In June 2009 a Pakistani mother of five, Asia Bibi, was out picking fruit in the fields. At midday she went to the nearest well, picked up a cup, and took a drink of cool water, and then offered it to another woman. Suddenly, one of her fellow workers cried out that the water belonged to Muslim women and that Bibi—who is Christian—had contaminated it. “Blasphemy!” someone shouted, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. In that instant, with one word, Bibi’s fate was sealed. First attacked by a mob, Bibi was then thrown into prison and sentenced to be hanged.
Since that day, Asia Bibi has been held in appalling conditions, her family members have had to flee their village under threat from vengeful extremists, and the two brave public figures who came to Bibi’s defense—the Muslim governor of the Punjab and Pakistan’s Christian Minister for Minorities—have been brutally murdered. In Blasphemy, Asia Bibi, who has become a symbol for everyone concerned with ending an unjust law that allows people to settle personal scores and that kills Christians and Muslims alike indiscriminately, bravely tells her shocking and inspiring story and makes a last cry for help from her prison cell.
Proceeds from the sale of this book support Asia Bibi’s family, which has been forced into hiding.
|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Edition description:||First Edition, First US|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Asia Bibi is currently in prison in Pakistan awaiting the result of her appeal against the death sentence she was given in 2009. She dictated her story secretly, through intermediaries, to Anne-Isabelle Tollet, an international reporter for news channel France 24 who was the permanent correspondent in Islamabad from 2008 to 2011.
Read an Excerpt
Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water
By Asia Bibi, Anne-Isabelle Tollet
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Asia Bibi and Anne-Isabelle Tollet
All rights reserved.
A Black Hole
In prison the nights and days are all the same.
From time to time I doze, without ever really feeling like I've been asleep. As I drift off the sounds of the prison pull me back. A door bangs: the warders are changing shift. Clinking keys, footsteps and the squeak of the soup-trolley wheels mean it's meal -time. A metal bucket clangs on the tiles in the corridor, so it's time for the evening chores - or maybe it's the morning chores. Mine is a slow death, painless so far, but so slow ...
I can't really say what I feel. Fear, definitely. The fear is always there, but it doesn't shake me up the way it did at first.
Back then it used to set my heart thumping in my chest. Now I'm calmer; I've stopped being so jumpy all the time. I still have my tears: they flow often enough, but I'm done with sobbing. My tears are my cellmates. They remind me that I haven't completely given up, that I'm a victim of injustice. They remind me that I'm innocent.
The court in Nankana didn't just throw me in here, into this cold, damp cell, so small I can reach out and touch the walls on both sides; it also took away my right to see my five children. Never again will I hold them close and tell them the tales of ogres and Punjabi princes that my mother told me when I was their age.
This evening, and every evening, their absence is far more cruel to me than prison. Not being able to touch them, to smell them. I'd give everything I have for a moment with them, at home, all six of us in the family bed. I laugh when I think of our endless delousing sessions last winter, when Isham, my youngest daughter, used to hide in the laundry basket trying to get away from the nit comb.
Ashiq, my husband, solemnly told the children that we had to be careful because a louse that was fed on little girl's skin might one day grow as big as a rat.
Isham screamed. 'A rat? In my hair?' And she ran to hide under my tunic.
My God, how I loved moments like that.
And talking of my God, by whose will I'm in this prison now, how long will He make me suffer? I was a good Christian before all this, and the fact that my children miss me so much means I must have been a good mother.
So why am I being punished? My husband found me as pure as the Virgin Mary on our wedding night. And every Christmas after that his mother used to congratulate him for marrying me. I was a good wife, a good mother and a good Christian, but now it seems I'm good only to hang.
I don't know much about the world outside my village - I've had no education - but I do know the difference between right and wrong. I'm not a Muslim, but I am a good Pakistani, a Catholic and a patriot. I love my country as I love my God. We have plenty of Muslim friends who have never treated us as different. And even though life hasn't always been easy for us, we had our place and we were happy to keep to it. Of course, when you're a Christian in Pakistan, you have to keep your head down. Some people see us as second-class citizens. We get the jobs no one else wants, the lowly jobs. But I was happy with my lot. Before all this business began I was happy with my family, back home in Ittan Wali.
Now it's been decided I'm to be hanged, lots of people have come to see me - important people, and foreigners too. At least they did at first, but now I've been put in solitary confinement. Now I can't see anyone but my husband and my lawyer.
I still don't really understand who all those visitors were, but they helped me just the same. Apparently people in other countries find it hard to believe that here in Pakistan thugs, murderers and rapists get better treatment than those accused of insulting the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad. But I've always known this. For a Christian to express the slightest doubt about Islam means dying on the scaffold - but only after a long stay in prison.
These days I see nothing but bars, wet ground and walls black with filth. Everything smells of grease, sweat and urine - it's a disgusting mix, even for a farmer's daughter. I thought I'd get used to it, but no. It's the smell of death mixed with despair.
I'm a country girl, raised among the sugar-cane fields. The first time my husband touched me, he told me my skin tasted like sugar cane. I burst out laughing. My mother had told me that's what all the village boys say the first time, and no one knows where they get such a weird idea. All the girls used to laugh about it. We used to imagine the boys sitting in a classroom, in front of a blackboard, being shown how girls are made. One of us would pretend to be the teacher:
'But make sure you remember to tell them their skin tastes like sugar cane ...'
We were fifteen years old at most, but already everyone knew I was different. There were a lot of times when I'd be left out of whatever my Muslim friends were doing. During Ramadan, for example, I used to drink in secret during the days when they weren't allowed to eat or drink anything at all between sunrise and sunset.
Those days didn't seem so far away until I was put in prison. I was still one of them back then - different, but still part of their group.
Now I'm like all the other blasphemers in Pakistan. Guilty or not, their world has been turned upside-down. The lucky ones have their lives destroyed by years of prison. But more often those who have committed the supreme offence - Christians, Hindus and Muslims alike – are killed in their cells by a fellow prisoner, or even by a warder. And even if they're eventually acquitted, which very rarely happens, they are always killed when they're released from jail.
In my country the mark of blasphemy can never be wiped clean. To be suspected is a crime in itself in the eyes of the religious fanatics who judge, pass sentence and kill in the name of God. Yet Allah is nothing but love. I really don't understand why people use religion to do evil. I believe we are simply men and women first, and followers of a religion second.
It's become a real problem for me that I don't know how to read and write. It's only now that I realise what an obstacle it is. If I knew how to read, maybe I wouldn't even be locked up in here. I would almost certainly have had more control over things. But instead I've always been on the receiving end, and still am. According to the journalists, ten million Pakistanis would be willing to kill me with their own hands. A mullah in Peshawar has even promised a fortune - 500,000 rupees - to anyone who takes my life. That's enough to buy a big house here, with at least three rooms and every modern convenience. I don't understand why they hate me so much. I've always respected Islam, as my parents and grandparents taught me. In fact, I was happy for my children to learn to read the Muslim holy book in our little village primary school.
I'm the victim of a cruel, collective injustice.
I've been locked up, handcuffed and chained for two years, banished from the world and waiting to die. I don't know how long I've got left to live. Every time my cell door opens my heart beats faster. My life is in God's hands and I don't know what's going to happen to me. It's a brutal, cruel existence. But I am innocent. Asia Bibi is innocent; I'm guilty only of being presumed guilty. I'm starting to wonder whether being a Christian in Pakistan today is not just a failing, or a mark against you, but actually a crime.
But though I'm kept in a tiny, windowless cell, I want my voice and my anger to be heard. I want the whole world to know that I'm going to be hanged for helping my neighbour. I'm guilty of having shown someone sympathy. What did I do wrong? I drank water from a well belonging to Muslim women, using 'their' cup, in the burning heat of the midday sun.
I, Asia Bibi, have been sentenced to death because I was thirsty. I'm a prisoner because I used the same cup as those Muslim women, because water served by a Christian woman was regarded as unclean by my stupid fellow fruit-pickers.
Dear God, I don't understand! Why are You putting me through all this?
Here in my grim prison, I want people to hear my small voice denouncing this injustice and barbarity. I want all those who'd like to see me dead to know that for years I worked for a couple of rich Muslim officials. I want to tell those who condemn me that the members of that family, who are good Muslims, didn't have a problem with the fact that a Christian woman was preparing their meals and doing their dishes. I spent six years of my life with them; they are a second family to me, and they love me like a daughter!
I'm full of anger against the blasphemy law that has caused the death of too many Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and even Muslims.
For too long this law has thrown innocents like me into prison.
Why do the politicians let it happen? Only Governor Salman Taseer and the Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti have had the courage to support me in public and to oppose this law from a bygone age. A law that is in itself blasphemous, since it causes oppression and death in the name of God.
Those two brave men were gunned down in the street for condemning this injustice. One was a Muslim, the other a Christian. They both knew their lives were at risk, because they had received death threats from the religious fanatics. Nevertheless, those humane, courageous men kept up their fight for religious freedom so that Christians, Muslims and Hindus could live happily together, side by side, in the land of Islam. Those two men paid the supreme price. Perhaps the fact that a Muslim and a Christian spilled their own blood in the same cause is also a message of hope.
But the government is terrified and does whatever the fundamentalists tell it. According to Ashiq, this accursed law against blasphemy will never be changed. So it will go on taking the lives of many innocent people.
I have to go back to court, to appeal against my death sentence. But I have no confidence in this justice system that lashes out against poor people like me who have nothing. If, by some miracle, I'm not killed in my cell before my appeal is heard, I'll end up murdered anyway.
Without wanting to, I, a poor farmer's daughter, have become an affair of state.
Through no fault of my own, I, Asia Bibi, am now the symbol of the law against blasphemy.
I feel as though I've fallen into a deep black hole with no possible way out. So I wait fearfully for my time to come. If I'm acquitted, my life won't be worth much in Pakistan. I'll have to be adopted by some other country, since my own no longer wants me. I'm condemned to flee my beloved native land, but the fury I've built up in prison over the last two years has given me the strength to want to go on living, abroad, with my family, who are also threatened with death.
No one here is listening to me, so I hope with all my heart that my small voice will be heard outside of Pakistan. My life is not worth much and the religious fundamentalists won't be satisfied until they have exacted their cruel punishment. But I also want my story to be useful to others like me, who are unjustly condemned in the name of this law.
I beg the Virgin Mary to help me bear another minute without my children, who are wondering why their mum has suddenly left home.
Each day God gives me the strength to bear this horrible injustice, but how much longer can I go on? Months? Years - always assuming I'm given that much time to live? I pray to the Lord every day to help me survive long enough to see the end of this miserable existence, but I can feel myself getting weaker. I haven't got the strength I had before and I don't know how much longer I can stand up to all the bullying I suffer and the appalling conditions I'm living in.CHAPTER 2
My life fell apart one Sunday in June.
It should have been just another day like all the rest. When I woke up that morning, I could never have imagined it was a day that would change my life for ever. That day, 14 June 2009, is imprinted on my memory. I can still see every detail.
That morning I got up earlier than usual, to take part in the big falsa-berry harvest. I'd been told about it by Farah, our lovely local shopkeeper:
'Why don't you go falsa-picking tomorrow in that field just outside the village? You know the one: it belongs to the Nadeems, the rich family who live in Lahore. The pay is two hundred and fifty rupees.'
'Thanks very much, Farah, I'll do that,' I said, going off with my bag of spices.
Because it was Sunday, Ashiq wasn't working in the brickworks. It was his well-deserved day off. While I was getting ready to go to work he was still fast asleep in the big family bed with two of our daughters, who were also worn out after a long week at school. I looked at them all with love before I left the room, and thanked God for giving me such a wonderful family.
I tried to open the door very carefully, so as not to make too much noise, because for a few days the lock had been sticking. I'd asked Ashiq to oil it, but he always forgot to do the things I asked unless I said them several times. There was a scraping noise as I tried to undo the lock. Then, bang!, the door opened, but no one woke up, despite the noise. A good thing too. Ashiq worked all week at the brickworks from sunrise to sunset. It was very hard, particularly in the stifling June heat.
He seemed a bit tired just then; I hoped he would get some of his strength back before starting work again the next day. I was very proud that Ashiq made bricks. His boss often used to say to his dozen workers:
'You are the pillars of the construction industry. By making bricks all day you're helping to build buildings and make Pakistan great!'
So Ashiq was doing work that was important for our country. When he started the job, I could never understand why he always came home in the evening with his feet more dirty than his hands.
'Why are your feet always all black, Ashiq? If you're working as a mason it should be your hands that get dirty.'
Ashiq laughed and laughed. He teased me because I didn't know how to make bricks.
I was annoyed. I said, 'Of course I don't, why would I? It's not women's work and my father was a farmer and so were my uncles. They spent all day in the fields. So how do you expect me to know how to make bricks?'
Ashiq was touched by my confession of ignorance. He held my hand and explained:
'When I get to the brickworks, I start by collecting earth in a big wheelbarrow. You can see there's always a huge pile of earth next to where we make the bricks. Then we mix the earth with sand in a huge vat. You have to be really careful to make sure there's the same amount of sand and earth. Now I'll tell you why I always come home with black feet. To make sure the earth and sand are really well mixed, I climb into the vat and mix it all up with my feet. I squash it and squeeze it till it's like a kind of paste. The mixture has to be soft, so we have to tread it for a really long time.'
I was amazed by what Ashiq was telling me.
'So that's why your feet are all black ... Go on, go on!' I said, like a child listening to a story.
'Then I put the paste into a mould and leave it to dry in the sun for a few hours. When it's dry I put the mould in an underground kiln and it gets fired overnight. The next day, when I get it out of the kiln, I've got a brick!'
I like it when people take the trouble to explain something to me, and Ashiq described all the details so well. I'd never have thought brick-making would be so interesting.
'How do you dry the moulds when it's raining?'
'We try to dry them under a shelter when it rains. But it takes much, much longer and sometimes the water gets into the bricks before they dry. If that happens we have to start all over again.'
I was impressed by the skill he needed to do his work. All I know how to do is pick fruit. I'd never be able to make bricks, no matter how much Ashiq explained.
When I left the house it was still early, but already it was very hot. I would rather have stayed at home to spend some time with Ashiq and the children. To cheer myself up, I thought about the 250 rupees I'd get at the end of the day. For people like us, who aren't rich, 250 rupees is a lot. With that much money I'd be able to buy two kilos of flour, enough to make chapatis for the whole family for a week.
The village was almost deserted, apart from some little children sitting on a brick wall, enthusiastically repeating verses from the Koran that they'd learned the day before in their little madrasah. I smiled at them and went on my way through the silent streets.
Ittan Wali is very run-down. The rough streets are full of holes. The stream that runs through our village could be lovely if it wasn't actually an open sewer. Often the smell that comes off it is not very nice, particularly in the hot season, but I was used to it. It was the smell of my home. Our village is very poor, but the madrasah had recently been renovated. Farah the shopkeeper, who took her son Zoeb there every week after Friday prayers, told me it looked like new.
'Shame you can't go, Asia, you should see it! It's all painted white with lots of little blue tiles. It's really beautiful.'
Excerpted from Blasphemy by Asia Bibi, Anne-Isabelle Tollet. Copyright © 2013 Asia Bibi and Anne-Isabelle Tollet. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 A Black Hole 1
2 Blasphemy 11
3 I Can No Longer See the Stars 25
4 Death by Hanging 41
5 The Christian Minister 55
6 Happy Christmas 67
7 The Pope's Message 81
8 They Kill the Governor 93
9 They Kill the Minister 105