Two years after his sentencing, a group of United Nations human-rights experts reminded the world about Muhammad al-Ajami, serving 15 years in Qatar for writing and reciting a poem:
In a prepared statement issued October 20, UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights Farida Shaheed said that “the penalty imposed on Mr. al-Ajami is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression.”
Although discussion of Al-Ajami has been quieter since his 15-year sentence was confirmed, articles about Qatar continue to routinely insert al-Ajami’s case as a symbol of political and cultural repression in the Gulf state. However, these articles rarely flesh out his story, reporting on his his hunger strike or catching up with his family.
Despite the arrest of several foreign journalists and ongoing censorship of imported books and magazines, there have been few known detentions in Qatar similar to al-Ajami’s case, in which individuals charged for publishing material are deemed a threat by authorities.
Al-Ajami makes an unfortunate poster-child for free speech. The case apparently stems from a 2010 private get-together in Cairo, where a friend goaded al-Ajami into presenting a poem that was indirectly critical of Qatar’s ruling family.
The poetic exchange was videoed and later posted on YouTube — according to al-Ajami’s lawyer and supporters, without the poet’s knowledge. Qatari authorities arrested al-Ajami in November 2011, charging him with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.”
This is the second time the UN has raised al-Ajami’s case with Qatar. After the first letter, in December 2012, the Qatari government responded, saying the trial had been conducted in line with “international standards.” This time, however, there has been no public response.
Jasmine Revolution Poem:
Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s free translation of al-Ajami’s “Jasmine Revolution Poem,” which was read at an event in support of the poet in San Francisco:
Jasmine Revolution Poem
By Mohammad al-Ajami Ibn al-Dhib
Prime Minister, Mohamed al-Ghannouchi:
If we measured your might
it wouldn’t hold a candle
to a constitution.
We shed no tears for Ben Ali,
nor any for his reign.
It was nothing more than a moment
in time for us,
a system of oppression,
an era of autocracy.
Tunisia declared the people’s revolt:
When we lay blame
only the base and vile suffer from it;
and when we praise
we do so with all our hearts.
A revolution was kindled with the blood of the people:
their glory had worn away,
the glory of every living soul.
So, rebel, tell them,
tell them in a shrouded voice, a voice from the grave:
tell them that tragedies precede all victories.
A warning to the country whose ruler is ignorant,
whose ruler deems that power
comes from the American army.
A warning to the country
whose people starve
while the regime boasts of its prosperity.
A warning to the country whose citizens sleep:
one moment you have your rights,
the next they’re taken from you.
A warning to the system—inherited—of oppression.
How long have all of you been slaves
to one man’s selfish predilections?
How long will the people remain
ignorant of their own strength,
while a despot makes decrees and appointments,
the will of the people all but forgotten?
Why is it that a ruler’s decisions are carried out?
They’ll come back to haunt him
in a country willing
to rid itself of coercion.
Let him know, he
who pleases only himself, and does nothing
but vex his own people; let him know
someone else will be seated on that throne,
someone who knows the nation’s not his own,
nor the property of his children.
It belongs to the people, and its glories
are the glories of the people.
They gave their reply, and their voice was one,
and their fate, too, was one.
All of us are Tunisia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
This question that keeps you up at night—
its answer won’t be found
on any of the official channels…
Why, why do these regimes
import everything from the West—
everything but the rule of law, that is,
and everything but freedom?