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.
This is Lina Ben Mhenni’s message:
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.
I’ve spent the last couple of days not just in mourning, but in wondering what kind of person votes against their own independence. To say no to being in charge of your own future seems to me like saying no to babies or freedom or the scent of roses. It’s like a turkey voting for Christmas.
In the bitterness of defeat it’s easy to say the No voters were selfish or stupid, scared of the future and more concerned with their own comfort than with the common good. It’s easy to point at the unionist neds doing the fascist salute in George Square and say, This is who you lined up with. It’s easy to watch Cameron sticking the boot into Labour or Miliband taking a step back from the so-called ‘vows’ and think the Nos have got what they deserved.
Easy but not true. I have many close and dear friends who studied all the evidence, agonised over their decision and voted for the union. They’re some of the kindest people I know and certainly not stupid. Moreover, the turnout was exceptionally high, 84.5 percent, a record for any UK election since (almost) universal suffrage was brought in in 1918. (Women were granted the vote then but had to be over 30 and meet certain property requirements. Not until 1928 were they finally on a par with men.)
I saw a snide comment about the people who went into the polling booth and put two crosses on their forms - Is ‘stupid’ just another word for Scottish? - but I think it’s admirable that people who genuinely couldn’t make up their minds didn’t just stay at home. Instead they went to the trouble of going out to take part in this historic event and recorded the fact that they could see both sides of the argument. No-one could say the Scots didn’t care about their country.
From a Yes perspective it’s hard to see why No voters weren’t repulsed by the blatant scaremongering tactics of the government in the last week of the campaign, hard to see why so many who support unilateral disarmament didn‘t seize the opportunity to force Westminster to think again about it, hard to understand why people weren‘t more concerned by the potential loss of the National Health Service through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated between Europe and the US.
But they voted in such huge numbers for No that it couldn’t just be about fear and the economy. People were scared, despite the many economists who said Scotland was a rich country, not so much by the threat of the banks’ withdrawal (if you haven’t any money in the bank, that doesn’t particularly matter to you) but by the threat of rises in supermarket prices. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, of course that’s a scary thought - even many working people barely make it to the end of the week as it is. I laughed when I heard Marks and Spencer were threatening to put up prices - lots of people never go in there because it’s too dear already - but Asda was more serious. In fact I recently heard Lesley Riddoch talking about her Africawoman project, which gave African women their own online newspaper and which I had the privilege to work on in the 1990s. A group of the women came to Edinburgh where, despite the Castle and the historic buildings, the place they really wanted to go was Asda. They were much poorer than us but could still afford to shop there.
Despite the economic element, I think the No voters were just like the Yes voters in that they too were voting for something bigger. It was just a different concept of what’s important. For No, it was the sense of being part of a historic partnership. One lady my sister talked to said she thought of her great-uncle, who’d been killed in the war, and she didn’t want to let him down. Many people feel proud of their part in two world wars and, indeed, in building up the British Empire.
And perhaps even more feel a class kinship with working people all over Britain. Having been through the turbulence of Thatcher’s breaking of the miners and reduction of trade union powers, many Scots wanted to express their solidarity with the poor and disaffected through the UK. Those of us who voted Yes thought the break-up of this unequal partnership could only lead to a fracturing of the political status quo and a re-making of the whole country, but the No voters thought there was more chance of effecting change if people banded together. I respect and honour them for that but the irony is that David Cameron didn’t even wait 24 hours before seizing his opportunity to curtail the power of Labour.
I believe the population of England and Wales is so much greater than ours that we will never be able to control our lives while the major decisions are made in their interests. Is it really so selfish to want to control your own resources? I was at dinner with friends last night and one suggested it was, that if oil had been found in Lowestoft, we would expect the profits to be shared throughout the country. That’s a fine thought, but I don’t believe the profits have been shared. They’ve been used to fund illegal wars and the legal gambling of the banking system, used to foster the interests of the Westminster elite, used to favour the south east over other parts of the UK.
I was hoping to see the might of the US curtailed by a small nation. Hoping to see the might of big business controlled. We may have shaken Westminster but we had a chance to shake the world.
I’m voting Yes. For all the usual reasons, of course. I despise the Tory government, I do not want my country to take part in any more wars, nor do I want to be part of one that has the bedroom tax and nuclear weapons. I want to preserve a National Health Service that’s freely available to all, not return to the days when people died because they couldn’t afford to pay for the doctor to come. I’m sick of Westminster’s bankers and wankers, of cowardice and consumerism, of being patronised and pulverised.
But above all, I prize one word - independence. I grew up as a young woman in the 1960s, when girls were expected to flirt and wheedle and manipulate men into giving them what they wanted, not go for it themselves. That seemed both dishonest and demeaning to me and I wanted no part of it. I was the oldest of six children, helping my mother from an early age. I didn’t see why I should depend on a man or expect to be looked after when I was so capable. I wanted to be free to live my own life. It took a long time and a lot of fighting for ordinary women to be able to do that and I can’t see why any country would refuse the chance of something so precious.
It seems to me that independence is the most basic freedom a human being can have, the one we all aspire to. I feel this all the more keenly now that I’ve acquired a disability and can’t do as many things for myself as I used to. The thought of a future of other people looking after me, controlling my life even with their kindness, frightens me.
I don’t think we’ve been frightened enough of dependency as a nation. We’re too bloody comfortable with it. For 300 years we’ve got used to blaming England for everything that goes wrong in our lives. We entered the Union in the first place for economic reasons, after the collapse of the Darien Scheme in Panama drained Scotland of nearly half its circulating cash as well as its hopes of creating an empire like the English. Unsurprisingly the English didn’t fancy us becoming their rival in the colonial stakes. They were under pressure from big business to preserve the East India Company’s monopoly over foreign trade and forced English and Dutch investors to withdraw from our scheme. If that sounds familiar, it is - the current scaremongering by businessmen and the Establishment media is nothing new, just the usual closing of ranks to preserve privilege.
The Scots weren’t put off. They funded the scheme themselves, thousands of small investors pouring money in to follow a vision of linking the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans that would finally come to fruition only in 1914 with the building of the Panama Canal. In the 17 century we’d had years of famine, years of unrest following the Glencoe Massacre. After the collapse of the scheme we did what seemed the practical thing, threw in our lot with the bigger power in the 1707 Union of the Parliaments. But that wasn’t the end of it then - two major uprisings followed, in 1715 and 1745. If we vote to stay with England again it won’t be the end of it now.
We have continued to define ourselves as a nation despite hundreds of years of helping establish the British Empire, fighting endless wars. And hundreds of years of having our views ignored, our country treated as a dustbin and our people exploited. We’re too close to being liberated from all that to give up now.
Recently I’ve been accused of hippyish thinking on independence, of ignoring the global links created by the money markets, when it seems obvious to me that allowing the major corporations to rampage uncontrolled through your country is just folly. Yet the UK is on the verge of endorsing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and Europe, which will not only hand even more power to the multi-nationals, but will mean no-one can prevent the privatisation of the health service. The projected £100 billion growth may be the ‘practical’ thing to do, but it seems to me too high a price to pay for the whole of Europe to end up in thrall to big business and the dollar.
We in Scotland have a chance to opt out of such economic shackles and change our country in the way we want to. It will change anyway if the TTIP is signed - we will be even further away from self-determination, at the mercy not just of England and Brussels but of the very people who caused the near collapse of world economic systems. It was another hippy concept that small is beautiful, but I believe in that too. We have the chance to create something different here, use our traditional independence of thought to make a future where people are more equal, values more human.
I’ve just come back from holiday in Spain, where a lovely night out was marred by a little Englander pontificating at the next table. A restaurant high in the mountains of Almeria, views to the Mediterranean, a blood red moon hanging low over the sea. Then Mr Essex proclaiming that the Scots had been the monkey on England’s back for 300 years and now ‘they want our pound.’ (Whose pound?) We were ungrateful apparently for disliking the presence of nuclear weapons in our country, though I can’t imagine he’d have appreciated it if they’d been in his own county’s seaside resort of Southend, which is much the same distance from London that Faslane is from Glasgow.
The visceral rage I felt surprised me. I lived for many years in England and loved it, but when that kind of arrogance is compounded by that kind of ignorance it’s hard to see it as anything other than an attack. It’s not about nationalism. It’s about being fed up of being dismissed as whingeing Jocks; it’s being fed up of the Westminster elite having the nerve to come to Scotland the week before the referendum; it’s about the Prime Minister refusing to engage in a televised debate with Scotland’s First Minister and leaving the job to a politician who’s not even in his own party. Arrogance and ignorance and I hope they pay the price.
Thankfully, neither David Cameron nor my friend from Essex gets a say in Thursday’s vote. For once, it’s our decision to make, unmarred by the numerical jiggery-pokery of the 1979 referendum, when independence would only be granted if 40 percent of the electorate voted for it - I don’t think much of Cameron and his politics but at least he didn‘t put conditions on the vote. Unlike the idiotic Jeremy Paxman, he grasped that partnerships cannot be sustained unless they’re freely entered into - Paxo thinks the people in England and Wales should get a vote too. Hasn’t he noticed we’re having the referendum because we‘re fed up with them deciding everything for us? He probably thinks only men should be allowed to sue for divorce.
You know what? Last time round the Yes camp won, 52 percent to 48. That’s usually forgotten because we lost out on independence itself. We didn’t all vote that time because it was clear that abstaining was equivalent to a No vote. But 97 percent of the Scottish electorate has registered to vote this time and the energy is palpable. I don’t care what the practical party says, I want change. We’ve had nearly 40 years of Thatcherism from one party or another. If we’re brave we will make a brave new world. Yes, yes, yes.