Enduring 13 years of her husband’s imprisonment in the UK, his fight against deportation to the US, and the challenges of preserving her family through hardship, Ragaa, the wife of Adel Abdul Bary, recounts life as a spouse of a terrorism suspect.
Ragaa met Adel Abdul Bary, the man who would become her husband, in 1981. Her Egyptian family had moved from the countryside into a flat near the centre of Cairo. In those days she was a girl in tight jeans and a T-shirt, with long hair below her waist, though at her parents’ insistence she tied it back in a plait, and was not allowed to wear makeup. At Cairo University, Ragaa found herself doing business studies instead of the art or music she had wanted to do, because her final school exam results were not good enough.
She hated her course but was entranced by the university world. Before long, other girls from her class, wearing hijab, began to take her aside and talk to her about how her beautiful hair should be hidden, encouraging her to come into the mosque area of the college. “I went,” she says. “It was something different. I felt calm, peaceful in there.”
Ragaa and her sister began to follow Islam more strictly than the rest of their Muslim family. It was the fashion for the educated young back then, she says. The two girls went to an all-female Islamic study circle where the male teacher sat the other side of a curtain. One day, Ragaa saw him after class in the street, a handsome man with a little beard and turban, and imagined how lovely it would be to be his wife. Later, his sister spoke to her about a marriage, and then to her great excitement, he and his family came to visit hers. The marriage was decided.
At the time Egypt was a tinder-box of political and religious tension. On 3 September 1981 President Anwar Sadat had ordered an extraordinary mass round-up of religious leaders, politicians, journalists, army officers and others. He mocked the girls wearing chadors, “going about like black tents”, and the young men with beards. Sadat was assassinated shortly afterwards, during a military parade, by a handful of young Islamist officers, and was succeeded by another military leader, Hosni Mubarak.
After Adel’s return from a year’s study in Yemen, there was a formal written Islamic marriage. Ragaa thought the life she had imagined was about to begin but soon Adel was arrested like so many thousands opposed to the Mubarak regime. She spent six months travelling with his sister to every prison in Egypt to try to find him. When she finally did, he was a veteran of torture – by hanging, electric shock and solitary confinement underground. There had been a period of hospitalisation, followed by ordinary prison. No one knew when Adel would be released, or if he ever would.