Saturday 17 November 2018

'Prison has changed me. It made me who I am today' - Ibrahim Halawa

It's been a year since Ibrahim Halawa was freed from an Egyptian jail after four years of detention. The student tells Henrietta McKervey that he wants to take control of his own story

Moving on: Ibrahim Halawa pictured outside UCD, where he is now a student. Picture by Mark Condren
Moving on: Ibrahim Halawa pictured outside UCD, where he is now a student. Picture by Mark Condren
Joy: Ibrahim's father and sister Fatima celebrating last year after the announcement of his release. Picture by Gareth Chaney

Henrietta McKervey

It's an ordinary photograph, the sort of casually-taken shot that rarely makes it into the family album. A teenager in a blue hoodie leans against an ivy-topped grey stone wall. A wintering hedge rises behind him. It's clearly Ireland; Dublin. Mountains rise lazily in the background, the beige and brown of a housing estate at the foothills. He's not quite smiling, but appears content all the same, as he looks at something out of sight, to one side of the photographer. Yet for four years, when this image was reproduced over and over in Irish and international media, it accompanied shocking headlines. Reports of hunger strikes, beatings and mass trials.

When I meet Ibrahim Halawa on a sunny October morning in UCD, where he is now a student, I remember how - when he was first arrested - I used to see that picture and think 'that poor boy', but four years later, when he was still in prison, I had begun to 'think that poor man'.

The facts of his arrest and incarceration are well-known. In the summer of 2013, Halawa - who was born and raised in Tallaght - was 17. He had finished his Leaving Cert and wanted to study aeronautical engineering. His school friends were going to Ibiza, but instead of going with them he went on a family holiday to Egypt.

The trip coincided with violent anti-government protests in Cairo, and during a day of violent clashes in which more than 170 people died, the Halawas were among hundreds who took shelter in the al-Fath mosque. It was stormed by Egyptian security forces, and he and his sisters Omaima, Fatima and Somaia were arrested. He assumed he would be released within days. Yet days became weeks, and weeks became months.

Towards the end he says he feared he would die in prison, either from one of the regular beatings or on one of his intermittent hunger strikes. The hunger strikes, he says now, showed his captors that they could not have full control over him. "That was when the guards gave you attention. As an oppressor, they want to hurt you. When you show that you will hurt yourself… then they pay attention."

His sisters were imprisoned for three months without charge, and were released in November 2013, but Halawa's case was part of a mass trial which went on to be delayed an incredible 28 times. Potential sentences for the defendants included death and life imprisonment. The exhausting repetition of the swing from hope to despair must have been unbearable. After the 20th adjournment, Somaia Halawa warned: "The sad reality is my brother is dying in an Egyptian prison." It would be four years before his legal team finally got the opportunity to defend him in court. He was acquitted of all charges on September 18, 2017.

In the footage of his return into a scrum of family, friends and well-wishers at Dublin airport on October 24 last year, Ibrahim looks exhausted, his eyes fogged. An Irish flag is draped across his shoulders. His best friend from school pushes through the crowd and as they hug, Halawa wraps the flag around them. Behind him, silver balloons spell out 'innocent'. His friend Pete Moloney tells a reporter: "First things first, we've to make sure he's alright, then we'll catch up… we've four years of catching up to do."

But can Halawa ever 'catch up'? Time has changed its meaning for him in the year since he arrived home, he says. "It's weird because the last year has gone very fast… but a year in prison was like 15 years." He certainly seems to be packing plenty in: he began a course in International Management in UCD last January and balances college with humanitarian work for Amnesty and other organisations, as well as giving talks in schools and colleges.

On Monday, he and his Belfast-based solicitor, Darragh Mackin, are speaking at an Amnesty event as part of the Belfast Arts Festival (online tickets are sold out, limited tickets will be available at the venue). And all this while writing a book.

Having hated writing at school, he now loves it. The longest of his hunger strikes in prison was in protest at being denied anything to read: he went on to read a thousand books in the four years. "I want my book to be my story, my voice. I find something special about writing - no matter what the diversity of pain or experience, or culture, people always write; they put their lives into books. It's a common denominator."

Had he gone on the lads' trip to Ibiza, he would now be a different person, living a different life.

"Prison has changed me. It made me who I am today. It showed me that humanitarian side of life that I would have never have seen otherwise." He is grateful that with the hardship came opportunity: "I had to notice these experiences were coming my way, and take advantage. Nothing can be harder than what I went through. When I meet someone and tell them that I've been to prison, how can they understand what it's like to be a prisoner of conscience? I have to prove what I'm capable of, what I've become. I'm working with a lot of youth and in schools. With young people, when they see you've been through a hardship, they listen. My story is about moving from darkness to light."

The most significant change within himself in the last year came about as a result of his appearance on RTÉ's The Late Late Show last November. He was questioned about rumours he was involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, and that he had ripped up his own Irish passport. After that interview, he decided that he wasn't on principle going to be forced to defend himself and his actions again.

"I shouldn't have been put in that position. That's what I'm doing now: I'm allowing people to see what I'm capable of, and what I will do. I decided I'm going to tell my story from my own point of view."

Halawa isn't trying to pick up an old life, but instead has embraced this new one. He didn't want or expect everything to be the same. "I'm back in my old bedroom. They left everything the same way. I had to redo it in order to move on, not to live in the past." His bedroom was light blue, but they had to repaint the walls when he got home as it was the same colour as a prison cell he'd occupied. "I said to my Mum recently that maybe I should get my own place, and she goes, 'We've only got you back and you want to move already?'"

I asked him how long it took to have an argument with one of his six siblings. The very first week, he says, delighted. "We fought, but it was a funny argument. I asked my sister would she iron my clothes because, you know, I'd been in prison and had forgotten how to iron, and she said, 'Go iron your own clothes!'"

The role of various family members in the campaign for his release was discussed regularly while he was in prison and even since his return. When his sisters returned home from Egypt, they became the public faces of the international campaign to secure his release. "There wasn't a decision who in the family did what while I was in prison, but everyone played a role."

People continue to speculate why his father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, Imam of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Dublin's Clonskeagh, kept a low profile.

"He's not as good an English speaker, and we have a big family, so my father had to work to keep the food on the table... My three sisters couldn't go back to Egypt once they were released, so they did the job here, and my other sister, brother and mother visited me."

There is a lightness to Halawa that is surprising, given what he's been through.

Does this catch people off-guard? Do people expect to find a victim, someone broken and needing sympathy, and feel somehow hard done by when they encounter an intelligent, witty man instead?

When he meets people for the first time he often gets 'the face', as he calls it: people always want to know what happened, as though there is more, always more, to be uncovered.

"I make people make jokes about it," he insists. "I love a prison joke… People get comfortable when you make them laugh, and they get to be who they are. You can still talk about hardship, but also laugh - to show them you can once again laugh."

Perhaps it's no surprise that Ibrahim Halawa's year has flown by.

"Time," he smiles, "time goes fast in freedom."

Muslims in Ireland: In numbers

63,400

The Muslim population in Ireland today, having grown spectacularly in the past three decades.

2,000

Ireland's Muslim population in 1991.

50

The number of mosques and prayer centres in the country now, with further ones planned.

29pc

The rise in the number of people registering themselves as Muslim in the 2016 Census (since the 2011 Census). The religion is now the third most common in this country after those who list their faith as Catholic or Church of Ireland.

1976

The first mosque in Ireland opened in Harrington Street, Dublin 2. The late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia contributed to the cost.

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