The following story describes the escape of a young female atheist from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and her life since her arrival in Germany as an illegal immigrant.
JLH, who translated the article, notes:
This piece may fit well with Guest’s translation from the Tageszeitung. Clearly intended to ameliorate the most recent bad impressions of immigrants, it is not too obvious until it gets to Hamd’s video, and then the knives come out, as you will see.
The translated article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (this time it really is from the FAZ):
Flight From Religion
Rana Ahmad Hamd fled to Germany — not from war or poverty, but because she no longer believes in God. In Saudi Arabia, that means a death sentence.
by Charlotte Sophie Meyn
June 16, 2016
The day on which Rana Ahmad Hamd’s life will change forever begins like hundreds of days before it. Early in the morning, her father drives her through the streets of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to her workplace. She gets out of the car, but — once the car is out of sight — she does not begin a new day in the school’s secretarial office. Instead, she uses the app on her smartphone to call a taxi and goes to the airport.
A couple of hours later, Hamd steps out of the Istanbul-Atatürk Airport building. She has nothing with her except her laptop, her papers and $200.00 American. And then she does something she has long dreamed of. She takes off her head-scarf and her abaya — the floor-length cloak women must wear in Saudi Arabia.
“I just stood there for ten or fifteen minutes and looked around. I looked at the sun, I looked at the cars driving by, the people around me. I wondered if it was a dream, if someone would wake me up, or I had really managed it.” As she speaks, she is sitting in the court of a restaurant not far from the refugee shelter in Cologne-Porz, where she is staying for now. Her story bubbles out in an English in which you can hear the Arabic accent, with a rolled R and a P that sounds more like a B.
In Rana Ahmad Hamd’s Syrian passport — 30 years old, lip piercing, heavy make-up, loud laughter — is another name. A name which she put aside with the abaya. For security reasons. But also, because it is a name which comes from the Koran. Hamd no longer believes in what is in there. And that is why she had to leave Saudi Arabia. A story like hers is not envisaged there. Leaving the faith calls for the death penalty.
For the first 25 years of her life, Hamd does not know that such a thing as atheism exists. She thinks that everyone in the world has some religion. Ten years before Hamd’s birth, her father came from Syria to Saudi Arabia to work as a construction supervisor. After about four years, during a stay in Syria, he marries Hamd’s mother and takes her back to Riyadh. Hamd has an older and a younger brother and one older sister. They were a completely normal family, she says, and she was her father’s favorite. When she was small, he always brought children’s books home for her.
Engagement Celebration in Syria
Hamd attends a normal state school in Saudi Arabia — a girls’ school of course. In the Kingdom, co-education exists only in a number of international schools. More than a quarter of instruction time is devoted to religion. The teachers inform her that all non-Muslims go to Hell. That it is a duty to hate Christians and Jews. At ten years of age, she must wear an abaya; at thirteen the full veiling. She has no contact with a boy or a man to whom she is not related, until she is adult.
At nineteen, she is to be married. An engagement celebration even takes place in Syria, but the plans fall through, because the bridegroom does not want to move to Saudi Arabia and she does not want to move to Syria, In the next years, she receives three marriage proposals from Saudi men, but refuses them on the grounds that she wants to continue her education. She takes vocational school courses in English and computers. Later, she works as a receptionist and clerk in various doctors’ practices and hospitals.
Naturally, she sometimes wonders about things, She was sorry that her favorite film star, Angelina Jolie, will land in Hell, because she is not a Muslim. Nevertheless, it never occurred to her to question Islam. The possibility simply did not exist in her universe. According to a 2012 questionnaire, 14% of all Saudis describe themselves as not religious, another 5% as atheists. But such things are not discussed in public in Saudi Arabia.
Theory of Evolution as Epiphany
Hamd’s family is very devout. Hamd may not leave the house unaccompanied. Since women in Saudi Arabia may not drive cars, many of them hire a chauffeur, but Hamd’s family insists on driving her to work and back. They do not want her to be alone on the way.
One day in 2011, Hamd comes upon Twitter again. She sees that one of her contacts has shared a Tweet from someone who calls himself “Arab atheist.” Hamd has never heard the word “atheist.” She puts it into Google Translator. The definition is “A person who does not believe in God or gods.” Hamd is shocked. But she wants to learn more.
She begins to follow Arab Atheist on Twitter and, later, to chat with him. He explains his view of the world, recommends documentation, for instance the theory of evolution, then books like Arabic translations of Richard Dawkins, Nietzsche, Voltaire, Darwin. She would still like to confirm that she believes in the right thing, that Truth lies in Islam. But the more she reads, the more doubts assail her.
Hamd learns about the theory of evolution, the Big Bang, about things that are not in her school’s curriculum. “I cried when I found out all that I hadn’t learned, that had been kept from me,” she says. After about a year, she discovers that she cannot believe anymore, because she sees too may contradictions in the Koran.
That was a shock, she says. She had the feeling that she had wasted too much time in her life, being lied to. She felt alone and abandoned, without the feeling that God had an eye on her. “Islam is not just your religion. It is as if it were also your nationality, as if you were part of a big family,” she says.
Her Family Suspects Nothing
Her family suspects nothing of all this. In their presence, Hamd continues to act as if she were praying five times a day, as if nothing had changed. What she really thinks, she can only write o the Internet. She becomes closer with atheistic groups from all over the world, with names like Faith2Faithless, Ex-Muslims of North America, Atheist Republic.
She does allow herself some small escapes in everyday life. She decides to take off the despised face veil when at work, and to use make-up. Her parents accept that, but when her older brother finds out, he is furious. He suspects she is secretly meeting men. He hides a bugging device in a bag in her room. When Hamd talks on the phone with a [male] friend, laughing and fooling around, he believes he is justified in his suspicions, storms into her room and flails at her until she goes down. While he does that, he is shouting that he wants to kill her. Hamd’s father hears her cries for help and comes between them. After this incident, she is even unhappier, does not want to live any more and cuts her wrists. Her father finds her in time and brings her to the hospital, where her life is saved.
After that, it seems that peace returns to Hamd’s life — at least outwardly. She takes a new job as secretary at a special-needs school, and also begins to study English. Not her dream subject, but all the subjects that would interest her more are very costly and not accessible to women.
When she writes on Twitter, she has doubts about her religion. Her mother hears of this indirectly and is furious. Hamd is grounded for a month — not allowed to go to school, or the uni; her laptop and cell phone are taken away. Her mother forces her to pray in front of her, to recite the Koran. After that she drags her along on a pilgrimage to Mecca, the sacred city which non-Muslims may not set foot in.
All That is Left for Her is to Flee
Hamd has no choice but to go along. “I could not show my feelings, but inside I was crying and screaming,” she says. In Mecca, near the Kaaba, she secretly takes a photo of her hand holding a note that says “Atheist Republic” and puts it on the Internet. “I wanted to say: I am an atheist and I am here! I can’ t fight back. I can’t say that I am an atheist, or I would be killed! And I wanted to say to all the atheists in Saudi Arabia: You are not alone. I know how you feel. One day, you will get out of here.” That is the moment when Hamd has the first concrete thought about escape.
She begins to make plans. A Dutch woman Hamd got to know in Riyadh who in the meantime has returned home, invites her to visit, but the embassy refuses to give her a visa. For a while, she fantasizes about marrying a man who shares her views and leaving the country together. But there are no appropriate candidates. Time is running out — her passport will expire in 2015. She cannot get a new one, because the Syrian embassy in Saudi Arabia is closed.
All that remains is flight to Turkey, a country for which she needs no visa. In truth, women may not leave Saudi Arabia without the permission of their guardian. But Hamd is lucky. Since she is a foreigner and is working, her employer and not her father is the responsible party. Her superior at the school believes her story of a family vacation, and signs the form with which she gets an exit visa.
On May 26, 2015, she flies to Istanbul by way of Dubai. She stays there in a hotel for a few days. In the minibar, she finds a bottle of wine. It is the first time she has confronted alcohol. She tiptoes around the bottle, takes pictures of it, but does not have the courage to drink from it. She is too afraid of the unknown.
Except for family vacations in Syria, it is Hamd’s first foreign trip. After four days, she takes the bus to Izmir, where a [male] friend lives, whom she met on the Internet. Buying a ticket, she has to show her passport and now she can sign with her new name for the first time.
In Izmir, one of the most liberal cities in Turkey, Hamd rents a small apartment with the help of her friend. She goes to clubs, drinks alcohol for the first time in a bar, dances to street music in a short dress. From friends she learns that her family has appeared at her place of work and at the airport and learned something of her whereabouts. Hamd is afraid that her family could fly to Turkey and look for her. She cuts her hair short, dyes it blond and puts in colored contact lenses. If her parents show around pictures of her and ask about her, she hopes no one will recognize her.
Networked With Other Atheists
Now it pays off that Hamd is well connected online with atheists all over the world. Armin Navabi, founder of the online community “Atheist Republic,” puts a crowd-funding site up for her. The Iranian exile, who lives in Canada, collects donations intended to finance Hamd’s further travels and sends her the money by Western Union. She spends a total of five months in Izmir and tries in vain several times to get a Schengen visa. Finally, she decides to travel to the EU illegally.
The first attempt fails because the police turn up before the boat can put off. Hamd must run away and does not get her $900 back. The second time the smuggler does not even show up. The third time works. When Hamd finally sets foot on Greek soil, she collapses. The doctor who is summoned diagnoses shock.
From Greece, Hamd travels through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, stays a while in refugee camps along the way, until she reaches Germany in November, 2015. On the way, she meets an Israeli Jew for the first time in her life — one of that group she learned in school was responsible for everything evil in the world. It is the doctor who works for the UN. She finds him likeable. They take a souvenir photo together. Hamd actually wants to go to Sweden, but she does not have enough money, and she is travel-weary. And she has heard that Germany has a good educational system.
In the barracks on the outskirts of Cologne where she is today, more than a half year later, Hamd does not feel comfortable. She maintains a distance from the other residents. She is afraid of having problems if she tells her story, that some of them could know her family. She suspects that she is considered to be a Christian because she does not wear a head scarf. It is full and loud in the accommodation; children screaming. And when she is wakened early by loud Koran recitations by the man two rooms away, she feels as if she never left Saudi Arabia.
Once she is so irritated that she writes a blasphemous saying on a note and secretly pushes it under his door. The man does not know to this day that it came from her, she thinks. The management, on the other hand, knows she is an atheist and remonstrates with her.
Battle Against Stereotypes
“I don’t hate Muslims,” Hamd says. “I have very good Muslim friends who accept me as I am.” She does not want her story to be used to fan hatred against immigrants. “What I hate is that our rights are taken away in the name of religion — especially women. Religion should bring us peace and not lay rules on us.” It also seems to her that Germans automatically equate Arabs with Muslims. That frustrates her. “I would like to break the stereotype that all Arabic women are Muslims and cover up. There are Arab atheists.”
Hamd is markedly pithier on YouTube, predicts a “social catastrophe” in Germany, because most new arrivals “will be living in the Middle Ages” and want to “Near-Easternize” the country. She speaks of how the right to asylum “is being abused in service of folk migration.”
Hamd makes this video when she has been barely four months in Germany. She gradually understands that she could be receiving approbation from the wrong direction — from those who want to shoot at women and children, who would rather burn refugee shelters than engage in humanistic religious criticism, those whose philosophy is not much different from that of fundamentalist Muslims. When she gives the same talk later in public, she leaves out some passages and mitigates others considerably.
It is said that converts are often more enthusiastic and religious than those born into the faith. Observing Hamd gives the impression that the same may be true of people who have left their faith. “In the Near East you cannot say you are an atheist. Now that I finally can, I should like to buy a T-shirt with that on it,” says Hamd. She has painted a black “A” for atheist, on her red fingernails.
Germany as Promised Land?
She says she is astounded that non-religious people in Germany do not organize on a grand scale. She has a limited understanding of the fact that most of them just do not see a necessity for it in a country where indifference to religion has become the norm in many social settings.
You get the impression that Germany for Hamd is the promised land, onto which she has projected all her wishes and dreams. The illusion fades slowly. She says she could hardly believe that there is religious instruction even in state schools. She believes that children should be spared anything religious, so that they can decide as adults whether and what to believe. She was outraged when she was told that German men, too, can make sexual assaults. For instance, when the case of Gina-Lisa Lohfink was discussed publicly. Hamd was most shaken by her encounter with a young German-Turkish woman who told her that she had no boyfriend because of fear of her family. She had not thought such a thing was possible in Germany.
Hamd will soon leave the residence. The religion-critical Giordano Bruno foundation helped her to find an apartment. Now she is waiting for the welfare agency to agree. And to finally get a date for her hearing — she still does not know if she will receive asylum.
She spends most of her days reading. She goes repeatedly to the central library at Neumarkt. “It is calm there. I feel at home and am happy.” When the weather is nice, she sometimes sits in a nearby park. At the moment, she is working through a book on Algebra. Hamd is dreaming of a course of study — physics, perhaps, or nuclear technology.
“I am always looking for answers. To what comes after death, to how the universe came about and how it will end. I want answers to the questions of why we are here, why the air and sun are as they are. But I know now that these answers do not come from sacred books, but from science.”
|1.||Gina-Lisa Lohfink, known from Germany’s Next Top Model, reality TV, and parts in films and TV series. She had sex with two men, who made a video of it. Her claim of rape was thrown out of court.|
|1.||After her flight from Saudi Arabia with a new name — Rana Ahmad Hamd in a restaurant in Cologne.|
|2.||Hamd in a niqab — in a photo she took herself before her flight.