Skip to main content

Journalist Mohamed Fahmy was bureau chief based in Egypt for Al Jazeera’s English network when he was arrested in 2013.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Half a decade ago, during the darkest days of the Harper winter, the Canadian id coughed up several book-length reminiscences of our strange, tragic engagement with the "Muslim World." These stories tracked the country's peripheral (if historically, morally and geopolitically consequential) contribution to the global war on terror; they were stark, brutal accounts of Canadians captured by Islamist bad guys in places far from a Tim Hortons franchise. (That's not entirely true – there was, for a time, a Timmy's at Bagram Air Base, but it was not widely accessible.) Our protagonists were reporters or diplomats or aid workers, and they found themselves at the mercy of men who were not only willing to die for their beliefs, but who were looking forward to the moment when they were called upon to do so.

"Their minds were alien to me," admitted Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who wrote A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda, back in 2011. Like Fowler, our heroes were invariably white (or, in one case, Asian), and did not speak Farsi, Pashto, Arabic or Somali – they were outsiders straining to comprehend the region's myriad Islamist riffs. As a result, their stories now seem as hoary as the tales told by the blue-eyed, blond-haired prey of Barbary privateers – those Europeans spirited away from their own shores and sold as chattel to North African slave traders during the reign of the Ottoman pashas.

No such disconnect attends Mohamed Fahmy and Carol Shaben's The Marriott Cell. Urgent, wise, readable, and at times very moving, the authors have successfully rebooted what has quickly become a stale Canadian mini-genre.

Most Canadians are likely familiar with the fuzzy outlines of Fahmy's ordeal. He is the Al Jazeera reporter arrested just as Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood gave way to General (now President) Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's interim military government in post-Arab Spring Egypt. Arrested and stuffed into Cairo's notorious Scorpion Prison, Fahmy, along with several colleagues, was accused of working as a Brotherhood terrorist sympathizer while broadcasting illegally out of Cairo's tony Marriott Hotel. (Hence: the Marriott Cell.) The charges were preposterously trumped up, which sadly did nothing to water down their seriousness. The case dragged on, sucking in the British government, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (he called the charges "chilling and draconian"), an ambivalent and sluggish Stephen Harper government (the case became an election issue, with both the Liberals and the NDP urging Harper to do, um, something to help a Canadian national held for no reason in a fetid Middle Eastern prison), almost every free-speech defender worthy of the name and, finally, Amal Clooney, the celebrity advocate who did what Al Jazeera's lawyers were either unwilling or unable to do: pressure the Egyptian authorities and their obsequious judiciary in order to bring the case to suitable fruition.

Fahmy was a reporter long before he was a prisoner and he'd experienced the worst of the recent Middle Eastern conflagrations and their subsequent fallout. He thus knows that his story is the wire frame for a much larger encounter: This book is about the great, bloody unwinding of his homeland. Despite the wide-angle perspectives, "above all, this was not just another story in another country," Fahmy writes. "It was my story."

The Marriott Cell opens with an introduction to Fahmy's father, a writer and activist who railed against Hosni Mubarak's interminable regime, writing furious Herzog-like letters that were as unwise as they were inspired. Flash-forward to the old dictator's shock resignation in February, 2011, and Fahmy finds himself at the gates of the presidential palace, on assignment for CNN:

"It was impossible to hear or be heard amid the thousands of people around me crying, laughing and shouting. I knew my father would be crying, too, and that even if we had been able to speak to one another amid the deafening sounds of celebration, there would have been no words to capture the depth of our emotion. So I simply held my phone in the air and let him listen."

Apart from functioning as a stirring memoir and a deeply personal meditation on the nature of conjoined identities (every immigrant's bane), Fahmy's and Shaben's book also functions as one of the more concise histories of the Egyptian revolution I've yet read. Having reported his way so deeply through the events leading up to his arrest, there's very little Fahmy didn't experience first-hand, and few of the major (and, more interestingly, minor) players he didn't encounter. The writing is lucid, and his reportorial nous never flags, even when terrible things are happening.

And terrible things did not need to happen. The book turns into Chronicle of an Arrest Foretold the moment Fahmy, who had recently resigned from CNN, takes the job of international bureau chief based in Egypt for Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera, for all the hosannas it receives in lefty circles, is entirely bankrolled by the Qatari authorities, who have also bankrolled the Muslim Brotherhood. This put Fahmy in a serious spot of trouble the moment he accepted the bureau chieftainship, and nor did it secure him the loyalty of management in Doha.

They parcelled off pieces of his reporting to the rabidly pro-Brotherhood Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, a version of Al Jazeera that plays on Egyptian television and lost its licence following el-Sissi taking power, which placed everyone associated with the channel in grave danger. The AJ English team was not in possession of up-to-date accreditation, and was, therefore, working in el-Sissi-controlled Egypt without the proper documentation. Under such conditions, they might as well have locked themselves up in Scorpion.

Worse, though, is the grim foot-dragging exhibited by the Harper government, which never seemed particularly keen to pressure el-Sissi into justly resolving Fahmy's case. It was one more example of the moral static that pervaded during the era: One was never sure who belonged to Canada, nor what behaviour was considered Canadian enough. Covering the embers of the Egyptian revolution for a channel the prime minister found personally offensive? Such an endeavour did not qualify.

Fahmy's book is a testament to that time's darkness, and a reminder that as bleak as things may look today, they weren't exactly a party three years ago. Following Scorpion Prison's hell, Fahmy is now free to report on the Middle East during the Age of Trump. My guess is, he'll stay home.

Richard Poplak's most recent book is Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa's Changing Fortunes, co-written with Kevin Bloom. He lives in Toronto and Johannesburg.

Interact with The Globe