How to Make Your Own Fun in an Egyptian Jail

Friday November 03, 2017 Written by Ronan

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In December 2013, Australian journalist Peter Greste and his two Al Jazeera English colleagues were arrested by Egyptian authorities for reporting news deemed "damaging to national security". In the first of our two-part interview, he explains how he survived more than 12 months’ incarceration, and how his toilet paper came to be snapped up by the National Archives of Canberra.

You spent 400 days locked up. How did you pass the time?

You’ve got to come up with things that occupy your time and use it constructively. Backgammon we created out of different coloured water bottle tops. Making the set was easy enough. Initially, we scratched out triangles on cardboard but then that was confiscated after a prison search. So we got another box and instead of triangles, we punched 12 holes down either side to mark the positions of the triangles.

The problem was the dice. How do you make a dice in prison? We tried soap, carrot and stones, but nothing really worked. Then I realised – a dice is just a random number generator. So we had some pumpkin seeds and scratched numbers 1-6 on the seeds, shook them in a cup and picked two out.

We also made murals out of foil. We realised that if you smoothed it out and put soap on the back, it would stick really well to the wall.

That’s very Warhol...

Yes, I suppose it is! I’m very proud of it. It looked fantastic. No photos of it, unfortunately. I have thought about trying to reproduce it and doing it somewhere. Maybe I will one day. They were very conscious attempts to do things creatively. You had to stay physically fit, but it was an effort to stay creatively fit.

And what about the baking you did?

The bread was something we did in the last prison after we were convicted. We had a bit more room and had access to ovens. I’d always wanted to bake sourdough bread. Turns out our prison was also the bakery that provided bread for the whole prison complex, so we were able to get flour. Sourdough is just wild yeast culture from spores in the air. You just get flour, water and something with a bit of sugar – in our case, pineapple juice. You leave that out and it starts to ferment with the yeast pores that naturally form. Once that culture is going, you develop it a bit, and hey presto, you have sourdough bread.

Baking was important. We were able to do something that was genuinely nurturing. There is something that is profoundly beautiful about making bread: it’s a living thing. And anybody who has smelt freshly baked bread knows how wonderful it really it is.

Multiply that sense of wonder by ten if you’re in prison?

Exactly. It reaches deeply into the core of who we are as human beings. I don’t understand what it is, but it feels almost primal. As well as nurturing us, the bread also gave us something that was utterly innocent but also very useful to build relationships with the guards.

Your empathy for the guards comes through strongly in your book, particularly when you describe their living conditions.

I felt that they were as much prisoners in the system as we were.

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What was it like at first, being there? 

There was a phase of confusion and disorientation, a lack of understanding where I was trying to figure out what had happened to us. The gap between what we were accused of doing and what we actually did was so wide. Terrorism on the one hand, and the reality of what was actually pretty bland, run-of-the-mill reporting. I wasn’t proud of the work we had done. In fact, I was a bit pissed off that we weren’t picked up for something I thought was a bit more robust, aggressive reporting.

Then there was a period during the trial, after the initial imprisonment, of realising this was about press freedom. And a feeling in the trial that we needed not just to defend ourselves, but the principle of press freedom. 

What was the hardest thing about being locked up?

The problem with prison is that it’s this vast, formless blob of time. Physically we had everything we needed: food, sometimes decent, sometimes not. We had water, we had shelter. Basic needs were dealt with, and physical health was under control. Mental health was the thing that was going to get us in the end.

In our normal daily life we have routines, meetings, jobs, things that need to be done, shopping, housework, kids to be picked up. These things give our days formal structure. In prison all of that is gone, so your first responsibility is to impose structure, discipline and order on that time. We went through a period where they had confiscated even our watches. It was really challenging to keep track of time and know when an hour was up, when half the day is gone.

I knew we had to keep up the exercise and stay physically fit. It’s also a way of keeping tired. One of the problems I saw in prison was the way people would lose their contact with day and night. And that was really dangerous. Sleeping through the day and staying up all night, laughing and joking, but delirious.

When you weren’t in prison, you were in court. What was going through your head during your trial?

It was always fascinating, how could it not be? So weird and bizarre. I’m used to the western judicial system: clear rules of evidence, where I’ve understood the purpose and the point of it all. The adversarial system, for all its flaws, is pretty clear-cut. The problem in Egypt was that I never really understood what was ever going on. Or why. I’ve tried many times get people to explain to me how the thing worked. What was the logic of it, the role of each of the players, the reason it unfolded the way it did? What were the rules? It flipped between sheer bemusement/laugh-out-loud hilarity at how stupid it was, versus utter outrage at what they were sometimes able to get away with. I thought there was no way anyone watching it could seriously think we were guilty of any of the charges we were facing.

We thought it was going well for us so for the most part, we were enjoying the process because it seemed so strongly in our favour. I was bitterly angry at the chief investigator for the prosecution who was making such outrageous statements and illogical claims against us. Bald-face lies and assumptions. I’m not a violent guy – very rarely do I get angry – but if there was ever someone I wanted to meet in a dark alley with a baseball bat, it was that guy.

I understand that you smuggled out notes written on toilet paper, and they ended up forming the basis of your book.

Yes, those notes were hugely important to me in getting the message out and keeping in touch with my family. I’m not sure how many rolls of toilet paper, but the National Archive in Canberra is going to have my toilet paper archived! Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a wonderful blogger and activist, had a lot of experience in Egyptian prisons. He spoke to me about the power of messages from behind prison walls, so learning how to write on toilet paper and smuggle it out was really important.

Any tips?

[Laughs] I learnt to use a pen, not a pencil or felt tip pen. If you’re ever in that situation, get yourself a ballpoint pen. Pencils don’t work on toilet paper, they just tear it up. Textas tend to dissolve it.

The smuggling part must have been terrifying...

The not smuggling was also frightening. But I think, perhaps, we didn’t understand the consequences of it. Another colleague, a young student, was caught smuggling a letter and he’s still in prison because of it.

What was it like to re-live those experiences when writing The First Casualty? Was it a cathartic thing to do?

In a sense. I found writing the Egypt chapters a challenge because as a journalist I’m not used to putting myself in the middle of the story. It’s something we’re constantly told not to do. So that was a big hurdle. I learnt a lot from a book by Victor Frankl, A Search for Meaning. Frankl was a survivor of four death camps during the Holocaust. He said, “He who has a why, can bear any how.” It’s an extraordinary thing. And for me, the whole question of the defence of press freedom was the “why”. Writing the book was a way of applying meaning for what we went through, retrospectively. It’s a way of taking back that time and using it for something positive, so it wasn’t just 400 days wasted.

In the next Smith post, Greste discusses his newly-released memoir and reflects on press freedom, and why Obama has been bad for journalism. 

Image: Tim Bauer