Poet Galal El Beheiry’s poetic protest and the perils of expression in Egypt

Poet Galal El Beheiry. Screenshot taken from a video by AJ+. Fair use.

Galal El Beheiry, Egyptian poet, lyricist, and activist has been in detention since March 2018 due to his satirical poem “Balaha.” Despite his imprisonment, he recently managed to smuggle a letter from notorious Badr prison in Cairo, where he remains incarcerated. In the letter, he declares his determination to continue his ongoing 81-day hunger strike, escalating his protest against his arbitrary imprisonment and the conditions of his detention by embarking on a water strike, starting June 1, 2023.

The perilous power of satirical poetry and music in Egypt

The poem “Balaha” was adapted into a song on February 26, 2018, just a month before the presidential elections, through a collaboration with Ramy Essam, an exiled human rights defender and renowned rock musician. Ramy Essam, widely hailed as the symbolic voice of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, rose to prominence with his powerful performance of the songIrhal” in 2011, in front of millions of people in Tahiri Square. “Irhal” boldly called for the resignation of then-President Hosni Mubarak.

The word “balaha” means “date” (the fruit), but carries a nuanced meaning that extends beyond its literal translation. Rooted in Egyptian folklore, it carries symbolic weight, indirectly alluding to derogatory stereotypes associated with immoral women. Additionally, the term also draws a connection to the name of a character afflicted with a mental disorder and delusions of grandeur in a renowned Egyptian film from the 1980s.

In this particular context, the song’s lyrics were perceived as a veiled critique of President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi’s first four-year rule, exploring socio-political issues such as the state of Egyptian economy and different levels of political corruption. The poem is part of a collection called “The finest women on earth,” which sarcastically alludes to the military. The poetry collection highlights the value and achievements of Egyptian women, despite their unique challenges. It also criticizes the silence surrounding recent events, urging a shift in public attitudes towards terrorism and conflict, in line with the values of courage, honor, and respect instilled in El Beheiry from a young age.

As evidence of the song’s impact, the music video has amassed more than 7.3 million views on YouTube as of May 26, 2023.

The release of the song “Balaha” provoked considerable offense, resulting in the arrest of eight individuals, including an innocent Egyptian citizen who had no involvement with the song but was merely listening to it in his car in Kuwait. Subsequently, he was deported to Egypt where he was arrested.

Among those arrested were Galal El Beheiry, who was detained at Cairo airport 5 days after the song’s release, and Shadi Habash (1995–2020), the Egyptian filmmaker who directed the song. They faced the familiar charges commonly used against dissidents, such as “joining a terrorist group,” spreading false news,” and “abuse of social media.” In their case, they also faced additional charges of “blasphemy” and “insulting the military establishment.”

Tragically, after enduring two years in pretrial detention, Habash passed away in Tora prison in Cairo in May 2020 at the age of 24. While authorities claimed his death resulted from alcohol poisoning, activists attributed it to medical negligence. Reports indicated that his cellmates pleaded for medical help, but their appeals were ignored by prison authorities, ultimately leading to his demise.

Ramy Essam released another song called “El Amis el Karoo” (The flannel shirt) on November 27, 2020 to commemorate the 1000th day of El Beheiry's arrest. The lyrics of the song are based on another poem written by El Beheiry during his time in Tora prison in June 2018. During that period, El Beheiry wrote several poems including one titled “A letter from Tora Prison,” which was published by various PEN centers around the world. 

El Beheiry's quest for justice and freedom

El Beheiry was initially arrested on March 5, 2018 and could not be traced for a week. He later appeared in a Supreme State Security Prosecution court, a special branch of the Public Prosecution responsible for prosecuting crimes that relate to “state security,” showing signs of torture. He was informed that he was facing charges from a military court related to his unpublished poetry collection “The finest women on Earth” and the lyrics of the song “Balaha.” On July 31, 2018, he was sentenced to 3 years in prison and fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds. However, he was not released after completing his sentence. Instead, he was added to a new case, with the same charges and has been in pretrial detention since then. 

On March 5, 2023, Al Beheiry began his hunger strike, protesting his arbitrary imprisonment and detention conditions, even after completing his three-year prison sentence. After 81 days of the hunger strike, on May 25, 2023, he successfully smuggled a letter out from inside his prison cell. 

The letter was shared with Global Voices by a newly formed collective comprising over 200 Egyptian citizens, human right defenders, and journalists who have been actively advocating for political prisoners. They are urging for a boycott of the national dialogue in Egypt until authorities put an end to the systematic disappearances of citizens and their unlawful incarceration.

To show solidarity, please visit this link.

Galal El Beheiry’s letter from Bader prison

ضد الحياة الجبر، والسجن القبر؛

 ضد ألوان حيطان الزنزانات؛

 ضد منطق الحديد؛

 ضد إحساس الشمس من خلف القضبان والسلك الحديد؛

ضد السُتره الميري، والأكل الميري؛

ضد النور الوالع ٢٤ ساعة في الزنزانة…ميري؛

ضد ٢٠ دقيقه في الشهر، الوقت المسموح فيه بالزياره… ميري؛

ضد منع الورق والاقلام، منع الولاعات، منع أي لون غير الابيض؛ منع الأبيض؛ 

ضد ١٩١٢ ليلة ماشفتش فيها القمر غير مرة واحده… صدفة؛ 

ضد كل حلم بيموت مع الوقت، وبينضم لكل احلامي المهدورة؛ 

بالحب.. بالبيت.. بتكوين اسرة.. بالأبوة في سن ا لتلاتين؛

، بوجودي جمب اختي الصغيرة في كل خطوة صعبه بتاخدها في بحر الحياة 

برقصتي معاها في ليلتها الكبيرة، بوجودي جنب امي وابويا في وقت ما العمر بينهشهم بشويش 

ضدي انا، في كل يوم ببتعد عن الإنسان اللي جوايا خطوه

 وبتحول لكيان خرساني، في مكان خرساني، بقانون خرساني؛ 

ضد كل دا، وعشان احافظ على اللي باقي، يوم ١يونيو الجاي 

.حبدأ إضراب عن الحياة من اجل نيل الحياة 

جلال البحيري

Against a life coerced, against the prison grave, against the colors of the cell walls that enslave. Against the logic of iron bars that confine, against the touch of sun, denied behind bars and iron twine. Against the military habitude, against the prison food. Against the ceaseless lights, burning bright against the 20 minutes, once a month, to receive visits in grab and cloth. Against the ban on paper and pencils, on lighter, on anything non-white, against the color white. Against the 1912 nights without a glimpse of the moon, except for one fortuitous boon. Against dreams that wither with time, join my other wasted dreams; of love, of a home, of a family that gleams, of fatherhood at thirty, so serene. Being by my little sister's side through each arduous stride, in life's vast sea, where challenges collide. Dancing with her on her grand night so bright, standing close to my mother and father as age takes its bite. Against my own self, as I drift away each passing day, losing touch with the human inside, led astray. As I turn into a creature of concrete, in a place of concrete, by a law of concrete. Against all of this, in defense of what's left within, on the impending 1st of June, my battle will begin, a strike against life itself, with a fervent plea, to reclaim life, and set myself free. Galal El Beheiry

A taste of Ramy Essam's songs

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