I keep taking pictures of the sky and its changing scenery. I don’t need to go anywhere to travel its corridors of beauty and drama though as the summer ends, I will be on the road more often, and the sky will more often turn gray and the drama on the ground more compelling.
But on this last week of summer, this first weekend of September, I share the sky and its vistas, the sun rising and setting, and hope the perspective inspires days ahead.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
There’s a chill in the air this morning. I don’t know if it will last, probably not since it is still August, but I turn on the fire pit and wait for the sun to rise in the sky and warm my sleeveless arms in the tee shirt I slept in. My dog sits on my lap keeping me warm as she watches and listens to each morning sound, the starlings in the bird house, the crows in the trees, the many other birds whose sounds I can’t identify. A friend has given me a book on birds so perhaps I’ll learn to identify these occupants living on this patch of earth we share.
The world outside this haven is fraught with the shattering news of attacks and deceptions. I move between what seems a fraught nexus in Washington DC and the calm of the Chesapeake. I am conscious of the dichotomy, though also conscious that if I lift my sights higher like the birds who have now started to take their morning flights, I might see a larger view and see the oneness and harmony. I sit by the fire pit looking up….
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
I’ve lost emails I’d saved as drafts on my phone. I have searched everywhere—in Trash, in Junk, in Sent, and in Received and have concluded they have disappeared, perhaps into the cloud. “The cloud” is a relatively new concept, at least for my generation. The miracle and mystery that all our information can be stored out there “in the cloud” still bends the mind. Who named this ephemeral space “the cloud”?
I am sitting outside on this cool summer morning staring up at a puffy ceiling of clouds above me. These clouds are shrouding the sun and keeping the temperature relatively cool. I know these are not “the cloud” the technicians mean, but I look up anyway for reference and to contemplate the vastness of the sky and beyond that, the universe.
This past week we were let into a view of that vastness with the photos from the James Webb Telescope which sent back pictures from billions of light-years* away. (Who can comprehend even one light-year?) We are told that whatever we are seeing would have already happened and is millions/billions of years old. Any life out there that might be viewing us would be seeing our lives in the 17th century if they were just 300 light-years away. If 300 million light-years away, they would be seeing earth before homo sapiens evolved or at 200 million light years they might see dinosaurs like the Allosaurus.
Where does that leave us? Projected images of light on a continuum of time? Ideas transporting instantly?
And where are my draft emails? In some cloud cruising the universe? The mind begins to expand as life and light expand and thought moves upward. I once read that most people (here on earth at least) see and comprehend only about two percent of what is going on around them. Does that seem about right? Depending on one’s optimism, that may be good news if we conclude the other 98 percent might be magnificent and revelatory depending on our expanding perception above the clouds, though the idea that “dark energy and dark matter” may make up 95% of the universe sounds more ominous. We are told we can’t see dark matter but see only its effects.
In the meantime I’ll call my nephew who is trained in cyber security and see if he can tell me how to find my lost emails. Maybe he and others can even find two days’ worth of crucial lost text messages of the US Secret Service for January 5 and 6. Those too may be traveling out into space and can be recovered by someone just a fraction of a light year away.
*Light-year: 5.88 trillion miles light travels in a year.
I sit in the early morning—5:30am—as the sun is coming up. I listen to the birds chirping across the sky and to the watermen on the river trolling for crabs or oysters, also with lines down for perch or trout or occasional catfish.
I’ve come downstairs to let my dog out. The morning is beguiling as it awakens with mottled light spreading on the water and the river humming with early traffic, so I let my day begin and sit on the porch listening and watching.
I’m always surprised how clear sound travels on the water. I can hear a little girl on a boat talking with her father though I have to adjust my camera to zoom in ten times the distance to get a silhouette. I can’t entirely make out the words, but I am eavesdropping though I am at my home on the shore, and they are drifting by.
Summer’s solstice has recently passed. There is much summer left, but I am sorry the light will now recede a little each day, though perhaps I’ll get more sleep. I never close the curtains and so often rise with the sun. I don’t like dark rooms. I want to know when the day begins.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
With the war in the Ukraine front and center in the news, I can’t help thinking back to my Russian colleague from PEN, the General Secretary of Russian PEN Alexander Tkachenko, or Sascha as we called him. I wonder how he would have responded to what is unfolding. During his tenure at Russian PEN, he stood up and argued with Vladimir Putin face to face on behalf of Russian writers and resisted when the government tried to close down PEN in Russia.
Sascha was complex—a former professional soccer player, a Tartar, son of the Crimea, a poet. Those who knew him may still hear his voice on the floor of PEN Congresses challenging his government’s imprisonment of writers, apologizing to new Afghan PEN delegates for his country’s incursion into their country, or remember Sascha swimming off the coast of Perth, Australia in spite of the signs warning of sharks or singing and reciting his poetry at the Writers in Prison Conference in Denmark, or strategizing with the Writers in Prison Committee in the hills of Nepal.
When Sascha suddenly turned up dead in 2007 at age 63, we were all shocked. Some speculated perhaps he drank too much vodka; he had a heart condition. We accepted that it was “heart failure” though even at the time, the skeptical voice questioned whether there could have been foul play. As I witness now the carnage in the Ukraine and have since seen the incidents of murder and recently read accounts of those who have been eliminated in Russia in books such as Bill Browder’s Red Notice and the new Freezing Order, doubts again stir about Sascha’s sudden end. I wonder how he would have reacted to the drama playing out today and the closing down of any freedom of dissent in Russia. Today there are additional PEN Centers in Russia—PEN Moscow, PEN St. Petersburg, Tartar PEN, and writers I’m told have differing views among them. But Sascha I feel certain would have defended the right to dissent, to stand up for the freedom to live.
Below is the tribute I wrote at the time. I feel I am mourning Sascha all over again as we mourn the loss of the freedoms he and others struggled for, and we mourn the loss of this vision of a nation.
December 7, 2007
General Secretary of Russian PEN Alexander Tkachenko –Sascha as he is known to his friends—died this week, peacefully in his sleep, we are told. It is hard to imagine Sascha passing anywhere peacefully, certainly not from this world.
As Russian PEN’s General Secretary, this hearty man with salt and pepper hair and moustache, this former professional soccer player and respected poet campaigned fearlessly for writers threatened in Russia. He often stood his ground with officials, bureaucrats, the military and with Vladimir Putin himself. When Putin once visited the Russian PEN offices, Sascha challenged him directly on the rights of writers and freedom of expression in Russia.
Sascha traveled the huge expanse of Russia from one end to the other to lobby, to argue, to advocate on behalf of writers who faced imprisonment by the Russian state, writers such as Grigory Pasko, the journalist and poet who was arrested after reporting on Russia’s dumping of nuclear waste. He championed as well those in former regions of the Soviet Union, in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. He also spoke out and represented the voice of Russian writers on behalf of imprisoned writers around the world.
Sascha served on the Board of International PEN and attended PEN conferences and Congresses for the past decade. My personal memories are many. I particularly remember standing side by side with Sascha at Istanbul University in 1997 surrounded by riot police as we addressed a crowd of thousands with a bull horn. We were the two representatives of PEN advocating for freedom for Turkish writers in prison.When the Russian government threatened to close Russian PEN in 2006 because of alleged tax payments suddenly demanded, PEN centers around the world rallied to help. I was International Secretary of PEN at the time and able to meet with Sascha and members of Russian PEN in Moscow as these payments were secured. That meeting was also attended by Rakhim Esenov from Turkmenistan, an elderly former general whose novel had been banned and who had been imprisoned for his book allegedly being “historically inaccurate.” Only a week before American PEN had given Esenov its Freedom to Write Award in New York. He was on his way home through Moscow, where Sascha and Russian PEN offered additional moral support as he returned to face the threats of his government.
When I think of Sascha, I first hear his laughter and then his arguments, then his particular English; I see his hands waving as he talks, see him reluctant to yield a microphone until his point is made; I see him as he must have been as a young man blocking and running down the field as a soccer player, bobbing and weaving, pushing past those who would try to stop him as he drove to the goal. In his last decades that goal was getting writers out of prison. Sascha was an advocate we all would want on our side should we find ourselves threatened or in prison. He will be mourned and sorely missed.
His funeral is in his home village of Peredelkino December 10, Human Rights Day. He would have liked that framing of time on his passing, though he will not really pass; he will simply rest in our thoughts and rise in our thoughts when courage is called for and an advocate is needed. When a government acts as though it is more powerful than the individual, Sascha’s memory will remind us of the power of one. His voice continues through his writing, and the impact he has had on the lives of writers imprisoned continues.
The geese have gone. Dozens have abandoned our lawn and veered back to Canada for the spring and summer. They will return when the temperatures again drop up North.
For now cherry blossoms are blooming, daffodils have sprouted, and green buds are exploding on all the trees. Spring in its mercurial moods has come to the Chesapeake. The last (I hope) snow and ice storm of the season passed through a few weekends ago. Bright sun and balmy temperatures warmed us last weekend; this weekend hovered somewhere in between, though Monday morning dawned below freezing again.
Even as this fraught globe balances between war and peace in Europe and drought and famine in areas of Africa, and genocide in regions of Asia, this earth of ours spins on its axis. The seasons continue to rotate. As humankind, most of us live lives focused on the needs of day to day as the peril from afar flickers on the screen. In the nighttime hours this flickering in the dark heightens and gives pause, intensifying as sleep eludes. But then the day dawns and the sun rises, and the earth again spins its course. Looking closely near and far, we witness (and can do) deeds of kindness, and these save us and the planet from the apathy of despair.
Here I post some photos of the season in appreciation of the beauty that I wish could unite us and that might at least find a home in imagination if not in fact.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
Just hours before the attack unleashed on the Ukraine February 23/24, the U.S. Ukrainian Ambassador spoke at a sold-out dinner at the Sulgrave Club in Washington, DC. A former turn-of-the century beaux-arts home in DuPont Circle, the Sulgrave Club had landed the featured speaker of the evening, though no one knew how fortuitous when she was originally scheduled. I was invited as a guest of a friend to the dinner.
In her talk Ambassador Oksana Markarova recounted the true history of the Ukraine, as opposed to Vladimir Putin’s version. She emphasized the determination of Ukrainian citizens to live in a free, democratic society as they had demonstrated in the Maidan protests in 2013 when the Russian-backed government had suspended the signing of the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement and instead chose closer ties to Russia. The Maidan protests led to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, known as the Revolution of Dignity. She assured similar resistance would be fierce again if necessary.
After the dinner we all returned home, including the Ambassador, to the just breaking news of the attack—the shelling, rocket fire, and tanks rolling across the border from Russia into the Ukraine.
Five years earlier in 2017 PEN International held its annual Congress in Lviv, Ukraine around the theme “Reclaiming Truth in Times of Propaganda.” Among the many historical insights from that Congress was the fact that Lviv had changed its name and governing domain eight times between 1914 and 1944, passing from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Russia, back to Austria, Ukraine, Poland, Soviet Union, Germany then back to the Soviet Union and now finally in the Ukraine. So much for the claim of father/mother Russia as parent.
At that PEN Congress another portentous talk “Fact, Fiction and Politics in a Post Truth Age” revealed the workings of Russian troll farms. Author David Patrikarakos told the story of Vitali, who became a troll for the Russian state working at a troll farm.
“When Vitali went to the troll farm, he had enlisted in the Russian Army; he just didn’t wear a uniform. He and others became their own army with a virtual information war, and it is effective,” said Patrikarakos. As an unemployed journalist, Vitali developed propaganda, rewriting reports, doctoring news accounts to enhance Russia’s position then distributed these on social media, along with fake news, fake pictures and memes to a wide audience, all relating to Russia’s assault on the Crimea.
According to Patrikarakos (Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State), the Russian state spent $250 million to sow discord in its battle for Crimea. In the troll farm where Vitali and other journalists worked, the first floor focused on distorting news reports and circulating them. On the second floor people worked through social media, posting memes and making up ads; on the third floor bloggers wrote about how life was better in Russia and bad for Russians in the Ukraine and on the fourth floor, people posted comments on other sites.
Patrikarakos noted that his sources told him there was a bag of sim cards to request new accounts, and people were encouraged to make the accounts in the names of females because women were more likely to be believed. “The first goal was to shore up and get true believers, to give a narrative and sow as much confusion on reality as possible,” Patrikarakos said.
After three months Vitali told his boss he wanted to quit. He wrote an expose of the troll farm. When it came out, he received threats such as “Don’t you know you can get punched in the face.”
“As I went through towns of Eastern Ukraine, content had seeped into walls,” said Patrikarakos. “In Eastern Ukraine, Putin’s nervous system is on display. There is belief in fake news—that Ukrainians want to kill Russian speakers. Social media is supposed to connect us but it has also shattered unity and divided people; it sets people at loggerheads. The news that young people get depends on who they follow. We all follow who we like, and so prejudice is reaffirmed. Facts are less important than narratives. The new word in 2016 from the Oxford dictionary was ‘post-truth’ which is finding linguistic footing. The goal of many is not to trust truth but to subvert truth,” he concluded.
Now more than ever is the imperative to reclaim the truth.
During the past year of lockdown with no travel, I’ve used this monthly blog to aggregate posts over the last 13 years. These February posts are the last of this aggregated series. February locations range from Washington, DC to Islamabad to Mexico City to Beirut to Istanbul to Edinburgh. I began this blog in February 2008 writing about the Potomac River as I learned to scull and sit backwards as I moved forward. In the month of February I often found myself on water or writing about water with a view to spring.
In the last week of August I learned to scull—to row in a boat with very long oars balanced on a tiny hull that skims along on top of the water, an aerodynamic that results in speed but uncertain equilibrium. Most days I go down to the public boat house at sunrise or sunset to exercise but mostly to experience the quiet in the middle of the river as life hums all around the edges.
For me that river is the Potomac in Washington D.C. (The Charles River in Boston, featured on the homepage of this site, has also been central in my life, but that is another story.) Every day in the skies above the Potomac helicopters hurry off from the White House to somewhere, maybe the Pentagon or from the Pentagon to the White House; airplanes sweep in and out of Reagan National Airport nearby; many are shuttle flights to and from New York and Boston; next to the river hidden by trees, cars rush into and out of Washington on the George Washington Parkway. I hear all these sounds dimly, but I am on the river with its silences and with the ducks swimming along beside me. I am gliding in a single white scull with my back to the direction I’m going, glancing over my shoulder so I don’t run into anyone, feeling the fragile fulcrum of the boat, rather like riding down the river on a pencil. With time I’ve learned to settle the scull under me and learned to guide it with the oars and to balance it also with the oars. A crucial and comforting piece of information I was given early is that if one returns the oars to starting position, lying flat on the water, the scull will regain its equilibrium, and it won’t tip over.
In a way I am returning to starting position with this website which features books that have been reissued, books whose characters I still care about. I hope to feature my new books here too, but whether or not the new books appear soon, I hope you will enjoy those at hand and the stories in the anthologies.
As I’ve made my way down the river these past months, I’ve picked up speed, pushing off with my knees and pulling the oars with my arms all the while thinking, thinking, considering what will come next, watching the sun illumine the river and the sky as it rises or turn the sky a deep pink as it sinks behind the trees into the cars on the parkway. I am surprised every day by the river’s new face as I sweep under Key Bridge, past Georgetown University, past the three sister islands, then cross the river and head back towards the boathouse on the other side, towards the Kennedy Centre to Roosevelt Bridge, then across the river again. I land with increasing, but not yet perfect, grace at the dock.
I have been captured by this sport, I think, because I can be active and at the same time think with nature all around me in the middle of the city. Much of my writing has occupied that kind of space. I’ve been engaged with issues as a journalist, a fiction writer and an activist and yet also removed a bit so I can write about them.
You’ll find on the Advocacy page a list of organizations whose work I’ve been involved with over the years. I’m not listing all the organizations, but those on the front lines of human rights and freedom of expression worldwide. Freedom of expression is important to all writers, whether or not a writer works directly on the issues or just writes, for a writer can open the space of imagination and extend the territory of thought.
By the time this site launches, winter will be setting in, and the boat house will close, and I will have to get off the river, but I’ll be waiting for spring and in the meantime writing each day.
Please enjoy this website and the books and this new form—the blog. I’m still getting used to writing in a form that is both noun and verb, but learning something new…well, that is also what sculling on the river is about.
From China to Syria, repressive nations are cracking down hard on digital dissidents.
Washington – Eleanor Roosevelt never imagined the Internet.
Neither did the other framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago when they enshrined the right to freedom of expression. Yet they wisely left room for just such a development by declaring in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Today, the Internet is both the vehicle and the battleground for freedom of expression around the world. The struggle between writers and governments over this free flow of information has escalated this past year and promises to intensify. Those supporting open frontiers for ideas and information need to be on high alert and take steps necessary to protect those silenced and to keep the Internet unencumbered.
Last year became the first time that more Web journalists were jailed than those working in any other medium, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
China, Burma, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe have led the clampdown. They have arrested writers, blocked websites and Internet access, set strict rules on cyber cafes, and tracked writers’ work. In response, some writers have used proxy search engines, encryption, and other methods to try to get around censorship and detection.
“As in the cold war [when] you had an Iron Curtain, there is concern that authoritarian governments, led by China, are developing a Virtual Curtain,” says Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “There will be a free Internet on one side and a controlled Internet on the other. This will impede the free flow of information worldwide….”[cont]
50 Years of Defending Freedom of Expression
I’m staring straight into the sun lighting up the sky in shades of pink before it sets. I watch it slowly losing altitude behind a building near the World Bank. The yellow globe is sinking into the river, into the trees of Virginia across the Potomac. I am typing without looking at the page, my eyes fixed on the sun which I want to keep in the sky. For some reason I feel frantic to keep staring at the sun, hoping it won’t disappear. But in the time it has taken to write these few sentences, it has already lost half its sphere and is now only a diameter on the horizon. Soon it will be dark. I keep writing. I have just read Arthur Koestler’s “The Cell Door Closes” about his first moments in prison. Perhaps that is why I feel an irrational desire to keep this light in the sky, this sun from sinking…ah now it is but a sliver above the roof tops. How quick its descent once it finds the horizon, as if it wants to leave and go to the other side of the earth. And now it is gone. How long did that take? As long as it took to write this paragraph, this opening of a blog about the fiftieth anniversary of International PEN’s work for writers in prison.
Arthur Koestler was the first writer on whose behalf PEN successfully intervened. An earlier appeal on behalf of Frederico Garcia Lorca in 1937 arrived too late, and he was executed in Spain shortly after his arrest. But PEN’s advocacy for Hungarian novelist Koestler, also condemned to death in Spain, was noted when his captors released him.
In 1960 PEN founded a Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), which preceded the founding of Amnesty, to work on behalf of writers imprisoned, disappeared and killed for the expression of their ideas. Over the years PEN’s WiPC has defended writers around the world, including such well known ones as Josef Brodsky, Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, Vaclav Havel, Ngui wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie, Aung San Sui Kyi, Ken Saro Wiwa and currently Liu Xiaobo and thousands of others.
For four years (1993-1997) I had the privilege of chairing that Committee. And the year of the fatwa (1989) against Salman Rushdie—a seminal event for anyone involved in freedom of expression work—I was president of PEN USA, one of the two PEN Centers in the US. During 25 years of working on freedom of expression, I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with committed writers around the world who advocate on behalf of their threatened colleagues. It is a global network. If one were to map it, one would see intricate, criss-crossing corridors: writers in Poland working for writers in prison in Vietnam, writers in Ghana and Scotland taking action for the release of writers in China, PEN members in Australia and Germany and Italy working on behalf of writers in Cuba, writers in Mexico and Japan protesting the imprisonment and laws affecting writers in Turkey; members in Canada and the U.S. and Sweden speaking up for writers in Iran and Myanmar, writers in England and Norway for those in Belorussia. One can imagine hundreds of hands pushing up their bit of the sky to lift the horizon….[cont]
I walked down to the river this afternoon. The winter sun was bright and low on the horizon; the air was chilled, but not cold. I sat with my legs dangling off a quay and watched two ducks swimming in the water, then waddling up onto the sandy bank, poking around, then slipping back into the river.
On the shore college and high school students were all over the waterfront—exercising, checking their equipment, getting ready to drop oars. Was this the first day of the season? It looked that way as sculls were unloaded at the public boathouse and coaches shouted, “Up…up…up!” so the students would hoist their boats high and avoid hitting anyone in their wide arced turns.
For the public, the boathouse was still closed. It won’t open until the water temperature reaches 55°, probably not for another month or maybe two. The single white rental sculls were out of storage, locked up on their racks, but the black Viking-sized sculls of the university and high school crews with names like Black Pearl will hit the water first.
I fantasized for a moment if I were 18 whether I would row crew. That possibility didn’t exist when I was in high school in Texas and college in the Midwest. I don’t know how many women did row then. Today the fit young women–knees to their chests, legs crossed, doing their scrunches on the lawn–rise in unison and lift their giant scull above their heads and carry it to the water. In unison they step into the boat, position themselves and drop their oars into the cold Potomac.
I carry a different history in my head than these women, but I take this scene, along with the criminal case I’ve been mulling over during a month-long jury duty, and the novel I’m in the midst of writing, and I continue walking along the river. I try to knit thoughts together, to pull the universe inwards, to look for and listen to its beauty and harmony and through words to celebrate these, along with the coming of spring.
Being a writer is like having an itch you can never quite scratch. You may compose an elegant sentence, then a paragraph, perhaps a whole story, bring together what you see and think and feel. If you succeed, the story moves as it should; it arches, bends, then returns on itself with a sweet insight, a glimpse of beauty, a glimmering moment of understanding.
But the next day, sometimes the next hour, a whole new set of thoughts, feelings and perceptions awaken, and you start all over again.
As I leave the river, I note that the ducks have not returned; they have swum to another shore. The sun has slipped behind Roosevelt Island, and as the sky grows pink, the crews turn back towards the boathouse.
The next day clouds cover the sun, and the possibility of snow is rumored. Perhaps spring hasn’t arrived after all, but I have seen its signs. I know it is coming.
February 2012: No blog posted
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, a 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 naan 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.
February 2014: No blog posted
PEN International and its Latin American and North American PEN Centers gathered this past week in Central America and in Mexico City for the third PEN Americas Summit to address the challenges to freedom of expression and the crimes against writers. The region, in particular Mexico, is one of the most dangerous in the world for writers and journalists who are killed, disappeared, attacked and threatened with virtual impunity.
In Mexico over 100 journalists have been murdered since 2000; 25 have been forcibly disappeared and hundreds are attacked and threatened each year while their attackers remain free.
During the Summit PEN identified the structural issues impeding freedom of expression, including the weakness within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, the use of criminal defamation laws, the barriers to entry and lack of diversification within the Mexican news media, the close relationship between much of the media and the Mexican government and the manipulation of advertising payments from the government to media as a reward for positive coverage.
Developing recommendations, PEN officials followed up by meeting with government ministers. Most important the writers in the region will follow up with each other advancing the narrative in their countries which included Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Canada, and the U.S
The Summit ended in Mexico City with a public Pregunta,—a brief statement and question from each of the participants to generate discussion….[cont]
I’m sitting in one of my writing haunts in the morning when a man sits down nearby. He’s joined by a woman. They are waiting for others. Slowly the team begins to gather who have managed to get into DC in spite of the snow and ice storm yesterday. One has come all the way from Scotland. Several are in from New York.
As usual I’m working by the window, barely listening to the conversation ten feet away, except as it grows more interesting. Two more join, now four, now six, now seven people have congregated, one with a bag of inexpensive thank you gifts (“under $25”) for those who’ve helped arrange a visit to the White House. One begins to show the others the views of the White House where filming can take place. The Hay Adams Hotel overlooks Lafayette Park and the White House. The W Hotel overlooks Treasury and is also near the White House. The team hovers around the computer and plans where “our motorcade” will drive and where shots of the White House and other Washington landmarks can be taken.
Last year around this time, I was sitting in this same spot and overheard the beginnings of a campaign for the far-off presidential primaries. (see April, 2015 post) It was discouraging then to realize we were only at the beginning of a year-and-a-half campaign for the White House. Now here we are—the primaries have begun and the campaign I overheard is in full, if precarious swing.
Today I listen to a movie being planned. I wonder which movie. In a way I envy having a whole team on a story as I sit alone writing. The team has their scripts in hand and folds them as they prepare to brave the rain outside which is washing away the snow. Scripts tucked in pockets, backpacks hoisted on backs, bags gathered, the crew sets out.
We still have another nine long campaigning months before the U.S. Presidential elections. This film will take at least as long. Already wearied by the incessant arguing and calumny of the campaign season, I find I anticipate with more enthusiasm Hollywood’s fiction. I don’t know how the President will fare in the film. No doubt there will be intrigue, a discernible villain and let us hope a worthy protagonist.
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….[cont]
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….[cont]
One hundred and nine years ago on February 28, 1909 the first National Woman’s Day was observed in New York where women protested against working conditions in the garment industry. The following year a conference of women from 17 countries met in Copenhagen and established Women’s Day, called for March 8 to promote equal rights, including suffrage for women. The next year on March 8, 1911 International Women’s Day brought over a million people to the streets in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, France and elsewhere to advocate for equal employment and wages and for the right to vote. In 1917 women in St Petersburg went on strike for “Bread and Peace,” demanding the end of World War I and the end to food shortages and the Czar. Four days later the Czar abdicated. Leon Trotsky wrote, “We did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the [Russian] revolution.” The gathering of women around the globe has continued over the last century with an abiding message that envisions each woman and girl being able to exercise her choices and participate without discrimination and fear in her society on an equal basis as men.
In Lviv, Ukraine in mid-September, 2017, before #MeToo gained momentum in the U.S. and elsewhere, over 200 writers from 69 countries endorsed PEN International’s Women’s Manifesto (link and text below), a document that sets out principles, values and a vision for the times and for times ahead.
Delegates at PEN’s annual Congress, representing countries from every continent—men and women, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhists, Hindi, atheist, multi-racial, multi lingual and politically diverse—voted for the document. PEN members do not always agree but are committed to freedom of expression and to the ideal of respect for human dignity and diversity. These are big words and big ideals and their interpretation is at times disputed among writers, who are often skeptical of words like “Manifesto.” But in the historic city of Lviv in the center of Europe’s own divide, they came together to affirm:
The first and founding principle of the PEN Charter asserts that ‘literature knows no frontiers’. These frontiers were traditionally thought of as borders between countries and peoples. For many women in the world – and for almost all women until relatively recently – the first, and the last and perhaps the most powerful frontier was the door of the house she lived in: her parents’ or her husband’s home. For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.
PEN believes that violence against women, in all its many forms, both within the walls of a home or in the public sphere, creates dangerous forms of censorship. Across the globe, culture, religion and tradition are repeatedly valued above human rights and are used as arguments to encourage or defend harm against women and girls.
PEN believes that the act of silencing a person is to deny their existence. It is a kind of death. Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge.
PEN ENDORSES THE FOLLOWING INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNISED PRINCIPLES:
- NON-VIOLENCE: End violence against women and girls in all of its forms, including legal, physical, sexual, psychological, verbal and digital; promote an environment in which women and girls can express themselves freely, and ensure that all gender-based violence is comprehensively investigated and punished, and compensation provided for victims.
- SAFETY: Protect women writers and journalists and combat impunity for violent acts and harassment committed against women writers and journalists in the world and online.
- EDUCATION: Eliminate gender disparity at all levels of education by promoting full access to quality education for all women and girls, and ensuring that women can fully exercise their education rights to read and write.
- EQUALITY: Ensure that women are accorded equality with men before the law; condemn discrimination against women in all its forms and take all necessary steps to eliminate discrimination and ensure the full equality of all people through the development and advancement of women writers.
- ACCESS: Ensure that women are given the same access to the full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to enable the full and free participation and public recognition of women in all media and across the spectrum of literary forms. Additionally, ensure equal access for women and girls to all forms of media as a means of freedom of expression.
- PARITY: Promote the equal economic participation of women writers, and ensure that women writers and journalists are employed and paid on equal terms to men without any discrimination.
I thought about ending this blog. The final post: December, 2018—just over ten years, over 100 posts. Informal reflections on a decade. Since February, 2008 when I first attempted this new form and posted, the volume of blogs around the globe has proliferated to an immeasurable dimension. Today with blogs, podcasts, Facebook posts, LinkedIn, Twitter, photos on Instagram and other platforms and apps I don’t even know or use, everyone is talking about everything. My email box is filled with messages and information and notifications I never asked for, with political points of view I can barely consider, polls and surveys I never fill out…except one where I answer NO whenever it appears: “Should Hillary Clinton run for President?” NO. This answer doesn’t represent a political point of view so much as a measuring of time and tides…and consequences. It is time for others.
And yet rather than ending this blog, I write again. Perhaps a politician can’t help running for office.
What is one more blog post launched into the universe? The freedom to express is one I don’t take for granted when that freedom is shrinking around the globe and can have dire consequences in countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Mexico, Venezuela. What is one more blog post launched into the universe? Just that, one more voice, a point of view no else exactly has.
Some writers I know have turned to photography. I understand the turn. Below are photos from a few days south, away from snow and ice storms, a brief visit to sun and the promise of spring. Comment, post yourself, confirm someone is receiving. Happy winter’s end or summer’s end, depending in which hemisphere you live.
(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)
February 2020: [Beginning in May 2019 I started writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020. In February 2020 there were three posts in the PEN Journeys. The PEN Journeys series completed in October 2020 and was published as a book—PEN Journeys: Memoir of Literature on the Line in February 2022 by Shearsman Books.]
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey will be of interest.
PEN perches on a three-legged stool. One leg is literature—the work of writers around the world. The other leg is freedom of expression—the defense of writers, particularly those in authoritarian regimes. The third leg is community—the fellowship among writers from over 100 countries sharing, appreciating, translating. PEN began as a loose network of clubs after World War I and grew quickly. The governance of the organization has evolved and at times set the three legs of the stool at odd angles to each other. One such occasion was at the Guadalajara Congress in 1996 as PEN celebrated its 75th anniversary.
My file for that Congress, whose theme was “Literature and Democracy,” bulges with documents and papers and programs in duplicates and triplicates. I don’t know why it is so much larger than the other files. In retrospect, the 1996 Congress was an inflection point, a turn in the road. Maybe I was collecting evidence.
At the Congress I was handing over the reins of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), having finished my term, at least that was my intent. Ronald Harwood was doing the same as President of PEN International, at least that was his intent. Elizabeth Paterson was retiring after 28 years as Administrative Secretary of PEN, and WiPC researcher Mandy Garner was also moving on. PEN was navigating transitions, some planned, but others with a momentum of their own.
For the global context of that time, I reported as Chair of WiPC to the Congress:
“…two political phenomena have emerged, both perhaps linked to the end of the Cold War. First, we have seen conflicts erupting not so much between nations as within nations. This phenomenon, though not new, has offered particular challenges for the writer. Dozens of writers have been killed in conflicts in Algeria, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya. In a number of counties with internal conflicts, including Peru, India, and Turkey, governments have used Anti-Terror Laws to arrest writers who write about the opposing parties.
“Another phenomenon is the increasing number of countries turning to the democratic process for government. The end of the Cold War saw the fall of many totalitarian regimes. Since 1990 over 50 countries have, at least on paper, turned to democracy to select their governments. However, democracy has not always settled so easily into place. One of the indispensable elements of a working democracy is freedom of expression, and this freedom has often been curtailed. Because PEN’s mandate is to protect the free flow of ideas and the freedom of writers to write, to criticize and to protest, PEN’s mission is as compelling today with newly emerging democracies as it was during the Cold War era. In country after country—from Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Romania, Tajikistan, Zambia—writers can be and have been arrested on such charges as “disseminating false propaganda,” “insulting the President,” and “publishing false news.” The Writers in Prison Committee’s protests and work for these writers is fundamental in a larger political process that is unfolding…[cont]
We sat on the ferry drinking strong Turkish coffee then handing over the emptied cups to a woman who read fortunes from the pattern of the leftover coffee grounds. As we huddled in the wind off the Sea of Marmara en route to the prison in Bursa, we speculated who among the passengers was following us. We were assured we were being followed.
I came to Turkey in March 1997 as the returning Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (WIPC) (PEN Journey 18). I was heading a delegation of 20 PEN members from 12 countries. We’d arrived to support Turkish PEN, the Turkish Writers’ Syndicate, the Literary Writers Association and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression in the first Gathering in Istanbul for Freedom of Expression. We had signed on as “publishers” to an abridged version of the book Freedom of Expression. The original book included essays by those who were in prison or facing charges for their writing, particularly former president of Turkish PEN, the prominent novelist Yaşar Kemal. He was tried for an article he’d published in the German magazine Der Spiegel. (PEN Journey 17). Headlined “Campaign of lies,” the article called out the government for its human rights abuses, particularly its treatment of the Kurds.
Bearing a letter from Arthur Miller, who knew Kemal and had himself come to Turkey with Harold Pinter in solidarity a dozen years before, I was among the 141 “foreign publishers” of the booklet Mini Freedom of Expression. This book contained a paragraph from each article published in the larger book. We joined the 1080 Turkish “editors” of the larger volume who included writers, theater actors, politicians, painters, cinema actors and directors, cartoonists, musicians, trade unionists, academics, lawyers, architects and others. The Turkish Penal Code made it a crime to re-publish an article that had been defined as a “crime” so that the publisher as well as the writer was charged.
The “publishers” had presented themselves before the State Security Court and faced charges of “seditious criminal activity.” After questioning the first 99 people, the prosecutor demanded the accused be tried under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law and Article 312 on “disseminating separatist propaganda.” After six months only 185 of these individuals had been questioned and brought to trial. If these individuals were given the usual 20-month jail sentence, that would mean ten popular television programs would have to be canceled because their stars or directors would be in prison; five series would have to find new stars and change their story lines. The media would lose over 30 well-known journalists; 15 popular columns would be left blank. Eight professorial chairs would be left vacant, and universities would require new teaching staff. Theater stages and film sets would require many other artists, directors, musicians, etc., and 20 new books about prison life would be added to literature if every author wrote.
Turkey already had over 200 writers either in prison or entangled in legal processes, more than any other country. This protest initiative was unique and creative. The challenge to the court was to bring charges against so many. The State Prosecutor had dropped charges against the foreign participants on the grounds that he wasn’t able to bring us to Istanbul for questioning though the Turkish citizens who had prepared and distributed the booklet could be tried. The organizer of the initiative Şanar Yurdatapan suggested we come to Istanbul and challenge the prosecutor. Though PEN members were willing to come to support their Turkish colleagues, no one wanted to end up in a Turkish prison….[cont]
I begin with the memories…
—the imposing walls around Castle Rock which stands above the city of Edinburgh and dates back to the Iron Age,
—the 12th century castle/fortress inside,
—the Old Parliament building,
—the New Parliament building where we sat in high-backed theater-style seats in an arena,
—the dorm room residence inside Pollack Halls where we stayed at Edinburgh University near the city center, beside an extinct volcano,
—the receptions at Parliament House and Signet Library and the City Arts Center where there was never quite enough food for the overly hungry delegates who descended upon the platters,
—the UNESCO seminars on women and literature, including my paper The Power of Penelope,
—and elections, so many elections and speeches—three candidates for Writers in Prison Committee(WiPC) Chair, seven candidates for International PEN President, nine Ad Hoc Committee members as precursors to a new governing board for International PEN.
These were the first contested elections I remembered in International PEN. A wider democracy was spreading with ballots and speeches. I also remember the tension and the occasional flares of anger, and the effort to hold us all together and ultimately the confident results and the determination to move forward in unity. International PEN President Ronald Harwood warned that while PEN badly needed to democratize “power” so it wasn’t too centralized, residing in the hands of a few, the delegates should not make the struggle personal and should go forward with a sense of humor. We were an organization of writers, not the government of the world, he admonished, warning members not to confuse bureaucracy with democracy.
—I remember the trip to Glasgow where a few of us had a stimulating visit and tea at the home of James Kelman (Booker Prize winner How Late It Was, How Late) who had been with us in the protests in Turkey a few months before (see PEN Journey 19) and the old Mercedes tucked in the garage in the working class neighborhood.
—And the Edinburgh International Festival, including the Edinburgh Book Festival, happening simultaneously all around us.
—And finally the exquisite August light in Scotland….[cont]
I can’t stop taking pictures of the dawn. I wake up before sunrise when I see the first red strip of light on the horizon. I slip on a sweatshirt, jeans, socks, grab my vest with a hood, turn on the coffee pot, gather a blanket, call the dogs, hit the full cup button on the coffee maker, pour the milk, wait for the coffee, flip on the fire pit, then hurry outside to watch the day dawning as light begins to color the sky from red to orange to yellow to pink…
Sometimes the light is gentle as the sun rises. Other times it is vibrant as this morning. I woke up a bit late—the sky was already a pale pink/yellow by the time I got outside. But then, but then…the hovering cloud bank filled with light reflected from the sun that was still hidden by the horizon and the trees across the river. As the sun blasted its light upward, the clouds turned pink and then the whole sky grew awash in rose light, and the clouds broke up into plumes scattered across the heavens.
On the river a family of ducks swam by, a dozen with their mother and/or father in the lead, swimming single file south to north. As the sun rose, a yellow globe into the sky, another family of ducks passed, also in a straight line. I wonder where they go each morning…to duck school, undisturbed by the challenges of us on the shore.
The dawning of the days continues to inspire me and leave me in a quiet state of awe as I begin my day. I try to keep that awe even as the complications and troubles of our world unfold around the globe where I am certain the same stunning sunrises are also unfolding.
(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)
Publication Day—a combination of birthday, final exam, perhaps wedding day—the day when a book officially launches into the world, though in this pandemic time, the whistles and confetti and celebrations, or at least postponed till spring and outside gatherings, but the book itself is on its way to whatever shores and audience will take it in.
PEN Journeys: Memoir of Literature on the Line officially enters the world February 1, 2022, though it has been available digitally on Kindle and AppleBooks for the past month, and at least one bookseller has been shipping as soon as orders were received because the publisher, Shearsman Books, had the books ready early.
I invite readers to enjoy and to share the stories of the remarkable worldwide gathering of writers who are often those on the line with their imaginations and facts and literature in problematic regions of the globe, writers who often have helped shape their societies, writers who have also had to pay the consequences.
I copy below a summary of the book and announce a signed book giveaway to the first dozen readers who request a book either in the comments section of this post or by replying in the Contact section of this website https://joanneleedom-ackerman.com/contact/ or on Goodreads. I hope readers will also buy the book, and if you enjoy it, I hope you’ll tell a friend, give a shout, write a review, dance a jig. Word of mouth remains the engine writers depend on.
Finally, as I have done during this past year of lockdown, I’m taking this space to aggregate blog posts for the month over the last 13 years. January posts ranged from the U.S. to Haiti to Pakistan to Turkey, Lebanon, Australia, Denmark and Spain, often with a view to the year past and the year ahead.
The crowds have left; the reviewing stands, disassembled. The reflecting pool is frozen with sea gulls light-footing across it. Washington, DC has held its grand party. For three days, everyone was on foot, bundled in coats, scarves, gloves and walking everywhere–to the Mall, to the Capitol, to the White House (or as close as one could get), peering over barricades, hundreds of thousands of people.
Most of those who came to town have returned to all the states in the union from which they came. Those from the more than 100 foreign countries here to watch the Inauguration have also returned. As the full working week commenced in Washington, snowflakes were falling; the sky was cloudy, and the Potomac River, crusted with ice at the edges, waited for spring.
But the spirit remained. And the consequences of this global gathering were only beginning. Among those visiting Washington were women from the world’s conflict regions, women engaged in peace building, who were gathered to share experiences and also to study and watch the U.S. electoral process, particularly as it might apply to their circumstances and lives.
At a conference, sponsored by the Initiative for Inclusive Security, women from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Israel, Kashmir, Lebanon, Liberia, Palestine, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda and other areas came together for training, exchanging experiences, and working on peace initiatives around the globe. After the main conference, a dozen women met in a side room around a table with tea and coffee and strawberries, women from Uganda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Iran and the U.S. to consider how to get more women in the electoral process in these countries….[cont]
I met Haitian writer Georges Anglade, a bear of a man with a curly gray beard, in the Arctic Circle, in Tromso, Norway in 2004. He spilled a glass of red wine on me. We were at the opening reception of International PEN’s Congress, and whether we were moving in the same or opposite directions around the hors d’oeuvres table or he was gesturing with enthusiasm with his wine glass in his hand, I no longer remember; but the flow of wine down my black suit we both remembered every time we saw each other in the years that followed. It bound us in a moment of surprise and laughter and a kind of instant friendship as if I had been christened by him.
It was easy to be friends with Georges. He was warm, thoughtful and passionate about literature and language and about Haiti. He had come to the PEN Congress in Tromso to petition International PEN to establish a Haitian Center, which it did in 2008. Georges was the founding President.
Born in Haiti, Georges lived in Montreal, where for years he was a professor of social geography at the University of Quebec. He was also a vigorous defender of freedom of expression for writers, especially in Haiti, where he had been a political prisoner under the Duvalier regime. He visited Haiti as often as possible and was in Port-au-Prince when the massive earthquake struck on January 12. He was at a friend’s house, along with his wife of 43 years, Mireille Neptune. Neither Georges nor Mirelle survived. It is with deep sadness that I, along with colleagues around the world, bid Georges Anglade farewell.
Georges has been described by many friends as “a force of nature,” perhaps because of his grand size, his hearty laugh and his embrace of life. The force of nature which confronted him cannot really extinguish him. In his book Haitian Laughter, Georges wrote, “A people of laughter, they often say, justifiably astonished to see Haitians laugh in spite of their three hundred years of desperate situations; but do they know that it is precisely those three hundred years’ -wars that made them a people of lodyanseurs* [storytellers]….?”
Georges himself told these stories. The force of his life remains in his writing, in memory, and in the stories.
In an odd coincidence, the day of the earthquake, I was re-reading (as I do every decade or so) Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The Comedians, set in Haiti during the dictatorship of Popa Doc Duvalier. The novel embodies the nightmare, the passion and the love of the place. Speaking of his hotel Trianon, the narrator notes:
“I had grown to love the place, and I was glad in a way that I had found no purchaser. I believe that if I could own it for a few more years I would feel I had a home. Time was needed for a home as time was needed to turn a mistress into a wife. Even the violent death of my partner had not seriously disturbed my possessive love. I would have remarked with Frère Laurent, in the French version of Romeo and Juliet, a sentence that I had reason to remember:
Le remède au chaos
N’est pas dans ce chaos.
The remedy had been in the success…”
The world is now mobilizing to bring aid to Haiti. One can only hope that the attention and outpouring can restore and revitalize not only Haiti but the world that is for this moment at least coming together to assist.
[*lodyans are “brief, humorous stories, designates short, amusing tales at which Haitians are past masters and which are told at particular occasions (parties, evening gatherings, after a good meal…). The person who tells these lodyans is known by title of lodyanseur…”]
The Potomac River in Washington is frozen, though only with a light crust of ice, not like the Charles River in Boston which appears a solid block that one might stomp across all the way to Cambridge, though in the center a soft spot could crack open at any moment. Measuring the solidity of surfaces can be a matter of life and death.
The image of frozen surfaces arose as I was reviewing for a talk the appeals sent on behalf of writers in prison or killed for their work in the past year. Around 90 Rapid Action alerts (RANs) were sent out by PEN International, which tracks the situation of writers worldwide. I’d sent appeals on approximately half of these. I reviewed the risk and judgment of the writers in these countries. Some regimes were relentless; others, more arbitrary. Governments, like China and Iran, appear to be solid authoritarian regimes that brook little dissent, yet beneath the surface and at the edges, writers and others chip away, laying the groundwork for change that might yet crack open their societies.
The suppression of the writer is a barometer for political freedom in a country and can often be a predictor of events to come.
In July, the arrest of Fahem Boukaddous, a journalist sentenced to four years in prison for “harming public order” by covering demonstrations, foreshadowed both the recent suppression and the protests in Tunisia where the government’s crackdown on writers preceded the fall of the regime itself. Boukaddous and seven other writers have now been released.
In May, the arrests of Belarusian writers, including Vladimir Neklyayev, President of Belarus PEN, for “dissemination of false information” foreshadowed the sweeping arrests of writers, activists and opposition leaders during the presidential elections in December when Neklyayev and others were also candidates. It remains to be seen how the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenko will hold, given the widespread charges of a flawed election and unrest in the population.
At the beginning of the year, the Chinese government detained and arrested writers, including Zhao Shiying, Secretary General of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Zhao protested the arrest and sentencing of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo to 11 years for his role in drafting Charter ’08, a document that called for democratic reform in China. The year continued with the detention of Chinese writers supporting Liu and democracy and also the arrests of writers in Tibet and the Uyghur Autonomous Region. If the suppression of writers is inversely proportional to freedom and democratic change in a society, then China remains at the top of the list of frozen governments.
The year also began with writers, journalists and bloggers in prison in Iran, followed by further crackdowns on writers, including Nasrin Sotoudeh. Sotoudeh, a writer and lawyer, was sentenced to 11 years on charges that included: “cooperating with the Association of Human Rights Defenders,” “conspiracy to disturb order,” and “propaganda against the state.” Other charges brought against writers in Iran included “congregation and mutiny with intent to commit crimes against national security,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “insulting the President,” and “disruption of public order.” The arrests, imprisonments and executions in Iran may give the appearance of a solid block of state power, but it is a block that may yet crack from the edges and the center as citizens continue to stomp across it.
It is worth remembering the precipitous fall 20 years ago of the Soviet Union as pressure for freedom sent fissures through the system that eventually broke the harsh authoritarian surface. As the world watches the current upheavals in the Middle East, one can track back and note the suppression of writers in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt. The writers and their words are like a heat source that regimes try to trap beneath the surface but instead they soften up the ice.
I began this blog four years ago with modest ambition. Once a month I would pause from writing fiction or other work and weave disparate threads of the month’s events and my thoughts together and share in this new form: the blog post. The posts have often had international themes and freedom of expression themes because work and life lead me to other areas of the world and because the freedom of the individual to write, speak and think is fundamental, especially for a writer.
By posting a monthly blog I also sought to join the 21st century in digital form, but the digital century is rushing so fast that a website with a blog post seems almost obsolete. (By next month I hope to have joined, or at least touched, the social media by also posting on an “author’s page” on Facebook.) Whatever the medium, however, the message remains, and the connection of voices around the world has become transformative.
Each month notices of writers under threat come across my desk. I find myself studying the pictures of the writers when there are pictures, writing down their names, and when available, reading some of their work to make them real in my own mind and imagination and later to share their work, which governments hope to silence. Along with other members of PEN I write appeals on their behalf with no definitive measure of how effective these are, but over time the accumulation of protests from writers and others around the world does push open consciousness and prison doors.
In the past month, writers have been imprisoned with long sentences in China, Ethiopia and the Cameroons, had an expired sentence extended in Uzbekistan, been killed in Mexico, threatened with death in India, and released in Myanmar and Vietnam.
China remains the country with the most writers in long term imprisonment, including Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who’s serving an 11-year sentence. In the past month, Chen Wei and Chen Xi have been sentenced to nine and ten years for “inciting subversion of state power,” in part for essays and articles they wrote online criticizing the political system in China and praising the growth of civil society. Zhu Yufu was indicted this month on subversion for publishing a poem online last spring that urged people to gather to defend their freedoms….[cont]
As I leave Washington, DC, the sun is sinking as a gauzy pink globe just beyond the runway. I imagine it about to rise over my destination: Islamabad.
This will be my first trip to Pakistan, a country where I have friends and colleagues, but we always meet outside of Pakistan. For me the country is still a place in imagination. The picture is drawn with many strokes, beginning with media images of bustling streets in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, of barren rocky mountain sides in the tribal territories, images of markets and cafes and dark streets in the novels of Pakistani writers, stories of friends’ childhoods, particularly stories of women who at great odds rose to become voices and leaders in the country, and by the headlines of terrorist attacks.
When I mention where I am going even in Washington, or particularly in Washington, the first response is: “Be Careful.” That may also be the first words to Pakistanis who travel to the U.S. for the first time.
I will be attending a conference of American and Pakistani journalists, part of an exchange program for each, organized by the International Center for Journalists, a program in which over 170 journalists have had the opportunity to work in each other’s newsrooms. (See blog post Diplomacy on a Summer Evening, August, 2012.)
The misperceptions on both sides have inevitably altered as the journalists have gotten to know each other’s countries. Many of the Pakistani journalists imagined Americans would be rude and found instead they were friendly and helpful, though some were quite ignorant about Pakistan. Some Americans expected to be operating in a country of terrorists and found the citizens welcoming and struggling with many of the same issues as Americans.
My journey will allow only a quick snapshot of one city and selected citizens, but education begins and expands with snapshots. When asked if I’d ever been to Pakistan and said no, then was invited to come, I said yes. I look forward to my first sunrise in Islamabad.
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.
I recently returned from Turkey and Lebanon, both of whose borders are still open….[cont]
January 2015: No blog posted.
I’m sitting on the Bosphorus today in Istanbul looking across to the Asian side over the balustrade of a European porch. I’ve been visiting Istanbul over the last 20 years for conferences, recently for visits to refugee camps and most often now to see family living here. Istanbul is one of my favorite cities, full of heart, multiple cultures, history and citizens of intellect and warmth.
But recently the atmosphere has chilled. I’ve come this trip to participate in the launch of Human Rights Watch’s 2016 World Report which focuses on the “Politics of Fear and the Crushing of Civil Society” as causes that imperil citizens’ rights around the world. Istanbul was chosen as the launch city because it sits at the nexus of east and west, is the crossing point for millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian war and has an active civil society and free press that are now severely tested as the environment for rights deteriorates.
“Government-led restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey in 2015 went hand-in-hand with efforts to discredit the political opposition and prevent scrutiny of government policies in the run-up to the two general elections,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2016 World Report.
The restrictions include the investigation of Cumhuriyet newspaper for posting a report showing weapons on trucks allegedly headed to Syria. The paper’s editor Can Dϋndar and Ankara representative Erdem Gϋl were arrested and are now in jail awaiting trial. Other journalists have been arrested for criticizing the government. There have been police raids on media groups, a widespread firing of journalists perceived to be in opposition to the government, in particular to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Publisher Cevheri Gϋven of Nokta news magazine and editor Murat Çapan spent two months in jail for “inciting an armed insurrection against the government” for a report and a satirical picture of Erdoğan. Nokta’s website remains blocked by a court order. Months of pretrial detention have been handed out to those allegedly insulting Erdoğan via social media and during demonstrations.
I first came to Istanbul in spring, 1997 for the “Initiative for Freedom of Expression”, a conference that brought together PEN International and freedom of expression organizations in Europe to protest the harsh treatment of writers by the Turkish government and courts. Charges had been brought against the celebrated Turkish novelist Yaşar Kemal for an article he wrote for the German magazine Der Spiegel in which he accused the Turkish army of destroying Kurdish villages. Though he was acquitted, he is quoted as saying, “One person’s acquittal does not mean freedom of expression has arrived. You can’t have spring with only one flower. We still have to work very hard to achieve democracy in Turkey. I will continue to write these things until there are no trials against expression.” Kemal passed away last spring at age 91.
At the time activist and song writer Şanar Yurdatapan organized a publication that included Kemal’s essay and the writings of other Turkish and Kurdish writers who had been banned or imprisoned. He mobilized Turkish artists and publishers and academics to sign on as the publisher, and he asked writers from the more than 100 centers of PEN International around the world also to sign on as publisher. The publication thus challenged the government which would have to bring charges against hundreds of people as publisher. And so the Gathering for Freedom of Expression was born….[cont]
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….[cont]
January 2018: No blog posted
January 2019: No blog posted
January 2020: [Beginning in May 2019 I started writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020. In January 2020 there were two posts in the PEN Journeys. The PEN Journeys series completed in October 2020.]
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey will be of interest.
Fremantle, Australia is far away, at least if you live in the Americas or Europe or West Africa. So is Tokyo, Manila, Nepal, Hong Kong—all destinations of PEN Congresses and conferences. As a global organization with centers in over 100 countries, PEN tries to cover the world with its meetings and at least once or twice a decade organize a Congress in Asia or Australia with its centers there.
In 1995 for PEN International’s 62nd Congress Perth PEN hosted delegates from around the world in Fremantle, a port city on Australia’s western coast in the Perth metropolitan area, a picturesque city with Victorian architecture and, as I recall at the time, a town out of the 1960’s where time hadn’t quite caught up. The city’s reputation was partially derived from its history as a penal colony from the 1850’s to 1991. The traditional Aboriginal people who lived there called the area Walyalup “the crying place.”
The 62nd Congress was one of the smaller for PEN, less formal with many delegates staying in the homes of local writers rather than in a hotel. Instead of formal receptions in houses of state, at least one evening’s entertainment was a game of literary trivia and bingo. Because the venue was on the harbor, the swimmers among the delegates, particularly Sascha (Alexander Tkachenko) General Secretary of Russian PEN, tried to swim each day despite the warnings that waters were shark-infested. Sascha defied the sharks which he considered a milder threat than what he was dealing with back home in Russia.
The Congress theme Freedom of Expression and Cultural Context translated into an endorsement of the universality of human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Held in the 50th anniversary year of the United Nations’ founding, PEN insisted human rights were not a relative notion. “While the concept of a universal right may not have penetrated the mechanisms of all states, the invocation of the universal right to free expression remains one of the essential tools that PEN and other organizations use to apply pressure and insert a wedge into the conscience of nations,” the Writers in Prison Chair’s report noted that year.
While certain human rights were absolute, governance was relative, and PEN itself was beginning to struggle with its structure. The relaxed atmosphere of Fremantle allowed informal discussions among delegates who were urging a more democratic structure for PEN. As PEN International headed towards its 75th anniversary the following year, Boris Novak, Slovene PEN President and Chair of the Peace Committee noted that the inner structure of PEN was no longer adequate for the needs of such a large global organization. This sentiment was echoed by the American PEN delegate and delegates from Scandinavian centers. The International Secretary agreed to hold a special meeting in Perth on this question, and the discussion and the dissent began.
As chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, I shared the concerns, but the WiPC staff and I determined that the Writers in Prison Committee should remain a place where everyone came together and focused on the mission of getting writers out of prison and securing freedom of expression so we stayed on the edge of the debate. The internal politics of PEN were stirring and erupted a year later at the 1996 Congress in Guadalajara. In Perth, however, the breezes were balmy and the water warm enough to dip in if not to cross the distance between the old and the new. That process would evolve over the next several years and Congresses to come….[cont]
What I remember most about the gathering of colleagues from 28 countries—31 PEN centers—51 of us in all at the first Writers in Prison Committee conference in 1996 was the seriousness of purpose and intellect during the day and the fun and talent in the evenings.
Hosted by Danish PEN, writers from every continent gathered at a university in Helsingør—known in English as Elsinore, the home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet—where we met in workshops and ensemble during the day to shape and refine our work on behalf of writers and freedom of expression around the world. But in the evening we were at a small university in a small city without transportation or distraction so we entertained ourselves. Each delegate displayed talents—from poetry reading to song to dance to musical performances.
As Chair of the WiPC gathering, I’d brought none of my own writing to read and was left to exhibit meager other talent which consisted of playing a few opening bars of Für Elise on the piano and whistling tunes with my far more talented Danish and Russian colleagues. Archana Singh Karki from Nepal in flowing red dress entertained with her graceful dance; Siobhan Dowd, our Irish former WiPC director and Freedom of Expression director at American PEN, silenced us with her soulful Irish folk songs, sung acapella; Sascha, Russian PEN’s General Secretary, not only whistled robustly but recited his poetry, which I was told I should be glad I didn’t understand with its bawdy content; Sam Mbure from Kenya and Turkish/English novelist Moris Farhi also read and recited work. PEN International President Ronald Harwood joined the discussions in the day and was audience in the evening. I don’t recall if Ronnie offered his own work, but we all bonded in our mission and in our support for the talent in the room.
During the three days, we fine-tuned our methods of working on and campaigning for our main cases, those writers who were imprisoned, attacked or threatened because of their writing, often their nonviolent voice of protest against authoritarian regimes. We considered PEN’s decision-making on borderline cases such as those which included drug charges, advocacy of violence, pornography, hate speech, terrorism. These were not categories we normally took on as cases. We discussed when we might take up such a case or assign them to investigation or judicial concern. We laid the groundwork for more joint actions among centers and other organizations such as the U.N., OSCE and IFEX, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange….[cont]
As many Americans, I have watched with disbelief and sadness events that have taken place in my country and in my home city of Washington, DC over the last days. I have felt unable to add words. This morning I rose early to watch the sunrise on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I’ve been living this year.
I listened for inspiration. I wasn’t seeking political answers or recriminations, justifications or blame. I wanted inspiration to move forward. I share here the verse that came into my thought and the photos of the morning:
“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” —Romans 13:12
(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)
I watched the sun rise this morning, the ducks swimming by south to north, the geese flying overhead north to south, the light spreading across the river—first a red strip, then orange…pink…a yellow ball peeking through the grove of trees across the water, then ascending the treetops…a golden globe heralding the day.
The river flows steadily towards an open expanse into the Chesapeake and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. It has been a mild winter so far, no ice on the water, just an occasional dusting of frost on the ground which melts with the sun.
On a flagpole by the river the American flag ripples in the breeze as the geese flap by. My dogs—one blonde, one black, both part Labrador and other breeds, wander along the river front, finding their smells and place to rest and watch the day unfold.
It is a new day…with a new government in my home city of Washington, DC. Today I look backward and forward at the same time. I am not the only one contemplating past and future, past as prologue? I share here two earlier posts, one from January 2009 after the inauguration of Barack Obama “When the Crowds Go Home, Ideas Keep Traveling.” Much has happened in the intervening twelve years. The other is October 2012, “A Visit to the End of the World” written from the edge of where the ancients thought the world ended, in Finisterre, Spain. Only a wide and empty Atlantic Ocean stretched before them. It was necessary to imagine…[cont]
I’ve looked out on the same scene every morning for the past 20 months—a quiet river, brownish blue depending on the light, a spreading magnolia tree, large deciduous trees on the near shore, a flagpole, Adirondack chairs by the water, and the sun creeping over the horizon. The sun’s entrance shifts between the trees on the far shore depending on the season.
Each morning I slip outside as the dark sky grows light and sit by the firepit where I think and write and take pictures. I can’t stop taking pictures even though it is of the same scene. Each morning I see slight changes in the clouds, or in the way light hits the water, or in the way the ducks line up to swim. I take pleasure in these variances. Because I’m viewing the world now largely from one place, I’m able to see the subtle nuances of beauty and affirm the continual creative movement of life.
Before the pandemic, I was frequently on the road, either researching for books or for work with organizations relating to human rights, education, and conflict, or for a combination of these. I was a fox skirting from place to place, not a hedgehog burrowing in. Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” published in 1953, classified people as foxes who know many things or as hedgehogs who know one big thing. I have lived more as a fox, certainly as a journalist, going out and covering a variety of issues and as a writer in general. I’ve had the privilege of traveling and writing and working across the globe. But recently, at least in terms of locations, I am becoming a happy hedgehog, knowing my one spot.
Children begin with one view, one place and slowly take in the larger world which they enter as they grow and learn, but then often return to one place at a later stage in life. Such was the riddle of the Sphinx in Greek mythology to keep intruders out of Thebes. The Sphinx posed the riddle to anyone who wanted to enter. If the visitor answered correctly, he could gain entrance, but none except Oedipus knew, and when the others faltered, the Sphinx ate them.
What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? Answer: a person: A person as a baby in the morning of their life crawls on four feet (hands and knees).
As an adult in the noon of their life, they walk on two feet. But when they are old, in the evening of their life, they walk with a cane, on three feet.
I remain on two feet and hope still to get to Thebes, but I have learned in this pandemic time, the pleasure of stillness and of one place.
As in the past, I’ve aggregated here posts of a single month as a way of slicing time since 2008—before the flood. The posts range geographically and peer out of a large window on the world from China, Belarus, Iraq, Jordan, Greece, Turkey, England and the United States. Many posts focus on the theme of free expression and on those who have been on the front lines. In spite of the struggles, or maybe because of them, the posts end with the observation: “I Have a Better Feeling About Tomorrow.”
Grandstands are rising around Washington, DC. The U.S. is preparing for the Inauguration of a new President whose campaign mobilized a record number of citizens and focused on themes of hope and change.
Halfway around the globe in the world’s most populous country, a relatively small group of citizens are proposing radical change for their nation, change which reflects in large part the ideals upon which the United States was founded. However, the proponents of this change have been interrogated and arrested.
On December 10, the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 300 leading mainland Chinese citizens—writers, economists, political scientists, retired party officials, former newspaper editors, members of the legal profession and human rights defenders–issued Charter 08. Charter 08 sets out a vision for a democratic China based on the citizen not the party, with a government founded on human rights, democracy, and rule of law. Charter 08 doesn’t offer reform of the current political system so much as an end to features like one-party rule. Since its release, more than 5000 citizens across China have added their names to Charter 08.
Before the document was even published, the Chinese authorities detained two of the leading authors Liu Xiaobo and Zhang Zuhua and have since interrogated dozens of others who signed. Most have been released though they continue to be watched. However, Liu Xiaobo, a major writer and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, remains in custody with no word of his whereabouts and fears that he will be charged with “serious crimes against the basic principles of the Republic.” The Chinese government has also blocked or deleted websites and blogs that carry Charter 08.
Charter 08 was inspired by a similar action during the height of the Soviet Union when writers and intellectuals in Czechoslovakia issued Charter 77 in January, 1977. Charter 77 called for protection of basic civil and political rights by the state. Among the signatories was Vaclav Havel, who was imprisoned for his involvement but went on to become the President of the Czech Republic after the Soviet Union ended.
Citizens around the globe, including Vaclav Havel, Nobel laureates, human rights defenders, writers, economists, lawyers, academics, have rallied in support of those who signed Charter 08. The European Union has expressed grave concern at the arrest of Liu Xiaobo and others. Petitions in support of Charter 08 and in protest over the detention of Liu Xiaobo are circulating around the world.
The arrest of Liu Xiaobo happened on the eve of Human Rights Day and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The year 2008 is also the 110th Anniversary of China’s Wuxu Political Reform, the 100th Anniversary of China’s first Constitution and the 10th Anniversary of China’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the soon-to-be 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown against students….[cont]
Washington, DC is emerging from its winter wonderland of nearly two feet of light powdery snow over the weekend. With snow crested on rooftops and banked along the streets, with sparkling lights blinking around town, circling the monuments and the White House, the city looks like a postcard for the holidays.
Over the weekend if you didn’t have to travel, the record snowfall—between 15-20 inches, the largest ever in December—was magical. We walked into a restaurant with a fireplace, met with family and friends for lunch then played in the park with our family dogs—one old dog and two puppies—who jumped and romped and tumbled through the snow as if it had fallen for their pleasure, theirs and the children who were sledding down the hill.
But the snow has now begun to melt during the day and to freeze at night, leaving crusty, icy mounds. From the window it is still beautiful, but it is a pain if you are trying to park a car at the curb or walk along paths not dug out when it was fluffy. The holiday lights still blink, and the puppies still race across the white fields as if life was all that it was meant to be.
And yet as I sit here typing this December blog, trying to settle into the holiday spirit, I am acutely aware that half a world away a trial is under way at this very moment in Beijing for a Chinese writer and dissident whose “crime” was to draft, along with other Chinese citizens, a vision–Charter 08–calling for human rights, rule of law and democratic reform in China.
An important writer and literary critic, Liu Xiaobo was held for six months at a secret location, then formally arrested and transferred to a detention center in June, and finally twelve days ago indicted for “incitement to subvert state power.” He is being brought to trial today– December 23–less than two weeks after the indictment and on the eve of Christmas when many diplomats and journalists will be away. His motion to postpone so his defense could have time to read and prepare against the 20 volume indictment was denied. Liu’s wife was told she can’t observe the trial and has instead been named a prosecution witness. Across China activists and supporters of Liu’s have been warned to stay home and not participate in any activities in support of Liu. These actions have led China observers to conclude that the trial is purely political and a guilty verdict has already been determined.
Around the world freedom of expression and human rights organizations and activists are preparing for the worst—a long jail sentence for Liu. A vigil has been called at the Chinese embassy in New York. Petitions are being prepared and at the same time lobbying continues in the hope for some recourse.
At this holiday season when hope is celebrated and rebirth, anticipated, the voice of a single Chinese citizen echoes as light as snow falling on grass and as hard as the frozen earth beneath.
In the woods outside Minsk, Belarus an Olympic training center sprawls among the snow-capped pine trees. Here athletes, including wrestlers from all over Europe, particularly the former Soviet Union, come to train. These young men—mostly they are men though occasionally women wrestlers train there—exercise, practice and then “go live” several times a day. From this center Olympic medalists emerge. Politics can seem as remote as the camp itself.
This past weekend in Minsk, approximately 20 miles away, as many as 10,000 people protested the outcome of Belarus’ presidential elections. Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won the election in a process widely criticized by both official outside observers (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE) and opposition parties. More than 600 people, including journalists, human rights activists and most of the opposition presidential candidates, were attacked and arrested. Among those arrested was Vladimir Neklyaev, writer and former president of Belarusian PEN, who was severely beaten, hospitalized and then taken away from the hospital to an unknown location, since identified as the Belarus State Security Agency (KGB).
Belarus, which is bounded by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia, is itself wrestling between the ideologies and political systems of open democracy and authoritarian rule. Belarus has been called Europe’s last dictatorship.
As a new decade arrives and the twentieth anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union is observed, Belarus may be one of the telltales to judge the direction history leans. One hopes it will arrive at fair and open competition. In the Olympics it would certainly be grounds for disqualification if an athlete at any point before or after the competition attacked his or her fellow athletes.
On the eve of Christmas in December 1914 and 1915 in the middle of World War I British and German forces faced each other in the trenches across battle lines and called a temporary truce. On fields in France and Belgium, the troops climbed out of their trenches and played games of football in No Man’s Land. They also retrieved their dead and repaired their trenches. In one location a joint service was held with British and Germans officiating. The soldiers then climbed back into their fox holes and continued the battle.
One Royal Welch Fusilier recounts: “At 8:30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He put up a sheet with ‘Thank You’ on it and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.”
At this holiday season may we each find ways to reach across the divides in our lives and in our nations. May insurmountable differences become surmountable and irreconcilable opinions find a path. May divisions and hatreds be leavened with the spirit of universal love and may truce turn into peace.
December 2012: No blog posted
(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.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
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.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
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….[cont]
December 2014: No blog posted
The black rubber dinghy had just landed on Mytileni’s rocky beach on the Isle of Lesvos, Greece. The 41 people crammed precariously on the raft quickly dropped their orange life jackets and looked around to make sure their friends and relatives had also made it to land.
A father knelt before his curly headed son, around 3 years old, took off his life jacket, checked his clothing—damp, but not too wet—and tried to explain where they were. The boy smiled, looked about and then spent his time trying to get his heel back into one of his wet sneakers. I was able to help him as his father looked for his wife, who’d made it to land further down the beach. The family had left Aleppo a week ago, waited three days on the Turkish coast near Izmir for transport and now, finally had safely reached the shores of Europe.
From here they would continue their long journey to a new life, which they hoped would be in Germany. Before them lay at least half a dozen train and bus rides and walks with their two backpacks containing all their belongings. Also ahead were multiple registration centers in each country they would pass through.
Along with the 760,000 people who have come through Greece since April, they were embarking on “The Great Walk,” or some call the trek “The Great Wait.” With winter coming and borders closing, it is a “now-or-never” journey as Europe absorbs the largest migration since World War II. Almost half—45%—come through Lesvos, 58% men, 16% women, 26% children, according to statistics from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).
As Syrians, they are lucky, if having to flee one’s home destroyed in war can be considered luck. Most Syrian refugees—96-98%—will eventually find new residencies. Syrians comprise 45% of this great exodus. Another third are Afghan, a tenth are Iraqi. The rest are Eritrean, Central African Republic, Iranian, Somalians, Moroccan, Algerians and others, according to figures from UNHCR. The latter four nationalities have slim chances to resettle in Europe.
In the past month access for “direct arrivals” has closed. Only refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are allowed the onward journey into Europe. These nationalities comprise 85% of those on the move. The rest are turned back. The European Union has also agreed to accept 160,000 in a formal resettlement process, which takes one to two months and requires refugees to accept whatever country they are assigned. Again, only certain nationalities are included in this relocation process—Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans, those from the Central African Republic and perhaps soon Afghans, according to Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR Senior Operations Coordinator in Greece.
“History is passing in front of our eyes,” Ms. Morelli says at the UNHCR office in Athens. “I feel responsible that we build a Europe that is open and not one of walls….[cont]”
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.
Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo died this past July in prison, where he was serving an 11-year sentence for his role in drafting Charter ’08 calling for democratic reform in China. Below is my essay in The Memorial Collection for Dr. Liu Xiaobo, just published by the Institute for China’s Democratic Transition and Democratic China.
I never met Liu Xiaobo, but his words and life touch and inspire me. His ideas live beyond his physical body though I am among the many who wish he survived to help develop and lead democratic reform in China, a nation and people he was devoted to.
Liu’s Final Statement: I Have No Enemies delivered December 23, 2009 to the judge sentencing him stands beside important texts which inspire and help frame society as Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail did in my country. King addressed fellow clergymen and also his prosecutors, judges and the citizens of America in its struggle to realize a more perfect democracy.
I hesitate to project too much onto Liu Xiaobo, this man I never met, but as a writer and an activist through PEN on behalf of writers whose words set the powers of state against them, I can offer my own context and measurement.
Liu said June 1989 was a turning point in his life as he returned to China to join the protests of the democracy movement. In June 1989 I was President of PEN Center USA West. It was a tumultuous year in which the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was issued in February, and PEN, including our center, mobilized worldwide in protest.
In May 1989 I was a delegate to the PEN Congress in Maastricht, Netherlands where PEN Center USA West presented to the Assembly of Delegates a resolution on behalf of imprisoned writers in China, including Wei Jingsheng, and called on the Chinese government to release them. The Chinese delegation, which represented the government’s perspective more than PEN’s, argued against the resolution. Poet Bei Dao, who was a guest of the Congress, stood and defended our resolution with Taipei PEN translating.
When the events of Tiananmen Square erupted a few weeks later, my first concern was whether Bei Dao was safe. It turns out he had not yet returned to China and never did. PEN Center USA West, along with PEN Centers around the world, began going through the names of Chinese writers taken into custody so we might intervene. I remember well reading through these names written in Chinese sent from PEN’s London headquarters and trying to sort them and get them translated. Liu Xiaobo, I am certain must have been among them, though I didn’t know him at the time.
In his Final Statement to the Court twenty years later, Liu told the consequence for him of being found guilty of “the crime of spreading and inciting counterrevolution” at the Tiananmen protest: “I found myself separate from my beloved lectern and no longer able to publish my writing or give public talks inside China. Merely for expressing different political views and for joining a peaceful democracy movement, a teacher lost his right to teach, a writer lost his right to publish, and a public intellectual could no longer speak openly. Whether we view this as my own fate or as the fate of a China after thirty years of ‘reform and opening,’ it is truly a sad fate.”
I finally did meet Wei Jingsheng after years of working on his case. He was released and came to the United States where we shared a meal together at the Old Ebbit Grill in Washington. I was hopeful I might someday also get to meet Liu Xiaobo, or if not meet him physically, at least get to hear more from him through his poetry and prose.
His words are now our only meeting place. His writing is robust and full of truth about the human spirit, individually and collectively as citizens form the body politic. I expect that both his poetry and the famed Charter 08, for which he was one of the primary drafters and which more than 2000 Chinese citizens endorsed, will resonate and grow in consequence….[cont]
As we slide into the holidays and sweep towards the new year, events are in a swirl and spiraling mostly downwards it would appear, at least in Washington, DC where I live.
Stop! A voice insists in my head.
Pause. Watch. Listen.
Turn off the car radio, the tv news, the commentators, the politicians, at least for a moment.
Go to the park. Or to the country. Allow space to receive other thoughts.
Hear the wind rustling through a green bush at the edge of the parking lot.
See the wind knocking off the last leaves of a tree.
Watch the flag, still at half mast, saluting the wind.
Remember the three-year-old on stage last night at the community theater, trying to keep up and match steps with the older children.
Enjoy the three dogs—black, blonde and brown retrievers—running across the open field.
Hear the carols: “Sleigh bells ringing…Lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you…”
No sleighs in Washington, but the carols ring out, and traditions wrap around in old words and sentiments even as new words—”border wall, shutdown, impeachment, resignation, fraud, lies”—fill the public discourse.
Time to get out of town?
Or just time to pause, watch, listen and try to see and hear other harmonies.
Giddy up! Giddy up! Let’s go. Looking for the Wonderland of Snow!
Happy holidays to All!
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
December 2019: [Beginning in May 2019 I started writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020. In December 2019 there were two posts in the PEN Journeys. The PEN Journeys series completed in October 2020.]
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey might be of interest.
With a blue glacial lake surrounded by the Alps, a small island in the center with an ancient church with a Wishing Bell that rang out and promised fulfillment for the wishers, with a castle perched atop a hillside—with beauty and history intertwined through the landscape, Bled, Slovenia offered a stunning venue for PEN International’s Peace Committee meetings.
In the heart of Europe, the Peace Committee sat in the heart of a contradiction, for there were few places less peaceful than the Balkans. Yet Slovene PEN members played an important role as did other PEN members in bridging divides among writers in conflict zones.
At the Peace Committee’s inception in 1984, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, one of a handful of Communist countries after World War II whose writers were able to sign PEN’s Charter which endorsed freedom of expression. The other countries included Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. In 1962 a well-known Slovene writer, who was a member of English PEN but returned each year to Slovenia, championed the idea of resurrecting the Slovene PEN center which had existed before the war as well as the other two Balkan PEN Centers—Croatia and Serbia.
In 1965 writers from these Yugoslav centers took on the task of staging an International PEN Congress in Bled. At the congress Arthur Miller presided as the first and only American President of International PEN. At the ’65 Bled Congress PEN also hosted for the first time Soviet writers as observers. “Almost despite myself I began feeling certain enthusiasm for the idea of international solidarity among writers, feeble as its present expression seemed,” Miller wrote in his autobiography Timebends. “…I knew that PEN could be far more than a mere gesture of goodwill.”
It took almost 25 years before a Soviet, and later Russian, PEN Center emerged. [see PEN Journey 3, 6, 8] During the Cold War it was difficult for writers from the East and West to communicate, but at PEN congresses and meetings and at the Peace Committee, writers debated, exchanged ideas and shared literature. The Peace Committee became a haven during the Balkans War and also a meeting ground for writers from other conflict areas.
Unlike the Writers in Prison Committee which worked to protect and liberate individual writers, it was difficult at times to define the concrete actions the Peace Committee could take, but at least three stand out in my memory—one direct action, one initiative and one rigorous debate on a pressing issue.
As noted in an earlier post [PEN Journey 7] the head of Slovene PEN, Boris Novak ran the barricades during the Balkans War with aid for writers in the besieged Sarajevo as did Slovene poet and future Peace Committee Chair Veno Taufer and others. At the Peace Committee meeting in 1994 Boris reported 100,000 DEM ($60,000) had been contributed from PEN centers around the world and delivered to almost 100 Bosnian writers in order to save lives. When a new Bosnian center was elected at PEN’s Congress in late 1993, the Bosnian center began taking over the delivery of aid, and Boris was elected chair of the Peace Committee.
I attended my first Peace Committee Conference as Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee in 1994 at the midway point of the Sarajevo siege. At the time PEN was also being asked to help writers who managed to get out of the city. In London I’d met one of these Bosnian writers and gave him my son’s old computer which he accepted as if I’d given him the keys to the city for he had no means to write. Writers fleeing not only the Balkans but situations in Africa and the Middle East needed support as they landed in new locations. It was at the Peace Committee meeting in 1994 that PEN’s Exile and Refugee Network was first conceived in partnership with the Writers in Prison Committee. The initiative was confirmed at the PEN Congress later that fall in Prague….[cont]
As I wrote holiday cards for the prisoners on PEN’s list this year, I recalled the many cases of writers PEN has worked for over the decades—the successes when writers were released early from prison and the sorrow when they did not survive. The path back for a writer imprisoned for his work is rarely easy, at times has led to exile, but often is accompanied by a mailbag full of cards and letters from fellow writers around the world.
I also sat with PEN’s Centre to Centre newsletters spread around me from 1994-1997, the years I chaired PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). During that period if a country was mentioned, I knew whether writers were imprisoned there and often knew the main cases as did PEN’s researchers. At the time we published twice a year PEN’s list with brief descriptions of the cases. Proofing paragraph after paragraph of hundreds of situations, I would know without looking when I had moved from one country to another by the punishments given. Lengthy prison terms up to 20 years to life meant I was reading cases from China, but if the writers were suddenly killed either by government or others, I’d moved on to Columbia. In Turkey were pages and pages of arbitrary detentions and investigations and writers rotating in and out of prison.
Names from this period are a kind of ghost family for me, evoking people and a time and place: Taslima Nasrin, Fikret Başkaya, Mohamed Nasheed, Gao Yu, Bao Tong, Hwang Dae-Kwon, Myrna Mack, Ma Thida, Yndamiro Restano, Mansur Rajih, Luis Grave de Peralta, Brigadier General José Gallardo Rodríguez, Koigi wa Wamwere, Eskinder Nega, Tefera Asmare, Liao Yiwu, Ferhat Tepe, Dr. Haluk Gerger, Ayşe Nur Zarakolu, Ünsal Öztürk, İsmail Beşikçi, Eşber Yağmurdereli, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Đoàn Viết Hoạt, Nguyễn Văn Thuận, Balqis Hafez Fadhil, Tong Yi, Christine Anyanwu, Tahar Djaout, Aung San Suu Kyi, Yaşar Kemal, Alexander Nikitin, Faraj Sarkohi, Ali Sa’idi Sirjani, Wei Jingsheng, Chen Ziming, Slavamir Adamovich, Bülent Balta, and many more. Many are now released, a few are even working with PEN, a number have deceased and two of the most celebrated and tragic—Liu Xiaobo and Ken Saro-Wiwa—were executed, one left to die in prison, the other hung.
In their cases, no amount of mail or faxes or later emails or personal meetings with ambassadors and diplomats changed the course for these writers. A year before Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death, noted Iranian novelist Ali Sa’idi Sirjani died in prison. And years later the murder of Anna Politkovskaya in Russia and the murder of Hrant Dink in Turkey and in 2017 the death in prison of Chinese poet and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo all stand out as main cases where PEN and others organized globally but were unable to change the course. I’ll address the case of Liu Xiaobo in a subsequent blog. He was also in prison during the 1990’s but was not yet the global name and force he became.
One of the most noted of PEN’s cases in the mid 1990s was Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged November 10, 1995. Ken understood they would hang him, but PEN members did not accept this. Ken was an award-winning playwright, television producer and environmental activist who took on the government of Nigerian President Sani Abacha and Shell Oil on behalf of the Ogoni people whose land was rich in oil and also in pollution and whose people received little of the profits.
I was living in London when Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had been arrested before for his writing and activism, visited PEN and other organizations in support of the Ogoni cause. PEN took no position on political causes but campaigned for his freedom to write and speak without threat. He met at length with PEN’s researcher Mandy Garner, providing her books and documentation of how he was being harassed in case he was arrested again. When he returned to Nigeria, he was arrested again and imprisoned in May 1994, along with eight others, and charged with masterminding the murder of Ogoni chiefs who were killed in a crowd at a pro-government meeting. The charge carried the death penalty.
PEN mobilized quickly and stayed in close contact with his family. Mandy worked tirelessly on the case, gathering and coordinating information and actions. Ken Saro-Wiwa was an honorary member of PEN centers in the US, England, Canada, Kenya, South Africa, Netherlands, and Sweden so these centers were particularly active, contacting their diplomats and government officials. At PEN International we met with members of the Nigeria High Commission; novelist William Boyd joined the delegation. “I remember sitting opposite all these guys in sunglasses wearing Rolex watches, spouting the government line,” Mandy recalls. We also talked with ambassadors, including from England, the US and Norway to encourage their petitioning of the Abacha government. We met with Shell Oil officials to ask that they intervene to save Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life. PEN USA West also had lengthy meetings and negotiations with Shell Oil. PEN International and English PEN set up meetings in the British Parliament where celebrated writers spoke. English PEN mounted candlelight vigils outside the Nigerian High Commission which writers including Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, Harold Pinter, Margaret Drabble and International PEN President Ronald Harwood attended. A theater event in London featured Nigerian actors acting out extracts from Ken’s plays and also reading poems from other writers in prison. Taslima Nasreen spoke as well. Ken’s writing was made available to the press which covered the story widely.
The activity in London mirrored activity at PEN’s more than 100 centers around the globe, from New Zealand to Norway, from Malawi to Mexico. From every continent signed petitions were faxed to the Nigerian government of General Sani Abacha and to the writers’ own governments, to members of Commonwealth nations, to the European Union, the United Nations and to the press calling for clemency for Ken Saro-Wiwa. Through the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) of which PEN International was a founding member, the word spread to freedom of expression organizations worldwide. Other human rights organizations including Amnesty and Greenpeace also protested. No one wanted to believe in the face of such an international outcry that the generals in Nigeria, particularly Nigeria’s President Sani Abacha, would kill Ken Saro-Wiwa….[cont]
PEN International marks the ten-year anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to writer, literary critic and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo on 10 December 2010. PEN’s Liu Xiaobo Anniversary Campaign acts as a commemoration of Liu Xiaobo’s life, his contribution to Chinese literature, and his selfless work promoting basic freedoms in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The campaign also highlights the cases of writers Gui Minhai, Kunchok Tsephel, Yang Hengjun and Qin Yongmin who are currently detained by the PRC government. The campaign seeks to raises awareness of their situation, to boost advocacy work on their behalf and to ensure that they and their families feel supported and not forgotten.
The following links to PEN’s campaign. Below is text and Chinese translation of my video tribute to Liu:
Hello, I’m Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Vice President Emeritus of PEN International.
Ten years ago, essayist, poet, activist and PEN member Liu Xiaobo was the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. Liu envisioned and worked towards a peaceful and democratic pathway for China. Beginning with the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and through the subsequent decades, he spoke out and wrote and gathered people and ideas in support of a China where individual freedom was valued and protected.
In 2008, he and others drafted Charter 08, which set out this democratic vision. He and others gathered hundreds and then thousands of signatures from Chinese citizens who endorsed the vision. Charter 08 did not call for an overthrow of the government so much as a transformation of the way government related to its citizens in a transition to a democratic society that would include freedom of expression and assembly.
2008年，他和其他人起草了《 零八宪章》，阐明这一民主愿景。他们从支持这一愿景的中国公民那里汇集了成百上千人签名。 《零八宪章》并未呼吁推翻政府，而是要转变政府相对于公民的方式，转型为包括言论自由和集会自由的民主社会。
Liu Xiaobo has been called the Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel of China because of his ideas, his activism and his leadership. Like Havel, Liu was committed to nonviolent action as a means of achieving change, and he was an inspired writer.
I first encountered Liu Xiaobo through PEN. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, PEN worked on behalf of the writers who had been arrested in the protest, including Liu Xiaobo. Liu had also been instrumental in persuading students to leave the Square before the soldiers and tanks rolled in to attack and possibly kill them. At the time of Tiananmen Square, I was President of PEN Center USA West. A few years later when Liu was again imprisoned for his writing, I was Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
Liu Xiaobo then went on to become one of the founders and the second President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), whose members lived inside and outside of China. He was instrumental in establishing the platforms by which these writers could communicate and share ideas about a society where freedom of expression and democratic processes could exist.
During the time Liu was President of ICPC, I was the International Secretary of PEN. However, Liu was not allowed out of mainland China into Hong Kong where ICPC had its meetings, and I didn’t get to the mainland until in 2010 after he was arrested for the fourth and final time, so we never met in person, though over decades I have worked with many of his colleagues.
Liu Xiaobo was the writer the Chinese government feared the most and therefore arrested. Liu was charged as “an enemy of the state” for “incitement of subverting state power” because of his ideas, his writing and his participation in the drafting and circulating of Charter 08. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was the only recipient of the Nobel Prize who was in prison at the time and not allowed to attend the ceremony. Only an empty chair represented him. His wife Liu Xia was also not allowed to attend. Liu Xiaobo died in custody July 13, 2017.
After his death, writers around the world who knew him began to write about him, his work, about China and the path of liberalism and democratic aspirations. This year THE JOURNEY OF LIU XIAOBO: FROM DARK HORSE TO NOBEL LAUREATE was published containing more than 75 of these essays—probably the largest gathering of writing from China’s democracy activists—and is both a memoir and tribute to Liu Xiaobo and a study of China’s Democracy Movement.
China’s Democracy Movement and Liu Xiaobo’s legacy still inspire those inside and outside of China, from the mainland to Xinjiang to Tibet to Hong Kong and to neighboring countries engaged in the struggle for political reform and an end to authoritarian rule.
I am living in the country for the first length of time in my life. I wake up most mornings to light lifting the sky out my bedroom window which faces east—a vibrant red line on the dark horizon. Slowly the color fades to orange then yellow and then a pale pink as the sun sneaks up behind the land across the river.
As the sky grows lighter, I stumble out of bed, bundle up and go downstairs, make a quick cup of tea, turn on the fire pit and sit outside with my dogs to watch the world fill with light before the sun itself appears, a throbbing yellow globe through the trees. Some mornings a cloud settles on the horizon, and I see only the effect of the sun—light cast upward, shimmering pink splashes on the clouds above until the sun finally emerges through the clouds and greets the day.
I listen to the geese waking up, honking to each other before they take flight. An American flag blows on a flagpole by the river. On a windy day it flaps wildly and on other days it luffs in the breeze.
For the past year I have been living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where oyster and crab boats quietly troll by on the river in their season. I live in the area near where James Michener wrote his doorstop-size novel Chesapeake. In fact our good friends, two of the few people we have seen regularly during this pandemic year, live in the house where Michener wrote his book.
For the first months here, I listened to Michener’s Chesapeake every day at lunch as I took a break from writing. For ten months, I have eaten the same lunch—tomato soup, rice crackers with melted chips of cheese, hard-boiled egg, grapes and frozen yogurt bar—and the same breakfast—coconut yogurt with blueberries, raspberries and slivered almonds and cup of decaf coffee—and though dinner varies, usually a salad with another hard-boiled egg, maybe tuna, few more rice crackers, another frozen yogurt. I eat the same meals because I don’t like to cook and have little imagination when it comes to food, so without planning, the routine has meant that everything again fits me in my closet. I bike every morning on a stationary bike and swim most afternoons after work is done.
Swimming at dusk and sitting by the fire pit at dawn are the particular times when I listen. I try to hear the harmony in the universe, not the arguing of political opinions nor the statistics of covid nor the rancor nor the violence of citizens intolerant with each other.
I look up at the sky and listen. On more than one occasion, clouds have broken open and a shaft of light has fallen on the water, or a pageant of clouds has swept across the blue with the wind rising, or some days the air is so still I can hear the river flowing. Nature reminds me there is a larger perspective, and if I listen, there are harmonies to hear, inspired thoughts to think. Hearing the harmony comes first and then…
I have a better feeling about tomorrow.
(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)
(I drafted the blog post below March 12, 2019, but I was concerned that even this brief exchange might put my friend in danger so I checked with her before I published. She asked that I not publish it while the conflict was going on, so I filed the post away in the draft file on my website. At the time the situation on the ground in Syria was precarious. I recently re-discovered this file two and a half years later. My thesis still holds even while the circumstances on the ground have changed. It is now safe to publish this, though it is still problematic in situ.)
JLA text: “If you’re in town, you want to grab dinner…and movie tonight?” —8:53 am
Friend text: “Hi from Syria where I’m covering final battle with ISIS…” —9:39 am
I began my writing career as a journalist decades ago with fellow young women reporters figuring a way to get out and report on the world.
I eventually struck out on a different path, went back to graduate school, focused on fiction, married, raised a family, but these women stayed on course and are still reporting from the frontlines and are still some of my close friends.
Added to the above exchange that morning was an email from another friend from those days who told me she’d just won the Overseas Press Award for best commentary in any medium on international news.
All of us have circled the globe—they as reporters, me as novelist and worker with organizations on the front lines of human rights, education and conflict. I’m proud of these friends and feeling nostalgic. I often end my correspondence by the salutation: “Stay safe.”
These days many women work on the frontlines of conflict as journalists and correspondents, but this wasn’t always the norm. Means and methods of reporting have also changed. The pace of news and the speed with which it is reported has increased dramatically over the last half century even as the number of organizations supporting correspondents in foreign lands has diminished for women and men. More and more news is derivative, sourced from a few well-staffed newspapers and media outlets then riffed on, commented on, regurgitated by pundits around the globe. There is more talk than ever, 24-hour talk, but those inhabiting the front lines—women and men—who witness for the rest of us and send back clear, factual perspectives are a necessary, yet possibly threatened species. With the development of the internet, however, there are now networks of international reporters such as those who collaborated on the Panama and Pandora papers and the network the International Center for Journalists—ICFJ—nurtures. ICFJ’s motto “It Takes A Journalist” rings truer than ever.
“Stay Safe,” I wrote back to my friend. “Let’s hope there’s a movie we want to see when you get home.”
(As I have the past eight months, I’m also including here a retrospective of the month over the last 13 years of this blog. I’m starting to move about again, though have yet to travel abroad and so offer this space as an armchair view of the world when we were face to face with posts from India, Sierra Leone, Gibraltar, Qatar, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and the United States. Because the month is November, it is Thanksgiving in the U.S., and many posts focus on that custom of giving thanks. For many Americans, myself included, Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday. It includes family and friends who gather not in religious ceremony but in a universal ritual of giving gratitude.)
I’m up early on Thanksgiving morning before the house awakes. It is still dark outside. Our dogs—Max, a German shepherd, and Nala, a golden retriever—look up at me to see if it is really time to start the day. They know the routine. Max follows me downstairs to go outside to get the morning papers—The Washington Post dropped near the porch, The New York Times left on the sidewalk, then a trip to the kitchen to pick up dog bones before we return upstairs where I get on an exercise bike to read the papers and the dogs settle on the floor beside me to chew their bones.
But this morning I’m up too early; the papers have not yet arrived. The house, which will fill with people in a few hours for Thanksgiving dinner, is still sleeping. I love this stolen time and curl up on the sofa by the fire with a pad of paper.
This American holiday, set aside for the purpose of giving thanks, is rooted in the nation’s earliest history. It celebrates the time when the indigenous Indian population shared food with the newly arrived European settlers during their first brutal winter. Unfortunately the subsequent history between the Europeans and the Indians was not so benign, but it is this original encounter that we commemorate.
This year seems an especially important time to give thanks. When citizens in the U.S. and in countries around the world are staggered by financial downturns and fear the road ahead, it is helpful to remember the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who took on the U.S Presidency in the midst of the Depression in the 1930’s.
In his first Inaugural Address in 1933 Roosevelt said:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself….In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory…
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things….Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.
There is no more powerful antidote to fear than gratitude. Acknowledging the blessings at hand, especially the non-material blessings such as family, friendship and community, breaks the hold of depressive thought. The expected call to service by the incoming Obama administration is potentially as potent a rescue of national purpose and consciousness as the financial plans unfolding.
The good news is that the antidote of gratitude and service is already at hand. We don’t need the approval of Congress or an upturn in economic conditions to undertake them.
Outside now the sky is growing light. I hear the newspaper drop by the front porch. Happy Thanksgiving!
Going to the Movies
Sitting on a thin gray-pink mat on the train platform, the children are waiting for us. We make our way over stones and past garbage, through a chain-link fence to what looks like an abandoned station. Along the tracks shanty houses and rows of laundry line the route a few feet from where the trains will come whizzing by. Some of the children, ages 5-15, live here, but most don’t have homes. They are the street children of Delhi, India, a population estimated between 150,000 to one million in Delhi alone. Some have grown up in the city and left their homes but more have stowed away on trains and arrived from the countryside or other cities looking for their future.
We are visiting Salaam Baalak [Salute the Children] Trust which works with these children to help return them to their families if that’s possible. But if the children have been abused or the parents have sold them to traffickers, they are not returned. In that case training, schooling and places to live are sought.
Our guide is a teenager who himself had lived on the street but for whom intervention made the difference. He notes that for most children, the street will prevail. He explains that 300 trains come into Delhi every day at different stations, and the children slide off of these. If they aren’t found within a few weeks, it is difficult ever to get them back for they may be trafficked for labor or prostitution or petty thievery or just become denizens of the streets.
“We go to the train stations and look for the new children,” he says. “We can recognize the new ones; they are looking for help; they don’t know anyone. Kids living on the street learn how to survive, but anyone on the street for a few weeks starts to enjoy the freedom not knowing what may yet be in store.”
Many of the children hide at the stations, waiting for the luxury trains to come through. While the train is stopped, they scurry into the cars to gather the discarded magazines and food which they later sell.
“What do you think they do with the money they get?” our guide asks.
“Buy food?” someone suggests.
“Usually glue to sniff, yes. But the largest amount of their money goes to films.”
“Films?” we ask.
“The cinema. On Fridays when the new films come out, the children wash, clean their clothes and go to the movies!”
For a few hours a week the children soar away in their imaginations and exist somewhere else. The question hovers how to feed and nourish these minds so they can in fact someday soar away and live somewhere else.
Elephants Are Forever
In the middle of one of Delhi’s larger slums the Katha Khazana School serves the community from infants to parents and focuses on pre-school through level 12. The school is for children of the most impoverished; many are rag pickers who search through the city’s dumps with their parents for items to use or sell.
Children enter the brightly colored arched gateway of the Katha Khazana School into a sprawling open spaced building with courtyards and arched doorways, decorated with startlingly original art—brightly colored and friendly snakes, dragons, lions, tigers, fish–all swimming, prancing, hanging on the walls. At the end of one corridor a round-faced elephant with big pink ears and a trunk extended into the hall greets the visitors. The art is by the children and is added to and replaced every quarter when the theme of study changes. This year’s theme, through which the curriculum of language, social studies, civics, math, science, art, etc. is focused is Sustainable Environment, and the particular focus this quarter is: Elephants Are Forever!
My guide Sadik started six years ago at the Katha school and now at age 18 is about to graduate and hopes to go on to college. He also works with Katha, which has 50 early childhood centers and 96 primary schools, publishes children’s books and works with women on small income generating businesses in sewing, cooking, and teaching. In the past years, the women have earned hundreds of millions of rupees in their projects and have been able to lift their families out of poverty.
“Katha started with a few children in 1988,” said Geeta Dharmarajan, executive director. “We soon realized we couldn’t change the way the slums look, but we could bring people out of them. We hope to educate the children to be leaders in their communities.”
Today Katha helps children and their mothers in 72 slums and street communities across Delhi. It is just one of many organizations working in the communities in Delhi with staff and volunteers to facilitate the transition from the street by changing first the landscape of the mind.
“Why does a rainbow appear in the sky?”
“What is an eclipse?”
“Why are there crop failures?”
“What are these called in Mende?”
“What do our elders think are the reasons?”
“How does science explain them?”
I am sitting in the back of a science class in a junior secondary school in a village hours outside of the nearest city Kenema, in the mining district of Sierra Leone, an area devastated by ten years of civil war in the 1990’s. To get here we have driven hours down red dirt roads filled with potholes where the rains have beaten the earth. The countryside is lush with palm trees, banana trees, rice paddies, grasses of all sorts, including large waving elephant grass.
The students—boys and girls in green and white uniforms—sit on wooden benches in front of wood desks and are taking notes in small notebooks. At the front of the classroom is a pot of water and a cup for students who are thirsty; this is not the case in many schools, and a luxury. What is also notable in this classroom is the skill of the teacher and the enthusiastic participation of the students when the teacher, a young man in slacks and short sleeve shirt, asks questions. One girl in particular waves her hand to answer each question.
The teacher solicits answers and discussion, asking students to consider the traditional beliefs for each of these phenomena, then he explores science’s explanation. He talks in English and Mende, the local language. An eclipse? The traditional belief in their villages is that the chief or someone important is about to die and that the spirit in space is swallowing men. He then asks a student what happens if a torch (flashlight) is shined in his face and someone puts a book between him and the flashlight. The teacher draws on the blackboard a picture of the sun, the moon and the earth and continues with an explanation of their orbits. There are no books in the classroom and few props.
“Is that not so?” he asks from time to time. At the end of the lesson, he asks the students which explanation they believe. They all agree with the scientific explanation.
The skill of this teacher is unusual, but what is not unusual is that this young man in his early twenties is a volunteer teacher, not yet credentialed and not paid. He is one of 11 male teachers–there are no female teachers–at the school. All are volunteers, yet to be credentialed, though six are taking a distance education course to become certified. Only the principal is a certified teacher. He gave up a more prestigious job when the village asked him to come head this school. The school sent its first group of students to take the national exams this past year and came away with strong results.
Schools in this eastern region of the country on the road to Liberia were particularly devastated during the civil war. This is a mining community, and the miners have also contributed their own funds to the chiefdom to help the school as has the International Rescue Committee, my host. In 2006 the government built this junior secondary school (equivalent of grades 7-9), but the school has still not been officially approved in part because of the shortage of qualified teachers.
During the war (1991-2000) over a thousand schools were destroyed in Sierra Leone; many were closed for ten years. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. But now villagers have come back to their villages, and the government has rebuilt and built anew schools all over the country. The government says there are now one million children in primary school, out of a population of 6.5 million people. But there is a large shortage of teachers, especially of trained teachers. At least 40% of the current teachers are said to be volunteer. These young men and fewer women teach for no salary, but with the hope of getting credentials and eventually pay. The government has committed 18% of its budget to education and set forth a new education policy which includes teacher training. But the pace is slow.
After the visit to the junior secondary school, we go to visit the primary schools which feed into this school. Both schools we visit were destroyed during the war. At the first, the education coordinator with us recognizes the principal, who worked with him in the schools in the refugee camps in Guinea during the war. A number of the senior educators in the region got their experience in these refugee camps.
As we cross a log bridge over a stream to visit the next school, our vehicle gets stuck on a broken log on the bridge. Beside the stream, women are washing their clothes. We climb out of the car and jump onto the land and continue the journey on foot through the bush, avoiding giant red ants marching along the ground beside us.
The second primary school was originally a missionary school built in 1924, but burned down during the war and now rebuilt as a government school.
All over this beautiful lush country which has the world’s third largest natural harbor, a stunning coastline that could rival Monaco or Cannes, a country with diamond, gold and mineral wealth, the devastation of war remains, side by side with the determination of citizens, including many from the diaspora who have returned, to build back their country, starting with the education of its children, for education of the next generation is what can bring Sierra Leone, currently ranked the third-lowest on the Human Development Index and eighth lowest on the Human Poverty Index, out of an eclipse that lasted over a decade and into its future.
I’m at the bottom of a cave inside a rock riddled with tunnels dug over the centuries, including during World War II when Allied Forces excavated miles of tunnels to protect themselves and their ammunition from enemy forces.
At the bottom of this cave is the legendary home of the Gates of Hades–the Underworld–in Greek literature. This area was considered the end of the known world. It is the juncture where Hercules crashed through the Isthmus as he tracked across the Atlas Mountains to complete one of his last labors. In his impatience he pulled apart the land mass between Gibraltar and Tangiers, creating the Strait where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean now meet and creating the separate continents of Europe and Africa.
This geological feat was a side effect of Hercules’ labors to rid the ancient world of monsters. Legend has it that Hercules used the Rock of Gibraltar and a small mountain in Spanish Morocco as hand holds; these are now designated as “The Pillars of Hercules.”
On the rocks Hercules wrote: “Non Plus Ultra”— “There is nothing beyond” as a warning to sailors lest they go further at their peril. When Columbus “discovered” America, the Spanish amended their Royal Coat of Arms to read “Plus Ultra” –to indicate there was something beyond.
Myth merges with history and imagination as I sit at the bottom of this cave in my imagination and contemplate the stirring of the continent above and the continent across the strait and the one across the Atlantic. What monsters might Hercules take on today and what creative solutions might he crash through to find?
(Imaginative responses welcome. Happy Holidays!)
November 2012: No blog posted
(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.
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.
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.]
Anniversaries abounded this past week:
—November 11: The hundredth anniversary of World War I was perhaps the most significant. Since I wasn’t alive then, I have no personal memories, but I have an appreciation of its significance in all the years that followed and influenced my life. I also appreciate the misreading and historic mistakes that led so much of the world to war.
—November 9: The twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—I was around for that. A few months afterwards our family moved to Europe, and I took my children to East Berlin where we walked across Checkpoint Charlie and knocked down the wall ourselves. We still have a bag of the concrete from the wall in a cabinet in our home; the most artistic slabs with colored graffiti we mounted under plexiglas and shared with friends.
—November 8: The tenth anniversary of the second Battle of Fallujah is very personal. We had a son at the front of that battle who survived and is still processing the impact on him and his friends and the country. He has developed into a beautiful writer who tells and has published his own essays and stories. His first novel Green on Blue will be published by Scribner’s this February. Not noted as widely at the time ten years ago were the battles of the civil war in the Ivory Coast. During the Battle of Fallujah I was with African PEN centers in Dakar, Senegal planning a PEN Congress. The headlines on the front pages there were from the Ivory Coast, not Iraq. My heart at the time was stretched across continents. In quiet moments I can still feel…or is it hear?…this beating of the heart.
—And finally this fall celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of my own high school graduation—an unexpected gathering of friends, most of whom I hadn’t seen in a quarter and some in half a century. We found the friendship and goodwill were what had lasted, had roots and still flourished among us.
This flowering and expanding of life and the heart is what I take away. The walls that fall between us are still challenged by the battles fought among us. History repeats or teaches. There are no simple lessons, but to the extent we find ways to break down the walls and end the battles, we hope. Hope after all is still a threshold of history.
I returned last week from two conferences and a debate back to back in Africa. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which has developed an index on good governance and transparency in Africa, gave its annual prize to a former African leader, followed by a day-long discussion on “African Urban Dynamics.”
The Africa Report Debates inaugurated its series with the question: “Democracy vs. Development.”
And the International Crisis Group, an organization dedicated to analyzing and offering policy recommendations for current and potential conflicts worldwide, (and on whose board I serve) gathered its Africa program for an internal analysis.
From the gatherings of eminent African leaders, policy makers, scholars and commentators I took away the following contradictions across the continent:
–There is an expanding and active civil society at the same time there are spreading and virulent extremists and criminal networks.
–There are growing numbers of working democracies at the same time entrenched leaders are trying to change constitutions to hold onto power in single-party states.
–There is developing urbanization offering services and employment for citizens while slums and marginalized communities expand.
The debate “Democracy vs. Development” concluded overwhelmingly that the two must go hand in hand.
“Fast and equitable development and diversity come through democracy,” according to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Ethiopia. But he added, “Democracy is a process. It matures over time and grows from the inside. It can’t be prescribed. It needs institutions and education. We don’t need paternalistic intervention.”
Ethiopia was pointed to throughout as making significant economic progress. But in a break between panels, I asked Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus about the restrictions on freedom of expression in Ethiopia and the number of writers and journalists now in prison there. His answer: “They broke the law.” Their imprisonments have been challenged by major freedom of expression organizations like PEN International, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as by African PEN centers, I pointed out; this is not a positive sign for healthy government. He and I did not resolve the question between us.
Good news and reasons for hope on the continent include the peaceful elections and transfer of power this year in Nigeria, which has a strong and vocal civil society even as it struggles with the radical extremism of Boko Haram in the North and with criminal trafficking. Also positive is the immanent transfer of power through elections in Burkina Faso, where citizens rose up peacefully last year and opposed the extended 27-year rule of its leader, demonstrating a strengthening civil society. Ghana, where the conferences convened, held peaceful Parliamentary elections while we were there.
“We need heroes,” said Mo Ibrahim, who initiated the conference and the award which was given to the former President of Namibia. Hifikepunye Pohamba won the $5 million prize for “forging national cohesion and reconciliation at a key stage of Namibia’s consolidation of democracy and social and economic development.”
“We must reject the manipulation of the Constitutions,” said former President Pohamba in his acceptance speech. “No individual or group of people should be allowed to abuse power from democratically elected leaders with impunity.”
Electoral transitions in East, West and Southern Africa could unhinge or advance their regions, including in Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Uganda and Zimbabwe. In many of these countries, the current presidents are hoping to hold onto power past constitutional limits which they are trying to alter or past public tolerance. Outcomes of these elections will be important indicators to watch.
Informal conversation outside the symposiums:
“Who can chat with Kabila?” (President of DRC). “I understand he’s scared. His father was killed here.”
“Who can offer him immunity?”
“Can he have a soft exit?”
“Will he exit?”
“I don’t think so.”
Behind all the statistics and the headlines, the story after all is always about people.
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!
In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday, a time when family and friends come together, pause in their hectic, perhaps fraught, lives to give thanks and consider their blessings. Gratitude remains a most reliable platform upon which to build the future.
My own gratitude includes my loving family. In a break with my monthly blog, I’d like to share a moving Thanksgiving essay by my son Elliot, published in The New York Times: A Thanksgiving Message in a 1963 Proclamation
Thanksgiving—a favorite American holiday that includes everyone—reminds us to take time to give gratitude and to give. Though Thanksgiving has come and gone, the base of gratitude and the reminder to give in whatever way and fashion builds a foundation that endures and can outlast political, social and even climatic turmoil.
In this space and in this holiday season, I hope readers will share stories and thoughts on this theme. Gratitude and giving are the beginning and end of a redemptive journey.
November 2019: [Beginning in May 2019 I started writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020. In November 2019 there were two posts in the PEN Journeys. The PEN Journeys series completed in October 2020. In November 2020 there were no posts.]
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey might be of interest.
It was a time of hope, the year when Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk joined in free elections in South Africa, when Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres shook hands and began to live side by side, when the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Association laid down their arms after twenty-five years of terrorist conflict. The idea of tolerance quivered in the imagination in 1994 even if the realization of tolerant societies still seemed an imaginative leap.
As theme of the 61st PEN Congress, tolerance also challenged the ethnic, national and religious intolerance that gripped dozens of countries in the last decade of the twentieth century. In retrospect the time was perhaps not so different from times since, but we felt we were standing on an historic threshold. The PEN Congress theme of tolerance expressed this hope and optimism.
Writers from over 75 PEN centers* around the world came together in Prague that fall for literary and working sessions. The Congress was a grand affair with public gatherings in stately ballrooms, including the Liechtenstein Palace, home of the Prague Academy of Music. Writers who had been imprisoned under the old Soviet regime, including Václav Havel, now ran the country.
Guests of honor included novelist and poet Taslima Nasrin, whom PEN had recently helped extract from the threat of death in Bangladesh (see PEN Journey 11). For protection she was driven around in a state car, and because Sara Whyatt, coordinator of the PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), and I agreed to look after her, we at times found ourselves whisked from meeting to meeting with a police escort, not the usual transport at a PEN Congress.
Though PEN had no mechanisms to change societies, to the extent society changed individual by individual, PEN worked for the writer, turning a spotlight on cases of abuse and challenging the laws which legitimized intolerance.
The voice of the individual writer has always been the most compelling testimony. My report to the Assembly of Delegates that year as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee focused on those voices:
“Yes, I can hear birds singing. But they are not my friends. They are too far from me. My best friends are spiders and mantis. They are only living things to watch amusedly in my solitary cell. I live and play with them all day long. This excerpt is from a prisoner ten years into a twenty-year sentence written to his PEN minder.
“The image of the spider recurs in the writings of prisoners. One former prisoner I met shortly after taking over as Chair of this committee had come to London to receive treatment for the torture he’d endured. He told of being handcuffed to a generator outside during monsoon season, of not being allowed to wash, using a bucket as a toilet, his arms and hands wrapped around the generator for weeks. Then he talked about being inside in solitary confinement. ‘I had a chance to observe nature: rats, cockroaches, spiders,’ he recalled. ‘Ah, spiders, they are brilliant!’…” [cont]
We sat on one side of the dining table at the embassy in Geneva drinking orange Fanta—Sara Whyatt, Coordinator of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), Fawzia Assaad, member of Suisse Romand PEN and liaison for PEN at the UN Human Rights Commission, and myself, Chair of PEN International’s WiPC. On the other side of the table visibly sweating sat three diplomats from North Korea.
The week before, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had visited the same embassy. The United Nations Human Rights Commission was meeting in Geneva, and PEN, which had consultative status at the U.N., had sent us as representatives to the Commission meetings with targeted cases and country reports, including one on North Korea. The year 1994 was a time of potential thawing in relations with North Korea, and the diplomats on the other side of the table were telling us how they would like to have a PEN Center in North Korea.
Fawzia, who was ready to reach out to people, agreed that could be a possible step, but Sara and I gently nudged her under the table and explained that there were certain important criteria in a country for a PEN center to exist. The criteria included some measure of freedom of expression and an acknowledgement of this value though admittedly the extent of freedom varied in countries with PEN Centers. We asked if writers and their families who have been separated since the war might meet on neutral ground. The Counsellor answered, “Why not?” We asked if North Korea would open itself to visits by writers from abroad to discuss freedom of expression. The Counsellor again answered, “Why not?” We agreed that a first step could include an exchange of writers.
As the dinner and conversation proceeded, we all noticed the visible discomfort and sweat on the brows of the diplomats. We later speculated who might have been listening, perhaps on a device or behind the curtain on the other side of the table. Finally the young daughter of the senior diplomat was introduced to the room and entertained us on a traditional Korean musical instrument which she played as she sang Swiss folksongs.
The meeting was one of the more surreal in my tenure as Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. None of our requests came to pass, and it wasn’t until almost two decades later in 2012 that PEN finally welcomed a North Korean PEN Center In Exile, whose members had managed to get out of North Korea with harrowing stories of escape. [Ref. JLA blog Sept. 2012]
For the past 70 years, PEN International has maintained consultative status at the United Nations. This status has meant that PEN International’s reports and activities are both supported through UNESCO funding and are received and considered in UN forums, particularly at the UN Human Right Commission and in UNESCO.
After World War II UNESCO, whose mission was “building peace in the minds of men and women” through education, science and culture, looked to start organizations in these sectors. For theater and the arts it created the International Theatre Institute which creates platforms for the international exchange and engagement in the performing arts. However, when it came to creating an organization for literature, UNESCO recognized that PEN already existed, and so it has worked with and supported PEN congresses, conferences and programs around the world. These programs have also included the work of PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC) which developed the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, also known as the Barcelona Declaration, passed by PEN in 1996 when the current Executive Director of PEN International Carles Torner chaired the TLRC.
Though PEN continues its relationship with the U.N., UNESCO’s budget has declined over the years as has its financial support and PEN’s dependency. PEN officials, including myself, have still visited UNESCO headquarters in Paris and UNESCO representatives still attend PEN conferences and congresses. But the change in both funding and governance for PEN International can be traced back to the years of the fin de siècle when governance around the world was challenged to include wider democratic vistas.
At PEN’s subsequent congress in Perth, Australia in 1995, conversations began regarding a change in governance for PEN, and by PEN’s 75th Anniversary in 1996 at the congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, the momentum for change became inexorable.
But first, meetings in Bled, Slovenia with the Peace Committee and further campaigns on writers threatened around the world.
November 2020: No blog posted