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Ilan’s Exodus

Michal Ish Shalom

For 150 days, American law student Ilan Grapel was held in solitary confinement in an Egyptian prison, accused of spying for Israel and fomenting revolt in Cairo. Back home in Queens after a low-level prisoner swap, Grapel spoke to Mishpacha about his four nightmarish months when he envisioned himself doomed forever, revealing how an accidental foray into the world of the yeshivah helped him survive in Egyptian captivity.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Three powerful knocks on the door shattered the silence of the night, which was already giving way to the rising sun. A moment later, a group of plainclothes police burst into the $9-per-night room in one ofCairo’s seedier hotels, flashlights pointed at the lump in the bed.

Shu ismak?” The guttural tones demanded the identity of the young man who awoke in a fright. He handed them his two passports — one American, the other Israeli.

“Ilan Grapel,” a mustached man read off the name.

A standard inspection of the low-class hotels, Grapel thought naively. He was unconcerned, certain that the matter would be concluded when the men saw his passports were in order.

But the strongmen had other ideas. Without giving an explanation, they ordered him to dress quickly and proceeded to handcuff him. He was bundled into a black car and blindfolded so that he couldn’t see where he was being taken.

He still didn’t know who had taken him prisoner, until he was brought into an interrogation room. Only then did he discover that he had been arrested by the Egyptian security forces. “You have been arrested on charges of spying forIsrael,” his captors informed him.

From out of his imagination, a vision of the face of Azzam Azzam — who languished in an Egyptian prison for eight years under charges of espionage forIsrael— appeared and floated in front of his eyes. His stomach turned at the mere thought that the same fate awaited him.

Grapel — a law school student who, at the time of the January revolution, went to Egypt to help Darfur refugees — was more fortunate than Azzam Azzam; he was finally released at the end of October, after over four months in captivity, in a prisoner swap for 25 petty thieves and border smugglers being held in Israel. “Don’t worry, we’re not actually releasing anyone we want in our jails anymore,” an Israeli official told Grapel soon after he landed in Israelafter the swap. After those four harrowing months, Grapel spoke with Mishpacha from his home in Queens, where he’s staying until his return toEmoryLawSchool inAtlanta next semester.


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