Jordanian poet prepares for jail

Islam Samhan, a Jordanian poet prepares to go to prison after being given a one-year sentence for insulting the prophets in a collection of his poetry.

Jordanian poet Islam Samhan spends a day with his family at home in Zarqa, Jordan August 23, 2009. (Salah Malkawi/ The National) *** Local Caption ***  SM006_Poet.jpg
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Amman // Islam Samhan, a Jordanian poet named an apostate last year by the country's grand mufti, is packing a suitcase full of books hoping to catch up on some reading. But he is not going on holiday. Instead, he is preparing to go to prison. In June, the court of first instance sentenced Mr Samhan, 28, to a one-year prison term and a fine of US$14,000 (Dh51,000) for insulting the prophets in a collection of his poetry called In a Slim Shadow.

Although a lawyer is trying to appeal the decision, Mr Samhan said he is not optimistic that a court will hear the case. He expects his sentence will take effect this month after courts return from recess. "At first I was very optimistic that my innocence would be proved, but then I lost hope when I was sentenced to prison. I believe the decision is politically motivated in order to please the department of iftaa, the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers rather than a judicial decision," he said.

Last Ramadan, Mr Samhan's collection of poems caused furore among the country's religious circles because he incorporated Quranic text into some lines of poetry that were interpreted as blasphemous and harmful to Islam. His book was banned. The Muslim Brotherhood demanded he be punished and be made an example to others. Critics accused him of using his poetry to make a name for himself. Mr Samhan repeatedly said the lines of poetry were used metaphorically.

Since the saga erupted, the poet, who is also a journalist at Arab Alywam, a local independent daily newspaper, said his life has taken a turn for the worse. People shun him, his colleagues avoid talking to him and threats on his mobile phone continue. "I couldn't help but weep the other day when my sisters implied that their husbands do not want to see me at iftar. People are avoiding me. I have become an outcast," he said. "If anybody harms me, he may have a legal protection because the grand mufti, who is the highest religious authority, called me an apostate."

The Jordanian constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Writers and journalists are no longer threatened with jail sentences under the publication law, which was amended in 2007, but they can still be imprisoned for up to three years under the penal code for material deemed slanderous to the prophets. "I am really concerned about my family. My son Ward is three, and Zeid is two months old. I am looking for a refuge, hoping that I will somehow be saved from what's coming up. But it seems that prison is inevitable, and I am preparing myself. I will take a suitcase full of books that I haven't had the chance to read before, and maybe I will come up with another collection of poems."

Mr Samhan said he was also confused. "The government is schizophrenic. On one hand, there is the press and publication department, a ministry of culture body, which took me to court, and then you have the ministry of culture itself sending me an invitation a couple of months ago to read my poems at Jordan festival, an annual cultural event. "I recited national poems and most of my lines that were published in the book that was banned, but I avoided the ones that had sexual connotations."

Just a few weeks ago, he said, he received another invitation, this time from the city of Amman, to recite his poetry at Wakalat Street, a popular pedestrian mall with shopping stores and side street cafes, after iftar. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry," he said. Many writers say they believe Mr Samhan's case was an attempt to stifle their creativity. They also said they were angered by the press and publication department's move to take Mr Samhan to court.

Nabeel Momani, the general director of the press and publication department, said referring a book to court is a sensitive matter and that his department consults with several parties before sending a book to court. "For religious books in particular, we seek different opinions, including the department of iftaa; we consult with academics and religious scholars," he told Addustur, a daily newspaper, last month. "And if the books were related to Christianity, we resort to the Church Council."

Many writers' groups, including the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, condemned Mr Samhan's sentence. The organisation described it as a "heavy-handed sentence" in June and considered it an explicit "assertion of blasphemy that may lead to shedding Mr Samhan's blood". The United States, Jordan's largest provider of foreign aid, criticised Jordan in its human rights report in February for reported instances of arrest and government harassment of journalists and other writers based on their work, citing Mr Samhan's case.

The government recently set up a publications advisory committee in the prime minister's office, made up of writers and academics, to consult the press and publications department, hoping it can promote freedom of expression.