Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Saudi blogger’s wife: I feel destroyed but I will not sit in a corner and cry
Just a few days before his birthday, the liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi received 50 lashes in front of a mosque in Jeddah, his hometown. Thousands of miles away, in her modest basement flat in Québec, his wife decided to avenge his cruel treatment with a birthday party. She put a piece of cake aside to be frozen for him – just in case.
“I feel destroyed. But I don’t want to sit in a corner and cry,” says Ensaf Haidar softly, sitting on her eldest daughter’s bed. “That would be letting Raif and my children down.”
Petite and composed, Haidar is visibly exhausted from the events of the last few weeks. The first flogging of her husband took place, after Friday prayers, on 9 January, and sparked an international outcry. But she hides her sadness as much as possible from their three children. As she talks, Tirad, 10, plays hockey with two blond-haired boys in the hallway. His team are the Montreal Canadians, local heroes in Québec.
Badawi’s wife and children have fled a land of sand and blistering heat for Sherbrooke, a snowy, moose-spotting town of about 150 000 residents some 150km (93 miles) east of Montreal. The family was granted refugee status in Canada upon their arrival in October 2013, and this is where she calls home now.
But her heart is in a prison cell in Jeddah, where her husband is serving a 10-year prison sentence, handed down last May, for a blog which dared criticise Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics.
The website, Free Saudi Liberals, is now closed. And along with the jail term, Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes – 50 at a time over 20 weeks – and fined 1m Saudi riyals (£175,000). He has been held since mid-2012.
“Our story is like Romeo and Juliet,” says Haidar, 35, with a faint smile. “Our meeting was a complete accident.” The pair got to know each other in 2000 courtesy of her brother’s mobile phone, which she would sometimes borrow and one day found herself talking to Badawi, one of his friends.
A two-year correspondence blossomed: the two would call each other in secret and try to glimpse one another through a window or a door ajar. Since Saudi women aren’t allowed to show their face to male strangers, it was risky.
“When my parents found out, they tried to end it,” she recalls. “That’s when Raif proposed. His kindness eventually got the best of their resistance.”
They married in 2002 and honeymooned in Syria. Among her many pictures in her living room, there is one of them smoking shisha in Damascus, looking carefree and innocent, her hair uncovered. “With him, I could be myself. He would treat me with as much respect in public and in private, contrary to other Saudi husbands. And he would even vacuum at home,” she says, proudly.
After he founded the Free Saudi Liberals in 2008, Badawi started being intimidated by the regime. He had envisaged the blog as a forum for social and political debate, but the authorities viewed it with suspicion.
He was eventually charged over content he posted, including an article in which he was accused of ridiculing the kingdom’s religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – as well as failing to remove “offensive” posts by others.
The prosecution had originally called for him to be tried for apostasy – or abandoning his religion, which is punishable by death.
But Haidar, who holds a degree in Islamic Studies, insists her husband never criticised Islam. “He wanted his country to be more liberal and tolerant of other religions,” she says. “The blog was only a space for social debates.”
Nevertheless, the young idealist, who also owned a language and IT school, quickly became a pariah and was banned from leaving the kingdom in 2009. Haidar’s father took legal steps to enforce a divorce but she refused and has not spoken to her family since.
Increasingly worried for the children, the young couple organised for her to leave in the winter of 2012 with Najwa, 11, Tirad and Myriam, 7. “He promised to join us two months later, and I thought to myself: but that’s an eternity!”
She could not have known then that, more than two years later, she would still be waiting.
Haidar, who has obtained her permanent residency in Canada, has not been able to hear her husband’s voice since he was moved to a new jail three weeks ago.
Though he tried to reassure her, she could tell his spirits were low. “Being separated from the children is the most difficult thing for him, she says. “He wonders what age they will be when he sees them again - 20 years old? 30 years old? The thought is unbearable.”
Given that Badawi, who turned 31 on 13 January, is diabetic and does not have a strong build, she is deeply worried about his receiving another 50 lashes on Friday.
At the same time, though, she is not giving up hope. The US, EU, Britain and others have urged Riyadh not to pursue Badawi’s flogging – even if there is still no sign that Saudi Arabia’s key western allies will back up their rhetoric with punitive action.
Eighteen Nobel laureates have written an open letter calling on Saudi academics to condemn the flogging. On Thursday, Amnesty International will hold vigils outside the Saudi embassies in London and Ottawa, while protests are planned for countries including Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
While Riyadh has given no public acknowledgment of the outcry, Badawi’s second round of lashes, which had been due last Friday, was postponed on medical grounds.
Haidar takes succour from the knowledge that, in the past, the Kingdom has eventually bowed to international pressure over its treatment of detainees. The British-Canadian William Sampson was released in 2003 after being tortured for two years and seven months in a Riyadh jail.
She firmly believes that Badawi will one day live with her in Sherbrooke, and she behaves as such, filling in her income tax forms as a married woman rather than a single parent even though the latter would bring in more benefits.
If her wish comes true, she will greet him at the Montreal airport by doing something that is strictly forbidden in the streets of Jeddah. “I will give him the biggest kiss on the mouth!” she says, smiling like a school girl in love.