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Robert Azzi: Today, let us celebrate Jamal Khashoggi’s birthday

  • In Washington on Wednesday, people hold signs during a protest at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. AP

  • President Donald Trump is handed a sword during a welcoming ceremony at Murabba Palace, Saturday, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh. AP



For the Monitor
Sunday, October 14, 2018

I’ve known Jamal Khashoggi since the 1980s, when I met him in Jeddah and he worked for the Saudi Gazette. Our lives have often intersected, both in Saudi Arabia and in the United States, especially when he worked for the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

His birthday was yesterday, Saturday, Oct. 13 – he turned 60!

Happy birthday, Jamal.

Until there is proof of his death, of his being killed by those who consider him an enemy of the people, I will continue to write of him in the present tense.

Happy birthday, Jamal.

Jamal, a legal permanent resident of the United States, where he’s been living and writing as a columnist for the Washington Post, has disappeared. He was last seen entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul where he hoped to finalize documents that would enable him to marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and begin a new life.

Jamal loves Saudi Arabia. He left Saudi Arabia to live in America because, as a journalist and critic, he feared for his freedom and safety. In the mold of a true patriot he believes that to love something, or someone, one is compelled to criticize and call to account those who put the object of one’s affection in jeopardy – even if one has to go into self-imposed exile.

And the objects of Jamal’s affections are Islam, Saudi Arabia and Hatice Cengiz.

It’s believed by many, based on reporting primarily from Turkish sources, that Jamal was killed by a hit team sent to Istanbul from Saudi Arabia on the orders of the Saudi government, a government run by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, popularly known by those who express some knowledge or friendship with him – especially by sycophants like Jared Kushner – as MBS.

MBS, in the mold of dictators and strongmen everywhere, takes personally the fact that Jamal criticizes his form of governance, his recklessness in conflicts like Yemen, Qatar and Iran, and his totalitarian rule, his intolerance for dissent and penchant for the disappearing, imprisoning, torturing and sometimes executing those he perceives to be his enemies – including other members of the royal family.

Jamal wrote, after attending the Oslo Freedom Forum and listening to the tales of activists and dissidents, “The frustrating thing here is not only the repetition and similarity of the stories, as if the tyrants were settling (sic from translation) in from one poisoned well, but the indifference of the world.”

Today, a major source of that indifference sits in our White House.

And in that White House sits President Donald J. Trump, who has sworn to defend America from foes domestic and foreign – an America where Jamal’s a legal resident and green card holder – has shown himself, this week, once again, a wannabe authoritarian from whose office that poisoned well is nourished.

It took a week for Trump to issue the most anodyne of statements of concern for Jamal.

Last week, as news emerged that Jamal had disappeared and that Saudi Arabia was at the very least complicit with his disappearance, Trump demonstrated little concern saying: “It would not be a positive. I would not be happy at all.”

Later, when asked if America should consider suspending arms sales if the Kingdom was found to be complicit in Jamal’s disappearance or death, Trump demurred:

“Well, I think that would be hurting us. We have jobs. . . . We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before. Part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems, and everybody’s wanting ’em, and frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”

Trump’s world is all about him.

In Trump’s amoral world profits trump justice, humanity, truth, empathy and vision.

Jamal and I last chatted after he wrote a piece about the imprisonment of Saudi women activists – just as other women were being allowed to drive – because they appeared to be getting the credit for changing Saudi policy – credit MBS wanted exclusively for himself.

I told him I remember being in Riyadh on Nov. 6, 1990, when more than 40 Saudi women protested against the driving ban by organizing and driving together in a convoy until stopped by the Mutawa’ah, religious police.

I said – in a moment of historical irony reflecting on MBS’s behavior – that it was his father, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, then governor of Riyadh Province and today the King, who interceded on behalf of the women, perhaps saving them from grievous punishment at the hands of the Mutawa’ah.

While those women and their families paid for their protests – fired from government jobs, banned from travel for a year and denounced as being immoral women challenging societal norms – it was a price significantly less than they would have paid by being punished by the religious authorities.

Jamal told me that I should write about that.

Sorry, Jamal. I never got around to it.

Sorry.

Today, I believe, if Jamal has been murdered, that his blood will be on many hands.

Trump, whose hateful, inciteful insistence that the press is the “enemy of the people” and that news disagreeable to authoritarians, dictators and autocrats is “fake news,” has given legitimacy to the MBSs, Dutertes, Sisis, Putins, and every wannabe authoritarian and dictator that if the so-called leader of the so-called free-world can paint a target on the back of the fourth estate so can they.

And they keep doing it – especially if the guns and bombs keep flowing in timely fashion.

Happy birthday, my friend – I’ll keep the candles burning as long as I can.

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)