On grief, on Alaa

It’s funny the way grief and sadness work. Yesterday, my mom and I euthanized the cat that we have both cared for for fifteen years, and despite knowing that it was the right decision for a cat whose body and mind were both failing, I woke up this morning in a cold sweat.

We were lucky; my mother found someone who makes house calls, and we got to hold Little Cat as she painlessly passed, stroke her face and back, grieve her in real time. We both cried, and then it was over.

The funny thing is, when someone you care for deeply is not dead but suffering, not gone but out of reach, the grief hits different. When someone you love is behind bars in a country you’ve been repeatedly advised not to visit, limited to seeing his family only once per month and on special holidays, virtually unreachable to the rest of the world, the grief can feel unreachable too.

The last time I talked with Alaa was over Signal the last time he was briefly out of prison. I didn’t expect him to message me so soon, but he did, within 48 hours of his release. I didn’t imagine, after so many years, that our long talks over the years had held as much weight for him as they had for me. It’s hard to imagine much of anything when so much time and distance lie between.

This summer, I sent a copy of my book with someone to Cairo for Alaa. Last month, his sister Mona sent me a message to tell me that he’d read it and that he was very proud. It’s funny the way grief and sadness work: That message was enough to bring the tears that I’d been unknowingly stifling throughout the last months of the campaign.

I found myself wondering what Alaa thought about my depiction of him, of the revolution. I wondered if he saw his influence in my thinking and what he thought of the more recent developments in Silicon Valley, of which he’s always been critical. I wondered if he saw his name in the acknowledgements.

This summer, we protested in Berlin and under the hot sun, it was an almost joyful occasion as friends who hadn’t seen each other in months or even years united for a common cause. Friends from Egypt wore FFP2 masks not to avoid COVID but to ensure their faces weren’t caught on camera, to ensure that they could go home safely, to ensure that they too didn’t end up imprisoned.

It’s funny the way grief and sadness work. When the campaign is in the midst of a push—like now, with Sanaa’s sit-in in London, or this summer when we called every government we could think of—I am energized despite the gnawing sadness I feel every time I type #freealaa or see his photo. When things are slow, my brain suppresses that frenetic energy, but the sadness too until I can’t feel much at all. I’m told this is a normal reaction, but it only brings me guilt.

The COP27 will happen in Sharm El-Sheikh in a little more than two weeks, just six hours by car or one hour by plane from where Alaa sits behind bars. He’s aware of it; as Naomi Klein noted recently, he wrote a letter to his mother about the climate breakdown, a letter that never reached her. Klein wrote:

“There is something unbearably moving about the thought of Alaa — despite the decade of indignities he and his family have suffered — sitting in his cell thinking about our warming world. There he is, slowly starving, yet still worrying about floods in Pakistan and extremism in India and crashing currency in the U.K. and Lula’s presidential candidacy in Brazil, all of which get a mention in his recent letters, shared with me by his family.”

It’s funny the way grief and sadness work. I can’t bear the thought of that visual, Alaa trapped in his cell while the so-called leaders of the world spin their wheels on the climate crisis. There will surely be protests, which I wonder if Alaa would even encourage at this point knowing how they can turn out. There will surely be more grief before things change, but they have to change. They have to.

The grief and sadness of families of political prisoners is as deep as the ocean. I’m sure Alaa’s grief runs deep too, and yet, he finds time to read my book, to write his own, to comment on the state of the world, to keep up hope, if not for himself then for his country, for everyone else who has not yet been defeated. I wish I could too.

It’s funny the way grief and sadness work. One day you’re hopeful and the next you can’t imagine the world ever getting better. But we cannot give up hope, because we have not yet been defeated, in Alaa’s own words: “So let us be an example, but of our own choosing.”