It is early afternoon on a summers day when my father calls me. It is unlike him. I hear anger in his voice. This is unlike him too, and I became afraid. Afraid, not for my family, my friends or myself, but afraid of what has happened to my countrymen, and what will happen next. Much of the Arab experience has been ruled by fear, anger, disbelief and discomfort over the last decade and a half. Perhaps the last half century. Perhaps longer. It is a shaking fear, not the kind of worry that is sharp and shocking and lasts for a short time, but is long, dull, aching, and omnipresent.
My father has called to tell me that a family acquaintance has been taking by the Doha police. We know what this means, and we try not to. Instead, we go about our day, and we perform our duties, and when we speak it is hushed and reserved.
Muhammad Ali is a journalist and human rights activist who had been living outside of, let’s say, Qatar, in Canada and the United Kingdom, for over twenty years at the time of his arrest. Much of my family has also been living in the United States or the United Kingdom for this long, I now live in the United States and we understand how easy it is to become complacent, to become used to a new set of rules. We have tasted certain freedoms, such as the ability to speak against people or policies we oppose without fear, and we cannot go back. We speak out now because to not do so has become a shameful thing.
My aunt calls me from London, weeping. “He has a family”, she says, and we know what this means, too. It means that he will betray his thoughts, his fervent beliefs, his true voice, because to do so would mean to never see his wife, to never hold his newborn daughter. He will “confess”, and this confession will be held up by the Qatari establishment as a victory for them, and a humiliation for the West. And we will listen, and nod, and we will understand that these are lies, necessary lies, a means to an end, but we will be ashamed. Ashamed at Muhammad for speaking falsehoods, ashamed at ourselves for not speaking more, or louder, or more dangerously. Ashamed at our governments, for putting us in this position.
Muhammad will be beaten, and mocked, and questioned, and tortured, for 100 days. Then he will be released, and all will return, not to normal, but to stasis. And my father will call me, and he will not sound so angry, and my aunt will call me, and she will not weep. But neither will they sound relieved. For Muhammad, for my father, for my aunt, for me, there can be no relief, only resignation. And all we can do to fight this resignation off, is to remember, and to speak, and to speak louder, and to not be afraid.
(Based on a true story that happened in another Middle Eastern country. Muhammad Ali is a name that I created to avoid violating the person’s privacy.)