When you are born into a freedom, it is easier to take it for granted. The past week has reminded me that my ability to write is not a freedom that everyone enjoys. The terrorist attacks in Paris were a call to arms, or rather pens, to many in the writing community.
The ability to convey emotion, to rally people, to create a community with a stroke of the pen, with a collection of words, is a powerful thing. And that power is scary to some. As a writer, I know that a good book can aspire, motivate, and create stirrings within the soul that last a lifetime. Great books, well, they can change lives.
There are different books that have spoken to me over the years, books that have taken root in my soul. My family teases me that I can relate anything to Outlander. Diana Gabaldon should be proud, because my family is quite right. And the reading of the books has changed me. It reawakened in me my love of all things herbal, it made me want to start learning the Gàidhlig, it made me want to be a better Catholic, and to delve deeper into history and heritage.
So, strange as it may sound, when I first heard of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi I realized that apparently the books had also provided a tiny glimpse into the horror of the punishment which has been (and will continue to be) inflicted on him. Raif Badawi is one of the co-founders of the Free Saudi Liberals website (which has since been shut down). In 2012 Badawi was arrested and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a decade in prison. His crime? Insulting Islam on his online forum.
After Friday prayers, Badawi was the Al-Juffali mosque in Jiddah (which has been dubbed ‘Chop Chop Square’ due to its use as the site of executions). The first fifty lashes was carried out Friday, and he will receive another fifty lashes each week for the next twenty weeks.
Because I had no other mental point of reference, nothing else with which to provide a visual framework for the horrors which this man must endure, my mind went to the only point of context available. James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Readers of the book will know perfectly well which scene was called to mind. I didn’t need to remind them.
The idea of this punishment being inflicted, week in and week out, fresh injury on top of unhealed wounds, was unimaginable. Or rather, it might have been.
I cried when I read the scene in Outlander where Dougal MacKenzie describes in graphic detail what happened to Jamie at the hands of Black Jack Randall. I cried even more when I saw Sam Heughan’s agonizing portrayal. Without this, I would have had no point of reference for the horror facing Badawi. My mind simply would not know how to frame it. Of course, as Dougal points out, “Imagination is all verra well, but it isn’t equal to the sight of a man having his back laid open. A verra nasty thing–it’s meant to break a man, and most often it succeeds.” I have no true knowledge or experience, just my imagination and the framework provided by a book. Admittedly, that makes me ignorant…and also quite lucky.
At the second flogging, Dougal notes, “A pitiful sight, it was, too–still raw, no more than half-healed, wi’ the weals turned black and the rest yellow wi’ bruises. The thought of a whip comin’ down on that soreness was enough to make be blench, along wi’ most of those watching.”
And, to think, Badawi will endure this every week, for twenty weeks.
Claire asks Dougal why he told her the horrible and very graphic depiction of what happened to Jamie. He replies, “I thought it might serve as what ye may call a character illustration.” At first Claire thinks that Dougal means of Black Jack, but he clarifies. “Of Randall,” he agrees, “and Jamie too.”
I read that Badawi (like our hero Jamie) endured the first fifty lashes in silence, his eyes closed, stoic. And again, I wept.
My ten daughter saw me reading on my phone yesterday and rolled her eyes. “Are you reading Outlander again?” she asked with a tolerant grin. “Those books always make you cry. And the television show. You cry during it, too.” I shook my head. No, this wasn’t Outlander, this was real life.
“Honey, do you remember the part where they flogged Jamie?” I asked. “Well, that really happened to someone yesterday. In real life. Someone really had to go through that. And he’ll have to go through it every week for the next twenty weeks. And it makes me sad. It hurts me to think about it.”
“Don’t read it then,” she said, looking at my phone like she would not tolerate its part in making her mommy cry.
“Even if I don’t read it, honey. It still happens, and I can’t pretend it doesn’t. The man who was flogged wrote a blog. Just like me. That’s what he was flogged for. What if I were flogged because someone didn’t like what I wrote?” I asked.
Her eyes grew big. “What’s his name?” she whispered.
“His name is Raif Badawi. He lives in Saudi Arabia, and he has three kids…just like I do,” I told her. “And there is nothing I can do about it. On Friday, it will happen all over again. Every Friday.”
“We can pray for him,” she offered, searching her ten year old mind for something helpful. “And…you could write about him. In your blog.”
And so we did. And I am.
And it seems so painfully, horribly inadequate.