Portrait

A chat with Lamisse Hamouda about how she freed her father from an Egyptian prison. By Magan Magan.

Writer and activist Lamisse Hamouda

I talk with writer Lamisse Hamouda over the phone just before noon on a Monday. I am calling from a busy area in Melbourne: inadvertently, the background noise of construction work sets the tone for a conversation about her dad. Born to an Australian mother and an Egyptian father, Lamisse is in Brisbane, having just come back from a retreat in Italy, to recover from the stress of advocating the freedom of her father, Hazem Hamouda, who was detained in Egypt for more than 400 days. You can’t prepare yourself enough to hear about human suffering. In life, grief pokes some of us; it grabs others by the head and drags them across the floor.

Hazem Hamouda’s professional background is in IT. “My father is an intense person,” his daughter says. “He has a very big presence in general but specifically in our family. When he was away I remembered his hugs. Dad is six feet tall and when he would hug me he would wrap himself around me, squish me. I missed the twinkle in his eye – he’s an emotional man, my father, very loveable.”

Grief comes in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Lamisse’s father was detained in four stages. “It felt like a weird movie,” she says. “I became disassociated.” Stage one of detainment: Hazem is missing for 48 hours. The Australian embassy told Lamisse to wait that long before anything could be done. The second stage of grief is a period of acknowledgment filled with rage. Stage two of detainment: Hazem is missing for eight days, held and questioned by national security. The third stage of grief is bargaining, and during stage three of Hazem’s detainment he was detained in Tora prison. Hazem is a dual citizen and that caused a problem. Both Australia and Egypt were handballing the case to each other, says Lamisse, quietly.

“I was alone in a foreign country – though Egypt is home in a way. Life was abnormal.” Her words sound like a passport being brandished in the air, as if to ask who will respond to this injustice. “Officials from the Australian government visited Dad and that’s it. They did nothing for a while.”

Apathy is a burning building. The fourth stage of grief is depression.

“I moved to Egypt on a scholarship to study. I thought it would be a great opportunity to connect with my country again. I went to Egypt for the first time some years ago and my father accompanied me.” What was that like? “It was great. It was the first time I saw a different side to my father. I was 18 and hadn’t seen my father express himself in a context that understood him.” What do you mean? “I mean, he would always say ‘my emotions are in Arabic’ and I witnessed what he meant.”

How did you find out your father was detained? “My cousin was meant to pick him up,” she says, “but when he couldn’t find him, he found out through his own connections that Dad was indeed detained.” The sound of drilling stops. “It was painful. I was heartbroken.” Stage four of detainment: Hazem manages to send a letter that revealed where he was. The letter was smuggled out of Tora prison, which put an end to the eight-day search.

What did you learn about the human condition, while this happened? “What I learnt was twofold,” Lamisse says. “Witnessing human cruelty enables us to see the humanity in the people we hate.” She visited her father as much as she could in Egypt. “I saw suffering. I saw children visiting their fathers, who didn’t quite understand what was happening.”

The fifth stage of grief is acceptance. Galvanised by community support, Lamisse and her family took matters into their own hands. They worked tirelessly to free Hazem. They managed to get the attention of the Australian media. Hazem was eventually released.

How is he? I ask. “He’s good, considering. It’s not easy trying to reconnect. We are dealing with the fallout of the PTSD. The Egyptian government have yet to explain why he was detained. He’s struggling to find purpose. How do you piece yourself back together from that experience? He was in a black box.”

Grief enters the lives of people without asking – it is translucent and unhinged. For Lamisse, her dad’s return was a release.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Her father’s seeker". Subscribe here.

Magan Magan
is the author of From Grains to Gold.