Poet Dunya Mikhail on Kidnapped Iraqi Writer Afrah Shawqi and Elusive ‘Freedom of Expression’

The phrase “freedom of expression” is ever on the lips of Iraqi politicians post-2003, Iraqi journalist and author Afrah Shawqi wrote before she was kidnapped. But, acclaimed Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail asks, what sort of freedom of expression is this?

By Dunya Mikhail

afrah_shawkiEight days before being kidnapped, Afrah Shawqi published an essay titled “Freedom of Expression and Ali Baba’s Den.” In this essay, she said that “freedom of expression” was the phrase most frequently used by Iraqi politicians post-2003, “yet our lives, we journalists, are risked every time we criticize any head, even if it were the head of onion.”

“Freedom of expression was the key to Ali Baba’s den, where gold is found once we utter ‘open Sesame,'” Afrah wrote. “But wait a minute, in the absence of a state law, and in the hands of the armed groups and tribal heads, our freedom of expression is useless.”

In response to this and other essays, Ali Baba’s forty thieves (disguised as security forces) entered Afrah’s home in al-Saydiyya district in Baghdad at around 10 pm on Monday, December 26th, tied her son, looted her computer, and mobile phone and cash, and took her to the unknown. Afrah tried to resist them, but they hit her until she lost consciousness. Her husband was not home.

Iraqi journalists went out in the street and shouted “we are all Afrah Shawqi,” demanding her freedom.

This takes me back twenty years, to when I worked as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer. There was a message posted in the upper corner of all Iraqi newspapers saying “write with no fear nor hesitation, whether the government likes it or not.”

Of course, we all knew it was a joke or, more accurately, a trap. We knew where the red line was and, in order to stay alive, we had to avoid it or flee the country. After 2003, the new Iraqi government claimed democracy and erased the “red line” as it didn’t fit with their package of “freedom of expression.”

Ironically, the absence of the red line put more lives at risk, because people could not see it when they crossed it. It was still there, but only seen by politicians this time and not by ordinary citizens. A courageous journalist like Afrah didn’t see “the red line” when she crossed it. She just assumed it was there somewhere, and she pointed to its existence when she spoke about the civil and human-rights violations in her country.

My friend, the poet Talib Abdul Aziz, said, “The case of Afrah Shawqi is not new. Every hour, someone is kidnapped here. Da’esh kidnap people in Mosul, and armed groups (whom we know and don’t know) kidnap people in Baghdad and Basra. We’ve grown used to this in the post-dictatorship era. Security is our illusion. How can we feel secure, anyway, when we walk in the middle of all these weapons, both carried and hidden? The groups who are kidnapping us have at least one of these covers: a political party identity card or a militia gun or an affiliation to a tribal head. We are all kidnapped. You need to hurry and tell about us.”

One interesting phenomenon in Baghdad is that it has been more than a year, and people demonstrate in al-Tahrir Square every Friday, demanding reforms and the protection of human rights. The government didn’t respond “yet” to that “weekly practice” or “ritual.” “We just walk in peace and nothing happens, as if we were there just to see each other as usual,” a friend told me.

“Desperation is just like hope, it may make changes happen too,” said Dr. Faris Kamal Nadhmi, Iraqi author and psychologist. “The Iraqi authority doesn’t understand this, and therefore it ignores and underestimates the people’s demands. Desperation is people’s postponed hope.”

Dunya Mikhail is an acclaimed Iraqi poet. She worked as a translator and journalist for the Baghdad Observer before being forced to flee Iraq. Mikhail is the author of several collections of poetry, including the award-winning The War Works Hard (2005), translated by Elizabeth Winslow; Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, co-translated with Elizabeth Winslow, and Iraqi Nights, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

More on Afrah Shawqi’s case from Reporters Without Borders.