LONDON, Ont. - If it were up to him, Toronto filmmaker John Greyson said he’d go back to Egypt.
“We’re stubborn, we’re going back,” Greyson said in a telephone interview Saturday, a day after he and London, Ont., emergency room doctor Tarek Loubani returned to Canada after being held in an Egyptian prison for 50 days.
Loubani, however, was a little more cautious.
“We are interested in doing good work, we want to do things that make sense and we are not risk takers,” Loubani said.
“I hate risk. I like planning. I like to understand what I am doing and I like doing things in a very careful way. That’s what we are going to do going forward. If there is no way to safely get to Gaza, then guess what? We are not going to go,” he said. “We know that work here in London or any other part of the world is just as valuable. There are people who need help, there are lots of things that can be done.”
The two men said they made critical miscalculations when they were detained on Aug. 16 in Cairo.
“We thought it was going to be one of those, ‘OK, it’s chaos, it’s crazy right now, they are making these crazy accusations but they will realize pretty quickly just how bogus it is and we will be out in the morning,’” Greyson said. “We did not see 50 days in our narrative at that point.”
Veterans of protests and arrests in other countries, the nightmare for Loubani and Greyson started as they waited for four hours in a sweltering prison van. Several prisoners collapsed with heat stroke and Loubani switched into doctor mode.
“I was stripping people bare, examining them, trying to figure out who was more sick than the other, advocating for them to get medical treatment by begging people on the outside.
“I said to them, ‘We have one man who will die in half an hour, a second who will die in two hours, Get us out.’
“They said, ‘We might as well only open the door once when they are both dead.’”
Once they were let out of the van, Loubani and Greyson and about 100 others were channelled through two columns of guards who had night sticks and electric prods.
“Once we got through that there were men in there wailing on us and kicking us.”
At one point, they thought guards had thrown water on them and welcomed it on a hot August day. Then the stench of urine hit them.
Greyson said he was able to withstand the beatings by thinking of the others they had watched die at the earlier protest.
“At least we were alive,” he said.
Greyson said each night, the men being held would tell their stories.
“In our cell of 38 men we would get up and have personal stories up to the moment of their arrest. We would hear their arrest stories in the context of their personal lives. They would be talking about their jobs, their families, their kids, how their lives were falling apart,” he said.
“We heard again and again from people who were part of the peaceful march and a bullet took out the guy they were marching beside,” Greyson said. “Every time we thought our predicament, and there were moments of real despair, when we heard stories like that it kept everything in perspective.”
The pair were released from prison after thousands rallied to their cause and the Canadian government demanded they be let go in the absence of charges.
Loubani and Greyson spoke to QMI Agency reporter John Miner by phone on Saturday. Here is an edited transcript of that interview.
QMI: How are you doing?
Greyson: Basically sleep deprived for me. I haven’t slept well since I got out of jail and I find that now I’m back on nice sheets and pillows I weirdly find I now and then long for the better sleep I was getting in jail. It makes no sense at all.
Loubani: I’m really happy. I got to see my family yesterday, my complete family. My father has been in Cairo with us for a few days before our release all the way through until we came. I was just so thrilled to see my mother and to hug her and kiss her. It was great, happy to be back.
QMI: What was your original plan when you went to Egypt?
Loubani: The original plan is really simple. Gaza is an occupied territory which is illegally occupied by Israel. What the occupation means is you necessarily have to go through the occupiers to get to the occupied territory. Either that is Israel, which hasn’t historically granted very much permission for people to go and do the kind of work I do, or it is through Egypt which for quite a while was granting pretty unparalleled access to the Gaza Strip.
When the coup happened we knew things had probably changed. We had some consultations with the Egyptian consulate in Montreal who said well this is probably going to be really touch and go depending on what is happening on the ground and off we went.
Our intention was never to Cairo, but by the time we arrived the curfew had been declared and we couldn’t travel that night so we had to stay in Cairo for the night.
By the next day the border had been closed so we decided to assess the situation and then figure out where things stood.
QMI: What happened on Aug. 16? How did you end up at the protest?
Loubani: We got up the next morning, we tried to figure out again from the news where things stood and had just a quick check in with each other about whether we felt that it was going to be safe to be out at the protests. Now, John and I are very experienced. We’ve both been to lots and lots of protests. We are ourselves non-violent protesters, almost to the level of being pacifists. Really we have been to so many protests that we thought: ‘OK, we know what will likely happen here, we can predict, project and read the situation.’ Of course we were wrong.
When we first left went on a little bit of a tour of Cairo while the morning to get just kind of a grounding in terms of the geography and so on. We ate a famous Egyptian dish called koshari. After that, I am a Muslim so I prayed the Friday prayer, which is sort of like the Sunday mass for Muslims. Then we went toward the area where there was a protest, Ramses Square.
When we got there things were jovial, they were calm, people were chanting. There were some people dancing, it was really what we know of peaceful protests.
Not long after we got there, it couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes maybe, teargas started wafting through, helicopters started circling overhead. We still kind of thought, okay, well. That’s when we started hearing gunshots.
When the gunshots started going off there was this group of people carrying a man and they were just running in no particular direction. I couldn’t tell where they had came from, I couldn’t tell where they thought they were going, but it was obvious the man was hurt.
I didn’t know it was a gunshot. I thought it was non-lethal stuff, maybe he had been hit by a rubber bullet in the leg or something. I approached the group and very loudly declared I was a doctor. I saw he had a bullet wound through his neck and he was losing a lot of blood. I said to the group, ‘We need to get some place now.’
I had a very brief, it couldn’t have been more than 10-second discussion and made this very fateful decision to shelter in the mosque and turn it into this makeshift hospital. It took us probably another 10 to 20 seconds to get there because we were actually right in front of the doors.
Once we got in there, they put him down and I started working. I was the first doctor and he was the first patient in the mosque. The mosque had this beautiful, beautiful green carpet. I remember when he started bleeding on it thinking we are going to ruin this carpet.
Before we I looked up this man died probably one to two minutes into my resuscitation. By the time I looked up the room was full. People had heard us declaring that I was a doctor and this was where we were going. It was full of wounded, absolutely full.
I worked and John documented for easily another four hours, I think it was five hours until things finally slowed down and we left.
QMI: Were you the only doctor working there?
Loubani: Not at all. I was first, but there must have been easily a dozen doctors there, lots of trainees. I would hazard a guess I was probably the most experienced in gunshot wounds and war medicine because of my experience in Gaza and other places. I have a lot of experience with mass casualty incidents. I would guess other people would not have had exactly that experience, but having said that, they we all very good, very competent, they did their jobs very well.
We broke into seven or eight teams of about five people. I think it was a pretty well run considering the fact we had almost no supplies for the first couple of hours and inadequate supplies for the rest of the time I was there.
QMI: Is it correct there were about 50 people who died in what you saw in the clash?
Loubani: The number of dead is about 100, I don’t have the exact number in front of me. I personally, with my own eyes, saw 50 people who were dead in the morgue. I think John counted a very similar number. You get a little bit traumatized.
Greyson: Not a little bit, a lot. It was one of the most devastating things I have ever seen. Tarek has broader experience. For me it was one of the most unforgettable, traumatic imprinted things that I have ever experienced. All through our prison experience, conditions were harsh, but I just in my head kept thinking nothing will ever come close to what we saw in the mosque that day. When we were beaten that sort of weirdly got me through the beatings. I thought, ‘Oh, what do I have to complain about, I am still alive.’
QMI: Did you start videotaping right away?
Greyson: It was first reflex, but almost immediately people were grabbing me away from the guy Tarek was working on because another patient had come. There was this sense that ran through all of the doctors, the volunteers, the people trying to help and save lives that the social media aspect was very important. I had a camera and so this could be footage that would get the word out, document so people would know what was going on.
It became really clear that my role was to document and do a particular type of documentation where in a single shot you matched the face with the wound so it can also have the importance of evidence if these cases would ever be brought to court.
QMI: Did any of that video make it out with you?
Greyson: Zero, no nothing made it out. Right now we are in the process with the embassy of trying to get back not just our equipment, my camera gear and video gear, but also all of our clothes and baggage.
We are still trying to get that out. We have no illusions that we are ever going to see that footage again. We are assuming it is confiscated. There were other cameras in the mosque that day who were doing documentation and in fact on Al Jazeera there was a story Tarek and I where there was footage of me filming Tarek, which was great because that proved our alibi. We were nowhere near the police station that day which was the site of alleged charges. Instead we were in the mosque as we said trying to save lives.
QMI: You left after four or five hours?
Loubani: We were very cognizant of the fact we didn’t know the local geography or the local politics all that well. Once things started to calm down and once it became obvious that patients were matched by teams then John and I had a quick conversation. I told him what I thought in terms of the capacity of the local teams and we bailed.
We tried to get home, we wanted to get home early. We left with dozens of people and walked through dozens of people the whole way. We were three and a half kilometres from Ramses Square, close to our hotel when finally we could see our hotel but couldn’t figure out a way through the various roadblocks and barricades. We asked at one of these barricades with plain clothes people - it is obvious now they were plain clothes police officers but at that point in time seemed like men milling about.
I asked them, ‘How do I get there?’ and pointed at the hotel. We could see the lights of the hotel. They detected my Palestinian accent and said, ‘Are you Palestinian?’ I said, ‘Yep’ not quite realizing for them right now Palestinian is enemy No. 1 because they equate all Palestinians with Hamas. By the way that stupidity kind of exists here, too. From there they more or less arrested me, took John, searched us both and began their interrogation process which revolved exclusively around the idea that we were international spies, that we were there fomenting unrest and so on despite all of the evidence to the contrary, including the fact I had a stethoscope and obviously was a doctor.
QMI: I understand at that point you were able to make a phone call to Justin Podur (York University professor and friend of Loubani and Greyson)?
Loubani: Yes, they had confiscated our smartphones, but had left a dumb phone with us and so before they realized we had a phone we sent off a call. It was very brief and it really only said ‘We are under arrest. I don’t think this is going to last long, but you should know.’
Greyson: We thought we would be out in 24 hours. We thought it was going to be one of those ‘OK, it’s chaos, it’s crazy right now, they are making these crazy accusations but they will realize pretty quickly just how bogus it is and we will be out in the morning.’ Like a G20 experience, so many people got wrongfully arrested here at the G20 and were out the next day or sometimes two days. We thought that was where it was going to go, we did not see 50 days in our narrative at that point.
Loubani: In jail I made a list of critical errors using the model of error analysis I learned through medicine. It is a good 30 long. This was one of them two, the miscalculation about how long we were going to be in there for. When we raised the alarm we raised it casually, ‘Hey, look, we got arrested, protest. Let’s see what happens.’ I think in Canada they were more worried because at that point they were starting to get a more complete picture of what was happening. They had more access to news than what we did in Egypt ironically at that exact moment.
QMI: What happened during the arrest? Was that the point where you were beaten?
Loubani: I took my first very light beating then and then the severe beatings happened later. The severe beatings happened when we were in Tora prison.
QMI: Was that by guards?
Loubani: The first beating you could argue might have been an individual initiative. The second, which was actually the severe one and involved both me and John and actually the 100 or so people who were in the prison with us who had come from the same happenings, that beating was systematic, it was deliberate, it was very, very well executed. They were clearly trained to do this particular process and procedure. There was no real doubt, there was no hesitation, and they knew what they needed to do and they did it.
QMI: What did they do?
Loubani: What they had done there, first they left us in the car for several hours. I think it was four hours, it was certainly more than two hours, it was 99% more than three hours. I think it was four hours. Then people went into heat stroke. I was then again in doctor mode, which believe it or not isn’t necessarily my favourite mode. Here I was stripping these people bare, examining them, trying to figure out who was more sick than the other, advocating for them to get medical treatment by begging people on the outside, literally begging them, telling them people will die in here.
I said to them, ‘We have one man who will die in half an hour and a second man who will probably die in two hours if you don’t get us out.’ They said, ‘We might as well only open the door once so we will wait until they are both dead.’ It was unbelievable.
Once we left there then we were sent through two columns, sort of one on each side of us, who had night sticks and electric prods. And then once we got through that there was just men there, wailing on us with their fists and kicking us. Once we were through that they put us in stress positions, lined up, initially with a full overview so we could watch the other people get beat.
Greyson: You forgot where they threw water all over us and the water had piss in it. We all came out of this beating and initially we thought, ‘Wow, the water is sort of welcome because it is refreshing and it is a hot August day in Cairo and then the stink made us go, ‘Oh, no silver lining here.’
QMI: What was the worst moment for you in the 50 days you were in?
Loubani: The worst moment all had to do with the people who were massacred, people who I don’t know exactly what they were doing, but I can’t imagine the crime of protesting, unarmed, being non-violent really deserved execution style killings, snipings to the head, wounds to the chest. The worst moments had to be watching so many people die unnecessarily.
Greyson: Every night we would have in our cell of 38 men we would get up and have personal stories up to the moment of their arrest. We would hear their arrest stories in the context of their personal lives. They would be talking about their jobs, their families, their kids, how their lives were falling apart. They were losing their jobs and their families were under incredible stress because of what they were going through. We heard again and again from people who were part of the peaceful march and a bullet took out the guy they were marching beside. Six inches, or 12 inches, or one step more and it could have them. Every time we thought our predicament, and there were moments of real despair, when we heard stories like that it kept everything in perspective.
QMI: Did you ever think you might not get out?
Greyson: The day were were released Tarek was writing a letter asking for medical text books because he thought it was going to drag on for months. I had laid out a work plan already for my dissertation. I figured there was actually four chapters I could productively work on without research and WiFi. Partly it came from our lawyers who kept saying, ‘There isn’t going to be any change before Nov. 11 and that is probably when you will get charges and then it could go two to five years before you go to trial.’ We already had been forced to do long term planning.
When we got that knock on the door at 1 in the morning we had become so cynical at that point because there had been so many false alarms, we really felt, ‘Ah, they say we are getting out, but ...’ The entire drive through Cairo at night, I was fascinated, but I never quite believed it. Even when I saw the ambassador, I really didn’t quite believe it. I still felt there is going to be some twist or turn or new charge or something.
Loubani: The way that I think of it, ‘Hey it was an arbitrary arrest so isn’t it fitting that it was an arbitrary release.’
QMI: Will you go back?
Greyson: We’re stubborn, we’re going back.
Loubani: I would take a little bit more cautious approach on that one. Look, we are interested in doing good work, we want to do things that make sense and we are not risk takers. I don’t know if anyone has told you about the helmet I wear when I ride my bicycle. This helmet is the safest thing you could imagine wearing, essentially a motorcycle helmet.
I hate risk, I like planning, I like to understand what I am doing and I like doing things in a very careful way. That’s what we are going to do going forward. If there is no way to safely get to Gaza, then guess what, we are not going to go.
We know that work here in London or any other part of the world is just as valuable. There are people who need help, there are lots of things that can be done.