I envy my wife. It’s the strangest thing. I tell her this all the time. I envy the mornings she shares with our daughters, the tuck-ins at night, the kisses on the forehead, the snuggles on the couch. When I was forced into exile in 2015, I felt an unprecedented bitterness because I left behind three flowers. At the time my eldest was 8 years old, the middle one was 4, and the youngest 15 days old. Yes, my youngest daughter was only 15 days old when I was forced to leave my country. She has only seen me through electronic media. She has never felt or touched my face, maybe that is why she always touches the phone screen, trying to feel a face she has never felt. And oh how I so deeply crave, to the point of insanity, the touch of her little hand, the touch of all of their hands.
And all why? Because I chose to write articles, attend meetings and organize demonstrations in support of democracy. It was the year after the military overthrew Egypt’s only democratically elected president and the country’s current president, General Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi took control. I was fired from my job as an English teacher. Then in October of 2015 my friends told me that I was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Neither my lawyer nor I were directly informed of this. Rather than face imprisonment along with 10’s of thousands of other political detainees in a system where torture is systematic and widespread, I chose to flee. My wife and daughters were supposed to come and join me, but the government put a travel ban on them.
There is not a day that goes by where I don’t wonder if that was the right choice. If I had stayed then at least I would be able to press my hands against my daughters through the plexiglass at the prison. Maybe I would have been graced a “touch” visit, where I would have been able to kiss, hug, smell them. Wipe their tears.
I seek comfort in what I can do. In replicating traditions via remote, through a computer of phone screen. When I was in Cairo I always made sure to feed my daughters with my own hands. If necessity is the mother of invention then longing is the father of new ideas. I buy copious amounts of chocolate every once in a while and send it to them. They only open the chocolate during a video call, and in those moments a dance moves involuntarily from within my heart, that I fear will stop from the intensity of it all, it moves through my weakened body, that starts dancing with joy, as if I was the child to whom the father gave the chocolate. This small act turned into a habit as I try to exercise my role as a father.
How does one be a father in exile? To be a father is already a complex and difficult process, with all the meanings, requirements, and emotions that responsibility entails. How does one capture that feeling of “fatherhood” via remote? You find yourself physically separated from three pieces of your soul, but they penetrate your senses, your mind, your heart every second that passes by in separation. I fear I am going to lose my mind.
Since I had to leave my country, I have had frequent panic attacks that have made me a permanent visitor at hospital emergency rooms. One time a damn panic attack near killed me and after being treated, my friends who were at the hospital with me told me I was screaming “My daughters … my girls … take care of my daughters!!!!”
There is a deadly feeling that dominates all my feelings, and that is I somehow committed a crime against my daughters. This feeling is always followed by the question “Am I the culprit of my daughters? Or are we, my daughters and I, the victims?”
Logic tells me that my daughters and I, and those in my situation, we are the victims. We are the victims of a dictatorial regime that has stood against democracy and freedom. We are the victims of a ruler who did not make orphans of our children by killing us, but made orphans of our children by imprisoning or forcing us into exile. But this clear answer does not absolve me of the feeling that I am the criminal who committed a crime against his three daughters. They are guilty of nothing, other than being the children of a man who dreamt of freedom, justice, and democracy. What is the guilt of these children, why should they be deprived of their father, who is still alive? What fault is it of my middle and youngest daughter, that I was not able to take them to their first day of school? What is the crime of these girls, that they get sick and don’t find their father next to them?
One of the tasks and functions of the father is to ensure the schooling of his children and help them in their lessons. We came up with a way for me to help my girls do their homework and study, through online meeting apps that we use several times a week. In fact this is not only to help my children, but it’s to help me feel like I am doing my duty as a father, help me to remain human.
There are questions that always resonate in my head. How do my children feel about their homeland? Do they feel safe? Did my departure, the departure of the father make them lose a sense of security? Do they feel a connection, a sense of belonging to this physically absent father? Do they feel a sense of belonging to a homeland that deprived them of their father? How will their negative feelings impact their feeling of belonging to their country?
To be a father in exile is an impossible path, one that we decide to follow in order to protect our humanity. Sometimes I find myself willing to forgo that humanity, just for one small touch from my daughters.