Co-written with Andrea C. Hoffmann, translated from German by Shaun Whiteside.
The weather is bad as we stand outside Sherbrooke town hall. The rain is pouring down – as it does so often in my new home, Canada, which is in every respect the opposite of my old one.
All my friends have come. It has been almost four years since my husband Raif Badawi was arrested in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Since then he has been in jail. One year ago, he was publicly whipped in front of a big mosque in the city.
‘Freedom for Raif,’ my friend Jane shouts into her megaphone. The other people taking part in the demonstration repeat her call. They are a few dozen loyal companions who gather with me here, week after week. We hold up orange posters with huge black letters to make Raif’s name. We express our demand: ‘Libérez Raif – free Raif!’
Later, when we sit together in a Lebanese restaurant near the town hall, warming ourselves up, Jeff comes over to me. He’s the guitarist with the Canadian band Your Favourite Enemies. Today he’s joined us to support us in our struggle.
He solemnly hands me a bundle of letters. ‘This is mail from our fans, Mrs Haidar,’ he tells me. ‘They want to give you and Raif the courage to keep going.’
‘Merci – thanks,’ I say to him and, touched, take the bundle from him. ‘Your solidarity is very important for us.’
By now, luckily, I can speak enough French to express myself in the language. That hasn’t been the case for long: when we arrived in Quebec in autumn 2013 I had to sit behind a school desk like a little girl and learn how to communicate. My children Najwa, Dodi and Miriam could speak at least a little French after our previous stay in the Lebanon. I spoke only Arabic.
It wasn’t the only change that I found difficult. Since I was forced to flee from Saudi Arabia, pretty much everything in my life has changed. For the first time I had to learn how to take responsibility for myself and my family as a woman on her own. North American culture was completely alien to me. The food smelled and tasted different, the cold climate put a terrible strain on me and I didn’t know anyone in this country, whose social rules were so unfamiliar to me.
I don’t mean that the people I met in Canada were in any way unpleasant or unfriendly. On the contrary: they welcomed me with open arms, and from the very first I liked their casual, open manners. But it was alien to me none the less.
I have experienced boundless support in the country that granted us asylum. Asylum from the state where I was brought up and formed, where many of the people I love still live. Asylum from the country that threatens my husband with death. And I can’t say how grateful I am for that: side by side with people from all over the world, I can devote myself effectively here to the liberation of my husband.
Najwa, Dodi and Miriam acclimatised much more quickly than I did, as children do. As for me, shortly after we arrived abroad I threatened to slip into depression in the face of the cruelty and hopelessness of Raif’s situation.
But while I was in danger of giving up, I began to understand what a waste that would be. A waste of freedom, strength and opportunities to develop. A waste of everything that Raif has stood for. A waste of the love that I am allowed to experience with him.
My name, Ensaf, has a wide range of meanings in Arabic, from ‘justice’ to ‘patience’. In my current struggle on Raif’s behalf I often have the feeling that I urgently need all of these different facets. It’s all in a name, as they say.
Once – compared to now – I was spoilt. I had nothing to worry about, but I had no responsibilities either. Today a great weight rests on my shoulders. But my task has made me grow as a person. And I have noticed how strong I can be when I want to achieve something. I can express my thoughts and speak in public. Back when I lived with my parents and was sheltered from everything and everyone in the world I would never have thought any of that possible.
To that extent I have personally profited from my commitment to freeing Raif: he has made me strong. Stronger than I could ever have dreamed as a traditionally brought- up Saudi woman. That’s a good experience.
I thank Jeff for the letters and try on the silk scarf that he hands me as a gift. In my former life I might have worn it as a headscarf; today I prefer to wear it around my neck. ‘I’m very grateful to you for your support of Raif and freedom ofexpression,’ I assure him.
‘But it’s our duty, Mrs Haidar,’ he says with a smile, ‘And please say hi to Raif from us next time you talk to him.’
I don’t know how our fight will go. Spellbound, I watch the news from home, the effect of which is like an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes it gives me hope, then I despair again. Will I, and our many supporters all over the world, manage to save my beloved husband? Or will my children and I have to watch the police in Jeddah beating him to death one day?
Only one thing is certain: my children and I will fight for him to our last breath.
A former chair of the Translators Association, he sits on the editorial board of New Books in German and the Advisory Panel of the British Centre for Literary Translation, where he regularly teaches at the summer school.
Tomorrow, English PEN and Little, Brown are joining forces to hold a special vigil to mark the release of Haidar’s memoir and to amplify the call for Badawi’s immediate release. Jimmy Wales, a long-standing supporter of Badawi, will also be in attendance.
Activists are asked to meet at the Curzon Street entrance to the Embassy (note: the postal address of the Embassy is 30-32 Charles Street, Mayfair, London) from 1pm, 23 March.
#FreeRaif #FreeWaleed @englishpen @LittleBrownUK
Raif Badawi: The Voice of Freedom is out now (Little, Brown, £14.99).
Read extracts from Raif Badawi’s blog at the Guardian: ‘A look at the writings of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’