Zee the Poet: A Secular Rescue Story

Matthew Cravatta

[ Adobe Stock | BrAt82 ]

Secular Rescue is not an island; it sits proudly among a chain of secular humanitarian organizations whose primary focus is helping endangered atheist-activists, predominantly ex-Muslims, find safety and hope in an angry world. Our program of love is sometimes dependent on the numerous friends and connections we make on our rounds as we work to find solutions to the complex and daunting problems that many face—be it those without faith since birth or those who later in life converted to atheism. 

Our program gets many referrals, more than we can typically handle in any given year, but we take each one with the intention of doing what we can to provide the needed assistance. Just such a case came our way in mid-summer 2020. An Egyptian journalist and renowned poet, who we’ll call “Zee,” comes from a Muslim background but is now a professed atheist. He was forced to flee Egypt with his pregnant wife and move to a neighboring country. His wife is Christian, and they have since brought a baby daughter into the world. Such a marriage, though, means danger—not just for themselves but also for their child. 

Zee’s journey to atheism started when he was young and filled with questions, as most kids are. He was also a witness to the horrors that befall those said to have “sinned.”

He told us about a girl in his neighborhood, about eighteen years old, who had played with Zee since he was a baby.  When Zee was around five years old, his friend, to whom he felt deeply attached, disappeared. “When I asked about her, everyone shouted at me: ‘Don’t mention it again!’”  said Zee. 

“But I knew her father had killed her, buried her alive while standing on her feet in a deep hole. I accidentally heard about it in my grandmother’s house, where a woman was telling other women how her husband helped the girl’s father in the crime; the woman was describing the killing scene in all its hideous details,” Zee said. “I ran out of my grandmother’s house crying and shivering until I reached home, and I fell unconscious at the doorstep. For days, my body shivered, and I was unable to move or speak.”

What was Zee’s young friend guilty of? “Because she had sex before marriage. [Her father] killed her in retaliation, for honor, and the whole village knew of this crime and everyone was proud of her murderous father,” Zee said, adding that his own wife later faced the same kind of threat to her life. “In addition to being accused of blasphemy by the Church and hardline Christians because she entered into a relationship with a man other than her religion [Zee being an atheist], that is why she fled with me.”

These so-called religious leaders—all of whom claim to speak in the name of God—exert incredible influence over the minds of millions; they incite their followers to attack those who are different. In Zee’s native Egypt, one doesn’t need to be a declared an atheist to be subjected to assassination. Merely being known as secular will get you labeled an infidel and immoral in the eyes of society; even the official media describes seculars as infidels and agents of foreign countries. The same media declares that nonbelievers want to eliminate religion and the state altogether. Had it not been for Zee’s mother calling and warning him not to return to the village at one point, Zee would have been killed by someone years ago, he told us.

“I remember the simple people in my village, who were Muslims,” he told Secular Rescue last summer. “When they went to my father’s house and said to him, ‘Your son Zee is atheist … We have read what he writes on Facebook. You are his father, and you should talk to him and warn him of God’s severe punishment.’”

“Most of the villagers had not received any education,” Zee explained, “and none of them knew the meaning of the word freedom on any level.” The increasing scrutiny and discrimination Zee and his wife faced because of their mixed-faith marriage, along with Islamists’ rise to power in Egypt and the return of military rule, pushed Zee and his pregnant wife to flee for their lives. They were already facing the prospect of being denied basic services, including essential vaccinations for their baby, and had already been expelled from numerous apartments because of hatred and intolerance. So they went in search of hope and opportunities elsewhere and a safe life for their coming child.

They moved to a nearby country, a relocation that was facilitated by one of Secular Rescue’s most trusted humanitarian organizations, based in Washington D.C. But this has proved immensely difficult because their marriage is not recognized in that country either; they were even forced to leave a hospital when Zee’s wife was about to give birth, because the hospital administrators also would not recognize their marriage.

To compound matters further, Zee was in the process of trying to get a novel published, an autobiographical work that references social transformations and the problem of sectarian strife in Egypt. But Zee feared he would be exposed to new threats because of his book’s antireligious themes. 

As a poet, Zee had won several awards in Egypt, and one of his anthologies has been featured in renowned publications such as Al-Ahram and Al-Bawaba

Since arriving in their new country more than two years ago, Zee has been working at low-wage jobs and barely making ends meet. Then the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked its havoc in the region and around the world, taking lives and erasing employment opportunities, forcing many into poverty and some into the streets.

“I used to work in a car rental store before the pandemic,” Zee said. “I was washing cars, but I was expelled when the pandemic started. I do not have legal residency [here] since we arrived … and the cost of living here is very, very high, and it increased after the pandemic.” Even Zee’s friends, other writers and journalists who were able to help him when he first arrived, are now unable to do so; their salaries were slashed because of the pandemic. Zee and his family are also subject to deportation by the police because they cannot establish legal residency. Back in Egypt, they face imprisonment or murder by religious zealots. Between a rock and a hard place, indeed.

“I am ashamed to talk about my suffering away from literary writings,” Zee told us. “I tried to commit suicide last September because I am unable to provide milk for my daughter—the simplest thing—but I was ashamed to leave my wife and girl alone to face a difficult fate.” 

“I hope you can help us,” he said. “We need you … my wife, my daughter, and I have gone days without food. I can’t even buy a single loaf of bread for my baby girl, and I cannot bear her starving screaming. I am ashamed to talk about this wound.”

Secular Rescue has since provided as much financial support as we are able under our program’s guidelines and limited resources. When our fund ran dry in late 2020, we worked hard with our friends to find more aid for Zee and his family. However, after a few months of hanging on with no work and a pandemic always lurking in the shadows, Zee again has found himself in the same darkness, uneasy with hunger and insomnia.

“There is no freedom here,” Zee said. “We are in a big prison. We hope that things pass peacefully … and we can someday move to a safe place. We want to work, settle down, teach our child, and look toward a secure future.” 

Fortunately, Secular Rescue was able to secure a grant from another renowned humanitarian organization in early 2021 and has since provided additional funding from its own aid pool to help Zee and his family get through this most difficult time in their lives. We are endeavoring to find a long-term home for them, and we continue to scour the planet for a country that is willing to take them in and make them feel loved and safe. But in today’s anti-immigrant atmosphere and as nations grapple with the pandemic and ever-increasing civil unrest, such happy endings are hard to come by.

Source link

Add a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Keep Up to Date with the Most Important News

By pressing the Subscribe button, you confirm that you have read and are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use