khalaf ali alkhalaf
2008 / 5 / 9
To Mr. George W. Bush, President of the Great United States of America, (may God keep you from harm s way):
I, the aforementioned Syrian national, submit for your attention a plea for mercy regarding a personal matter. After having exhausted all means, and having seen all doors slammed in my face, I wondered who else could provide redress but Uncle Bush – may God guide his steps along with neo and traditional conservatives. Of particular relevance, the subject of my plea does not concern Israel or Zionism; rather it involves my own people - Arabs, their masses and those arabized. I know, as is commonly known, your Excellency, and as alluded to in the proverb: “your horse is galloping that way", that "your horse is veering in that direction".
Your Excellency, I know that you have never heard of me; in fact, few have. I am, in all modesty, an anonymous and hapless poet. I started my career as a writer of a few articles in the traditional press. Because of my laziness, I find it more convenient to simply publish an article, as compared to the hardship of mailing it from the post office, which is unworthy of the trouble. As you know, since the advent of the Bill Gates age (your fellow citizen), in this sense, I mean the digital age, it became possible for me to write and publish without the hassle of standing in line to send articles to an author or to a newspaper void of readership. I swear to you Mr. President that I only recently became computer literate. I owe it all to my own efforts. I did not obtain any official training, and, in fact, not so long ago, at the beginning of 2003, I used to refer to all computer hardware as a scanner, something that would prompt Mohamed Abdel Ghaneem to burst into laughter, particularly because he is very proficient in printing. He was one of the first amongst my friends to own a computer, but Syrian intelligence confiscated his device after he published Simon Perez s book on the new Middle East. Even though he pleaded with them that at least he titled the book “Know Your Enemy", it did not make a difference. So the computer was gone, along with my first collection of poems stored on the "scanner", as I used to call the hard drive. The fact that I kept a copy of a receipt with the name of the file, and its location did not help in any way. I am mentioning this detail, to prompt you to act regarding my issue, which unfolds as follows:
I learned to surf the Internet, Mr. President, before I acquired any publishing training. I started to visit the websites of some online newspapers and traditional ones, the names of which I collected during the bygone era of pre-digital. I still think that the website ELAPH is the most notorious. I say this, your Excellency, not because I happen to be one of their contributing columnists, but after I took note of the fact, that I had one of my articles published in their electronic journal, without connections to one of its editors, as is a common practice for most of the antique newspapers. Your Excellency, you have no idea how long it took to type that article; I was struggling to type with one finger. It took an eternity for me to locate letters on the keyboard. I was so ecstatic when they published the article without my having to resort to such blandishments as: "your great newspaper," "your well reputed newspaper," "you, defenders of the righteous – right," and other fake expressions often abused by writers for the sole purpose of having their articles published in those other newspapers. On the contrary, I sent an article devoid of any expression of politeness; I just indicated on the title "an article for publication". And from that moment forward I started to send most of my articles to ELAPH. Upon my return to my country, Syria, I learned that the ELAPH website was blocked - I do not know whether you heard about it or not. Therefore, I could not check whether my articles were being published or not. I would wait to see if another non-blocked site would republish my article. After that, I became a subscriber to an electronic newspaper entitled We Are All Partners in the Homeland that was not covered under the Syrian printed press law which bans non-licensed newspapers. Later, the ban was extended to electronic publications. Syrian poet Mondher Masri, on the day the ban was instated, ironically entitled his article: "Will x, y z, ext... allow us to share the homeland with them?” As of today, I still have not figured out what he meant by those letters, but I guess the letters must have designated some officials or their relatives. At the time, the Internet was an unknown commodity to all but a small minority - officials, their progeny, and kin. It did not appeal to affluent people nor did it arouse their interest. During that period, I started to republish some of the articles published on the ELAPH website with them. They would probably republish some of these articles without coming back to me. I have no clue as to how the owner of the site We Are All Partners is able to access the blocked site of ELAPH. Some explained that it is easy for those who own a server to infiltrate blocked sites. But Mr. President, you might have gathered by now, I am not one of those persons. Later, the previous Regional Command of the Party decided to block the website, We are All Partners. However, the current Regional Command did not try to lift the ban on the site, and could not. Indeed, it did not have the authority to do so, because lifting a ban on a blocked website in Syria is a matter of national security; the particulars of who s in charge I do not know. I continued to receive paper issues via the mail, just like any regular subscriber. That s how things were at the time of its inception. But as of yet, this site is still under a ban.
Later, I became familiar with a newspaper called The Civilized Dialogue, a leftist secular newspaper, as indicated on the top of its front page. I started to publish some of my political articles, literary essays and poems in this newspaper. In addition, I republished some of my older articles in an assigned column. But this electronic newspaper has been blocked in Saudi Arabia and in most of the Arab world and even in Iran - take note of that your Excellency. And I can tell you that this site would have been equally blocked in Korea, even in the absence of any Arab readership, and who knows, maybe it is blocked now, though there is no Arab readership, and even in the absence of the Internet altogether! I appeal to you, to give the substance of my complaint some consideration and to verify it. The ability to have my articles published in this newspaper was further diminished, and made more complicated, when they decided that they would no longer accept submissions via email. They established a system for submissions on the website. Later, articles would have to be approved by the editing department. With the new system in place, I not only cannot view my published articles, but I am also incapable of submitting any new articles. I tried to overcome this impediment by forwarding articles to friends of mine in Amman and Kuwait, who in turn would submit them on my behalf via the website. But ultimately, I am barred from viewing or accessing my articles, or from estimating readership, or the number of readers who voted to approve or disapprove of my published articles.
I took it even further than that; I participated in internet blogs, along with a number of writers, journalists and intellectuals from Syria. We would go to a Yahoo blog called Assyrians, and we would exchange ideas and chat about hot topics and express our concerns about our own country. Recently, this site was blocked in Saudi Arabia. I could not figure out how Saudi authorities managed to block the site. Needless to say, the site became totally inaccessible to me. The only option remaining was the internet blog Al Kachkool, a site that focuses on cultural issues. Even this site did not last for long; it was shut down by one of the Syrian security agents. He would blog with us to monitor what we said, but we would totally ignore his presence - we did not even bother to have him expelled.
The last in a series of sins was the blocking of the ELAPH website in Saudi Arabia!!
Hence, I am no longer able to access any of my published articles, or read feedback, or know the dates on which my articles are published, or when the article is not posted on the homepage; so that I could contemplate sending it to other online newspapers, in accordance with ELAPH copyright laws. Yesterday, Mr. President, I lost my relationship with a dear friend of mine, when I snapped at her saying: "you do not understand", when in fact I meant "you do not understand what is happening here." At the time of the misunderstanding, I was merely asking her to check whether the article was still posted on the homepage of ELAPH or not.
Maybe you took notice that up to now, I did not put this issue under the rubric of the freedom of expression or publication. I just phrased the story in terms of a personal matter. All I am asking for is to be able to view my published articles and read feedback; savor it or reject it, without having to call on my friends to send me this or that article, or to check for me whether any of my articles have been published. Some publishers thought that this was pure self-serving publicity, for me as a writer, in order to increase my standing with them. They are incapable of grasping the depth of my plight, simply because they live in countries not known for censoring websites. After all of the above, I have started to define myself, as a newspaper columnist, and writer for banned websites.
I request a solution, in the words of "Faten Hamama", your Excellency - that would spare me from losing more friends. And You, President of the sole world superpower, if you cannot grant relief, then who else can?
Translated by The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD)