“Every day, I reread what presumably would have been one of the last emails you sent that Sunday before they came for you and Mohamed and then Baher. In typical AJE style I was asking you about your next assignment even before you’d finished your current one.”
So begins a letter from the head of newsgathering in Africa for Al Jazeera English sent to Peter Greste, one of hundreds gathered (and thousands more sent) in a book being released tonight in Sydney, Prison Post: letters of support for Peter Greste.
The letters go from the personal to the distant. Many who did not know Greste wrote awkwardly, seemingly unsure of what to say, while others gushed forth with news from their lives and the countries Greste had visited. Letters from Egyptians, like that from NSW-based Mohamed Ibrahim, expressed sorrow for the actions of their motherland. The personal letters ache with sadness, hope and, occasionally, anger. Journalists like Yaara Bou Melhem, whose Datelinestory sparked a national call to keyboards, wrote detailed accounts of Greste’s family, with whom she’d spent time filming her story. Many writers also referenced The Hoopla’s letter-writing campaign for Greste.
The letters, Greste writes in the forward to Prison Post, got him through the 400 days he spent incarcerated.
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“In prison, one of the most disturbing things is a sense of isolation — the fear that you are on your own, with nobody to fight your corner, nobody to shout by your side or get mad on your behalf. And, if you are genuinely innocent, caught in a painfully slow judicial system and with no obvious end in sight, the isolation can start to play games with your mind.
The thousands of letters he received, Greste wrote, were extraordinary.
“Some wrote simple messages … Sometimes the notes were wonderful, gossipy accounts of family life, reminding us that the ordinary and mundane is as beautiful and important as the dramatic and spectacular. And sometimes they were thoughtful, almost meditative, reflections on our situation … I even got poetry.”
The letters, Greste writes, showed he and his incarcerated colleagues two vital things. First, that they weren’t alone, and secondly, they gave their imprisonment meaning.
The letters were collected by Canberra publisher Editia, a relatively new publisher headed by Charlotte Harper, that has also published 18 Days: Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution, by former Australian Al Jazeera journo Scott Bridges. Tonight in Sydney’s Berkelouw’s Paddington, the book is being launched by Greste, and three of the letter-writers — school-girl Pippa Pryor, Wendy Harmer, and Brisbane mum Paige Garland. Profits from the book will go towards the Foreign Prisoner Support Service.