On Dry Pens, Sealed Lips & Common Colds [Archives:2000/09/Focus]

February 28 2000

Common Sense
By: Hassan Al-Haifi
The three men and the woman accompanying them had just come out of a meeting of prominent journalists in Yemen. Ibrahim one of the leading writers of an opposition party paper, which was once a partner in the ruling coalition, commented: “I do not know what to make of the present situation. Journalism in Yemen, over the past ten years has become beset by so many changes, so many disappointments and is presently faced by an increasingly unwelcome field. I find it now increasingly difficult put what I want to say into print.
A colleague from an independent English paper said: “You guys must not ever wane in your determinations to get the truth out to the people, no matter what the consequences are. As long as the government proclaims we have democracy and freedom of expression, then we have an obligation to test their commitment to democracy and the sincerity behind their proclamation of welcoming criticism.””Farouk, there are large discrepancies behind all these government claims and declarations – and the law – and the reality that we face,” said Murshid who comes from another opposition party, whose mouthpiece has been subjected to closures more than any other paper, continuing, “The government policy on Press Freedom is:
Yes, you have a right to write,
But it has to be what we see is right,
So, do not try to be so bright,
Or else we will resort to fright,
To show you might makes right;
Against criticism we will fight
And not hesitate to bite,
To show you the extent of our spite,
From which there is no respite
By prayers or flight,
In broad daylight
Or under the darkness of night,
Now, do you see the light?”
“That is very good Murshid! Apparently the closure of your newspaper is freeing you to explore some potential talents. What other talents have come out beside poetry since your paper closed?” remarked the sole woman in the group.
“Farida, believe it or not, I have even turned to palm reading and astrology to bite the time away. I wanted to take advantage of the free time to read. A friend of mine had been kind enough to send me some novels and history books from Beirut, but the Ministry of Information has confiscated them. For four months now, the MOI has not been able to determine if the “Old Man and the Sea”, by Ernest Hemingway or the novels of Georgi Zeidan*, among other books of similar detriment to national security and public morals, are not a national threat, and if they would not lead to further corruption of my already astray mind. Furthermore, they would like me to sign an undertaking not to write any other articles “distorting the image of the state, in the eyes of the public.” 

When I suggested that they rephrase the pledge ‘to only write the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!’ they promised to come back to me in a week. When they did not contact me, I went back and asked for my books – ready to sign the revised pledge. They said that the revised pledge has yet to be considered. It might require the formation of a committee to first consider if the books should be dealt with separately from the pledge. If so, then two committees will be formed to look into each one. When both committees come up with their decisions, they will be referred to the Ministry of Legal Affairs to ensure the compliance of their decisions with the existing laws. When I asked how long this whole process takes, the MOI official said, while assuring that no firm commitment is implied thereof, from six months to two years, with the latter holding sway. That was when I decided to go into palm reading and other explorations of the mystical.”He then asked Farida:

“Say, Farida, what progress has been made in getting your women’s paper going?””Progress! What progress can you expect from a government bureaucracy that has mastered the art of turning normal routine procedures into a hard time Ð in particular when it is for a matter that has to do with the press? Things appeared to be encouraging at the start, but then someone raised the fear that the magazine might advertise women’s lingerie with prohibitive pictures of women in their undies. That opened up a whole span of religious and moral questions about the magazine that must be dealt with by a Higher Committee for the Protection of the Moral Persuasion of Women, which is recently being considered for formation. The matter is being referred to the Council of Ministers for decision. So our application has now entered the 6 months – to 3 years category, also with the latter more likely to hold sway.
Say, Ali, you have not said anything, nor did you speak up in the journalists meeting, which is not really like you”, said Farida as she turned to the fourth journalist, in the group.
He did not answer!
Murshid quickly explained Ali’s predicament: “Poor Ali! He has just been sentenced to the most unusual penalty ever imposed on any journalist, probably anywhere in the world. He has been given a life sentence of sealed lips. Ali’s crime was that he rose up in the trial of our colleague, who was sentenced to dry his pen for the rest of his life, to state after hearing the sentence: ”
That means our friend here can not even write his last will and testament, which is a God given right stipulated in the Koran!” Because of that, the Judge turned around and passed his other historic sentence on Ali, thus sealing his lips forever.
Farouk sympathized with Ali: “Poor Ali, Suppose he catches a cold and he cannot breathe from his nose any more. On the other hand, what about eating?
“The Judge, was not to be outdone by such minor difficulties,” replied Murshid, further explaining, “For the first problem, His Honor ordered the Ministry of Health to prevent the flu virus from ever approaching his nostrils, while at the same time, he ordered that the Higher Tender Committee of the Government to announce an international tender for a life-time supply of vitamin C injections, to be financed by the donor community and to be administered twice a day to Ali by the Minister of Health himself, to increase Ali’s defenses against the common cold. For the second problem, he ordered the reinstatement of Ali’s umbilical cord, adapting it for use externally with a modified connection and valve to the INTERNET.”
“But why to the INTERNET?” asked Farida, somewhat puzzled by the odd connection.
“You should never underestimate the super intelligence of Their Honors, as Farouk helped to clarify any perplexing questioning of the Judge’s wisdom, “His honor himself explained that the international agencies and non-governmental organizations are all connected to the INTERNET. Since these establishments are so astute about defending and supporting people, who forget that freedom of expression must have its limitations, whether on matters of international relations or judicial decisions, then it should be up to them to find ways to provide the support that Ali will need to make up for his inability to eat from his closed mouth. He added that he has ‘made it easier for by relieving them of the reactivation of his umbilical cord’. Now it should not be difficult for them to find means to give Ali the nutrition he will need to carry on by using the INTERNET to get it to his umbilical cord. The Judge also indicated how merciful his judgement was by noting that this decision avoids any further processing for public fund allocations from the State Budget, which is ‘more difficult than the reactivation of his umbilical cord’.
Murshid brought out one problem still pending: “Ali is unable to find out where his mother threw away his umbilical cord. Accordingly, the Ministry of Social Affairs has been asked by the Council of Ministers to order the Maternal and Infant Care Unit to look into the matter.”Farida commented: “With the government so busy on such very important issues it is understandable now why the Yemeni Ð Saudi standoff issue could not be addressed decisively.”
* A popular Lebanese novelist whose work used historical events, especially those that date back to early Islamic history, as background for his efforts.