Canadians detained in Egyptian jail bonded with cellmates like big family

Daily Journalism

Published with The Canadian Press, Oct. 12, 2013.

Two Canadians held in an Egyptian jail for seven weeks say they survived by bonding into an “adopted family” with their dozens of cellmates, who quizzed them on life back home and even posed for portraits.

“This was really what kept us alive in some ways – 38 guys together including ourselves keeping each other on track and optimistic,” John Greyson said Saturday.

Greyson and Tarek Loubani touched down Friday night at Toronto’s Pearson airport, ending an ordeal that began with their arrest and beating during an anti-government protest in Cairo in mid-August.

Though the duo were dumped into what they’ve called a cell with a “small bath mat” each worth of space on a concrete floor crawling with cockroaches, they said the care and companionship in the tiny room kept their spirits from breaking.

“When we needed to cry we would cry and people would comfort each other. There was a lot of love,” Greyson, a 53-year-old Toronto filmmaker, told The Canadian Press in an interview.

Loubani, 32, said he and Greyson bonded deeply, although they occasionally quibbled over how they would position themselves on the cramped floor and on Loubani’s preparation of the meagre food supplied by guards.

“We derived a tremendous amount of strength from each other, and from our families… and from our adopted family” of cellmates, the London, Ont., emergency room doctor said.

When they weren’t discussing how to end their detention – which included a hunger strike – the pair said they were peppered with questions about life in Canada, while regular activities filled out their days behind bars.

Of the 36 other inmates, Greyson said he sketched portraits of 34 of them.

“The running joke was they’d never be useful as evidence in court because they bore no real resemblance” to their subjects, Greyson said. But some of inmates who missed weddings posed for the jail-cell art to have something special for their fiancees, he added.

Greyson said he talked regularly with a handful of cellmates who spoke “high school English,” one of whom even memorized Greyson’s entire family tree – and corrected him when he got his sister’s age wrong.

The cramped space even once rang out in song, Greyson recalled, with the entire cell giving an earnest rendition of “Happy Birthday” when they heard his detention kept him from his teenage daughters’ birthdays.

“Despite a lack of common language there was real support,” he said.

Both men praised Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and the country’s diplomatic corps for bringing about their release, along with the friends, family and supporters who relentlessly pushed for their freedom.

Loubani also had special thanks for his father, who travelled from New Brunswick all the way to the office door of an Egyptian minister to lobby for his son.

By pure happenstance, Loubani said, his father ended up speaking to the entire Egyptian cabinet when the minister let him inside to speak on the line during a top-level teleconference.

The two said they had only planned to stop overnight in Cairo on their way to provide aid at a Gaza hospital, when they were delayed due to a border closure and went to observe a protest some three kilometres away from their hotel on Aug. 16.

Not long after, shots rang out in the crowd, and Loubani sprang into action providing medical aid while Greyson recorded the chaos on video. They were arrested at a police checkpoint hours later while heading back, and shortly after dumped in jail without charges.

Both men expressed deep concern for the 600 other people they said were picked up by police that day. “Their lives are really being hurt badly,” Greyson said.

Loubani, a frequent traveller to the Middle East, admitted the pair made mistakes that day – he’s drawn up a list of “about 30” – but explained they were merely doing their best with the information they had.

Though the men were suddenly released from prison last weekend, they were prevented from immediately boarding a flight out of the country after their names appeared on a “stop-list” issued by prosecutors.

That travel ban was lifted days later amid continued lobbying by Canadian officials.

Photo credit: Saleem Homsi/Flickr CC