Freed filmmaker John Greyson: Canada must address responsibility in Egypt

John Greyson (Photo courtesy of

A month after he was released from an Egyptian prison, filmmaker, professor and activist John Greyson says that he is looking forward to getting back to work on a new documentary about queer activism, pinkwashing and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Arrested in Cairo on 16 August, en route to the Gaza Strip, Greyson told The Electronic Intifada that he and emergency room physician Tarek Loubani “were very interested in joining conversations in Gaza about LGBT issues.”

But their plans were thwarted. Greyson and Loubani were jailed inside Cairo’s notorious Tora prison for fifty days, where they were beaten and put into squalid, crowded cells. They were arrested after the Egyptian army massacred hundreds of demonstrators in Ramses Square.

That day, Greyson filmed Loubani treating dozens of wounded protesters who were shot during the demonstration against the coup government that ousted president Mohammed Morsi on 3 July.


Loubani has worked with Palestinian doctors and health workers under some of the most difficult conditions as Israel’s ongoing siege — enforced by the Egyptian army — has made basic medications and medical supplies scarce or inaccessible. In addition to focusing on LGBT issues in Gaza, Greyson was going to document Loubani’s work.

Instead, they were detained, arrested and thrown into Tora prison with 600 others, all facing a litany of charges including attacking a police station, arson, conspiracy and more. Greyson’s cameras and film were confiscated, including the footage that he filmed of the dead and wounded being taken out of the square. Loubani’s belongings, including remote-control helicopters to test the transportation of medical samples, and other equipment he was taking to Gaza, were also confiscated.

Greyson and Loubani began a hunger strike in mid-September to demand their release, while an enormous grassroots effort back in Canada was made within media and political circles to free them. Eventually, they were released on 6 October and returned home to Canada five days later.

Greyson produced this moving video after their release, entitled Prison Arabic in 50 Days, in what he says is a dedication “to the many who spoke out for [our] release, and for the many who are still behind bars”:

Last week in Toronto, Greyson and Loubani demanded an end to the Canadian government’s indefinite detentions of undocumented persons during a visit to a detention center. Quoted in a Toronto Star report, Greyson said, “Tarek and I have huge questions about what’s going on in our own backyards.”

Loubani added, “This is unjust, and it’s unacceptable … As a Canadian and a person being in jail myself, I can tell you one of the most devastating things is not knowing why you’re there or how long you’ll be there.”

I recently interviewed John Greyson in Toronto over Skype.

The Electronic Intifada: Talk about how it’s been to be back home and to reconnect with your partner, Stephen, and your family after the ordeal of two months in Tora prison.

John Greyson: It’s all the predictable things, I think — immense relief to be back, immense joy to reconnect with Stephen and family, and immense gratitude because my job has been very generous in terms of giving me some time off just to land and resettle back in. That said, I’ve found it predictably challenging.

One of the great things has been drawing on Jim Loney’s experience. Jim, as you might remember, was a Christian Peacemaker [member] who was held hostage in Iraq, in Baghdad, in 2006. He was part of a Christian Peacemaker Team. Four guys were held hostage, only three of them made it out. So in every way, it was a three-month ordeal.

And they were completely cut off. Nobody knew whether they were alive or dead. So in every way it was a much tougher ordeal. But he’s been superb in terms of counseling us through both the media and public rollercoasters of this story. And he also has been great in terms of saying, “you’ll want to get your life back immediately. And you won’t. You’re not the same person.” So holding onto sort of some of the things he learned has been really fantastic for us.

EI: Were you surprised by the specifics of the coverage in the international media, and specifically the extraordinary Islamophobic and homophobic coverage exploiting your imprisonment?

JG: We’re not up to speed in terms of the coverage at all, there hasn’t been time. So someone like [John’s sister] Cecilia, or Justin [Podur, journalist and friend at the head of the media team] or Stephen for that matter could really address that the best. What we’ve encountered since we got back was — we were braced for more homophobic framing from the right, and from the Zionist right, around “weren’t you terrified as a queer to be in Egypt … in a homophobic context,” et cetera, so that whole familiar construction of Islam, of the Arab world as homophobic has actually been less than what we anticipated.

In terms of coverage of how we were while we were away, the team on the ground here made a very conscientious decision to downplay my sexuality. Now, it’s a bit tough given that a Google search spills the beans in about 5 seconds, it’s like I’m so gay gay gay. But in fact, the media, for the most part, cooperated. So the focus was very much on me as an educator, as a filmmaker.

I think the primary focus of the right-wing media had to do with constructing us as adventurists. So what that does, that definitely performs a whole set of assumptions about what the demonstrations were in Cairo.

The fact that they were peaceful and unarmed demonstrations — and this has been widely reported — didn’t seem to penetrate at all to those right-wing Zionists who were just out to claim that we were courting danger, et cetera et cetera. So this is all familiar, it’s all predictable. But it’s of course frustrating.

EI: How do you think about the campaign to free you and Tarek, obviously as persons of privilege with Canadian citizenship and a wide circle of support? There was this incredibly well-organized international support campaign on your behalf. At the same time, and now a few weeks later, still there are hundreds of people inside Tora and other prisons as the coup regime continues its detention, silencing and attacks against the protest movement. How are you thinking about all of this?

JG: Well, it’s certainly something we wake up to every day. For the 600 remaining — there were 602 of us arrested on 16 August, 600 remain in prison, facing the same grab-bag of charges. So we feel very identified to those 600 and particularly the 36 we shared the first cell with.

I think there are a few crucial points. One is that in terms of getting us out, we’re hugely grateful to absolutely everybody — from the 6-year-old kid who did drawings that got posted, beautiful kids’ drawings, to the support from ordinary citizens, through the artists, through [actors] Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron and [economist and activist] Naomi Klein and Stephen Harper — our right-wing prime minister. We were grateful and equally we’re critical.

We’re critical of the Canadian government because we’re fully aware – I think everyone understands — we were used as a convenient way of not addressing the coup.

We were sort of a gift in some ways — there were a lot of demands from people in Canada [for the government] to denounce the coup, and they were able to sidestep that — never to say a word about the coup but just to focus on “we’re getting John and Tarek out.” They worked extremely hard to get us out, but that doesn’t take away their responsibility to speak out on behalf of the hundreds and thousands who are dead, the hundreds and thousands who are injured and in jails.

We work with the Egyptian-Canadian Coalition for Democracy, which is a non-aligned, non-Brotherhood movement on the ground, a grassroots group in Canada, in the Canadian context, trying to do support for what’s been so decimated in terms of the revolution, what we all think of as the Tahrir Square revolution.

And searching for ways to support that, the spirit of the independent voices.

EI: You’re a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. Talk about your work as an artist and activist in that context, and really what you were traveling to Gaza to do in the first place.

JG: Through Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA), our group has worked since the beginning with all sorts of international groups, including groups in the West Bank — groups like Al Qaws and more recently PQBDS [Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions]. And I’ve been part of that networking and especially that focus around boycott, divestment and sanctions. So bringing queer activism and queer organizing to the BDS movement.

Both Tarek and I are from different vantage points — me as a filmmaker and queer activist, Tarek as a doctor — we were very interested in joining conversations in Gaza about LGBT issues. And though that work has been going on for a decade in the West Bank, it’s at a very different place in Gaza.

We were very keen just to be on the ground in whatever ways, through the arts networks or through the medical networks, Tarek’s medical networks, to see what sort of conversations are happening and to see if there was an interest in them. That was Tarek’s pitch a year ago when he approached me and said, “want to come to Gaza? Let’s see what kinds of conversations we can join in terms of LGBT issues.”

And that was really compelling to me, and really important. I’m in the middle of an edit right now — I left it behind in August, and I’m in the middle of an edit which I’m hoping to pick up on soon, which is an experimental documentary about BDS — queer activism and BDS and pinkwashing.

And it will in fact feature Ali Abunimah, who came to Toronto to speak about pinkwashing, and he did both a brilliant lecture and a brilliant interview. So that’s something I’m keen to get back to. But my life seems to be quite interrupted right now.

EI: You’ve also made several films, incidentally, about prison. How were you thinking about your work — if you were thinking about it at all while you were in Tora — going forward, after having this experience?

JG: For me, it became sort of a joke with my cellmates — while I wasn’t out as a gay filmmaker, I was out of course as a filmmaker. And so we would rotate each night — members would get up and talk about their lives and their experiences of arrest, and so through Tarek’s translation I talked about being a filmmaker and the irony of how usually you do your research first and then make the film. And in my case, I’d made 3 features, all prison stories, then finally now I’m doing my research in Tora.

They enjoyed the ironies of that. They were of course really intrigued and fascinated and hopeful that I would, in turn, go on and make a film about the experience in Tora. And who knows, it’s incredibly powerful subject matter, the people we met and had the privilege of getting to know were very inspirational in various ways — and contradictory as you can imagine.

Our cellmates were a cross-section of Egypt — probably a pretty typical cross-section. A good half of them probably had never been in a demonstration before in their lives. Despite the accusations of the guards that this was a Muslim Brotherhood cell, in fact there were only three MB members, and the rest were people with very different relationships to activism. Some zero [relationships to activism], some lifelong activists.

For instance, one guy who is a blacksmith has been involved in social movements his whole life. Just an incredible guy. Many of the members were very critical of the MB. But all of them came out on the 16th to join what they thought, like us, was a peaceful demonstration to register their protest against the unfolding massacres, especially the massacres of the two previous days in Rabaa [square], and they like us, got picked off after the demonstration was over.

They managed to stay safe all day, they were able to leave, they were making their way through the streets when they were trapped, sometimes by the police, sometimes by vigilante gangs, and handed over to the police — and then rounded up and like us faced the most ludicrous of charges.

EI: After all of this, do you have plans yet to try and go back to Palestine? Or to Egypt, for that matter?

JG: Well, I feel like I have to go back to Egypt because I’m now so fascinated about it. I mean, what an extraordinary country, and all this history. And now, all these new friends. And I don’t mean just the friends we made in prison, but also the folks on the outside in Cairo. And I won’t say names, but I think I could mention in general members of the Mosireen collective, who were very active working for our release and doing extraordinary stuff.

And that feeling of real connection to the work they were doing, to the struggle they’re facing because they can’t find a way to make their work move forward. And so as they’re struggling to find a way and a voice forward, we felt a huge connection with them.

And likewise, we’re really struggling ourselves trying to find a message that’s productive and useful and contributes something to that struggle on the ground. Every day brings new despair in the headlines, I shudder to think what the coming days are going to bring in terms of the new pro-Morsi demonstrations and what the army will do to people. It’s as frightening as it gets.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).