The work of Scottish PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee(WIPC) is often more frustrating than satisfying. We campaign on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted writers, many of whom have been jailed for talking about their governments in much the same way that many of us rage about David Cameron’s old Etonian Cabinet or the bedroom tax or Tony Blair’s promotion of war.
And although as writers we believe fervently in words, all too often we feel we’re casting them to the winds. Few of the governments we write to reply or pay any attention to our criticism. In fact some of them just weigh the letters they receive on behalf of dissidents - they don’t actually read them.
So sometimes you think it’s hardly worth the effort of writing a letter and certainly not worth the postage and sometimes you feel as if nothing you do will ever change a thing. But once in a while something happens to remind you that even if you can’t change the world, you can reach other people in it and they in their turn can reach others and eventually, if enough of you keep reaching out, then change can come.
Or as chaos theory has it, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can change the course of a hurricane.
This week, our event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers series, chaired by Regi Claire, led to one of those moments when suddenly progress seems possible.
One of the tools we use in WIPC is campaign cards, which we send to the country’s embassy in the UK. I was trying to order them off the internet but was having problems with the firm’s website so called them. The operator patiently negotiated his way through my ranting and sorted it all out. Then he startled me by thanking us for the work we do. He thought it was important. When I asked him about his interest, he turned out to be an activist himself, campaigning on behalf of Tunisia.
It seemed like serendipity that it was that particular operator I’d spoken to and natural then, in considering what country to focus on for our events at this year’s Festival, to choose Tunisia. Here was where the Arab Spring kicked off, in December 2010, leading to the ousting of PresidentZine El Abidine Ben Aliand a new constitution for Tunisia. Here was where the inspiration came for a wave of protest in countries throughout the Middle East, in Egypt and Syria and Jordan and Iraq, among others.
But the progress made in Tunisia after the fall of Ben Ali was illusory. Although some banned books started being freely circulated, publishers and broadcasters have been jailed for blasphemy, many civilians have been tried in military courts for ‘defaming’ the military, and journalists have been subject to violent attacks by the police. The country is an important reminder that there can be no complacency where freedom of expression is concerned. Although things have progressed there, Tunisia is still in the lowest third in the world for it, only 126 out of 180 countries on the 2015 Index for Press Freedom.
And, in June this summer, a 23 year old engineer called Seifeddine Rezgui strafed a beach in Sousse with shots from an AK47, killing 38 holidaymakers and wounding 39 more in the name of Islamic State.
Tunisia, where the government was already cracking down on free expression in the name of the fight against terrorism, looked like a good choice to highlight at the Edinburgh Festival.
Among the readings we chose for our event was one by a remarkable young woman called Lina Ben Mhenni, a teacher of linguistics at Tunis University, whose blog, A Tunisian Girl, was one of the few during Ben Ali’s regime to be published under the blogger’s real name rather than a pseudonym. Mhenni was one of the few bloggers to report when government forces massacred protesters in Kasserine and Regueb, two major cities in Tunisia’s heartlands. Her courage as a journalist is matched by her courage as a person - she has lupus and has had a kidney transplant, yet continues to battle for democracy in her country. She won the Deutsche Welle International Blog Award and El Mundo’s International Journalism Prize and was nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
In another of those serendipitous turn of events, a former civil servant living in Edinburgh saw her on the BBC news and admired her commitment and her bravery. Iain Allan decided to email her. ’I like the idea that you can use the internet to speak to people on the other side of the world,’ he says. He and his partner had been on holiday to Tunisia and seen a number of Tunisian films at the film house, but had no particular personal connection to the country. He just wanted to tell her what he thought. Lina replied to him though they didn’t have an extensive correspondence. Still, when he saw that Tunisia was to be featured in the Edinburgh Festival programme, he contacted her again to let her know. She in her turn sent a message to us at the Festival. From a problem in ordering cards off the internet to an international book festival… a fluttering of butterfly wings has started.
I am so happy to see that a panel in the Edinburgh Festival is dedicated to my country, Tunisia. My happiness was even greater when I knew that the panel was organised by Amnesty International. I grew up amongst the militants of Amnesty as my father is one of the founders of its Tunisian section. Amnesty activities were banned in Tunisia and some of the meetings were held in our house. It is thanks to Amnesty that I became aware of the injustices in the world.
Well, it is true that the situation in Tunisia is relatively good in comparison to what is happening in other countries of the so-called Arab Spring but let me say that when it comes to Human Rights things did not really change. Until today people are jailed for their opinions, some people die after being tortured in arrest stations or prisons… Using the pretext of the fight against terrorism, security forces are back to their old repressive practices. This is very dangerous and would probably lead to the return of the police state.
Today we are talking about reconciliation without really paying attention to the establishment of a transitional justice process. Reconciliation in the way they want to do it is synonym (sic) to impunity. All the people who were involved with the regime of Ben Ali will benefit from it. It is true that we drafted a new constitution applauded by the entire world but what is the benefit behind having a good constitution which is just ink on paper? It should be put into practice.
Well, I won’t take much more of your time and end my message by inviting you to visit my country. Today we need your support more than ever. It is true that tourists lost their lives in my country but what happened in Tunisia happens everywhere. The majority of Tunisians are really sorry for the big human losses and we are trying our best to get rid of terrorism but we need your support. Again my condolences to the families of the victims and I hope to see you in Tunisia.
Lina Ben Mhenni
I am the daughter of Dido, Kahina, Aziza Othmana, Saida Manoubia and my mom who gave birth twice and I won’t kneel down.