Regarding the Self-Deceptions that Believe the Lie
Outside the American Museum of Natural History for the PEN 2006 Literary gala. 7:20 PM. Photo: JH.

2006 PEN Literary gala. In 1987, Barbara Goldsmith, the best-selling author and philanthropist, and the PEN American Center established the “PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award” to be given annually to writers who are being persecuted for writing. For writing. For writing (i.e., saying) what someone else, namely some political operative, doesn’t want to hear, or see in print; something that is destructive to someone else’s pretty self-delusions and self-deceptions.

The award was conceived in order to focus worldwide media attention on the condition of persecuted writers. In this country, we have a Constitution with a First Amendment that guarantees that right of freedom of expression.

As Ms. Goldsmith said last night at the 2006 PEN Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History: “We’re not naïve enough to think that censorship does not exist here in the United States but, however violated this safeguard is in place .... Other countries are not so lucky. Imprisonment, torture, disappearance, death are sometimes the price of free expression.”

Repression is the oldest political trick in the book. It goes on in varying degrees everywhere in our lives and very often in our politics, most especially in establishing (or established) political dictatorships. It always ... always ... ultimately spells failure for its practitioners although the truth may be a very long time in coming and therefore, alas, the lesson is seemingly never learned.

Last night was the twentieth time the Awards have been given. The winners are chosen as representative of all the writers that PEN tries to protect every year. Of the 30 recipients chosen over the years, 28 of them have since been released from incarceration or imprisonment and some were released within a few months of the awards presentation. This year the two winners Mohammed Benchicou of Algeria and Rakhim Esenov of Turkmenistan, represent 1010 writers in 98 countries that PEN is trying to protect or rescue from persecution.

Year after year when Goldsmith has stood before
the audience at the annual Pen Dinner to announce the year’s recipients, she concludes her speech with the caution: “Keep the Spotlight On!” – on the persecuted and the countries doing the persecution. Last night when she made that remark she added that she never actually expected to see a recipient appear in person. But last night was the exception.

Rakhim Esenov of Turkmenistan (a former Soviet Satellite Republic), is a novelist, historian and freelance correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Two years ago, Mr Esenov was questioned by members of the Turkmen Ministry of National Security (MNB) when he returned to his country after receiving medical treatment abroad. During his interrogation, he suffered a stroke, and was taken to a hospital. Two days later they interrogated him again, then arrested him and put him in prison.

Rakhim Esenov, recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award with Diane Sawyer

The initial accusation was of smuggling 800 copies of his banned novel Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer) into Turkmenistan from Russia. He denied the charge and it was dropped, but then they came up with a new one: “Inciting social, national and religious hatred using the mass media.” After a year in prison, he was released but was required to remain in Turkmenistan instead of traveling outside the country (to Moscow) to receive badly needed medical treatment not available in his country.

Last night, thanks to massive efforts of PEN and the US Embassy in Turkmenistan, and for the first time in the history of PEN dinners, Barbara Goldsmith greeted the recipient in person. Mr. Esenov was allowed to travel with his daughter to New York to receive his award.

And this was Mr. Esenov’s speech of acceptance:

Asalam aleikum! Peace be unto you!

Dear friends, esteemed men and women of the pen,

Gratitude is like love which speaks not. The more a person swears his love, the less he is believed, for great love proves itself not through words but through deeds. But I cannot keep silent. My tongue will burn, as the Turkmen say.

I’ll be brief. Thank you, America. Thank you to your noble sons and your worthy daughters whose efforts gave me freedom and brought me here to this wonderful hall. It is very noble and humane to fight for someone you don’t know, and to see them as a human being.

Would that I could mention everyone by name. Would that I could embrace all 3,100 members of PEN American Center who experienced another’s pain, another’s suffering.

In my heart I embrace you.

In the Gospels it says “Hallowed be Thy name.” And so I say to you, “Hallowed be your name, dear friends.”

Thank you.

There was a second PEN/Barbara Goldsmith award winner last nightMohammed Benchicou of Algeria who could not be there because he is in jail in Algeria. Mr. Benchicou owned a newspaper called Le Matin which was closed during the run-up to the 2004 Algerian presidential election. Mr. Benchicou’s “crimes” included publishing a satirical book about the Algerian president entitled “Bouteflika, an Algerian Fraud.”

He was arrested in 2003 on return from France, charged with currency violations. He was sentenced to a two-year prison term and a fine of 20 million dinars ($280,000.)

His prison sentence has been increased by five months as a result of two separate libel charges in connection with the publication of two articles in Le Matin (which has since been closed). There are approximately 50 other cases pending against him and he is reportedly taken to court once or twice a week for press charges dating back to 2002. 

Mr. Benchicou is in a cell which he shares with 50 other people, infested with lice and vermin. His health has deteriorated and he is seriously ill. He cannot write with his right hand now due to paralysis on the right side of his body. Despite family requests, he has not received medical attention. Whether or not Mr. Bouteflika is a fraud, his treatment of Mr. Benchicou has focused the world on the character and the politically weak underpinnings of his presidency.

Besides the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards, there was also the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award and the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award.

Paul Newman, via video introduced his award and then his business partner, author A.E. Hotchner presented the award to Sibel Edmonds. Ms. Edmonds grew up in Iran under the Shah and, as a very young girl, immigrated at the beginning of the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, first to Turkey and then to this country.

After 9/11, she was hired by the FBI (because she is fluent in Farsi, Turkish, Azerbaijani and English) to translate messages being passed. In her experience, she learned that her information that was relevant to the 9/11 attacks was being systematically ignored and when she blew the whistle, the cover-ups began.

In 2002 she was fired by the FBI claiming that she had “committed security violations and had disrupted the translation unit.” In her speech, she quoted the late President Harry Truman who said: When even one American – who has done nothing wrong – is forced by fear to shut his mind and close his mouth, then all Americans are in peril.”

Sibel Edmonds, recipient of PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award

There are many people who hold some kind of power in government who either ignore or disdain Harry Truman’s consideration about the truth. There are many others among us who are totally baffled by its outrageousness. Ms. Edmonds is not one of them. She is among the brave and has not stopped putting out the message about her experience, what she learned and what powers-that-be have wanted to silence.

The 2006 Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award was given to Mohamed Hashem of Egypt. Mr. Hashem is owner and managing director of Dar Merit, one of the foremost independent literary publishers in Egypt. He is an outspoken advocate of free expression and founder of the writers’ movement “Writers and Artists for Change,” dedicated to peaceful but provocative protest of the Mubarek regime. At the 2006 Cairo International Book Fair, on the eve of a major demonstration by Writers and Artists for Change, Hashem was beaten by the police and his papers confiscated.

The PEN Literary Gala is a very glamorous annual event, at least in the eyes of this writer, as well as deeply serious in its objectives. Last night they raised $1 million for their cause. The crowd gathered for cocktails in the museum’s rotunda included many many distinguished and often famous writers. The list of Guest Writers and Trustee Hosts (at least one seated at every table) is truly an astounding congregation for one room at one time. (see sidebar)

Last night’s Gala Chairs were Tina Brown, Laurence J. Kirshbaum, Virginia Mailman and Honorary Chair was Toni Goodale with Gala Vice-Chairs Christine Schwarzman and Annette Tapert. Master of Ceremonies was Diane Sawyer, and Ron Chernow, the distinguished biographer of Morgan, Rockefeller and the Warburg Family, as well as the new president of PEN (succeeding Salman Rushdie), gave the welcoming remarks.

“Fear” is the word the writer must overcome when he or she sets words to paper, Diane Sawyer pointed out last night. Fear is the friend of the dictator and enemy of the people. PEN’s business is getting beyond and overcoming that fear.

See what you can do to help – it’s for each and every one of us. Visit their web site:

Guest Writers

• K. Anthony Appiah
• Russell Banks
• Louis Begley
• John Berendt
• Patricia Bosworth
• Peter Carey
• Robert Caro
• Steven Coll
• Billy Collins
• Joel Conarroe
• Andrew Delbanco
• Joan Didion
• E. L. Doctorow
• Mark Doty
• Susan W. Dryfoos
• Bret Easton Ellis
• Frances FitzGerald
• Jonathan Franzen
• Mary Gaitskill
• Henry Louis Gates Jr.
• Brad Gooch
• Adam Gopnik
• Mary Gordon
• Siri Hustvedt
• Margo Jefferson
• Edmund Keeley
• Paul Krugman
• Benjamin Kunkel
• Joseph Lelyveld
• Jonathan Lethem
• Bernard-Henri Levy
• Honor Moore
• Paul Muldoon
• Azar Nafisi
• Grace Paley
• Francine Prose
• David Remnick
• Roxana Robinson
• Roger Rosenblatt
• Salman Rushdie
• Simon Schama
• Gary Shteyngart
• Peter Sis
• Gay Talese
• Calvin Trillin
• Vera B. Williams

Trustee Hosts

• Paul Auster
• Andre Bernard
• Maria B. Campbell
• Ron Chernow
• Michael Cunningham
• Joan K. Davidson
• Jonathan Safran Foer
• Wendy Gimbel
• Francisco Goldman
• Barbara Goldsmith
• Philip Gourevitch
• Beth Gutcheon
• Jessica Hagedorn
• Thomas Healy
• Amy Hempel
• A.M.Homes
• Andrew Hultkrans
• Mat Johnson
• Laurence J. Kirshbaum
• Perri Klass
• Wayne Koestenbaum
• Yusef Komunyakaa
• Jhumpa Lahiri
• Gara LaMarche
• Virginia S. Mailman
• Fran Manushkin
• Claudia Menza
• David Michaels
• Rick Moody
• Michael F. Moore
• Elizabeth Nunez
• Sidney Offit
• George Packer
• Hannah Pakula
• Bruno Quinson
• Esmeralda Santiago
• Benjamin Taylor
• John Troubh
• Monique Truong
• Jacqueline Weld
• Colson Whitehead

Liz Smith and Peter Rogers
Nan Talese and Laurence Kirschbaum

Peggy Siegal

Anderson Cooper
Alexandra Penney and DPC

Tim and Nina Zagat

Barbara Goldsmith and Sarah Rosenthal
The scene in the rotunda
Virginia Mailman and Pam Michaelcheck
Susie Hayes, Dr. Mitch Rosenthal, and Annette Tapert

Graydon Carter and Anna Scott Carter

Steve Schwartzman
Kathy Sloane

Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller

Rod Drake and Jackie Weld Drake with Jim Zirin and Marlene Hess
Arielle Dombasle and Bernard-Henri Levy
Ina and Robert Caro with Ron Chernow
Barbara Goldsmith, Sarah Rosenthal, and Peter Rogers
Gay Talese with Jeanette Watson Sanger and Alexander Sanger
James Goodale, Jean Graham, and Sharon Hoge
Carlo Tunioli, Pier Stiny, and Jon Marder
Fran Manushkin, Dr. Robert Khoury, and Joan Davidson
Carlo Tunioli, Tina Brown and Toni Goodale in animated discussion
Happily resolved
Paul V. LiCalsi, Henry Schlieff, and Dominick Dunne
Paul Krugman (right)
Bruce Addison, Christine Schwarzman, and Bill Michaelcheck
Joan and John Jakobson
Charles Stevenson and Alex Kuczynski

Alphonse " Buddy" Fletcher

Clockwise from top left: Iris Love and Jane Friedman; Cocktails in the rotunda; Guests find their seats for dinner; Wendy Gimbel and Wendy Vanderbilt.
Holly Peterson and Andrew Wylie
Darren Walker and Heather Vincent

Dinner under the Blue Whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life


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April 19, 2006, Volume VI, Number 66
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch/


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/