Poets, Pardons and Ramadan

(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.

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

Peacocks and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Clouds Over the Bosporus

It rained every day on the Bosporus as we ferried  back and forth across Istanbul’s grand waterway to discuss current and impending conflicts in the globe. Inside the windowless room, sitting in a large square facing each other, former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and a former NATO commander toured the world in words and debate to find paths to end these conflicts, to encourage the opening up of political systems and to keep those systems, their leaders and others from killing their citizens. Reports from seasoned, on-the-ground researchers informed the discussion of the board of the International Crisis Group.

Outside the meeting room, the Middle East continued in a state of foment. Its citizens had taken by surprise many of the experts in the room. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s regimes had fallen through nonviolent resistance comprised of strikes and mass protests by its citizens.  However, Libya’s President Gaddafi was attacking and threatening to slaughter his dissenting citizens and had sent that country into civil war. Syria and Bahrain, slightly more restrained, had also killed hundreds of  protesting citizenry.

The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was a focus of the debate. At what point does the international community have a responsibility to intervene when a government not only doesn’t protect its citizens but attacks them? Can the international community prevent such actions so that there will never again be another Rwanda or Srebrenica? Does the responsibility to protect inevitably lead to military intervention as it has in Libya? How does the U.N. and NATO unwind its commitment? Can it? Should it? And what about the simultaneous bloodshed in the Ivory Coast? Why were nations not invoking the Responsibility to Protect there?

These questions unfurled and swirled with no definitive answers. Rather, the answers were iterative, inching towards solutions. Even with some of the brightest minds around the table, foreign policy and diplomacy is not so much an art or a science; it is more like a grand bazaar, a trading of perceptions and perceptions of national interests.

In the forums on the Bosporus I was able to offer only a small window on civil society, on citizens who do not sit at such tables but have been willing to go to jail and even die because they have written or spoken their protests for freedom. I was more of a deputy sheriff in the gathering, without a global answer but with a reminder not to forget to open the stable door if the barn was being set on fire.

The freedom to tolerate without imprisoning or killing and the freedom to be tolerated without constraint is a rare and essentially modern concept in the world. When thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions rise up insisting on this freedom, it is a fearsome and transformative sight.  Freedom itself is a concept still developing. Is there a point when my freedom depends on your captivity?

No easy answers, but I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comment forum below.

Jury Duty and Revolutions

I spent the month of February on a jury for the first time. I had been called for jury duty at least a dozen times in three or four different cities where I’ve lived, but I was never selected. I assumed because I was a writer and active in human rights work, I was considered a dubious juror. But in February, along with 15 other people, I was empanelled in a criminal case that lasted over a month.
Because the judge wanted to assure that he had a jury that could go the distance of a long trial, he also sat four alternates in the jury box. Only at the end of all the proceedings did he tell who the alternates were. For four weeks all 16 of us arrived every day on time at the court house to follow the trial for 6-7 hours. No juror was ever absent and only once or twice was anyone a few minutes late. Everyone took their responsibility to each other and to the court seriously.
Where I live, the requirement is that every two years a citizen appears either for one day (to be considered for a jury) or for one trial. Like most people in the jury pool, I was not looking forward to serving and interrupting my life, but I was willing.  I was perhaps more willing than usual because I was following the upheavals in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt at the time. The citizens there were protesting for the very freedoms we had in an open democracy, the freedom to participate in government and in one’s justice system.  Each day during the breaks many of the jurors followed what was happening in Egypt…had Mubarak resigned yet? It turned out that the people of Egypt overturned a 30-year regime faster than our trial unfolded. When Mubarak finally left office, we were still sitting in the jury box.
The jurors came from a wide range of professions, including government workers, an architect, a publisher, a bus driver, two veterans. One woman who worked in Asia was home for only a month’s leave, and her month was spent on jury duty. During our weeks inside the courthouse, the weather outside moved from snow and winds to cherry blossom buds on the trees. The deliberations themselves took almost a week. We reviewed all the evidence and testimony, discussed, debated and agonized over some of the decisions required, but finally 12 individuals arrived at unanimous verdicts.
The idea of twelve strangers judging other strangers goes back to the Magna Carta, to June 15, 1215 where the term “a jury of one’s peers” was introduced.  The idea was to reduce the powers of the king and to come up with a system where disputes could be solved more equitably.  It took centuries for the process to evolve so that the “peers” included at least a somewhat representative slice of the community. In the US it  wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that the right of women to serve on juries on equal terms with men was secured and not until the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s that blacks and minorities were included more regularly on juries.
I left the experience with a deeper appreciation of the justice system, including its flaws, and an appreciation of my fellow jurors, all of whom missed more than a month of work, and many of whom fit in work during the off hours.  (Pay for jury duty is minimum wage.) I also left with a sorrow for the inadequacies of support services in communities in the city, a fleeting hope that the penal system might have within it means for rehabilitation. I left with a deeper humility and awareness of the connectedness of all our lives and an expectation that I may find several of my fellow jurors working in the community in the years ahead.

Ice Flows: Freedom of Expression

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.