Saudi author arrested for tweeting

Social media and self-censorship

He writes books about sex, religion and politics, is critical of Islamism...and lives in Saudi Arabia. Gulf News reports that the novelist Turki Al Hamad had been detained last month, did not come as a surprise.

However, it was not a book, but a tweet that broke the camel’s back.

On  22 December, Al Hamad - whose novels are banned in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait -  wrote :

@TurkiAlHamad: Our Prophet has come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is a time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed.

In a country like Saudi Arabia, there is nothing more dangerous than religion. Faced with the world’s fastest growing population of Twitter users, the government is making clear that it will not tolerate theological debate online.  

The arrest of Al Hamad contradicts the image of Saudi’s relatively liberal Twittersphere. The New York Times’ October 2012 article, “Saudis Cross Social Boundaries on Twitter,” argued social media has brought new freedoms to Saudis:

Open criticism of the state has long been taboo in Saudi Arabia...But after the Arab uprisings in early 2011, Saudis began taking to Twitter in vast numbers to express their frustrations, offering a new window into an opaque and profoundly conservative country...critics of various kinds – from prominent lawyers to feminists to ordinary citizens – have acquired large followings as they deplore corruption and injustice. Most Saudis now seem to post under their own names and photographs, a bold step away from the timid anonymity of the past.

Saudi’s are certainly active online and it is true they do criticise corruption and oppression. But Twitter is also subject to a great deal of self-censorship. There remain “red lines,” and religion is a major one of these.

The Saudi royal family has long been extremely hostile to differing religious interpretations. They have long repressed Saudi Shi’as. Shocked Muslims worldwide watched last year as the Saudi government bulldozed religious sites in Mecca, which did not fit their strict interpretation of  religion. Now, this campaign is turning its attention online.

In April 2011, a royal decree was passed, cracking down on electronic communications that insult Islam. In December last year, Raif Bedawi, a 30-year old website editor  from Jeddah, was condemned to death. His crime - setting up a website in which users could discuss the difference between “popular” and “politicised” Islam. This month, Saudi writer,  Hamza Kashgari, was arrested for tweeting about the Prophet Mohammad.

Tweeters and bloggers may be allowed to complain about the government, but to debate Islam would be to debate the very basis of the state. The royal family relies on legitimacy conferred from the clerics. The state was founded on the fundamentalist Wahhabist school of Islam. It is this school that justifies the Saudi king as the rightful “guardian of the holy places.” Court rulings — used to control dissidents — are rooted in unmatched freedom to interpret religious laws.

With the detention of such a prominent figure as Al Hamad, the  House of Saud is indicating that religion can’t be questioned, even if its only in 140 characters.  As Eman al-Guwaifly wrote, the message they are sending is:

If we have arrested Turki al-Hamad, who has not been writing anywhere except Twitter, then none of you is safe.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle