In collaboration with

In collaboration with

A

Boy

Named

Justice

The Story of Adel Abdul Bary

By Zimarina Sarwar

It’s between Scrumple Nutty and Choccy Scoffy.

Since Adel is uninitiated, I recommend the former but warn him about the cocoa dusting on these chocolate truffles. It sticks to your fingers and is bitter on first taste but gets sweet inside. He nods, “Yes, lots of things in life are like that. Time teaches you through the bitter and sweet.”

Time. Where we sit, there is a wall opposite us that hosts clocks documenting time. There’s a clock for Belmarsh, one for Abu Ghraib, one for ADX Florence, and one for Baghram. They’re not altogether dissimilar to the clocks I had seen behind the till point of a clothing store the day before. Except, that was fashion capitals of the world. They had a clock for London, one for Paris, Milan, and New York. Themed clocks on the wall symbolically transport us to ticking realities we wish to remain connected to, whether that’s the infamous sites of the War on Terror or haute-couture fashion runways.

If there were to be clocks on the wall of Adel Abdul Bary’s life, the first would be covered with the hot energy of a youth in Cairo, the next would have the shiny gloss and drawl of New York City, a third might house the hustle and grime of North London, while smaller clock faces on the side would hail the hour in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Across time-zones and geography, Adel has lived in the spotlight of labels designed to compress an expansive and rich life experience into bite-size takeaways. A Google search has him as “Osama bin Laden’s right hand man” or “al-Qaeda’s media wing”. Wikipedia goes for the no-nonsense “Egyptian terrorist”; families of 200 dead in US embassy bombings in East Africa have him as a “calculated cold-blooded killer”. Amnesty International had him as a “prisoner of conscience” and “survivor of torture”, ADX Florence has him as a “model prisoner and leather bag craftsman” and Judge Lewis Kaplan has him as someone “deserving of mercy to live the rest of his life as a free man”.

So,

Osama Bin Laden’s right hand man,
Osama Bin Laden’s right hand man,
Al Qaeda’s media wing,
Al Qaeda’s media wing,
Egyptian terrorist,
Egyptian terrorist,
calculated cold blooded killer,
calculated cold blooded killer,
prisoner of conscience,
prisoner of conscience,
survivor of torture,
survivor of torture,
model prisoner and leather bag craftsman,
model prisoner and leather bag craftsman,
deserving of mercy to live
deserving of mercy to live
the rest of his life as a free man
the rest of his life as a free man

So, who is Adel Abdul Bary?

At 62-years-old, he is now someone who speaks with a retrospective lens that stretches further back than most of our public discourse allows.

His story begins in a world decades before 9/11 defined the political landscape, and when the word “terrorist” was not yet semantically bleached as a shorthand for an angry bearded Muslim. That is because Adel has lived long enough to have experiences that have crossed continents, regimes, legal battles, and justice systems. He has seen realities morph as the discursive winds blow. In a time of 280-character political analyses, Adel’s life throws open a window into a complicated world where community, revival, political dissent, and the reality of state power were not abstract realities, but formative high-impact experiences that forcefully wove themselves into the fabric of his life.

For me, when I first learned I would be covering the story of Adel Abdul Bary, I did the obvious and headed straight to Google. The results were damning. And unanimous. The latest news articles were filled with emotive accounts from the families of the US embassy bombing victims. His own guilty pleas were there. When I read the death toll of 220, my first thought was (full disclosure): “Yeesh, how is he possibly going to explain this?” Within the mental acrobatics, one thing I knew for sure is that my role was to listen and trust that the story will tell itself. If I’m lucky, it will write itself, too. I knew, also, how rare it was to get this vantage point: being able to sit, listen, and explore directly from the mouth of the person who is the subject of all the speculation.

Would he even trust me? Why should he? Would I trust someone I had never met — but only got secondary reassurances about — with the deepest, darkest, most sensitive events of my life? We were about to find out. I knew though — in sitting down with Adel — the task was two-fold: to let him reveal his own reality; and secondly, to question, prod, and make sense of his journey as an observer and a witness. And maybe a confidant, too.

A

Family

Called

the

Abdul

Barys

..

....

....

A

Family

called

the

Abdul Barys

A Family called the Abdul Barys

For a young boy in a well-connected family growing up in Choubra, Adel’s childhood in Cairo was defined by one word: community.

And there was lots of it. With five siblings, Adel was a middle child whose family lived in one large apartment block, with each floor given to a different relative. This meant aunts, uncles, and dozens of cousins lived upstairs, downstairs, and on each side. Food was shared, and so was news, banter, shopping, outings, activities, and the daily foibles of active family life. Adel rolled with his cousins daily, and with the right company, the neighbourhood always had something to keep them entertained. Roaming around the streets, playing football, and dodging the omniscient eyes of elders were the most common exploits of Adel’s childhood. It was busy, it was fun, and it was full.

Adel’s parents themselves came from different worlds. His mother grew up in a wealthy family in Sharqiya, enjoying the attention of multiple maids assigned to her every move and the trappings of privilege. From a humbler home in Darb Al Ahmar, Adel’s father came from a long line of military and government officials, concerned with the affairs of the state. Though always in the loop, it was his father himself who bucked the trend and sought a career in business instead, the fashion world at that.

Adel’s father was always suited and booted, a man who served the crème de la crème of Egyptian society. He was immaculate in his appearance: cologne applied and crisp shirts with fresh crease lines always. Groomed at all times.

It made sense, since he had a senior role at the most elite department store of the time — Les Grands Magasins Cicurel — set up by a prominent Sephardic Jewish family. Adel’s father would head into downtown Cairo every morning near Opera Square, a prestigious area of chic hotels and consulates. It had an excellent reputation for high quality and was a purveyor to the royal palace during the reign of Kings Fu’ad and Faruq. The Cicurel stores had a foreign cultural character due to their largely non-citizen Jewish staff, their exclusive and largely imported merchandise, and the use of French by employees and customers on the shop floors. This was a place that required customer attire to be checked before entry by a critical footman at the door. Though keenly invested in his appearance, Adel’s father was far from superficial. He was a man of his society, someone who understood the mechanisms of politics and state, and whose own family was heavily involved in the system. High connections ran deep, as Adel’s cousin himself was married to the daughter of Anwar Sadat.

Though Adel’s paternal grandfather was a hāfidh of the Qur’ān (one who had memorised the Qur’ān), his own father didn’t particularly prioritise religion. Adel grew up in a home where prayer was not a thing outside of twice-yearly communal Eid prayers. Islam was absorbed passively as a result of circumstance, not conviction. Like in all Muslim countries, Ramadan was an event in the calendar to be marked, and so Adel began fasting the sunrise-to-sunset days from age six. The extent of Islam in his household was left there.

The priority for Adel’s upbringing was education. And when it came to education, Adel’s curiosity and eager mind soon caught the affections of his teachers. Adel thrived in the recognition and was highly studious as a result. His father would counsel him, “In this country, there are only two ways to influence anything: one is through personal connections to people in power, and the second is to be the top of your class.” Adel set his sights on being the top of the class. It wasn’t long before he got there and soon it was an open fact that he had become the teacher’s favourite. One of the areas Adel shone was in school assembles. Here, teachers would select the most able students to give a public address to the students, parents, and teachers. No matter how early Adel woke up for school, he would always find his father up earlier than he was. He’d either finished writing out pointers for the speech, or was on the last line. He’d call Adel over and ask him to practise what he was going to say, and how he planned to deliver it.

The topics of the speeches were varied. When the leaves started to fall, then a reflection on Autumn would commence. When the school asked students to ponder happiness, a thoughtful poem of it would be recited. When students needed a motivational talk, Adel would stand to exhort them to fulfil their greatest aspirations. With his father’s notes in hand, this was a young boy delivering words beyond his years, always to the pride of his teachers and often to the beguilement of his fellow classmates. Adel loved learning and his father loved his love for learning.

– WB Yeats

“Education is not the filling of a pot, but the lighting of a fire”

– WB Yeats

Young Adel was on fire.

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