On Father’s Day itself, I would call him, we would have a chat, and I would tell him I am proud that he is my dad. This Father’s Day, there will be no teasing, no calls, no messages, and no laughs.
This Father’s Day, my siblings and I are praying that our father gets out of prison safely. I used to tease my dad that every day is a Father’s Day, and he would laugh.
On February 27, Tunisia detained our father, Said Ferjani. He is an Ennahda party member who was arrested as part of President Kais Saied’s most recent campaign against dissension. He has not been formally accused of anything, and no charges have been brought against him. His true guilt, in our opinion, is his excessive love for his nation and opposition to its reemergence as an authoritarian state.
We have been unable to contact him since his arrest about four months ago. We are aware that he is being housed in an appalling cell with 120 other prisoners. Some of the prisoners are vicious felons who frequently assault the other detainees.
When he was first detained, my father went on a hunger strike but had to end it because his health swiftly declined and he was admitted to the hospital. Due to the moist circumstances in the cell and the other prisoners’ continuous cigarette smoking after he was returned to the prison, he got bronchitis. He was admitted to the hospital once more and afterwards discharged with an inhaler he had never used before. This has caused us great concern.
The four-month nightmare brought back memories of a previous one that took place more than 30 years ago.
My father was initially placed in prison when I was three years old. In November 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator of Tunisia who had just been installed following a coup, initiated a crackdown on the opposition Ennahda party and other organisations out of concern that their rising popularity may endanger his rule.
In the dead of night, they came for my father. A dozen armed police officers breaking through the front door awakened me up. My mother was forced to the floor, and my father was tied and made to lie face down on the ground before they looted our home.
My father attempted to give me a reassuring grin as I just stood there in silence. My oldest brother Seifedinne, who was seven years old at the time, asked a spooky security guard, “Are you going to kill my father?” I don’t recall how long it all lasted, but I do remember it. He was hoisted up and given a kiss by the man. My brother froze in terror.
For the first time, I witnessed my father in peril and recognised that neither he nor the rest of the world were invulnerable. My father asked if he may kiss me before we were hauled away. I approached him, knelt down, and gave him a kiss.
In the days that followed, I watched on television as my father was charged with belonging to a “gang of chaos”. I came upon a picture of someone they identified as Said Ferjani. It was taken in a dark room with a torch shining on him; the effects of torture had significantly altered his appearance, making it difficult for me to distinguish him.
I’ve always been a “daddy’s girl”. My father never shied away from showing how much he loved me and how important a place I had in his heart. I relished every second of it. While my mother was at work, I frequently shared my mornings with him. I relished the time we spent together playing and chatting.
He listened to everything I said with interest, as if it were the most significant thing. I too adored him and aspired to be like him, even going so far as to attempt to shave like him and end up with a cut lip.
My father’s imprisonment overtook me. I eagerly anticipated the few times we were allowed to see him. Those were uncommon since we would not be permitted to visit him for a while after he was tortured and until he recovered.
Being his daughter, I have the incredible honour of getting to know my father and witnessing first-hand what a man full of beautiful contradictions he is: a man strong enough to stand up to dictators but weak enough to cry over any sob story; a man who is extremely intelligent and perceptive but also incredibly trusting to the point of naivete; a man who has deeply held beliefs but is also willing to admit when he is mistaken.
People have questioned me about whether or not I ever begged my father to leave Tunisia when he was about to be arrested. I never did it and it never even crossed my mind. It’s as though they want him to compromise his principles and stop being himself.
I wish I was with my father on this Father’s Day. I wish I could give him a hug, speak with him, and hear his joyous laughing. I miss him so much. But I find comfort in the knowledge that my father is still the most liberated person I know despite being physically confined to his jail.