I first met John Greyson, now in an Egyptian prison, in the 1990s when he called me to ask if I would like to play a red blood corpuscle in his brilliant AIDS musical comedy Zero Patience. The shoot was in the pool of a downtown community centre. When it became clear we would be in the pool for a few hours, I asked, “John, can I wear my glasses?” He put a finger to his chin, looked a little perplexed and said, “I don’t see why a red blood corpuscle can’t wear glasses.” Turning to one of his camera people, he asked, “Do you?” We all burst out laughing.
John’s humour and sense of absurdity along with his courage in combining art with political activism make him a truly unique individual. As most Canadians know, John was arrested with Dr. Tarek Loubani as they were in transit through Egypt on their way to Gaza. Tarek is a Palestinian refugee who arrived in Canada at the age of 10 and made good as a doctor. Instead of living the good life, he has devoted himself to serving others. Tarek spends his own money every year returning to Gaza to train emergency room personnel. John was along to film.
Today is the 41st day that John and Tarek are in an Egyptian jail for no reason. It is also the 10th day of a hunger strike they began to protest their incarceration. Under Egypt’s odious emergency law, people can be held without charge for up to two years. No one should be arrested and incarcerated without cause but the extraordinary character and ability of these two men as well as the injustice of their incarceration has inspired the tremendous campaign waged for their release.
There is an unprecedented consensus across the political spectrum, from Rob Ford to Naomi Klein, demanding their release. From all reports, Foreign Minister John Baird and his staff are working hard to assist them in jail and demand their release. More than 140,000 people have signed petitions. Hundreds of letters of support have been sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and to Egyptian authorities. Amnesty International has issued an alert. The Toronto International Film Festival and filmmakers Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley took time out in the middle of the festival to raise the profile of the Free Tarek and John campaign to an international level. There are moving videos on YouTube, a tumblr site, a Facebook page, a website and mountains of postcards.
The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail have both run editorials calling on Harper to take a personal role. Yet they are still in jail. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi is now in New York. News reports say his statement to the UN General Assembly will emphasize “the willingness of Egypt to open up to the world and be transparent regarding the democratic process.” Jailing foreign visitors without justification or even explanation belies his argument. Several journalists in New York are working hard to get Fahmi to answer questions about John and Tarek.
It’s also a chance for the prime minister and Baird to speak to him directly and get some answers.
Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin is visiting Toronto this week to promote trade between Canada and Egypt. When well-known and respected Canadians are being picked up and held without charges for more than a month, no Canadian business person in their right mind should consider doing business with Egypt or investing in Egyptian projects.
None of their personnel is safe from arbitrary detention. Anyone who meets with Bahaa-Eldin should give him this message. Harper and Baird should also make clear to the foreign minister the impact that the continuing incarceration of John and Tarek could have on commercial relations between the two countries
Demonstrations held in Montreal and London on Tuesday demanded an end to any commercial relationship between Egypt and Canada as long as John and Tarek are in jail. Supporters are getting increasingly frustrated. John’s students at York University held a “lick in” early this week for people to get together, put stamps on postcards, hear reports from Cecilia Greyson, John’s sister, and Justin Podur, a close friend of both men, who have been working non-stop for their release, talking to media, maintaining daily news alerts for supporters, and speaking for the families.
The tremendous effort of the campaign for their release is a reflection of the impact both men have had on everyone who knows them.
Judy Rebick is a writer and activist in Toronto. twitter: @judyrebick