“Walls have ears” this phrase is etched in my memory, I first heard it as a 5 year old child and the idea frightened me.
Before the advent of air conditioning, Damascene families spent their summer evenings on the large balconies of their French colonial era four-storey buildings. When visiting my grandparents in Syria, we spent the evenings on these terraces, but conversations were filtered and hushed, for the garden floor housed a Mukhabarat office, or an Intelligence office. Nobody knew what went on there, but we recall screaming at night and shady characters going in and out of the front door.
Various branches of the competing intelligence services were present in many of these elegant buildings. Damascus's leading agricultural, industrial and commercial families were living in the shadow of nationalization of private enterprise and were suddenly second class citizens in their city. The fear of imprisonment and torture regulated everyone’s life. Me the five year old child and my septuagenarian grandfather were afraid, we were all disarmed, we just accepted our fate.
Forty years later, a dear friend from Damascus invited me, as publisher or Raseef22 to meet Jamal Khashoggi in Washington. Again, I experienced fear. What business do I have with the Saudis? I feared I would never obtain a Hajj visa should I see the light one day.
Fear is rife amongst us, but the real crime is when we model ourselves to suit the tyrants rather than break the barriers of fear. We live half a life without ambition, without energy, and an omnipresent desire to migrate into foreign lands that fear us
Our conversation was about freedom of expression and fear in Arab countries - fear of tyrants. Only we Arabs understand fear. We fear for ourselves, our families and our colleagues. We fear threats, imprisonment, and fear for our livelihood.
But my bigger concern was Jamal's so called Islamist affiliation. Any gathering which includes the word "Muslim" worries me and most Arab Americans, for the Islam of Ibn Taymiyyah and the Wahhabis has become a repellent to many a Muslim.
I arrived at dinner and Jamal and my friend were waiting. Half an hour later, we realized we have much more in common than we thought. Our conversation was about freedom of expression and fear in Arab countries - a fear of tyrants. We had a white "Middle East expert" with us, the discussion about fear meant nothing to him. Only we Arabs understand fear. We fear for ourselves, our families and our colleagues. We fear threats, imprisonment, and fear for our livelihood.
We agreed he would start writing for Raseef22. He winked at me meaning: don’t be afraid. He realized that any Arab outlet he wrote for would be blocked in many countries, an effective death sentence for the publication. We have seen many death sentences on institutions bigger than Raseef2, but at the end of the day, blocking a publication is a cowardly act, and that was good consolation.
On September 28, 2018, I had my final communication with Jamal. He was in Istanbul: “I’m waiting for a good article from you as soon as you have time.” he answered, “I will, it's been a while since I’ve written anything.”
Months before this correspondence Jamal participated in the Oslo Freedom Forum, and his participation affected him deeply. He watched as fellow activists and journalists were applauded for talking about oppression and torture in their countries.
From Oslo, Jamal wrote three articles for Raseef22: one on Freedom in the Arab World, the second on Imprisonment and the Resulting Depression and the third on Arabs’ Readiness for Democracy. It seemed to me Jamal was lonely and depressed living in McLean, Virginia; From an influential intelligence officer and editor in chief of a major publication, to a lone Saudi estranged in suburban DC, a transition that would bring depression to any rational man.
Today, I fear for a friend whom I met via Twitter. My friend represents Egypt in its former glory as the lighthouse of Arab thought: tactful, intelligent, cultured, worldly and energetic. Her disappearance from my social media timeline troubled me for the last three days. I sent her a light spirited DM and she replied “They arrested me Kareem, they released me on condition that I stop tweeting.”
A few months ago, our correspondent in a kingdom far from Egypt sent me a Facebook message saying, "Excuse me, Kareem, I can no longer work with you." He then disappeared from social media. A young journalist who in six months with Raseef22 highlighted various pressing issues that have stifled that Kingdom, creating nationwide public debate on what was supposedly taboo there: freedoms and governance.
In a much closer country, an experienced field reporter decided to write exclusively about lukum and chocolate making so as not to rot in mosquito infested jails.
Fear is rife in our countries, but the real crime is when we model ourselves to suit the tyrants rather than break the barriers of fear. We live half a life, without ambition, without energy, and with an omnipresent desire to migrate, migrate into foreign lands that fear us.
We are all overcome by fear and find consolation in Jamal’s words “Love and freedom need preparation, effort and generosity”. Raseef22 is determined to make holes in the walls of fear so our children can have better lives in our countries.