Life instead of Death…Rationality instead of Ignorance

Of all the lively discussions, the literary evenings, multiple resolutions generated at PEN International’s 81st Congress last week in Quebec City, the image that stays in my mind is of the petite wife and children of Saudi blogger and editor Raif Badawi standing in a puddle on the plaza by his picture in the early morning, along with delegates from PEN centers around the world.

His wife and children now live in Quebec, which has also offered Raif Badawi a home, but he remains in a Saudi prison with a ten-year sentence and 950 more lashes of punishment, then a decade long ban on travel, all for setting up a digital forum to encourage social and political debate within Saudi Arabia. He has been found guilty of “insulting Islam” and “founding a liberal website.”

The PEN Congress, which hosted writers from 84 centers in 73 countries, featured three writers with “empty chairs,” including Raif Badawi, Eritrean poet, critic and editor Amanuel Asrat and murdered Honduran journalist Juan Carlos Argenal Medina. PEN called for the release of Badawi and Asrat and justice for Medina. It also targeted the cases of writers imprisoned, threatened, killed or at risk in Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Honduras, India, Iran, Mexico, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Tibet, Turkey and Vietnam.

Badawi’s message via his wife to PEN members after receiving an earlier PEN Canada One Humanity Award was:  “We want life for those who wish death to us, and we want rationality for those who want ignorance for us.”


  1. Azar nafisi on October 23, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Dear Joanne, one of the rare moments when I use the word proud without feeling gauche or emotional. I am really proud of my association with PEN, giving voice to those deprived of it, regardless of their creed or ideology. I also feel heartbroken, angry, at times helpless.
    Thank you for reminding us, for speaking to our hearts.

    My best, azar

  2. Kathy on October 23, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Thank you for this blog post. From the time I heard of it, the situation of Raif Badawi has been of special interest. I’m so glad to hear that you were at the PEN Congress where his case was discussed. I certainly hope that there is a fair, just, and reasonable resolution to his situation.

  3. Lucina Kathmann on October 23, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    When Raif Badawi’s wife spoke I remembered this ongoing case, the gruesome and disproportionate sentence, the stupidity that there is a crime called ” founding a liberal website.” Then his beautiful children appeared to join her and I burst into tears. I think I wept not just for this family, though this one is very very beautiful, but for all the children who do not have their fathers and mothers with them because of acts we should all be proud of.

  4. Linda S. on October 23, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    It is hard to imagine the courage of these writers who stand for their convictions in the face of personal danger. They are real heroes! And much gratitude to PEN for defending their rights and fighting such a worthy cause!

  5. Mariela Baeva on October 24, 2015 at 7:00 am

    When I read your reference to Life instead of Death, dear Joanne, I recalled the pain I could feel when learning about Talibans’ attempt to cut Malala’s voice from sending messages to the world that what young people need is a book and a pen. Badawi’s launching a website and being sentenced for that provokes same deep concerns of how we face on a permanent basis the grave violation of a common value as freedom of thought and expression…

  6. DJA on October 26, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks for the Pen International update, Joanne, and for the reminder about Badawi. His case is an appalling display of how Saudis are still held in subjection to rigid Wahhabi religious extremism — which Americans tend to paper over in order to retain a dubious political/financial/military alliance with the ruling royal family. Keep up the good (essential) work.

  7. Lucina Kathmann on October 30, 2015 at 12:52 am

    Yes. Wonderful that Raif Badawi is to receive the Sakharov prize.

  8. Greta Rana on November 2, 2015 at 6:07 am

    Thanks for this Joanne. I have been unable to attend Congress for a while now asI have some passport difficulties. But it’s heartening to learn that PEN is still flying the flag as far as defending freedom of expression is concerned, Of course our ‘powerful’ countries humour those with mediaeval mindsets. A tanker of oil is worth sacrificing a human life or two-no? That’s re-al politik I suppose.

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