The Observer went out to UALR to chat with him the other day on the advice of a friend. Call him M.
Fearing for his family in Saudi Arabia and knowing that the reach of the Internet is long, that's as much as he wants us to say. He's a student now at UALR; 19, but with very old eyes. There's no way to confirm much of the tale he tells, but we've seen the fragments of his blog archived online and other things, so we tend to believe. Too, we've been at this awhile now, and hope we know a fibber when we see one. Still, the old reporter in us must say: take what you will from this and leave the rest.
It started when he was 12 years old, M said. That was the year he died.
It was a congenital heart defect that felled him, something that runs in his family. He was gone for several minutes before medics shocked him back to life. When he died and didn't see God, M said, his faith flew away.
When he was well enough, he told his friends as much. While that might be taken with consternation here in the States, in his world it was met with revulsion. Word spread that M was a non-believer — first in school, then to his community. What started as bullying got steadily worse. Whenever he'd get up to go to the chalkboard or the restroom, he said, the other students in the class would spit on his chair, so that he had to wipe it down before he could sit again. There were constant threats. Beatings.
When he was 13, he was walking down the street when a man pulled a knife on him and dragged him into an alleyway. Whether it was just for sex or over his refusal to believe, M doesn't know. When the man put down the knife to unbutton his pants, M grabbed it and stabbed him. The police were called. When they got there, the man convinced them that M had tried to rob him. He was eventually sent to a children's prison, a "filthy, dirty" place where he stayed for a year, surrounded by young street toughs who didn't like him any more than the kids on the outside.
While in jail, M turned to writing poetry, and tried to think even more deeply about his place in the world. When he got out, he started a blog online. He kept writing, found a few friends who accepted him, and started making short films. On his blog, he wrote about the issues that concerned him: how religion is used to control people. the rights of women. One of his friends eventually wrote a fictionalized account of his life, which sold more than 10,000 copies in Saudi Arabia. The book, in Arabic with M's picture on the cover, exists. The Observer has seen it.
As you might imagine, the things he wrote on his blog didn't sit well. He's got a scar across his ribcage where he says a man tried to slash him open over something he'd written. He's been shot at, beat up, cursed. Every day, he said, there was at least one e-mail threatening him, or his family. Finally, when he was 17, a group of men with the religious police showed up at his house, dragged him out and beat him. They made him sign a piece of paper renouncing his beliefs. If he didn't take down his blog, they told him, he'd go to jail for nine years. He took it down.
At that point, M began scheming on getting out of Saudi Arabia. He says he Googled "cheap places to live in America," and one of the first that popped up was Arkansas. That's how life goes sometimes.
His blog was down, but his reputation as an apostate was known and the threats continued. Finally, last fall, M said he was sitting at a stoplight when a man approached, leveled a gun, and fired. He was able to drive quickly away, but he knew it was time to go. He sold his car, and moved to Little Rock to live with a friend. He enrolled at UALR soon after.
So now he's here, going to class, still writing, missing his family and his home while trying to make a life for himself. He's seeking asylum, and doesn't know if he'll ever go back.
No place is perfect, but The Observer thinks this is one of the things America is good at: taking in those who have been cast away from somewhere else because of fear or plain prejudice. No matter the cause, welcome, M. Their loss is our gain.