John Greyson didn’t waste any time turning his detention into a piece of art. Created using a series of drawings made after he was arrested in Egypt, his short film Prison Arabic in 50 Days was shot less than 24 hours after he landed in Canada. Both a thank-you to everyone who’d fought for his release and an attempt to communicate something about the experience, the piece was created in his garden with fellow prisoner Tarek Loubani and Greyson’s sister Cecilia.
Using the backs of cigarette packages (mostly Marlboros, occasionally Cleopatras), the cards feature words in Arabic and English relevant to their imprisonment. Guard, door, window, breakfast, shower; each term is accompanied by an image that hints at, but doesn’t tell, the whole story.
The cards were part of a larger series of drawings Greyson created during that period.
“I also worked on portraits of fellow prisoners, drawn on the cardboard packaging from T-shirts and underwear,” he says. “We recycled everything. Those materials were allowed after a few weeks, along with notebooks, pens and pencils. But the guards could arbitrarily confiscate stuff at any time.”
Detained on Aug 16, 2013, Greyson and Loubani were planning to head to Gaza but were swept up during a massive crackdown by authorities in Cairo amid a series of violent protests. Loubani, a doctor, was going to carry out medical relief work as part of an exchange organized by the University of Western Ontario. Greyson was investigating the possibility of making a film about life in the occupied territories and was planning to shoot some preliminary footage. The pair, along with 38 others, were arrested and held without charges by Egyptian authorities.
Though he certainly considered the possibility he would turn his incarceration into art while it was happening, Greyson was doubtful the flashcards and drawings he made would be a part of it.
“The other stuff, the writings and the drawings we made, were smuggled out in Tarek’s underwear,” he says. “But the flashcards were carried out in a plastic bag. Right up until the last minute we were released, I was sure they’d be taken.”