Women’s Progress: The Power of a Bridge…and a Double Yellow Line

(Below is an abridged version of a talk I gave at Johns Hopkins University on Women’s Day, March 8 to an audience of vibrant students gathered for a day-long Summit for Emerging Women Leaders, sponsored by the Women’s Initiative for Social Equity.)

 

I arrived at Johns Hopkins as a graduate student in the Writing Seminars straight from a small college in the Midwest with a combination of confidence and concern that Hopkins had made a mistake admitting me. I was sure the other students would be more widely read and experienced. I spent the whole spring and summer when I wasn’t working, reading. I was assigned the very first seminar paper focused on a controversial novel at the time The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. The controversy arose around whether a white novelist could or should take on the first person narrative voice of a slave. I’ll get to my answer later in this talk. I got an A on the paper and knew I was going to be all right.

Hopkins let me know I could meet the challenge. That was my first lesson.

When I arrived on campus, there were no women undergraduates. At the time my social conscience was focused more on civil rights than women’s rights so while the role of women in the larger society concerned me, I think I viewed the ratio at Hopkins as a social advantage.  But here comes my next big lesson. When I had a disappointment on the romantic front and was feeling low, a voice in my head challenged:

“If you have time to mope about, you have time to reach out and help someone!”  That voice was not echoing my parents; they would be kinder. It was my own voice taking me to task, and so I listened.

I went to the Hopkins Tutoring office and signed up to tutor in the community. I was assigned a family who lived in West Baltimore and later moved to the projects on Druid Hill Ave. One evening a week I drove over to their house and tutored the mother of five children, ages 4-12. She only had an eighth grade education and wanted to read better. I also helped the children with their homework.  The 10-year old daughter and I shared the same birthday. I tell you that because I’m still in touch with this family, and recently when the mother and I were talking on the phone after that birthday had passed, she asked me: “Do you know how old I am?”  And I answered, yes, you’re ten years older than me and your daughter is ten years younger, and none of us should be counting anymore.” We both laughed. Three of those children went on and graduated from college and the oldest son finished high school and is a grandfather himself now.  One of the treasures of my time at Hopkins was getting to know this family and having them part of my life over the years though we don’t see each other as much lately.

My Hopkins education opened worlds to me of all kinds, showing me I would be okay in the larger intellectual world as well as in the inner city of Baltimore.

When I arrived at Hopkins, I thought I was entering a two-year program only to find out I would have a Master of Arts in nine months and had to get a job. No one hired aspiring novelists, but during college I’d been editor of the campus newspaper and each summer worked as a journalist so I applied to a leading international newspaper The Christian Science Monitor in Boston where I’d published a few articles.  When the editor-in-chief met with me, he opened the interview, “I hear you were a thorn in the side of your college.” After I explained the issues I’d written about—the need to recruit minority students, the rights of workers on campus, removal of restrictions on women, protests abroad against the Vietnam War—he said, “You’re hired!”

But I was not hired to start tracking down important news stories but to be a copy kid.  A copy kid in those days was the person who ran copy between departments—this is before the internet—and generally was at the beck and call of editors to do whatever they needed including getting them coffee and when work was slow filling the rubber cement jars because back then the pages of a news story were typed and then glued together in one long streamer and dropped in the copy editor’s box.  But I’m a writer, I wanted to protest. I have a masters from Johns Hopkins University! The editor saw the disappointment on my face and added, if you show us what you can do, you’ll get promoted to reporter. So I took the job.

Here is the third important lesson which includes advice from my father:
Don’t worry where you start in a job, just get to the place you want to be with smart people around you, and you’ll learn and rise to your level of excellence.

I spent every minute when I wasn’t transporting copy or coffee working on my own stories…in the evenings, every weekend. After a month I handed in a four-part series on Cambridge housing, examining the causes, effects, and solutions to what I had identified as a problem. The New England news editor accepted the four long stories, put them on his pile of stories to read, and that was that. I don’t recall how long it took him to read them. They never ran in the newspaper. I now realize how unlikely it was the paper would give space to a four-part series on such a local issue.  But after seven long weeks, I was promoted to reporter.

Looking back, I can see that the editors were evaluating how hard I would work, how honed my skills were and perhaps whether I had the humility to do what was needed in a newsroom.  Actually I don’t know if they were evaluating humility, but that was another important lesson for me. The experience deepened my appreciation of everyone around me, including those who cleaned up the newsroom at night when I was still working, those who set the type, those who delivered supplies. I appreciated that not everyone had his dream job.

The journalist’s mantra is: who, what, when, where, why, and how. These are the questions all journalists try to answer in their stories. In one’s own life I think the most important of those questions is who.  What you do, where you do it, and when may be influenced, sometimes even dictated, by the actions of others, but no one can dictate who you are. You are responsible for the values and qualities of character you bring to the world. These will open doors for you.

I’ll end my career journey here, addressing the early years where most of you are. I broadened my work as a writer, expanding from journalism into fiction. Over the years I’ve also had many opportunities to go into the world to work on issues of human rights, education and refugees.

A number of years ago I attended an international conference on human rights in Katmandu, Nepal. On the flight there, the airplane suddenly lost altitude and then dropped again. The clouds were so thick that it looked as if we were flying through cotton wool as the rain and wind hit and shook the airplane. Around us, though we couldn’t see them anymore, rose the ranges of the Himalayas. The captain ordered all passengers and flight attendants to take their seats immediately and fasten their seat belts. I found myself hoping that the captain, whom I had never met or even seen — but in whose hands I’d put myself — had been trained well and had taken his training and his subsequent flying very seriously. I hoped that he had studied hard, hadn’t cut corners, and didn’t perform at 80 percent of capacity when the highest performance was now required of him. I also hoped those on the ground who maintained this plane had taken their tasks — even the smallest — just as seriously. The plane diverted to Delhi, and we waited out the storm on the runway, then finally landed in Katmandu.

Himalayas

A similar, though less harrowing, journey occurred just a few weeks ago when I was driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in a fog so heavy that I could see only a few feet in front of me. I was surprised the bridge was open. All I could see was a foot or two of a double yellow line. I trusted that the architects and builders had constructed a sturdy bridge, but most of all I trusted that line, that it would keep me on the path, that whoever painted it—and that may not have been his or her dream job at the time—executed it accurately, and it would not veer off to the edge or into other lanes of traffic.

Bay Bridge

Over the years I’ve been outspoken and advocated for women’s voices in all the venues where I’ve worked. But today I also want to emphasize that each task in our lives is important even when we don’t find ourselves at the pinnacle of where we would like to be. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to work hard, strive, advocate, even protest, but our journeys are formed by the dedication we bring to each activity, even if, at the time, we may not see how the activity links to a greater plan and purpose.

As a writer I’ve worked with an organization called PEN International on behalf of writers who have found themselves threatened or imprisoned, or who have disappeared or even been killed because of their ideas and their writing. The work has involved some heart-breaking stories, but it has also involved stories of real courage. Many of the individuals survived because they refused to yield to the harsh realities they found themselves in. Instead they dwelled in their imaginations, and they held to their inner dignity.

I’ve also had the privilege over the years of being engaged with education projects in some of the more problematic regions of the world, visiting school rooms where the learning materials are hung from the ceilings of the huts which have no doors so the cattle who wander in and out don’t trample them, school rooms under trees. The mothers and fathers of the children in these schools sacrifice so their children can learn and have a fuller future.

Recently I visited refugee centers and camps in the four countries—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—bordering Syria where the refugee crisis is the largest in a generation.  As many as three to four million people are expected to have fled Syria by year’s end because of the violence of the three-year old civil war. The flood of people into countries which have their own problems seems overwhelming.

What can one person do in any of these challenges?  Individually, a limited amount—witness, tell the story—but collectively we are all citizens of the world, and that world is a function of how we behave and also how we think about it and act towards our fellow citizens.

–Are we up to the task? Hopkins taught me, yes, I am.

–Does the plight of the world depress—yes, it can, but I learned at Hopkins that if I have time to be depressed, then I also have time to get up and reach out.

–Is what we do important enough to make a difference? Maybe. It can be. But whatever path or avenue opens, we can act with vigor and integrity—whether flying the airplane or tightening the screw on the wheel, whether designing the bridge or painting the line on its road. Whatever the task, others will depend on how well we do it. The question is do we have the courage and also the humility to do it with a full heart?  I think the answer is yes.

My answer on that seminar paper years ago was also yes. A novelist should/could take on a voice very different from his or her own. That is what artists do. But success depends upon how well and carefully one listens and observes and empathizes with those who are not oneself.

In my generation the rights of minorities and women and others expanded significantly, at least in the U.S.  My final observation today is:
Society can change for the better and you can be part of that.

 

Syrian Refugee Tsunami

We’d come to visit a Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border. When we arrived in Gaziantep, a bustling ancient city just 30 miles from Syria, we were told by United Nations representatives that a battle was going on across the border that day. A bullet had struck a house in the nearby refugee camp so our visit was canceled for security reasons.

The following day a fuller story emerged.  In the Syrian town of Jarabulus just 3km over the border, the battle had been especially brutal. At least 10 men were beheaded and their heads mounted on spikes to terrorize the community. The Syrians from the town were now fleeing to Turkey and away from the al Qaeda-linked fighters.

This particularly grisly battle underscores the horror and tragedy facing the almost nine million Syrians (6.5 million in country; at least 2.3 million outside the country) seeking security.  Aid agencies estimate at least half the Syrian population of 22.4 million is in need of humanitarian assistance, and as many as three quarters of the population will be in need of aid by the end of 2014.

In the past two months I’ve visited Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—the four main countries absorbing this historic exodus from the three-year old Syrian civil war and have witnessed a human tsunami. Acknowledged as the worst refugee crisis in a generation, the outflow of Syrian citizens mounted a 500% increase in many areas in the past year, a figure threatening to explode further in 2014 if no progress is made in the current peace talks getting underway in Geneva.  Small corridors of security for exiting women and children as recently proposed for the city of Homs will add to the momentum of the exodus.

Each of the bordering countries has responded differently to the crisis. All have opened their borders, at least the first two years. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has fanned out across the region to assist according to each country’s mandate, with aid and aid workers in their sky blue vests arranging registration, locating or establishing shelters, food, medical care and education and coordinating with other nongovernmental organizations (ngos), but few have experienced a crisis of this magnitude.

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I recently returned from Turkey and Lebanon, both of whose borders are still open.

Turkey has officially registered more than half a million refugees and given one-year residency permits, but many more refugees are estimated within Turkish borders and the permits are already expiring. The government has built and manages state-of-the art camps, having spent $2 billion for 20 camps along the border. These include both tented camps and camps with temporary container housing. The camps include classrooms, play areas, meeting areas, libraries, TV rooms, even rooms of washing machines in the two Nizip camps we visited. The camps are at a standard not seen before, according to one UNHCR official. However, because the camps were established by the Turkish government, not the UN, they are much closer to the border than is standard.

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Within the camps are schools with a Syrian curriculum, overseen by the Syrian National Council, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul, which has expunged Assad from the textbooks and republishes the textbooks and provides books to the schools. The brightly colored school rooms are largely staffed by Syrian teacher refugees in the camps. Camp officials claim between 70-90% enrollment.

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According to Karim Atassi, the UNHCR Deputy Representative for the region, one Turkish official noted: If we don’t carefully look after the Syrians gathering in Turkey (especially the young), they will be a time bomb for us.  The Turkish government consults with UNHCR, which is recommending that the government certify the Syrian curriculum and education this year so students can get credit and certification for their education.

Approximately 250 Syrian students, who have taken Turkish language classes and passed the TOFEL language test, have been given university scholarships.  “Turkey has helped us a lot,” said one student, a young man set to study economics. He and his four friends in the refugee camp who also received scholarships had been in university in Syria but now must start all over again in a new field, because there was no space in their former fields of study. They were not certain whether the scholarships included a living stipend. Several of the students were married and had families, but they count themselves among the lucky. Sitting with them was a slightly older student of 27 who wanted to finish his study of law, which he had almost completed in Syria, but he had not received a university scholarship.

The challenge in Turkey and in the other countries is that only a third of the refugees live in camps. The rest—between 300,000 up to 700,000 in Turkey—live in the cities and villages and don’t have access to the same services.   In all the countries the urban and unregistered are the biggest challenge and the ticking time bomb.

Lebanon, whose borders also remain open, has not provided nor allowed provision for official refugee camps or shelters lest the refugees “be tempted to stay.”   Proportionate to its size, Lebanon has absorbed the largest share of the refugee population.

“In September, 2011 U.S. Secretary Clinton said to us, ‘Don’t worry. Accept the people from Syria, and we will help you,” said acting Prime Minister Najib Azmi Mikati, in a meeting at his residence in Beirut. “At the time there were 10,000 refugees. We said, ‘Never mind, we can handle it. Now there are more than 900,000 refugees in Lebanon, a country of four million people.  They represent over 20 percent of our population. It may even be more. Some estimates are as much as 1.3 million.”

In Lebanon refugees are registered by UNHCR and then receive services and assistance with food, medicine and rent.  Some have been able to find apartments; many have landed in temporary shelter, including at an abandoned shopping mall in Tripoli or in shacks at a cement factory in the southern city of Saida, where they work for rent, or at a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.

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At least 75% percent of the refugees are women and children in all countries. After shelter and food is found, one of the biggest challenges is education for the children. That and long, idle days of waiting…waiting for husbands to find work, for relatives to get out of danger and arrive…and most of all waiting for the war to stop so they can go home. At a point, and that point has long passed for many, the waiting becomes a way of life, corrosive to the spirit. How does one fill one’s days and one’s children’s days when there is no work and no school, asked one woman.

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At one gathering of women in an abandoned shopping mall in Tripoli, Zaira, a mother of four sons ages 7 to 13 said all her children had been in school in Syria, but in Lebanon, there is no available school nearby. What will happen to their education? she asked. Many of the refugee children have missed one or two years of school already.

UNHCR and ngo’s offer some transportation to schools if there is space, but in Lebanon 70% of the education is private and the 30% public schools are filled, even with second shifts. Refugees are also finding barriers of language since instruction in Lebanon is traditionally in English and French and only occasionally in Arabic.

UNHCR and the local ngos also offer vocational training such as hair dressing, computers, and sewing, but jobs are not assured after the training. Some men and older children refugees have found manual labor or part time agricultural work, but mostly the population waits.

In the abandoned shopping mall over 900 people live in the shells of stores that had never been finished. The 30 owners of the abandoned mall have returned and now collect rent. The advantage of the mall as shelter is that the walls are solid; there is a roof; electricity has been strung in.   Laundry is hanging everywhere. There are no shops, except for one small candy store near the entrance and a small improvised vegetable/fruit stand, but there are dozens of satellite dishes. Even in the most improvised shelters refugees manage to find televisions to connect them to the outside world and sometimes back to home.

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In one shop/residence women gathered sitting on the floor covered with a brightly colored mat and mattresses along the wall. One woman from Hamah shared her story while others nodded in agreement:  “I left because of the constant bombing. We couldn’t leave the house even to buy bread.  Before we left home to come here, we were internally displaced, moved from one place to another to avoid the shelling. My brother got killed. To get here we walked, rode a bike with our two boys and two girls, sometimes walking, sometimes biking. We left Hamah to Homs. It was easier to cross on the northern border.  There are problems on the Syrian side of the border. The Syrians try to split families. It took us two days to get here. We brought nothing. We arrived with nothing. People here had extra mattresses and gave them to us. The biggest challenge is now rent. In Syria we were working as farmers [but we don’t work here].

“As the situation has gotten worse in Syria, we’ve been able to talk to a cousin but can’t talk to our parents. There’s no reception. First we went to Beirut for 27 days where we knew people. After that we came here because my sister-in-law lives in the area, and we stayed with her until we found out about the rooms here.”

Some estimate that by the end of 2014 the flow of refugees out of Syria could double with over 4 million total outside the country. Will the four buffer countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey be able to continue absorbing the refugees without severe destabilization of their own populations? While countries like the U.S. and countries in Western Europe have contributed financial aid, they have admitted only the tiniest trickle of refugees into their countries. Last year Germany admitted 5,000 Syrian refugees, and the Germans were among the more generous. The United States has accepted 90.

 

Those interested in learning more and in assisting in this crisis can contact among the following organizations:  UNHCR, International Rescue Committee,  International Committee of the Red CrossSave The Children,  Refugees International.

 

Welcome Home? Syrian Refugees Building On Top of History

(A version of this article was published on GlobalPost.)

I recently returned from visiting Syrian refugees in northern Iraq and Jordan on a field mission with Refugees International.  As I handed over my passport and custom’s form to the U.S. officer, he said: “Welcome home!”

That greeting always touches me but more than ever after this trip  spending time with refugees who have no idea when and if they might be able to go home, who no longer know where their home is. Hundreds of thousands are living in tents and caravans and many in even more problematic structures in fields and behind houses across the border from Syria. Men, women and children–often on foot or in buses and taxis–have fled into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and countries further away.

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The displacement from the three-year old civil war in Syria has caused the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, according to officials at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). They estimate that at least two million people have fled across Syria’s borders and millions more are internally displaced. Adding to the challenge of assisting these people are the growing restrictions on crossing from Syria into Iraq and Jordan, restrictions which some complain are tantamount to closing the borders.

In Jordan, a country of six million people, the UNHCR believes that there are nearing 600,000 refugees, and some others estimate the figure to be over a million. In both Iraq and Jordan, only a third of the refugees are in camps; the rest are dispersed throughout cities and towns, often unregistered and without services.

“We walked three days in the dark, at night, afraid, carrying our two children,” said one young man, who travelled with his wife and three-year old son and one-year old daughter, trying to avoid the fighting. They finally got a ride and arrived at Za’atari refugee camp in the desert of northern Jordan. The Za’atari camp, originally built for 10,000 people, currently houses over 80,000 and at times has held as many as 150,000.  The camp is now the fourth largest “city” in Jordan.

Though conditions have improved considerably, according to those who have visited the camp in the past, the landscape at Za’atari is stark—five square miles of barren rocky desert with tents and caravans laid out as far as the eye can see. There is not a single tree or bush or plant anywhere, nothing to break the view except coiled barbed wire around certain parts of the compounds.  Running through the middle of the acres of desert is a dusty path with stalls on either side where residents sell vegetables, clothes, shoes and other wares. The residents have dubbed it the Champs Élysées.  A new camp nearby has been set up and will soon take the overflow from Za’atari.

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The conflict in Syria is only eight miles away. According to one humanitarian aid worker, you can sometimes hear the explosions. The proximity to the border and the conflict adds to the insecurity in the camp.

“Za’atari is the tip of the iceberg of the Syrian crisis,” said Kilian Kleinschmidt, the camp manager.

Za’atari is said to be the second largest refugee camp in the world. Since Kleinschmidt arrived in March, the violence in the camp has decreased, but there is still considerable resistance to authority, he says.  “The challenge is for the people to respect some authority so when the refugees return, they can rebuild and govern Syria. If people return with the state of mind now, it is going to be difficult.”

In the past months the camp has been divided into 12 districts. The UNHCR camp manager is planning for everyone to be registered with an address so each refugee can be located.  Another goal is to replace tents with metal caravans, which offer more protection from the elements.

“People want to be able to stand upright in their homes and be able to lock their door at night,” Kleinschmidt said. But the caravans promised by international donors are no longer arriving in the numbers needed.

The camp is preparing for winter. Ninety thousand thermal blankets had just arrived, and winterization packages were being assembled which would also include plastic sheeting, kerosene and heaters.  A few days before 20,000 ration cards had been deactivated in an attempt to get an accurate registration roster. A large protest had broken out, including among those whose ration cards no longer worked.

Education for the children is a significant challenge in Za’atari and at other refugee camps as well as among those living out in the Jordanian communities. In Za’atari an estimated 13,000 children attend school out of 18,000 enrolled and an estimated 55,000 youth in total. Outside the camps parents often face fees and expenses for schools. One parent living in a community outside the camp said he wanted to send his children to school, but he didn’t have the funds, and he was not allowed to work to earn the money. In Syria he had been a school principal.

As the year ends, the region is facing increasing needs and another shortfall of funds, according to Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for Refugees International. (Running Za’atari is said to cost roughly $500,000/day.) But there is also some progress with more countries willing to take in Syrian refugees on humanitarian grounds.

Despite the harsh conditions in Za’atari, there are signs of hope. Myriad small enterprises—30 restaurants, a supermarket, even a new coffee shop—have sprung up. There are many more births (10 per day) than deaths (5 per week).

The situation in northern Iraq appears less tense than in Jordan, perhaps because both the refugees and the residents are Kurdish.

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At a local community-based organization in Sulaymaniyah one worker noted, “There is a bond between us. The Syrians Kurds took us in at a time we needed help. Now we can help them.”

The staging areas for urban refugees who come to Sulaymaniyah for assistance is a former military barracks where Saddam Hussein’s army tortured Kurdish citizens in an underground chamber. The conversion of the barracks and torture chambers into a community center was financed by a grant from the U.S. government which is reported to have contributed $1 billion to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Now refugees gather in the former barracks to get assistance with housing, food and education. In Northern Iraq the refugees are given six-month residence permits that are renewable, and a new program has just commenced offering 70- four-year university scholarships to refugees who have competed and qualified for the slots.

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“Our home was bombed. Though we lived just four miles from the Turkish border, we came here because for us the language is better and the people know us. In the war of ’91 the Syrian people helped the people here,” said one father of two. He has pitched a tent in a field where he helps on the farm, though when the farming season is over, he doesn’t know where he and his family will live.

 

 

Qatar: A Poet in a Desert Cell

(This piece also appears on GlobalPost.)

DOHA, QATAR — We stood outside the guard house in the desert wind on the outskirts of the city. Doha Central Prison rose on the horizon of a barren, rock-strewn landscape, electric wires cutting across a cloudless sky. We had been told we had permission to visit Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami, whose 15-year sentence for two poems had been confirmed the previous day by the high court.

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For five hours we stood, paced, sat in broken chairs, negotiating on mobile phones with the Attorney General’s office. The prison authorities had not received the request for our visit. The guards changed twice while we waited, guards from different nationalities as are most of the workers in Qatar. They were friendly, shared fresh oranges with us as the hours passed, but had no authority to help.

Inside the prison members of al-Ajami’s family were visiting him and knew we were out there. Al-Ajami knew we were there and wanted to see us.  No one had gotten this far, the family later told us. But in the end we were denied.

For the last two years Mohammed al-Ajami has been in solitary confinement with limited access to visitors. A known poet in the Gulf and the father of four, al-Ajami was a literature student at Cairo University in 2010 when he recited a poem in his apartment among friends, a poem that allegedly criticized the Emir. The poem was in response to a poem by a fellow poet, but one of the students in the apartment recorded al-Ajami and uploaded the reading on YouTube. According to al-Ajami’s lawyer Dr. Najeeb al-Nauimi, a former Justice Minister in Qatar, the poem was spoken in a private setting and violated no law.  Another of al-Ajami’s poems “Jasmine” was circulated on the internet and expressed support for the uprising in Tunisia and criticized all the Arab regimes.

Sixteen months later, al-Ajami was summoned in Doha and arrested, eventually charged  with “encouraging an attempt to overthrow the existing regime,” “claiming that the Emir misused and not abided by the Qatar Constitution” and “criticizing the Crown Prince,” who has subsequently become the Emir. Al-Ajami was sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial held in secret where the Investigating Judge, a non-Qatari, was also the Chief Judge. [The Emir appoints all judges on recommendation from the Supreme Judicial Council, 75% of whom are foreign nationals, dependent on residency permits.] Later on appeal, Al-Ajami’s sentence was reduced to 15 years.

As representatives of PEN International and PEN American Center we—two American women—had come to Doha to argue for the release of Mohammed Al-Ajami, but by the time our planes landed, the court had already upheld the 15-year sentence. All judicial appeals were now exhausted.

A country of two million people, but with only 250,000 citizens, Qatar is one of the, if not the, richest nation per capita. During his reign the former Emir set a course of modernization and brought reform to the government, brought institutions of higher education to the kingdom and developed programs in the arts and set up a Center on Media Freedom. The West looks to Qatar as a leader in the region. The imprisonment of a poet on an offense of lese majeste has confounded many though in an interview, the Prime Solicitor General insisted the charges were not about freedom of speech but were brought because the poet publicly offended people and urged the overthrow of the government.

In Qatar itself the case has received little coverage. The news media is owned by the government and the Emir. Those familiar with the ways of the kingdom say the only recourse now for al-Ajami is a pardon by the Emir. However, if an apology is necessary for that pardon, a standoff may occur. According to al-Ajami’s lawyer, the poet has questioned why he should apologize for having spent the last two years in solitary confinement for sharing a poem in a private setting.  His lawyer notes that Al-Ajami has had his career disrupted; he has missed seeing his family for two years, including missing the birth of his youngest child.

As I flew out of Qatar, I stared at the desert below now filled with sky scrapers and modern museums rising from the land. I considered the math. Over 90% of the jobs are occupied by men and women of other countries who have no rights of citizenship and can be deported. Only one in ten people are citizens; half of these are women, who have limited rights; over a quarter are children and the elderly. The country is run by a very small minority. I questioned whether the math was on the side of history.

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Extensive gas reserves developed in the 1990’s have given Qatar its huge income and given the country a seat at the leadership tables of the region and the globe. But if the country puts its poets in prison, one must wonder. On the other hand, if the new Emir, just 33 years old, educated in Britain, pardons poet al-Ajami unconditionally as PEN urges, then perhaps the curve of history will extend outwards, at least for a while.

[Mohammed al-Aljami is an honorary member of PEN American Center. PEN’s representatives in Doha were Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Vice President of PEN International and Trustee of PEN American Center, and Sarah Hoffman, Freedom to Write Coordinator for PEN American Center.]


To sign a letter urging a pardon for Mohammed al-Ajami, click here.

 

The Last Colony?

The desert stretched out like a beige patterned quilt as far as the eye could see. The pattern looked like birds’ wings or boomerangs in the sand as the plane descended, then the swirls of sand resolved into rocky ground. In the distance a few concrete buildings rose around the pink watch tower of the airport as I landed in Laayoune in the Western Sahara.

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A 103,000 sq mi stretch of desert and coastline twice the size of England, larger than all of Great Britain, the Western Sahara is called by some “the last colony.” Extending south between Morocco and Mauritania with almost 700 miles of coast edging the desert, the region has been in a political quagmire for the last four decades.  Spain and Mauritania renounced their claim to the area in the late 1970’s, leaving only Morocco and the indigenous Sahrawi’s in dispute.

In February, 1976  the Sahrawis declared a sovereign state, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). For almost 16 years (1975-1991) Moroccan forces and the Sahrawi indigenous Polisario Front engaged in armed struggle. For the next 22 years the United Nations has overseen a political limbo. A referendum on independence was promised but has been stalled year after year.

I first became interested in the Western Sahara in the early 1990’s when chairing PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. The stories of torture and the conditions in the prisons of the Western Sahara were as grim as any I encountered.  Many died and never made it out of the prisons, which were run by the Moroccan security forces. There were also bleak reports from prisons run by the Polisario rebels.  I still remember stories of writers who took their bar of soap they were given each month and wrote poems on their trousers. The writers then memorized each other’s poems as a way of staying sane. They also scoured the prison yard in the one hour they were given each day and found scraps of paper and used coffee grounds to write their forbidden verses. Their stories demonstrated how one endured—through fellowship and a flight to the imagination.

Since that time the armed conflict has officially ceased; Morocco has granted amnesties, and most of the prisons have allegedly been closed, but there are still reports of  “black jails” with grim conditions even in the capital. There are large areas where no one is allowed to visit.

My visit was brief, the visit of a tourist. I hired a taxi recommended by the small parador where I stayed, the hotel itself recommended by a friend of a friend who worked at the U.N.  My driver spoke Spanish and Arabic, some French and little English. I speak English, some French, less Spanish and very limited Arabic, but we managed. I asked him to show me around the city then take me into the desert and then to the beach.

Those living in Laayoune are living their regular lives, women in long djellabas with head scarves, children going to school—you can hear their chatter and laughter on the streets—men also in djellabas or slacks selling in the shops and markets. But the area is a high security zone. The U.N. and the Moroccan security are present, and travel is restricted. No one is allowed too far east where a giant man-made sand berm separates the Moroccan-dominated region from the smaller Saharwi Polisario region near Algeria. Land mines are said to be scattered throughout the no man’s land in between.

In my 24 hours in the capital Laayoune, a city of around 200,000 with 70% of the Western Sahara’s population, I was stopped at six checkpoints. Two were on the way to the desert where a two-lane road stretched through the sand and rock. Any other journey in this area would need to be made with an off road vehicle or on a camel, but I saw only a few camels.

At one point on the way from the desert to the beach, I was delayed for 45 minutes with my passport examined twice.  Everyone was friendly; I was friendly. A policeman with a moustache wearing a crisp blue uniform with white belt and military hat, looking very French (though the larger influence in the Western Sahara is Spanish), stood in the middle of the highway to stop us then came over to the taxi.

“Bonjour,” he smiled at me. “Bonjour,” I replied. “Passport?” he asked. I handed him my American passport. My driver had already called another policeman whom we waited for at a designated place in the city to get permission to go to the beach. At the beach are the fish processing plants and a phosphate plant as well as a promenade and beach and the Atlantic. We were given permission so I’m not sure why we are being stopped.

“Profession?” he asked. “Ecrivan,” I answered.  “Journaliste?” he asked with suspicion. “No…ecrivan…romans.” I smiled. He smiled. He took my passport and went back to his car where he and the driver conferred for fifteen minutes. I watched them in the side mirror and wondered if I should get out of the car but decided I should stay inside. He returned to the car and gave me back my passport. He smiled  I smiled.  But still he didn’t let us go.

Meanwhile cars and a few trucks passed by without being stopped. They were driving south either towards the beach or all the way down the highway to Mauritania, over 600 miles away. I’ve been told this is a smugglers’ route. I wondered what traffic might have passed while I was being checked.

The driver returned and asked for my passport again. Another 15 minutes went by. I continued to watch them in the rearview mirror. Finally I got out of the car. I didn’t walk towards them. I just stood leaning against the taxi in the wind—a lone American woman traveling in the desert, sitting in the front seat of the taxi because it gave me a better view. I was probably not a sight they were used to. After almost 45 minutes, we were finally released. I don’t know what the conversations were. The driver told me it was about his license plate; one of its numbers was wrong; he was given a fine. Then why did they need my passport…twice, I asked. But he had no answer I could understand. Instead he took me to lunch at a restaurant on the beach, which I thought was  either his father’s or his father worked at, then he invited me to his home, where he told me his mother had made me tea. His mother didn’t appear, but a tea service was set up, and he served me the delicious sweet mint tea in an elaborate Moroccan tea ceremony.  When I paid  him at the end of the day, I tipped him enough to pay the fine though I didn’t really know what happened, but we were smiling.

At the hotel, the U.N. representative who is a friend of a friend picked me up to go to the airport. Coincidently he was on the same flight back to Casablanca, where he would then head to the Azores. He was preparing for a meeting that would happen later in the fall. Fifteen refugees living on the Moroccan side of the sand berm will meet with refugees living on the Algerian side to discuss their lives. Observing them will be three Mauritanian anthropologists. The hope is that these meetings, which have occurred over the years, will help form bonds within the region. The larger hope for the region is that eventually real peace will break out. The topic to begin the discussion at the gathering will be: The Camel.

Parallel Universe in a Glassed Concert Hall in Iceland

If you want to understand politics—it’s like being in a book club where everyone discusses the grammar.

So said actor/comedian Jon Gnarr, Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland when he addressed the recent 79th PEN International Congress. Gnarr was elected Mayor in 2010 from the Best Party, which he and friends with no background in politics created as a satirical party after the economic meltdown in Iceland a few years ago. They won over a third of the seats on the City Council with a platform that included free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the zoo and “all kinds of things for weaklings.” After he was elected, Gnarr declared he wouldn’t form a coalition government with anyone who hadn’t watched the TV series The Wire.

The politician with a short black tie, a sense of humor and a view of politics as a parallel universe resonated with the audience of over 200 writers at the Opening Ceremonies of the PEN Congress. Writers from 70 centers of PEN gathered to deliberate and debate literature and the situation for writers and freedom of expression around the world, a world they agreed often bordered on the absurd, but the absurd with serious consequences.

The Assembly discussed and passed resolutions on the challenges to freedom of expression in countries including Mexico, China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Eritrea, Belarus, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Tibet, and Russia. The delegates walked en masse to the Russian Embassy to present their resolution protesting the recent legislation on blasphemy and “gay propaganda.” And they applauded the announcement during the Congress of the release of Chinese poet Shi Tao 15 months before the end of his 10-year sentence.

“Shi Tao has been one of our main cases since his arrest in 2004, an honorary member of a dozen PEN centers and one of the first and most significant digital media cases,” said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. “Shi Tao’s arrest and imprisonment, because of the actions of Yahoo China, signaled a decade ago the challenges to freedom of expression of internet surveillance and privacy that we are now dealing with.”

The delegates challenged the secret surveillance of citizens recently uncovered in the United States and the United Kingdom and the prosecution of those who revealed programs violating international human rights norms.

“As an organization dedicated to preserving free expression and creative freedom, PEN is particularly troubled by recent revelations concerning the nature and scope of electronic surveillance programmes in use by the United States’ National Security Agency and parallel programmes such as those being carried out by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the United Kingdom.  As leaks about the U.S. government’s PRISM programme, the U.K. governments Tempora programme, and other such programmes make clear, certain governments now possess the capacity to monitor the private telephone, internet and other digital communications of every citizen on earth—among them, the communications of PEN’s 20,000 members worldwide.”

In this parallel universe one of the new centers PEN elected at the Congress was the PEN Center of Myanmar. PEN Myanmar will be an early citizens’ organization there defending writers and civil society in a country that just a few years ago was one of the most closed societies on earth. Also sitting in the glassed waterfront Concert Hall among the Assembly of Delegates were North Korean writers who now meet as an exile center of PEN, but as voices stir and comedians and actors and politicians mingle, who knows the universe that may yet emerge?

 

 

Peacocks and Politics

I’ve spent much of the summer on the Eastern shore of Maryland on a river, writing and listening to the quiet lapping of the water against the stones of the river bank, except when jet skis whish by and when the peacocks next door caw and caw at the neighbor’s farm. The peacocks call to each other all day long, broken by a rooster’s cock-a-doodle-do…actually the rooster is yodeling now, though I don’t know what he’s heralding in the middle of the afternoon.

The peacocks wander over from time to time, running across our yard like stealthy children hiding from their parents. I don’t know what prompts their visits. They usually leave a mess, but their brilliant feathers swishing by always surprise and astonish me.

Today as I was moving to a table outside to write this blog, I discovered one of the females nesting, hidden in a bush outside the house and, I believe, hatching a brood of eggs. I don’t know when she arrived, but she lay there motionless as though she had gone into a deep sleep, moving not at all as she protected her eggs. I’m not sure how long gestation is for peacocks, but soon we will be host to baby peacocks!  Since the birds wander from farm to farm, no one claims ownership, certainly not me, but suddenly I feel a responsibility, for exactly what, I can’t say, at least a responsibility to give the mother the peace and quiet she has sought by escaping here, away from the other peacocks and roosters. Occasionally we have a dog visit on the weekend so my first responsibility is to make sure the dog doesn’t find the peacock.

I look up the facts:  Technically she is a peahen, the female of the peafowl family. The gestation period is 28 days; she should hatch three to five eggs so we must be on watch this month.  I will set out a bowl of water. That probably isn’t necessary…but what else does one do? I assume the mother knows how to feed herself though she looks completely immobile. Maybe her mate comes and feeds her? Only the male—the peacock—has the luminous tail, and this information coincides with the dull brown-feathered back of the big bird in the bush. According to the sources, the baby chicks will walk and eat and drink on their own from the first day.  I am relieved by this information.

I read that the peacock inhabits just a few countries, mostly in Asia, though I have also watched and followed peacocks around parks in London.  The feathers which contain the circular green and blue, red and gold eyes make this bird one of the most beautiful of all species, though one source notes that the feathers are actually brown, and it is because of the reflection of light that the feathers look so colorful. With its tail dragging behind it like a train, the peacock can be as long as five feet. This train when spread into a fan frames the whole body of the bird, making it one of the largest flying birds.  The peacock uses its tail to attract its mate, and the female is thought to choose her mate by the size and color and quality of the train—no meeting of the minds.  The peacock is not monogamous.

Peacocks can live up to 20 years so we had better consider what we are in for with the peahen choosing our yard for its manger.  It is a rare treat to have peacocks close by, but it is also a mixed blessing for they screech and poop and bicker angrily.  They fly into trees to protect themselves; I don’t yet know if that includes the baby chicks.  They are considered an endangered species so we are overseeing the hatching of endangered birds which will then grace our trees at night and call and complain at all hours. To date they have lived at our neighbors’, but he would happily have them migrate to our yard.  For now we will wait and have to see how these new lives will adjust and harmonize, or perhaps after the birth, they will all march off, back to where they came from.

*******************************************************

Originally I was coming outside to write another blog today.  I hadn’t posted in two months, and a voice in my head was nagging me to do so even while I argued that  I was finishing a long manuscript.  I was reviewing interviews and background relating to the NGO crackdown in Egypt and one particular highly respected Egyptian journalist who had taken on a position to train journalists in Egypt for an American-based NGO. He was indicted, along with 42 others, in the sweep of those working for foreign NGO’s last year and forced to stand in a cage during the trial sessions.

Though he hadn’t even started his work for the International Center for Journalists, Yehia Ghanem, well-known international correspondent and managing editor and supervisor for Al-Ahram, one of the leading Arabic newspapers, was given a two-year prison sentence in June.  He has been slandered and his family attacked because he worked with a Western non-governmental organization promoting professional journalism.

Ghanem was visiting the U.S. when the verdict was handed down.  Because the evidence was extremely thin to nonexistent  that any law had been broken, he and  others assumed the verdict would be acquittal. Instead he and others were found guilty. It was a political, not a judicial verdict, he said.

Ghanem has chosen for the moment to stay in the US, but he has had to leave his family in Egypt, where one of his sons has been attacked.  While he and others wait for forces there to respond to the 22 million people who signed a petition seeking a new constitution and election and a more democratic Egypt, he is living in limbo, working on a book, settling in at a university and hoping. He will appeal the verdict.

I don’t know that these two stories connect except circumstantially. I was on the way to set up my computer outside to write this post when I came across the peahen hidden in the garden, guarding her eggs. Two stories of gestation perhaps. I take a lesson from the fortitude and courage of our Egyptian colleague and offer my hope for the successful rebirth of a nation.

 

The posting of this blog was delayed for several weeks. In the interim the peacock eggs have hatched. Four  newborn chicks have returned with their mother to their home next door. The situation in Egypt has deteriorated. The fate of Yehia Ghanem remains uncertain and even more problematic.

Living In and Beyond History

The white horse-drawn carriages clomp on the gray stones of Old Town Krakow, circling this largest of medieval town squares in Europe. On the fringe sit restaurants with white and yellow umbrellas advertising Polish beers where residents and tourists dine on red-checked table cloths. In the center the Town Hall Tower dominates, and around the periphery old terraced houses and shops form an arcade where one can buy everything from pastries to books to clothes to shoes.

Today tourists can look out over the city from the observation deck at the top of the gothic Town Hall Tower, originally built of stone and brick at the end of the 13th century. The tower used to house the city prison with a medieval torture chamber in its cellars. Thirty miles to the west lay some of the worst torture chambers of the 20th century: the prison camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, where an estimated three million people died during World War II.

This historic city of Krakow was the scene last week of “Writing Freedom”—the biennial gathering of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committees from around the world in joint symposiums with ICORN (the International Cities of Refuge Network) and the third Czeslaw Milosz Literary Festival.

Along the Vistula River writers gathered from every continent and from regions where they are now, or were in the past, under threat, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, China, Myanmar/Burma, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, Russia/Chechnya, Belarus, Mexico, El Salvador, as well as from all over Europe and North America. The more than 200 guests strategized over the challenges to freedom of writing and expression. They explored new threats such as digital surveillance, new adversaries in non state actors and new and old methods of protest and advocacy; they also heard reports of those currently on the frontlines.

While global solutions to these large questions are not easily forthcoming, answers are often found in specific acts of one writer advocating on behalf of another, of one city opening its doors to one writer at a time, of a community gathering and raising a collective voice and finding where to target that voice.

PEN, with over 100 centers worldwide, works for the release and protection of writers imprisoned, threatened and attacked for their work, and ICORN places writers at risk in cities where they can live and work for a year or two without threat.

One of Krakow’s most well-known writers and exiles was Joseph Conrad, who as a child in his school years, lived on Poselska Street here before he emigrated to England. Years later when he was a famous writer, he returned and stood at night in the “vastly empty Main Square,” where he noted, “the streets were in precisely the same condition as when I had seen them upon departure forty years previous.” But the following day World War I erupted and Conrad, a citizen of an enemy country now, again had to flee.

History moves on and regions mend as has Krakow from its brutal history under the Nazis and then under Soviet domination, but unfortunately oppression continues, as evidenced in the stories of the writers who had escaped and now lived as exiles–the Iranian writer learning Swedish or the Zimbabwean writer learning Norwegian in their new homes.

Two Voices Behind the Iron Doors

(In the past weeks I was brought to focus again on the situation of two writers in prison, one in China, the other in Turkey, both countries that have consistently challenged and imprisoned writers. In China the hope for expanded freedom of expression that came with the Olympics and China’s engagement with global institutions has not materialized, and Chinese writers remain in prison with long sentences. The situation in Turkey for a while was improving, but in the past year arrests have again escalated.)

Voice in China

I had dinner recently with three colleagues of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate and writer currently serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese jail. Two of his friends, Shen Tong and the other friend arrived in the U.S. around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, but the younger best-selling writer and democracy activist Yu Jie didn’t leave China until January, 2012 after being detained and tortured and put under house arrest. He now lives in Virginia.

Yu Jie consulted with Liu Xiaobo during the writing of Charter 08, the manifesto calling for democracy in China which resulted in the imprisonment of Dr. Liu. He and Liu Xiaobo also co founded the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and Yu Jie has written a biography of Liu Xiaobo.

At a round wooden table in a bustling Washington restaurant the friends outlined their campaign. Among their strategies, they are working to gather a million signatures worldwide calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since Liu’s imprisonment. So far they have gathered about half a million signatures in 130 countries, including from 135 Nobel Laureates. The Friends of Liu Xiaobo are also campaigning for the release of other prisoners of conscience in China. They and the Nobel Laureates are mobilizing support around the world and have been told the Chinese government has started to take notice and to worry about the scope of the campaign. Dr. Liu is the only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in prison.

Here is the link to sign the petition.

* Friends of Liu Xiaobo Twitter: http://twitter.com/lxbfree,

* Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/Free.Liu?fref=ts

 

Poem by Liu Xiaobo:

A Small Rat in Prison

a small rat passes through the iron bars
paces back and forth on the window ledge
the peeling walls are watching him
the blood-filled mosquitoes are watching him
he even draws the moon from the sky, silver
shadow casts down
beauty, as if in flight

a very gentryman the rat tonight
doesn’t eat nor drink nor grind his teeth
as he stares with his sly bright eyes
strolling in the moonlight
5. 26. 1999

Translated by Jeffrey Yang

 

Voice in Turkey

I reached into the drawer of my post box in Washington this week and pulled out a card addressed to Doame Leexa-Acker (the name no doubt a reflection of my poor penmanship on the receiving end.) The envelope was from Turkey, and the postcard inside had a picture of Diyarbakir, the ancient city in southeastern Turkey that is the capital of the Kurdish region and the hub of fighting for decades between the Army and the PKK.

In a neatly printed hand the card read:

21 March Newroz Kurdish religiots [sic[ celebrate.
1200 day not free. I’m healt [sic] bad.
I’m free about concerned. I need you children.
I at the house must be. I’ not killer!
I’m writer, lawyer, peacemaker.
I’ hope back you can be. Please.
Grand peace in the door.
Thank you for post cards
:-)
Best wishes,
Muharrem Erbey

 

Even with the challenge of English, the appeal resonated. I looked up his case and reminded myself of his situation: Muharrem Erbey is a writer and a human rights lawyer, Vice President of the Human Rights Association. He was imprisoned under the Anti-terror Law in 2009. According to PEN International, he has compiled reports on disappearances and extra-judicial killings in the Kurdish region and has represented individuals in the provincial, national and international courts, including the European Court of Human Rights. He was one of dozens of writers and journalists tried under the auspices of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) trials which targeted pro-Kurdish writers, publishers, academics and translators, tried together as KCK’s “Press Wing.” He has published articles and co-edited a collection of Turkish and Kurdish language stories. His own short story collection, My Father, Aharon Usta was delayed for publication after his arrest.

Last fall Erbey wrote to those at PEN who had advocated on his behalf: “I send you my heart’s warmth from behind the iron doors and bars and damp, cold, wet walls of prison….My speeches and comments never contained words of violence.”

Circulating a writers’ work and giving voice to those silenced is part of what writers can do for each other. Below is a section of a translated letter from Erbey describing the seasons in prison with a link to the full letter:

I want to tell you how I have experienced the four seasons from behind bars.

Autumn. In the morning, as I reach over the barbed wire crowning this wall six or seven metres in height, the sun as it passes briefly through our ventilation system and away again, the sound of the sparrows that perch on the wire and fly off with the crumbs of bread we toss, the squawking of doves overhead, this sky stained a cold and faded blue, the wind that howls and carries dry fragments of grass through the ventilation – all work the ache of loneliness finely and deeply into me, as the captivity of my shivering body grows a storey higher. I am listening to the sound of the wind. The chattering of clothespegs hanging from the line, the clatter of water bottles roaming the area, flying newspaper scraps and silently wandering dreams, hopes that grow from a whisper to a roar – they strike the wall and go no further.

Winter. There is a weak sun that does not warm you. The air is cold. This place is alien to life, with its endless concrete and iron, these wire fences. The walls’ peeling grey paint, their damp, drains you of energy. Your dreams are caked in dust and soot. At 6 am, as we four men in each room wake to the metallic clank of iron doors, we wish that this were all a dream, but it is not; everything is real. As it happens, prison is the one place one would never want to be when waking. We have this privilege. The prison walls allow everything to pass, except time. I am freezing, my throat dries up, my eyes are burning, there is the weight of tonnes on top of me; it is as if I am tied in steel cord. I cough and I sneeze. In winter prison becomes a prison, and the cold season seems to go on forever. At night we go to the toilet dozens of times.

Spring. Taking root in a crack of broken concrete, seeds brought over the walls and wire by the wind display nature’s irresistible force with the unfurling of their leaves. At first glance you think that the seedling has broken its way out through the concrete. But nature stubbornly allows life to take hold, splitting concrete despite every restriction. An unimaginable aroma of oleaster surrounds us. You know that spring is here from the sound of birds and the smell of flowers. And from the flocks of birds in the sky, and its glittering blue.

Summer. The sun lays waste to it all, as walls and floor turn to a raging fire. I grow drowsy and still. As I shake my head before the spinning ventilator it rises above the walls and the wire fences and I fight to breathe, just as a fish in a tank rises to the surface and, looking desperately at the blue skies, gasps. At night the sound of a soldier whistling intermittently on the watchtower blends with an owl’s hooting. There is a wedding in the neighbouring village. The banging of drums, the women’s ululations and the barking of excited dogs plant a smile on my face just as soon as they steal in through an open window. How sweet to hear life even if we cannot see it!

If only prison did not teach one how beautiful life is. My sons Robin (10) and Robert (5) ask “Daddy, when will you be done here? How long until you come home?” I reply “Not long, not long.” In reality, I do not know when I will be done….

[Follow the links to send appeals on behalf of Liu Xiaobo and Muharrem Erbey.]

Rising Voices in Pakistan

I miss the sunrise in Islamabad. I have jet lag and sleep through it, but I am up by noon. A colleague, a respected researcher in the region, takes me to lunch in one of the remaining villages in the middle of the city that was made from villages when it was constructed in the 1960’s. Islamabad is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Pakistan, according to the guidebooks.  We lunch in the hills under an awning on sofas looking out on other hills and restaurants attracting locals and tourists. We drink fresh squeezed orange juice—I drink the sweet, delicious orange juice at almost every meal—and eat a local chicken dish with nann piled high. In the evening I also dine outside by a fire with a journalist friend of a friend at an Italian restaurant in a residential neighborhood.

I am here for a conference of Pakistani and American journalists hosted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) on whose board I serve. But this first day is my own and the only day I will not be inside the security corridor of the hotel or on a bus with an armed guard.  Pakistan is reputed to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and one in which Americans are urged to be cautious.

Pakistan stands at a pivotal point in its history right now with elections coming up in the next month for a democratic turnover of power.  The expectation is that the civilian government will hand over to another civilian government peacefully for the first time in Pakistan’s history. Everyone I meet no matter their political affiliation is hopeful this election will occur.

“Even if imperfect, it is an important step in evolving democracy in the country,” says a leading human rights lawyer.

Central to the democracy the citizens aspire to is a free press. According to journalists at the conference:
–“What we do now in the media will make a difference 50 to 100 years from now.”
– “People are saying to the media: it is your job to protect us.”
–“Good journalists feel responsible and accountable to tell the story.”

The International Center for Journalists has sponsored and continues to sponsor over 150 Pakistani journalists to work in U.S. newsrooms around the country from California to Arizona to Texas to Minnesota to Rhode Island to Pennsylvania to Florida.  It also sponsors 30 U.S. journalists to visit the Pakistani newsrooms. For most of the participants the visit is the first to each other’s country. The exchange has opened up perceptions and extended skill sets on all sides.

“Unless you touch the grass in each other’s yards, you won’t know each other,” said a journalist from Karachi who spent time working in Tucson.

In the U.S. the journalists work side by side on stories, including elections, schools, crime, the judiciary, local government, all the while learning about America and about techniques in American journalism. Americans also learn about Pakistan as the Pakistani journalists speak to Rotary clubs and schools and give interviews to the media.

Examples include:

–The journalist from Waziristan in the tribal territories in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan who worked in Austin, TX blogging and is still blogging. “I loved Texas. The people cared for their families; they are like us.”

–The TV reporter based in Chicago who covered the US elections for his channel. As he stood in front of President Obama, he said he thought: “Here is a king of the world and yet he has a modest personality and is easily approachable.” The American experience was also good for him, he said, because he quit smoking. “After going to America, which has a no smoking culture, I cut my cigarettes down to 15 a day then to 5 a day then to none, and I now have quit.”

–The journalists in Pittsburg and in Charleston who hadn’t used social media except for family learned to use twitter and to tag and to send back notes on stories through smart phones.

–The Karachi journalist in Bakersfield, California who said he learned how American journalists fact checked content and shared information via facebook. He said he got tickets to see Conan O’Brien and Universal Studios for free and started a blog about his experiences and is still blogging.

–The journalist from Quetta who worked in Tallahassee, Florida and met the Mayor and Governor and Education Minister for the state. “I came back and did a story on education and mistakes in results in Punjab.”

–A journalist who was also a faculty member worked in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a local TV channel and saw firsthand how important freedom was and saw the diversity of the culture, including the Amish country. “To understand the American ideal of freedom is so important for Pakistan. The journalist who picked me up every day told me democracy didn’t come easy; he said they had to struggle for it. It’s our way now. This is what I learned. American didn’t get it easy.”

–A journalist in Austin, TX had access to wander around with a camera. “I had a view of people and of the U.S. and that completely changed.  They don’t hate Muslims or Pakistanis.”

–Another journalist was educated in school not to think well about America. “When I talk to different people and see the strong system and story of civilization and met Americans, I’m not against American people now.”

–One Pakistani journalist went with a Minneapolis journalist to interview the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and was surprised how liberal he was in his views, especially towards gay marriage.

There were also journalists at the conference who’d been accepted to the program but were still awaiting visas, including a journalist from Waziristan and a woman television journalist in Lahore, who explained that in her city she couldn’t leave the house without covering her head; she longed to come to the US and study international relations.

Many of the American journalists went to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, but were not able to spend the same amount of time in the Pakistani newsrooms because of security concerns.  They said they were surprised how much the Pakistanis wanted to engage with them. They too remarked on how alike they all were as they pursued their careers and families.

An editor in Florida told the story of a father of one of the women reporters working at his paper and living in his home.  The father called him from Pakistan concerned about his daughter. The American editor shared his own experience as a father of a daughter, and the two families became friends.

Pakistan is acknowledged as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. The danger to a free press isn’t the arrest and imprisonment of writers as it is in many countries.  “The danger to the journalist used to be that he or she would be beaten up,” said one reporter. “In the old days you would get a good thrashing. Now they kill you!” Some cities like Karachi are more dangerous than others.

One leading journalist said there was no criticism of the Taliban in the press because it was too dangerous and because the Taliban are the biggest advertisers in certain media. “No story is worth dying for,” he said though others disagreed.

“To cover Pakistan is like looking through a fog,” said one American journalist based there who noted that people still remember the beheading of Daniel Pearl. “American journalists should be able to cover and go many places, but we can’t. Thirty-five journalists were assassinated in the past few years.  If the media can’t work in certain areas, then how is it free?”

The constriction on the working U.S. and Pakistani media is balanced by the welcoming attitude of Pakistani civil society, noted one editor active in the Rotary Club back home where the visiting Pakistani journalists spoke. When he got off the plane in Islamabad, the President of the Rotary met him and took him around, and rotary members greeted him everywhere.

“When journalists on a major story are threatened and still run the story—that is courage,” he said.  “Fight for a free press. The whole world is with you!”