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Abdullah al-Shami

Locked up in Egypt

Abdullah al-Shami was released on 17 June 2014 [Anadolu/Getty]

Date of publication: 4 November, 2014

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Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah al-Shami writes about being jailed in Cairo for doing his job.
On the evening of 30 June 2013, political unrest filled the streets of Egypt. I was with my wife in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. We were trying to see what the future would bring and were hopeful stability would return to Egypt, our home country. Suddenly, my phone lit up - it was an email from my boss at Al Jazeera. The next morning I found myself on a plane to Cairo.

The next 12 months would change my life forever. Six weeks after arriving in Egypt, I was in a car with five other people - all of us freshly arrested.

We were physically and verbally abused by the Egyptian security services. The streets were chaotic, full of gunfire and bloodshed. It was worse than I'd seen in Misrata during the Libyan revolution of 2011.

I like the poetry from the epic love story Majnun Layla by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. It was not love for home that I felt, but love for those who lived at home. It was only then I realised I wanted the people I loved to leave the country. I did not want to spend the rest of my life in this place. After four prisons and five months of being on hunger-strike, I began the journey to regain my freedom.

During my years of journalism, I always felt sure I would, at some point, be subjected to the bitterness of imprisonment - but I never thought it would happen in my own country. On the first day they closed the cell door, my head was full of thoughts. I felt my life had ended and I would be there for at least a quarter of a century. I tried to fight these thoughts so I might persevere.

My first days of detention went very slowly. I struggled to stop myself getting used to it. Being a journalist in Egypt is not easy - especially when there is no voice of reason. To make matters worse, my country did not welcome my work. The officers, investigators and judges did not believe me when I explained the difference between the Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr channel, and the original Arabic Al-Jazeera channel where I worked. They thought they were one and the same.

Life in an Egyptian prison is a completely different world from the one I had known. You have to form strange relationships to get things done, and ensure your basic needs - food and healthcare - are met. The only currency is cigarettes. A pack can get you transferred between wards, or ensure you see a friend or that a blind eye is turned to your misdemeanours. No matter what we did to improve our position, with every breath we took our only desire was freedom.
     My biggest fear when I went on hunger strike and was transferred to  maximum security was not seeing my family before I died
- Abdullah al-Shami

My biggest fear when I decided to go on hunger strike and was transferred to a maximum security facility was not seeing my family before I died, something I thought sure to happen. On my last night in prison I suffered a severe psychological crisis. I had been in solitary confinement for five weeks and had lost hope. I would talk to myself and imagine situations to reassure myself. I was close to losing my mind - or at least, that is how it felt.

Being imprisoned and waging war with hunger was a defining moment in my life. Whenever I am struggling with the challenges of life, I will always remember those long hours, and the feeling of not being able to continue. It has made my wife, my family and myself much stronger. We have all found a new meaning in life, and things will never be the same again for any of us.

Our lives will be better - that much is certain, but they will also be more difficult because I may be forced to live in exile, at least for a while.

I often ask myself if I really miss Egypt even though I was not born there and did not grow up there. But I could not ignore the pain in my chest when Cairo disappeared under the clouds as the plane rose up into the sky, and I knew it would be difficult to return any time soon.

I do not think freedom is negotiable nor an act of kindness, nor a gift someone gives you. From now on I will dedicate my time, efforts and willpower to defending the right for journalists to work in a free world, one where no one is preventing from speaking their mind. I hope we will soon live in a world where no journalists are languishing behind bars.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Three of Abdullah's colleagues from Al Jazeera English - Peter Greste, Baher Mohammed and Mohamed Fahmy - remain incarcerated in Egyptian jails. Find out more, and join the campaign to free them using the hashtag #FreeAJstaff.

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