—he had been locked up for many years.
"The real problem for us was with the water," he says. Usually, inmates would have running water only for 15 minutes before each of the five compulsory daily prayers. It was their only occasion to wash themselves, do the ritual ablution, and fill up bottles with water to drink. In the summer, however, the pipes were scorching and only warm water would come out.
"At the beginning of Ramadan, prison authorities promised us that they would give us some ice," Ahmed recalls. "When Ramadan started, we actually had to buy the ice from the guards, paying them with cigarettes or the small pocket money that our families would give us."
After breaking the fast, the thirsty inmates would smash the ice and put it in their cups of water. It was one of the best feelings of the day.
"At the very end of Ramadan, around the 26th or 27th day, one of the criminals in another cell started laughing at us when we were doing that," Ahmed says. "He started mocking us, saying things like, 'Political prisoners … pfft! You have to learn everything,' or 'You know nothing about being in jail.' He was a murderer—he had been locked up for many years."
Ahmed and his friends asked the criminal what was wrong with what they were doing. He told them that they should have not put the ice in the cups, but taken a bucket, filled it with the ice, and placed the bottles of water in it to cool them down. Ahmed and his friends told him that the end-result was the same. The criminal cracked up laughing and then, with a patronising tone, asked them, "Do you know where that ice comes from? It's made from sewage water."
One of them had scored some weed and was smoking a joint, blowing the smoke into the balloon so that he could pass it to the others and they could all smoke.
"Yes," Ahmed says, "we drank sewage water for a month and he only told us at the end. What's even worse is that we had paid for that ice."
The relationship between the political prisoners and common criminals was generally amiable, but the long-serving convicts had a weird way of teaching the young guys how to survive in jail. More than once, they would exploit their innocence to their own advantage.
When Ramadan began, some of the young political prisoners received some balloons from their friends and relatives for their cells. The decorations—typically found in the streets, in cafés, at home, or in workplaces—are a fundamental part of the festivities.
Seeing the decorations, the criminals in the cell close to the young men approached them. "This time they asked us for some balloons and we enthusiastically gave them a few. We knew that they were not fasting or celebrating Ramadan, but we had this very romantic idea and we hoped that those balloons would gave them some of the spirit of the feast," says Ahmed.
A couple of days later, the criminals asked for even more balloons. A little while after that, Ahmed and his friends noticed there weren't any balloons hanging in the other cell. "One of them had scored some weed and was smoking a joint, blowing the smoke into the balloon so that he could pass it to the others and they could all smoke," Ahmed laughs.
"In the end, Ramadan in prison is pretty good … you don't see the sun and you have no distractions," says Ahmed ironically. "Well, it's good once you get used to the heat and being locked in a 24-square-metre cell with at least another 20 people."
*The names of the people in this article have been changed to protect their identities.