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11 min

‘We all have our closets’

John Greyson and Tarek Loubani talk to Xtra about their experience in an Egyptian prison

Tarek Loubani and John Greyson talk to media at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Fifty days of detention. Fifty days of separation from their families. Fifty days of merciless beatings. Fifty days of deplorable conditions. Fifty days of dehumanizing treatment. Fifty days of sharing a tiny cell with 36 other men. Fifty days of a lack of food and water. Fifty days of never knowing what the next day would bring. Fifty days of not knowing when they would be able to return home.

And John Greyson is trying to tell me a joke.

I never got to hear it. Tarek Loubani had been in the middle of detailing a guard's boot print that marked Greyson's back — as they sat in a Cairo prison, awaiting charges against them that never materialized. The mark, which left a large number six across Greyson’s spine that refused to fade after a week, became a source of wonder for Loubani and the other prisoners.

"I began to feel like one of those Christian saints with miraculous stigmata," Greyson says, laughing. He starts talking and then stops. "I was going to make a bad saint joke. But we'll just pass on that." He laughs again.

The two are speaking with me over the phone from Toronto, just a day after they arrived back in Canada.

Greyson describes the whole thing as surreal.

"It seemed like a Monty Python skit. Gee, the gay Canadian filmmaker from York University and the London, Ontario, doctor with a stethoscope. Accused of jihad, arson and burning down a police station."

The stark absurdity is at every turn of their story. The two leave the protest square-turned-war zone and stumble upon the only cold food they can find — ice cream. They're arrested, pockets full of ice-cream wrappers, and thrown in a cell. They sit in a dank cell and await release, and a sincere apology. Instead, days turn into weeks and the Egyptian prosecutor informs them that they will be treated just like any other prisoners. They find themselves becoming celebrities in their own cell, as word of the campaign to release them spreads. But as their faces become internationally known, word from Greyson's partner comes in clandestine messages, coded and smuggled into the cell.

"Monty Pythonland," Greyson calls it.

"We all have our closets."

Greyson and Loubani certainly weren't intending to fly into tumult. "We bought our tickets before the coup and planned our schedule months and months and months in advance," Greyson says.

The two were on their way to the Gaza Strip, where Loubani, a professor of emergency medicine at Western University, was slated to do an educational exchange with a Palestinian medical school. Greyson, a professor at York, was tagging along to get footage for an upcoming film. But with the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the ensuing bloody skirmishes that rocked Egypt, the border was closed.

The two, with ample experience between them in both participating in non-violent protests and in observing them, decided to check out the day's protest in Ramses Square.

"We realized we were in the middle of something heavy," Greyson says. It happened quickly. At first there was just a whiff of tear gas. Soon after, the first body arrived, and Loubani went into doctor mode. "I would have never guessed the severity and the brutality of the military response against the protest."

The two holed up in a nearby mosque, which was converted into a field hospital. Loubani, treating wounds and trying in vain to save the dozens of dying, and Greyson, documenting the horror.

"I have never seen in my life such horrible carnage. It was deeply traumatizing and completely unforgettable," Greyson says. "People kept grabbing me away and kept saying, 'You must come document this body, and this body…'"

The line of bodies continued. The two counted approximately 40.

But as the flow of wounded and dying stemmed to a trickle — a manageable amount for those doctors left — Greyson and Loubani left with a flow of others, still before the government-enforced curfew. They continued on with the small crowd for several kilometres until they approached their hotel.

"We thought we were in safe territory there," Loubani says. "A little convenience store was open where, for the first time in six hours, we got something to eat. But the only thing they had cold was ice cream."

They walked through the streets, eating ice cream, amid Egyptians playing dominos and drinking tea, as they tried to get to the hotel. Every path they tried was blocked by armoured military carriers, so they walked into the nearby police station, asking for instructions on how to get in.

"The [officer] asks me, 'Are you Palestinian?'" Loubani says. "Everyone's always told me that I should never tell anybody that I'm Palestinian, that I should tell people I'm Canadian. But it's always been a point of pride for me.

"So I said to him, yeah, I'm of Palestinian heritage. And he just says, 'Come with me.’"

The two were led away after that.

"John and I would joke that we all have our closets," he says. But while Loubani was outed immediately, Greyson would spend the next 50 days stuck in his.

"The welcoming party"

There's an Arabic phrase for the treatment that the prisoners get when they show up to Tora prison. It translates to “the welcoming party.”

"That's what it's called. That's what everybody calls it. This is not a name that just randomly appeared out of nowhere," Loubani says. "You get hotboxed — left in this car, basically for hours at a time. It was a hot day, and we had five people who had very serious heat stroke. After that, we came out into these two lines of people, most of them with nightsticks, a few with cattle prods. After that, we came into more lines of people who were punching and kicking."

He says one guard was sporting a cast on his arm. Loubani recognized it as boxer's fracture — a break that occurs from punching something with too much force.

"The beating was systematic, it was deliberate, and it was the norm. Every prisoner who comes into Tora comes to this welcoming party," he says. The two Canadians were even singled out for special beatings from the guards.

After their induction into one of Egypt's most notorious prisons, they joined 36 other men in a broom closet of a cell. They built a necessary camaraderie, coloured by the ever-present fear of the guards outside the bars. Most of the men were married with kids. Some were just teenagers. They were teachers, students and labourers. Only three, it turns out, were actual members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who the police were so desperately hunting.

Greyson, to his chagrin, was the oldest.

"I found out that I don't like being the eldest," he says, laughing.

"There are no secrets between prisoners. And it's one of those 'what happens in Vegas' things. You see things from your cellmates that are horrible. You see the breakdown of their spirit," Loubani says. "There's an intimacy to that."

Of the 602 arrested from that demonstration, the two Canadians were the only two released. The 600 remain, awaiting charges, until Nov 11 — or later. Loubani says there's no doubt that some are guilty.

"It does not justify beating the shit out of them: being in this detention and limbo, not being given access to lawyers, no due process. Even assuming the worst of these charges, it's just not fair, it's just not right. And what of those who did nothing?"

Loubani and Greyson went on a hunger strike to protest their conditions. They eventually had to give up, as their detention wore on and their health began deteriorating.

"I know more about John than you do."

Greyson's sexuality was, from the outset, a touchy subject.

Greyson says he felt supported by their cellmates and certainly wasn't worried about facing homophobic wrath. Instead, Greyson figured his jailhouse compatriots would simply be happier avoiding a conversation that they did not want to have.

"It's not go-out-and-beat-them homophobia," he says. "It's don't-talk-about-it homophobia."

I ask Greyson how close he got with his cellmates. I can hear him smiling at the other end of the line.

"Do the math: the cell, the sleeping area, was three metres by nine metres."

The conversation with the others detained often turned to family. Greyson told the cell that he was single — not mentioning his partner, Stephen Andrews, with whom he's lived for 17 years. He did, however, mention his two daughters.

"But the fact that they're daughters with a lesbian couple and that I'm a donor dad? We didn't go there," he laughs again. "I was confusing enough."

Greyson's story appeared to check out. The cell sang happy birthday for Greyson's children, who were celebrating without him, thousands of miles away.

Loubani, however, figures that they put the pieces together.

"I think for the first 11 days, before any visits came in, there was no doubt at all that nobody knew John was gay. But by the end of the 50 days, I really doubt that nobody knew," he says. "I think by that point, people had their families Googling and whatnot."

"You have to be a really bad Googler not to find out," Greyson jumps in. "One guy we became quite close to, Tarek played chess with him every night; his son would come in weekly and the fella would come back from the family visits, saying, 'He's driving me crazy! All he talks about at the family visits is Tarek and John, Tarek and John.'"

Loubani says he heard the son say to his father, with a bit of a wink and a nod, "I know more about John than you do." In Arabic, Loubani says, "that statement was very, very loaded."

He says the real fear was that, if the guards found out, the entire cell would be subject to increased beatings.

"There were some seriously fucked-up characters out there. And they loved them their beatings," Loubani says.

But if the other prisoners figured it out, they certainly never mentioned it.

Loubani, who is fluent in Arabic, managed to find common ground with the cellmates. Greyson doesn’t speak the language and had a bit more trouble.

"The way I was getting to hang out with them is that I would draw portraits of them. Bad portraits," Greyson says, laughing again, seemingly for the hundredth time during our half-hour interview. I start believing that when his team would send back notes promising that the two were "in good spirits," they were telling the truth. He begins sounding like Colonel Hogan, the wisecracking lead from the mid-1960s sitcom Hogan's Heroes.

And as the weeks dragged on, like the American POWs stuck under the authority of hapless Nazi prison warden Colonel Klink, the resourceful prisoners began figuring out new tricks. Loubani created a kettle from some scrap wires. Greyson discovered how to get messages to and from his partner — exactly how, though, Xtra has promised not to disclose.

"And CSIS . . ." Greyson starts. "Oh, no, I guess I can't talk about that either." But he says he owes gratitude to all those involved in the process.

"One of the victories was, at one point, I asked for a drawing of the CN Tower," Greyson says. That's the view from the couple's Toronto apartment. "A couple weeks later, a drawing from Stephen arrived.

"I'm not even that fond of the CN Tower," he says.

"The lawyers were just horrified by this idea."

As Greyson and Loubani tried to stay sane, with little food, no privacy and minimal exercise, the world around them seemed to turn only for their release.

The Canadian government dispatched consular staff to ensure their treatment was humane, as diplomats turned the screws and demanded their release. Everyone from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to Prime Minister Stephen Harper demanded their release. Artists, professors and doctors worldwide joined the chorus of voices. The whole effort was directed and managed by the family — Greyson's sister and partner and Tarek's family, amongst many others, including their friend Justin Podur, who managed the website and much of the social media.

Tim McCaskell, one of Canada's most prominent queer activists, managed the daily email digest that would go out to supporters, keeping them up to date on goings-on in Egypt and worldwide. He sent the news out at 11:10pm on Oct 5: "TAREK & JOHN HAVE BEEN FREED!"

I asked him how he felt.

"I'm excited, immensely relieved, and enormously thankful to all the people who did so much to make this happen," he wrote via email. We had previously set up an understanding that, given the precarious situation, Xtra would not report on Greyson's sexuality. I asked if the situation still necessitated the gag order.

"Nope, gay away to your heart's content. The queerer the better," he wrote.

When it came to Andrews, he basically had to go back into the closet — even here in Canada — when he spoke to the media. He was quoted as a "friend" of Greyson's, even as he worked as the contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs, trying to get Greyson out.

"It was a capital-F friend," he told Xtra. "It's a clumsy word, for sure."

Not long before, in Cairo, Greyson was wondering just how much good the radio silence on his orientation was doing. So he asked his lawyer and the Canadian embassy staff about possibly outing himself.

"Surely common sense would tell us that Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood would not be actively recruiting gay Canadian filmmakers," he says.

"The embassy and the lawyers were just horrified by this idea."

Loubani pointed out that the narrative on homosexuality in Egypt can often come down to an association with corruption.

"I would be the evil Hamas agent corrupting Egyptian morality," Greyson says. "In that distorted, through-the-looking-glass lens — no, it would not be a strategy."

But not everybody was so concerned about their detention. Noted contrarians Ezra Levant and Margaret Wente highlighted the pair's activist roots as a great reason to pooh-pooh concern for their circumstance and jubilation over their release.

"Radical grandstanders," Wente called them in her column for The Globe and Mail. "The two are hard-core anti-Israel activists who've been mixed up in Middle East politics for years." She did write that she was happy that they are safe, and home.

Levant, for his part, took to the Sun newspaper chain to write "Loubani and Greyson are serial, professional protesters who engage in anti-Israel protest tourism." He argued that other Canadians held in foreign jails also, or moreso, deserved such campaigns in their favour.

While the duo can certainly be considered pro-Palestinian in their politics, Loubani waves away the criticism.

"I'm not a professional agitator. I'm a professional doctor. But having said that, I have a morality. I have things that compel me. And that's why I work in these clinics. And that's why I want to see human rights everywhere. And to try to dismiss that, and discount that, is really a tactic we've seen before."

Despite their new anointed status as international leftist malcontents, the two went out of their way to convey special thanks to the Conservative government.

"I am sincerely thankful to Stephen Harper, I am sincerely thankful to John Baird, and I am sincerely thankful to Minister of State [Lynne] Yelich, so there's no game there. They did this really amazing thing. They advocated for Canadian citizens, and they didn't hold back," Loubani says.

One lasting loss that comes out of Greyson and Loubani's story is the film that they could have made together.

The Egyptian authorities confiscated all of their belongings — luggage, cameras, laptops, everything — and Greyson says he has no illusions that, assuming he gets his cameras back, the memory cards will still be in them.

But as for the original film the two planned on making?

"At the end of the day, we're both pretty stubborn," Greyson says.

"I think the answer is yes, but we're not sure how. The dust has to settle."