March 18, 2016
Whimsical Qatari government releases poet jailed for life
by Kait Howard
A Qatari poet who had previously been jailed for life for reciting a poem critical of his country’s emir has been pardoned after serving over three years in prison, the Guardian reports via Agence France-Presse.
According to a previous Associated Press article, Rashid al-Ajami, also known as Ibn al-Deeb, was jailed in 2011 “after an internet video was posted of him reciting ‘Tunisian Jasmine,’ a poem lauding that country’s popular uprising, which touched on the Arab spring rebellions across the Middle East.” The poet was accused of “insulting” the then-emir—now prime minister—Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and was held in solitary confinement before his trial. According to his lawyer, Ajami was “not allowed to plead or defend in court.”
While the Qatari government hasn’t commented on the decision to release Ajami, whose sentence had been been reduced from life to 15 years during an appeal, the Guardian cites the “intervention of a senior member of his family” as the impetus for the release. But the reason for jailing Ajami in the first place is nearly as opaque. In 2011, the Qatari government had thrown its support behind the Arab Spring in Libya and Egypt, but Ajami’s poem, which they interpreted as also being critical of the Qatari government, was nevertheless seen as having gone too far. Perhaps complicating the story, at the time the recording was made, Ajami was in Egypt, studying literature at Cairo University.
The news of Ajami’s release came in a statement by his brother, Hassan al-Ajami, and his words, whether ironic or resigned, say much about about the current situation. “[W]e have nothing to say but ‘‘Thank God,’” he said, adding ‘Tolerance and forgiveness is an authentic trait of the people and rulers of Qatar.” Three years, or fifteen, or a lifetime: beyond the utter unpredictability, a pattern is in plain sight.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.