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.
“[Samhan] is trying to push his case to the media … but he just violated the rules of press and publication,” Mommani said. “We have to defend our law, but people in general, and especially writers, they don’t admit their mistakes.”
Cases like Samhan’s are rare, but not unprecedented in Jordan. In 2006, Jordan jailed two magazine editors for reprinting the inflammatory Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Nine years ago, Islamists accused Jordanian poet Musa Hawamdeh of being a kafir after he wrote a poem about Joseph that some Muslim groups said contradicted the story in the Koran. Hawamdeh’s book was banned, but he was eventually acquitted.
Despite incidents like these, said Moneef Zou’bi, director general of the Islamic World Academy of Science in Amman, such trials did not indicate a conservative shift. “Jordan has been a bastion of the moderate Sunni school of thought and moderate Islam since it was founded back in 1921,” he said.
For his part, Samhan hardly seems a controversial figure. Zarqa, where he lives, is a lower-income city outside Amman, just a few blocks from the childhood home of the one-time leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike north of Baghdad in 2006.
In his living room, decorated with an artist’s care, Samhan jokes that his wife, Nada Damra got him into all this trouble. The two met at a local poetry club and his work in question, titled “Grace like a Shadow,” is a collection of love poems he wrote for Nada.
Religious authorities have taken issue with certain verses in the collection. According to Samhan, these include the following verses, translation:
* "You have to lay down/Like a flock of doves/Over the corpse of the sky;"
* and, "The Prophet reads the cup of coffee of the sky/A cup of coffee that his women are reading."
Taken out of the context, Samhan says the first stanza could be read to imply that God is dead, however, he says the lines are a dialogue between two lovers without religious connotation. The other stanza, again read out of context, could be interpreted to imply that the Prophet Mohammed is being compared to a fortuneteller, but Samhan says that this was just a different way to describe the prophet meditating or praying while his wives focused on worldly matters.
Others have charged that the tone and style of some his poems inappropriately mimics the Koran.
How Samhan came onto the radar of Islamists was a matter of chance. While he’s respected among Jordanian poets and artists, like contemporary poets anywhere in the world, he’s not exactly a public figure.
However, a local blogger, without any official background in poetry, came across Samhan’s work and wrote that the collection of poems was an affront to Islam. Shortly thereafter, a local radio station was interviewing the Mufti, Jordan’s spiritual leader, and the host asked for his opinion about the blogger’s interpretation of Samhan’s work.
“The Mufti said I was a kafir and against religion, and that I should be punished the way religion punishes kafirs, which is death,” recounts Samhan.
From that moment on, Samhan says his life forever changed.
He was briefly arrested before being let out on bail. His newspaper temporarily fired him, but allowed him to return on the condition that all his work was published without a byline. The harassment and threats started immediately, and his mentor at the paper told coworkers to stay away from Samhan because he was potentially violent and dangerous.
Still, Samhan was optimistic that he could win in court and clear his name. However, the court decided against him, and although he is now in the process of appealing the decision he has little hope things will work out in his favor.
“In the beginning I was against trying to seek asylum, but now I want to do it,” says Samhan, grimly joking that he would even go to Darfur or Somalia to get out of a Jordanian jail term. “I would do anything not to go to prison, because I have to support my family.”
But without any official offers for asylum, Samhan is resigned to the fact that he will likely go to prison. As the sole supporter of his wife, two children and extended family, he worries how they will survive.
“They destroyed so many things with their verdict,” says his wife, Nada, also a published poet. “They destroyed Islam and they destroyed the people around him.”
Samhan says that whatever happens, he won’t give up writing. “I will continue fighting against these dark forces and I will keep on loving life. These dark forces hate life and they want to spread darkness into white hearts,” he says.