Laura Dean's Cairo Diary

The Cairo Diary: Days of Cold Tea and Rotting Lemons

By Laura Dean
Monday, February 3, 2014, 2:20 PM

Moldy tea bags offer the only evidence that any time has passed, when Drew Brammer walks into the apartment one week after its occupants, Hossam Meneai and Jeremy Hodge, were taken from it in the middle of the night. There are cups on the table full of half-drunk tea, standing where members of the national security service had left them. Meneai's and Hodge's third roommate, Nizar Manek, who has now left the country, had brought it to them at their request, seeking to be accommodating, as they questioned him and Hodge for more than two hours. The lemons on the counter next to the cutting board are discolored and have begun to rot. There is a pan on the stove. The lights have been on for more than a week and the internet shut off, presumably because the detained occupants were unable to pay their bill. Brammer and another friend hastily gather Meneai's things---a few clothes, some books---and leave quickly, not knowing whether or not the apartment is still being watched. As far as I know, the tea cups and rotting lemons are still there.

It occurs to me that there must be many apartments across Egypt left like this, tableaus of what their inhabitants had been doing the moment they were seized.

Hodge, 25, who is American, was released without charge after being held for four days in an undisclosed location. His lawyer ended up filing a missing persons report. He has since returned to the US but he, alongside Manek, is following Meneai's case closely.

Meneai, 36, an Egyptian, has had his detention renewed for another 15 days, a period which will expire on February 8. So far, we are told that Meneai is being investigated for, "spreading false news to foreign countries and endangering Egypt’s security and public peace." Al-Youm al-Sabe', a local Arabic language paper, reported that this was in part because he referred to Mohamed Morsi's ouster as a “military coup.” The article also mentions that the prosecution said that videos and photographs from the dispersal of the Rabaa el Adaweya and el-Nahdha sit-ins were found on Meneai’s laptop, as were videos of the January 25 uprisings. According to Brammer, any footage from the sit-ins was likely  from YouTube, since Meneai was not present at either sit-in dispersal. According to Hodge, the two were handcuffed to chairs and denied food for 36 hours during their detentions. Following his release, Hodge said that Meneai was repeatedly beaten while he, a foreigner, was made to watch. Meneai is being detained in a holding cell with people accused of criminal offenses, while Hodge was held with political prisoners.

Hossam Meneai is an artist and a filmmaker. When he was arrested, he was making a film about St. Mark, who is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century.

Hossam is also my friend. This is Hossam:

And this:
Two hours away, in Suez, another person disappears into the prison system, leaving his loved ones to wonder why, and when they will ever see him home again. I am following a man named Ahmed as he careens down narrow alleys, children running behind trying to grab ahold of the vehicle. The impulse is understandable. Ahmed is driving an ice cream truck. We stop at an undistinguished apartment building that could have been in any of Egypt’s rundown urban neighborhoods. “Go in,” Ahmed says, “but only you.” The group of male activists I’d come with stay in the alley, smoking and leaning against their cars. I stand in a stairwell clogged with trash and knock at the door of the second floor apartment. “Who is it?” asks a woman’s voice from inside. When I identify myself, the door opens wide enough for me to squeeze through. Her face is entirely covered with a piece of black cloth, which she removes immediately once I’m inside. Two children, a boy and a girl, cling to her skirts. The apartment consists of two spartan rooms where Mariam, whose name I changed, lives with her husband and six children. The smallest, a little girl, breastfeeds on her mother’s lap as we talk. Another plays with a headscarf, taking it on and off; coughs periodically shake her tiny body. It is the coldest winter in more than a hundred years and few of Egypt’s buildings have heat. She begins to tell me about her husband. “It was 11pm, or maybe one. It was hot. People were not sleeping because of the heat.” In this neighborhood, residents live in close quarters and necks craned out of windows and doors as the policemen marched up the stairs. They threw everything on the floor, breaking most of the furniture, she said. It was only when they had finished their search that someone told them the man they were looking for, her husband, lived on the floor below. But he was out, working the night shift as a security guard at a factory, where they later arrested him. Mariam let them in, as she had me. They said they were looking for weapons. “What crazy person would have weapons?” she asks, “I’m afraid of guns. Do I have anything to guard with guns? I don’t have anything,” she protests, gesturing around the mostly empty room. A young policeman came back from searching the pigeon house on the roof, saying, "there are only birds, what will I do with them?" The officer barked, “Look again.” In the end, the officers slit the cushions on two armchairs and left. There were only birds. She is still not sure why her husband Tarek, whose name has also been changed, was arrested. He had defended government buildings alongside security forces during the 2011 uprisings. There are photographs of him signing the Tamarod petition calling for Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi to step down. He does, however, have a beard and is a devout Muslim. These day’s men who look like Tarek are being rounded up all over Egypt on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political wing, until this summer, was the ruling party. Speaking on a phone smuggled into the prison where he is being held, Tarek says that, of the men arrested with him, most say they have no affiliation with the group. It is Tarek’s activist friends---of curiously mixed political affiliations---who brought me to his wife. In the cases of Hossam and Tarek, their loved ones don't know why they were taken. Neither was a member of any political movement or party. According to one count, tallied by activists through the group Wikithawra, 21, 317 people have been detained since Morsi's ouster. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "since July 2013, at least five journalists have been killed, 45 journalists assaulted, and 11 news outlets raided. Since that time, at least 44 journalists have also been detained without charge in pretrial procedures, which, at times, have gone on for months." The number of assaults has surely gone up since the January 25 anniversary of the 2011 uprisings. Activists of all political persuasions are in jail, along with others who have no idea why they are being held. The message: the cold tea and rotting lemons could be on anyone's table.