If one tried to summarise Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, it would sound something like this: a revolutionary imprisoned on contentious charges; “and still, he wrote.” The tragedy of the times is that this generic summary applies to many names across the world. To give an example from India, sometime in 2020, Sudha Bharadwaj — an activist and lawyer lodged in Mumbai’s Byculla Jail on charges related to the Elgar Parishad case since 2018; she got bail in 2021 — wrote a handwritten book-review, which was later typed by her friends and family. Not dissimilar to how certain sections of You Have Not Yet Been Defeated were written.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah, an Egyptian activist, a technologist, and a devoted worker of and the “toughest critic” of the Egyptian revolution, “has been imprisoned by every Egyptian regime to rule in his lifetime”, the first time when he was 24. You Have Not Yet Been Defeated collects all his English writings since 2011.
It is difficult to write about Alaa’s book because not only is it intense, but it covers a vast expanse. The essays cover a wide range of topics, including constitution-making, Palestine, illness in prison, technology, Uber, capital, and revolution. It is undauntedly diverse while remaining acutely personal. And yet in a discomforting way, it is also easy to grasp the book. Its relevance is terrifying.
From ground zero
Translated by a collective, some of these essays were written in solitary confinement, or etched by inmates “shouting ideas to each other across a dark ward”, or spoken through judicial hearings. Articles written for Egypt’s left-wing newspaper Mada Masr, social media posts, and conference speeches are also among the sources.
Among other things, the genre of prison-writing is two things at once. On the one hand, it reflects endurance of ideas, on the other, it narrates a long story of individuals who have remained headstrong even as they faced unjust punishment. The genre has accumulated its fair share of hagiographic comments, some of which almost romanticise the outlawed writer. This is unsurprising. Consider Bhagat Singh’s Jail Notebook, which collects bare excerpts from the texts he read while imprisoned. Singh who was merely 23 at the time leaves us in awe of both his reading list and his ability to be distracted from what was waiting for him. What enables this focus?
In both Singh’s writings — his letter to young political workers, in particular — and Alaa’s work there is a fierce call to continue their movements. Both call for a seizing of practicality. “Leave sentimentalism aside,” writes Bhagat Singh. Alaa’s writings display an erudite understanding of political institutions right down to the technical aspects of law, its practical lives. A ‘practical organiser’ while remaining an idealist. But unlike Singh’s book which doesn’t intend to give insight into the psychological state imprisonment coerces, Alaa frequently comments on the material implications of imprisonment. One of the most chilling parts of the book is his essay, ‘Vengeance in Victory: A Personal Introduction’ where he describes the violence in prisons. “The first lesson you learn in prison is: don’t get sick”, he says. Elsewhere, he writes, “I’ve come to hate prisons and courts so much, baba...”. Such a truism, but one that needed to be read, reread, in the context of the millions of prisoners — political and ‘non’ — sickened by prisons.
As I approached the end of Alaa’s book, my copy heavily marked, I came away with many lessons disguised as questions. One stands out — what good is hope if it costs so much? In 1889, while reviewing a volume of poetry, Oscar Wilde remarks that “an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature”; perhaps, imprisonment strengthens instead of defeats the hopeful activist, who as Alaa says, always finds a way. Does the endurance speak to their truth? There is no romance in this endurance coerced by institutional violence. People — extraordinary or not– should simply not have to endure for the simple act of speaking their truth. Alaa’s pages lead you back to this. In his evocation of his human, soft, fragile self, he remarks upon his unremarkable person. While the collection’s initial sections are more zealous, we can see this dip in the later sections. A greater degree of despair bogs a later Alaa, who due process constantly disappoints. Prison has assaulted his self, negated his will. Yet, even being deprived of ‘exercise, fresh air,...and hot water’, his pages are haunted by hope. He writes, “Hope here is a necessary action.” Alaa’s words function like an edict for incoming times.
To sum up, Alaa’s book is best left unabridged — allow it to swoop on you with its truths. Reach back to it at regular intervals, let it be a map for your own thoughts on another world we must urgently hope is possible. One where prisons — not prisoners — are erased.
You Have Not Yet Been Defeated; Alaa Abd el-Fattah, translated by a collective, Fitzcarraldo Editions, ₹470.
The reviewer is a legal researcher and writer based in New Delhi.