The weather is bad as we stand outside Sherbrooke town hall. The rain is pouring down -- as it does so often in my new home, Canada, which is in every respect the opposite of my old one.
All my friends have come. It has been almost four years since my husband Raif Badawi was arrested in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Since then he has been in jail. One year ago, he was publicly whipped in front of a big mosque in the city.
"Freedom for Raif," my friend Jane shouts into her megaphone. The other people taking part in the demonstration repeat her call. They are a few dozen loyal companions who gather with me here, week after week. We hold up orange posters with huge black letters to make Raif's name. We express our demand: "Libérez Raif -- free Raif!"
Later, when we sit together in a Lebanese restaurant near the town hall, warming ourselves up, Jeff comes over to me. He's the guitarist with the Canadian band Your Favorite Enemies. Today he's joined us to support us in our struggle. He solemnly hands me a bundle of letters. "This is mail from our fans, Mrs. Haidar," he tells me. "They want to give you and Raif the courage to keep going."
"Merci -- thanks," I say to him and, touched, take the bundle from him. "Your solidarity is very important for us." By now, luckily, I can speak enough French to express myself in the language. That hasn't been the case for long: when we arrived in Quebec in autumn 2013 I had to sit behind a school desk like a little girl and learn how to communicate. My children Najwa, Dodi and Miriam could speak at least a little French after our previous stay in Lebanon. I spoke only Arabic.
It wasn't the only change that I found difficult. Since I was forced to flee from Saudi Arabia, pretty much everything in my life has changed. For the first time I had to learn how to take responsibility for myself and my family as a woman on her own. North American culture was completely alien to me. The food smelled and tasted different, the cold climate put a terrible strain on me and I didn't know anyone in this country, whose social rules were so unfamiliar to me.
I don't mean that the people I met in Canada were in any way unpleasant or unfriendly. On the contrary: they welcomed me with open arms, and from the very first I liked their casual, open manners. But it was alien to me nonetheless.
I have experienced boundless support in the country that granted us asylum. Asylum from the state where I was brought up and formed, where many of the people I love still live. Asylum from the country that threatens my husband with death. And I can't say how grateful I am for that: side by side with people from all over the world, I can devote myself effectively here to the liberation of my husband.
Najwa, Dodi and Miriam acclimatized much more quickly than I did, as children do. As for me, shortly after we arrived abroad I threatened to slip into depression in the face of the cruelty and hopelessness of Raif's situation.
But while I was in danger of giving up, I began to understand what a waste that would be. A waste of freedom, strength and opportunities to develop. A waste of everything that Raif has stood for. A waste of the love that I am allowed to experience with him.
My name, Ensaf, has a wide range of meanings in Arabic, from "justice" to "patience." In my current struggle on Raif's behalf I often have the feeling that I urgently need all of these different facets. It's all in a name, as they say.
Once -- compared to now -- I was spoiled. I had nothing to worry about, but I had no responsibilities either. Today a great weight rests on my shoulders. But my task has made me grow as a person. And I have noticed how strong I can be when I want to achieve something. I can express my thoughts and speak in public. Back when I lived with my parents and was sheltered from everything and everyone in the world I would never have thought any of that possible.
To that extent I have personally profited from my commitment to freeing Raif: he has made me strong. Stronger than I could ever have dreamed as a traditionally brought up Saudi woman. That's a good experience.
I thank Jeff for the letters and try on the silk scarf that he hands me as a gift. In my former life I might have worn it as a headscarf; today I prefer to wear it around my neck. "I'm very grateful to you for your support of Raif and freedom of expression," I assure him.
"But it's our duty, Mrs. Haidar," he says with a smile, "And please say hi to Raif from us next time you talk to him."
I don't know how our fight will go. Spellbound, I watch the news from home, the effect of which is like an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes it gives me hope, then I despair again. Will I, and our many supporters all over the world, manage to save my beloved husband? Or will my children and I have to watch the police in Jeddah beating him to death one day?
Only one thing is certain: my children and I will fight for him to our last breath.
The Hour of Truth
What are lashes, Mum?" Dodi asked me innocently one day. He used the Arabic expression gelt. It gave me a terrible start when he ambushed me like that.
"Where did you pick that word up?" I asked him, as I busied myself in the kitchen with a baking dish. I was just making dinner. But I had missed the right moment to take my work out of the oven. The cheese already smelled burned. "From the Internet," said Dodi. "So what does the word
"Don't bother me with questions like that," I stalled. "Can't you see that I'm busy?"
"You don't want to tell me!"
"If you're spending all your time on the Internet, I'll take your tablet away," I threatened. "Go and get your sisters and tell them to help you lay the table. Am I the maid or something?"
That worked, and Dodi sloped away. A short time later he came back in with Najwa in his wake and began politely setting the table for dinner. But I knew very well that he and she had nothing more important to do in their room than scour the Internet for information about our family secret. They were on Raif's trail, and mine.
My own media campaign would give me away sooner or later: the more successfully I informed people in Canada about Raif's fate, the harder it was becoming to hide the whole thing from the children. They sensed very clearly that something wasn't quite right about their permanently absent father -- and that applied equally to the voluble explanations I gave for his absence.
A long time ago they had started firing unpleasant questions at me. Dodi, particularly, kept putting me to the test. "If Dad is allowed to move to Canada, why doesn't he at least come and visit us?" he asked only a few months after our move to Sherbrooke.
From the way he said it I could tell that he must have found his grandfather's videos on the Internet. "There are a lot of nutcases on the Net," I told him. "Don't believe everything you see there!"
All three children had also seen the CNN interview I gave when we were still living in Lebanon. In it I had expressed my worst fears, and pleaded with the Saudi king to show mercy to Raif. At the time it hadn't occurred to me that they might be able to find my appeal two years later on YouTube. I cursed the editor who had insisted on filming the children as well. As a result they knew what to look for.
During the time that we had been parted from Raif, there had been many such moments of suspicion about my version of the story. And eventually, when suspicion got the upper hand, the children became really cantankerous: they were unbearable at home.
Dodi was particularly aggressive. He argued constantly with his sisters. His teacher even told me that he had recently started having problems with his fellow pupils. I was at my wits' end, so I asked a social worker what to do.
"Tell them the truth," she advised me -- just as Mireille had done before. But I couldn't: Raif had explicitly asked me not to tell the children. It was incredibly important for him. Now that he was in jail and having to endure that terrible punishment, how could I not fulfil his deepest wish?
So I continued playing my game of hide-and-seek with them. But at the same time I tried to keep the campaign running and make an increasingly wide public aware of Raif's story. It was a curious balancing act. It almost consumed me from within. I brooded for nights on end about how I could protect the children against all the media reports I was provoking with my activities. My nightmare was that they would spot their father on the front page of some newspaper or other. In the autumn, when the sentence of a thousand lashes for Raif was confirmed by another court, a friend of mine had an idea. Jane Hospes is one of the teachers at the institute where I take French lessons, and she had heard about my story when the teachers' union asked me for a talk. She was so impressed with my account that she gave me her private number afterward and offered to support me in any way she could if I needed help. Jane had heard that demonstrations for Raif's release had recently taken place in Scandinavia. "If they can get something going, then so can we," she said.
"Don't you think, Ensaf?"
"Really?" I had doubts about whether there were really enough people in Sherbrooke who would take to the street for Raif. It had got painfully cold again in the meantime.
"Of course. I'll organize that for you," she offered. "You don't need to worry about it. But you've got to come."
I gratefully accepted the offer. Jane, who is almost twenty years older than me but a real bundle of energy, took care of all the things you need for a demonstration: posters, a megaphone, and a drum that makes a really loud noise, as well as thick gloves and caps. And of course the authorities had to be informed. What Jane had in mind was more a vigil than a demonstration: it was to take place in front of the mayor's office every week at Friday, at exactly twelve o'clock, the time when Raif would be flogged -- if the people in Jeddah really did decide to flog him.
We started in December. In the middle of that winter's iciest weather a handful of us went and stood in front of the town hall. Jane had, as I said, had big posters printed. On each of them was a huge letter, eighteen in all. Each participant was to hold a letter aloft. With the letters we formed the demand Libérez Raif Badawi! -- Free Raif Badawi! -- and had our photographs taken by the local press.
Jane held up her megaphone and shouted: "Libérez Raif Badawi!" The demonstrators repeated her slogan. One of the activists drummed. Then Jane yelled, just in case the Arabic press was there too: "Al hurria li Raif!" The same demand in Arabic. The demonstrators repeated that too. It was an impressive performance. For the local press, who didn't often have anything exciting to report, it was probably the best story in years. Mireille also produced her own press release, of course.
Then she took me aside: "Many congratulations, Ensaf. Tomorrow you'll be the lead story," she said. My heart stopped for a minute. I absolutely had to hide the paper from my children, I thought. But it was also clear to me that the action in Sherbrooke would soon be the talk of the town. After all, from now on we planned to demonstrate every Friday.
So my social worker begged me to tell the children at last. When I still wouldn't take her advice, next time she visited she brought a psychologist with her.
"What's the best thing for the children?" I asked the man.
He was an expert, so I was open to his advice.
"Your children need honest answers to their questions," he said. "If you go on lying to them, the situation at home and their relationship with you will only get worse. Tell them their father is a brave man." He thought for a moment. "A man like Nelson Mandela. Perhaps you could watch the film about Mandela with them. And then tell them that their father is in a similar situation as Mandela was then."
That sounded good. I promised him that I would mull over the matter. I would have liked to discuss the issue with Raif. But I couldn't, since he was strictly against it. So I talked about it to Fadila, who also advised me to take that step. Together we kept an eye out for the Mandela film. But as we couldn't find it anywhere in Sherbrooke, I finally summoned up the courage even without it.
I called all three children into the sitting room and told them I wanted to talk to them. "I need to tell you something important," I began. "But you must promise me that you will be strong."
They immediately noticed that I was serious, and nodded. "I told you that your dad finds it hard to travel because of his network."
"Yes, because he has so much work to do," said Miriam politely.
"Exactly. Your father is a very strong man. He has used his network to fight for people in Saudi Arabia to be able to express their opinions freely." I cleared my throat. "And we came to Canada because we wanted to be free as well. Away from the constricting thoughts that prevail in our country." I broke off. What was I actually telling them? I tried to put my thoughts more simply so that they could understand them. "Well, so your father has always fought for freedom. And the government didn't like that. So they put him in jail."
They looked at me with big, shocked eyes. At that moment I felt terribly guilty about putting them through this. I didn't know what tormented me more, having lied to them for years, or now confronting them with the terrible truth.
They all reacted in completely different ways. Dodi was the first to find his voice again. "You see, I always knew," he said. "I saw Abu Raif's videos on YouTube. But you told us what he said wasn't true. You lied to me!" He was furious.
"But Dodi, what he says isn't true either," I defended myself. "Abu Raif says bad things about your father. But he hasn't done anything wrong. He only wrote his opinion on the Internet."
"You still lied," he insisted. "I've often told you that!" Najwa didn't say anything. She just turned quite pale.
And I could see from her face that she was terribly shocked and disappointed. She didn't ask me any questions. That was almost harder to bear than Dodi's attack of rage.
Little Miriam's reaction was perhaps the most natural: she started sobbing. I gave her a hug and told her she had to be a brave girl to help her father. She had a thousand questions. "What's it like in the jail where Dad is now?" she wanted to know. "What are they doing to him? Are they hurting him?"
"No, they're not hurting him," I lied and took my glasses, wet with tears, off my nose. "He's just sitting there and waiting until he can go again."
"But then we've got to help him. We have to go there and get him out!" she suggested.
Dodi shook his head. "They've got warders, dummy," he said, amused at his little sister's ignorance. "Do you think he'd stay there of his own accord if they didn't? We'd have to outwit them, at least." The two of them wondered how they could organize it.
"You know, I'm trying to help your dad all the time too," I said, and told them about the information events and my efforts to mobilize publicity. They thought that was good.
"Next time we'll come and demonstrate as well," said Dodi. "We want to be there too."
Najwa fell ill that evening. She complained of stomach pains, and had to spend a few days in bed. Even today she won't talk about the subject. Her two younger siblings, on the other hand, swung into action. Dodi asked me to tell him the exact details of the building in which his father was being held. He and Miriam developed a plan to free their father, in which her task was to distract the guards while he forced his way into his father's cell.
The two of them also shot propaganda videos on the tablet-- very much in their grandfather's style: they put the camera on their table in the playroom and sat on two chairs in front of it. They pretended it was their "office," and started to deliver an address to the camera. "Ladies and gentlemen," said Dodi. "Our father hasn't done anything bad. He is a very brave man. He has devoted himself to making people free. That's why he's in jail. Please help us to get him out."
"Dear King," Miriam went on, "have mercy on our father and pardon him. That would really be a good deed for you to do." They were almost the same words she had heard me say in the CNN interview.
"And if you don't, I'll be very angry with you," Dodi added. "You just have to do it, because we miss him very much."
I clapped when they showed me the video. "Yes, fight for your father," I encouraged them. Because that was exactly what I wanted my children to be like: combative and brave. I tried not to show them any weakness, so that it wouldn't occur to them that sadness was an option.
It was only when they prepared to upload the video to the Internet that I had to stop them. Dodi's remarks about the king were too dangerous. "We'll ask Luke the cameraman to make a professional video with you-- and then we'll use that in the campaign," I suggested. "What do you think of that?"
They were very excited. "Yes, I'm ready. Tell him to come soon so that we can get to work," Dodi urged me.
A great burden fell from my shoulders when I saw them reacting so positively: at last I could stop lying to them. In fact I could even involve them in the campaign. It was an incredible relief.
Now I just had to tell Raif, as gently as possible. I waited rather nervously until he was allowed to call us again. Luckily the children were at school. Then I admitted it to him: "I couldn't keep it secret any longer. They would have found out anyway," I said.
Raif was very annoyed, as I had expected. "That wasn't right. Why did you do it?" he asked me in exasperation.
"They would have found out eventually."
"You should have asked me first." "We talked about it so often."
"Exactly. You knew I didn't want you to do it, and you did it anyway. What are they going to think of me now?" I think he felt very helpless because he couldn't control the situation himself. What his children thought of him was so important to him -- and now that they knew he was in jail he thought they would have a bad opinion of him. "They'll think their father is a criminal. Do you think that'll do them any good?"
"They think the opposite, Raif. They think their father is a hero."
He couldn't hear me.
"And there was no option. Were they supposed to find out from the newspaper or something?"
He grumbled. And I understood that I would have to reassure him in some other way.
"Your children are on your side," I said. "They're proud of you and they're standing by you. Dodi and Miriam have even sat down and made a propaganda video calling for your release."
"Did you tell them to do that?"
"I didn't say a word. It was their initiative. They really want to help you!" I told him that Dodi had arranged a shoot with Luke the following day. "He's spent all day writing a letter to you, and he wants to read it out."
"Would you like to hear it?"
Raif couldn't say no to that. I went to the table and fetched the sheet of paper that Dodi had covered with little penciled letters -- and had already reworked several times.
"Dad, I would never have thought I would have to be without you," I began reading to Raif. "I would never have thought that you wouldn't be able to wake me up in the morning as usual to go to school. You're so far away from me, locked up in jail, because you have fought for all people to be able to say what they think. That's as far as he's got."
"Dodi wrote that?" Raif asked. He was clearly touched. "As true as I'm sitting here and reading it out to you." Raif didn't believe it until he'd asked the children themselves about it. "Did Mum tell you to make videos for me?" he asked Dodi, the next time they talked to each other on the phone.
"No. Miriam and I did that all on our own," said Dodi. "And we've come up with a plan to get you out-- don't worry, Dad."
In the end Raif was reassured.
After these important things were finally out in the open, the situation at home relaxed. My children started behaving more affably, and we had a pleasant Christmas, our second in Canada. I baked cinnamon biscuits with them and made paper stars to decorate the house with, the tradition in our new home.
The New Year began with an act of violence. In Paris on January 7, 2015, two masked men stormed the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and shot eleven journalists. The reason: in their caricatures they had supposedly insulted the Prophet Mohammed. That was what the Islamists who carried out the bloody attack claimed. I was very familiar with that accusation from Saudi Arabia. Raif too had been accused of defaming religion in his blogs. But now the people who represented this radical set of ideas were rampaging even in Europe. The madness was spreading.
So I was very relieved to hear the next day that so many people had spontaneously taken to the streets in the evening to demonstrate against the massacre. Yes, I thought: quite right. Europeans must defend the freedom of the press. Otherwise journalists there will soon find themselves leading as fearful a life as journalists in my homeland.
A little later I called Raif. I will never forget that call as long as I live. It was on Thursday, January 8. "Have you heard about the attack in Paris?" I asked him.
"No." Raif clearly had something else on his mind. "Ensaf, I need to tell you something. Will you promise me that you'll be brave -- and not tell the children?"
"Yes, of course." I sat down on a kitchen chair. I nervously fumbled a cigarette from the pack in front of me. What in heaven's name was coming now?
"Promise?" he asked. "Yes. I promise."
"Tomorrow they're going to start enforcing my sentence.
One of the warders told me."
It took me a moment to understand what he was telling me. "You mean. . . ?"
"Yes, Ensaf. The first fifty lashes. I'll get them in front of the big mosque in Jeddah."
I didn't know what to say. Over the past few weeks I had completely repressed the idea that Raif was actually going to be whipped in addition to his prison sentence. I simply couldn't imagine the authorities going ahead with it. "That's impossible," I struggled to say.
"I'm afraid so, Ensaf," said Raif. "Promise me you'll stay strong?"
"Hm." What was I supposed to say? What do you say when the person you love tells you that he's going to be abused in the most horrible way?
"Don't worry. I'm tough," he said, apparently quite cheerful. "I can take pretty much anything. I'll call you as soon as I can. OK?"
"OK," I replied.
I can't describe how I felt after that conversation. I immediately called Mireille to tell her what I had found out. She was horrified too. "I'm so sorry, Ensaf," she said. "I wouldn't have believed that those bastards were serious."
I was crying all the time, unable to speak.
"Calm yourself, Ensaf," Mireille said helplessly. She couldn't bear it. "I know it's small consolation, but I promise you that the world will learn of this injustice," she said, and told me to post the news immediately on my Facebook account and on Twitter. She herself would use the channels of Amnesty International. "We have to shake people up," she said. "We can't have ten thousand people in Europe demonstrating for freedom of the press while at the same time a blogger in Saudi Arabia is being beaten to death."
Mireille sent our mutual friend Sylvie over so that I wouldn't be alone. She's older than me, and a kind of substitute grandmother for the children. So they were very happy when she came to visit us and even stayed overnight.
But I didn't sleep that night. I calculated the time difference between Canada and Saudi Arabia -- and tried to determine the moment when that terrible day for Raif would begin. When would the prison warders wake him? When would they lead him in front of the mosque in handcuffs? Had they already started?
In the morning, before the children woke up, I confiscated all the computers, tablets and telephones in the apartment, and unplugged the television. I told the children that we were going to have a few media-free days, because they were watching too much television and spending too much time on the Internet. They sulked a little but accepted it. But when I told them they weren't to go to school that day, but spend the day with Sylvie, Jane and Jane's dogs, they were very excited. "Oh, great!" said Dodi, who is very fond of the creatures.
"Are you sure you don't want to come too?" Sylvie asked me, concerned.
I nodded. "I really can't, Sylvie." "I can imagine that."
As soon as she had set off with them, I checked my Facebook page. It was full of declarations of solidarity with Raif and me: our friends were shocked at what was due to happen today. Lots of people had shared my message and passed it on. "It's a scandal," they wrote. Or "Stop this inhuman regime." Many also drew parallels with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices: "Both are acts of violence aimed at gagging journalists." And there were many other comments of that kind.
Then I turned on the television and waited for the lunch-time news. Mireille had done a great job: my husband was the second item, immediately after the events in France. I was disconcerted to see his familiar picture behind the faceof a blonde newsreader. I can't even remember exactly what she said. But from her words I could tell that she didn't have much detailed information from Riyadh. It felt terrible, hearing her talk about Raif as if he was a random foreign news event. The whole day was one big nightmare.
I called Mireille. "Have they done it?" I asked her.
"Yes," said Mireille. "In public, in front of a big crowd of people. So we have witnesses. Soon it will be all over the Net." "I just want to know how he is," I wept. But of course Mireille couldn't tell me.
"There's also supposed to be a video," she warned me. "Someone filmed Raif's lashes on their phone."
"Have you seen it?"
"Yes," she admitted. For Mireille the video that one of the onlookers had shot in the square in front of the mosque was a valuable document. But she advised me -- as a friend-- not to watch it. And I found the idea repellent anyway. No, I wouldn't inflict that on myself.
But after our conversation I found myself involuntarily searching the web. It wasn't hard to find. By now some of my Facebook friends were referring to it. It also appeared immediately on YouTube when you searched for "Raif Badawi" and "lashes."
It was as if I was being operated by remote control. With trembling hands I clicked on the video to set it in motion. I saw Raif's delicate frame from behind, in the middle of a big crowd of people. He was wearing a white shirt and dark trousers, and his hair hung down to his shoulders. He looked thin. His hands were cuffed in front of his body. I couldn't see his face. The men around him were wearing the usual white gowns, and shouting "Allahu Akbar." The innermost circle around him was formed of khaki-clad security men wearing police caps and carrying truncheons. One of them held him firmly in place.
Then the picture wobbled. Perhaps the person making the video had been jostled by a passer-by. Perhaps he had had to hide his phone from the police in the square for a moment, because of course what he was doing was illegal.
The next shot showed the punishment: again we saw Raif's back, quivering under the impact of the blows delivered by one of the security men. The man himself could not be made out in the video. But I saw clearly that he was striking Raif with all his might. Raif's head was bowed. In very quick succession he took the blows all over the back of his body: he was lashed from shoulders to calves, while the men around him clapped and uttered pious phrases.
It was too much for me. It's indescribable, watching something like that being done to the person you love. I felt the pain they were inflicting on Raif as if it was my own. The men I had seen in the video might as well have put me in a square and flogged me. But worst of all was the feeling of helplessness. I sat on my sofa, wrapped my arms around my legs and wept.
I don't know how long I sat there for. The phone rang several times, but I didn't answer. How was Raif now, I wondered. How severe were the wounds that he had suffered from this brutal abuse? Had they broken his bones? The violence of the blows almost made me suspect as much. Did he get medical treatment for his wounds? If only I could have done something for him!
Eventually the doorbell rang. Fadila was standing at the door. She looked into my tear-stained face and I didn't need to explain anything to her. She took me in her arms without a word. "Why are you sitting around on your own?" she scolded. "Sylvie and the others are getting worried because you don't answer the phone."
"Come on, I'll make us some tea," she said and went into my kitchen to put the kettle on. She made tea with lots of sugar and cinnamon. Luckily the children were still out. Jane had taken them to a pizza restaurant.
"If I only knew how he was," I said to Fadila.
"I'm sure he'll call as soon as he can," she said, trying to reassure me.
In the course of the day and the evening more and more friends came to see me. All the people who had supported me in Sherbrooke wanted to be with me and show me that I wasn't alone. And yet I felt lonely in their midst. No one could comfort me.
Sylvie stayed with me for the second night, and was with me all weekend. I was very glad to have her there. Not least because of the children. They sensed quite clearly that I was feeling bad.
"What's wrong, why are you so sad?" they asked me several times.
"She's just tired," Sylvie explained. "She's got a cold."
On Sunday morning we called Mireille, the only one of my close friends who couldn't come to see me because she had been working nonstop for Amnesty and our campaign since the announcement of the flogging. To be able to talk to her undisturbed, I took my phone out to our snow-covered terrace. With my free hand I tried to light a cigarette. I almost froze my fingers off.
"Ensaf, there's huge global interest in the story," Mireille told me. I already knew that from my own research on the Internet: all the big newspapers, television channels and news outlets had picked up Raif's story. On Facebook people were talking like mad about the injustice that had been done to him and to other journalists in Saudi Arabia. And against the background of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the huge mass demonstration that was being held in Paris that weekend, the subject developed a dynamic of its own: that representatives of the Saudi royal family were demonstrating side by side with François Hollande and Angela Merkel, while at the same time having a blogger whipped in their own country, was making people angry. "I'm getting a lot of questions from the editors. They all want to talk to you. Do you think you can do that?"
Given my condition I wasn't entirely sure. Appearing with Mireille in schools and universities and talking about Raif's situation had been one thing. But speaking out in public about his flogging was quite another. I was concerned that I was no longer emotionally capable of answering the questions that I was now being asked.
"Have a think," she said. "It would be very good for the campaign. That way we'll make Raif even more famous-- and we might even be able to prevent them from going on whipping him next Friday."
Mireille didn't need to say anything more. "Of course," I replied. "At any rate, we've got to ensure that it doesn't happen again!" However I did ask her not to send the journalists until the children were back at school on Monday. "It's not meant for their ears."
"Ensaf, I don't know if we can go on hiding it from them. As I've told you, it's absolutely everywhere in the media. Perhaps you should gently make them familiar with it."
"Gently?" I asked shrilly. How, forgive me, do you tell your children "gently" that their father has been beaten in the cruelest way in a public square? I couldn't even tell them how Raif was, because I hadn't heard from him since then.
"Our decision on the subject -- mine and Raif's -- is quite firm," I told her.
"Just think about it," said Mireille.
In fact I managed to keep the children away from the Internet, from television and from the newspaper kiosks in Sherbrooke all weekend. On Sunday evening, however, the subject was still in the headlines, and I wondered whether I would even be able to send the children to school the next day. I woke them up at half past seven on the dot, as always. But as we were sitting together in the kitchen over cornflakes and maple syrup my phone rang.
"Ms. Haidar," asked a woman's voice. "Can you talk?" It was the principal of the school.
"Yes, of course." I dashed outside with the phone.
"I'm very sorry about what has happened to your husband," she began. "It's really terrible."
"Thank you for saying that."
"Dodi's class teacher is on the way to your house."
I was completely taken aback. "She's coming to see us?" "Yes. All the children and teachers already know about what's happened. That's why I would ask you to come to school and see me on your own this morning so that we can discuss where we go from here."
"Fine," I said numbly. "See you soon."
A short time later there was a ring at the door and Dodi's class teacher, a nice young woman called Katja, came to visit us. Dodi, who was very fond of his teacher, was very pleased about this surprise. "Your mother still has some things to discuss with the principal. So I'll stay with you," she explained to the children. "What shall we do?"
Meanwhile I hurried to school. Even in the playground I noticed the other children looking at me and whispering. They knew very well who I was. They had all heard about the weekend's terrible events and seen the television reports. If this gang bothered me so much, how were my children going to fare? I didn't dare risk finding out. I wouldn't be able to send them to school for weeks. But what explanation could I give?
The principal had already assembled a council of teachers, a social worker and the school psychologist. "Thanks for coming," she said to me. "It's important that we think together about how to ensure that your children don't suffer any harm from this. You've already seen what's going on in the playground." I nodded. "That's why I would suggest that you leave your children at home today."
"Yes, that's better," I said, relieved.
"I suggest we organize things as follows," the principal went on. "The teachers and I, along with the psychologist, will talk to the pupils. We will ask them not to talk to your children explicitly about the subject when they come back. We'll say: We'd like you to meet them quite normally. Don't be either particularly curious or overly kind or even sympathetic."
"That's a good idea."
"And you must also use today to talk to your children." She scrutinized me for a moment.
"You've got to tell them what's happened."
"But I can't do that!"
"They'll find out anyway," she argued. "Children talk to each other. You can't stop them doing that."
"It's better if they find out from you," Robert the social worker tried to convince me. He offered to come home with me and jump in when I couldn't cope any more. "I'll help you find the right words."
I nodded mutely. I could see that there was simply no other way.
As we stomped back through the snow to my house, I kept thinking about Raif. My poor Raif, who lay somewhere in Jeddah, seriously abused, waiting for his wounds to heal. I still hadn't been able to talk to him; I assumed that his injuries were too severe for him to be able to call me. And while he was enduring all that, I had to inflict yet another wound: I had to break the promise I had given him yet again. I felt terrible. Like a traitor. But I had no choice.
Once I got home, I called the children together in the sitting room again. They already guessed that my serious face didn't bode well. "I need to tell you something," I said, and tried to find the right words. "Something bad happened this weekend."
"Is it about Dad again?" Dodi asked suspiciously. "Is that why we aren't allowed on the Internet?"
"How is he?" Najwa -- already surprised that her father hadn't phoned at the weekend as he usually did-- asked anxiously.
"He's fine," I lied. "Everything's great, but. . . The prison warders are very bad people. They, they . . ." I couldn't go on because with every word I wanted to say I immediately felt the tears welling up. And I didn't want to burst out crying in front of them. Robert leapt in and picked up the thread of the conversation for me.
"They've beaten your father," he told the children. They stared at him. "They have hurt him very badly. But now he's better again."
My children reacted very strangely to this new revelation. They didn't react at all. They stayed quite still and didn't ask any questions. Robert and Katja did their best to explain what had happened. But the children behaved as if they hadn't heard their words at all.
"We need to give them time to process all this," said Robert. The children took that time: they fell ill. All three complained of stomach pains and nausea. They didn't go to school for several days. But they remained persistently silent, even among themselves. Even today, no one in our house has ever talked about the subject again.
For almost a week we heard nothing more about Raif. During that week I gave interviews almost without interruption. The first were Skype interviews with Norway and Sweden, then German, French and South African journalists declared their interest. And of course all the Canadian radio and television channels. Mireille tried to coordinate the dates for me. I lost count of all the people she was guiding through our house. But there were journalists there all the time. Al-Jazeera sent a camera crew from Toronto. The BBC, the Lebanese broadcaster LBC and Deutsche Welle were also ready for action.
I willingly gave everyone information, and also let them film my flat -- and the children. I considered it my duty to tell them everything they wanted to know. Because that was my most important goal: to create as much publicity as possible -- and in this way perhaps to stop my husband being whipped to death over the coming weeks. Even today I am grateful to all those who came, because they took an interest in our fate.
Then all of a sudden, after almost a week, we received the call we were so desperate for. If I'm not mistaken it was a Thursday again when Raif was allowed to call us. His voice was weak, but he was trying to make it sound firm. "All OK where you are? How are you and the children?" he asked. I immediately started to cry.
"But Ensaf," he said soothingly. "You're not going to weep in front of the children?"
"How are you?" I sniffed. "Are you in great pain?" "It's all fine. The wounds heal slowly."
"Are you receiving medical treatment?"
"Yes, a doctor examined me. He gave me a note saying that I'm not yet fit enough to be whipped again."
"Thank God," I said. Even if it didn't tell me anything good about Raif's physical state, at the same time it was positive news: at least this week they wouldn't be torturing him anymore. He couldn't tell me how things would go after that. "Raif," I said, "the whole world is talking about your fate." I took a deep breath. "The children know about it too." Again the tears came. "There was nothing I could do about it. Believe me, I would rather have spared them all that too." This time Raif's reaction was very understanding. He didn't level any accusations at me. "You're doing what you
can. It's all my fault," he said. "How are they?" "They're strong," I lied, "and full of fight." "That's good," he said.
"Did you expect anything else? They're your children after all."
"You're right," he said.
My children and I are grateful for every day when they don't whip Raif again. After the first fifty lashes -- and the international public outcry that followed -- the men with the whips in Riyadh did not at first dare to repeat the punishment. Since then our little flat in Sherbrooke has turned into a campaign office for Raif's liberation. It's here that we receive journalists and stay in contact with activists all over the world who are standing by us. Raif's face smiles from the banner over our sofa, while we get together to make posters for the next demonstration.
The children eagerly join in. They have become a constant part of my campaign. Of course at first I asked the journalists to take their feelings into account: Najwa, Miriam and Dodi don't like being asked to look sadly at the camera. What they have to bear is sad enough already. But they're always happy to deliver an intense -- and noisy -- plea for their father's release. My children don't like being put in the role of victim, and prefer to be feisty. Their father and I like them much better that way.
The international support that we have received since the first public whipping is enormous. Everywhere in the world Raif receives awards for his uncompromising advocacy of freedom of expression and opinion. In December 2015 the European Parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, an award that Nelson Mandela won before him. The authors' association PEN honored my husband with its Pinter Prize. At the Geneva Summit for Human Rights he won the Courage Award. The German national broadcaster Deutsche Welle gave him the Freedom of Speech Award. The first Raif Badawi Award for Courageous Journalists was bestowed at the German National Media Ball; it went to the Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla. And what makes me particularly proud is that Raif has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. These awards give him a lot of strength while he's in jail. He's told me that often. However humiliating the conditions of his imprisonment, however inhumane the physical abuse that he has to endure: these accolades show Raif that his commitment has not been in vain. That his fight for freedom of the press and freedom of opinion has been noticed by the world, and that it is bearing fruit. That knowledge alone makes martyrdom more bearable for him.
Sometimes it's just small signs. A postcard from an Amnesty group in Munich asking me to persevere. Or the barmen in Sherbrooke who have named their drinks after Raif. The legendary Irish rock band U2 devoting a concert to Raif. And the woman in the supermarket who whispers to me at the chilled food counter, "I'm on your side, Mrs. Badawi. Please say hello to your husband!"
Politicians from all over the world have also shown solidarity with Raif. Shortly after the first fifty lashes had been delivered, I was invited to Ottawa to address the Parliament. The MPs' sympathy with our fate was truly overwhelming. Afterward many Canadian politicians came to see me and promised me their support.
Exactly the same thing happened to me in Europe, where I went a few months later. Whether in Oslo, Berlin, Brussels or Paris, politicians everywhere have been on my side and Raif's. There is hardly a high-ranking visitor to Riyadh today who doesn't inquire about my husband's fate -- even if it regularly causes diplomatic displeasure. One of the first was Prince Charles, who asked about Raif in a private discussion with King Salman. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, protested against the treatment of my husband on a visit to the kingdom in the autumn of 2015, while the Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström announced: "In my opinion it is a medieval punishment." Even American President Barack Obama has been asked by his congressmen to take a public position on the case.
The free world has been raining rebukes and appeals down on Riyadh. Raif has become a kind of matter of state. It makes continuing the punishment rather awkward, because of course Saudi Arabia doesn't want to become an international bogeyman where human rights are concerned. On the other hand the country fears its mutinous youth-- and wants to send out a signal that it will be harsh in its treatment of bloggers and dissidents. What the outcome of this internal wrangling might be is impossible to predict.
Even the USA and the European Union recently appealed to the government of the kingdom at least to release Raif from the physical part of his punishment. But Saudi Arabia is thin-skinned in its reaction to such appeals. It resists "interference." Raif, according to a declaration from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is a "Saudi citizen, who was accused by an independent national and fair court, which permits no intervention in its decisions." When I read something like that I don't know whether to laugh or cry!
Even though international attention is currently focused on Raif, we must never forget that he stands for all the other political prisoners in jail under the harshest conditions in Saudi Arabia, because they have stood up in one way or another for human rights and freedom of opinion. I've already mentioned Walid. While Andrea and I were finalizing the book proofs in January 2016 we received bad news: Samar, Raif's sister and Walid's wife, had been arrested. She has been sent to the same prison as her brother and husband. Their fate, like that of thousands of others, is completely uncertain. Of course I wish for nothing in the world so much as that Raif will come home to us. Home to us in Canada. But in fact Raif has always been working to change something about the political system in our homeland. That's how he ended up in jail-- and with him lots of other brave men and women from Saudi Arabia.
We were devastated by the news which arrived early in June 2015, that our country's supreme court had confirmed the sentence against Raif in all its barbaric harshness. That was the last authority that could have corrected the injustice through legal channels. Now only our new king himself can pardon Raif. All my hope rests on the possibility that King Salman might in the end be magnanimous enough to do so. Here in Sherbrooke, however, we firmly expect that Raif will come and join us. When Najwa, Dodi, Miriam and I recently moved house, we asked Raif very precisely how we should decorate the new flat, and what color we should paint
the walls so that he would feel at home there.
Sometimes the children and I imagine the day when we collect Raif from Montreal airport and bring him home. Dodi has confided to me that he will then-- like in the movies-- run toward his father in slow motion and float into his arms.
I imagine us driving in an open-topped car along the streets of Sherbrooke. Probably I myself would like to be at the wheel, because I'm taking driving lessons and will soon be taking my test. Raif will be very surprised by then. Perhaps it will be a Friday, the day when we normally hold our vigil for Raif in front of the town hall. But on that day we will hold a big buffet in front of the building -- and all of my friends will meet Raif at last.
Otherwise, after such a long separation there will of course be a new wedding feast. That's obvious. I didn't particularly like the one we had in Saudi Arabia. This time I will only invite the people who have supported us. Our real family. Not the tiresome relatives who made our lives difficult in Jizan and Jeddah. And at last I will wear the golden dress that I wanted at my first wedding. It's going to be beautiful.
Excerpted from Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story, by Ensaf Haidar & Andrea C. Hoffmann, published by Other Press on 17 May 2016. Copyright © Ensaf Haidar, Andrea C. Hoffmann. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.