When Father’s Day approached, I often teased my father that every day is Father’s Day. used to laugh On Father’s Day, I’d call him, we’d chat and I’d tell him I was proud to have him as my dad.
This Father’s Day, there will be no teasing, no calls, no messages and no laughter. This Father’s Day, my siblings and I are praying that our father gets out of prison safe and sound.
Our father, Said Farzani, was detained in Tunisia on February 27. A member of the Ennahda party, he is one of ten prominent opposition figures detained in the latest crackdown on dissent from President Qais Said. No charges have been filed against him and he has not been formally charged with anything. His real crime – we suspect – is loving his country too much and opposing the return of authoritarianism there.
It has been almost four months since his arrest and we have not been able to speak to him. We know that he is currently holding 120 people in a cell in horrible conditions. Some of the prisoners are violent criminals and they often attack others.
My father started a hunger strike when he was first imprisoned but had to break it as his health rapidly deteriorated and he was hospitalized. After he was sent back to prison, he developed bronchitis due to the damp conditions of the cell and the constant cigarette-smoking of other inmates. He was readmitted to the hospital and then sent back with an inhaler that he had never needed before. It really worries us.
The nightmare of the past four months brought back another memory – from more than 30 years ago.
I was three years old when my father was first imprisoned. It was November 1987 and Tunisia’s then-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had just come to power in a coup, ordered a crackdown on the opposition Ennahda party and other groups, fearing that their growing popularity could undermine his presidency.
They came for my father in the middle of the night. I awoke to the sound of a dozen armed police forcing their way through the front door. They pushed my mother to the floor, handcuffed my father, pushed him face down and then ransacked our house.
I silently looked at my father who wanted to smile reassuringly at me. I can’t remember how long it lasted but I remember my older brother, Sefedin, who was seven at the time, asking a terrified security officer “Are you going to kill my father?” The man picked her up and kissed her. The brother became silent in fear.
It was the first time I saw my father in danger and realized that he was not invincible and the world was not safe. Before being taken away, my father asked if he could kiss me. I walked over to him, leaned down and let him kiss me.
In the days that followed, I saw on TV my father being accused of being part of a “gang of chaos”. I have seen a picture of a person whom they claim is Saeed Farzani. It was taken in a dark room, with a flashlight shining on it; His face was so changed by torture that I did not recognize him.
I have always been a “daddy’s girl”. My father never hid how much he adored me, how special a place I held in his heart – and I loved every moment of it. I often spent my mornings with my mother while she was at work. I enjoyed our time together, playing with him and talking to him.
He was always interested in everything I had to say; He listened as if it was the most important thing. I also admired him and wanted to be like him … I even tried to shave like him once and ended up with a cut lip.
I consumed with my father when he was in prison. I was looking forward to the few visits we were allowed with him. These were rare because every time he was tortured, we wouldn’t be allowed to see him for a while until he recovered.
On the way to the prison, I would tell bus drivers and taxi drivers that we were going to see my father, a hero, who was captured by the then interior minister, Habib Ammar. I said “Hero!” all the way
I was so afraid he would forget me that I tried to keep the same short haircut when he was arrested even though I hated it and my older cousins were making fun of it. I wanted to make sure he would recognize me when we visited.
After some time the families of political prisoners are told that some are being released. I went to wait in front of the jail with my mother and father’s good friend Uncle Sahnoun Zuhri (who himself was later arrested and died in police custody).
Although the detainees were released, my father was not among them. I cried on the way home. Trying to comfort me, Uncle Sahnun said to me, “You know in school, the students leave first and then the teachers, well, these are the students and your father is the teacher.” Before he finished, I cried “I don’t want my dad to be a teacher, I want him home!”
My father told me later that when my mother narrated this episode to him, she felt so much pain that she was determined to get out. This led him to organize a prison strike to press for his release.
My father was finally released in 1989. He came out in a wheelchair, the torturers having broken his back. The day she returned home was the happiest day of my life. But we could not go back to life as before.
My father knew it would only be a matter of time before Ben Ali’s regime would come after him again so he decided to leave his beloved country UK. After that we joined him.
Torture and imprisonment scarred my father’s body but not his soul. In exile, he devoted himself to his family, but also to his country. He was an active advocate of human rights in Tunisia and a vocal critic of Ben Ali’s regime. He often traveled around the world to spread awareness about the release of Tunisian prisoners of conscience and the brutal Tunisian dictatorship.
When the Tunisian revolution overthrew Ben Ali in January 2011, my father immediately moved to Tunis. His party, Ennahda, was finally legally allowed to participate in politics and won the first democratic elections in Tunisia.
In 2019, my father decided to contest a seat in Parliament. He wanted to help lift his hometown of Kairouan out of economic stagnation and poverty after decades of neglect. He won the seat and began traveling to the city every week in a public shared taxi and meeting with people in his constituency.
Then in July 2021, Said staged a coup in Tunisia, sacking the government, suspending parliament and taking executive and legislative powers. He brought the country back to the dark ages of dictatorship.
My father realized that he would be arrested soon. He knew he was on a target list and was repeatedly taken in for questioning by security forces. But this time he decided not to go.
After returning from exile, my father decided that no matter what happened, he would never leave Tunisia again. He returned as an old man and wanted to die in his country. Activism and advocacy in the diaspora was for young people, not for him.
While in the UK, my father waived his right to apply for British citizenship even though he was entitled to it. He wanted to oppose Ben Ali as a fellow Tunisian, return as a Tunisian, and participate in Tunisian politics without a foreign passport to serve as a “get out of jail free” card.
A few days before his arrest, my father told us something we already knew: that this is the life he has chosen, that his decisions are made on principle and not fear, and that he wants to continue fighting for freedom, dignity and independence. The rights his fellow Tunisians deserve.
The day my father was arrested, I couldn’t breathe from the anger, pain, sadness and injustice I felt. I feel like I haven’t taken a full breath since. The childhood trauma of losing him came flooding back to me.
One of the things that bothers me the most is that people like my father are easily dehumanized with the label “Islamist”. The commitment they have shown to democracy and human rights is brushed aside and their imprisonment is quickly justified and accepted.
My father is not a blind follower of any political ideology. He is a man of principle, an advocate of freedom and a fearless advocate of democracy. He is a tender, loving father, who sings to his children by their names; Who bursts into a roaring laugh when we respond to him intelligently; Who will cry if we do not call him enough; Who encourages his outspoken daughter to be bolder and more outspoken, even when she criticizes him and his team.
I am truly honored to have known my father, to have been his daughter, to have seen first-hand what a man full of beautiful contradictions he was: a man brave enough to challenge dictators, yet soft enough to cry any cry; A man who is highly intelligent and perceptive and yet deeply convinced to the point of naivety; A man of strong convictions who is willing to admit when he is wrong.
I have been asked if I ever begged my father to leave Tunisia when he knew his arrest was imminent. I never did and it never occurred to me. It’s like telling her not to be herself, betraying her trust. I love and respect him so much for doing something like this.
This Father’s Day, I want to be with my dad. I wish I could hug her, talk to her, hear her cheerful laugh. I miss him so much. But I take comfort in the fact that even though he is physically confined to his cell, my father is the freest man I know.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.