Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Life In Prison For A Poem
Qatar is an important ally of the United States, playing a key support role for CENTCOM during the Iraq war, and more recently supporting the Syrian opposition against Assad. Here is how 60 minutes depicted the US/Qatar relationship before the war in Iraq began:
Life here is tranquil. Almost everywhere you can see a mixture of the old and the new. There’s a growing affinity for American culture and no outspoken opposition to the American presence or the emir’s changes. And American investment is increasing dramatically, especially in natural gas.
“If we go back to 1993-94, the Americans, they invest in our country around $200 million or $300 million. Now it’s over $30 billion American investment in Qatar,” says the emir.
It’s good for the U.S. because it provides bases that can be used in a war with Iraq.
It’s good for Qatar because the American military presence provides protection for the emir and his reforms – reforms that have made Qatar a role model for change in the Arab world.
Sheikh Hamad knows he has to change his country while he can, because he also knows that the last two rulers before him were overthrown.
When asked what he thinks Qatar will look like in 10 years, the emir says, “Well, first, I hope you find me facing you in the same chair. And I hope I’m sure you’ll find a big change.”
Well, nearly 10 years later the role model for change in the Arab world has sentenced a poet to life in prison for reciting a poem.
A Qatari poet has been sentenced to life in prison for inciting the overthrow of the government of Qatar and insulting the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his son, the crown prince, reports say.
The verdict is likely to prove an embarrassment for Qatar which has worked hard to cultivate a progressive, modern image, and is currently playing host to a major international climate change conference.
The charges relate to a poem that 37-year-old Mohammed al-Ajami, a father of four, recited in 2010 before a small, private audience in his flat in Egypt. One audience member subsequently posted the poem online.
Will the Obama administration express the same degree of concern it did when Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot were sentenced to 2 years for hooliganism?
I hope so, because in this situation, pressure from the United States would probably have a significant effect for this poet and father of four now facing in prison for reading a poem.
I tried to find the offending verse, but so far have had no luck, so this week’s poetry series features no actual poetry.
Instead, this post is a reminder to artists everywhere that authoritarians are afraid of the power of free expression and the potential effect it may have on those living in oppressive countries.