On an unremarkable residential street in the suburbs of Sherbrooke, southern Quebec, Ensaf Haidar has made a home for herself and her three children in a small third-floor apartment. It is comfortable and functional, with a tiny outdoor terrace, just large enough for a table and chairs, and is furnished simply with an Ikea sofa, sideboard and tables. It is a little soulless, perhaps, but it is a sanctuary, in every sense of the word, for the family.
To the right of the television, on which an Arabic-language station is showing a cooking programme, a shelving unit holds the family’s goldfish, Lelu, in its bowl, above two shelves of rather less usual ornaments, including two silver medals in cases, a blue glass courage award from the Geneva Summit of Human Rights, and a badge bearing the logo, i am raif.
On the shelf below, along with a shrine-like composition of a candle, a prayer card and a jar of pebbles, is a portrait of Raif Badawi himself, the 31-year-old Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam. He is Haidar’s husband, and she has now not seen him for more than three years.
Badawi, who founded the website Saudi Arabia Liberals, was arrested in Jeddah in June 2012, after organising a conference to mark ‘a day of liberalism’, and was, initially, sentenced to seven years and 600 lashes. After review, however, the sentence was increased to 10 years, 1,000 lashes – to be conducted publicly, 50 at a time, every Friday after prayers – and a fine of one million riyals (about £170,000).
In January this year – to widespread protests across the world by members of the public, politicians and human rights groups – Badawi, his hands and feet tied, received the first 50 lashes, in a public square, in front of a Jeddah mosque and before scores of spectators.
On the same day that demonstrations against the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France were held in cities across the world, ‘Je Suis Raif’ also began trending on social media, as videos of Badawi’s lashing were circulated on the internet. Haidar, 36, who fled to Canada in late 2013, remembers that the punishment was like ‘a scar’ for her as well. ‘I felt hurt too,’ she says. ‘I felt like there was a lot of humiliation involved. The pain, for Raif, was divided between the physical and psychological. The physical, it goes away after a month or two, but the psychological, it stays there for a while.’
A week later, the second delivery of lashes Badawi was due to receive was postponed, as the wounds from the previous Friday’s punishment had not yet healed. "Eight doctors agreed that his health could not bear another 50 lashes," says Haidar. The second instalment has, in fact, been postponed every Friday since. When I ask her why, she replies, "For reasons I do not know, it has temporarily stopped."
Meanwhile, Badawi has been using his time in prison profitably. His book, 1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, has just been published in English – with a back-cover endorsement from Salman Rushdie – translated from German, after a Berlin publishing house brokered a deal. With an introduction that Badawi dictated to his wife down the phone from prison, the slim volume contains 15 of his blog posts that the publishers were able to recover, even though the website has been shut down since Badawi’s arrest.
On an unseasonably wet day I travel from Montreal, two hours west, to the family’s apartment in Sherbrooke. In torrential August rain I arrive at the modern apartment building and am greeted at the door by the couple’s eldest daughter, 11-year-old Najwa, who welcomes me shyly in French, in which she is now almost completely fluent, as are her brother, 10-year-old Terad (known as Doody), and Miriam, eight.
At the top of the stairs a gallery of family snapshots recounts the story of her parents’ 14-year relationship: Haidar and Badawi during their brief courtship, on a trip to London; with their friend, the Ethiopian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, with a newborn Najwa on his lap; the children as toddlers; the family of five all together, before Badawi’s arrest.
Haidar emerges from the bedroom, a pretty, tiny, slip of a thing, no taller than Najwa, in cropped jeans, flip-flops and a denim shirt. She speaks no English, and I no Arabic; she is taking intensive French classes, but my A-level in the subject is shamefully rusty, so, today, we are speaking with the help of a translator.
She explains to me the history of her husband’s run-ins with the Saudi authorities. An entrepreneur who ran an English language school, Badawi started his blog in 2006. "He wanted to talk about human rights, women’s rights, freedom and liberalism," she says. "He wanted the people to bring constructive criticism, to bring a change to the country."
In 2007, the year their youngest child, Miriam, was born, government officials first arrived to search their house. "They questioned Raif, and wanted to know where the material on the blog was coming from, and whether he was affiliated with anyone else," she recalls.
In 2008, he was detained for the first time on charges of apostasy – a desertion of one’s religious principles, essentially being a non-believer – his bank accounts were frozen and he was barred from leaving the country.
Perhaps naively, Haidar says, the couple still did not yet believe that Badawi was in any serious trouble. "We weren’t scared of anything, because we didn’t see that anything Raif was doing was breaking the law. Where was the harm?" she says, pushing her fashionable heavy-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses up her nose and folding her arms, in an unconscious gesture of defiance. "He was just exercising his freedom of speech and his freedom of expression."
Badawi’s posts that are reprinted in 1,000 Lashes, published largely between 2010 and 2012, are intellectual and nuanced, tackling how society should function and what part religion should play in civil life, touching on ideas about the separation of church and state, and religious extremism.
In often sarcastic or wry tones, he does not hide his feelings about the repressive regime in his country, referring to the ‘backward thinking’ of the religious philosophy governing life in Saudi Arabia, which offers "nothing more than an irrational fear of a deity and an inability to challenge life."
"States that are built on a religious foundation limit their own people in a circle of faith and fear," he writes. "Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens." He also champions liberalism and individualism, writing, "We need to appreciate the person, value their freedoms and respect their intelligence."
In 2011 the situation grew more tense when a powerful Saudi scholar declared that Badawi’s writings were in opposition to the state. "They said he was a disbeliever, that he had left the fold," Haidar says. "And people were saying it on the internet, on videos." Branded an infidel, with a virtual fatwa launched against him, Badawi began receiving death threats, and one night a man brandished a knife at him in the supermarket and threatened to kill him. "There was a lot of fear," she says, with spectacular understatement.
Badawi urged his wife to leave the country, and so she took the children to the relative safety of Lebanon. ‘He said, just go, don’t worry about anything, it’s going to take me a month, maximum, and I’m going to be with you guys again, and everything’s going to be fine,’ she recalls, animatedly waving her hands, decorated with hot-pink nail polish.
Shortly afterwards Badawi was arrested in the street, on a charge of insulting Islam through electronic channels. "Raif used to call me all the time, even when I was sleeping, he didn’t care,’ she says, rolling her eyes. ‘He was always calling me and calling me."
That morning, however, she woke up and saw there were no missed calls from her husband, which was highly unusual. She began furiously calling both of his mobile phones, to no avail. When she found out, it was three weeks before Badawi was allowed to call his wife from prison. After another six months in jail, in December 2012, Badawi appeared before a district court in Jeddah, charged with ‘setting up a website that undermines general security’, ‘ridiculing Islamic religious figures’, and ‘going beyond the realm of obedience’. He was also cited for apostasy, a conviction which carries an automatic death sentence in Saudi Arabia, a country that still practises public beheadings.
When I mention the words ‘death penalty’, even in English, Haidar visibly winces. "This is very hard to speak about," she says quietly. "When I heard that, I was in a trance, like somebody in a dream, who doesn’t understand what’s happening. It was a very, very hard time," she says.
"When Raif heard he would be getting the death penalty, it affected his body and his health too. He’s shown signs of diabetes in prison, which he never previously suffered from, but in his phone calls home, once or twice a week, he tries to remain positive and reassuring," she says. For more than a year the Saudi courts batted Badawi’s case back and forth, until, in May 2014, he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison, plus the fine of one million riyals. "It still didn’t feel like a relief, and we still weren’t happy, because we couldn’t believe that any of this was allowed to happen," she says.
Doody – a bright, friendly boy with long curly hair and eyes exactly like his father’s – appears beside the sofa to offer me a glass of mango juice. Haidar tells me that the week of the flogging she kept the children off school in an attempt to shield them from the news. "For a very long period, I had lied to them. I told them Daddy’s working, Daddy’s busy, but they started believing that their father didn’t love them or care about them," she says.
The school staff, however, persuaded her that the children needed to know the truth. "I wanted them to hear from their mother, and not from someone they don’t know," she says. "It was very hard for them to understand. It’s a very brutal thing for children to hear and they were very sad. They had a lot of questions and were very worried for him."
Badawi’s own childhood was spent between the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, with two brothers, a stepbrother and a sister. When I ask Haidar further questions about Badawi’s family, however, she is not keen to discuss them. "I would rather leave his whole family aside," she says politely. "I have no connection with them."
Later, she tells me that Badawi’s mother is dead, and that since her husband’s arrest and imprisonment, his father has been seeking custody of his grandchildren, ‘to save them’. "He thinks Raif is possessed," she says. Badawi’s father has appeared on Saudi television in condemnation of his son.
Badawi left high school before getting his diploma and, eschewing university, went into business, setting up schools for teaching English, particularly to women, who cannot learn alongside men in Saudi. Haidar herself grew up in Jazan, in southern Saudi Arabia, one of three daughters and seven sons of a businessman father and a stay-at-home mother.
University was ‘an obligation’ in her family, she says. "The most important thing was for somebody to graduate." She read Islamic studies at the university in her home town, and was planning to become a teacher when, at 22, she met 18-year-old Badawi. The details of their ‘meeting’ are complicated, even without the added layer of a translator, but involve some wrong numbers being dialled by friends; the pair ended up talking on the phone, quite by chance. "The first time I spoke to him, I felt as though I had known him for a very long time," she says with a smile.
Their early ‘dates’ – in a country where women cannot travel anywhere without a male ‘guardian’ and are banned completely from driving – were tricky to arrange. "Everything was mostly by phone. If he wanted to see me he had to come to my house or my sister’s house. Sisters – they help out," she adds. "It’s still common for a girl’s father to choose her husband," she continues. "But my father was the type who, if he liked someone, would say, “OK.” He wouldn’t bring a man to you and say, “This is the guy.” " Her parents were not initially too keen on Badawi. "But he made friends with my brothers, and kept speaking to my father." A month after they met, they got engaged.
Though clearly bright and articulate, Haidar has never worked. After they married, she got pregnant quickly and became busy as a mother. "Also, there are not many opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia," she says. Indeed, although women constitute 51 percent of the country’s graduates, they make up only 13 percent of the workforce.
As a mother of two daughters herself now, she is relieved not to be raising them in Saudi. "If things were still the way they were when I was younger, it would have been perfect. But now I wouldn’t want to do it."
She objects to the law requiring all women to wear the hijab. "The veil lost its meaning in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It became something that is an obligation," she says. "It’s not being worn by faith, just by repression."
She removed her own veil when she left Saudi Arabia, an action that has caused conflict with her family. "After what happened with Raif, and then me removing my veil, we’ve kind of stopped talking," she confesses. She is not currently in contact with any members of her family.
"But I feel like I have found a new family here," she says brightly. "The town actually gave us a family. The kids have two “grandmas” and a couple of uncles and aunts, as well as lots of friends. Everyone has been so welcoming and supportive."
Though the family was safer in Lebanon than in Saudi, it was not a permanent solution for Haidar. "I was worried about our security, so close to Saudi Arabia, and I had no income,’ she says. "Every time I needed money, I had to make lots of phone calls."
In 2012, with the help of the organisation Human Rights Watch, Haidar began seeking political asylum, and was encouraged by the United Nations to apply to Canada. The family arrived on October 31 2013. "It felt strange and foreign at first, but everything’s OK now," she says. Quebec’s welfare for asylum seekers is generous enough for the family to live on while she studies French intensively.
She has met no other Arab families, but has tracked down a supermarket that sells Middle Eastern foods. Haidar insists that Alexi, our photographer, and I stay and join the family for lunch, and she makes a spread of delicious Arab dishes, plus some pizza for the kids.
Does she ever wish that her husband had never started his blog, or had toned down its contentious content? "I was very proud of him, I was pushing him to do it, I believe in free speech too," she says. "And all of this has taught me to be stronger and more responsible – I never thought I would have to be solely responsible for three children. But sometimes I have moments when I start to wish he hadn’t, because we really need him around." It is clear that the children, particularly Doody, miss their father terribly; they gravitate immediately to the photographer, sticking close to him and offering to assist him all afternoon.
The day after we meet, Haidar receives news that Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court may be reviewing Badawi’s case again, raising the possibility that his sentence could be reduced. But the news, she says, is ‘clouded with secrecy and ambiguity’. And in the meantime she is not making any plans without her husband. "I know he’s coming back, really soon," she says emphatically. "But whether it’s two years or 10 years, everything stops until he comes back."