(This piece appears on GlobalPost.)

Eid—the end of Ramadan—has come and gone. Traditional pardons have been handed out. In Qatar, poet Mohammed al Ajami (Al-Dheeb), was not among them. He continues to live in a prison in the desert, serving a 15-year sentence for two poems, one praising the Arab Spring and the other critical of the Emir.  He (and his poems) “encouraged an attempt to overthrow the regime,” according to the charges.

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The over 70 pardons granted in Qatar are reported to have gone to Asian workers charged with theft, rape, drug abuse, bribery, prostitution, etc. These workers will now likely be deported. If Mohammed al Ajami were released, he would also likely leave the country to reunite with his family and then perhaps accept a brief fellowship offered as a poet at a major university.

Throughout the Muslim world Ramadan is a time when dispensations are handed out— as many as 1000 prisoners reportedly released in Saudi Arabia, 800 plus in Dubai, over 350 in Egypt— to individuals charged with violent and nonviolent crimes. But the amnesties were not given to writers, not to poet al Ajami, not to Egyptian journalists or Iranian bloggers. The offense of words and ideas are perhaps judged more dangerous.

Writers in prison in the Middle East who did not get pardons include: Bahrain (3writers), Egypt (5 writers), Iran (35 writers), Qatar (1 writer), Saudi Arabia (2 writers), Syria (11 writers), Tunisia (1 writer), United Arab Emirates (2 writers). *

 

*Source PEN International

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

I went early on election day  to vote at the polling station in the church on the cobblestone street in my neighborhood. The lines snaked down the block as neighbors read their morning papers, chatted, visited each other with their dogs on leashes and waited to get inside. After I voted, I went to the airport, and before the polls closed, I flew out to Africa.
 
When I arrived in Amsterdam, the big television screen outside the airport announced that Albert Gore was the next President of the United States.  I went to sleep for a few hours in an airport hotel before my connecting flight. When I awoke, the television announced George Bush was the next President of the United States. I boarded the plane, arrived hours later in Malawi and learned that the United States did not yet have a president. 
 
For the next ten days in Malawi and Ethiopia I attended meetings, visited schools in villages and at every opportunity tried to find a BBC broadcast to let me know who was the next President of the United States.  The local press began to write stories to inform Americans how to conduct an election. The banana republic of the United States of America made people smile as everyone watched all the machinery of government at work as the country tried to sort out its leadership. When I arrived home, there still was no new President.
 
Indications are that the election of 2008 will not be as close, but it too will be a historic election.  Whoever wins, barriers will fall, and the profile of leadership at the top will change in the United States.  History will only really be made, however, as the sentiments are shed which once barred women, African Americans and others of color from opportunities.
 
As we’ve watched what has seemed like an endless electoral process over more than 20 months, we have also been watching the country coming to terms with itself and its ideals and its history. The ugliness and slurs that have accompanied part of this election for the most part have been dismissed by the electorate who wants more and insists that we grow up and into our national ideal of all men and women as created equal.
 
The other day I was discussing with several young voters why this election is so unique. In addition to the specific ground-breaking profiles of an African American and a woman candidate, this election in the U.S. is the first in over 50 years when no candidate is a sitting President or Vice President. The field and the possibilities are wide open.  
 
I plan to stay around this year and watch the returns. In 2004, I was also in Washington, watching the returns with  friends. The lead in that election changed several times. At one point I looked around the room of experienced Washingtonians, many couples in long marriages who worked at senior levels in and outside of government.  I realized that almost every couple in the room had canceled each other’s votes.  When I tell that to friends from other countries, they are always surprised, yet it is more common than one might expect in Washington. For all its partisanship, the city is peopled with professionals who may vote on one side, but in their professional lives work to find ways to cooperate. They understand that for the country to run well, everyone has to work together. 
 
I’m hoping this year, whoever is the victor, he/she will have the benefit of all the citizens in the difficult tasks ahead.  If not, then I’ll look forward to reading the press in other countries to advise us how to do that.