Tarek Loubani. Photo source/ thestar.com
Tarek Loubani. Photo source/ thestar.com

In Toronto-based filmmaker John Greyson’s film, Fig Trees (2009), the quasi-religious narrator begins by discussing the perfect mathematical ratios for harmonious architecture. He explains them as “the melodies of an orderly universe.”


Fig Trees, however, is a film about a universe distinctly out of order. It follows Zackie Achmat, an HIV-positive activist in South Africa and founder of Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), as he refuses to begin antiretroviral treatment.

 

It is the late 1990s and drugs are not priced accessibly for most People With HIV/AIDS (PWHA) in South Africa, nor for many PWHA in more developed countries. Achmat believes in the necessity of his drug strike, stating, “it would be wrong [to take treatment], when other people cannot buy life."

 

Fig Trees highlights a critical question surrounding discrimination against PWHA: how do we show political and emotional solidarity with people who are infected with HIV?


The film’s answer is printed on tee shirts—thousands of tee shirts, stating in bold typeface, HIV POSITIVE.


Throughout Fig Trees, most of the plot is narrated using original operatic music, however canonical opera is also featured in the film.


In a recognizably Greyson use of split screen, a 1950s recording of Maria Callas singing “La Mamma Morta”is shown alongside its contemporary revival in the AIDS drama Philadelphia.


Vivi ancora! Io son la vita! Ne' miei occhi è il tuo cielo!sings Callas. “You must live, I am life itself! Your heaven is in my eyes!

 

Achmat does live. TAC, Nelson Mandela, AIDS Action Now, and ACT UP, along with numerous other individuals and organizations, successfully petitioned pharmaceutical companies to provide less expensive antiretroviral drugs; accordingly, Achmat ended his drug strike.


So, too, does the film end. Unbeknownst to Greyson, four years later his life would begin to imitate his art; in August 2013 he became the protagonist in his own struggle for basic human rights.

John Greyson Photo source/ lfpress.com
John Greyson Photo source/ lfpress.com


John Greyson is currently detained at Tora, an expansive prison that stretches between various suburbs of southern Cairo. Alongside Greyson is Dr. Tarek Loubani, an emergency room doctor from London, Ontario, and a professor at the University of Western Ontario.

 

On the evening of August 16, Loubani and Greyson entered a police station in the vicinity of Ramses Square in central Cairo in order to ascertain directions to their hotel. They were promptly arrested by Cairo police.

 

The day of their arrest had been marked by heavy clashes in downtown Cairo between local residents, security forces, and supporters of the recently ousted Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi. In an Amnesty report seeking urgent action, the organization marked their concern: “As with the hundreds of others arrested that day, [Loubani and Greyson] have been charged with a broad array of offences without apparent consideration of their individual criminal responsibility.”

 

The clashes prevented Loubani and Greyson from carrying out plans to quickly travel to Gaza; Loubani was traveling to Gaza to provide medical care at the Al-Shifa hospital and Greyson was present to document the experience.


In a statement by Greyson and Loubani released on September 28, they described their arrest: "That's when we were: arrested, searched, caged, questioned, interrogated, videotaped with a 'Syrian terrorist,’ slapped, beaten, ridiculed, hot-boxed, refused phone calls, stripped, shaved bald, accused of being foreign mercenaries.”

 

The pair was thrown in a cell at Tora Prison with 36 other prisoners, sharing one toilet and one tap. They were denied outdoor access—save for one 30-minute period. After 30 days, Loubani and Greyson were moved to a cell with "only" six occupants.


On September 29, Greyson and Loubani's sentence was extended for a further 45 days.

 

In addition to unethical prison conditions, the pair are subjected to the ineptitudes of Egyptian “justice” system. Egypt is currently ruled by martial law—an extreme form of law which allows military personnel to effectively suspend civil liberties—which could result in the extension of Greyson and Loubani’s detention for up to two years, irrespective of any charges being laid, explained Justin Podur—a friend of both Greyson and Loubani.

 

Professor James Reilly of the University of Toronto Centre for Middle Eastern Studies sees martial law as a way to arbitrarily conclude trials using military law, and thus “escape normal legal scrutiny.”


In protest of their unsubstantiated arrest, Loubani and Greyson undertook a hunger strike on September 16—mirroring the radical drug strike taken by Zackie Achmat, the subject of Greyson’s film Fig Trees.


Loubani and Greyson are consuming only juice and water in order to highlight the urgency with which the flagrant denial of their human rights be addressed, stating, “We deserve due process, not cockroaches on concrete. We demand to be released.”


To John and Tarek, one could echo “La Mamma Morta:” Tu non sei sola! … Io sto sul tuo cammino e ti sorreggo!”


“You are not alone. … I will walk with you and support you!”


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the newspaper contacted the Embassy of Egypt in Ottawa on 19 September to obtain comment for this story and was informed that the correct official would be in contact on 20 September; the newspaper did not receive any further communication.

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