Navigating Two Worlds
I had my own challenges with what it [also] meant to be Australian because I was also like, I haven't had a great experience of being Australian.
In 2018 Egyptian-Australian writer Lamisse Hamouda had moved to Egypt to study when her life was turned upside down. Her father Hazem, on his way to visit her, was arrested by authorities, accused of sympathising with a terrorist organisation, and sent to prison without charge or evidence for 433 days.
In conversation with UNSW Middle East expert Lana Tatour, Lamisse delved into her book, The Shape of Dust, and her experience fighting against the Egyptian prison system as an Australian citizen. Together, they unpack what support the Australian Government provides dual citizens abroad (surprisingly minimal), what cultural identity means for individuals stuck between two cultural worlds, and how trauma can fragment memory, bringing unexpected challenges to the writing process
Jan Breckenridge: Welcome tonight to our fantastic event. I've just had the privilege of talking to our two discussants. My name is Jan Breckenridge and I'm Head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales and also I am Co-convener of the Gendered Violence Research Network. Before we start tonight, I just want to acknowledge that we're on Bedegal land here at UNSW and I want to pay my respects to any First Nations people who are with us tonight and also, pay my respects to elders past and present.
It’s always very important. It can feel a very perfunctory thing to do but we're here tonight to hear about injustice – to hear about state enforced sanctions, censorship, dispossession, and actually that's what the Bedegal people and peoples all over Australia have experienced since colonisation. I am the daughter of a migrant settler so I benefit from people being removed from their lands. I benefit continuously from what has happened for First Nations people throughout Australia, and I call on all of us to really think about how we benefit and what redress we can make in the same way as we might be thinking about the story that we're here to discuss.
What redress? How do you get over traumas such as was experienced by Lamisse and her father. So many of you may have read the book and if you haven't, you must get it. It is beautifully written, and a very compelling read and I just want to introduce Lamisse a little bit. Lamisse Hamouda is a very talented writer, she’s written for very many media outlets and this book is one of the products of her ideas and beliefs and her commitment to telling stories that are meaningful. Lana Tatour is a colleague of mine, she's a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and she has a very strong political, ethic and belief and is actually in our stream of Global Development and Politics and International Relations so she’ll bring a very different lens.
I think tonight for me, what I'm hoping to hear is the marrying of trauma and how trauma is actually political. The experience, the recovery of trauma is political, and yet there are other ways of looking at politics, big P politics, that still exist in Egypt today and in our own country around censorship, of voices and free speech. Enough from me, because I think the two that we really want to hear from is Lamisse and Lana, please come on forward.
Lana Tatour: Thank you, Jan, for the kind introduction. And I join you in everything that you've said in the acknowledgement of country, as we acknowledge our positionality as settlers who are benefiting from Indigenous dispossession, even if we at times occupy, also rationalised position within this country, and I'm very excited to be in conversation with Lamisse Hamouda. I just want to stress again, don't walk, run and buy this book.
We're here because we care about human rights but often these stories are statistics. We know of mass incarceration in Egypt and its statistics. And what Lamisse’s book does is gives a gripping account of what it means to go through this experience for the person who is incarcerated, and for their family and loved ones and she does it brilliantly. It is not a pornography of violence and she has written a really important account so for all of us who care about human rights and want to understand these stories better, I really urge you to get the book at the end of this talk. Lamisse, it is a riveting memoir and a devastating story. Maybe tell us a bit about the story itself.
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah, so for those who don't know or haven't had a chance to read it. The story follows the experience of my father's incarceration in Egypt. I was a student in Cairo in 2017. I had just started a Masters of Gender Studies at the American University in Cairo. My younger brother and sister came to visit me in Egypt in January 2018, and it was their first time in the country and I was really so excited to show them Egypt and show them Cairo. My dad got a little bit jealous of our trip and so he last minute booked a ticket and decided to join. And unfortunately, he arrived at Cairo airport and he disappeared. Eight days later, we found him in Tora prison and the book will tell you the rest of what happens.
Lana Tatour: So, there were many ways in which this book and the story could have been framed, but you chose to frame it around trauma. And there are also different ways in which you could have approached the question of trauma. So I wanted to ask you, why did you choose to frame it around trauma and what is your understanding of trauma?
Lamisse Hamouda: It is a story of trauma. It's unavoidable that it would be written with that in mind and with that framework, and when I started writing, that wasn't necessarily a conscious intellectual choice but a reflection of where I was when I started writing – which was deep in the throes of PTSD. I started writing this book, about nine months or eight months after dad came out of prison and so it was really fresh and the book itself and the story itself is also a working through of trauma and that is evident in the narrative. Then it's evident in how the story is told and I didn't want to smooth that over either.
As I develop the book, I realised I wanted the reader to also sit with that trauma, and sit with what it means and sit with all the threads of it. I didn't think of it as like, a trauma porn narrative but more of this is also just reality. This is also how it feels. This is also what this experience does. I'm not going to pretend that it's not traumatic, and then to also frame that trauma in a political way and to displace it as a personal individual experience and also, place that within a structural experience, that this is like, ‘this trauma is not because I'm some special individual, but this trauma is because so many of us are embedded in a structure that produces trauma’, and that then affects our lives, that then affects our bodies and so I really also wanted to make sure that framing was there.
Lana Tatour: And it is there, and the one thing that I found really interesting is that the question of trauma is really linked also to the question of identities, and how we navigate those identities and very soon, when you start reading the book, you realise that the arrest of your father and the fight to release him which you are at the forefront of that fight is also a story about belonging and non-belonging to different places, right.
And for both of you, it's in different ways and it's about the multiplicity and ambivalence of the identities and how you navigate them within these structures and relations of power so there's a lot to unpack here. But I do want to start with a sentence that you start the book with and I'm quoting, “It is challenging to relay a life that lives across multiple truncated identities. A Muslim who does not practice. An Arab who does not speak Arabic and an Australian who isn't Australian”. This is in part what brings you to Egypt first in 2013, but also shapes so much of your decisions on what to do after your father has been arrested and I was wondering if you can kind of reflect with us on that a bit.
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah, in the situation of my dad's arrest was this like, ‘is the pinnacle of the struggle of all that, truncatedness?’, and I didn’t deliberately use the word broken, right? It is truncated, it's like something that could have been and then got cut. And so dealing with the prison, dealing with dad's arrest, made me face all of these things that existed in my life. But here it was unavoidable that I had to find a way to play with them, to understand them, to make peace with them, to reconcile with them, and to just acknowledge that all of those truncated identities and all of those truncated existences make my whole.
And like, finishing the book. I could take this macro look at it and see how it had all worked together and in that was a kind of healing where it's like, ‘oh, there's so much obsession with the diaspora and narrative around this brokenness, or the cliche of the broken tongue’, you know and that kind of thing and I'm like, ‘no, but this is just part of our experience and all of that made up my experience with dad’, You know there were certain things I could get away with in the prison for example, because I didn't understand and I talk about that in the book, right, what I thought would be my disadvantage also became a way to navigate where I was in and secure things that I needed because I didn't get the rules, and then they couldn't communicate with me to explain it so they just had to be like “Alright, just go, just go”, you know, like whatever.
Yeah, and then just also those challenges with faith in that situation. I had dad often saying, like, “Oh, pray and turn to Allah and turn to God”, and in that stage of my life when in the prison environment, it was like “No, I'm angry. I don't want to pray, I'm angry”, and so having those kinds of tensions are also part of it. And then after dad's release, having this moment of reconciling with my faith because I was so grateful and so my faith became an expression of love and I was like, “Okay, there's this, like gratitude that's coming out too”, but all of those complexities are there within the book and within my lived experience, and it's just in avoidable.
Lana Tatour: Let's stay with that for a bit, so when you arrived in Egypt in 2013. It's about two years after the promise of the revolution and for those of us who are old enough, my students, unfortunately many of them even don't remember but to remember the scenes from the Tahrir Square, it was beautiful. It was such an inspiring moment that shaped so many of us, especially those from Middle Eastern regions, there was such a great hope.
And you arrive in 2013, it's the counter revolution moment and you leave shortly after, because your father says, “Something bad is happening here, you need to come back to Australia”, and he was absolutely right, with perfect political instinct. But I wanted to ask you about that moment of arriving in 2013. Where were you in that story? How did you experience that moment? That political context of the promise is still there, it's still fresh but it's a counter revolutionary moment and I was wondering where you were in that in that moment?
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah very naïve, number one. I arrived in Egypt in January 2013 with the hope that I was going to live in Egypt. That had been like an obsession of mine since I was 17, that I would live in Egypt and I would learn Arabic and I would connect to my roots and all this kind of thing and yeah, so I got there and immediately, I was sequestered with my extended family who were like, “You know, you can't do this, you can't do that. You're a girl”, and I was like, “No, I've grown up in Australia. I've lived on my own, like, I lived in a share house. I'm leaving”, you know, and then ended up moving into my own apartment, much to the scandal of my family. But through that I then met a cousin – a distant cousin who'd been involved in revolutionary politics stuff, and then he introduced me to a friend of his who was one of the founders of Mada Masr and then through him, I then found myself…
Lana Tatour: Can you just help explaining in what Mada Masr is for?
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah, sorry so Mada Masr is the only English independent news outlet left in Egypt and it was founded in 2013, as an independent news outlet. Yeah, and so through that I then got involved with a lot of the people who'd been part of the revolution and we're very active, but also growing incredibly disillusioned and incredibly stressed about what was going on and how to handle things. And I just observed, like, I didn't know how to connect with it, then I was just like, ‘Okay, there’s a lot happening here’.
I was trying to find my own identity and my own connection to what it meant to be Egyptian within all of that as well, and just exploring and trying to understand, and it was a very strange time because we were experiencing water shortages, electricity cuts, petrol shortages, flour shortages, so bread shortages, and there was a lot of stress on like daily life and the stress to meet your needs and then the coup happened.
So I actually had just come back from two months in Palestine, and the day I arrived back in Cairo was the day, the protests were just being set up and the next day when I woke up, the protests were happening because my apartment was right next to Al-Ittihadiya, the Presidential Palace so I wake up to the sound of vuvuzelas and chanting and stomping and all this protests going on, and I come out onto my balcony. I'm like, “What is happening?” and my friend takes me around and explains what's going on and I was just so overwhelmed but I knew it was big, and I mean, you can't not realise it's big.
And then there was the announcement that Sisi had taken over or he had removed Morsi, the President from power and then quite soon after that, I got a phone call from my dad saying, “Get out, it's gonna get bad, it's gonna get dangerous”, and he was financially supporting me so I had to listen to dad. I left and I came back, but by then I needed to make sense of my experience so I followed the news. I followed everything that was happening. I followed what happened with the Rabaa massacre, which was the massacre of protesters in Cairo by the army and I just read and I kept being like, “I will, I need to go back. I need to understand this. Something was unfinished in that experience”.
Lana Tatour: Coming back to… So you returned to Egypt in 2017, right?
Lamisse Hamouda: Right.
Lana Tatour: Then your siblings come, your father comes and once he disappeared, and after a while you figured out that he's in Tora prison, one of Egypt's most notorious prisons. One of the challenges you faced is around the question of citizenship, right?
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah.
Lana Tatour: So he’s a dual citizen, he has Egyptian citizenship, Australian citizenship and has been in Australia for what 30 years. And immediately, your Egyptian friend tells you, don’t let them treat him like an Egyptian. He is Australian.
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah.
Lana Tatour: Yeah, and you were very uncomfortable with this. You're like, “Yeah, but he's an Egyptian and we need to follow that procedure”, but you're really uncomfortable with the kind of hierarchies that existed between the two citizenships, but also the differentiation between him and between other Egyptians who have been arrested. Nonetheless, you realise after a while, that this is the only way.
You need to insist that he is first Australian, and that was the key to get him out of prison but then the fact that you're an Arab and a Muslim, and also a member of a racialised community in Australia, facing Islamophobia, especially after 9/11, where the whole counterterrorism landscape really shaped how Australia itself responded to the arrest of your father, and the challenges that you faced in trying to get Australia to act. So I was wondering if you can share that experience?
Lamisse Hamouda: Yes so it was a really complex, challenging experience to navigate legally, politically and personally. I just I didn't quite understand when my friend said that, “Don't let them treat him as an Egyptian”, I could hear the urgency in his voice but I didn't quite understand the weight of what he meant. And the advice from the Australian embassy or the Australian consulate in Cairo at the time was that because he's a dual citizen and he's been arrested in Egypt, a country which he holds citizenship to means that he will first be treated as an Egyptian, and Australia encourages me to follow the laws in Egypt and do what I can on the ground in Egypt first to try and get him out and that they can't interfere because they can't interfere with another nation state’s legal processes.
And so when I told my friends that and like my cousin – I told my cousin that they were incredulous because they were like, “But Egypt doesn't have a proper process – like it has a process, but we all know it's corrupt”. We all know it gets manipulated, we all know people stay in remand detention for more than the supposed two-year legal limit, you know, we all know that this doesn't work.
So why is the government telling you to follow a system that we know doesn't work? And they were just baffled that Australia wouldn't use its muscle to step in and it was also disillusioning, because you know a lot of people outside the West hold these perceptions that the West is going to be just and always fight the good fight or whatever. That if they had an Australian passport too, it would be easier for them.
And at the same time, dad being Australian did present the possibility of leverage that someone who didn't have a second citizenship would have and so after the time spent trying to go through the Egyptian system and keep my head down and listen to government and follow the rules, I got to a point where I was just like, “This doesn't make any sense. Like, this just doesn't make any sense”. And I had my own challenges with what it meant to be Australian because I was also like, I haven't had a great experience of being Australian.
Even growing up in Australia, you know, I came of age with 9/11. I grew up under the war on terror as a racialised Arab and Muslim. I used to wear a headscarf and I have obviously since removed it and all that kind of thing. But, I know also what the violence of that discourse has done to my community in Australia and I don't look to the Australian Government as like a bastion of my human rights and I also think about the incarceration rates in Australia – incarceration of Indigenous people, offshore detention, and I'm like, “I need to ask them to help, but I don't believe in them and I can't ask for help within the country I'm in”. It's not really working and I'm kind of scared of what Australia is, and how they're going to treat us, and whether they're going to actually believe in our innocence or whether they're going to be just towards my family or are we just going to get further racialised, and further criminalised because dad's facing a terrorist charge in a foreign country.
And so it was incredibly complex and traumatising to navigate all of that, because I didn't ever feel like I could just approach a place and be assumed innocent, and I really resent even the politics of innocence and guilt and the binary that places on people, because they also had a feeling of like, well, my dad has religious beliefs, my dad has political beliefs that are deeply entrenched with his faith, and that is not a criminal offence for him to have that, you know, and I also didn't want to have to make myself or my family deny things that I know to be true about dad and his convictions and his beliefs, you know, and so like – I also don't want to have to be less Muslim, to gain innocence so it was all these things, how do I navigate this?
But at the end of the day, simply being Australian and having access to that was a leverage. And I just eventually had to put all of those politics aside, put all of those complexities aside and just reach out and be like, “I need this, like, I need you to help. I need this help”.
Lana Tatour: And you reached out for help.
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah.
Lana Tatour: And I found it striking how useless the Australian embassy was, so this is why you need also to buy the book, right? So she writes about it in length but she goes, “You know, and I approached the embassy. I talked to the ambassador and he's like, “Please keep us updated with any piece of information that you find.”’ She's like, “Why did I come to see you? I need you to help me get information”. They couldn’t even – “If you find out where he is, please let us know,” and I was thinking, is this how really the diplomatic relations of Australia work? There was a lot of absurdity happening there but so you approach them for help, and really quite useless and at some point, you make the decision to complain publicly.
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah.
Lana Tatour: You make the decision, you complain publicly, you go on one or two media engagements, and then you retreat and you said, “I don’t want to go publicly”. And then few months pass, and you’re going, “I’m going full scale, public campaigning, and part of it is related to Islamophobia”. And I wonder if you can walk us through your decision to go for public campaigning, and then retreat and then go again? And how did you find this process?
Lamisse Hamouda: Also very challenging. The thing was, is like, I was in Egypt, right? So I had to think about the political situation in Egypt, as well as Australia, and I had to keep myself and dad safe. Even though dad's already in prison, it can always get worse, right? I had to keep us safe but I also knew I had to say certain things publicly if I was going to go to the media in Australia. And because like within Egypt, the violence is so arbitrary. It's always hard to know what you need to do to keep yourself safe and what's going to get you in trouble, and so you self-police, and that's part of the logic behind arbitrary violence is then you internalise self-policing because you don't know what's gonna get you in trouble.
And so the first time I went to the media was about a month after dad got arrested, an article came out in The Age, got a few racist comments and that kind of thing and I was just like, “Nah, I'm too fragile right now, I just can't deal with this”. You know and I was so paranoid at that point as well, where I was just like, I don't even know what if something happens to dad and there's backlash on him too.
Then I went to the media again in July, about seven months after dad went to prison, and I went on The Project for the first time and spoke about the case and then, I – this is in the book as well – I then had a meeting with a lawyer who then showed me a bunch of news articles that had come out in the Arabic media with screenshots from that interview from The Project, calling me ‘the lying daughter of the Muslim Brotherhood’. So immediate response from the state media outlets, you know and that was petrifying because then it was an affirmation of what I'd been afraid of which is that if I speak publicly, even though I'm speaking to Australian media, Egypt's watching. And then I might do something that could land dad in solitary or could result in harm coming to dad, or could put me in danger and then my mom freaks out and so it's just like, “Okay, no media, again”.
The challenge is that to do a campaign means I had to leave Egypt, and I couldn't leave Egypt because only immediate family members can visit the person imprisoned and dad is dependent on me for supplies and so, the only way I can do a campaign is if I go back to Australia. But if I go back to Australia, I have to leave dad without any visitation which means no refreshment of his supplies of food, of clothing, of medication, right, because I was the only immediate family member in Egypt. And so then I made eventually decision to leave after a year, because I couldn't see things changing if I stayed in Egypt, and so I left Dad by himself and he didn't have visitation for almost two months.
And then because we then launched the campaign in Australia, I couldn't leave Australia and so my 23 year old sister went to Egypt instead and we had begged the embassy to see if there was anything that they could do to take dad’s supplies so that one of us wouldn't have to go back to Egypt, and they can't – they can't take your money, they can't take in supplies. All they could do was go for their one monthly visitor check and tick the box saying that he's still alive, and he's healthy, whatever the hell healthy means in that situation, right? So they're those things where it's just like, there's so much on the family, there's so much on the family in terms of juggling all of this and on top of that, there's legal costs, flight costs, all these other costs and it's just an incredibly overwhelming experience and incredibly disappointing to realise how little support is given from the institutions that claim to represent us.
Lana Tatour: It was reading that account was quite shocking and I remember you know, reading that moment where you leave the prison, knowing that you're flying back to Australia and it was really heartbreaking. The one thing that I found really interesting in the book is that you talk about circles of support that come from community, whether community of the families in prison, friends, even strangers.That at the end of the day it is not the state that is offering the support and protection, that it is actually about people coming together and supporting and I found that really comforting and I was wondering if you could expand on that.
Lamisse Hamouda: Oh, yeah I'd love to. That was one of those like light in the dark, silver lining kind of experiences within it. My family's average, just pretty average not wealthy by any means and so the financial strain was significant, as well as obviously the emotional and psychological strain and the coming together of people around us. I don't even… like it's just, it was so meaningful, and solidified a politics that I had already been stewing on which is that for me, community is more important than money and that the solidarity and that connection and care is more important, because if I can't pay for it myself, I can't be individualistic for one.
And then also like, we need that connection, we need to then care about each other to then step in when someone's down and to hold them and then to be able to give and when you're back in a position where you can give and there was so many instances in that happening. Like my mom's very embedded in the Muslim community in Brisbane, and so several Muslim charities stepped in and paid for groceries, paid for mom's rent.
My friends in Egypt were so supportive and so generous and just there for me like just in conversations, taking me out – a friend took me on like a couple of days holiday once just to like, you know, have a few days break from the intensity of Cairo, you know things like that. One of mom's friends, who is a single mom of six kids, gifted mum five grand, so that we could have buy the tickets to get dad out of Egypt, because we had totally run out of money at that point and it's like the people who gave were not the wealthiest of people, they were people who just cared.
And that experience of care like I remember, when we had the GoFundMe, we got about like eight grand from it, and it really helped at that time with just like covering costs, and the bills and all that kind of thing. I remember just seeing those donations and just like crying, because it was just so grateful to experience that support and so now in the aftermath of that experience, it's solidified my commitment to community and how important that is and I've put a lot of effort now into building community and to connecting with people into trying to find ways to show care and support and hold and give and allow myself to be held, as well. And I just, it's just something that has left such a big legacy and all of my family.
Lana Tatour: Yeah, I’m gonna do quite the shift.
Lamisse Hamouda: Let’s go.
Lana Tatour: Quite the political shift.
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah.
Lana Tatour: Not that what we're talking about is not political, it is deeply political. The allegations were terrorism, so going to the media, you know, confronting especially western white audiences. The question always comes, is he innocent or not? And, you know, there are descriptions of that in the book and one of the things I kept thinking about is how much that racialised discourse.
That racism – it is so strong that it completely clouded the political situation in Egypt of a government that is repressive that is using mass incarceration as a tool to control and tame its population, to punish the population, to sustain power where the default position should be everyone is innocent in this condition until you know, it is the government that is guilty. It is not the people who are targeted politically that need to prove their innocence, right?
And the second thing that came to my mind is how much demonisation there is with Muslim Brotherhood. So if you're a supporter of Muslim Brotherhood, so what? It's a political movement that is very complex, extremely complex historically and that also gets completely clouded in these accounts where, as if they you know, members of Muslim Brotherhood who are completely innocent civilians who may be affiliated through welfare associations, et cetera are by default terrorists as well and this is another discourse that you needed to navigate.
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah.
Lana Tatour: And I was wondering how you were navigating it? How did you confront that discourse, in trying to gain public support and political support to release your father?
Lamisse Hamouda: It's so unbelievably frustrating because it's a trap. Like I just felt trapped, and the war on terror and the way in which then was imported into Egypt and used as the framework to justify counter revolution and political oppression. Like It’s honestly kind of, its basic but it’s also genius because it’s the perfect framework to justify that repression, and then when people are persecuted under that rubric, you have the tar of terrorism to immediately undermine or to distract, or to make people take a step back and not want to question because it made me realise how deep that racism and that Islamophobia has gone as well.
And dealing with the media, and the having to have those discussions where I always felt like there’s a part of me and my family that’s always on trial in terms of like, I’m always having to justify and explain and put caveats as to why dad’s innocent you know – totally takes away from the wider conversation. It also takes away from the wider conversation like what’s happening in a way, in which then it also positions this case as exceptional so that then everyone can pretend that this isn’t actually a common occurrence, like “oh, this must be some exceptional thing that happened to you because you’re dadada”, and it’s not.
And so then I can’t have a nuanced discussion or present this one the wider facts of the matter, or point criticism towards Egypt or be supported in that criticism towards Egypt, or even criticism towards Australia because everything is about me needing to prove that racism is, I don’t know, it’s just gross.
I want to say something like really articulate and intelligent about it but it’s just so gross like the dehumanisation embedded within it. It’s just so violent and then you have someone, like you have people who are incarcerated who are already so violently dehumanised, and then there’s these added layers of dehumanisation, and it’s just, it’s just cruel. It’s really a cruel discourse and yeah, I’ve lost my way because I’m just angry now. I just bubbled up a bunch of emotion and I’m just like, oh and see…
Lana Tatour: I think anger is good. Anger is generative.
Lamisse Hamouda: Completely.
Lana Tatour: It's clear that you love Egypt right, not the state. Egypt is not just a state in its apparatus and that it is a big part of who you are. So how did this experience looking back shaped your relationship to the place? And do you think you'll ever be back there?
Lamisse Hamouda: I got this question every time. Yeah, it's, uh, well I really, I think it's evident in the book as well is how deep my love for Egypt is and was and how much it shaped my life. And in the book, like Cairo was personified as this entity in my life that I have this engagement with, this love for, this confusion, all these kinds of things and the experience with dad was so heartbreaking, so, so, so heartbreaking on that level of like… but I just wanted to have a connection to this place.
I just wanted to keep that connection. I wanted to stay connected to my extended family, I wanted to stay connected to his land like what the hell you know, and then I realised that broken heartedness is within so many of my friends in Egypt as well, that there’s so many of them who say they love Egypt but they hate it, but they want to leave but they don’t want to leave because they can’t be anywhere else except Egypt you know. And that tension of like, it’s in so many of them, especially people who went through the revolution and really had such a deep level of love and hope and the space to actually express that love, the space to actually express that hope because that’s also what the civic space gives you.
You can express that like, “I want better for my people or I want better for this” and to have that broken, to have that ripped away and to have that crushed. I said so many friends who just put that emotion in a box and locked it and tucked it really deep inside and then couple of them said to me, “The one thing the regime can't take is my memories”, and that stuck with me. Because I was like yeah, you know what, even though all this shitty stuff has happened and you know, this trauma has happened and I see so much beyond now what my naive diaspora daydream was but I still have those memories of love, of connection, of solidarity, of connection to the land, of history and I really, really do hope that one day I go back, but it will be when Sisi’s dead.
Lana Tatour: Inshallah.
Lamisse Hamouda: Inshallah.
Lana Tatour: So much more to ask, but I do and I invite the audience to ask questions. You can do it via slido or you can do it via the microphones.
Audience Member 1: First of all, amazing event. I came without any expectations. I just got attracted by factual sight and your story. Lana Tatour, just listening to what happened today made me wish I was studying social science at UNSW. I am unfortunately engaged doing a JD here at UNSW but the topic of human rights subject is very close to me.
Lana Tatour: You can transfer. We’re worth it.
Audience Member 1: I am just a whisk away so please don’t tempt me but I want to get to more serious thing. I want to get to your opinion Lana, I’m sorry, Lamisse, is, I don’t know how many people in the audience have experienced serious trauma because my question I would say comes from just watching your reaction first thing, huge thank you for being absolutely genuine and sincere and the moments when you said about anger, well, that’s sincerity so if you had kept it, we would have missed out. So thank you very much for your courage and bravery because I come from Central Asian culture and I grew up in a culture where we ‘keep face’, I guess Japanese and I think if I’m not wrong it took an effort for you to open up to the audience and I think not many people can appreciate that. That takes courage especially and sorry to the question, do you think that with a traumatic experience, did you gain extra vision after you went through it?
Second question, I had a conversation where I was told well in certain situations people are hardwired. They either fight and flight and it’s quite clear you are not the latter and my question is, unfortunately in real life when a person goes through trauma like you it’s pretty much inevitable that they have no choice but to choose. They’re either going to cave in and break down and God save them, or they necessarily have to toughen up and I would like to hear…
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah so what the first question was around, what did you mean by vision? Just to double check, like insight?
Audience Member 1: Well, it seems to me like before your experience, you were just an Australian girl right? And it seems to me your worldview has significantly changed because of that and maybe tell us more about that.
Lamisse Hamouda: Okay, all right cool, okay. Alright there’s a few things there, I think trauma is way more complex than we have recently learned how to discuss it. There’s a lot, you know, Instagram, therapy, and all that kind of stuff has given us language about trauma and all this kind of thing and trauma is incredibly nuanced and challenging experience. It is never binary, it’s never black or white.
There were moments where I was full on in fight mode, and I was like, yep, tear this down, let's go, I'm angry, I'm raging. There were moments where I wanted to run away and I would honestly, like I skipped quite a few prison visits, because I just didn't want to go. I didn't want to. I didn't want to go to the prison, you know and that's a form of running, right? Because like, I don't want to fight today. I just don't want to go there, then there's also freeze right? Where I was just paralysed, like I couldn't, I didn't know what to do.
I couldn’t think straight. My brain is just fried as disassociation like totally leaving my body and not even realising it, having out of body experiences, having a panic attack where I couldn’t recognise my own hand and I was crying being like, whose hand is there? You know, so like, there’s so many layers to trauma and how it manifests. I have this mantra, and the mantra is in the book too of, ‘break down when it’s over.’ I stuck to that pretty well-ish throughout dad’s incarceration but when he was released, I really did have very challenging PTSD and I think of PTSD as delayed processing.
Thereas on the trauma still feels real and is in your body is because you haven’t processed it right? And for me, PTSD is my body demanding I process it. I’ve just felt this feeling of, I gotta get this out, like if I suppress this any further I will have a breakdown, I will need to be hospitalised and so it was this desperate survival feeling of like, I have to find a way to get this out.
And the challenge was I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to go to talk therapy at that point. I didn’t want to sit down and be like, “and then my dad went to prison and I was really sad”, you know, I’m not knocking talk therapy, it’s incredibly therapeutic. It’s great but that was not what I needed at that moment right? I wasn’t connected to my emotions so I needed to come back into my body and for me, dance therapy and somatic therapy was my first entry point into first just being able to let myself feel and let myself feel really big, scary, explosive emotions around deep fear and powerlessness.
And that took several years – several years of dealing with panic attacks, of dealing with clinical depression, of dealing with crippling anxiety, social anxiety but as I moved through it and the book was an incredibly healing process as well. I also realised that the book, a lot of people find it challenging to say, And we even had this conversation in the greenroom, “I enjoyed your book, because it’s not enjoyable”. The book is a portal for connection, that’s what it is to me, I want to connect with you through this story.
Trauma is isolating. Trauma leaves you feeling like you have something unspeakable within you and that unspeakable ability creates an inexplicable sense of shame and the most important thing for me was to get rid of that shame, to feel connected and understood, to get rid of that sense of isolation and to also give that to my father.
I really did a lot of effort in encouraging dad to write and to get him to believe that this will be worth it and it has been worth it because seeing dad on stage and seeing him get to share and be received, and connected with and understood, especially as an Arab man in his 60s where he’s grown up in a patriarchal culture where men don't share their emotion. and he always has to be strong and he gets to sit on stage and tell people about his feelings and tell people about how he was afraid, but also get to tell them about his thoughts, his beliefs, his politics, and to be received and connected with. Like witnessing dad has also been incredibly healing so that's part of that experience with trauma and also this shift in my worldview, right, like, I got no time to hide.
Yeah, it might not be the most academic language or anything like that. I was so nervous before this event being like, oh my God, am I academic enough, like you know, am I gonna say like really smart, cool things? But like that’s not me and that’s not why I’ve written this. Like yes, you can get the politics out of it, yes I have very clear politics that comes through in how I present myself, and how I talk but I don’t need to be hammering that politics because it’s embodied and that’s also what I realise through is that embodiment. I just have to live it. I don’t need to tell you what I believe.
I just need to be the thing that I believe and so yeah, that's been a big part of my PTSD growth so it's such an honour, and it's so special to sit here and to be received to give and also I receive from you. I feel your energy, I see your faces. I'm just so grateful, you all took the time to come here today and to connect.
Lana Tatour: I think we have time for one more question. I have some questions here. But you've answered part of them already. Anyone who would like to ask a question?
Audience Member 2: Yeah, first of all, thank you so much for writing the book. I haven't read the book, but I'm planning to buy the book when we go outside.
Lamisse Hamouda: Yes, success.
Audience Member 2: So in like 2011, 2012, 2013, I was doing a double masters in journalism and international development and we talked a lot about Arab Spring – there was this what seemed such a kind of superficial understanding in the west, of the Arab Spring at the time it was talked about, as this like kind of Facebook/Twitter revolution. It was as amazing as Zuckerburg or whatever was…
Lamisse Hamouda: I remember that.
Audience Member 2: And I was like, “We’re talking about it in such limited amount of depth”, and then after the kind of west, all these news stories came out at the time when things were happening and then just left. And then when the Muslim Brotherhood took power and then the kind of western media was absent through majority of that, yeah so I guess the question that I’ve got is. I mean, you’ve talked a little bit about your experience with the media, I’m curious about in terms of your process of trying to get the book published and what the response has been in Australia because obviously it’s a much more nuanced look at kind of things afterwards? Yeah, what’s that been like in terms of publishers, media here, and what your kind of plans are I guess, for the next few months of getting the story out kind of thing?
Lamisse Hamouda: Yeah. Well, my publisher and publicists are in the audience.
Lana Tatour: Can we maybe also take just another question that she can…?
Lamisse Hamouda: Sure, yeah definitely.
Audience Member 3: Thanks Lana for making an exception. Your discussion of your relationship with Australia and identity really resonated with me as somebody who’s you know, I consider myself an Australian but I’m not white. I’m the child of immigrants and so the experience that you had just feels so I don’t know, what’s the word – harsh, like this reality you kind of understand that you belong but you don’t quite belong but then you have this reality check that was like, no you don’t belong, you are different and you’re not going to be treated the way that other people in this country are. So you’ve come out of the experience now, what’s your relationship with Australia like? How do you navigate that? Yeah, your place here because presumably you live here permanently now, I’m just interested to hear how you do that.
Lamisse Hamouda: Okay. I've had two questions to answer. Okay, all right. First, I'll do the journalism question, then I'll come to your question about how I feel about Australia.
With media here, and the book and stuff, dad and I did like a brief appearance on morning tv, and a radio interview and we quickly realised that’s not really the place for us. I don’t like watering the story down even though I know it’s necessary for marketing purposes and that’s fine, but I like these kinds of events you know, I like being in person. I like an event or workshop where I can connect deeply and I can have this space for that nuance.
And that’s one thing that’s really frustrating and also just like a product of design and agenda with mainstream media is it unfortunately doesn’t give that space and so I’m like, ‘alright that’s just not my medium’, that’s not where I’m gonna position this book, that's not where I'm gonna put my effort into. Like, this is the stuff that's worth it to me and then in the back of my head I do think about sales and all of that kind of thing but then I also think that my definition of success is not about the numbers.
My definition of success is this I keep saying, is connection. Is someone changing their mind? Is someone having a different perspective, if someone thinking more deeply about race relations, or incarceration or abolition or shifting how they think about Egypt in the Middle East? And shifting how they think about an East-West binary, like any of those kinds of things. That’s success. So yeah, it's really made me step back and think about what does this book mean to me, what does marketing mean, and where do I find my sense of success and validation and my efforts from. So, yeah.
And in regard to my relationship to being Australian, honestly like after dad came out of prison, I also didn’t want to be Australian. I was like, fuck this place, sorry for swearing and in the book, I talked about Thomas, my partner who I met in Egypt during all of this violence. He’s German and so I actually moved to Germany and I didn’t know if I wanted to come back to Australia. I was living in Cologne and COVID forced me home and then when I was in Australia, I was in Meanjin, in Brisbane for a year and a half and I had to really start finding my way to make my peace with being Australian again and during that time. I connected with a community in Brisbane, and like a leftist community, that had a lot of space for my lived experience and had a lot of space to nurture and understand and care because they practice that politics of community and care and all that kind of thing.
And I started to realise that I don’t really care for Australia as a nation, like a nation state. I really, I feel a sense of discontent at belonging to a settler colony and yet at the same time, I don’t have anywhere else to go. This is it, you know and my mom’s white Australian. My mom comes from a long line of settler colonists who are founders of the town that she’s from and so then I’m like, okay, well as much as I’ve been focused on this migration, severing and disapora experience, I actually have a whole other side of myself to reconcile with, which is my white side.
And so, my relationship to Australia shifted because it started being about a relationship of how can I find solidarity with Indigenous communities, how can I find my ways towards healing and my ways towards reconciling what it means to live here? Because I am not going to go back to where I came from. I tried. It didn't work. Yeah so um, yeah that’s pretty much it. That’s where I find my sense of relationship here which is in community and land, not in the nation state.
Lana Tatour: That’s an excellent, inspiring cue to end the evening with. Please thank you for joining us this evening and please join me in thanking Lamisse for a wonderful event.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. For more information, visit centreforideas.com and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Lana Tatour and Lamisse Hamouda
Lana Tatour and Lamisse Hamouda
Lamisse Hamouda is an Egyptian-Australian writer, theatre-maker and youth worker who lives on the unceded lands of Meanjin (Brisbane). Her writings have been published in various publications in Europe and Australia, including Arts of the Working Class, Diversity Arts Australia, SBS and Jdeed Magazine, and her poetry was included in the anthology, Arab, Australia, Other: Stories on Race and Identity.
Lana Tatour is a lecturer in development in the School of Social Sciences, UNSW Sydney. She works on settler colonialism, indigeneity, race, citizenship, human rights, and the Middle East with a focus on Palestine and Israel. Prior to joining the School of Social Sciences, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University, and held visiting fellowships at the Palestinian-American Research Center, the Australian Human Rights Centre, UNSW Faculty of Law and UNSW School of Social Sciences. She is on the board of The Australian Journal of Human Rights and is currently working on her manuscript Ambivalent Resistance: Palestinians in Israel and the Liberal Politics of Settler Colonialism and Human Rights, and on an edited volume together with Dr Ronit Lentin on Race and the Question of Palestine.
Jan Breckenridge is a Professor and Head of the School of Social Sciences and the Co-Convener of the UNSW Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW.