Challenging human rights violations with optimism: John Greyson and Tarek Loubani open up about their experiences in prison

In the summer of 2013, John Greyson and Tarek Loubani were making their way through Egypt en route to Gaza for humanitarian work. Loubani, a physician specializing in intensive care makes these trips to Gaza every six months to aid injured and sick Palestinians. Greyson, a film-maker and friend of Loubani’s, joined him.

John intended to shoot a short film about Tarek’s work in Gaza, but when they were forced to stay in Cairo longer than expected due to sporadic border closings, they became caught up in the protests they were witnessing in Egypt during its tumult in the midst of an ongoing revolution. Greyson ended up filming Loubani while he treated wounded protestors who had been shot during a demonstration in Ramses Square. Later that day the two were arrested along with over 600 protesters and civilians.

What they thought was going to be a 24-hour arrest turned into an unexpected 51 days in Cairo’s Tora Prison. The two returned on Oct. 11, 2013, and were received by family, friends, and supporters who had written letters and appealed to the Canadian government to take action.

Loubani and Greyson were in Peterborough on Jan. 25 for the ReFrame Film Festival. Two short films about their imprisonment were shown, along with Greyson’s Prison Arabic. They were guest speakers for the feature film of the night, The Square directed by Jehane Noujaim, shown at the Showcase Theatre downtown. Critically acclaimed and Academy Award nominee, The Square is a comprehensive film detailing the initial Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the complex developments in the movement up until late 2013.

Loubani and Greyson had a special connection with The Square, as one of the film’s cast members, Khalid Abdullah, was part of the team that helped get them released. They also had special insight to some of the issues brought up in the film because of their own involvement and experiences with Egyptian authorities, as well as their interest in human rights within Palestine.

Loubani dedicates himself to medical care in Palestine throughout the year and Greyson is a film-maker specializing in prison justice and queer issues.

All proceeds from the night went towards the Healthy Child Fellowship, which works to bring Palestinian doctors to Sick Kids hospital, train them, and send the medical knowledge back so they can teach others. It is a way to get around the hurdle of arrested doctors, bans on travel conferences and denied medical supplies and journals which prevent doctors from prospering and treating Palestinians.

Loubani stated, “…the Palestinian Healthy Fellowship has done an amazing job bringing them here. Palestine has very talented and strong doctors who are keen to go back and give back to the community.”

I spoke with Greyson and Loubani prior to the Kawartha World Issues Centre’s 25th anniversary fundraiser at Elements in order to gain more insight on the nature of their arrest and the politics surrounding it.

Greyson called the Gaza strip “the largest open air prison in the world,” with over one million prisoners. I was surprised about their easy-going and causal nature, as if the weeks they spent in prison had not cast a shadow over their eyes. Rather, I witnessed great optimism and determination.

Although the conditions were horrible in Tora Prison, Greyson and Loubani emphasized that their experiences are not unique. Not only do they demand justice for those who are illegally imprisoned in Egypt and globally, they spoke passionately about a much more local issue—the migrant detainees being treated as maximum security prisoners in Lindsay, Ontario’s Central East Correctional Centre.

The detainees are not criminals, but are being held in detention centres without charges until they can be deported. However, there is no limit in Canada on how long someone can be held prior to their deportation. Some people have been there for over seven years.

Greyson and Loubani lamented, speaking angrily about the treatment of the detainees at the Lindsay jail. They mentioned how they ate better food and received much better medical care in the Egyptian prison. Greyson and Loubani stressed that Canadians need to wake up and seek justice for these wrongfully treated detainees.

they talking

How has your film fest weekend been so far?

John: It started yesterday in London, because there’s a Prison Justice Film Festival going on there. It is based at UWO, and local activists are putting that on and they were showing a film of mine, and then I talked. Tarek was working over night at ER, and we jumped in a car from London through the snow-storm. A different sort of drama.

What is your connection to ReFrame and Peterborough?

John: ReFrame is a festival I’ve followed for many years, and I’ve taught many Youth Workshops here. It really epitomizes to me one of the reasons I got into film, that coming together of community, and trying to invent new forms, in trying to speak to urgent issues. A commitment of cinema to changing the world. ReFrame has a strong community focus and it really speaks to the values I care about.

They asked Tarek and I, because of our focus on prisons, to come on down and speak a bit of what we’ve been through. And that’s what we’re up to tonight, at the screening of The Square.
There’s also the connection with my friend Sue. I first came to Peterborough in 1980, for her film festival when she nearly got arrested and put in jail herself. So I’m planning on teasing her about that.

Tarek: Actually, I did some training in the Peterborough Hospital some years ago in the Intensive Care Unit. I lived in Peterborough for a few months.

Your equipment and footage was confiscated when you were arrested. Have you gotten any of it back?

John: No, we’ll never get it back. We have no allusions about that. It was gone from the day they took it.

Tarek: I’d say most recently about a couple of weeks ago, we were trying to get our stuff back, because the fact is, you know, John was there in the square from the very beginning. And John was there from the very beginning, from patient number one.

John: I mean, among other things it’s a record of who died that day. So the footage I got is not just people like Tarek trying to save lives. It’s actually a record. I don’t know if you followed the disclosures of the victims in Syria, this extraordinary photo archive that’s been made available. Atrocities are forgotten unless there’s a record.

So, we feel a real urgency to keep in principle trying to get the footage back. In reality, it’s gone. It will be extraordinary if it ever surfaces again. We walked out of Tora with the clothes we were wearing.

j and t 2It was a difficult and traumatizing experience for you two, but it’s also very important to you to document and share this story with every one. How does it feel constantly reliving it at events and through story-telling.

Tarek: There needs to be a balance. The balance is trying to honour the memory of the people who actually suffered that day. I mean, we did, but there are people who were arrested and are still in jail.

Our suffering is miniscule in comparison to others. They are more or less forgotten, these other 600 people who were arrested with us.

So, on the one hand we do need to honour what they did and their commitment and the fact that they were put in jail unjustly. On the other hand we do also want to move forward and instead of constantly relive the moment, look at what needs to be one and accomplish this.

You guys have stated that you tried to keep your spirit strong and not let anything bring you down. How did you do that in such terrifying moments?

John: Sometimes we kept strong through denial. Like, I really think in the first 24 hours, we really sort of felt those Canadian Passports would be the privilege that would get us out. Fifty days later we realized how wrong we were. There were moments of deep despair, and we owe a huge debt to the guys we were in jail with and who took care of us and really worked to keep our spirits up and you know, just remind us that there’s a bigger picture.

During these 50 days, did you have one on one conversation with these people and grow to share your stories and how you each got there?

Tarek: Jail is a very intimate experience. And inevitably overtime you get to know everything about the people you’re around. There are a lot of reasons for that, part of it being the amount of time you have to talk to each other about your lives and the need to keep memories alive; so you talk about your upbringings, you talk about your parents and siblings, your children, you know all these things get raised.

So, we got to know everybody quite well and that intimacy was something we remember quite fondly. On our drive over today we were reminiscing about the various people, some of them have not been released. Eight from our room have now been released; we were talking about what they’re doing now and exchanging notes on some of our experiences and stories.

John: There was a deep sense of very genuine caring about our lives and us. On one occasion, I told the others how I missed the birthday of both my daughters, and that was quite the serious thing. So, everyone sang them Happy Birthday, and it was something I was able to ell my daughters about when I returned.

Do you guys plan on going back on more humanitarian endeavors?

Tarek: The fact is that as long as there exists a siege and occupation, there has to exist work. The challenge is that, you know, when people’s rights are being violated and justice isn’t being served, we have to step in as civilians. I don’t think that’s plan A. Plan A is that our governments should.

We kind of put them in this position so they defend not only our interests, but they defend the interest of our fellow human beings. But they’re failing at that. And when they fail, then we have to step up as human beings and people who cannot just stand by. From that perspective it’s inevitable that the work will continue whether it’s us individually or the people around us.

John: I think its particularly this week where we’ve had the Canadian Media celebrating Stephen Harper’s visit to Israel. And it’s this propaganda effort which is trying to erase the occupation completely, so that the work so many Canadians are doing in support of justice for Palestine, justice for Palestinians, is being erased in a single moment by Stephen Harper getting out his guitar and singing bad rock and roll for Netenyahu.

We can’t sit by and let that happen in our name as Canadians. I think one of the main reasons I’ve become more involved with the issue around Palestine is of course Stephen Harper has proclaimed himself Israel’s best friend, and it’s like, “wait a sec, there’s a whole lot of us who have a lot of questions about that.”

john and tarek

Stephen Harper has recently been quoted stating that anyone who displays anti-Israeli sentiments is engaging in modern Anti-Semitism. It’s a very strong statement to make. Do you have any comments about that?

Tarek: It’s a very common trope. The idea is to try to conflate something that is valid, justified and reasonable, to something that is hideous, essentially putting up a straw man. How is that I can’t talk about the Apartheid state of Israel, without being accused of being a racist myself? I’m an anti-racist, I want to challenge racism.

So it’s this interesting Judo that people like Harper try to play. They try to turn this around on us by saying “No, you’re actually being racist by being anti-racist.” So, people are no long falling for it, I think that where as 50 years ago, you’d have heard people very seriously adopting the position that anything that challenges Israel’s right to occupy another people was anti-Semitic or racist, now-a-days, very few people accept that as legitimate. I think the case is no longer air tight and most likely will disappear very soon.

That’s very optimistic.

Tarek: Well, I mean, good luck with that to those guys, right. Because we see it right now, if you think you’re personal views or if you think of sort of what you’ve seen over the last twenty years, people don’t buy it anymore.

People now realize that Palestinians are fighting for their human rights. They realize increasingly that in a country where only Israelis or Jews are allowed on certain roads, and Palestinians have to go on other roads, there’s something really wrong. Where Palestinians are not allowed to vote, or not allowed to own land.

I’m a Palestinian, yet I’m not allowed to go back. So, there’s a law of return for Jews and Israelis, and yet my ability to return, what the Palestinians call their right of return is absolutely denied.

As a Palestinian I would never be allowed back to my grandmother’s house. Which still is there, with her olive trees growing, even though I have the key to it. Instead, I had to become a Canadian, to finally be able to do that.

Hamas has stated that they are willing to make negotiations with the Israeli government about the possibility of a two-party state, and that they simply wish to be considered as a legitimate state with the right to be recognized and make decisions. This has not been disclosed in the media and has been generally hidden as the image of Hamas as a terrorist group is perpetuated. What do you think about this?

Tarek: Well we can talk about the legitimacy of Hamas’s function. Hamas is a political party and their main interest mainly is power. They’ve always been interested in negotiation so long as it maintains and enhances their power. Everybody takes their stances, when you look at the hard right Israeli groups, they’ll take their stances too. But at the end of the day everybody is negotiating this all the time and you better believe Hamas has been negotiating with Israeli since the 80’s. So for them to formalize that is just recognition of what the Palestinian people are moving towards, which is a more rights-based program.

Palestinians are not as interested in a country now because they see the land being riddled with settlements, instead, they’re interested in the core that a country would have brought them. Rights, fairness, good living, you know, safety, justice. So instead of asking for these things indirectly by saying we want our own country, they’re asking for these things directly.

When do you think the Israel/Palestinian issue will resolve itself and the siege will end?

Tarek: At what point did you know the Berlin wall was going to come down? That’s a genuine question. At what point did you know? You didn’t. The entire Soviet Union was collapsing around you, and you only knew it the day of. So, how optimistic am I? Really damn optimistic.

If the Berlin Wall can come down, if Apartheid South Africa can collapse, then Israel’s gonna go too. And what will come in instead is the just, democratic state for Jews and Muslims and Christians and everybody.

And who cares what it’s called? What’s important is that it’s democratic and that it’s there for everybody. And that’s what everybody wants right now. It’ll happen. It’s inevitable.

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I am currently co-editor along with the fabulous Zara Syed. I'm a Peterborough hobbit, and often find myself writing too much poetry and struggling to be a proper adult. Just kidding, there is no such thing as too much poetry. I spent two years as a reporter before being lucky enough to become co-editor of Arthur. I love journalism of all sorts, but generally focus on music journalism and politics. As a History and English major, I tend to over-analyze everything. Luckily, the journalism world is the one place where that is accepted-one would hope. You can probably find me tucked away in a corner of Peterborough somewhere, scribbling in a notebook frantically over my fourth cup of coffee.

About Yumna Leghari 59 Articles
I am currently co-editor along with the fabulous Zara Syed. I'm a Peterborough hobbit, and often find myself writing too much poetry and struggling to be a proper adult. Just kidding, there is no such thing as too much poetry. I spent two years as a reporter before being lucky enough to become co-editor of Arthur. I love journalism of all sorts, but generally focus on music journalism and politics. As a History and English major, I tend to over-analyze everything. Luckily, the journalism world is the one place where that is accepted-one would hope. You can probably find me tucked away in a corner of Peterborough somewhere, scribbling in a notebook frantically over my fourth cup of coffee.