Liberty from hate
On 16 August 2013, two Canadians were passing through Egypt on their way to Gaza, where Dr Tarek Loubani, a specialist in emergency medicine, was to volunteer at a clinic, as he had before, while John Greyson, a filmmaker, documented his work.
The riots in Cairo meant that the Rafah crossing was closed. With a curfew in place, the two men approached the police to ask how best to get back to their hotel. For this courtesy they were in, their own words, ‘arrested, searched, caged, questioned, interrogated…slapped, beaten, ridiculed, hot-boxed, refused phone calls, stripped, shaved bald, accused of being foreign mercenaries’.
It was seven weeks and a sixteen-day hunger-strike before they were released, and that would probably not have happened had they not had the great good fortune to be Canadian, and to have a group of friends and family who were aware of the importance of keeping the media spotlight on their continuing detention without charge. Ultimately 100,000 people wrote, demonstrated, filmed, protested – and ensured that the Canadian government was made aware that active intervention was imperative.
It was only this campaign, and the subsequent release of the men, that made their story different from hundreds of others on the day, thousands of others that week in that city alone. It is not, therefore, that which I wish to comment on.
The two men returned to Canada and just over four weeks later my mother received the following email:
First, my apologies for this tardy response. I wanted to write sooner, but both Tarek and I are still drowning under a mountain of email and good wishes – indeed, we’ve been in grave danger of being hugged to death by well wishers ever since we got back! It’s pretty incredible – and wonderful.
Second, thank you so much for your efforts to help secure our release. It’s extraordinary for us to learn of all the avenues that were pursued by you and so many others – indeed, not just the avenues but the side streets and highways and bike paths! – somehow all these accumulated and cross-pollinated and added up together to this very happy and deeply appreciated result.
I feel so lucky to be close friends with Elle – collaborators, colleagues, co-conspirators – really, what she and everyone mobilized for us was extraordinary at so many different levels – and now I feel so lucky that you’re her mom.
On behalf of Tarek and I, thank you so much. A million besos. I’m in the process of making an artists book of my prison drawings – I’ll get your address from elle and send it along, as a token of our thanks.
If you happen to be in town on Nov 9th, please do come by the Gladstone and we can kiss you in person. Or... perhaps we can all meet for lunch sometime, when you’re next in town.
with love and gratitude, John"
My sister, the ‘Elle’ of the email, is indeed a friend of John’s, and was deeply involved in the campaign to free him and Tarek. The contribution of my mother, who works in palliative care, was to involve McGill University’s medical school and administration. Their participation no doubt helped, just as many drops of water each help to wear away a stone. Who can say what precise intervention changes a situation? That unknown is why we must all answer the call of liberty, all participate.
John Greyson’s response, however, represents another kind of liberty, a liberty from hate. Look at the words he uses: ‘incredible’, ‘wonderful’, ‘happy’, ‘appreciated’. And, most resonantly, ‘lucky’ and ‘gratitude’. John Greyson, after two months in an Egyptian jail for no reason that anyone could ever work out, two months in which he and his friend were ‘searched, caged, questioned, interrogated…slapped, beaten, ridiculed, hot-boxed, refused phone calls, stripped, shaved bald, accused of being foreign mercenaries’, feels ‘lucky’. Feels ‘gratitude’.
We must all fight for liberty of the person. Without that we have nothing. But to have liberty from hate, the liberty that gratitude brings, in a world filled with horror, is a privilege and a blessing.
Judith Flanders is a social historian who has written widely on Victorian Britain. The Victorian House (2003) was shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year. She also writes on the arts, and her first crime novel, Writers’ Block, will be published in 2014. She lives in London.