Azzam Azzam, an Israeli citizen who was convicted of espionage by an Egyptian court, sat in jail for 2,950 days. Israel's arguments that he is an innocent person, resident of the Druze village of Maghar, who has nothing to do with spying or with any Israeli security organization, did not help.
The Egyptian legal system, relying on evidence about "concealed ink written on underpants," found him guilty. All of Israel's insistent pleadings to the Egyptian president were to no avail, until the improvement in the political situation caused Hosni Mubarak to order that he be released in an exchange deal in return for Egyptian prisoners.
On December 5, 2004, Azzam was a free man. In an interview to Ynet, he talks about what happened and what the future holds.
We could not start the interview without a few words about politics, which people have been trying to stick to Azzam in the past few weeks. Is he in the Likud? Perhaps he supports Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new party Kadima?
"If you are hinting that I joined the Likud or that I joined any other party – you are wrong," he says.
"I joined the Israeli people. I am not a political man, I am Azzam Azzam. It's true that I am full of appreciation to those political people who helped me and I will never forget that they were the ones who took me out of the grave," he adds.
One year after your release, do you believe that you are free?
I am now completing one year as a citizen, and I sometimes still pinch myself. After I was in the grave, I can suddenly leave the house and go out and do simple things – like drink coffee with a friend, meet the people who love me and do everything I want.
Every day I don’t believe that I am here, and the thing that makes me feel the best is to be happy and go to my relatives' happy events and in general to feel that I am loved. I love the Israeli people.
Can you share with us some of your prison moments?
It was taking a normal, free human being and putting him inside a tiny cell, thrown on coarse sand in the middle of the winter, without a blanket and without a mattress. Only six months later I received a permit for a mattress.
There were no toilets in the cell, not to mention a shower. At first I had to defecate in the cell, and when my conditions were improved – inside a bucket, which would be emptied once a day.
I was forbidden to see or talk to other prisoners and was not allowed to go out and see daylight. Once a day they would take me out for an hour to a bigger room, with no roof, and that's how I would see the sky.
"There I would also take the plate of ful (cooked broad beans), which was my breakfast. I would eat three dishes of ful every day, and rice once a week. Today people better not offer me any ful.
How did you cope?
You can easily go crazy. At the beginning I didn’t believe that I would stay in prison for 2,950 days. I said never mind. A week past and then another week, and I am still here, until I realized that I would not be released so fast.
And then I had two options: One was to end my life, and the other was to accept that this is my life. The first option was completely out of the question because I would have left behind a widow and orphans.
After accepting the fact that I'm in prison, I began to fill out a countdown table. When I was permitted to receive a newspaper to the cell, I also got a calendar with the paper, and every morning I would cross out one day. At the end of the year I would send the calendars to my wife. I still have these calendars at home.
I solved the silence problem by talking to myself. Later, when my conditions were improved a little, I used a transistor radio. The silence made me crazy, I had to hear voices, and the transistor did the work. I turned the button and finally received a transmission of Israel Radio. I would be in big trouble if they knew I was listening to Hebrew.
I would attach the transistor to my ear, and when the guards came I would immediately switch to an Arab-language radio station. Every day I would listen to all the Israel Radio programs. That's how I became familiar with all the radio's reporters… They became my cell mates and I spent my days with them.
In addition, my family and my wife gave me strength and planted hope in me, as well as the visits by prime ministers, ministers, Members of Knesset and Israeli Embassy officials.
Did you make any friends in prison?
At first everyone was afraid to approach me, and I was forbidden to make contact with other prisoners. Then I began developing relations with a few officers, and one of them, of all people, who was especially cruel, became my friend.
I thought him about the Druze people and we talked about it a lot. But although I explained to him that I am a Druze, he would always tell me 'I like you despite the fact that you are a Jew.'
When I was released from prison he walked me out and kissed me. He is a real man, and if he would come here I would take him in as my guest and give him all the honors.
Has the prison remained with you in the past year?
There is not one night in which I don’t dream about the prison. In my dreams I see how they are torturing me. I speak to the warders and feel the suffocation in the oubliette.
Do you think you will ever be able to return to Egypt?
Definitely not. Egypt is a place which left me with bitterness for my entire life. I have not left anything there.