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Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Mohamed Fahmy's memoir lays bare his Egyptian prison ordeal

Fahmy was held in Egypt's notorious Scorpion prison [Toronto Star]

Date of publication: 17 November, 2016

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Former Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who along with two colleagues, was jailed in Egypt's notorious Scorpio prison, documents his ordeal in a memoir.

Mohamed Fahmy can finally move on.

After more than 400 days spent behind bars in Egypt, a trial widely viewed as a draconian crackdown on press freedom, and eventually, a presidential pardon and return to Canada, Fahmy says writing about his ordeal helps put it all behind him.

“This book basically means that I can move on with my life,” said the Egyptian-Canadian journalist at an event in Toronto on November 15 to unveil his new memoir, The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom.

The almost 400-page book details Fahmy’s journey from an international news producer in the Middle East – working with CNN for three years, and then joining Al Jazeera English – to his arrest, imprisonment, and eventual release late last year.

Fahmy was serving as the Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera English when he was arrested in December 2013 alongside two colleagues, Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed and Australian reporter Peter Greste.

Fahmy, who holds dual Egyptian and Canadian nationalities, had joined AJE just three and a half months before the arrest, and he said he had voiced concerns about the network’s Arabic-language channels’ reporting on the situation in Egypt.

“I had been very critical of the Arabic channels and I made sure that they understand that I will be allowed to do my own reporting, use independent news sourcing, booking, and I took the job knowing it would be a challenge, and knowing as well that the Arabic channels are under the microscope,” he said.

“I took the job and unfortunately three and a half months later, I was arrested from our makeshift office in the Marriott hotel.”

The book’s title, The Marriott Cell, references that hotel, and the name Egyptian officials gave the journalists following their arrest.

Fahmy was held in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison, also known as Scorpion prison, which he described as “a hellhole” and “the worst prison in the Middle East”

Egypt accused them of broadcasting false news and being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been outlawed following the military’s 2013 coup against party member, President Mohamed Morsi.

After a widely-denounced trial, Fahmy and Greste were sentenced to seven years imprisonment, while Mohamed received a 10-year sentence, in June 2014 for “aiding a terrorist organisation,” a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The hashtag #FreeAJStaff was launched and supporters called for the journalists’ release from around the world. Fahmy said this international outpouring of support, including petitions and social media campaigns, was very important.

Fahmy was held in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison, also known as Scorpion prison, which he described as “a hellhole” and “the worst prison in the Middle East”.

There, he described fighting cockroaches for food in a cold and cramped cell without a bed, where no sunlight could penetrate, and from which it was impossible to figure out what time of day it was.

To keep busy, Fahmy and his colleague, Baher Mohamed, started a mock radio show in which they interviewed their cellmates, many of whom were high-ranking leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Every night at 8 o’clock, we would start the show,” he remembered.

He said reading Man's Search for Meaning, a 1946 book by Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, also gave him strength.

In September last year, Fahmy and Mohamed were ultimately granted a pardon from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

“How do you turn suffering into a human achievement? How do you say yes when you’re facing death and injustice and pain? And I think that really helped me a lot, reading it in a cell where you don’t know what time of the day it is, and you’re so down,” he said.

Despite these distractions, the worst part of his imprisonment was the uncertainty, Fahmy said. “You don’t know where and when this is going to end. And then you hear from other prisoners who have been there for a while that there are prisoners who are dying in that prison, as well.”

After a retrial, the journalists were given final, three-year prison terms in August 2015. Mohamed received an additional six months in jail for possessing a bullet casing, while Greste was tried in absentia from Australia after his repatriation.

The retrial was again widely denounced as an attack on journalistic freedoms in Egypt, where the imprisonment of human rights activists, dissidents and opposition figures ramped up following the coup.

In September last year, Fahmy and Mohamed were ultimately granted a pardon from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Fahmy returned to Canada soon thereafter and took up a position in the journalism faculty at the University of British Columbia.

In the past, Fahmy had been a vocal critic of Al Jazeera’s handling of the situation. In particular, he has condemned the network’s decision to file a lawsuit in 2014 against the Egyptian state for $150 million in lost revenues.

I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit sometimes. We are stronger than we think we are
- Mohamed Fahmy

This week, Fahmy only mentioned Al Jazeera when describing how “a vendetta” between Egypt and Qatar, which owns and funds the media network, contributed to his case.

“This was … of course, a clampdown on press freedom, but also, as I understood, a vendetta, a score settling, between Egypt and Qatar, the owner of Al Jazeera,” he said.

Al Jazeera has repeatedly defended its conduct, dismissing the accusation, for instance, that it behaved negligently by not securing the proper press accreditation for the journalists in Egypt.

“None of this justifies criminal proceedings and jail time,” the channel said last year. “Nobody takes safety more seriously than Al Jazeera. Our newsgathering operations are guided by this principle, and all decisions are taken in consultation with our teams on the ground. In the midst of a turbulent and unpredictable situation, we do the best we can.”

Today, Fahmy is advocating for journalists around the world who have been unjustly imprisoned, and he has called on the Canadian government to implement a clear policy to intervene in these types of cases.

He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has so far done a better job than its predecessor to help Canadians detained abroad, including Iranian-Canadian professor Homa Hoodfar, who was freed in September after several months in prison in Iran.

Ultimately, he said his experience was a reminder of just how strong people can be.

“I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit sometimes. We are stronger than we think we are.”

Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours

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