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Life once in shambles, former USF instructor Al-Najjar builds new one

CAIRO — The man at the corner fruit stand shows Mazen Al-Najjar the plump figs and cactus fruit he has cleaned for him.

"For your enjoyment, pasha," the merchant says.

Al-Najjar bites into a juicy cactus fruit and thanks him. "Because of people like you, there is much enjoyment in my life — however long it is."

Six years after his deportation from the United States, Al-Najjar will be the first to say he has struggled to get to a place where he could appreciate such small pleasures. The former University of South Florida instructor has had to overcome financial ruin, bouts of anxiety, the breakup of his family, diabetes and most recently a diagnosis of soft tissue cancer.

When Al-Najjar left Tampa on a charter jet in August 2002 headed for nobody-knew-where, he left behind more than 2,000 news stories, a documentary film on his case, and thousands of supporters who had protested his incarceration on secret evidence. The Palestinian was accused of having connections to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group.

Because his detention for 1,307 days without charge raised major questions about constitutional violations, it was the subject of columns and editorials in most major U.S. newspapers. The St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune wrote about Al-Najjar weekly for years.

Then, suddenly, he was gone.

As soon as a sister who lives in Lebanon picked him up at the Beirut airport, Al-Najjar faded into obscurity, exactly as he wanted. When he made his way to Cairo a few months later, no one wrote about it. And a year later, when he was indicted as a co-conspirator in the case against his brother-in-law, Sami Al-Arian, nobody came looking for him.

"The U.S. government held me thinking I'd testify against Sami," he says. "When I had nothing to offer, they lost interest in me."

Prosecutors never explained why they didn't pursue Al-Najjar. The indictment effectively prevented him from leaving Egypt; he could have been picked up on an international arrest warrant if he tried to enter another country.

About four years after Al-Najjar's deportation, Al-Arian pleaded guilty to one count of helping associates of a terrorist group in nonviolent ways. The deal came six months after a federal jury acquitted Al-Arian on eight charges and deadlocked on the remaining nine.

Al-Arian is now awaiting deportation to Egypt, having been held a year beyond his sentence because he refuses to testify against the head of a Virginia think tank. "Will it never end?" asks Al-Najjar.

Overwhelming anxiety

Al-Najjar hated Cairo at first. The dust, the noise, the traffic drove him crazy. He was continually getting sick from the food and water. He was forever banging up his car. His wife, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and lived in Tampa for 15 years, was upset over the cruel turn their lives had taken. His daughters were miserable. He was unemployed and depressed.

"I missed everything about our lives in Tampa, from Dunkin' Donuts to the Yellow Pages," he says.

"Mazen was very nervous and unhappy in the beginning," said Waleed Al-Shobakky, a journalist who worked with Al-Najjar, writing science articles for Al-Jazeera, a satellite TV network based in Qatar, and translating for Amnesty International. "He was overwhelmed and his blood sugar fluctuated wildly."

Al-Najjar began to calm down after about a year, he says, when he realized he could make a living.

By then, he and his wife had divorced and she had moved across town with their daughters, now 13, 17 and 19. To support them, he worked 14-hour days alone in a small apartment.

"I so hated solitary confinement in prison, and here I was inflicting it on myself again," he says.

Rebounding optimism

Gradually things got better. A mall between his apartment and his ex-wife's home put in a Cinnabon restaurant and he met his daughters there each week. They ate cinnamon buns, drank coffee and talked for hours, as they used to do in Tampa.

"I had my family again."

He began taking taxis and buses around the city, meeting with scholars and students to debate politics and history. He took monthly cruises down the Nile, relaxing on the ship's deck in the balmy night air. He prided himself on his ability to support his family, his homemade Turkish coffee and his palate for olive oil. He renovated his apartment.

"You'd have to live in Cairo to know what a feat it is to get a plumber, a carpenter and an electrician to show up," he says.

He was buoyed last year when his sister Nahla Al-Arian moved to Cairo to ready a home for husband Sami, who could soon be deported.

Until his recent cancer surgery Al-Najjar, 51, walked the quarter mile from his place to Nahla's spacious, air-conditioned apartment three or four times a week.

A large amount of muscle was removed from his left thigh, followed by radiation treatments, and Al-Najjar now walks with a pronounced limp.

"I don't know how long I have left," he says, "but I know I'm not going to waste a minute."

In June, he married a psychiatrist in her early 40s. It is her first marriage and they are talking about having a child. "Even more reason to live," he says.

Soothing advice

On this night, Al-Najjar drives over to Nahla's with the figs and cactus fruit he bought earlier. Nahla's daughter and mother are there. Sami Al-Arian's mother and brothers and sister arrive near midnight to discuss a recent development in Al-Arian's case that may reunite him with his family before winter.

"Do you think it will happen this time?" Al-Arian's brother Khalid asks Al-Najjar, who is considered the family authority on U.S. immigration. "We've been hopeful so many times only to be disappointed."

"One day Sami will be out. Don't worry about the future," says Al-Najjar as he pops a huge purple fig in his mouth.

Contact Meg Laughlin at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

Life once in shambles, former USF instructor Al-Najjar builds new one 08/31/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 6, 2008 2:38pm]

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