A review of Ensaf Haidar’s excellent new book about her life with Raif Badawi
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How does a young mother tell her children that their father—her husband—is in prison for writing what he thinks in a fundamentalist country that oppresses freedom of thought and freedom of expression? How does she tell her children that their father was taken from them because their country punishes thinkers and writers? How does she tell them he was taken from them?
There is no instruction manual for that situation. The moment in which a young mother must live through exactly this moment is only a brief scene in Ensaf Haidar’s newly published memoir of life with and apart from her husband, the writer Raif Badawi, but it is painful to read, because Ensaf (and her co-writer Andrea C. Hoffmann and their skilled translator Shaun Whiteside) bring the reader into the room with her and the children and invite us to feel their terror and confusion.
Her book takes us on the journey Ensaf has made from a young, coddled, woman in a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, to a young wife with an ambitious young husband, through watching him be punished by their nation’s government for his writing, to finding the inner reserves of strength to serve as Raif’s voice while he is kept apart from his world. The young woman who met Raif Badawi did not know that she was going to need to become the strong woman you see in her picture on the cover of the book.
The fact that you have heard of Raif Badawi, the writer who Saudi Arabia sentenced to 1000 lashes for his writings and then whipped on January 9, 2015, is almost entirely thanks to the tireless efforts of Ensaf Haidar, a young wife determined to make the world know her imprisoned husband’s name.
Raif Badawi was arrested on June 17, 2012, four years ago today. He has been in prison 1485 days now. Ensaf’s fight to free him is now a global effort to move the government in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to free him.
Raif Badawi is not a symbol; he is a human, a man, a writer, a blogger who wrote his opinions and published them yet lives in a nation in which writing opinions that are not approved of by the State is viewed as a crime. Yet his writing is peaceful, calm; he is the least inflammatory blogger in the world, but in this world of flames, that is the most revolutionary thing he could be. This is why his book, 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, is an important document in our times.
He also is a symbol: of the human desire for freedom, of the human need to express oneself, of the fact that those two things are feared by religious fundamentalists everywhere, and of the fact that when a nation is governed by religious fundamentalists, hatred of freedom and a fear of love is codified into law every time. Raif Badawi put it far more eloquently that I just did: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”
Ensaf Haidar loves the man, the writer; she helped guide the world into an embrace of the symbol. The two together are a powerful love story.
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If a movie is ever made about Raif Badawi and Ensaf Haidar, the story of their meeting will look like a scene in every rom-com that Hollywood has offered: they “met cute,” as the studios phrase it. Her sister had been given a cell phone as a wedding present but did not want it, so she gave it to Ensaf. Almost no one knew the number, but one day it rang and the caller did not leave a message. She dialed the number back. Perhaps it was someone from an employment agency that she had contacted earlier in the week.
(Thus, both Raif Badawi and Ensaf Haidar can say that the other person called them first.)
When she realized that instead of her employment agency she had called an unsuspecting male, she hung up. And he started calling her back. They “talked all night.”
The book takes us quickly through their lives together and through Raif’s ambitions for his web forum, “Saudi Arabian Liberals.” (A scene that possibly every blogger can relate to: “With every new registration Raif shouted with jubilation. ‘We’ve got twenty users now,’ he cried. ‘Now it’s twenty-one!’ He was as excited as if it was an auction … I was excited too.“)
Saudi Arabian authorities started to harass Badawi, his sister Samar (who was arrested and released as recently as this past January), and her husband, Waleed, who served as Raif’s attorney and is also in jail in Saudi Arabia for his pro-human rights work. Eventually, Ensaf escaped and took their children to Cairo, then Beirut, and then to Canada, where she knew no one and did not know how to speak English or French.
In between, trouble comes in many forms, and her chapter names eloquently tell the story: “A Journey into the Unknown” and “Our World Collapses.” Trouble even comes in the person of Raif and Samar Badawi’s father, who has spent the last several years personally condemning his children in every available forum in Saudi Arabia. He has become something of a television celebrity in Saudi Arabia just for his vehement denunciations of his own children and approval of the government punishing his own children.
A bizarre scene unfolds in which a television call-in show hosts Raif and Waleed on the phone and Raif’s furious father in the studio, denouncing his children to the applause of the television host. It must have been horrid to live through. Ensaf’s own family abandoned her, as well. For a time, she and her children were stateless.
When they met and married, Raif Badawi and Ensaf Haidar may not have known that perseverance and determination are her greatest talents, but they are, as she has built and re-built a life for herself and her children while they await the possible day when her husband rejoins them. She allows herself the dream:
I imagine us driving in an open-topped car along the streets of Sherbrooke. Probably I myself would like to be at the wheel because I’m taking driving lessons and will soon be taking my test. Raif will be very surprised by then. Perhaps it will be on a Friday, the day we normally hold our vigil for Raif in front of the town hall. But on that day we will hold a big buffet in front of the building—and all of my friends will meet Raif at last.
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(I am inviting myself to that buffet that day.)
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Ensaf Haidar’s book, Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom:
My Husband, Our Story, was published on May 17, 2016, by Other Press. It is available in bookstores and online.
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Over the last twenty months I have published a few dozen articles about Raif Badawi, his wife, and Saudi Arabia. “Secularism is the solution,” a graffito that Raif Badawi said he saw in a prison lavatory, is the guiding thesis inside each of my articles. This website is the only one to have had insider’s report on conditions in Raif Badawi’s prison. This list corrects errors I created in earlier presentations of this list:
• October 18, 2016: Raif Badawi’s Punishment Continues
• October 4, 2016: Raif Badawi and the Nobel Peace Prize
• June 16, 2016: A Wife’s Lonely Fight for Her Husband
• May 12, 2016: Secularism Is the Solution
• April 17, 2016: Inside Raif Badawi’s Prison Cell
• April 11, 2016: A New Prize for Raif Badawi
• March 25, 2016: #ReadRaif: Now More than Ever
• January 26, 2016: Raif Badawi’s Hunger Strike
• January 9, 2016: One Year After He Was Flogged, Raif Badawi Remains a Prisoner
• December 16: Badawi’s Absence Is a Presence at Prize Ceremony
• December 11: A Cloud of Uncertainty
• October 29: Winner of the Sakharov Prize
• September 14: Award Raif Badawi the Nobel Peace Prize
• August 18: Tortured
• June 17: Three Years in Prison for Blogging
• June 10: An Urgent Need for Action
• June 7: A Sense of Injustice
• June 1: Speak out for Those Who Can’t
• May 7: Ignite the Light
• April 3: We Want Life
• March 13: Raif Badawi and Official Cruelty
• March 6: Raif Badawi Remains a Prisoner
• February 20: 1000 Days
• February 6: #FreeRaif, Week 5
• January 31: Raif Badawi, Week 3
• January 22: An Update about Raif Badawi
• January 12: For Raif Badawi
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Last winter, I recorded myself reading one essay from Raif Badawi’s book, 1000 Lashes Because I Say What I Think. It is the entire chapter, “Is Liberalism Against Religion?” Get yourself a copy of the book. I have intentions to record myself reading more of his essays, if that appeals to readers.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 12 asks us to reflect on the word, “Flames.”
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