If you’re Australian, you’ll know who Peter Greste is. If you’re not, you may know. He was one of three Al Jazeera English journalists* who were arrested in Cairo in late 2013 for “spreading false news, belonging to a terrorist organisation and operating without a permit”. It was a ridiculous charge and we all thought they’d be released quickly, but instead, in June 2014, they were convicted of “spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood”, and Greste was sentenced to 7 years in prison. At that point, Peter Greste’s family set up an email account encouraging people to send messages of support to Peter that they would then print out and deliver to him in prison.
After 400 days in prison, in February 2015, Greste was released, that is, deported. His conviction was not overturned. In September 2015, his two colleagues, who had been kept in prison, were pardoned and released. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, understands that Greste will be pardoned too, but I don’t think this has formally happened yet.
However, this book is not specifically about the legal story. Rather, it comprises a selection of the emails sent to Peter between his conviction on 24 June 2014 and the time of his deportation in early February this year. I have a copy of the book because my wonderful octogenarian mother was one of the correspondents. Some of her messages are included in the book.
To be honest, although I rather enjoy reading letters – you’ve seen posts about them here before – I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy a 200-plus-page book of letters (emails) to one person about one topic. But, I was bowled over, not simply because of the quantity of emails that were written, but because of their warmth, generosity and eloquence. Some are from Peter’s friends, acquaintances and colleagues, past and present, and a few are from well-known people like Julie Bishop and Wendy Harmer. But many are from complete strangers like my mother and, at the other end of the age spectrum, 9-year-old Grace. Grace writes:
Do you like to read? I love reading because when you are stressed or are worried or angry, reading takes you to a completely different world, where all your worries and fears are drowned away from your mind. (Grace Worthing, 11 July 2014)
Some of the strangers are journalists and journalism students. Many of these want to emulate him, while a few admit to lacking the necessary bravery to do so. All of the writers, though, strangers or not, are outraged by the idea and fact of Greste and his colleagues being imprisoned for doing their job, and many express appreciation for the work journalists like him do in telling the truth:
However small, I hope it is some consolation that your cause has given a voice to those of you in the business of giving others a voice. Your situation has highlighted the risks you take, the dangers you face, knowingly, in your dedication to shedding light on injustice and human suffering, and to exposing the truth, from all angles. (Lulu Nana, 25 July 2014)
Some writers tell of tweeting about the injustice of his imprisonment. They describe writing letters to government, diplomats, Amnesty International, or the editor of their local newspaper. They talk of taking part in fund-raisers and benefit shows. They will not, they say, let it rest until he is free.
Not all letters, however, are specifically political. Some are more personal. They want to cheer Peter up, offer him hope or sympathy, or just take his mind off where he is for a moment or two. They do this by telling him stories from their own lives, and or by sharing little jokes, proverbs or inspirational quotes. They quote from Shakespeare, the Bible, or poets like Robert Frost, but you probably won’t be surprised to hear that by far the most commonly quoted is Nelson Mandela. What is perhaps a little more surprising is that these Mandela quotes are all different!
Another common feature of the letters is praise for Greste’s family – his mother and father, his brothers, and his sisters-in-law. They are described as “diamond grade”, as inspirational in their strength, cohesion and dignity. One correspondent even went so far as to write, after Greste’s release:
I hope we don’t lose the Greste family from public life entirely. If any of our leaders, in various fields, have been paying attention they could’ve picked up some excellent lessons. (Amy Denmeade, 8 February 2015)
The letters are presented chronologically, but the chronology is broken into sections: section one, for example, comprising spontaneous responses to the announcement of his conviction; section two, the establishment of the email address and “call to arms”; and section five being letters written in December for his birthday and Christmas. (Several correspondents, including my mum, in fact, sat down and wrote an email on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.) Each of these sections has a brief introduction describing what is happening at that point in the chronology. There are also a timeline of events at the beginning of the book, a foreword by Greste himself, and an acknowledgement statement by editor-publisher Charlotte Harper.
What more can I say? The book could so easily have been schmaltzy, but it’s not, mainly because the writers, those selected for inclusion anyhow, are too unselfconsciously themselves. After all, when they wrote, they had no expectation that their letters would ever be published, so they wrote from their hearts. This is a book of its time, and yet is also timeless. That is, it relates to a very specific event involving very specific people, and yet it is really about big principles, like justice and truth, and about human values, like empathy and compassion. It is, in other words, a darned good read.
PS: Just in case you are interested, profits from the first year’s sales are going to the Foreign Prisoner Support Service. Digital copies can be ordered for $9.99 from Editia; and print copies for $24.99 from NewSouth Books.
Prison post: Letters of support for Peter Greste
Braddon: Editia, 2015
* The other two were journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and their producer Baher Mohamed.