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A poet faces death for "killing" God

Islam Samhan — found guilty of apostasy — jokes that his wife is to blame.

Islam Samhan at home with his wife, Nada Damra, outside of Amman, Jordan. (Tom Peter/GlobalPost).

ZARQ, Jordan — For a man facing a death sentence of sorts, Islam Samhan is remarkably accommodating.

Over a delicious dinner prepared by his wife and closest confidante, Nada Damra, Samhan — a poet and devout Muslim — quietly explains how he came to be on trial for apostasy and what the potential consequences, beyond a $14,000 fine and imprisonment, could be.

“It means that killing me is a way to heaven,” he says, underscoring the seriousness of the label "kafir," or apostate.

Islam Samhan says a Jordanian government court has essentially convicted him of being an apostate for a collection of poems he wrote. He went on trial after religious officials said his love poems disrespected the Prophet Mohammed.

Now Samhan, who considers himself a good, practicing Muslim, has three months to appeal the verdict. If he loses, he’ll spend a year in prison and pay the crippling $14,000 fine.

Even after doing time in prison and paying a fine equivalent to more than two times the average annual household income in Zarqa, Samhan will carry the "kafir" label with him for life.

He says he will not be able to return to his job as a cultural reporter at Al-Arab Al-Yawm, a local newspaper, and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to find anything more than menial work. Already, he’s been ostracized by most of his friends, his coworkers, and even some in-laws. He’s received numerous other death threats, including one to blow up his house, and people often spit at him.

“If I lose, it will destroy my professional life and life in general,” Samhan says. “My children’s future will be lost and my own future will be lost.”

The case stands at odds with the liberal, Westernized image that Jordan has cultivated with the outside world. Alcohol is sold freely throughout the country, women dress in revealing clothing in upper-class enclaves of the capital, and Western tourists rarely report harassment. Yet in the background, Islamic groups are working to ensure that their country doesn’t sway too far to the West.

Samhan says that he believes his case is a bargaining chip that the government is using to appease Jordan’s Islamists. “I’m convinced that this was a political decision,” he says.

For its part though, the Jordanian government says Samhan’s case has little to do with religion or questions of religious influence in the government. According to Nabil Mommani, director general of Jordan’s Department of Press and Publications which originally leveled the charges against Samhan, the poet broke several publishing laws plain and simple. Anyone who publishes a book in Jordan must submit a manuscript to his department prior to publication, which they charge Samhan did not. Additionally, it is illegal to publish any material that a court determines to be defamatory of any religion — Islam, Christianity, Judism, etc. — and the court decided Samhan’s book offended Islam.