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A New Delay for Shawkan Zeid

UPDATE, February 6, 2016: For a second time, the Egyptian court hearing for Mahmoud Abu Zeid, the photojournalist known as “Shawkan,” has been postponed, this time until March 26. The court cited the same reason it gave for the first postponement in December: that it does not have the space to accommodate the hearing. Because he was arrested in a widespread government crackdown, which was known as the “Rabaa Dispersal,” Shawkan has been included with 737 other individuals. All face similar charges of offenses against public order and national security, violence, murder, attacking security forces and civilians, engaging in armed conflicts, and destroying public facilities.

Multiple sources are reporting today that Shawkan has been moved to a “disciplinary cell,” in other words, solitary confinement. His social media accounts describe a tiny cell, a daily slice of bread, a bucket, no blanket. There is a disgusting irony in placing him in a small cell for any length of time, whether one hour or until March 26, when the reason for the two delays has been lack of space.

Mass trials with defendants held in large courtroom cages are not uncommon in Egypt and they are growing more common with the government’s paranoid practice of conducting mass arrests on vaporous and vague charges to force its form of control on the citizens. Egypt’s justice ministry announced that after the first postponement in December that it was moving the trial and all of the prisoners to Wadi Al-Natrun prison (far outside Cairo), where it claimed it could accommodate the 738 defendants. Apparently, work on building the large cage has not been completed. Lumping defendants together always undermines every fair legal practice, from considering each case individually to presumption of innocence to introducing error into an individual’s story.

As of today, Shawkan has spent 907 days in prison and has not yet had his case heard by a court. Amnesty International UK has made a priority of Shawkan’s story and it sits atop its list of “Urgent Action Network” cases. Please sign its petition and utilize its Twitter tools.

What follows is my column from December 2014, “A Message from Shawkan.”
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800 Lashes for Ashraf Fayadh

Earlier today, a court in Abha, Saudi Arabia, announced that it has retracted its November 2015 death sentence for the poet Ashraf Fayadh and exchanged it for a sentence of eight years in prison and 800 lashes with a cane. He must also make a public statement of repentance.

This new sentence appears to switch his conviction from one of apostasy, or renouncing his religion, to one of blasphemy, insulting that religion and its leaders. According to the web site Arabic Literature (in English), the charge of “inappropriate relations with the opposite gender” still stands. These “relations” were photos of Fayadh standing next to women in art galleries at exhibitions he curated. The photos were in his cell phone and on his Instagram account because they were appropriate, not salacious, and not worth noticing. In Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabi form of Islam, however, this is inappropriate contact with the opposite gender and worthy of legal remedy.
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Confessions of an Iowa Caucus Voter

The Iowa Caucus will be held Monday night. I was a caucus voter one presidential election, in 2004, so my experience that long-ago January night can perhaps illustrate what we will see unfold next week.

* * * *
Gephardt was down. He was not going to get a vote from our precinct. In the game of three-dimensional chess that is politics, I could see how this was going to be bad for my candidate. I needed to act. Gephardt needed a vote, because it would help my candidate, and that vote needed to not be me. I sprung into action …
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A Thank-You Note to Pete Seeger

In 1996, in my then-job of assistant editor at a weekly newspaper, I awarded myself the title of music reviewer for a single issue and attended a concert given at a local high school by Pete Seeger, who died two years ago today at age 94. (Our newspaper’s actual music reviewer was only interested in attending and writing about rock concerts. That was a stroke of luck for me.) I wrote a review, knowing full well that a review is not what one writes regarding a Pete Seeger concert. An appreciation. A thank-you note. But not a mere review judging aesthetic merits.

It was a great concert, by the way.
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Raif Badawi’s Hunger Strike

UPDATE, January 28, 2016: Two statements have been published on Raif Badawi’s official Twitter account in the last two hours. (There are embedded below the fold).

One reads, “#RaifBadawi is attempting a strike again for not letting him and 120 other prisoners to use the phone to contact their families.” And the follow-up states, “A call out for the Head of KSA Prisons General: Ibrahim Hamzai to stop the negligence in Dhahban Penitentiary.”

Today is Raif Badawi’s 1344th day in prison for writing. Even in prison, officially silenced, he is not silent. I will update when I receive a second source. The Tweets:
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When Nomi Met Bowie

December 15, 1979. For Klaus Nomi, his performance as a singer/dancer/weird presence for one single show behind David Bowie that night on Saturday Night Live seemed to be an indication that he was on the right path and he was headed to glory; instead, it was the high-water mark of his brief career.

When Bowie died earlier this month, SNL broadcast one of the songs from that appearance, a performance of “The Man Who Sold the World,” in which Bowie sings in a plastic tuxedo so rigid that Nomi and his co-backup, Joey Arias, were tasked with carrying Bowie to and from his place at the mic. (It was a gift from SNL because no complete, legal, clip of any of the three songs has been available online, as NBC is as legally rigid as Bowie’s tuxedo was.) Nomi was so enamored with the plastic suit that he wore a similar one as his costume for the remainder of his career, but his tux was one Nomi could walk in but not sit in or bow to an audience while wearing, which made his own appearances in it similarly awkward.

Here is “The Man Who Sold the World” from that 1979 appearance (SNL/NBC already deleted the official clip, here is one I found):
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Snow Falling on Everything

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.—James Joyce, the conclusion of “The Dead,” Dubliners

Cemeteries are cram-packed full with people who had other plans that day. Reservations for dinner, a movie ticket in the pocket. A refrigerator with new groceries. A sink with dirty dishes.

We all know this deep down, but the occasional reminders can nonetheless surprise. “Always wear clean underwear,” a cliché cartoon version of a mother tells a cliché cartoon version of ourselves in a cliché cartoon version of a conversation that never happens in real life. But the end comes in a moment, and it is always dramatic, even when it is mundane.

(I suppose it is never mundane for the person who experiences it, but I have not yet been there, not even been near it, and no one who has had the end moment has made a verifiable report about it. Tsk-tsk. Where are their priorities?)
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Talk the Walk

“You should be on the radio,” was what was said. What was heard by my 16-year-old ego was, “You shouldn’t be on TV.”

The compliment was first given to me when I was a kid, when my voice suddenly and without the typical teenager’s pitch shifts and volume wobbles—the “Peter’s voice is changing, this week on a very special episode of ‘The Brady Bunch'”-type changes—deepened and thickened to its present baritone/bass.
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