December 30, 2013
The night I am incarcerated, as I stand shivering and exposed, surrounded by half a dozen prison guards, I cannot fathom what losing my freedom might mean. Understanding will come later, stealthily, like the cold that creeps into my body from the concrete floor beneath my bare feet.
I am in a dingy foyer clad in only my undershorts and a thin, long-sleeved undershirt. Pain lances through my right shoulder, broken days before my arrest and now cradled in a black canvas sling. I brace it protectively against my chest as a portly prison guard approaches and tosses a set of white, pajama-like garments at me.
He gestures for me to put them on and I step awkwardly into the bottoms using only my good arm to pull them up to my waist.
“Take off the sling,” he orders.
“It’s broken,” I say, but his face remains impassive.
Reluctantly, I reach into the pocket of my jeans, which lie discarded on a nearby wooden bench and fish out a half-full pack of cigarettes. I hold it out to him, and he discretely slides it into the pocket of his uniform.
I am struggling to pull on the top when I see my colleague Baher Mohamed escorted into the foyer. Our eyes make quick contact. Then I watch him suffer the same humiliation, stripping to his underwear as the guards look on. Every one of them seems ruthless, an expert in degrading newcomers and making their admission to this place unforgettable.
The guard hands me two rough grey blankets and orders me to wait for the prison doctor. I drop onto the wooden bench, my shoulder throbbing. The doctor, when he shows up, is wearing a training suit and slippers, and strides aggressively towards me.
“Why are you wearing a sweater under the prison shirt?” His tone is sharp. “Take it off and give it to the guard.”
The guard to whom I’ve given my cigarettes kicks me in the shin. “Get up when you’re spoken to!”
Beyond an involuntary intake of breath, I do not give him the satisfaction of seeing my pain and bewilderment.
“Sir,” I speak directly to the doctor, “my shoulder is broken.”
“Fine,” he says, relenting unexpectedly, as if already bored with our conversation, “keep the extra shirt.”
“May I keep these as well?” I ask, opening my left hand to show him the container of painkillers I have been clutching since my arrest twenty-four hours ago. He takes them from me, checks them over briefly, then hands them back without a word.
He looks at Baher with an indifferent eye, and then turns to the guards.
“Send them in.”
This is how I enter Scorpion, Egypt’s notorious maximum-security prison. Reserved for terrorists, criminals and high-level political prisoners, Scorpion is one of seven blocks that make up the vast Tora Prison complex, a sprawling, foreboding and heavily fortified conglomeration of drab, desert-coloured buildings surrounded by seven-metre-high, barbed-wire-topped walls and watch towers, and located twenty kilometres south of Cairo. Little is known about Scorpion, but it is nicknamed “the Cemetery,” and is reputed to be worse than Guantanamo Bay. Some of the region’s most dangerous figures are incarcerated here. The brown, bearded face of Mohamed al-Zawahiri, a well-known Egyptian Islamic jihadist and convicted terrorist, and the younger brother of the United States’ “most wanted man,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader who succeeded Osama bin Laden, floats into my mind. I had interviewed Mohamed al-Zawahiri eighteen months ago for CNN, following his release after ten years in this same prison where he had been tortured and confined in solitary. Mohamed, who was a member of the violent Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) organization in the ’90s, a group that formally merged into al-Qaeda in 2001, insists he was targeted mainly because of his brother Ayman. Mohamed had been accused of participating in the assassination of President Sadat and acquitted in absentia in 1981. Eighteen years later he was apprehended in the United Arab Emirates by the CIA and extradited to Egypt under the United States’ “extraordinary rendition” program where he was incarcerated in Tora Prison, tortured, and sentenced to death by a military court on charges of plotting to overthrow the state.
It had taken me weeks to land the interview with al-Zawahiri—the first one he granted to foreign media before he was rearrested by the new government and thrown back behind bars on new charges of “forming a terrorist cell” linked to al-Qaeda and plotting attacks against targets in Egypt.
“Is al-Zawahiri inside?” I ask my guard.
“Yes,” he answers sarcastically, “he and his friends are all waiting for you in this seven-star hotel.”
I feel a shiver of anxiety run through my already chilled body as an entourage of guards march Baher and me through a maze of decrepit concrete hallways and metal gates. There is a stale, fetid smell that intensifies as the guards lead us deeper into the prison. Two mangy, underfed cats appear in one corridor and follow us. The sight of them depresses me. After five minutes we arrive in what the guards announce is the terrorist wing. Its dim passageway, littered with broken chairs and other discarded furniture, is lined with solid, gunmetal-green doors. The guards stop in front of a door marked with the number “7” in heavy black paint. One swings the door open and I enter the stark light of a solitary confinement cell.
The door slams shut behind me and I hear the sound of keys turning the lock. I am imprisoned.
This is all a big mistake, I tell myself. I will be out in the morning when my family and the network create an uproar.
I take in my new home with a sense of shock and denial. It is small, about six by nine feet, with a twenty-foot-high ceiling. I gawk for a moment at the toilet, a filthy, battered ceramic bowl that protrudes from one of the rough-hewn, grey cement walls. I console myself that at least it is not a squat toilet—a hole in the ground flanked by two foot pads—which would have been even more difficult to manage with my injury. This small comfort disappears seconds later when I notice a line of cockroaches scuttling along the toilet seat. A concrete sink with a rusted dripping faucet in the far corner and a broken ceiling fan are the cell’s only other adornments. Atop and cut into the corner of one wall is a narrow rectangular window, whether to the outside or to another prison block, I can’t tell. This window, I will soon discover, is lit around the clock by a bright fluorescent light that casts a glare into my cell, robbing one of any possibility of a night’s sleep. The only other opening is a brick-sized cutout in the cell door. I peer through it into the neglected hallway. No sunlight, not a breath of fresh air.
Fear, anger, disbelief. I am bone-weary and each movement brings a wave of pain to my right shoulder. It’s the first time I have had a chance to think, the first moment of solitude I have experienced since I was arrested. In the days and weeks before my arrest, I lived and worked in two small adjoining rooms in Cairo’s Marriott Hotel: one served as the bustling temporary office of Al Jazeera English in Egypt; the other was my bedroom. I had recently accepted the job as bureau chief in charge of fifteen journalists, producers and cameramen providing live news coverage and video reports on Egypt for the Middle East–based global media network’s twenty-four-hour international English-language television channel.
It’s late. My watch reads 8:00 p.m. An army of mosquitoes has descended on me and I swat them away. I cast about the cell for a spot in which to sleep and decide on the corner farthest from the toilet. I fan out one of the grey blankets on the hard cold surface and lower myself onto it. As I do, I notice the dense forest of scribbles scratched and inked onto the concrete wall. I run my fingers across them like a historian deciphering ancient messages: Death to the oppressor! Death to Sisi! The revolution will never die! Islam is the solution.
A slogan written in red ink stands out: The thousands of Rabaa martyrs will live forever in heaven.
The reference is to the recent Rabaa massacre. In August, a month before I accepted the position of bureau chief, Egyptian security forces had moved to end a sit-in by tens of thousands of demonstrators in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, which resulted in what Human Rights Watch described as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”[i] The police and army had methodically opened fire on the crowds who had gathered over the previous six weeks to oppose the military’s ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state, President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi himself had swept into power only a year before, following Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution that had toppled longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
The new government, led by his defense minister, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, fearful of the pro-Islamist tide that had risen under Morsi’s rule, had spearheaded an unprecedented campaign to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organization, which had supported Morsi’s Freedom and Justice political party. The new government disbanded the party, arrested Brotherhood members, shut down media platforms, banned books and harassed anyone who joined the Brotherhood’s protests, promoted their cause or even wrote in their favour, finally designating the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization” days before my arrest. It reminded me of the McCarthyism that had swept the United States in the 1950s in an effort to uncover communists and communist sympathizers.
I visited the Rabaa sit-in with Ian Lee, a former CNN colleague, to help him report the story. The square had an eerie feeling about it that day. Dozens of Muslim Brotherhood protestors marched soldier-like in rows chanting verses of the Quran. They had built brick barricades at the entrances to Rabaa Square and the side streets leading to it, and many wore helmets and carried sticks and shields, in anticipation of a battle against the government’s security forces. Was the sit-in a peaceful protest? It may have begun that way, but when the crackdown came after forty days, a few protestors defended their positions with machine guns and firearms and engaged the police from a nearby building¾images caught on tape.
Later, Ahmed al-Mogheer, a fugitive and activist with close ties to the Brotherhood, announced on television and Twitter that Brotherhood supporters at the sit-in had enough weapons to take on an army, including Molotov cocktails, handguns, hand grenades, and Kalashnikovs, though he added that the leadership had removed 90 percent of the weapons from the sit-in two days before the “dispersal” ordered by General Sisi. The vast majority of the nearly one thousand citizens killed were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, and other supporters who had been instrumental in Mohamed Morsi’s rise to power. Eight police officers and four journalists were also killed, including Sky News veteran cameraman Michael Deane, who was literally working alongside my good friend producer Omar Barazi when he was struck by sniper fire.
I visited the Al-Eman Mosque near Rabaa Square in the days following to interview families trying to identify their loved ones, numbed by the grisly sight of dozens of corpses lining the floor, fans and ice-blocks everywhere to keep the bodies cool. The rows of corpses were wrapped in bloodied white sheets; some bodies were burned beyond recognition.
I wonder if the prisoner who occupied this cell before me was at Rabaa Square and if he lost friends in the massacre. I wonder what has become of him.
I had been angry at what seemed like an unjustified show of force by the new government. I wanted the powerful Brotherhood as far as possible from the ruling sphere, but I was appalled by the brutal way the military had dispersed the demonstrators, unlike anything the country had previously experienced. For the sake of its future, I hoped for another way out—one that did not perpetuate the terrible cycle of violence that had gripped Egypt since the start of the Arab Spring.
In my first days on the job at Al Jazeera English, I interviewed several Muslim Brotherhood members about the massacre. I also tried interviewing the mother of one of the police officers who had been killed, but when I mentioned I was with Al Jazeera she refused vigorously, assuming I was with Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr. I explained I worked for the Al Jazeera network’s English bureau--a completely separate, independent news-gathering entity not to be confused with the network's two Arabic-language sister channels: Al Jazeera Arabic, which feeds news on Egypt to the network's head office in Qatar for broadcast internationally; and (most especially) its local affiliate, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr. In the minds of many people not in the media, the names themselves (Al Jazeera English as opposed to Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) sometimes created confusion. But everyone knew Mubasher Misr’s mandate was to deliver propaganda: live local news with a clear pro-Brotherhood bias that was antithetical to many people, including myself--and clearly to the new government, which was cracking down on Brotherhood supporters wherever it could find them. Several months earlier the government had raided and closed the Arabic offices. Mubasher Misr had become the primary tool of the Brotherhood to reach its 500,000 supporters and members—no other media source came even close in terms of reach, and banning it cut off a major source of communication. I gently tried reminding the distraught mother that Al Jazeera English, broadcasting only in English, was renowned around the world for its objectivity and I promised we would tell her story with integrity if she wished us to. But tensions were now so high against the Brotherhood that her answer was an angry No.
Another slogan catches my eye. This one is scribbled in blue ink: Port Said Forever! I didn’t kill the 72 Ahly fans¾I am innocent. Port Said: the city of my father’s birth, marred forever in my mind by an event I had reported on for CNN the previous year. As a child, I had run freely along its white sand beaches, swum in the transparent blue waters of the Mediterranean, teased the colourful jellyfish until they stung me, and gorged on seafood fresh from the boats of returning fishermen. But the grim number “72” scratched on the wall brings back the terrible day I stood outside the Port Said soccer stadium, too numbed to move.
During a match between Cairo’s Al Ahly and Port Said’s Al Masry soccer clubs, a band of men dressed as Al Masry fans and armed with knives, clubs, rocks, glass bottles and explosives, violently attacked Al Ahly fans while the police, instead of intervening, shut down the stadium lights and locked the gates. The massacre lasted twenty minutes. Unable to escape, dozens of Al Ahly fans were killed while others died in the horrific stampede, most of them between the ages of thirteen and twenty. One Al Masry fan and a police officer also died, bringing the total dead to seventy-four. Many of the men who participated in the attack were sentenced to death. Was the man in this cell one of them?
Stop! I tell myself.
I turn away from the wall and lie on the blanket. The pain in my shoulder brings tears to my eyes. The cement is cold beneath my back and legs. I open my fist and peer at the bottle of dwindling painkillers. I open it and pop a pill into my mouth. Without water, it catches in my throat. I swallow again and pull the second blanket roughly around me, both for warmth and to ward off the swarming mosquitoes. I surmise they must be coming in through the window high in the corner of the cell. I have no more power to stop them entering than I do the glaring light, so I cover my head with the blanket and pray for sleep.
I have barely closed my eyes when a voice calls out from beyond my cell.
“Newcomers. Brothers, look out your hatch.”
I pull myself up and move towards the cell door, pressing my face against the opening. Through the hatch, I can see the dark eyes of the prisoner in the cell across from me, and if I crane my neck, a lone guard slumped in a chair at the end of the corridor, sleeping.
“We have a ritual to welcome newcomers to our wing,” the voice continues in a loud, conspiratorial whisper.
“Okay,” I answer, matching his pitch. “Thank you.”
I sweep my gaze one way and then the other down the row of cells, but can see nothing but the green metal doors.
“We will start with Essam,” the voice announces.
From a cell somewhere to my left I hear another man speak.
“Essam al-Haddad,” he says. “Executive aide to President Mohamed Morsi, responsible for foreign relations and international cooperation. I am married, have four children. One of them, Gehad, is in a different wing of Tora Prison. Another, Abdullah, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, is in London.”
The high-level stature of my prison mate, who once met with President Obama, takes me aback and leaves me wondering why I am jailed among top-ranking political detainees now branded as terrorists, but I have no time to process this as the first speaker calls out: “Next!”
“Khaled al-Qazzaz, President Morsi’s foreign affairs advisor, married, four children.”
The voice comes from the man in the cell directly across from me and I am again surprised at the identity of my fellow prisoner, a well-known human rights activist in his thirties, who is married to a Canadian.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he continues wistfully. “I was detained for three months at the presidential guard headquarters with no charges, where my family visited me regularly. They let me go. When I reached the street outside the building, a number of plainclothes policemen slipped a black bag over my head, threw me into the back of a minivan, and brought me here. That was weeks ago. I haven’t seen my family since.”
My heart drops. I had assumed I would see my family the next day and that when I did they would extract me from this hellhole. Then another voice.
“I am Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary. I am a Salafi jihadist who fought alongside brother Sheikh Osama bin Laden against the Soviet and the American devils in Afghanistan. I have been married three times and have many children. I don’t allow any of them to visit me to avoid humiliating them. I was released during the revolution and sent back here again for no clear charges. Arbitrary! This is all a play, a political performance by these pigs. History is repeating itself so don’t let it get to your mind. Stick to the Quran.”
This third introduction is even more sobering than the first two because Sheikh Murgan is well known for being an angry and murderous radical: he was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad which merged with al-Qaeda, had strong ties to the Taliban and was sentenced to death twice under Morsi’s predecessor, President Hosni Mubarak. Not too long before my arrest I saw him on an Egyptian talk show calling for the destruction of the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx. I remember thinking, What a nut! Now I am living with him and he is giving me advice, too.
“Amin Al-Serafi, Morsi’s presidential secretary. Spent three months in detention with no charges. Now I am accused of spying for Qatar alongside President Morsi, and of selling classified documents containing military secrets to Qatar and to Al Jazeera.”
I am processing the unexpectedly high-profile assembly of men with whom I share the “terrorist wing” of Scorpion prison when I hear a familiar voice.
“Baher Mohamed. Al Jazeera English producer.”
I press my face into the opening, turning sharply in the direction of Baher’s voice. I’m rewarded with a glimpse of his brown, almond shaped eyes through the hatch of the cell door across the corridor and just right of Khaled al-Qazzaz. This small fragment of familiarity makes me inexplicably happy.
“I am married with two children,” Baher continues. “The charges are being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, funding the Brotherhood, giving them cameras, and . . .” He pauses a second before finishing with a laugh, “a bunch of other accusations.”
“Helwa, good one,” someone yells, and then another voice: “Ya, Baher, I know your father.”
“Welcome to Tora,” a third inmate cheers from afar, soon joined by a chorus of comments and knowing chuckles. The introductions continue, cell by cell, voices from beyond the metal doors floating through the corridor, sometimes fainter, sometimes louder, until it is my turn.
“Mohamed Fahmy. Al Jazeera bureau chief for the English channel. I am engaged. My charges are the same as Baher’s.” I recite them as if remembering by rote a childhood lesson. I still cannot believe the charges the prosecutor read out to me yesterday in a formal, unemotional voice. I see myself as from a distance, on the edge of a chair, facing his mahogany desk; to one side of me sit two lawyers from Al Jazeera who have just scurried into his office, men I never saw before and who did not speak to me, summoned in haste no doubt to attend on me after our arrest: “You are accused of leading a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist cell, funding the Brotherhood, providing them with equipment and information, setting up a media centre used in fabricating news on Al Jazeera to portray Egypt in a state of civil war and therefore harming the national security of the country, obstructing the constitution, and operating without proper licences.”
Dumbfounded, all I could say at that moment was, “Are you serious?”
I recall with a sense of irony the last story I covered before my arrest. It was close to one in the morning on December 25, just five days ago, when I announced live breaking news on air that the post-Morsi interim government, under acting president Adly Mansour, had designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
“Two days ago, Baher and I were arrested,” I continue, “along with our colleague Peter Greste. Authorities raided our office and filmed the arrest. The state prosecutor has accused us of operating a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist cell.”
“Welcome!” someone shouts. “We heard you guys were arrested in the Marriott Hotel!”
A number of other prisoners chime in, some praising Al Jazeera. A voice to my far left chants: Allahu Akbar! God is great!
“You journalists have been sent here to see the truth,” the voice says. “There is a reason why God led you here!”
Several inmates call to the guard, already roused by the ritual, beckoning him to their cells. I catch a glimpse of a hand pushing something through the hatch of the cell to my left but don’t fully understand what is happening until the guard opens my cell door moments later. His hands are full of gifts: an apple, a banana, a bar of soap, a towel, a T-shirt, a bottle of water, a small roll of toilet paper, a small loaf of bread and mosquito repellent. I am both staggered and humbled by this unexpected generosity. It’s oddly reassuring to have supporters in this dungeon even if that is because they wrongly believe me to be a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood¾one of them.
The ritual ends and moments later I hear the rhythmic voices of the prisoners reciting verses of the Quran.
I have just lowered myself to my blanket with my bounty when a voice calls out.
“Fahmy, open the box of soap I sent you.”
I’m not sure who the speaker is, but I find the small box and remove the soap and discover a neatly folded piece of paper tucked underneath. I unfold it and begin reading:
Please rip up this note and flush it down the toilet after you read it. My wife is Canadian-Egyptian and I have heard you are too. I hold a permanent residence visa. You must exert pressure for your case through the media in Canada and others like CNN and BBC. Have your family start a very loud campaign and make sure they appear in the press. People die and disappear in this prison. Appeal to the Canadian government. The truth is that you won’t make it out of here without international pressure. Try to get Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the UN to support you before the case is referred to court.
I am of course distressed by the warning—and also worried that I now possess information that could get me into trouble mere hours after I’ve arrived in Scorpion. I lift myself from the ground and walk to the toilet, ripping up the note as I do. As if they are poisonous to the touch, I quickly drop the scraps of paper into the toilet bowl and watch them float in the dark water, white fragments of an incriminating puzzle, and search frantically for the toilet’s flush mechanism.
I can hear the heavy footsteps of the guard pacing up and down the corridor. How the hell do I flush? I wonder. There is no lever attached to the primitive toilet bowl, no pull cord above. The footsteps approach and I cast about desperately for a solution, praying the guard is not returning with more offerings. Seeing the bottle of water, I grab it, open the plastic top, chug down half then pour the rest into the toilet. A few pieces of paper disappear, but the majority continue to float stubbornly on the surface. Panicked, I search the room again. The dripping tap over the small sink on the other side of the cell catches my attention and I lurch for it. I fill the bottle with water, awkwardly dipping my injured shoulder towards the faucet to hold the bottle steady and using my good hand to turn the rudimentary tap to produce a weak stream of water. It takes some doing, but I eventually fill the bottle then empty it into the toilet. More of the paper disappears. I do this a second and then a third time, until the last fragments of the note finally descend out of sight. Though my cell is freezing, I am sweating. I stand numbly beside the toilet trying to calm myself. The thought enters my mind that I’ll have to go through the same process every time I need to relieve myself.
For what may be minutes but seems like hours, I listen to the footsteps of the guard as he paces up and down. Finally, there is silence. I peer out of my cell into the quiet corridor and can see the guard once again slouched asleep in his chair.
“Mr. Qazzaz,” I whisper, “I got your soap. Thank you. When do they let us out for some air? I want to talk with you.”
There is no answer from the cell across the corridor. Instead, I hear a voice from down the corridor.
“They won’t let us out. We have not seen the sun for weeks.”
I am suddenly deeply demoralized. I lie down again on the blanket and again am viciously swarmed by mosquitoes. I cover my face and head with the blanket, though it makes it hard to breathe. I can hear the buzzing mosquitoes beyond the rough fabric. Remembering the repellent, I throw off the blanket and find the small bottle, slathering the smelly liquid over my face and neck, and lie back, but it seems to make no difference. In the far corner of my cell I can see a row of cockroaches scuttling along the wall and more filing in from under the crack of the door. Miserably, I pull the blanket over my head again, tightening my grip on the bottle of pills in my hand, unsure of whether to swallow another or to ration them.
I think of Marwa, my beautiful fiancée, who delivered the painkillers to me at the Marriott just before I was arrested. Tomorrow will be New Year’s Eve, the second anniversary of our first date. I so clearly remember that final night of 2011 together and how, despite a year of revolution, 2012 seemed to hold promise and possibility both for Egypt and for us. President Hosni Mubarak had been forced to resign after three decades of repressive rule, and the country had held its first free ballot. Though the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party had won a majority of the votes, I had remained hopeful in the run-up to Egypt’s first presidential election. Now, almost three years after the start of the revolution, Egypt is mired in unprecedented violence. Still, this year, at the dawn of 2014, I had vowed to do what I had always done, no matter where I was or what the circumstances: celebrate the new year in a big way. I had purchased two airline tickets to Beirut where Marwa and I were due to be tomorrow night to bring in 2014 with a group of Lebanese friends I had met while working with the International Red Cross in Lebanon. Up until this moment, I believed we would make that flight. Now, the words of my fellow inmate ring in my ears: They won’t let us out. They won’t let us out. They won’t let us out.
In the early hours of the morning, there is a new sound. It is not the heavy, methodical step of the guard pacing the corridor or the unceasing electric hum of the neon light somewhere outside my cell window, or the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes beyond the barrier of my woollen blanket or the steady drip, drip, drip of the faucet. This sound is an uneven, intermittent squeak. I listen to it start, then stop. Start then stop, slowly advancing towards me. Then a man’s voice calls from right outside my cell telling me to come and get my breakfast. My shoulder is in worse pain than the night before, and I cannot bear the thought of rising. He calls again, and again I ignore him. A moment later I hear the sound of a key in the lock and my cell door swings open. A guard I have not seen before steps inside. Beyond him in the corridor is a stooped man dressed in blue prison garb, his hands resting on a wheeled food cart. My mind registers that the mysterious sound I’ve been hearing is the cart’s squeaky wheels when I hear the guard ask in an aggressive tone:
“You are the Al Jazeera chief, right?”
“When the man calls you to pick up your breakfast, you get up and pick it up!”
He reaches for the food cart and grabs a meagre ration—a piece of flat bread, chunk of white cheese and an orange, and throws them on the filthy floor of my cell. I catch the orange as it’s about to roll past and half hoist myself, flipping off my blanket to show him the sling. But he turns and walks out. As the door closes behind him, I notice a cockroach advancing on my breakfast, and, cursing, I race him to it.
Though I win that first battle, I am soon losing the cockroach war. At first I watch them skirting the length of the dirty grey blanket or marching in procession down the wall beside me, but soon I feel the tickle of their tiny legs across my feet or at the back of my neck.
The door opens suddenly. A guard tells me I am to get a haircut. Again I am ordered to my feet. “You can get up,” he says, “or we will get you up.”
Clumsily, using the wall for support, I pull myself upright. My legs feel leaden, as if not my own, and my head buzzes with hunger and fatigue. I follow the guard out of my cell and down a series of corridors. I feel relieved to be out of my depressing cell and able to walk more than a few steps. We arrive at another cell, one brighter and more spacious, occupied by a lone inmate with an electric shaver clutched in one hand. He instructs me to lean over and then presses the clippers to my skull. I will later learn that my barber has been imprisoned for murder.
With the first pass of the clippers I realize he is not giving me a haircut, he is shaving my head. I feel the nick of the razor against my dry scalp and protest, but he continues roughly and without pause, telling me I will thank him when the lice start looking for a home. I watch my hair drop in dark clumps onto the floor. Moments later I am bald.
I am being led back to my cell when I see a familiar face approaching down the corridor. Though it has been more than eighteen months since we met for our face-to-face interview, I immediately recognize the grey-bearded face of Mohamed al-Zawahiri. A large group of officers and guards encircle him and as the gap closes between us I search for words to address him, doubting he will remember me. But before I can open my mouth, he stops before me. “Mohamed Fahmy,” he says. “Now, you see it with your own eyes, the oppression, from the front seat. Pray. Pray that you make it out alive.”
I am taken aback that he recognizes me, even though before he agreed to the interview he had subjected me to a series of tests to verify my identity and intentions. When I met with him in his modest Cairo home in July 2012, he was not accustomed to using a mobile phone, on which I was recording our interview, and told me he had not been photographed for over a decade. He was calm, his eyes intense and darkly ringed, and his face encircled by a woolly wrap of long grey-white beard. When he spoke, his words were carefully measured—it was clear he did not trust me or the international media, especially the US media whom he despised for labelling him a terrorist. He spoke excitedly about his efforts to free many of his supporters he had left behind in prison, and talked about a peace treaty he had written in prison proposing a truce between al-Qaeda and the United States, but we were all skeptical of his influence in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy considering the ten years he had been in prison. I wondered then, as I do now, if he was in contact with his fugitive brother Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda. As we sat in the comfort of his family home I found the courage to ask: “Could you get in touch with your brother Ayman to implement this peace treaty if the Americans agreed to your conditions?”
He answered cagily: “I could get in touch with my brother if the American government allowed me to.”
It had taken me a long time to gain his trust, and it was only after CNN agreed to publish sections of the text of his proposed peace treaty, in a link embedded in my story online, that he agreed to allow the venerated correspondent Nic Robertson to conduct CNN’s first on-camera interview with him.
The police confiscated my mobile phone during the Marriott raid, and the recording of that hard-won interview would become so-called evidence of my collusion with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Back in 2012, this shadowy international figure and I had seemed to exist on opposite sides of a vast political and philosophical landscape. Today, under the same roof, it occurs to me, incredibly, that Mohamed al-Zawahiri and I are both accused terrorists.
How in hell did I get here?