Meriam’s courage: facing death by hanging

 

Woman stands at a window, silhouetted against curtain.

Meriam Ibrahim. Photo: Amnesty international

 

Hala Al-Kareb

Meriam Ibrahim Yahya is incarcerated and shackled in Sudan’s Omdurman Women’s Prison. Her twenty month old child and her new born baby are with her. Charged with apostasy earlier this month, she faces flogging and then death by hanging.

Meriam’s courage’ is the title of a story that was told in Sudan primary school reading books during the 1970s. It’s about the little girl Meriam who saw the floods coming from a distance towards her village, she ran fast and alerted her people and eventually saved them. I remember that Meriam’s story of courage was an inspiration for girls at a time in Sudan when heroic acts were not boys-branded, and girls could also be heroines and rescuers.

Fast forward to May 15th, 2014 when Meriam Ibrahim Yahya, a 27 year old Sudanese woman from Gadarif in Eastern Sudan, stood in front of Haj Yousif court in Northern Khartoum and rejected, with great bravery, the miserable attempts by the court judge to force her to repent (ÇÓÊÊÇÈÉ – calling the apostate to repent before he is executed).  With audacity Meriam told the court “I am a Christian, I did not convert from Islam”.

Meriam’s solid stance brought back the memory of the execution of the Sudanese Islamic thinker and reformer, Mahmud Taha, who was executed in 1985 in Sudan under the same apostasy charges.

The story began back in 1983 when the miserable dictator of Sudan at the time,Gaafar al-Nimeiry, in his desperate attempt to save his failing regime created an alliance between his regime and the Muslim Brotherhood political organization. Both were engaged in designing what was called at the time, ‘The September Laws or/ Islamic Sharia Laws’ – a combination of the most militant interpretations of religion jurisprudence (Figah), and the accumulative heritage of Dark Ages political repression. The whole purpose was to hunt political opponents and terrorize communities through a blind theological regime with absolute power, assumed to be delegated from above. The core base of the political Islamic state; the criminalization of personal behaviour, control of human interaction, and most importantly, the persecution of women as a source of sin and evil. The punishments in September Laws were mostly corporal penalties – ranging from flogging to death by stoning, amputation, imprisonment, and execution. For a short period following the collapse of Nimeiry’s regime, the September Criminal Laws were suspended, only to be revived again in the same exact format following the 1989 military coup by the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, and were reproduced again under the Sudan 1991 Criminal Act.

Meriam Ibrahim Yahya’s troubles began in 2013 after she was arrested by Sudanese authorities, when an unknown family member allegedly claimed that Meriam was committing adultery (zina,) in violation of Article 146 of the 1991 Criminal Act. Sudanese officials viewed Meriam as a Muslim cohabitating with her Christian husband, despite Meriam’s insistence that she was in fact a practicing Christian and married to a man of the same faith. But the relationship between Meriam and her husband was nevertheless judged to be adulterous and in violation of Article 146, which forbids the recognition of marriage between Muslim women and Christian men in Sudan. Meriam faces public lashing if convicted of this baseless charge.

In February 2014, an additional charge of apostasy, based on Article 126 of the 1991 Criminal Act, was brought against Meriam. Defined in Article 126 as ‘renunciation of the creed of Islam or public declaration of renunciation,’ Sudanese officials incorrectly claimed that the Muslim [sic] Meriam had, by marrying a Christian man, renounced Islam publicly, and was therefore guilty of apostasy in addition to the initial charge of adultery.  Under the 1991 Criminal Act, a conviction of apostasy carries the death penalty. Once again, the charge is based on the Sudanese official position that Meriam is a Muslim woman. Non-Muslims cannot be charged with apostasy.

Even if Meriam had converted to Christianity, the question of the terrorizing nature of Sudan legal system, and policies that openly oppress the freedom of religion and beliefs to the point of legitimizing execution, remains an immediate and vital concern.

The Sudan regime has been implicated for years in the killing of massive numbers of civilians in South Sudan. Currently civilians in the Nuba mountains, the Blue Nile areas, and in Darfur, are being subjected to mass killing by aerial bombardment and militia hostility, and the official discourse continues to  justify these war crimes against civilians as being against infidels (kofar- someone who rejects Allah and Islam as a religion). However, it’s extremely important to observe here that the Darfur population is Muslim and a considerable percentage of the populations in the Blue Nile areas and Nuba mountains are also Muslims, yet they are not following the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of Islam which breeds on militancy, the repression of freedoms, and the abolition of other religions.

Sudanese civilians across Sudan have been living in this terror for nearly 30 years, consistently intimidated and apprehended by the burden of the oppressive theological regime. The discourse and praxis consistently revolve around forcibly applying the regime’s version of Islam, as they see it, and as it works for them – hence, by default, you become the enemy.

It’s about time the persecution of civilians in Sudan was looked at through the current regime’s ideology which openly justifies serious forms of violation of human rights. Most importantly, it must be understood that the domination of this ideology and praxis will hold back any opportunity for the country’s transformation towards peace, and block any democratic prospects. The conversation about the current legal situation in Sudan must be prioritized, and given the same amount of attention as that given to the issues of war and peace which continue to dominate the conversation in and around Sudan.

In the meantime, Meriam will remain incarcerated and shackled at Omdurman Women’s Prison, along with her 20-month-old child, and the baby girl she gave birth to on May 27th.

While in Sudanese custody, Meriam has been denied regular contact with legal assistance providers, as well as refused medical care, and has suffered torture, beatings, denial of food, and aggressive interrogations. The Sudanese Criminal Code (1991) mandates that Meriam be permitted, while incarcerated, to breast feed the newborn child for a period of two years. After two years have passed, the flogging and execution will occur. Thus, Meriam is facing another two years of prison with the same treatment she has received up to this point, a reality that is faced as well by her innocent 20-month-old child, forced by Sudanese officials to remain incarcerated with Meriam due to the fact that Meriam’s husband is non-Muslim, and therefore not ‘suitable’ to be given custody of his own child.

Meriam must be released immediately and compensated for the humiliation and torture incurred. But is this possible?

Meriam’s case is a test for all who consider themselves to be moderate and enlightened Muslims in Sudan and around the world. It’s an opportunity to raise their voices against this Dark Age dogma and reclaim Islam by condemning these horrific acts.

This case also sends a strong message to the regional and International actors in and around Sudan that unless the issues of religious militancy, discrimination and the campaigns based on persecution of civilians are addressed and recognised as a central part of the political debate, the road for any breakthrough in the chronic unrest in Sudan will remain blocked.

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A tribute to the Sudanese people’s poet, Mahjoub Shareef (1943-2014)

 

 

 

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By: Abdulkhalig Elsir

Last month the Sudanese people lost an eminent poet and public figure after a long battle with illness. Mahjoub Shareef got the’ consensus’ from the Sudanese from all walks of life as the people’s poet. Since his poem found its way to the public in the early seventies of the last century. Since then on, a strong intimate relationship between him and the masses have taken place.

Shareef’s poem has strong political tone, but that is not surprising if we knew he was a devout Marxists and a member of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) until he died. Ironically, while politics in a country like Sudan divide people than anything else, Sharif seems the only one got to break the norm, so far. The unconditioned love and respect he used to receive from people despite his political colour is phenomenal.

His simple and direct poem made of Vernacular of ordinary people as well as his focus on political, social and economic injustice gave him the edge of being a ‘true’ representative of them. But the decisive factor of the overwhelming love by the people his humbleness, integrity, honesty and courageous life he lived. In a country like Sudan where elitism and corruption are plague, turning down entice of celebrity and elitism is very rare. During his wretched life, he got everything that could turned him rich, famous and elite, not just by the regimes who always tried that, but also by ordinary people who love him. Voluntarily, he decided to take their side until the last moment of his life.

Shareef was a primary school teacher. But the discontinuity of his career due to his political activism gave his life instability and hardship. He had a very poor and wretched life. He always tried to remind those who try to help him that the majority if people live a worse situation than him. He knew the road to prisons as a political opponent since his first emergence as a promising songwriter in the early seventies. Also, the succession of military regimes in Sudan made him a prominent ‘customer’ to prisons.

He never stops dreaming of for better tomorrow. His poem devoted to inspire people to believe in themselves. He encouraged them to fight for their rights and don’t accept injustice or make it a norm.

We will built the country we always dream about

An inclusive and a huge one with no doubt

A bird in the place of bullet

Hovering around a fountain

…A hospital in place of a prison

In another poem, he insisted that empowering women and recognizing ethnic minorities, is the only way for a stable and sustainable country.

Marry teaches us

Aisha reminds us

That every weapon should be turned it to a trowel

In one of his famous poem aow fa intazir (or… you will see), he berated police and security apparatus for being used by the tyrant regimes to kill and torture the innocent people. Reminding them being used as a tool to serve their agendas is a deadly mistake.

You are not the soldiers of God

Your are not the soldiers of the country

But in fact you are their soldiers

And some of their properties

Their triggers and their protectors

But you are not going to be one of them

…and you are not going to be like them

Or to eat their food

Or to dress the way they do

……………. Have you ever seen them flood the street in the early morning?

Or came out dirty from afternoon shifts? Or with tired eyes after night shifts?

Have they ever invited you to visit them?

Have they ever visited you? No, they will not.

So why you do that?

I know they trained you to crush, burn and kill with no mercy,

….But you have to remember how many dictators flee and left someone like you

Alone with fear of revenge.

Remember that or…you will see.

 

But his masterpiece and the mother of his all poem is (To my Mum Mariam). It is a very long and touchy message to his mum after she visited him in an infamous remote prison located in the western Sudan called Shala’a. It was aftermath of a failed coup carried out by a military faction of the SCP against Nimerie regime in July 1971. The act unleashed Nimerie’s outrage. He carried a very heavy-handed crackdown on the SCP members. Its leaders were executed in brief trials. The country prisons filled with its members indefinitely. Shareef was one of those, and he was sent to this remote and notorious prison. The atmosphere then was very frightening. The regime media ran a hostile propaganda and turned the SCP members as a public enemy, traitors of God and the nation. This tactics of the reputation-tarnishing, freaked out the prisoners’ families. It is very obvious it was one of the regime’s psychological tactics to push families to play a role in facilitating a way-out for their sons from the political arena.

I remember those days very well. It happened that, my father has been through this ordeal couple of times. Between the years of 1975 to 1978 he was in and out of Al-Damar prison – a prison in a small town near our town, Atbara. I was almost 10 years old. I used to go with my late aunt Noura, one of older sisters of my father, to visit him at the end of every month. My aunt and the other members of the family were not happy with his involving in politics. Once we arrive there and catch up with my father, she starts her whinging straight away ‘; “Elsir my brother, when are you going to leave these things and look after your family as anyone else? My father is a short-tempered person by nature, but in this situation he cannot afford to spoil such precious moments he given to catch up with his family. He tries his best to play down her criticism by putting a kiss on her forehead while playing with me and asking about our life and my younger brother. Once that happened, she started to laugh while saying, no hope, I know you are not going to change. 

In this atmosphere came the visit of Shareef’s mother to convince him to abandon politics and come back home safe. It was not clear if she came for this purpose. But the implicit dialogue the poem based on suggests this point.

 My dear mum Mariam

You full of love and kindness

How many mums do I have, no one but you

….I neither disobedient son nor a thief or a traitor.

  I miss you so much but I’ve no regret

The soldier hurdling between me and you

He won’t get what he want

He is the loser

Shareef then went to tell her about his ultimate love and how he kept remembering her bedtime stories in the prison’s lonesome nights. He told her how those memories brushed away any feeling of fear or intimidation, and how he became more persistent and resilient. He reminded her about his mates who went straight away to the gallows rather than dobbing in their comrades. 

You do not know what Wad Alzain had done?

They asked him; where is the hide of your mates?

Tell us and we will grantee your safety

He never shown a crack or broking down

He went to his death determinedly

 

To My Mum Mariam, went viral after it leaked from the prison. The way people received it was unprecedented. Its flow, intense rhyme and magical internal rhythm make it easier for memorising and chanting. It was moving and touchy. It showed a great deal of what is happening in prisons and how the politicians treated. It turned them to heroes at the eyes of the public rather than enemies as the regime’s propaganda wished. Political prisoners through generations embraced it as their bible. They stem from it their courage and persistence.

Belonging to people and inspiring them to solve their problems is Shareef’s life project. This project does not only confined to poem, but it went deeply whereas practicality worked to bond his relationship with ordinary people in their day-to-day life. To do that, he came out with a social initiative called (NAFFAJ). The word itself has no English equivalent.  It is a small door located in the wall that divided two houses’ backyards. It is a mutual decision neighbours used to take in the old suburbs of Omdurman city.  This voluntary decision usually takes place when neighbours after a long time of coexistence got the feeling that they are now one big family. Hence, they do not need to come through the main door as “strangers.”  In their new reformation to their ‘new family,’ the two neighbours sharing solidarity and maintain their privacy and back up each other like any blood-related family. This Naffaj or small door is a symbolic gesture of how people can be closer to the extent that their belongingness is beyond neighbourhood.

Shareef picked up the concept and make the name a rhetoric to revive the faded meanings of altruism, compassion and solidarity that Naffaj used to give. As one who has no faith of the government institutions like the majority Sudanese people, he believed bringing back the old positive values of pre-modern Sudan is the only effective way to tackle the misery of poor people in shanty suburbs surrounding greater Khartoum. The initiative encouraged and urged people to engage interactively in a cooperation of donation and also physical help if it needed during disastrous times, by exploiting the various skills of people, especially the youths for community services.

Rud Aljameel (giving back), is another initiative by shareef. It is a social organization its main concern is to bring homeless children to community and helps them to start a new life. The organization collaborated with many NGOs to provide shelter and literacy classes. It also helps them to explore their potentials and to promote the talented among them to be recognized by the community. It was open for everyone to share and contribute, especially the young people. The enthusiasm and passion people shown is incredible. The children have shown a great response, as well. Their painting, theatre plays, poems, story writings have a continuing exhibitions and festivals throughout the year.

 

The ongoing harassment by authorities was part of Shareef’s life. Depriving him of getting a job was a norm. Nevertheless, he never showed any quitting or surrender. He never lost hope of better tomorrow for him and his people. Despite the appalling situation he lived in, he did not stop writing poems of hope and inspiration. In June, 1989 another episode of the authoritarian regime came to rife the misery of the Sudanese people. This time it took the form of Islamic ideology backed up by the military. A random arrest, torturing, killing and job firing by the virtue of ‘public interest’ was the main features of its rule. Freedom and people wellbeing reduced to almost zero.

Shareef had his portion of appalling moments. He was arrested and sacked from his job, at the time when he was a bit old and suffering from a long-time disease in his respiratory system. Intentionally, he been prevented from getting his medication, the act that deteriorated his health condition until the rest of his life.

His integrity, altruism and devoting his poem to ordinary people, gave him an overwhelming popularity. In turn, this popularity made him a ‘symbolic capital’ and a battleground of intellectuals, elites and political rivals at the same time! It may sound strange, but in a divided country like Sudan, polarization, ethnic tension, dismissiveness and exclusion are way of life. As I said, amazingly, Shareef rose above all these social diseases and became the beat of the masses’ heart or a ‘beat of the street’ according to the Sudanese expression.

The rivalry of who have the right to claim the ‘ownership’ of Shareef was dominant. The government, this time, used a different approach, the carrot instead of the stick. It started to send him, directly or through agents sometimes, valuable gifts came in the form of cars and money. But politely and firmly he turned them down. The ‘national’ elites tried their best to lure him joining their club with no success.

One of those attempt, a controversial article by a well-known Islamist writer, Osman Mergani, calls for a ‘nationalization’ of Shareef, arguing that Mahjoub is bigger than to belong to any minor group, Hence, he should be ‘owned’ by the all Sudanese people. Dr. Hassan Musa, a Sudanese-French critic and international-recognized painter, finds the call for Shareef’s nationalization under the pretext of nationalism, is a dodgy one. He asked sarcastically; what kind of nationalism that doesn’t include the communists?

Dr. Abdullahi A. Ibrahim, An Ex- communist, a prominent anthropologist and political writer, praised Musa’s point of view while he was lashing out on Osman. Dr. Ibrahim argued “What it missed from those who call for the nationalization of Mahjoub Shareef, wasn’t the ‘danger’ of him been a communist, but he was a Sudanese nationalist beyond no doubt. Hence, any attempt of an impulsive nationalization in order of depriving him of from being a communist is just a hollow conclusion…. And the most annoying part of this call its disrespect to Shareef voluntarily existential choice.”

Shareef contracted pneumonia from prison. The illness affected his life great deal, especially in the last 10 years. He never gets cured, and the disease was the main reason of his death. Although his death was a big shock, but it was also a strong statement of unconditioned love and message of inclusiveness. Hundreds of thousands from all walks of life turned to accompany him to his last destination. They walked for almost six miles, the distance from his home to the cemetery, in a symbolic gesture, demonstrated his ability in mobilizing people even when he is dead. Until the end, his integrity did not hinder. He made a clear will that no one of the government officials should attend his funeral.

Shareef will always be remembered as one of those ‘last respected men’ in the country its elites cannot help indulging in corruption, favouritism and opportunism. A person devoted his life and poem to make a difference. He left a legacy of tenth of poems devoted to his people and his country that once described it as his main love, as well as, millions of young people inspired and influenced by his ethics and goodness and who are willing to hold his banner through the same direction.

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Note: I’ve done a rough translation to some verses of his poems for the highlighting purpose. However, this translation lagging so behind from the poetic structure of the original ones. It lacks rhyme, rhythm and internal music of the original poems.