Iraqi interpreters betrayed again

Last week, The Washington Post reported on the Pentagon’s decision to prohibit Iraqi interpreters from wearing masks. Many wear masks to hide their identities from those who wish to kill them. George Packer-- whose stunning article on Iraqi interpreters for The New Yorker became the play Betrayed (which is excerpted in our latest issue)-- borrows a famous Daily News headline to title his response: “Military to Interpreters: Drop Dead.”
Exactly what code of conduct is being maintained here? Iraqis aren’t in the American chain of command. They don’t take an oath; they don’t fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If they did, they would be given regulation uniforms. They wouldn’t be allowed to use aliases. They would be housed on bases rather than obliged to make the dangerous trip home every night. They would receive pensions, health insurance, and death benefits. When one of them gets killed, the military would hold a ceremony. The widow would receive a flag. A grateful nation would remember.
Fortunately, “thirteen members of Congress and an association of interpreters” are urging the Pentagon to rescind the ban. But 13 out of 435 is not a very good percentage. You can write to your congressional representative here, and you can find additional resources here.

You can also read the first-hand account of an Iraqi interpreter, Ahmed Ali, in our latest issue and online. Ali worked with news organizations, not the military, but the resulting danger was similar:

In the summer of 2006 I was in the Green Zone covering Saddam’s trial when I got a phone call saying my brother-in-law had disappeared. He went to his job, and left his two kids in the house, and he didn’t come back. I tried to call him on his cell phone, but it was switched off. Later, in the offices of The Telegraph, his captors called me using his cell phone. They had abducted my brother-in-law after stopping him at a checkpoint.

I tried to introduce myself. “We know,” they said. “You are Ahmed Ali.”

I asked if they wanted money. “No.”

I asked if I could see my brother-in-law. “Don’t worry,” they said. “You will see him at the morgue.” But we never found the body.

Read the rest.

(In the photo above, by James Nachtwey, an Iraqi interpreter wears a mask to conceal his identity while helping a soldier deliver an invitation to an Imam for a meeting with an American colonel.)


“Gods can fight forever because they do not die—but we die.”

Amitava Kumar and E.J. Van Lanen have both called attention to this in-depth review of Elias Khoury’s Yalo written by Siddartha Deb for The Nation. Deb places the book in “a long tradition of Arabic novels concerned with prison and torture, including Saudi-Iraqi novelist Abdelrahman Munif's East of the Mediterranean (1975) and Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz's Karnak Café (1974).” His high praise for an earlier Khoury novel, Gate of the Sun, reminded me of a story Khoury told back in May in conversation with Nuruddin Farah (a conversation included in our latest issue):
Just after Gate of the Sun was published I was teaching at NYU. A young man said he wanted to take my class because he read the novel, which had been translated into French and Hebrew, but not yet English. This young man was Israeli and he had read the novel in Hebrew. I asked him what his name was, and he told me that he had changed his name to Naji. Naji is the name of a small child in the novel who, during the exodus of the Palestinians, was left under an olive tree by his mother, because she had many other small children and couldn’t take care of him. Another woman picked him up and gave him back to his mother at the Palestinian and Lebanese border. The Israeli student told me he identified with this Palestinian boy. And I think a moment like that gives all the dimensions of what it means to take sides in literature. Essentially, it was an act of identification, where the reader became part of the story—he became part of the writing of the story. Because the story does not finish when the writer stops and gives it to the publisher. The story only will begin with its readers, and then it will be rewritten in the deepest way.
Later in the conversation, we get another glimpse of Khoury in the classroom:
I was discussing this with my students. We were reading a Palestinian novel and an Israeli novel and comparing them. I told them, “Look, in two hundred years a historian will say, ‘What was this? This is so stupid! People are continuing to kill each other because someone thinks that God gave him this land and the other one thinks that the prophet came from that land,’ and so on. And we are wasting our lives. Gods can fight forever because they do not die—but we die.”
Nuruddin Farah also tells some wonderful stories in the course of their conversation—like the one about how he came to write in English:
If I chose not to continue writing in those two languages, it was mainly to do with typewriters. English had sophisticated, strong, American-made, Royal Typewriters. People my age will remember Royal typewriters. They didn’t break down. Afterwards I learned Italian and started writing short stories in Italian—but every Olivetti I had broke down continuously. So I decided to write in English because of the typewriter.
Plus this remarkable story, which he offers as explanation for how he learned to write from the perspective of female characters:
To earn a bit of pocket money I started writing letters for elderly men and women who couldn’t read. I was writing in Arabic at that time. One day a man came and he asked me to write a letter to his wife for him. He said to his wife in the letter, “You have been gone for a very long time and you are my wife. I want you to come back and if you do not come back in three months, I will come to the town where you are living”—which was about three hundred kilometers away—“and I will break every one of your bones and drag you all the way back to this town.”

So I changed what he told me—because the power of writing gave me the authority to do so. I wrote, “If you do not come back in three months, you may consider yourself divorced.” She took the letter to her brothers, and they waited for three months. Then they went to a judge and he declared her divorced on the basis of the letter—a very respectful letter, the judge must have thought. Six months later, the husband went looking for his wife and found her married to somebody else. And he was told that he had written a letter that the she could consider herself divorced if she hadn’t returned in three months. He came back to the town in which we were living. He told my father, and I was then forbidden to write letters from that point on. No more pocket money.
The transcript is not online, but you can order the issue here.

(Photos of Khoury and Farah by Beowulf Sheehan.)


Voices Against Torture: Writers and Lawyers on the Way Forward (12/16)

A few years ago, PEN launched the Campaign for Core Freedoms to protect personal privacy and governmental transparency and to promote U.S. policies that preserve and defend human rights here and abroad. The election of Barack Obama last week has led to some promising reports, but other indications (noted below) suggest this campaign won't run out of work to do any time soon.

So next month, Dahlia Lithwick will moderate a panel of writers and lawyers on the roles that lawyers and writers have played and continue to play in exposing human rights abuses and in reminding nations of their human rights responsibilities. Joining Dahlia will be

The panel will be hosted by PEN and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS). The panel will begin promptly at 6:30 p.m on Tuesday, December 16th, and will end at 7:45 p.m., followed by a wine and cheese reception.

This event is free and open to the public. If you'd like to come, please register today.

When: Tuesday, December 16, 2008, 6:30 pm-8:30 pm
Where: Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, New York, NY

(The drawing by Fernando Botero above was published in the Virginia Quarterly Review.)


Writers and surveillance, then and now

Media Mob, over at The New York Observer, points to two articles from this past week about FBI surveillance of writers: “The FBI’s 15-Year Campaign to Ferret out Norman Mailer” ran in The Washington Post yesterday, while the AP reported a few days ago that David Halberstam was also spied on. “The FBI monitored Halberstam’s reporting, and at times his personal life, from at least the mid-1960s until at least the late '80s,” the AP reports, noting that “only 62 pages of a 98-page dossier on the writer” have been released.

As for (former PEN President) Norman Mailer:
Agents questioned his friends, scoured his passport file, thumbed through his best-selling books and circulated his photo among informants. They kept records on his appearances at writers conferences, talk shows and peace rallies. They noted the volume of envelopes in his mailbox and jotted down who received his Christmas cards. They posed as his friend, chatted with his father and more than once knocked on his door disguised as deliverymen.
None of this is terribly surprising: as the AP report mentions, “the agency’s now-defunct counterintelligence programs known as COINTELPRO monitored and disrupted groups believed to have communist and socialist ties in the 1950s and '60s.” Among the FBI’s targets in the 1960s was Andy Warhol, and we included a rather comical FBI report on the artist in our latest issue. In 1968, concerned citizens notified authorities about lewd behavior in Oracle, Arizona, where Warhol was filming a movie. The FBI sent two agents to spy on these activities, which led to paragraphs like the following being sent back to headquarters:
The men played with each other’s rear ends. One had flowers sewed on the seat of his trousers in the shape of a diamond. One fellow was hanging by the knees, face down, out of a tree, and kissing on the lips one of the other men on the horse. All the men looked like hippies and all were very vulgar in their conversations. The men were trying to kiss each other.
After the agents saw the finished (and mildly pornographic) movie at the San Francisco Film Festival, they noted in their report that "there was no plot to the film and no development of characters throughout." Your tax dollars at work.

While the reports about Mailer and Halberstam are unsurprising, they should nonetheless remind us that the progress made in the late 1970s on the matter of privacy has largely been reversed since 2001. For the last several years PEN has been fighting to restore the safeguards that were first established after the abuses of the 1950s and 60s came to light.

Just this summer, PEN joined the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other leading international human rights organizations, journalists, and attorneys in filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the newly enacted FISA Amendments Act, a law that grants the Administration the power to carry out and expand the illegal eavesdropping activities it has engaged in secretly since 2001. As you may have heard, Barack Obama voted in favor of this disappointing legislation, so there’s no guarantee that the next administration will be a stronger ally in this particular fight than the current one is. In other words, there is much more work to be done.

Bonus: Two minutes of highlights from the Warhol film so eloquently described by federal agents above. It's called Lonesome Cowboys. Enjoy.


Day of the Imprisoned Writer: 11/15

In the past year, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN has monitored the cases of more than 1,000 writers and journalists in 90 countries, 200 of whom are serving long prison sentences, and the rest of whom have been detained, summoned to court, threatened, harassed or attacked.

Since November 15, 2007, 31 of these writers have been killed, many clearly for practicing their professions, others in murkier circumstances.

Each November 15, PEN marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer by calling attention to writers around the world suffering persecution for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

This year, PEN is focusing on five writers from five different regions of the world. PEN invites its members and friends around the world to send appeals on their behalf. Go here to read more about what you can do.

This year's Day of the Imprisoned Writer will focus on five priority cases:

Azerbaijan: Eynullah Fatullayev

Burma (Myanmar): Zargana Journalist serving an eight-and-a-half-year prison term for his political commentary and investigations into the murder of a fellow journalist.

China: Tsering Woeser

Cuba: Normando Hernández GonzálezTibetan writer and poet who writes in Chinese and has suffered repeated and sustained harassment for her writings on Tibet since 2004.

Iran: Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand

Gambia: Fatou Jaw MannehJournalist and Kurdish rights activist serving an 11-year prison sentence.

Peru: Melissa Rocío Patiño Hinostroza

Iran: Yaghoub YadaliA student and poet currently on trial for alleged links to a terrorist organization, despite a lack of evidence.

Zimbabwe: Writers, Cast and Crew of The Crocodile of Zambezi

Uzbekistan: Dzamshid Karimov A play that has been banned and led to actors and crew being beaten, and the playwrights threatened.

In other Freedom to Write news, Larry Siems has an excellent post about Tariq Ramadan and his ideological exclusion from the US over at the ACLU blog.

Thursday update: PEN USA is sponsoring a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles to commemorate the day and raise awareness about these and other persecuted writers.


"Blogging is not a crime": rally for imprisoned Egyptian blogger tomorrow

Tomorrow, November 6, PEN will hold a rally in New York, from noon to 1:30pm, at the Egyptian Mission to the UN (304 East 44th St., between 1st and 2nd Avenues) to raise awareness and support for Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, better known as Kareem Amer.

Amer was convicted of "disparaging Islam" and "defaming the Egyptian president" because he published "critical writings about Islam and Egypt's highest religious authorities" on his personal blog. He was sentenced to four years in prison. He is the first blogger in Egypt to be tried and convicted for his work, and "there are fears that this case may set a precedent."

The NYC rally is one of three in the US; the others are in Rhode Island and Washington, DC. Rallies are also planned in Paris, London, Brussels, Stockholm, Berlin, Bucharest, Rome, and Berne. You can read about all of them here.

If you can't make it to any of the rallies, but are, like Amer, a blogger yourself, consider reading up on his case, and publishing your own thoughts tomorrow, as an expression of support.


Studs Terkel on John Steinbeck, etc.

Studs Terkel died on Friday at the age of 96. A few years back, he praised John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath in PEN America 4: Fact/Fiction. He did so very much in his own fashion, finding echoes of Steinbeck in the conversation of American farmers speaking fifty years later-- such as Carl Nearmeyer, a fourth-generation farmer who, in 1989, was losing the family farm he worked twenty-three miles southeast of Des Moines:
Grapes of Wrath: “‘Sure,’ cried the tenant farmer, ‘but it’s our land. We were born on it, got killed on it, we died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours, being born on it, working on it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a piece of paper with numbers on it.’” Iowa, 1989: “There were several times I had a gun to my head. . . . and then I got damn mad. I got to thinking about it and I got madder. These people don’t have the right to do this to me. I’ve worked the land, I’ve sweated, and I’ve bled. I’ve tried to keep this place going, and they take it away from me.”
See also: an appraisal in The Chicago Tribune with remarks from Stuart Dybek.

David Lipsky, who jogged my memory below, wrote a long, excellent article for Rolling Stone about David Foster Wallace, and the whole thing is now online. (Thanks to Garth Hallberg for pointing this out.)

Sarah Weinman flags this admiring piece about the wonderful Graywolf Press. As noted below, they published one of this year's National Book Award finalists, Salvatore Scibona's The End.

Milton Hatoum, a Brazilian writer of Lebanese descent, dismantles the simplistic, "Clash of Civilizations" view of East and West over at Words Without Borders. You can read his take on myth and magical realism in PEN America 8: Making Histories.

Afternoon update: On Thursday, November 6, rallies will be held around the world for Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, better known as Kareem Amer, who published "critical writings about Islam and Egypt's highest religious authorities" on his personal blog.

In February 2007, Amer was found guilty of "disparaging Islam" and "defaming the Egyptian president" and sentenced to four years in prison. He is the first blogger in Egypt to be tried and convicted for his work, and "there are fears that this case may set a precedent."

PEN will hold a rally in New York, from noon to 1:30pm, at the Egyptian Mission to the UN (304 East 44th St., between 1st and 2nd Avenues). If you can't make it, and if you have your own blog, consider reading up on him yourself, and sharing your own thoughts November 6, as an expression of support.