Men in black suits control the doors, checking people’s mandatory name tags and wristbands. It isn’t a huge conference and the level of security feels irritating, but after all, we live in a post Charlie Hebdo Europe, where saying what you think can cost you your life. Perhaps the organisers are afraid that PEN International’s commitment to free speech makes us a target.
It turns out, though, that there’s a particular reason for the ramped up security: a very special guest, unpublicised and unannounced on the conference schedule - Zineb El Rhazoui, the 33 year old Charlie Hebdo columnist who was on holiday in her native Morocco when 12 people were killed and 11 injured at the satirical newspaper in an attack by Islamic militants, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi.
Zineb is accompanied by her personal men in black suits, two bodyguards who stay with her throughout her time at the conference. She has paid dearly for writing what she thinks - after the January shootings she had multiple death threats and now lives everywhere and nowhere, moving from friends’ houses to hotels, accompanied usually by her husband and always by the men in black suits.
One IS threat warned they would separate her head from her body. Later a Twitter campaign against her bore the hash tag #findherandkillher. ‘At Charlie Hebdo we knew we were targeted. All my colleagues knew they were risking their lives,’ she says. ‘Before the massacre I never took events seriously, but after what happened to my colleagues I do. I must be careful - all those who defend freedom of speech have to be careful now.’
What she has now is less a life than an existence. She is constantly on the move, never alone. Daily life is difficult, it’s hard to practise her profession, and she misses her dead colleagues, particularly her mentor, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, the cartoonist Stéphane (‘Charb’) Charbonnier. She can’t even pop out to the shops for a loaf of bread. ‘My whole life is in my bag,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I change my dress in the car, hidden by the policemen. When you go to the toilet they’re with you. They don’t enter but they’re next to the door so they know everything about you. They become your best friends.
‘I miss things like going for a coffee somewhere without deciding two hours before or letting your bodyguards choose the place and verify it before you go. I miss something I feel the terrorists have taken from me, a kind of unconsciousness.’ It’s a touchingly human admission from a woman whose life has been lived with a fierce kind of consciousness - opposing her religion, her government and the misogynistic views of her culture. Born in Casablanca to a French mother and a Moroccan father, she lived a typically middle class life, with compulsory classes in Arabic and Islam from kindergarten to high school before going on to university in Paris to study foreign languages.
’I’m an atheist but I was born Muslim and brainwashed a Muslim. No-one asked me for my opinion. When I started to have intellectual independence I started to ask questions, started to have doubts on what I was growing up in. You don’t become an atheist because you desire it, you become an atheist after years of deep questioning. It’s a deep process. You need to search the truth where you find yourself. I started to have some doubts, to feel that Islam is not for me, by the age of 15. By the age of 19, for the first time in my life I was convinced I will not need God again. I was intellectually and spiritually convinced that God did not exist - and I did not need him.’
Without wishing to contribute to the objectification of women, it has to be noted that she is exceptionally beautiful and charismatic and a mesmerising public speaker, not just for the passion and articulacy of her views but for a kind of guileless candour that is the opposite of speechifying by politicos. Camera phones start clicking all around as soon as her words start tumbling out.
That personal magnetism is no doubt one of the factors that led her to become a prominent spokeswoman during the time of the Moroccan Spring, explaining the country’s revolution to foreign journalists. After university she taught Arabic for a couple of years at the French University of Egypt but in 2007 made the decision to return to her home country.
‘It was not an easy decision,’ she says. ‘As a woman you have to think before going to settle in a country where women are not free, where as a woman you don’t have the same legal rights, where society doesn’t look at you in the same way as men. But I thought to myself, maybe Morocco needs me now.’
She began working as a journalist on an independent weekly newspaper and co-founded a movement called MALI (Mouvement Alternative pour la Liberté Individuelle), a play on a common Moroccan phrase meaning, What’s wrong with me? MALI was an informal group dedicated to funny and provocative direct action involving the public. In September 2009, Zineb and her co-founder, psychotherapist Betty Lachgar, decided to stage a public picnic during the month of Ramadan, when Moroccans could be jailed for eating in public.
That led to Zineb’s first fatwa, issued by Moroccan state theologians, who said the event was offensive to Allah and the Prophet. She went into hiding, though the police announced in an Arabic newspaper that they’d arrested her. They had not, though they had arrested many of the people at the picnic. After a week they released everyone.
’They were very stupid,’ says Zineb, unable to hide her amusement. ‘They couldn’t sue us - they arrested us before we ate.’
MALI’s next stunt was a street happening against sexual harassment. Girls wore T-shirts with moustaches and the slogan, Do you respect me now? Boys wore pink T-shirts. Their slogan was Big Pink Porks, which may say something forZineb’s sense of humour. She and Betty were arrested and not only interrogated but insulted by the police. Bitches, they called them before releasing them.
The authorities’ next move was more violent. The police came to her flat at 5.45 in the morning and arrested her and her then boyfriend, who was also an opponent of the regime. Because she was unmarried and alone with a man they intended to charge her with prostitution, an offence punishable by prison. She lights an impossibly long cheroot and blows out a stream of smoke.
‘Once in the police office I said, First of all, I never planned on being the Virgin Mary. I defend the right for modern citizens to sleep with why they choose - and am against these other laws, against homosexuals. A normal Moroccan girl would be afraid of the scandal but when they realised I wasn’t afraid at all they released me because they understood it would be a big scandal for them.’
The authorities continued to harass her and other activists, closing down many independent newspapers - Zineb’s among them, leaving her unemployed. There was no warning, no judicial process - they simply moved in and physically shut down the offices.
‘Many journalists who I met had apartments, cars, normal lives, but they ended up homeless, with nothing to eat.,‘ she recalls. ‘I lost my apartment in Casablanca and was living with a friend of mine in her father’s house. She gave me hospitality like a sister.’
When the Moroccan Spring started in 2009, Zineb, homeless and jobless, was in the perfect position to become one of the movement leaders. She was excited by the fantastic upswing of political energy among ordinary people and vocal in explaining the situation in Morocco, where the King and his cabinet rule everything. A new constitution was written, but if anything, was more repressive than the original. Journalists were regularly being beaten up in the street and Zineb never went out alone.
‘I always took someone with me, not for protection but to witness if anything happened to me,’ she says.
In the end the harassment got too much and she applied to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which offers support to writers exiled from their own countries because of political persecution. She was given a home for a year in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia - ‘a country where women can walk alone in the woods at night in short skirts and not be attacked. I thought, That’ll do for me,’ she says with a smile, though her own dress is modestly elegant and falls below the knee. Only the killer stilettos and ankle straps are a clue to her feisty nature - as a young girl she wore black nail polish and low-cut bras to school, refusing to be afraid of her conservative, long-bearded teacher.
While in exile in Europe she met the Charlie Hebdo team and went to work for the paper, one of the cartoonists reportedly taking a cut in salary to finance her place on the payroll. She wrote a book with Charb, the paper’s editor, and contributed to the most contentious issues, but she happened to have gone back to Casablanca for a holiday with her husband, a business lawyer, when the massacre at Charlie Hebdo took place. Immediately she returned to Paris.
‘I wanted to see my surviving colleagues,’ she says. ‘I felt, it’s the place I need to be. Charb was fantastically, extraordinarily courageous. He’d been living under protection since two years before he was killed. His bodyguard was killed with him. The other bodyguard escaped because he was parking the car. Charb felt something will happen. He was really thinking he will be targeted alone or somewhere in the street but never imagined that others will be with him. He said, I prefer to die standing than down on my knees, and he was standing when they killed him. He was a man fascinated with Arab culture and language and he’d say, Allahu Akbar, Let’s do it, as a kind of war cry. These two brothers came and they said Allahu Akbar. It was a real war cry for them. They asked, Who is chief? He stood and they killed him. Then they shot all the others around that table.’
She is fiercely loyal to both Charb and Charlie Hebdo, even though the magazine suspended her in March when she contributed to a letter signed by 15 staff members, urging the owners and management to stay true to its original ideals. So much money has poured in that the group were afraid the magazine’s stance would be softened. They wanted it to become a co-operative and the money - millions of euros - to be placed in a trust fund that would guarantee Charlie Hebdo’s survival for the next 30 years.
‘Charb was my friend, my protector, like an elder brother for me. He was always looking after me in the newspaper. We had a lot of projects to do together. Now I will do those projects, give them life for him,’ she says, recalling a recent event in Canada where she was asked to sign their book. It was the first time she’d done so alone and she burst into tears.
She relaxes in the late afternoon sunshine, a brief moment of respite before the practicalities of the evening ahead of her present themselves, before returning to her life of constantly being on the move, constantly having to reinvent herself. Normality has been taken from her, perhaps forever.
‘When you have such violent death threats and a contract on your head, you think, do I deserve to make children? Do I have the right to have children? I don’t see very clearly into my personal future. Only my future as a freedom fighter seems clear to me. I have no doubt that I have to continue struggling for the values I believe in.’
The price of freedom is high and some people, like Zineb El Rhazoui, pay more than most.