Victoria Brittain’s powerful new book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (Pluto, 2013), has had an extract in the Guardian (and G2) today.
What’s it like being married to a man who has spent 13 years in UK prisons fighting deportation to the US on terrorism charges – and seeing him finally lose that battle? In a particularly emotive extract from Victoria’s book, Ragaa, the wife of Adel Abdul Bary, tells of the prison visits, the battles with bureaucracy and the struggles to raise a family under extraordinary pressures.
To read the extract at the Guardian, click here.
Ragaa met Adel Abdul Bary, the man who would become her husband, in 1981. Her Egyptian family had moved from the countryside into a flat near the centre of Cairo. In those days she was a girl in tight jeans and a T-shirt, with long hair below her waist, though at her parents’ insistence she tied it back in a plait, and was not allowed to wear makeup. At Cairo University, Ragaa found herself doing business studies instead of the art or music she had wanted to do, because her final school exam results were not good enough.
She hated her course but was entranced by the university world. Before long, other girls from her class, wearing hijab, began to take her aside and talk to her about how her beautiful hair should be hidden, encouraging her to come into the mosque area of the college. “I went,” she says. “It was something different. I felt calm, peaceful in there.”
Ragaa and her sister began to follow Islam more strictly than the rest of their Muslim family. It was the fashion for the educated young back then, she says. The two girls went to an all-female Islamic study circle where the male teacher sat the other side of a curtain. One day, Ragaa saw him after class in the street, a handsome man with a little beard and turban, and imagined how lovely it would be to be his wife. Later, his sister spoke to her about a marriage, and then to her great excitement, he and his family came to visit hers. The marriage was decided.
At the time Egypt was a tinder-box of political and religious tension. On 3 September 1981 President Anwar Sadat had ordered an extraordinary mass round-up of religious leaders, politicians, journalists, army officers and others. He mocked the girls wearing chadors, “going about like black tents”, and the young men with beards. Sadat was assassinated shortly afterwards, during a military parade, by a handful of young Islamist officers, and was succeeded by another military leader, Hosni Mubarak.
After Adel’s return from a year’s study in Yemen, there was a formal written Islamic marriage. Ragaa thought the life she had imagined was about to begin but soon Adel was arrested like so many thousands opposed to the Mubarak regime. She spent six months travelling with his sister to every prison in Egypt to try to find him. When she finally did, he was a veteran of torture – by hanging, electric shock and solitary confinement underground. There had been a period of hospitalisation, followed by ordinary prison. No one knew when Adel would be released, or if he ever would.
Tensions grew between the families, but Ragaa, for all her unhappiness, would not give up her marriage. “I was a stubborn teenager,” she says. “Of course I resisted. It was pride. He was the first man in my life, and I wanted to support him, out of duty.” Giving up her idea of work being haraam (sinful), she registered for a dressmaking course, only to have her sister-in-law tell her it was not allowed. Under his son’s influence, Adel’s father had also grown a beard; his sister was wearing a face veil. Adel himself had taken all the family photographs and burned them. So Ragaa stayed at home, and regretted it bitterly decades later.
Her husband came out of prison, but for those first years of their married life he was in and out again every six months or so – torture became the almost unspoken constant of his experience, and for her a dark corner where she didn’t want to let her mind go. “Miserable me,” is her description of the person she had suddenly become.
Eventually Adel left for the US, and then later the UK. He had finished his degree in prison and was soon a well-known human-rights lawyer; he had strong contacts with Amnesty International in those years when arrests in Egypt of suspected opposition figures were in the thousands. In 1990, Adel gained refugee status in the UK, three years after he had arrived. Ragaa and the children joined him, and for five years they lived a quiet family life in London. Ragaa spoke little English, only went out occasionally, always with her husband and his friends and their wives. “He did everything, everything, for me and the kids here in London,” she says. “And I was happy because he was with me, playing with the kids, taking us to the park – it was the normal life we never had in Egypt.”
In the summer of 1998, al-Qaida blew up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 220 people and wounding nearly 5,000. It ended that normal life in London. There was a dawn raid by British police in white contamination suits, brandishing truncheons and breaking down the front door. Ragaa and the children were traumatised. A dozen or so men were suddenly in their bedrooms, shouting for her husband, searching the children’s clothes, tearing out pages from any books with telephone numbers.
Adel was led away, and Ragaa, hurriedly putting on her black hijab andabaya, was told to get into a bus with her five children, one of whom was a small baby. They were taken to a hotel where they stayed in their room for three or four days, without any information about why they were there, or how long it would be. She did not know how to phone her family in Egypt, and felt desperate and alone.
When they were finally taken home, she found her house upside down, drawers open, the front door broken and a metal gate across it. “I had absolutely no idea what to do – he was the one who always knew everything,” she says. After five days, however, her husband came home and family life resumed, without him discussing what had happened.
The British police found there was no terrorism case to charge Abdul Bary with. He was charged with possession of gas canisters, bailed, and then acquitted in a jury trial. (An official letter from the anti-terrorism police at the time stated that after nine months of exhaustive investigation, they found that he and the other Egyptian men arrested with him had no connection with al-Qaida, nor any connection with terrorism in Britain.)
However, six months later, Ragaa more than once noticed someone who seemed to be following them. Her old anxiety from the Cairo years flooded back. Her husband reported what she’d seen to the police. A week later he was rearrested. His extradition was requested by the US on exactly the same evidence dismissed in Britain the previous year. It had been sent by the UK to the US as part of the great fishing net of shared intelligence in the war on terror. His lawyers began to fight the extradition in a process that soon took on the character of Dickens’s Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Bleak House.
An entire roomful of documentation built up. The committal papers from the US amounted to more than a dozen ring binders of documents, mostly in Arabic. Between 2002 and 2008, successive UK secretaries of state spent six years coming to a decision to extradite him. Representations for judicial reviews and appeals were made by his lawyers, including several medical reports, which over the years warned of his serious depression and risk of suicide in prison.
In those family milestones that mark a person’s life – his own mother’s death, his daughter’s wedding, his boys becoming men – he was the unreachable ghost figure for his bewildered and overwhelmed family. Ragaa, unprepared in language or custom, overnight became a single mother, linked to her husband only by the daily telephone call from prison, or visits when a Muslim charity drove the family to Belmarsh, Brixton, Manchester or Long Lartin prisons.
“In the visits I left the kids to talk to him, play with him, sit with him, and I just watched,” she says. “I thought about how unfair for them this is – this is only how they know their dad.” For her and the children the security checks for the visits were an ordeal, with women officers touching their bodies in the searches and police dogs sniffing them. They always felt hostility towards them – for being foreign and the stigma of visiting a Category-A prisoner.
Years of dark depression inside the home crept past, Ragaa struggling with six children in isolation. She rarely phoned home to Egypt, gradually leaving the family bonds to wither. In 2004, her mother died. She had had no passport to visit her mother while she was ill, and she could not forgive herself for not being there.
As the children got older she began to hear about the London world outside her flat from the older ones, with stories about drugs, violence, knife crime and truancy among their schoolfriends. It terrified her. She took most of them out of school and taught them their GCSEs at home.
The exhaustion of doing all this, the weight of the responsibility, took a big toll on Ragaa’s health. Money was very short. There was a time she slept on the floor as the family were a bed short, winters when she didn’t turn on the heating. She developed health problems.
Her oldest daughter was married early to a cousin, something that Adel arranged from prison. Her babies were often in Ragaa’s care too, as her daughter, with fluent English, took on the time-consuming and never-ending administrative battles with the local council or benefits office, set up hospital appointments for her mother.
One of Ragaa’s two youngest girls wrote a poem after their father when he had been gone about six years. It was about her “honey-coloured teddy that was given to me from my Dad/Each time I looked at it, it made me feel sad.” They wrote letters to their father, drew him pictures and talked to him when he phoned. All over the flat were the pictures he had begun to paint in prison – some of bright flowers, but most heavy with the symbolism of prison: keys and cell bars. That atmosphere lay over the home.
Adel was stuck – a bit player in one of the landmark cases of the war on terror, facing the prospect of lengthy pre-trial detention in a US supermax prison, a trial that none of his defence team believed could be fair, and then a possible life sentence. He and many others were named as defendants in the terrorism case called USA v Osama Bin Laden et al.
In London Adel’s work had focused only on his own country, and he ran an office called International Office for the Defence of the Egyptian People. He put out a newsletter on Egyptian affairs, for which Ragaa, while looking after her children, used to write a weekly women’s column.
The extradition case would put Adel Abdul Bary on trial with a large number of other defendants whose names were added over the years, charged with general conspiracy to kill Americans and with substantive charges in the east African embassy bombings. Ragaa blanked it out – it was all too frightening to think about. The one concrete thing her husband was on trial for was his possession of a fax sent to him – found in his office weeks after the events – about the bombings of the US’s East African embassies. (These faxes were everywhere in the Arab areas of London at the time, handed out in places such as outside the Regents Park and other mosques and sent to news organisations across the world.) This fax – along with the al-Qaida defector Jamal Al Fadl’s testimony on Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s supposed al-Qaida links – was apparently enough for the Americans to jump to the conclusion that Abdul Bary (never named by Al Fadl) had prior knowledge and responsibility in the bombings.
This vast case went nowhere until in 2011 one of the defendants, Ahmed Ghailani, was tried on 286 charges, found guilty on just one and received a life sentence.
For Ragaa all this detail, over so many years, passed her by – she blanked it. “I don’t read anything about it, I’m just not interested. Twenty years of all this politics has been too much. I have to live my kids’ lives.”
Ragaa enrolled in a dress-making course at a college of higher education with her husband’s permission. It took her three visits to the college to persuade them to take her, because her English was weak. Every day she set off in the bus with her packed lunch and plunged into a class of giggly British women 20 years younger than her. The living room table at home became covered in cut-out paper patterns; she borrowed books, went to museums, searched the internet and sewed elaborate dresses that won prizes at her college. Ragaa’s English made a leap forward and she ignored her acute fatigue, pain while walking and continuous confusion over benefit payments and the boys’ schooling.
At the end of the year she passed with distinction and was accepted for a two-year higher level course – although this time her husband told her he would prefer her to stay home.
He also told her he worried about her safety and preferred she did not make a trip to Cairo in 2009 when her British passport finally came through. But she went anyway, with her little girls and one boy. After 17 years she saw her own family again, and got a measure of how far the hard, lonely, years in London had taken her from an Egyptian life. Her family told her they found she had become cold and British.
In late 2010 her husband and the small group of Muslim men, all fighting deportation orders, were moved to Manchester prison while Long Lartin, where they had been for years, was refurbished. Soon the daily phone calls were punctuated with complaints about disrespect, racist behaviour by guards, new rules about phone calls having to be in English, not in Arabic. Manchester was so far that Ragaa did not manage to visit.
Then her husband told her he was going on hunger strike to protest about his treatment. The girls became convinced their father would die and spent tearful nights without sleeping, and days phoning their lawyers to ask them to make emergency visits to him.
Even after the Muslim detainee group were returned to Long Lartin, a new anxiety came to dominate her everyday life when her youngest daughter turned 10, and Ragaa’s income support was reassessed. A Social Security or First Tier Tribunal assessed Ragaa as fit for work, despite evidence that she could only walk extremely slowly because of pain in one foot, and a sheaf of letters from doctors and hospitals about the various treatments she was undergoing.
Alternate Monday mornings became a humiliating ordeal as she went to sign on to get benefits. She did not complain, but her daughter, who went to physically support her and to translate, came back exasperated, with story after story of casual racism. She detailed the pain of experiencing open disrespect towards her mother, a woman in her 50s who had brought up six children, who was queried by a young official about why she “had never worked”, or why she “didn’t speak better English after all these years”.
It is now four months since Ragaa and her children said goodbye to Adel in prison in Britain. Extradition had become inevitable in the autumn of 2012, after the European Court of Human Rights refused his final appeal. They brought his bed-clothes, his paintings and a few possessions home to London. The next day his usual phone call never came.
Since then, Ragaa has had only two 15-minute phone calls from Adel in his New York prison. He spoke to each child, leaving just time for a quiet word of greeting between husband and wife. Ragaa knows he is in solitary confinement and sees only his lawyers. The trial will be in October.
Alone in London now, she says: “My life, it is just my kids now … but maybe, after 20 years of nothing but anxiety, maybe, maybe, I can say I’m recovering myself … maybe.”
The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror
Victoria Brittain. Foreword by John Berger. Afterword by Marina Warner
“Thanks in no small measure to Victoria Brittain’s remarkable work, we should all have at least some sense of the horrifying events of which Guantanamo is a symbol. Here Brittain adds another crucial dimension to the shameful record, with a searching, sensitive, and wrenching account of the ordeal of the women left behind, their torment, their endurance and courage, their triumphs over the cruel “extension of prison to home.” And not least, a revealing picture of what we have allowed ourselves to become.
“This is a window into an invisible world…a reminder that abandoning normal legal standards has serious consequences for the Rule of Law.” – Helena Kennedy, QC