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My Imprisoned Father is the Freest Man I Know

My father was detained in the crackdown on dissent in Tunisia. He could have fled, but he chose to stay and stand up to dictatorship.

When Father’s Day would approach, I would often tease my dad that every day is a Father’s Day. He would laugh. On Father’s Day itself, I would call him, we would have a chat and I would tell him I am proud that he is my dad.

This Father’s Day, there will be no teasing, no calls, no messages and no laughs. This Father’s Day, my siblings and I are praying that our father gets out of prison safe and sound.

Our father, Said Ferjani, was detained in Tunisia on February 27. A member of Ennahda party, he is one of tens of prominent opposition figures who were rounded up in President Kais Saied’s latest crackdown on dissent. No charges have been raised against him and he has not been formally accused of anything. His real crime – we suspect – is loving his country too much and opposing the return of authoritarianism to it.

It has been almost four months since his arrest and we have not been able to speak to him. We know he is currently locked up in a cell with 120 people in abhorrent conditions. Some of the inmates are brutal criminals and they often attack the others.

My father started a hunger strike when he was first imprisoned but had to break it as his health deteriorated quickly and he was hospitalised. After he was sent back to the prison, he developed bronchitis due to the damp conditions of the cell and the constant cigarette-smoking of other detainees. He was hospitalised again and then sent back with an inhaler he never needed before. This has really worried us.

The nightmare of the past four months has brought back memories of another – from more than 30 years ago.

I was three years old when my father was imprisoned for the first time. It was November 1987 and Tunisia’s then-dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had just come to power through a coup, had ordered a crackdown on the opposition Ennahda party and other groups, fearing that their growing popularity could harm his presidency.

They came for my father in the middle of the night. I woke up to the noise of a dozen armed policemen forcing their way through the front door. They pushed my mum onto the floor, handcuffed my father, forcing him face down on the ground, and then ransacked our house.

I stared in silence at my father who tried to smile at me reassuringly. I can’t remember how long it all lasted but I do remember my eldest brother, Seifedinne, who was seven at the time, asking a creepy security officer “Are you going to kill my father?” The man picked him up and kissed him. My brother fell silent in fear.

This was the first time I saw my dad in danger and realised he was not invincible and the world was not safe. Before being taken away, my dad asked if he could kiss me. I walked towards him, bent down and let him kiss me.

In the coming days, I watched on TV my father being accused of being part of a “gang of chaos”. I saw a picture of a person who they claimed to be Said Ferjani. It was taken in a dark room, with a flashlight shining on him; torture had changed his face to the point that I could hardly recognise him.

I was always a “daddy’s girl”. My father never hid how much he adored me, how much of a special place I occupied in his heart – and I loved every moment of it. I often spent my mornings with him while my mum was at work. I enjoyed our time together, playing with him and talking to him.

He was always interested in everything I had to say; he listened as if it was the most important thing. I admired him too and wanted to be like him … to the point that I once even tried to shave like him and ended up with a cut lip.

I was consumed with my dad when he was in prison. I looked forward to the few visits we were permitted to have with him. Those were rare because every time he was tortured, we would not be allowed to see him for a while until he recovered.

On our way to the prison, I would tell bus drivers and taxi drivers that we were going to see my father, a hero who was taken by Habib Ammar – the interior minister at the time. I would chant “Said, the hero!” the whole way.

I was so afraid he would forget me that I tried to keep the same short haircut I had when he got arrested even though I hated it and my older cousins were making fun of it. I wanted to make sure he would recognise me when we visited.

After some time, families of political prisoners were told some may be getting released. I went with my mum and dad’s good friend Uncle Sahnoun Jouhri (who himself was later arrested and died in police custody) to wait in front of the prison.

Detainees were released but my dad was not among them. On the way home, I cried. Trying to console me, Uncle Sahnoun told me, “You know in school, students leave first and then the teachers, well, these are students and your father is the teacher.” Before he could finish, I cried “I don’t want my dad to be a teacher, I want him home!”

My father later told me that when my mother relayed this episode to him, he felt so much pain that he became determined to get out. It drove him to organise a prison strike in order to press for his release.

My father was eventually let go in 1989. He came out in a wheelchair, the torturers having broken his back. The day he returned home was one of the happiest in my life. But we could no longer go back to our life as before.

My father knew that it would only be a matter of time before Ben Ali’s regime would come after him again so he decided to leave his beloved country for the United Kingdom. We joined him soon afterwards.

Torture and imprisonment had scarred my father’s body but not his soul. In exile, he dedicated himself to his family, but also to his country. He was an active advocate for human rights in Tunisia and remained a vocal critic of Ben Ali’s regime. He often travelled around the world to campaign for the release of Tunisian prisoners of conscience and spread awareness of the brutal Tunisian dictatorship.

When the Tunisian revolution brought Ben Ali down in January 2011, my father immediately departed for Tunis. His party, Ennahda, was finally allowed to participate in politics legally and won the first-ever democratic elections in Tunisia.

In 2019, my father decided to run for a seat in the parliament. He wanted to help lift his hometown of Kairouan out of economic stagnation and poverty after it had suffered decades of neglect. He won the seat and started travelling every week to the city in public shared taxis and holding meetings with his constituents.

Then in July 2021, Saied carried out a coup in Tunisia, sacking the government, suspending parliament and taking on executive and legislative powers. He brought the country back into the dark age of authoritarianism.

My father sensed that he would soon be arrested. He knew he was on a target list and he was repeatedly taken in for questioning by security forces. But he decided not to leave this time.

After returning from exile, my father made a decision never to leave Tunisia again, no matter what happens. He returned as an older man and wanted to die in his country. Activism and advocacy in exile were for the young, not for him.

While living in the UK, my father relinquished his right to apply for British citizenship even though he was entitled to it. He wanted to oppose Ben Ali as a fellow Tunisian, return as a Tunisian and participate in Tunisian politics without a foreign passport to serve as a “get out of jail free” card.

A few days before his arrest, my father told us something we already knew: that this is the life he has chosen, that his decisions are made based on principles and not fear, and that he wants to continue fighting for the freedom, dignity and rights his fellow Tunisians deserve.

The day my father was arrested, I couldn’t breathe from the anger, pain, sadness and injustice I felt. I feel like I haven’t taken a full breath since. My childhood trauma of losing him came back to me.

One of the things that bothers me the most is that people like my father are easily being dehumanised with the label “Islamist”. The commitment to democracy and human rights they have shown is brushed aside, and their imprisonment is quickly justified and accepted.

My father is no blind follower of a political ideology. He is a principled man, a proponent of freedom and a fearless advocate for democracy. He is also a tender, loving father, who sings songs to his children with their names; who bursts into a roaring laugh when we respond to him wittily; who would cry when we did not call him enough; who encourages his mouthy daughter to be even more daring and outspoken, even when she is critical of him and his party.

I am truly honoured to know my father, to be his daughter, to see first-hand what a man full of beautiful contradictions he is: a man brave enough to challenge dictators, yet soft enough to cry over any sob story; a man who is highly intelligent and perceptive and yet so deeply trusting to the point of naivety; a man with strongly held beliefs who is also willing to admit when he is wrong.

I have been asked if I ever pleaded with my father to leave Tunisia when he knew his arrest was imminent. I never did and it never occurred to me to. It is like asking him not to be himself, to betray his convictions. I love and respect him too much to do something like this.

On this Father’s Day, I wish I was with my father. I wish I could hug him, talk to him, hear his cheerful laughter. I miss him dearly. But I take solace in the fact that even while he is physically confined to his cell, my father remains the freest man I know.

Source : Aljazeera