Dear John

Emails to a friend imprisoned in Egypt

Illustration of Rob Ford on the front page of the Toronto Star
Illustration by Genevieve Simms

On August 16, 2013, filmmaker John Greyson and physician Tarek Loubani were arrested at an anti-government protest in Cairo. The two Canadians were held without charge for nearly two months. During that time, b. h. Yael, Greyson’s friend and a fellow filmmaker, wrote him an email every day, even though she knew he would be unable to read them in prison. On October 6, the men were released, and they returned home to Toronto five days later. The following excerpts from Yael’s messages have been adapted and lightly edited.—Ainsley Doty

August 21

Dear John

Last night I awoke somewhere between 3 and 3:30 and had the distinct feeling that you were having a very difficult time. This doesn’t happen to me often with people at a distance, but my thoughts and anxieties were very real and I was sure something was happening to you, for you, and that you were in distress. I wish I knew.

Today is Day 5. At first shock, and then a whole lot of mobilization of contacts. Hundreds of emails now. 35,000 people so far have signed a petition addressed to our government. Lots of professional groups have issued statements of support.

August 22

This is all a bit surreal most especially as there are crazy allegations, no charges and mostly no news of you and Tarek and what’s going on for you. Supposedly you will be receiving a visit from the lawyer today accompanied by consular staff and a doctor, but at this point I know this may or may not materialize.

August 28

I woke up thinking “one more day.” Tomorrow is your hearing. I really can’t imagine that they will charge you guys or prolong your incarceration without charges, but one never knows in these cases.

August 30

Well we got the terrible news that the prosecutor did not show up yesterday. Though everyone knew this would not be easy, I am sure all were discouraged.

Emails have slowed down. The working groups trying to figure out how to work, what to focus on…Emotions run high.

September 1

Why do I feel guilty? There is no reason and yet…maybe guilt is not the right word. Just a consciousness. Do I usually think of all those that are wrongfully incarcerated?

September 2

The petition at this very moment 99,838. Wow! It doesn’t bring you back, but it shows support. Something we all can imagine. It is as if 100,000 is the magic number. We don’t have talismans. Petitions are ours.

September 13

I realize this writing is much like making art. You don’t know if people will see it, like it, or if it will mean anything. I expect you will be too inundated when you return.

September 15

Your imprisonment has been extended another fifteen days. You can be sure it took the air out of everyone here.

September 17

We don’t know enough about your circumstances and why you and Tarek decided to commence a hunger strike now. I know a few people are rather wary of the timing, of the delicacy of the Egyptian regime digging in its heels if it feels its hand is forced, of the possibility that other pressures could have been applied. But really it is so difficult to know what is best and I have to trust that you in your cell know a lot more than we do. Nonetheless I do worry for your health and well-being and for the extent to which you will be forced to suffer. I hope this strategy is the right one and will have influence, that you will be released. I hardly ever use this, but inshallah.

It is now a full month.

September 28

Today is the distressing report in the Toronto Star stating that you may be charged. With what still unclear. But if so, certainly a protracted incarceration. I hope they are dead wrong and this is posturing. I hope.

I just read the release, only sent out today of your and Tarek’s account of your arrest. That you were beaten and kicked. I don’t know how to respond, it is all too distressing, most especially because we have such little recourse to alleviate any of what you are going through. This is all so wrong.

September 30

So it seems that you and Tarek were witnesses to a massacre and the authorities will do anything to suppress the facts, including imprisoning you for an indefinite period of time. Not only that but also threatening you with charges that what you were doing was illegal in some way…Tarek assisting the wounded, you documenting the scene. That is what doctors and filmmakers do.

October 5

The most amazing Nuit Blanche…Not Ennuit Blanche as some of our students had posted and predicted.

As we were milling and connecting with people, the news came, the amazing wonderful exquisite news that you had been released. We could not believe it.

There was true jubilation. The timing could not have been better as so many of us were in the same spot.

From then on it was shrieks, and hugs, and smiles and unbelieving faces. Everyone started texting, calling, tweeting…

October 7

So many stories on this end as to what’s holding up your departure: you are resting and waiting for papers, you are barred from leaving and may have more charges, you are grounded indefinitely until all 600 cases are decided…all this begs the question of your release.

This is the forty-eighth letter. And I guess this project is not complete.

October 10

Will this be the last letter?

The news is that you’ve been cleared. They investigated. Really? Whatever they did, we are thrilled. I am assuming you will sneak in and by the time you receive this that you will be home or close to.

À la prochaine

Much love,


This appeared in the March 2014 issue.

The Walrus
Patrick Doyon
Patrick Doyon received an Oscar nod in 2012 for Dimanche/Sunday, an animated short.