Feeling pain and fear in the marrow of my fingers, I wonder what was so dangerous, so menacing about a journalist whose only weapons were his words. Why were Jamal Khashoggi’s pen-wielding fingers chopped off before he was allegedly strapped to a desk and dismembered?
Befuddled, I ask myself, why would a sovereign and powerful government dispatch a whole hit squad to another country, and fully equip it with private jets, cars, bone saws, and forensic technology to assassinate a man who dearly loved his country? What had he done to deserve such fury and such a brutal death?
I am not sure I would have believed the incremental and contradictory details of this premeditated murder, its sloppy cover-up, and its international reach had I read them in a novel. And, yet, I know all too well that the abduction, torture, and assassination of a journalist is nothing new in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East.
Journalists, like writers and poets in the region, have written with their blood, not with ink. They have been kidnapped, exiled, tortured, arrested, incarcerated, beheaded. They have had their lips sewn together, their tongues cut out, their fingers broken, their mutilated bodies hung from cranes in public squares. There is a whole category of Arabic and Persian literature — both prose and poetry — devoted to such atrocities reserved for those who speak truth to power.
Surely, several personal, national, and international factors have contributed to the bizarre Khashoggi affair. But underneath the darkness and depravity, beneath all the excruciating twists and turns, regardless of who ordered the killing directly or indirectly, who executed it and how, there lies a deep-seated fear of, but also reverence for, words.
Khashoggi comes from a region where people grow up kissing books; where the very first word revealed to their prophet is a short command with vast implications, “Read” (Surah 96), and a whole chapter of their holy book is titled “The Pen” (Surat 68).
Khashoggi was schooled in a literary tradition whose illustrious storyteller believed in the healing power of words. Scheherazade of "One Thousand and One Nights," better known in the West as "The Arabian Nights," declined to be complicit in the ruler’s vindictive rage and revenge. At a time of national crisis, she did not remain silent or uninvolved. Nor did she look the other way and leave the dictator to his perilous behavior. To the contrary, she engaged in public service of the highest order with words — the sole weapon she would carry and the only armament she trusted.
But not only activists like Scheherazade, also rulers and dictators in the region know the power and the lasting impact of words. Didn’t ISIS torch books in public squares? Didn’t they burn libraries with explosive devices?
Kashoggi knew the exorbitant price he would have to pay for speaking out “when so many cannot.” He knew the consequences of his actions, but did not fear them. “I have left my home, my family and my job,” he declared in his first column in The Washington Post on Sept. 18, 2017, “and I am raising my voice.”
Words mattered to Khashoggi. Truth mattered to him. Democracy mattered to him and he continued to push the boundaries of free expression at great risk to life and limb. At his last Thanksgiving in his adoptive home, he knew exactly why he was thankful. “Because I have become free,” he told his friends around the dinner table, because “I can write freely.”
Khashoggi is dead, but his message cannot be abducted, mutilated, murdered. In fact, his voice beyond his unidentified, unmarked grave is louder than ever before. His body has been disappeared for now, but he appears and reappears on the front pages of major and minor newspapers around the globe. His photographs are blazoned on television screens, on banners and posters, etched into the collective memory of a justifiably outraged world.
Politicians come and go, governments are voted into office and chased out of it, but words remain. Indeed, in the beginning was the Word, and in the end will be the word.
Farzaneh Milani is Raymond J. Nelson Professor in the departments of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is the author, most recently, of “The Literary Biography of Forugh Farrokhzad and Unpublished Letters” (in Persian).