Magazine | February 29, 2016, Issue

The House of Saud and the House of Badawi

Ensaf Haidar holds a photo of her husband, Raif Badawi. (Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images)
A wife’s struggle for her husband

Ensaf Haidar is playing a familiar role, and it is a very difficult role: wife of a political prisoner, who finds herself in exile, spending her time campaigning for her husband. Trying to keep him alive, trying to win his release. Avital Sharansky did this for nine years. She was, and is, the wife of Natan Sharansky, who was in the Gulag. (His first name was then Anatoly.) In recent years, Geng He, the wife of Gao Zhisheng, the heroic Chinese human-rights lawyer, has had to do it.

Or maybe I should say she has chosen to do it? Has risen to it?

Ensaf Haidar lives in Quebec — Sherbrooke, specifically — where the winters are very different from those of her native Saudi Arabia. In January, I asked her some questions. One was about the weather. Quebec’s winters are harsh, she said, but “the Canadian people are so warm and welcoming that I can barely feel the cold.” She considers herself very lucky to be in Canada.

She is the wife of Raif Badawi, one of the most famous political prisoners in the world. He is a Saudi liberal, 32 years old. He advocates the most basic human rights — freedom of expression, freedom of conscience. He was imprisoned in 2012.

It was in 2000 that he and Ensaf met. They met “by accident,” as Ensaf says. He was a friend of her brother, and occasionally her brother lent her his phone. One day, she wound up talking to Raif. They liked each other, a lot. They had a lot in common. They thought alike. They could not meet face to face, of course, this being Saudi Arabia. But they talked on the phone every day — for two years.

Now and then, they arranged to catch a glimpse of each other. Theirs was a Romeo and Juliet–style romance, complete with balcony scene: Raif would loft letters up to her.

They never properly met until the day he arrived at her home to ask her hand in marriage. Her family flatly refused — but Raif soon wore them down, with his friendliness, persistence, and charm. He and Ensaf married in 2002. They honeymooned in Syria, which was a haven of liberalism, compared with their own society.

For several years, they enjoyed what Ensaf describes as a normal life. Raif was an entrepreneur, the owner of an English-language school and an information-technology school. The couple had three children, two girls and a boy. Then, in 2008, Raif started a website, Free Saudi Liberals. He wanted a space in which he and his fellow citizens could discuss fundamental issues of concern to them.

I might pause here to mention that Raif’s older sister, Samar, is a human-rights advocate as well. She is a story unto herself. She too has been in prison. And she is one of the Saudi women who have had the audacity to drive a car.

Raif’s website caught the attention of free-thinking people, and, equally, it caught the attention of the authorities. They froze his bank accounts and forbade him to travel. Ensaf’s family was alarmed (understandably). They took legal steps to force her to divorce Raif. She would have none of it. As the troublemaker’s wife, she received death threats, and eventually she and Raif decided that it was best for her and the children to go abroad. He would join them, they thought, in a couple of months.

First, Ensaf and the children went to Egypt, and then Lebanon. They received their ultimate asylum in Canada.

In 2012, Raif was arrested. Among the charges were “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” The sentence, finally, was ten years plus a thousand lashes. The lashes were to be administered 50 at a time, every Friday, for 20 weeks.

The first flogging occurred on January 9, 2015. Raif was led to the square outside the Juffali Mosque in Jeddah. Handcuffed and ankle-shackled, he was hit 50 times, as a crowd of hundreds cheered. “Allahu akbar!” they shouted, or, “God is great!”

Later, Ensaf saw this event on a leaked cellphone video. “Every lash killed me,” she said.

The 50 lashes the next Friday did not occur. The authorities said that the prisoner’s wounds from the first lashes had not healed sufficiently. Ensaf believes that a second lashing would have killed him: Raif is slight of build, and, while in prison, has developed diabetes. The second lashing has been postponed Friday after Friday after Friday. It has not yet occurred.

One reason, almost certainly, is that the first lashing provoked an international outcry. The lashing took place two days after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. “Je suis Charlie” was a universal slogan. People also picked up “Je suis Raif.”

Raif’s lawyer was Waleed Abulkhair, another human-rights advocate, who was also his brother-in-law — Samar’s husband. He founded a human-rights-monitoring organization, and also a salon, where young Saudis could discuss the basic questions. The lawyer himself was arrested in 2014. He was charged with “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” among other offenses. They sentenced him to 15 years in prison, to be followed by a 15-year travel ban.

So, this is a family drama, as well as a personal one, and a political one, and an international one. To add to the drama, Samar and Waleed have recently divorced, though Samar continues to campaign for him.

Raif Badawi is a cause célèbre. There have been protests around the world in his behalf, often outside Saudi embassies. Governments have raised his case with the House of Saud. One government, Sweden’s, broke its defense relationship with the Saudis (much to the sorrow and consternation of the Swedish defense industry). In the time-honored fashion of dictatorships, the Saudis grouse about “attempts to interfere in our internal affairs.”

Their marquee prisoner, Raif, has received many awards, in absentia. Last year, he was given the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which comes from the European Parliament. His wife, Ensaf, went to pick it up. “Raif is not a criminal,” she said. “He is a writer and a free-thinker.”

The Saudi government destroyed his writings — his blog posts — but not all of them: His allies were able to retrieve some of them. They have been put into a book called “1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think.” One of the entries is called “No to Building a Mosque in New York City.” It deals with the attempt, ultimately unsuccessful, to build an Islamic center at Ground Zero. Badawi thought this would be tremendously offensive to Americans after 9/11. “How open-minded are we going to be if a Christian or a Jewish person attacks us in our very home? Will we build a church or a synagogue for them in the same location as the attack?”

Of course, the Saudis don’t permit the building of churches or synagogues regardless.

Ensaf, too, will publish a book soon, another component of her campaign for her husband. Called “The Voice of Freedom,” it will tell Raif’s story, and hers, and theirs.

I ask what her days are like. “Hard,” she says. “There are no words to describe how difficult it is to wait, just to wait without knowing what will happen.” Her biggest fear is that Raif will be tried for apostasy — the penalty for which is death, usually by beheading.

She does her best to remain calm, if only for the sake of her three children. The boy, exhibiting the assimilation of the very young, has become a rabid hockey fan. He plays the sport with his friends, and they root like mad for the Montreal Canadiens.

For a long time, Ensaf had weekly phone calls with her husband — terribly brief, but regular. She has not been able to speak with him since December 11. She believes that his condition is very poor. He needed medical care, and asked for it. When he was denied it, he went on hunger strike, to get it. Instead of giving him medical care, they moved him into solitary confinement.

As if the couple didn’t have enough trouble, both their families have disowned them. Their parents don’t want the three children to grow up abroad. They are worried they won’t become good Muslims. Raif’s father has appeared on Saudi television, to denounce his son. This must buy him some space in Saudi society. Shame falls on everyone associated with a dissenter. (So should glory.)

About the Saudi government, Ensaf does not want to say anything right now. Any word, apparently, might be harmful. She does want to talk about her adoptive country, for which she’s so grateful: “Canada has made me feel that I matter as a human being.”

Her main hope is that “free societies will pressure the Saudi government to release Raif.” The United States would be especially helpful here. Saudi Arabia is our ally, and necessarily so. But we citizens should not be blind to the fact that, really, this is a ghastly dictatorship, imprisoning and torturing some of the very best of that country.

For years, many of us have hoped for the appearance of Sharanskys, Sakharovs, and Solzhenitsyns on the Arab scene. They exist, obviously. They may not be world-class scientists or writers, but they certainly exist, and they are very brave.

Ensaf Haidar is brave too. She says that it is “normal” to defend one’s husband. But some people can’t rise even to normality. Raif and Ensaf are an extraordinary love story, kindred spirits — two people who found each other in a desert, in more than one sense. Ensaf thinks they are destined for each other.

And I will close with a humble fact, which I think says a lot: If Ensaf filed her taxes as a single parent, it would be to her advantage. But she insists on filing as married: because she is.

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