Sihem Bensedrine, a Tunisian journalist and human rights activist, was repeatedly harassed by the security apparatus of dictator Zine Al-Abidine Ben-Ali. But what finally forced her to flee and go into exile in Spain, was an article published in 2010 by the Tunisian daily Al-Hadath, accusing her of spying for Israel. She understood the article as a death threat.
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"Until then I would come and go from Tunisia. But after that article appeared and I was described as a traitor, I left Tunisia for almost 11 months," Bensedrine told The Media Line.
From her refuge in Barcelona, Bensedrine followed the revolution that began unfolding in Tunisia in the last weeks of December. It took time for her to recognize that what was happening back home was more than an outbreak of disturbances, but the precursor of a real change. A day before Ben-Ali himself was forced to leave the country for Saudi Arabia, Bensedrine concluded it was time to come back.
"I decided to return to Tunisia on January 13, and arrived in the country on the 14th," she said. "My people were doing a courageous thing, and I felt my place was inside, not outside."
The Arab world has long been rough terrain for writers and artists, forcing many of them to go into exile or face prison. If it wasn’t the government, it was Islamists that stifled freedom of expression. The Arab Spring is far from over, but throughout much of the Arab world the heavy hand of censorship and political repression has eased its grip. Now, they face the dilemma of whether to stay or return.
Bensedrine's decision seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Mansour Rajih, a Yemeni poet and writer, had just married in 1983 when he was arrested and charged with murder by his country's authorities. The following year, he was sentenced to death by the Court of First Instance in the city Ta'iz. A member of the National Democratic Front opposition party, Rajih spent 15 years in a windowless dungeon before being released and flown to Norway, where he has lived ever since.
"It is my right to return," Rajih told The Media Line in a telephone conversation from the city of Stavanger. "In principle, I would like to return, but that is out of the question at the moment. Every person must fulfill his role in one way or another; I write poems, commentate and convey the voice of my people to others. Writers have a doubly important role to express a moral standpoint."
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for some 30 years, is convalescing on a Saudi Arabian hospital, but the country remains convulsed by violence. Rajih says he isn’t prepared to come back. "Real change must occur in Yemen," he says. "The persistence of the feudal Yemeni government is a shame."
Even though he has decided not to return, his poems are infused with sorrow and the memory of his country's violent history. In the poem "A Moment of War," he writes:The authorities choose the swampish roadTheir language is forceThey want to make a prison for the peoplenot a countryLove turns away:Friendship turns awayas do all forms of compassionNothing remainsof life’s visagebut authority:ExecutionerDictatorThe drums of warAnd the trees are fading in the distance
Helge Lunde, executive director of the Norway-based International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), an association of 40 cities worldwide that provide safe-haven for persecuted writers, says among the Arabs being hosted by his network only Bensedrine has gone home since the start of the Arab Spring.
Lunde has hosted Rajih in his own city and witnessed how emotionally involved he is with the affairs of Yemen. "I often hear Mansour shouting on the phone when he's speaking to Yemen," Lunde told The Media Line.
Nada Yousif, a 28-year-old poet and journalist from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, used to write articles about women's issues, criticizing the imposition of the veil on women in her city. Yousif was forced to flee her country in 2007 after being threatened by extremist Islamist groups.
Iraq is formally ruled by a democratically elected government, but Islamists continue to engage in violence. On Monday, bombings and booby-trapped vehicles killed at least 10 people and injured dozens more. June was the deadliest month for Iraqi civilians this year with more than 340 killed, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
"I can't return to Iraq, because if I return I will certainly be killed," Yousif told The Media Line in a phone conversation from the Norwegian city of Molde which has hosted her for nearly five years. "I'm less concerned about the government than about individuals who are interested in harming me."
Yousif says most journalists she knew from Iraq had already fled the country for fear of being tried or even killed for writing critically. She tries to follow current events in Iraq and speaks publicly on Iraqi women's issues in her community.
"People here are happy to hear about the situation in Iraq. I give them new ideas and information," she said. "I hope to return one day and study the situation firsthand. It's different than just reading about it."
Award-winning poet Faraj Bayrakdar says he would return to his native Syria tomorrow if it were not for his son's medical condition, even though President Bashar Al-Asad remains in power and mass protests have led to the death of 1,400 people and the arrest of some 12,000.
Bayrakdar spent 14 years in a Syrian prison, half of them incommunicado, for belonging to a Communist party.
"I could give in to nostalgia and return to Syria, but I would be harming my son who suffers from autism and would receive inadequate medical treatment in Syria," Bayrakdar told The Media Line. "Every writer must reflect on whether he contributes more abroad or in his own country. If he contributes more at home, I think remaining abroad is a point against him."
Bayrakdar says that returning would boost the morale of his fellow Syrians engaged in a bloody battle against the regime, but he also plays an important role in his adoptive country of Sweden.
"I feel I have accomplished a lot here," he says. "I constantly give interviews to local media. There are even people inside Syria who thank me for bringing their plight to world opinion."
Bensedrine of Tunisia says she sympathizes with Arab expatriates who don’t return, but she thinks they are mistaken.
"There are countries, like Syria, where people face the real threat of being killed," she says. "On the other hand, this is a moment we've been fighting for our entire lives. It's much better to be inside for it."