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On poetry, prison, and new notions of time: In conversation with Mohsen Mohamed

Mohsen Mohamed may already be a familiar face for frequenters of Tudor Pret on Cornmarket Street. Stepping into its timbered, softly lit premises, it is not unusual to spot Mohsen, all smiles, striking up literary conversations over breaks from shifts. What most don’t know, however, is that Mohsen is a poet – his inaugural collection,  د يب رقم ش مف (No One Is on the Line), won the Sawiris Cultural Award and the first prize for vernacular poetry at the Cairo International Book Fair – and that his poetic voice emerged during the five years that he spent wrongfully incarcerated. 

The 2013 coup d’état and al-Sisi’s violent ascent to power saw Egypt in a state of increasing turbulence. Police brutality escalated, and the authorities arrested tens of thousands of people in a draconian response to nationwide demonstrations. At one such protest in 2014, nineteen-year-old Mohsen was just “taking pictures of a female student being beaten up at a university protest” that he had not even participated in. “First, I took pictures, then I tried to interfere and defend her. That’s what got me arrested.” 

Recalling the initial shock of his arbitrary arrest and the consequently altered trajectory of his life, Mohsen tells me, “I never imagined myself in this place. It was absolutely unexpected, unimagined. When I found myself in the face of it, I found people who were very old here, staying here for months… My brain didn’t want to believe that I could be like those people [in prison] because I’m just going to university and I’m going back home. It’s fine. Like, I’ll spend the day here, and I’ll be fine. We’ll find a solution tomorrow.” 

The solution never came. Instead, Mohsen found himself amongst countless political prisoners, his youth held on pause. He expresses affection for poetry and literature: his main sources of comfort while in prison. “Everyone in prison has a way to conquer reality,” he notes, and poetry became his. “People would really act meaningfully, because you’re encountering time. You’re not waiting for anything behind time itself. It’s only you, waiting for time to be spent.” Alluding to the healing power of literature, Mohsen confirms that his reading experience in prison was intensified by his search for “existential answers. Because in this reality where you are, your ties are cut and severed from everything that you belong to, and everything that belongs to you, and then you encounter a very different social reality.” His reading journey was not unencumbered – the prison library fell within the State’s iron-fisted control, only possessing titles that were patriotic and aligned with the government. The omission of dissenting voices was a deliberate “political act”, Mohsen observes, and then goes on to tell me about the “moving library” that he and his friends founded in resistance. “For example, you are in a cell, I am in another, and someone is in another one. Then you have five books, I have five books, and then he has five. We just ask everyone and see what books we have, and then we have a list. There was someone whose job was managing this.” A literary community was forged across prison barriers. 

“I found myself in poetry,” Mohsen confesses. “There were some specific poets, like Fouad Haddad who was Egyptian and died in the 1980s, and his poetry was somehow infused in my brain. I’m reciting it all the time, repeating it… I’m memorising it from the heart. The existence of the poems and the meanings of the words are felt inside me.” As for Mohsen himself, he remembers having composed his first poem in prison while in a dream-like state, so “oblivious to [his] surroundings” that he was almost detected by an administrative officer. To elude future detection, he invented a secret language, taking inspiration from the language of trade in his hometown, Mansoura. “In Egypt, it’s not like here. If you go to a shop and ask them for any item, they would say ‘5 pounds’. And then you would try to grapple for it and say, okay, I’ll have it for 2 pounds.” The rhetoric of bargaining poses a fascinating linguistic phenomenon, especially in Mansoura, where as Mohsen describes, vendors “don’t want to lose the customer, […] so they have an argument about [the price] in front of the customer, but they will speak in this [secret] language. They disguise the word ‘how much’ by adding and taking off letters. I borrowed the same actual form of it, and applied it to more language […] to write in a disguised way.”

Our conversation takes a meditative turn as Mohsen shares reflections on what life is like after prison. Freedom does not annul the past, and to return to one’s family and community after being away from them is not without hurdles. The happiness that release brings is accompanied by the melancholy of departure, of being forced to leave behind “people that you shared your life with for years.” In a milieu devoid of privacy, friendships are not formed in the “normal” sense – “it’s a friendship where you sleep next to each other, and know every single thing about each other. How this person sleeps and how this person eats and how this person talks and how this person dreams, aspires, and acts. Everything is visible,” he explains. “All life is just floating into each other.” 

Retrospectively, he no longer perceives his five years in prison as long. “The paradox is that this period was really heavy while I was passing it,” he says, “but once I brought back my normal life, this period was as if it was just a moment, just a station on the train I was riding. That’s what prompted Viktor Frankl to say that a day in prison seems bigger than a week in prison. This is the nuance – time is deceitful and tricky.” In an ironic twist on Mohsen’s already complex relationship with time, I learn that he appealed against his prison sentence, but that it was only reduced after he had already served 59 months in prison – exactly a month before his release. “It was really absurd.” 

Five years have now elapsed since the end of Mohsen’s sentence, and his freedom has prompted questions on how his story should be told. “I have my theory about the experience in terms of telling it or retelling it as storytelling, as a narrative, why should I tell it, to whom, and how? When I tell my story, if I’m victimising myself, what does it mean to be a victim, and what am I demanding? It’s easy to just cry, and that also will make it worse for oneself, because I believe that there are problems in life that are created by the counterfactual nature of telling.” While he prefers not to narrativise himself as a victim, he holds that attempts at objectivity in portraying the prison experience are inherently flawed. “If I’m writing about prison as a scholar who never went to prison, I wouldn’t be sufficient enough to know what prison is and its impact as something that someone experienced. But if I’m in prison, and I have the academic tools, for example, to assess myself and to assess my situation, I also wouldn’t be able to, because I am under the emotional circumstances.” 

Subjectivity itself is no better at capturing the prison experience, because “when a subject speaks about the prison experience, what happens is that it’s as if you’re transmitting light from somewhere invisible, for example, to another visible scene through a broken lens. Everything that will go through will be broken because the lens itself is broken, and this lens is subjectivity.” 

Could a polyphony of distinct voices, each chronicling a unique prison experience, serve as some sort of tertium quid for the appeal to either objectivity or subjectivity within representations of prison life? Mohsen’s current project, a global anthology of prison writing with “prison poems and ideas that are significant from every culture,” explores this very question. 

“Prison is a part of my life; it’s not my whole journey,” Mohsen believes. He is now starting to write poetry in English, applying for a PhD in Refugee Studies, and editing Rowayat, a literary magazine. Oxford, his new home, brings solace and intellectual stimulation – it inspires Mohsen to continue writing his poetry, and his future. 



at twenty


at twenty.

You ask,


how many 

years inside?”


“A lifetime confined.”


at twenty


at twenty,


new notions of time. 

(from No One Is on the Line by Mohsen Mohamed, translated by Sherine Elbanhawy)

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