“Finding Room for Common Ground: No Enemies, No Hatred”

The train from Copenhagen airport to Malmö, Sweden took just half an hour across the 21st century Øresund Bridge, which spans five miles of water, then the train dove into 2.5 miles of tunnel. Looking out the window at farmland and the blue waters of the Baltic Sea, I imagined this journey was not so easy 74 years ago with Nazis in pursuit. In 1943 as the Nazis went to sweep Denmark’s 7800 Jews into concentration camps, Danish and Swedish citizens rallied, and 7220 people managed to escape in boats across this Sound to nearby Sweden. Thousands landed in Malmö where I was headed for a less dramatic, but still fraught, occasion.

Members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) whose writers live inside and outside mainland China were joining writers from Uyghur PEN, Tibetan PEN and members from Inner Mongolia, along with writers from PEN Turkey and Azerbaijan for the First International Conference of Four-PEN Platform: “Finding Room for Common Ground: No Enemies, No Hatred.” Swedish PEN was providing the safe space for debate, discussion and strategies of action on human rights and freedom of expression. Just six weeks before, one of ICPC’s founding members and honorary President Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, died in a Chinese prison after serving nine years of an 11-year sentence for drafting Charter 08, a document co-signed by 308 writers and intellectuals calling for a more democratic and free China.

A recognized leader in China’s Democracy Movement, Liu Xiaobo’s loss was deeply felt. A number of the writers gathered knew and worked with Liu. Most knew at least one fellow writer in prison. Many now live in exile themselves. Almost half of PEN International’s writers-in-prison cases are located in the regions represented at the conference.

The theme “No Enemies, No Hatred”—drawn from Liu Xiaobo’s final statement at his trial—sparked the debate in Malmö.

Keynote speaker Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi challenged, “But I do have enemies and I do feel hatred.” Facing death threats from her government in Iran, she had to leave everything behind at age 63 and move to London.

“Liu Xiaobo said he had no hatred and no enemies, but he also never compromised with any dictators,” she noted. “We must fight against dictators but our weapons are our pens and are nonviolent. We must not be silent. We can’t compromise with governments such as China who would eradicate an ‘empty chair’ from the internet.” [When Liu Xiaobo was unable to attend the Nobel ceremony because he was in prison, the Nobel Committee placed an empty chair on stage to represent him. The Chinese government is said to have censored the term “empty chair” from the internet in China.]

“What is the use of a pen if Liu Xiaobo is dead?” challenged one writer. Another speculated that if Liu Xiaobo had known how his life would end, he would have changed his message. A friend of Liu’s assured that he would not because for him no enemies and no hatred was a spiritual commitment.

“Hatred only eats away at a person’s intelligence and conscience, and an enemy mentality can poison the spirit of an entire people (as the experience of our country during the Mao era clearly shows),” Liu declared to the court at his trial. “It can lead to cruel and lethal internecine combat, can destroy tolerance and human feeling within a society and can block the progress of a nation toward freedom and democracy…. I hope that I can answer the regime’s enmity with utmost benevolence, and can use love to dissipate hate…. No force can block the thirst for freedom that lies within human nature, and some day China, too, will be a nation of laws where human rights are paramount.”

Within this frame and this hope, stories of persecution were exchanged among the Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongolian writers in China and among writers from Azerbaijan and Turkey, where over 150 writers and journalists are currently in prison and over 100,000 judges, academics and civil servants have been fired.

Uyghur and Mongolian writers noted that starting September 1 the Uyghur language is banned from all schools.

“The Chinese call all Uyghurs terrorists,” said one participant. “I have never seen a gun or a bomb in my life, but my name is on Interpol’s list because of my pen. I am a German citizen, and I was in Italy, invited by the Italian Senate when Italian police arrested me because the Chinese government put me on a terrorist list because I speak out for the Uyghurs.”

Can one operate against totalitarian, oppressive governments without hatred and enemies? The question remained unresolved, but participants agreed that protest and actions needed to remain nonviolent. To amplify the voices of the writers who were in prison, those outside could publish them, protest to their governments and recognize the writers with awards. Implicit was a belief in the power of culture and ideas to ultimately change society.

The 2016 Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award was given at the conference to Hu Shigen and Mahvash Sabet. Writer and lecturer Hu Shigen spent his career in the Democracy Movement since 1989 Tiananmen Square when he was arrested for “counterrevolutionary propaganda” and sentenced to 20 years in prison and after release was arrested again for “subverting state power” and returned for seven and a half years in prison where he still resides. Mahvash Sabet, a teacher and noted Baha’i poet, was detained for her faith and for “acting against the security of the country and corruption on earth” in Iran and is now serving a 20-year sentence in Evin prison in Tehran. Her friend Shirin Ebadi accepted the award on her behalf.

Other cases highlighted by the conference included Ilham Tohti, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, Gulmire Imin, Memetjan Abdulla, Gheyret Niyaz, Zhao Haitong, Omerjan Hasan, Qin Yongmin, Zhang Haitao, and Mehman Aliyev. The gathering also highlighted the situation of Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, who is believed still under house arrest. Many are working in the hope of getting her out of China.

When Shirin Ebadi was presented a statue of Liu Xiaobo, she noted that it would sit beside a statue she’d been given of Martin Luther King.

Dr. King’s writing of 54 years ago in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” read at the closing demonstrated the power of ideas and words to endure long after their author has passed away: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The Beginning of Violence

In the wake of events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, I wanted to share my short story “The Beginning of Violence” set at the first sit-in in Nashville, TN in 1960, published in No Marble Angels and republished in Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement: An Anthology (ed. Margaret Earley Whitt, University of Georgia Press, 2006.). The anthology includes 23 short stories by black and white writers—stories of the heart, not just politics—an historic journey worth embarkation.  

THE BEGINNING OF VIOLENCE

by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Nashville, 1960

The wind shot through you that day like fate or some might say like the will of God. No matter what you did, it got you. It weaseled under the buttons of your coat, pulled off your scarf. You couldn’t fight against it though you could stay indoors, but once you came out, you had to face the wind and find your way.

It was the day before Valentine’s, and snow was falling in thick wet flakes, had been since early morning and threatened to keep on all afternoon. As I said, it was not a day to be outside, but I was. I was downtown on the arcade doing last minute shopping for a sorority party that night. We’d been decorating all morning, but we’d run out of crepe paper and balloons; and Janie, the food chairman, was afraid she’d run out of paper plates and cups so I said I’d go downtown and pick up everything.

I went to Woolworth’s. At the Grand Ole Opry counter I bought a red plastic guitar set inside a big red plastic heart for the centerpiece on the officer’s table. I was an officer. I was treasurer of the Kappa Alpha Thetas at Vanderbilt University.

I didn’t feel like turning right around and going back into the cold so I stopped at the lunch counter for coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich. I was sitting there eating and reading “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d” for English class when a blast of air swept across my back. When I turned to see who was holding the door open, I saw dozens of Negroes coming into the store.

They moved straight down the aisles then disappeared among the cheap jewelry and face powders and school supplies.

I turned back around and finished my sandwich and Whitman’s poem. I was about to pay and leave when three Negroes sat down at the counter, one of them next to me. They all held brown paper bags with purchases they’d made. The girl beside me smiled, showing a curve of white teeth and asking more than most people thought she had a right to ask. I looked over my shoulder and saw thirty or forty more Negroes lining up to sit at the counter.

It took me a minute to understand what was happening. I’d grown up in Arkansas and Tennessee, and in nineteen years I’d never eaten beside a Negro. I’d never sat next to one on a bus or gone to the same bathroom. Things were changing in the South, but these were facts I’d lived with. Once in high school in Little Rock I’d signed a petition favoring integration, and that had almost gotten me thrown out of cheerleading. Some people thought anyone for the Negro was a Communist. I wasn’t a Communist; I just thought the Negro should have a chance. And yet even feeling that way, I wasn’t prepared to have the order of things put to question right where I was sitting.

The girl kept smiling. She had a soft mouth and big, dark eyes. Her hair was straightened, and she wore it like mine, in a pageboy with bangs. She was taller than me, and under her coat she looked strong. When she saw my poetry book on the counter, she reached into her pocket and took out a copy of the same book. I couldn’t help but feel she’d just drawn her gun. I glanced away. My eyes fell on her hands; they were the color of dry soil, large and muscular and deeply lined like an old woman’s.

I glanced at her friend next to her, but her friend’s eyes were flat and hard, and her mouth looked set to tell me her mind. It was this girl who got me moving again. I’d been about to pay and leave when they’d sat down. My purse was open on the counter, and I went on counting out the change. I closed my wallet and my purse; I gathered my bags, stood and left. The act of leaving wasn’t a decision so much as a resumption of the way I was already going.

Not till I was outside in the blowing snow, moving towards the bus did I think about what I’d done, not till I was getting on the bus did I hear the words of the waitress: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve coloreds here.” All the way back to

Vanderbilt, and as I walked on campus through what by now was a small scale blizzard, I kept thinking about those words. At the party that night, dancing under the crepe paper streamers we’d draped from the ceiling to make a tent, I could still hear the words and see the face of the girl.

The next morning I read about what had happened at Woolworth’s on page ten of the Nashville Tennessean. Without knowing it, I’d been in the middle of Nashville’s first sit-in. I decided to write my own version of what I’d seen, and I turned it into the college paper. The paper ran the story under the headline: “At the Counter: A Student’s View.” The editor asked me to write on what happened next though no one knew what was going to happen next, but the editor thought something would. He told me I should stress the Vanderbilt angle. I wasn’t sure what the Vanderbilt angle was, but that’s the way I got involved. Before the year was over, I’d witnessed more than a dozen sit-ins.

The next time I saw the girl was two weeks later. In between the snow had kept falling, making it one of the worst winters in Nashville’s history. During those days on the front pages of the Tennessean, Jack Parr was battling NBC over his contract with the Tonight Show while in Washington Lyndon Johnson battled for national civil rights legislation. A hundred miles away in Chattanooga fighting had broken out after sit-ins there. The Nashville sit-ins had stepped up but were still reported on the inside pages. So far no arrests had been made.

All week rumors had been going around that the largest sit-in ever would take place downtown Saturday. I decided to go. Jeff, my boyfriend, tried to argue me out of it then said he’d go with me, but he got sick after a fraternity party Friday night, and so I went by myself. No one at the sorority house could believe I would go, but I did.

When I got there, thousands of people were already on the arcade, and policemen lined the streets. Just after noon the first demonstrators showed up, including the girl. She was wearing the same oversized brown coat; on her head she wore a white crocheted cap. She walked with her head down, bowed against the wind. She didn’t look at anyone. Most of the protesters were students, and they were glancing around at the crowds on the sidewalk. But she stared straight ahead. She was so focused that she didn’t even answer her friend who spoke to her as they entered McClellan’s Variety Store.

I followed them inside. The lunch area was packed with people standing about waiting to see what would happen. The girl made her way through the crowd to a seat at the counter. One by one other students took stools under the faded pictures of salisbury steak, Irish stew, hamburger deluxe. A railing separated the eating area from the rest of the store, and the press stood behind it among hair nets and hair rollers; I took my place with the press.

A waitress approached the girl. “I’m sorry; we don’t serve coloreds here,” she said. “You’ll have to leave.”

“A cup of coffee, please,” the girl answered.

“I’m sorry, we don’t serve coloreds,” the waitress repeated.

“A cup of coffee.”

Half a dozen white teenagers stepped into the area and started catcalling. They picked out a white demonstrator sitting near the girl. “Nigger lover! Nigger lover!” they taunted. A man with a cigar began blowing smoke into the face of the girl and the other students. Several more teenagers moved in, bumping against the protesters, trying to knock them off their stools.

The students didn’t react. The girl pulled her poetry book from her pocket and opened it on the counter. She was starting to read when suddenly she let out a cry. I looked and saw a teenager squash his lighted cigarette on her back. I couldn’t tell if he’d actually burned her or only ruined her coat. She jerked around. She stared straight at the boy. She met his jeer with a question which again asked more than people were willing to have asked of them. Her look must have shaken him or touched something in him because he stepped away. His friends started lighting their cigarettes and pressing them out on the backs of other students, but the boy left the store. The exchange took only a moment, but in it I saw some possibility, some viewpoint I hadn’t considered before.

Before I could think about exactly what this was, however, someone shoved a white protester from his stool and began hitting him in the ribs. The man blowing cigar smoke laid a fist into the back of a black student. Other teenagers began pulling at the hair of the girls sitting at the counter. None of the demonstrators raised a hand to defend him. I saw in the faces of many, anger and a struggle not to fight back. But in the face of the girl I saw something else.

The police finally arrived, but only after the teenagers had run away. They told the protesters they had to leave because the store management had decided to mop the floor. When they refused, the police moved in, taking hold of the students one by one and escorting them into police vans waiting outside. The girl was arrested.

I followed the rest of the day’s events, including the beatings of several Negroes late in the afternoon at Woolworth’s where no police were around. Members of the press, including me, watched as a white teenager pulled a Negro protester from a chair and hit him again and again in the face spreading open his nose with a fist, bloodying both their skins with the same blood and as another white pushed a Negro student down a flight of stairs, sending his arms and legs clattering against the metal. None of the experienced press stepped in to stop what was happening; instead they stood recording the incidents so I did the same. Yet inside I was trembling as if someone had hit me, and I wanted to strike back. I didn’t know what to do with the violence I suddenly felt. I left the store.

I decided to meet the girl. I told the newspaper editor I wanted to write a profile of a demonstrator, and he agreed. I found out her name was Cynthia Davis. She was a senior at Fisk University. When I called her, she at first refused to be interviewed, said there were better people than herself, but I convinced her she was the one I wanted to talk to. She agreed to meet me at a diner near Fisk after classes Friday.

Fisk is only a few miles from Vanderbilt, but like most everyone else, I’d never been in the neighborhood let alone seen the campus. The streets around it were quiet and lined with trees and houses. The campus itself was much smaller than Vanderbilt’s and more run-down. It had one main walkway. On both sides of the walk were dorms and classrooms. I decided to go in just to look. I stayed only long enough to walk to the end of the path and back again, but in that time the world closed in around me. I was the only white person, at least the only one I saw, and I felt everyone staring at me.

When I reached the end of the walk, I read the sign in front of a huge Victorian Gothic building. I tried to concentrate on the fact that this was the first building of the university, the first in the country built to educate Negroes, but the truth is I was thinking only about myself and the color of my skin for all at once my skin seemed alive as if it were plugged in and glowing and separate from me. For a minute I couldn’t feel myself under it. To be suddenly separate from your body is scary. Everyone thinks you’re your body because that’s what they see only you know you’re not. I’ve heard of people coming back after dying, saying they’ve watched themselves from outside, watched everyone else watching their bodies while they knew that wasn’t them only they couldn’t make themselves heard. I don’t want to go on too much, but that’s what I felt: a separation I couldn’t make my way across. The space between me and my skin was like the space between me and the Negroes, and in it was a kind of panic and darkness I wanted to strike out against. For the first time I understood why separation was the beginning of violence.

I hurried back to the car I’d borrowed. I locked the doors and sat for a moment. Finally I started the engine and drove to the diner a few blocks away.

It was five o’clock, and only a handful of students were at the counter and in the booths. When I came in, they glanced up, and again I felt my skin starting to glow. Behind the counter the waitress stared at me. She had a thick ridge of brown hair and dull eyes. She was wiping the stained formica with a rag which she tossed in the sink behind her without taking her eyes off me.

At first I didn’t see Cynthia in any of the tall wooden booths. From the front of the restaurant I could see only the person sitting at the edge of the booth facing forward. But then on the hook of the last booth I spotted the rough brown coat. When I approached, I expected her to recognize me as the girl she’d sat beside in Woolworth’s, but instead I realized she too saw me only as the singular white person in the diner.

She was studying at the table. She wore a grey knit sweater and a white crocheted cap on her head. I’d never seen her without her coat. She was much thinner than I expected. Her shoulders were narrow and her neck quite slender. Again I noticed her hands; they seemed disproportionately large now.

“Cynthia Davis?” I asked.

She nodded.

I sat down and moved towards the wall. Immediately I was hidden from view of the other people. “Thank you for meeting with me.” She didn’t answer. I glanced at her books on the table, and tried to think of what to say. “Do you study here often?”

She nodded again, watching me without speaking. She didn’t seem hostile, only reserved. I’d wanted to meet her to find out where she came from and how she’d arrived at this point in her life. Yet as she stared at me without recognition, I realized I’d also come here to have her meet me and approve of me, and her failure to recognize my imperative made me falter.

I set right into the interview. I asked about her family. She was third in a family of six children from Fayette County, Tennessee. Her father was a preacher, a small plot farmer and owner of a modest dry goods store. Her mother worked the farm and raised the children. Cynthia would be the first of her family to graduate from college. At Fisk on a scholarship, she was an A-student, an English major, and she hoped to go on to law school next year.

She answered my questions without self-consciousness, and because she was at ease with herself, I began to feel more at ease. When I’d run through all the facts I wanted to know, I set my pad and pencil down. Leaning forward on the table, I fixed my eyes on the translucent lobes of her ears which supported the weight of heavy metal hoops. I stared at these as I tried to form the question I had come to pose. Finally I asked, “Why don’t you fight back? The other day, when that boy burned you, why did you just sit there?”

“He was bigger than me,” she answered.

I frowned.

“What would it have proved?”

“That he can’t get away with what he did.”

She smiled. “But he can. We both know that. Fighting him wouldn’t have changed anything.”

“How does getting beaten up or burned change anything?”

“It doesn’t.” She picked up a napkin from the table. She was quiet for a moment; then she asked, “You ever taken a hound dog hunting?” I smiled, surprised by the question. “When a hound dog gets a scent, he won’t let go. He doesn’t care if it’s raining or it’s getting dark or it’s time to go home to bed. You can beat him; you can pull his collar till you choke him, but if he’s got the scent, he’ll do everything he can to take it to the end. Our movement’s like that hound dog. We got the scent, and no one can beat it out of us or burn it out of us. The only thing they can do is show their own meanness.”

She began folding the napkin in her broad hands. Her expression was serious, yet the corners of her mouth turned up, almost smiling, as though she were extending tolerance not only to me but to herself. “We used to think the white man controlled our lives,” she said, “only since we can’t control the white man, we thought we had no control. But it doesn’t matter what white people say we are; it doesn’t matter what unjust laws say we have to do. We know who we are. First and foremost we are God’s children, and no one can turn us into hateful, beaten-down human beings; no one has that power. Power—that’s the scent. It comes from treating a man right. Once you understand that, it will change your life. Jesus Christ showed us how. Mahatma Ghandi showed the people of India they could do the same thing.”

As she spoke, her curious smile remained as if she understood the difficulty of her point of view. She spoke deliberately. She wasn’t carried away by her words but reasoned through to her conclusions with a logic as careful as any lawyer’s. “The righteousness of our cause will win over the hearts of good men and women and eventually change a whole system,” she insisted. She glanced down at the napkin which she’d shredded into a small mound of confetti. She swept the paper into the palm of her hand and dumped it in the ashtray.

“From what I’ve observed,” I offered cautiously, “your friends aren’t as free of the hate and anger as you. Perhaps you understand more.”

Her shoulders straightened against the back of the booth; her face roused. “Don’t try to separate us,” she warned. “You can’t choose among us. What I understand, we all understand.”

“I don’t think that’s true. Your friend next to you, both times I saw her, she was angry. She wanted to strike back; I saw it in her face. You didn’t. I understand what I saw in her; I don’t understand what I saw in you.”

“I’m angry. Anyone not angry is asleep. But we have to struggle with our own weaknesses as well as with society’s.”

“But if your movement depends on society having a conscience and that conscience stirring…well, frankly, I doubt how many good-hearted men and women you’re going to find.”

“Then that doubt is your weakness, isn’t it?” she offered.

I looked up. She stared at me with a calm, penetrating gaze which struck at that separation I’d felt on campus, first from myself then from others. I didn’t answer. Instead I began asking about her friends, again setting her apart from them. Again she held to the group, answering only in the plural. She emphasized she was committed to the Christian ethic of nonviolence for only as one was able to yield himself to God’s goodness was he able to express his own and see goodness in others. Yet as we talked now, I felt uneasy for she’d seen something in me which I hadn’t seen, yet which, when named, I knew: a doubt, a smallness of belief, a smallness of heart. I had wanted her to know me, but now I resented what she’d chosen to know. I found myself wanting to expose something in her.

We talked almost an hour as the diner started to fill with students. One by one the booths around us sounded with chatter. Cynthia was leaning closer to me so we could hear each other, her head propped between her ashen palms, her sweater pushed up above rough elbows. Finally as the interview wound down, circling around questions I’d already asked, the quick light in her eyes resumed a quieter glow and her half smile drew back into the reserved lines of a stranger’s.

I wrote my article for the paper the next week. It brought me immediate attention. I didn’t exactly glorify Cynthia Davis, but I set her up as an example of a generation of blacks with expectations to achieve beyond their parents and with a commitment to American ideals of equality. In writing it, I forgot for the moment my own discomfort over what she’d seen in me, and I wrote in an inflated prose that would touch the sentimental strain in a white, liberal audience. I also told the story of a girl’s ambitions which would offend those of a different persuasion. In the article I mentioned only that Cynthia’s family lived in Fayette County.

The next week a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean called me to ask if the Tennessean could run my story as a side piece with a larger article they were doing on inter-college contact in the civil rights movement. The reporter was particularly interested in the fact that I’d gone over to Fisk to have the interview.

I agreed. It would be my first paid article. Because the audience of the Tennessean was statewide, the editor wanted to know exactly where Cynthia’s family lived, and so I gave him the town’s name just outside of Memphis, and he printed it.

I thought of calling Cynthia and telling her about the story, but I didn’t. I suppose I was afraid she’d object. I was also in the middle of mid-terms. I finally did call her Sunday, the day the article appeared. I phoned that afternoon, but she wasn’t in. I left a message for her to call me back and then forgot about her. For the next few days friends and people I hardly knew stopped to talk about the story. They didn’t talk so much about what it said as the fact I’d had it published in the Tennessean. Finally on Wednesday when I hadn’t heard from Cynthia, I called again, and this time a friend of hers got on the phone.

“Cynthia’s not here,” she said. The friend’s voice was strained, but matter-of-fact. “Her father’s store was bombed Sunday night. Her brother’s in the hospital. I don’t know when she’ll be back.” Her friend didn’t say anything about the article. I didn’t know if she or Cynthia had even seen the article. I couldn’t be sure the bombing was a result of the article.

I didn’t see Cynthia Davis again. I phoned her several times, but she was never there. Then school got busy. I was starting to write freelance for the Tennessean, and I quit calling. At one of the sit-ins that spring I saw her friend, whom I recognized from that first day at Woolworth’s, and I went over to her. She answered my questions formally. She told me Cynthia had taken a leave from Fisk to help at home and in the store until her brother got out of the hospital. She told me nobody knew how long that would be or how her brother would adjust for among his injuries, his right hand had been blown off.

The Nashville sit-ins kept on through the spring. There were more arrests, more beatings of Negroes, negotiations with white business and political leaders, a cessation of arrests and sit-ins during negotiations, an economic boycott of downtown stores, a bombing of a black lawyer’s home. But finally on May 10, less than three months after the first sit-in, an agreement was announced. Six downtown lunch counters would open on an “unbiased basis.” The victory was the first of many to follow in Nashville. In the annals of southern history in the early 1960’s, the Nashville movement was considered a nonviolent success story. Cynthia Davis was not among the names who moved onto prominence out of that movement. To my knowledge, she never returned to Fisk.

I’ve thought about Cynthia Davis from time to time since then. Once the following fall on the way back to school, I drove through Memphis with the intention of going to see her, but I lost courage. To be honest, I didn’t want an answer. If there was an answer. I didn’t want to be told that what happened was my fault. In some ways I was sure it was; and yet in others, no matter what anyone said, I wouldn’t accept the blame. I didn’t know what to do with it, and I didn’t see how having it helped anyone.

I changed because of what happened in small, slow ways. By the spring of my junior year, I’d dropped out of my sorority. I became wary of my own ambition. I began to regard it as a subtle, unpredictable beast which, if I was not alert, would bite with sharp teeth.

When I think about what happened now, I account it to the wind. To what happens because of all that’s happened before for reasons you don’t understand because you’re in the middle of them and because you don’t understand yourself. I don’t account it to fate or the will of God or any other cosmic design. I account it to my ignorance of design. And as I said, to the wind. I let the flow take me with it because I hadn’t learned to face the wind, to pick up the scent but not be blown about. Because I didn’t heed dark, unexposed places in myself, I fell inside one of them and perhaps took another with me.

Dogs, Cows and Wolves: Security on the Golan Heights

On the Golan Heights in the hills separating Syria and Israel fields of cows graze and sleep, swishing their tails, whisking off flies. Many of the cows lying in the fields appear to be waiting and contemplating as cows do. The cows are a source of milk and of meat and income for a kibbutz nearby. Among the cows wander white dogs. It is a peaceful scene except for the distant thudding and booming of the war in Syria just a mile away.

But at night wolves come out. The dogs and an occasional cowboy are the cows’ main defense. The wolves need to eat too, and a cow just standing there, especially if separated from the herd, is a natural target. The wolves are sleek and fast, and the cowboys respect them.

Sometimes the wolves score, but more often the dogs bark and circle, and the cows bellow. Dogs and cows together hold their own, and the wolves have to look elsewhere for food. Twenty years ago the cowboys determined that if they placed pups in with the cows from birth until they were 10 months old, the dogs would naturally identify with and want to protect the cows. If there are enough dogs, they can dissuade the wolves. The scheme seems to be working, but it is a standoff and not the same as peaceful coexistence.

This drama has played out with theme and variation over the past 50 years since the Golan Heights were occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel’s offer to return of the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria was rejected then, and Syria attacked in the 1973 Yom Kippur war and was defeated. At present Israel occupies two-thirds of the hills of the Golan which overlooks the Jordan Rift Valley and contains the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. The Golan includes volcanic fields with dark volcanic rock and lighter limestone rocks. Fruit trees, particularly apples,  grow there. The area overlooks Israel which sees the Golan as a natural defense line that secures its border with Syria. Between the two countries lies a small demilitarized zone monitored by the United Nations.

As the Syrian war turns yet another corner with the recent ceasefire, the Russians (and potentially by association Hezbollah and the Iranians) are now sanctioned to patrol and come within a mile of the Israeli border. Tension is again heightening. The border itself is protected by small fences and bunkers, but now on higher alert by the Israeli Army and those in the Reserves who tend the cows and pick the apples in times of peace.

 

Storm Cloud on a Summer’s Day

It is an almost perfect summer day—the sun is shining in a white cloud sky; the air is warm, not yet sweltering. Light filters through white umbrellas shading diners at the outside restaurant by the park. On this almost perfect New York day I am thinking about the rulers in China who have imprisoned for the last nine years one of the country’s courageous thinkers for ideas that will outlast him and his jailers.

Today it was announced Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is in critical condition, on medical parole having been given a terminal diagnosis. As a principal author of Charter’08 which advocates for nonviolent democratic reform in China, Liu Xiaobo, writer, critic and activist has lived his life as a man of ideas.

As the sun shifts above me, skirting over skyscrapers, finding a gap between the umbrellas and spreading over my table, I consider the trajectory and the life of an idea as it dawns, unfolds, iterates, then flies off where it is embraced, where it empowers and takes on a life of its own. Ideas are connected to, but not owned or encumbered by, those who articulate them.

The fallacy—the fundamental fallacy—of the rulers in China and elsewhere lies here. No one can imprison ideas. No one can manage or own the imagination of another. Government leaders can physically restrain with the hope that the idea will die, but in the case of Liu Xiaobo, the ideas behind Charter ’08, which was signed by more than 2000 Chinese citizens from all walks of life, endure. These ideas calling for a freer society continue to grow wings, often quietly, but sometimes even more quickly as the physical confines grow harsh.

“Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose,” declared Nelson Mandela. It is an injunction worth noting.

American Writers Museum Launches in Chicago

by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, published in World Literature Today, May 10, 2017

The new American Writers Museum, opening this May in Chicago, celebrates American literature in a lively, interactive space that honors America’s writers past and present.

Located on the second floor of a grand old building on Michigan Avenue’s “Cultural Corridor,” the American Writers Museum is the realization of a seven-year journey that began with a question: Why was there no national museum in the US honoring writers? Malcolm O’Hagan, a dedicated reader and retired engineer and businessman, had visited the Dublin Writers Museum in his native Ireland and began to talk with friends and professionals about developing an American museum. He brought on writers, scholars, and publishers to develop the idea and curate the selection of writers. All agreed the focus should be on writers no longer living who’ve stood the test of time, but the museum should also celebrate contemporary literature with readings, book signings, and programs.

“I see the museum as a literary jewel box where a visitor can enjoy old friends—the books, words, characters of writers they know and also get to meet new ones,” O’Hagan says. Chicago was selected because of its central location, the support of the city, and its rich literary heritage, which includes writers like Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

One of the governing principles was not to create a museum for static artifacts—though there will be some artifacts—but a place where readers, writers, and visitors can learn. “Books in glass cases don’t make for much engagement,” O’Hagan notes.

A large US map greets visitors with a Nation of Writers introductory film playing on it. On one side of the map is a room dedicated to children’s literature with places to read, word games, and story times with authors. Down the corridor runs the Gallery of 100 American Voices—from early Native American storytelling to Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, and many others, a rich collection spanning American history. On the facing wall a Surprise Bookshelf features illuminated boxes showcasing samples of great American literature. A Word Waterfall stands at the end of the corridor where quotes by writers from Emerson to George Carlin stream down the wall.

As you turn into the Readers Hall, which is also an event space, kiosks let readers explore their favorite books and compare them. At the end of Readers Hall, a changing display space launches with the return of Jack Kerouac’s scroll of On the Road after a decade out of the country. Another space features W. S. Merwin.

In the nearby Writers Room a visitor can glimpse the creative process in an exhibit entitled Mind of a Writer. Two eight-foot touchscreen tables display book titles the visitor can open to view edits on manuscripts such as The Fall of the House of Usher and A Streetcar Named Desire. The display Anatomy of a Masterpiece includes quotes from writers about the creative process.

A large, windowed alcove is dedicated to Chicago writers. Another feature, Hometown Authors, lets a visitor enter a zip code and find writers past and present in his or her area, including local museum affiliates. The over sixty affiliates are houses and smaller museums around the country dedicated to single authors.

The museum plans to partner with literary and educational institutions nationwide. AWM president Carey Cranston says, “Once our doors open, we will learn from people coming through, and ideas will flow day by day. The feedback will help us going forward.”

“Whatever we do, we must represent all of America’s diversity,” adds Program Director Allison Sansone. “What makes American literature different is the diversity of voices and our willingness for self-examination.”

 

Novelist and journalist Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is vice president of PEN International and sits on the boards of Poets & Writers, PEN Faulkner Foundation, International Center for Journalists, Words Without Borders, and the American Writers Museum.

(Click here to read the article at World Literature Today.)

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For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a drive to build community amid pressing challenges

Communities spring up in the buildings and spaces where families manage to find a spot. Many refugees say their hope is in giving their children a better future.

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, published in The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 2017

Beirut, Lebanon—I remember Syrian children living by a garbage dump near a cement factory where their parents did menial labor when I visited Lebanon three years ago. I remember those living in an unfinished shopping mall with open storefronts, several families camped in a space supposed to be a shop, except that the developer had run out of money and never finished the building. Now he could collect rent from the refugees.

Syrian refugees were pouring into Lebanon in 2014, fleeing the civil war. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations were scrambling to register and provide services for these families, most of whom hoped to return to Syria when the war was over. Because Lebanon has a history dating back to the Palestinian diaspora of not providing camps for refugees, the displaced were finding shelter wherever they could. The effort to get children into schools was beginning. One aid worker described the situation as trying to give cups of water to people from a blasting firehose.

I recently returned to Lebanon to visit the Syrian refugees. I was in Beirut when President Trump’s edict on immigration and his ban on all Syrian refugees to the United States was announced. The ban included Syrian families in Lebanon who had been going through the long vetting process to resettle in the US.  Lebanon has the largest percentage of refugees given its population – more than 1 million registered in a country of 4.5 million citizens.

The situation in Lebanon remains deeply challenging, with pressing needs. But it has stabilized. The flow of people across the border is now a trickle, not a flood, and the systems to assist are more firmly in place. When the refugee population hit the 1 million mark, Lebanon changed its open border policy. But the Syrian refugees remain more than 20 percent of Lebanon’s population, the equivalent of 64 million in the US. Last year the United States accepted 10,000 Syrian refugees out of an estimated 4.8 million worldwide.

Three years ago, Lebanon had only 150 schools that had split shifts, teaching the Syrian children in the afternoon. Today half of the Syrian children are in government schools – more than 200,000 children, according to UNHCR officials. UNHCR pays the Lebanese Ministry of Education $600 per child to assist in the cost.  Some children may be enrolled in private schools, according to officials, though the remaining are still not in school, including those who work to bring in income for their families, and, in the case of girls, those who are married off as young as 14 or 15.

Writing plays and tutoring in French

A difficulty for Syrian school children is language; Lebanese schools teach in French or English in addition to Arabic. One 12-year-old girl dressed in black headscarf practiced French with a local volunteer in a homework support group. The girl has been living in Lebanon for 3-1/2 years.  She was in fifth grade when she left Syria, but she’s lost years of schooling, and because she doesn’t know French, she is now placed in third grade. She is friends with some of the Syrian children in her school, but with few Lebanese children. “They don’t like to talk about the same things,” she said. “What do you like to talk about?” I asked. “I want to talk about the war.”

Hasan, 13 years old, remembers going to school in Aleppo, and has been in Lebanon three years. He’s glad to be in school again, but he too has lost several years of education and is in an early elementary class.

For elementary school children, the transition is not as difficult since they can learn French or English, but older Syrian students are struggling. Homework support groups have grown up and are sustained by UNHCR and Save the Children.  In Batroun, a town in the North, a Lebanese teacher volunteers twice a week to tutor French. Other outreach volunteers assist in other subjects. One young man, Joseph, helps the children by writing plays and doing small theater productions with them. A Syrian, he receives his work expenses and training. But, he said, “I volunteered to help my people. At the beginning I wanted to volunteer in any sector, but I believe education is very important. I started a small theatrical team, selected the children, wrote small plays with a message, and we perform in a small garden Saturday or Sunday for the community.”

Building communities has been essential for the children and their families, especially since return to Syria remains problematic. These communities grow up in the buildings and spaces where the families live. Approximately 60 percent of the refugees rent apartments, often crowding several families into one or two rooms, carpets and pillows on the floor, a single television in the corner, a light bulb on the ceiling.  UNHCR has helped in reconstruction of buildings with an agreement from the landlords that they will rent at reduced rates to the Syrian refugees for a period.  Other refugees have built temporary shelters on the roadside. Simple wood frames with tarps and plastic sheeting dot the landscape in the north, perched on farmers’ land where refugee men and women work in fields of orange groves, olives, cucumbers, and potatoes.

Guests, with work restrictions

The Lebanese government has said it is treating the Syrians as “guests” and does not deport them, but the government restricts where the Syrians can work. To get a residency permit, they have to agree not to work except in agriculture, construction, or environment (cleaning) – all low-wage areas. The government also requires that refugees re-register every six months, paying $200 per person over 15 years of age. The cost is prohibitive for many families, so the men in particular live in fear that they will be arrested for not having proper registration, and this limits their mobility in finding employment, according to aid workers.

While refugee services from the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and the Lebanese government have increased in recent years, so have the poverty rates, as families have spent the money they brought with them. According to UNHCR statistics, 70.5 percent of the refugee population live in “extreme poverty,” meaning they live on less than $3.80 per day. UNHCR provides cash assistance, but to only 22 percent of these families. With the cash cards they can buy food, supplies, and pay rent. As winter arrived, additional small payments were provided to help buy blankets, warm clothes, and fuel.

Many of the refugees say their hope is in giving their children a better future, but in Lebanon that future has a ceiling. “At least we have a real school now and one close. It is much easier for our children,” says one mother. But with livelihood possibilities tightly controlled and the possibility of affordable residency curtailed, many parents don’t see an expanding future in Lebanon. UNHCR tries to assist those who want to resettle elsewhere, but even before the recent US ban on Syrian resettlement, the possible openings were diminishing.

“UNHCR’s top recommendation in Lebanon is a waiver of the residency fee so that the refugees are all legally registered and can work. This will help provide employment for them and a work force in needed areas of Lebanon, and income that can then be spent in the local economy,” says Karolina Lindholm Billing, UNHCR deputy representative.

“When you used to look out over Beirut at night, you would see black on top of the buildings,” she notes. “Now you see the lights of refugee settlements there – tents and cooking fires. The refugees have found whatever space is available and gotten permission from the landlords and pay rent.”

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is a novelist and journalist who has traveled in the Middle East and visited the refugee settlements in all the countries bordering Syria and has recently returned from Lebanon.  Ms. Leedom-Ackerman is a former reporter for the Monitor.

(Click here to read the article at The Christian Science Monitor.)

 

In Turkey, a show of solidarity with writers behind bars

Commentary: For the first time in two decades, Turkey is again the largest jailor of writers and publishers in the world. A PEN International delegation tried to visit a prison where most are incarcerated. 

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, published in The Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 2017

Snow was falling outside Silivri prison as we drove up the road bordered by high wire fences.  A senior delegation of PEN International from Europe, North America, and the Middle East had come to Turkey in solidarity with the more than 150 Turkish writers and publishers now in prison. The majority of these were incarcerated behind the walls of Silivri.

For the first time in two decades, Turkey is again the largest jailor of writers and publishers in the world. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who came to power in 2002, civil institutions have been increasingly circumscribed. In the past six months more than 170 news outlets have been closed by the government. A third of Turkey’s judiciary – judges and prosecutors – have lost their jobs and/or been put in prison. University presidents have been fired; thousands of academics have been forced to resign, and more than 140,000 civil servants and military personnel have been purged; a third of these are now in detention. Ever since a coup attempt last July, Turkey has existed in a declared “state of emergency.” Those who oppose the government have been labeled and charged as “terrorists” or “supporters of terrorist organizations.” The crackdown that was already under way before the coup attempt has escalated.

At Silivri, our delegation was restricted to a remote parking lot. The prison officials had been notified the delegation would be arriving, but the gendarmes who encountered us appeared unprepared. Eventually they returned us to our minivans and encircled these and blocked us with police vehicles as they collected our passports. A young gendarme with an assault rifle boarded our bus, impeding our exit for almost an hour, though he appeared unsure of what he was supposed to do with us except keep us from taking pictures. Finally the delegation, which included three current and former International PEN presidents, including the current chair of the Nobel Prize for Literature, were escorted away from the prison. There was no interchange with prison officials or meetings with the writers behind bars. The cars were stopped again outside the grounds by the police, and our passports were once more collected. After approximately two hours, our two white minivans turned back to Istanbul.

Earlier, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, a smaller delegation of PEN met with the minister of Culture and other government officials to protest and express deep concern over the restriction of free expression and the imprisonment of writers and publishers in Turkey. PEN questioned the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum President Erdoğan is putting on the ballot this spring. The referendum will expand the powers of the presidency, giving Erdoğan the ability to suspend parliament as well as rights and due process, “extorting individual rights and freedom” by statutory decree. It could allow him to stay in office until 2029. While PEN, which promotes literature and defends freedom of expression worldwide, does not take political positions, it challenged the legitimacy of a referendum held during a state of emergency, when opposition voices are silenced.

After our delegation returned from the prison to Istanbul, we met with recently released writer Asil Erdoğan (no relation to the president), linguist Necmiye Alpay, and others, including the spouses of writers still in prison or killed. “It is not our husbands in prison, but journalism,” said the wife of one. “Journalism is a prerequisite for a country to have a free press. If we don’t have a free press, we can’t be considered anything. Don’t use the word “journalist” and “terrorist” together. It is very sad to see.”

Several of the writers noted that often no indictment is made when individuals are detained. They are held without charge because the prosecutors can’t find anything to charge them with. See #Journalismisnotacrime.

A new effort

One newspaper, Özgür Gündem, which had a large Kurdish readership, was shut down in August after 25 years. But a new newspaper, Demokrasi, has grown up out of its staff and readership.

At the top of a steep four-floor walkup, writers, photographers, and editors work to put out the daily paper with a readership of 30,000. The design and layout team work elsewhere as do some of the writers and other organs of the paper, in the belief that the more decentralized the operation, the better chance it has to survive.

“The government wants to eliminate the Kurdish movement – the language, the news we report. They want a single state, single religion, single language,” said one of the editors. “Kurds are not only the target; our newspapers are the target. We are OK with a single flag, but we don’t want religion and language imposed.”

The Turkish government has fought with Kurdish separatists for decades. A cease-fire from 2013-15 held out prospects for a more lasting peace and for the allowance of Kurdish language and culture to be recognized as part of Turkish identity. The rapprochement broke down, however, after the predominantly Kurdish HDP party won enough votes in June 2015 to secure seats in parliament and deny Erdoğan and his AKP party its parliamentary majority and the supermajority he was seeking for his constitutional changes.  Hostilities with the Kurds were renewed shortly afterward. A new election was held in November 2015, and the AKP party won its majority.

The gray-haired editor of Demokrasi spoke calmly behind an empty desk in a sparse room with pale yellow walls. He acknowledged that the state police could come at any moment to take him away, but there would be others to take his place. “We received support from 100 journalists who volunteered to be editor-in-chief at Özgür Gündem. Thirty-seven of those are now on trial. But it is not a problem for us to repeat.”

As we left the Demokrasi office, the editor with his photographer stood at the top of the stairs in the shadow of a half-opened door, the light behind them. “Thank you for solidarity!” he said.

When we emerged, the sun was setting. The winding backstreet was filled with people as the lights of shops and apartments readying for dinner flickered on, and the snow continued to fall.

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman visited Turkey as part of a delegation from PEN International, where she is a vice president. Ms. Leedom-Ackerman is also a former reporter for the Monitor.

 

(Click here to read the article at The Christian Science Monitor.)

Power on Loan

The first march I covered as a journalist was a massive anti-war moratorium in Boston in the spring of 1970, part of nationwide protests; Boston was one of the hub cities. The demonstrators walked peacefully from the Boston Commons through the city to Harvard Square in Cambridge. But as the day and evening wore on, the demonstration descended into violence in Cambridge with Molotov cocktails thrown through store windows and police dogs and tear gas aimed at the crowds. I took refuge eventually in the basement of a church where I wrote my story.

America was on the march back then against the Vietnam war and in earlier protests in favor of civil rights. Though there was violence, most of the demonstrations remained nonviolent.

In the intervening years there have been many marches and protests in the U.S., but few like the ones held around the country this past weekend. These nonviolent demonstrations in cities in every state and in 55 cities worldwide focused on a more loosely articulated goal, not on specific legislation or a specific action but on showing solidarity, particularly with issues important to many women like freedom of choice over their bodies and also on issues such as the rights of immigrants, of minority communities, and of the LGBT community.

There was also apprehension about exactly what the new President’s “America First” policy will mean. Demonstrations around the world showed that America’s positions are not just the concern of U.S. citizens but have impact globally.

I’ve covered and seen many demonstrations around the globe since my first march. On Saturday, I was on the edge of the gathering in Washington, witnessing, hosting and delivering one marcher who came in from Colorado to participate. As she joined the crush in the Mall, I wrote and prepared for a PEN mission to Turkey where the political situation is deteriorating daily for citizens, especially those in the media.

In the Turkish Parliament this past week fights broke out as President Recep Erdoğan proposed and got ratified a Constitutional amendment to give even more power to the president, including an article that gives the President the right of “extorting individual rights and freedom” with statutory decree. The Constitutional amendment must be endorsed in a national referendum so demonstrations in Turkey may soon begin but with potentially direr consequences than in the U.S. In Turkey almost 150 writers and journalists are already in prison, not for crimes, but because they have dissented.

A few writers like Asli Erdoğan and linguist Necmiye Alpay have been released at their trial where Asli said, “Law is obliged to protect the individual and the community, not only the state.” The day they were released, however, journalist and writer Professor Istar Gözaydin, one of the founders of Turkey’s first democratic private radio, was taken into custody.

Last week musician Şanar Yurdatapan was sentenced to one year and three months in prison for participating in the “Editor-in-Chief on Duty” solidarity campaign at Özgür Gündem, the newspaper now closed. His sentence was ultimately suspended and another charge relating to the case resulted in a fine. The prosecutor had originally asked for a ten-and-a-half-year sentence. Cumhuriyet’s book editor Turhan Günay, who publishes a book index, is now in prison. He has said, “I have not written anything except for books until today. If I’m released, I will start to write political articles.”

The numbers of writers, journalists, editors and academics in prison has returned Turkey to the top of PEN’s list of jailors as it was two decades ago.

I’m wary about drawing parallels with the increasingly chilly atmosphere for the media in the U.S. I take heart that U.S. protests can occur and that the state protected the protestors, and as long as the demonstrations stay nonviolent, no one is arrested. The press can and does report what it sees even if a tongue-lashing by the Presidential press secretary and the President follow. However, six covering the turbulent demonstrations around Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday have reportedly been charged with felonies and face up to ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted. Also some access for the press may be closing down. The dynamics of fear and antagonism and the argument of “alternative facts” create a dangerous atmosphere.

Of note, though not in the front page headlines, in Africa’s smallest continental country, The Gambia, former President Yahya Jammeh finally stepped down from power this week after 23 years, having lost the election last month but refusing to leave office. The peaceful transfer of power in the U.S. the day before probably had little to do with his decision. The arrival of troops from a coalition of West African nations supported by the United Nations and the pressure by African leaders were no doubt the persuading factor, but the coincidence is worth noting.

The turnover of power is fundamental to democracies and is not always easy, especially when the pendulum swings to the opposing side and in the U.S. to someone who has not won the popular vote. Yet after a tumultuous and harsh election, the reins of power did transfer; authority was ceded. The old guard left the stage with dignity, and the new guard must now find the dignity to occupy it effectively.

The demonstrations of four decades ago in the U.S. led to the end of a war, the implementation of civil rights legislation, advancement for race, gender and cultures, and while we still have distance to go, it has led to large strides for women in my generation.

I continue to hope the arc of history is upwards and outwards, not inwards on itself, puncturing the very progress that has been made. Whoever is in power must remember that power is only on loan, especially in a democracy.

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Hope for Songs Not Prison in 2017

The last time I saw Şanar Yurdatapan we had coffee in the press building in Istanbul after Human Rights Watch released its 2016 World Report “Politics of Fear and the Crushing of Civil Society”. I’ve known Şanar for almost 20 years, ever since I headed PEN International’s delegation for his first Initiative for Free Expression in Istanbul in 1997.

A noted and popular musician and song writer, Şanar has dedicated the last decades to defending and trying to open up space in Turkey for free expression. He’s done so by monitoring, reporting and organizing on behalf of writers and artists under threat. At our coffee a year ago he told me he was retiring, or at least going back to song writing and handing over the mantle of leadership to the younger generation.

However, in the past year freedom of expression has been under siege in Turkey with 150-170 writers and journalists now in prison and hundreds of news organizations closed down. This past week Şanar was called before prosecutors for his advocacy on behalf of the closed newspaper Özgür Gündem, (Turkish for “Free Agenda”), the chief newspaper read by Kurds.

“It is both the duty and the right of a journalist to report; his is freedom of information at the same time and right to freedom and right of all of us,” Şanar is reported to have told the court.

At the end of the hearing the prosecutor demanded that Şanar be imprisoned for over ten years for “propaganda for the organization” under the Anti-Terror Law. The hearing is January 13, 2017. Şanar is now 75.

Since the failed coup in July the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased the detainment and arrest of writers, journalists and academics for their peaceful opposition to his policies. These have included noted novelist Asli Erdoğan and leading linguist Necmiye Alpay, who spent her 70th birthday in detention. Brothers Ahmet Altan, a novelist, and Mehmet Altan, an academic, are held in maximum security Silivri prison facing terror charges, unable to receive books, letters or any communication from outside or to visit the prison library.

As the year 2016 ends with an increase of terror attacks around the world, with a new administration about to take power in the U.S., with existing administrations struggling to hold onto power in Europe, with a collapsing Syria and a continual tide of refugees around the world, with an odd dance between super powers and aspiring super powers, the single citizen voice can get overlooked. But history has shown that when the individual voice, especially those of writers who dissent, gets stifled, the arc of history is bending towards conflict and away from peace which leaders and citizens say they want.

In the new year PEN International hopes to go to Turkey to add support firsthand for Turkish writers and for the important role they play right now in keeping that arc from bending too far backwards. We will watch and argue for the fate of Şanar and others and hope that he will be writing songs in the years ahead, and not from prison.

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Thanksgiving and Healing

The American holiday Thanksgiving is my favorite, a time when family and friends gather and take a moment to give gratitude for the good in their lives and the lives of their communities. This year of 2016 has been a rough one.

In Washington, DC, where I live, the political discourse on all sides has been as uninspiring and acrimonious as any in my lifetime. No matter one’s political affiliation, consensus is that the recent presidential campaign has left us exhausted with the national conversation in need of elevation and inspiration.

Many opposing the election results have taken to the streets peacefully to articulate their concerns and their fears. The crowds include the young—high school students who are not yet old enough to vote—and the retired as well as the population in between. Whatever one’s vote, I take heart that for the most part these protests are not violent and can be heard. I take heart that the leadership in the nation has accepted the transition and will try to make it successful and that in practice we do not jail or shoot opposing voices or those writing about the opposition. This seems a minimum standard for a democracy, and though it has seen exceptions, in this season of thanks, I am grateful and hopeful that will abide.

Historically Thanksgiving was a day to give thanks for the harvest of the preceding year. In the U.S. the first Thanksgiving is documented in 1621 at Plymouth (now in Massachusetts). The harvest was good, and the new settlers and the local Wampanoag tribe shared the feast, though more uneasily watching each other than we were told as school children. During the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln advocated the story of Pilgrims and Indians eating together to try to encourage people in a divided nation to come together.

Healing occurs one action at a time, one forgiveness, one helping hand, one quiet good deed. Citizens can take the lead. I am hopeful that we individually—the people—will build bridges and not walls. Happy Thanksgiving!

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