Thoughts about “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” by Anna Reid

I have recently finished reading Anna Reid’s book “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” and want to share my thoughts about this book with you. I also want to encourage you to read it yourself.

I thought to publish this blog post today on 24 August is particularly appropriate for two reasons: It is six months after Russia invaded Ukraine and today is День Незалежності України (Ukraine’s Independence Day).

I. Background

1. After 24 February, the day on which Russia invaded Ukraine, I was asking myself what I know about Ukraine and its history. The answer to this question was, not enough. I had planned to go on a singing holiday to Odesa in June 2020. Because of Covid-19 this holiday did not take place. It was postponed to the following year. But also in 2021 we could not go because of Covid-19. When I was writing my blog post about Paul Celan’s Paris last November, I was wondering whether we would be able to visit Odesa in 2022 and whether I could combine a trip to Odesa with a visit to Chernivtsi (former Czernowitz), the city in which Paul Celan was born in 1920 and which he left in 1945 to go first to Bukarest, then to Vienna and finally to Paris.

We will not be able to visit Odesa or any other Ukrainian city this year because of the war.

2. After I had booked my trip to Odesa in 2020, I was thinking about suitable books to read before and while I would be there. However, I had primarily books in mind with a connection to the city Odesa and not so much books about Ukraine. On my preliminary list were Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, and Joseph Roth’s Reisen in die Ukraine und nach Russland (Journeys in the Ukraine and to Russia”) which he wrote in the 1920s, therefore nothing about the modern country Ukraine. After 24 February I decided that I want to know more about this country which is fighting so bravely and resiliently against a much larger hostile and brutal neighbour. I was looking for books about Ukraine and also for novels and poems by (modern) Ukrainian writers. One of the books I bought and read was Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” by Anna Reid.

I finished this book recently and I think it is absolutely fascinating.

3. Let me start with a few words about the author. Anna Reid is an English historian, journalist and author who focuses on Eastern Europe. She was the Kyiv correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph from 1993 to 1995. From 2003 to 2007 she worked for the British think-tank Policy Exchange. She wrote several books on Eastern European history. In addition to Borderland, she published among others a book on the history of Siberia and one on the siege of Leningrad.

4. Her book Borderland. A Journey Through the History of Ukraine has two parts. The first part consists of ten chapters and was written in the mid 1990s when she lived in Ukraine. She tells in the first part the history of Ukraine, but each chapter takes one city or region as a starting point. She speaks about the people she met and the history of the place, but then also about a specific chapter in the history of the country. I think that this link between a specific place and a specific chapter in history works generally really well. I was only dissatisfied with one specific chapter (Chapter 5 about Chernivitsi), but that has probably more to do with me than with her. I will say a few more words about it later. The second part of the book which consists of four chapters was completed in 2015 and covers the history from the mid 1990s until 2015, including the so-called Orange Revolution, Maidan movement, the “annexation” or “temporary occupation” of Crimea and the war in the Donbas.

5. I spoke with a friend about the book and he said it is “a little bit dated”. I do not agree with that at all. I think the fact that Anna Reid wrote the majority of it in mid 1990s makes it for me particularly fascinating. There are so many themes and topics she mentions which are today as relevant as ever and the book is evidence that many of them are not new, but the West generally was not interested enough in the country and the issues to pay attention earlier.

II. Overview and thoughts on Borderland

1. I want to share in this chapter my thoughts about the book and give an overview over its contents. I will also quote passages which I find particularly striking if one reads them now six months after Russia invaded Ukraine and I will sometimes refer to current parallels.

I thought it would be helpful to include a map of Ukraine. I marked all cities for which there is a specific chapter in the book with a blue box around the name. Please note that there is one chapter (chapter 6) about Matussiv and Lukovytsya. These are both smaller towns in the oblast (region) Cherkasy. They are not marked on the map, therefore I decided to mark the city of Cherkasy instead.

I will try to use in this blog post for all places the transliteration of the Ukrainian names. Only if I include a direct quote, I use whatever name is included in the quote.

2. The first chapter of the book is called “The New Jerusalem: Kiev”. Anna Reid goes back in this chapter to the beginning of Ukraine and the beginning of Kyiv and the “Kievan Rus” more than 1000 years ago. Kyiv became a trading centre of the Scandinavians in 830. Santa Sofia Cathedral in Kyiv was built in 1037 by Prince Yaroslav to celebrate his father Volodymyr’s conversation to Christianity.

Throughout history Russia has liked to call the Ukrainians “Little Russians”. This is also currently significant, because for Putin Ukraine is not an independent country. He does not see the Ukrainian language and culture as something distinct, but rather as something which is basically the same as “Russia”. This is not a novel idea, but one which goes back centuries. Putin follows in a way the old Soviet line which saw a “single monolithic ‘ancient Rus’ nationality, from which Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians all descended.” Anna Reid points out that Ukraine (“the Kievan state”) and Russia (“Muscovy”) were always distinct and “the Kievan state” is the much older part. She compares it with the English and French discussions over Charlemagne and adds pointedly:

“Russia, in other words, is not Ukraine’s ‘elder brother’, but the other way round. Rather than calling Ukrainians ‘Little Russians’, perhaps Russians should be calling themselves ‘Little Ukrainians’.”

She continues to tell the history of Kyiv and mentions that from the late fourteenth century until the mid seventeenth century nearly the whole territory of present-day Ukraine was ruled from Cracow, Poland. These centuries in Ukraine’s history are a reason for the great debate whether Ukraine belongs to Europe, like Poland or is closer aligned to Russia. This is an ongoing issue, but judging from the current war and all the years through independence of Ukraine, it is clear that Ukraine wants to solve this issue in favour of Europe. Most recently this can be seen in the strong wish and application to join the European Union a few days after the beginning of the full scale war and the rejoicing when the European Union decided to give Ukraine candidate status on 23 June 2022.

3. The second chapter is called “Poles and Cossacks: Kamyanets Podilsky”. It continues to look into the relationship between Ukraine and Poland and their 500 years of shared “common history, first under the Polish king, then under the Russian tsar”. Anna Reid explains that this history was not without difficulties.

However, I am sure that this common history is also one of the reason for the strong support of Poland for Ukraine. BBC reported at the end of April that more than 11 million people were displaced because of the war. United Nations says that 5.5 million Ukrainian refugees are in neighbouring countries (as of 1 May) and Poland has accepted more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees and also strongly supports Ukraine on the military side.

Anna Reid comments in this chapter on the Ukrainian National anthem.

“‘Ukraine is not dead yet’ is the less-than-inspiring opening line of the present-day Ukrainian national anthem.”

I was quite surprised about this comment. As many of you, I have heard the Ukrainian national anthem in the meantime so often (and actually also sung along more than once), sung and played by orchestras around the world, but also as a sign of defiance, for example by Ukrainians in Berdyansk while it was occupied by Russian troops or by MPs of the Ukrainian Rada who continue to meet during this war to do their work in a democratic parliament. When I read the English translation of the text the first time, I was really struck by it, because I thought there could hardly be a text better suited to the current situation. I also realised that the reason why this text fits so well, is because the current situation of an attack by a neighbour and a challenge to Ukrainian freedom and cultural identity is not really new.

Anna Reid also changes her mind about the anthem, because it has been sung so often since independence as an anthem which unites the Ukrainians and which is a clear sign of their wish to be free and independent. She writes in the last chapter of the book:

“The opening line of the national anthem – ‘Ukraine is not dead yet’ – no longer prompts a snigger. Sung, as it was on the Maidan, by hundreds of thousands of people – Ukrainian and Russian-speaking; Uniate and Orthodox; Jewish and Muslim; of every age and class, bareheaded in the snow – it brings tears to the eyes.”

I am sure many of you can rather relate to this description of the Ukrainian national anthem.

4. The third chapter of the book is called “The Russian Sea: Donetsk and Odessa”. Anna Reid speaks in this chapter about the difficult relationship with Donetsk and the influence this region always has had on the general political situation in Ukraine.

“To stay independent, Ukraine has to keep its Russian-speaking east sweet.”

She describes also the influence of the Russian rule on Ukraine. A particular focus of the chapter is Ivan Mazepa (1639–1709) and the role he played between the Russian Tsar and the Swedish king. She touches in this chapter on the huge importance of the city Odesa, a city which has long been a multi-ethnic city and played often a role in literature. Many topics which are mentioned in this chapter are also relevant in the current war. She quotes the retired physicist Yuriy, an ethnic Russian, whom she met. He complains about every sign of Ukrainianism or Ukrainian Nationalism and describes it as follows:

“It’s not renaissance, it’s Nazification!”

That is the same argument Putin uses to justify his invasion into Ukraine and it fits with the impression one gets if one listens to excerpts from Russian state TV which equates all signs of Ukrainian culture, state and language with “Neo-Nazis”. It is worth remembering that this quote from Anna Reid is from the middle of 1990s long before any Azov regiments.

Another topic which Anna Reid describes in this chapter is the forced Russification of Ukraine. She mentions that in 1876 the Edit of Ems banned all imports and publications of Ukrainian books and newspapers, the teaching of Ukrainian, plays in Ukrainian and generally the language as such. Not much seem to have changed. Just a few months ago, the newspapers reported that the Russians confiscated Ukrainian books and school books and destroyed and burned them in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Chernihiv and Sumy regions, the areas which are or were (temporary) occupied by the Russian army.

5. The fourth chapter of the book is dedicated to “The Books of Genesis: Lviv”. It tells the story of Lviv, a city close to the Polish border which belonged for a long time to the Austro-Hungarian empire and was the capital of the “Kingdom of Galicia”. Anna Reid speaks in this chapter about the question of an “Ukrainian” identity and how this idea developed over time. She mentions the first two significant writers who produced literature in Ukrainian: Ivan Kotlyarevsky (1769-1838) with his ballad Eneida (published in 1798) and Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) the man who “contributed more than any other single individual to the creation of a Ukrainian sense of national identity”. She gives quite a detailed overview over Taras Shevchenko’s life. He became in 1846 a member of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius which had the utopian plan to abolish serfdom and monarchy and form a democratic federation lead by Ukraine. He wrote in particular poetry in Ukrainian language and Nicolas I secret police saw in Shevchenko a criminal:

“Shevchenko has acquired among his friends … the reputation of a brilliant Ukrainian writer, and so his poems are doubly harmful and dangerous. His favourite poems could be disseminated in Ukraine, inducing thoughts about the alleged happy times of the hetman era, the exigency of a return to those times, and the possibility of Ukraine’s existence as a separate state.”

Anna Reid describes which important role the Ukrainian language plays in the Ukrainian’s sense of national identity and speaks about the relationship to Russian. Very often Ukrainian was regarded as a language of peasants as opposed to Russian as a language of culture. This perceptions has changed. With the war the question of language became even more of an issues and there are reports that many Russian speaking Ukrainians decide to switch to Ukrainian, because they do not want to speak the “enemy language” anymore. There is also a huge surge of foreigners who have decided to learn Ukrainian since the beginning of the war.

6. The fifth chapter “A Meaningless Fragment: Chernivtsi” is about the city Chernivtsi, previously Czernowitz, which is close to the border of Romania and about the region Bukovyna. I said at the beginning that I thought that this chapter was not that convincing in the link between the city and the specific part of history it is focussing on.

The main historic focus of the chapter is the time between the First World War and the Second World War. These were very turbulent and violent times. Anna Reid says that between 1914 and 1921 about 1.5 million people were killed in Ukraine and the Ukrainians made two attempts to gain independence after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. The first one was in 1917 in Kyiv. The socialist Semyon Petlyra declared the Ukrainian People’s Republic as independent in March 1917.

“People of Ukraine! By your efforts, by your will, by your word, a Free Ukrainian People’s Republic has been created on Ukrainian soil. The ancient dream of your ancestors – fighters for the freedom and rights of workers – has been fulfilled … From this day forth, the Ukrainian People’s Republic becomes independent, subject to no one, A Free Sovereign State.”

However the Ukrainian parliament “Rada” survived less than one year. In Lviv there was a second attempt of independence in 1918, but also this was short lived. The country suffered from the ongoing Ukrainian-Soviet war between 1917 and 1921. Anna Reid explains why Ukraine did not reach independence after the First World War when so many other countries succeeded. In particular the uncertainty what should happen to Galicia meant that no part of Ukraine was given independence and in the end Ukraine was split in four, with parts been given to Poland, parts to Romania, parts to Czechoslovakia and central and eastern Ukraine to Russia.

I think my main criticism is that the chapter includes so little about the specific history of Chernivitsi and its importance for literature and that the period of history she describes does not really have a specific link with Chernivtisi and the Bukovyna. Anna Reid mentions that Western Ukraine produced four great writers: Gregor von Rezzori, Paul Celan, Joseph Roth and Bruno Schulz and adds that both Rezzori and Celan grew up in Czernowitz, but she does not give much detail about the city and the literary scene. From the perspective of German literature Paul Celan is certainly not the only writer worth mentioning for the Bukovyna during this time, even so he is the most famous and most important one. There were in particular Rose Ausländer, Alfred Margul-Sperber, Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger and many others. I mentioned that my criticism has more to do with me than with the book. I wrote a blog post about Paul Celan in November last year and as mentioned there, I have been interested in him and read about him and therefore also about Czernowitz since my school days, therefore for more than 30 years. I assume every chapter about this city in a general book about Ukraine would be too short for me.

7. The sixth chapter is called “The Great Hunger: Matussiv and Lukovytsya” and focusses on the horrible time of the Holodomor, the man-made famine from 1932-3 that killed millions of Ukrainians. This chapter is in particular interesting, because it shows that this war is not the first time that Russia tried to use famine as a means to achieve a political goal.

Anna Reid points out that the famine in 1932-3 was not the consequence of a natural disaster.

“The most convincing explanation for the famine is that it was a deliberate, genocidal attack on rural Ukraine. The groups that the Bolsheviks most hated and feared, and had had most difficulty subduing during the Civil War, were the peasants and the non-Russian nationalities”.

Farms in Ukraine were in the 1920s primarily independently owned. The collectivisation which had began throughout Russia, was not very popular in Ukraine. When Stalin ordered collectivisations, the order was met with harsh resistance. In the mid-1920 Russia tried another approach and gave some room for Ukrainian culture, literature, newspapers and language. Even party officials were meant to take lessons in Ukrainian and the language was meant to be used in all government business. The hope was that this would make communism more popular with the Ukrainians, because it would feel less as something ordered from Moscow.

With the first of Stalin purges this period of – limited – openness to Ukrainian language and identity came to an end. In July 1929 5,000 members of a fictitious underground organisation were arrested. This was only the beginning of arrests, deportations and repression. In the following year, 30,000 were detained and there was a show trial against 45 Ukrainian writers, scholars, lawyers and priests at the Kharkiv Opera House. Anna Reids explains that there were overlapping stages of terror which included: food requisitioning, dekulakisation and mass starvation. Initially, the target of “dekulakisation” were richer peasants, so-called “kulaks”, but with time everyone who was against the food requisitioning was called a “kulak” and was arrested and deported to labour camps in Siberia or Central Asia. Many villages were left half empty. Peasants who were not deported, fled the countryside. In the spring 1932 starvation had began, but Stalin still ordered that the requisition of food should continue. Only in March 1933 the grain collection was halted. By that time a fifth of the entire rural population, about 5 million people, had died.

What I found astonishing and shocking was that information about this disaster was suppressed. Not only was it not mentioned in the local papers in the Soviet Union, but also the West did not take any notice. Even writers and journalists who visited the Soviet Union and in particular Ukraine, overlooked the famine or were not interested in it, this includes so imminent writers as George Bernard Shaw, Lion Feuchtwanger and André Gide. Anna Reid says that these writers had often made up their minds before they visited the Soviet Union. I find this particularly disturbing with someone like Lion Feuchtwanger who was in his books so perceptive for what would happen in Germany. This applies in particular in his “Waiting Room Trilogy”, mainly in Erfolg (Success), 1930 and Geschwister Oppermann (The Oppermanns), 1933. I find it difficult to accept that he was so blind for the atrocities of the Soviet Union, but I assume given the political situation in Germany in the 1930s and as a socialist he did not want to see the crimes committed by the Soviet Union. I am wondering whether there is not also a parallel there that some on the left today are so used to criticise the US and the West generally that they do not want their views to be challenged and see the war crimes currently committed by the Russian Federation.

If you want to know more about the Holodomor than this chapter offers, I can highly recommend the book Red Famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum which I am currently reading and which is excellent.

8. The seventh Chapter is called “The Vanished Nation: Ivano-Frankivsk” and speaks about the history of the Jewish population of Ukraine and generally about the time of the Second World War.

Ivano-Frankivsk is a city in Western Ukraine. In 1941 over 60 percent of its population were Jewish and the city had 55 synagogues. Anna Reid says that the ghetto opened three months after the German invasion in September 1941 and closed early in 1943, “when there was no one left to kill”. A mass grave is the only trace left in the city and the inscriptions does not even mention that the 100,000 victims who were killed at that specific place were Jews. The inscription just says (or at least did so in the mid 1990s) “German Fascist invaders shot over 100,000 Soviet citizens and prisoners of war”. The same could be seen in other memorials, including the one in Babiy Yar near Kyiv where in September 1941 33,771 Jews were killed within two days. Only after the independence of Ukraine a memorial was erected which specifically mentioned that the victims were Jews.

Anna Reid explains that the history of Jews in Ukraine goes back to the Greek colonies at the Black Sea coast which had Jewish traders. Large numbers of Jews arrived from 1569 onwards when the Union of Lublin allowed Poles and Jews to migrate into Ukraine, which was part of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. At beginning of the Second World War Ukraine’s Jewish population was about 3 million people (roughly 8% of the population). The relationship between the Ukrainians and the Jews was not always easy. As in other countries it was affected by anti-Jewish violence and pogroms. Only in the short time of Ukrainian independence the situation was better. The parliament declared in 1918 the “national-personal autonomy” for Jews. There was also a special ministry for Jewish affairs and the banknotes were printed in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish.

Anna Reid highlights that the war affected Ukraine much more than other countries and lead to the death of about 5.3 million of the population of Ukraine (about one in six of the entire population), 2.5 million of these who were killed during the war were Jews. She mentions that most of the Ukrainian men fought in the Red Army, some fought with the Germans and some fought as part of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, both against the Russians and the Germans. She also mentions the infamous Stepan Bandera who explicitly declared “war on the Ukrainian Jewry”.

Initially some Ukrainians welcomed the German army and saw them as a deliverance from Stalinism. However, this changed quickly. The Nazis saw Slavs as “Untermenschen” (sub-humans) and therefore deserving of not even basic care. This was evident in the treatment of the prisoners of war through the Germans who were either killed or beaten and starved and the introduction of forced labour for civilians. According to Anna Reid Germany deported between spring of 1942 and summer 1944 2.1 million Ukrainians (out of 2.8 million Soviet civilians altogether) as so-called Ostarbeiter (East workers) to the German Reich.

Anna Reid also asks the question whether there is still anti-semitism in Ukraine. She mentions that there is no political party (in the mid 1990s) who uses anti-semitic rhetoric (apart from the insignificant UNA). She also highlights that independent Ukraine changed the inscriptions in memorials like Babiy Jar to clarify that the victims were Jews.

In the last years even more happened in this area. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (US) in 2018 showed that only 5% of Ukrainians would not like to have Jews as their fellow citizens. This number was the lowest in the survey and was much lower than in other Eastern European countries. Probably everyone knows that Volodymyr Zelenskyy comes from a Jewish family and was elected in 2019 with 73% of the votes as President of Ukraine. In 2021 the parliament passed a law banning anti-semitism and the Ukrainian government supported to fund “a memorial complex at Babyn Yar”.

9. The eighth Chapter is called “The Wart on Russia’s Nose: Crimea”. Anna Reid speaks in the chapter about the history of Crimean Tatars and the relationship of Crimea and Russia.

Crimea belonged to the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic since 1954 when Khrushchev handed it over to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Pereiaslav Agreement. After the independence of Ukraine the majority in Crimea voted in favour of joining Ukraine, but according to Anna Reid this was on a “low turnout and by a margin of only 4 per cent.” Also after independence the relationship between Crimea and the central government in Kyiv remained difficult and Crimea often voted for pro-Russian governments.

Also the Russian side seemed to find it difficult to accept that Crimea is Ukrainian and she warns that

“there is no guarantee that Russia will be sensible for ever. Many politicians would like to take a more aggressive line on Crimea …”

She adds that the Russian parliament had twice condemned the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine and passed in 1993 a resolution declaring Sevastopol as Russian territory.

Anna Reid also gives a lot of background about the history of Crimea and the earlier inhabitants of the island, the Crimean Tartars. They were Muslims, spoke a Turkic language and arrived on Crimea in thirteenth century. They had their own state, the Crimean Khanate, from 1441 to 1783 when Russian annexed the peninsula. The consequence of the annexation was that a not insignificant part of the population emigrated to Turkey. After the Crimean War (1854-5) Tartars were driven from their farms on the south coast and again many left. At the same time Slav settlers came to Crimea. According to Anna Reid the population of Crimean Tartars were in 1897 down to a third of the population and by 1921 down to a quarter. During the 1920s and 1930s they had a similar fate as the Ukrainians, including a brief period in which Tatar-language books were printed and schools, libraries, museums and theatres opened. This came to an end and the collectivisation lead to the deportation of 30,000 – 40,000 Tartar “kulaks”. In 1944 Stalin decided that he wanted to deport the whole Crimean Tartar population from Crimea. They had to settle in Central Asia and Siberia. A large percentage of Tartars died during a short time in the new settlements. An official statistic mentions that 5 per cent of the Tartars died on the way and 19 per cent within the first five years. The Tatars themselves say that 46 per cent died on the journey or within one year of their arrival. Those who survived were not allowed to return to the Crimea. Only in 1989 they were finally allowed to do so. They represented then only about 10 per cent of the population of Crimea.

10. The ninth Chapter “The Empire Explodes: Chernobyl” is about the catastrophe in Chernobyl in 1986 and the last days of the Soviet Union. The description of the disaster in Chernobyl shows how careless the Soviet Union dealt with a nuclear catastrophe and with human life. Anna Reid summarises it as follows:

“A saga of technical incompetence and irresponsibility, of bureaucratic sloth, mendacity and plain contempt for human life, that Chernobyl affair epitomised everything that was wrong with the Soviet Union.”

After Chernobyl exploded on Friday 26 April 1986, the officials decided to keep what happened quiet and no one was informed about the risk for life because of this event. Even after Sweden noticed abnormal radiation levels on Monday, Russia still denied that there is any problem. Only on 6 May the people in Kyiv were warned that they should not eat green vegetables or drink milk and stay inside, but there was still no transparency of what had happened and the Western media who reported about the accident were accused of spreading “malicious mountains of lies”. Russia sent groups of conscripts to Chernobyl to clear away highly radioactive rubble inside the reactor core.

“The boys involved dubbed themselves ‘bio-robots’, perfectly summing up the Soviet regime’s attitude towards its citizenry”.

Anna Reid also mentions that “better-off reservists could avoid being sent to Chernobyl altogether by paying bribes.”. Therefore it seems not much has changed. Also in the current war, conscripts are sent to fight in the war in Ukraine, even so it is against the law of the Russian Federation, and better-off potential conscripts in particular from the European parts of Russia know ways to avoid conscription altogether. It also seems that Russia is still careless in relation to nuclear power plants. Chernobyl was seized at the beginning of the invasion (and occupied until the end of March). Russian soldiers dug trenches in the most contaminated part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, either oblivious or ignorant of the risks. Russian troops currently occupy Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and use it to store their weapons and as an army base. According to the Ukrainians the Russians are shelling the power plant and blame Ukraine for it.

11. The final chapter in the first part is chapter 10 which is called “Europe or Little Russia? Ukrainia” and it deals with the Independence of Ukraine and the first years thereafter. Anna Reid points out that Ukraine had to do “state-building” (creation of the institutions of a state) and “nation-building” (creation of a “workable idea what it meant to be a Ukrainian”) at the same time. Even so there has been often throughout the history an urge to focus on the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture, there were initially difficulties to define a national identity.

“All Ukrainians could come up with was the Rada debacle of 1918, the violent, failed heritage of the Cossacks, and even further back, the mist, disputed splendours of Kievan Rus. Split between rival powers for centuries, talking about history at all only emphasised disunity”.

Anna Reid describes in the chapter the difficulties of the first years of independence with high inflation, violence and corruption (even so much less than in Russia). She also speaks about the plus side with a secure democracy and fair elections and hopes for a better future for the country.

She mentions that one problem for this future is the geographic position of Ukraine and quotes the Ukrainian-American political scientist and historian Szporluk: 

“Russians have still not accepted, deep in their hearts, that Ukraine is a legitimate phenomenon … Whether your name is Zhirinovsky, Yavlinsky or Gaidar, somewhere in your mind you think that Ukraine is fake, a phoney”.

If you follow Julia Davis on Twitter and watch the excerpts she shares from Russian TV talk shows, you have the impression this is still the case on Russian TV.

I thought is quite chilling to read about what could potentially happen between Russia and Ukraine:

“Nobody expects tanks to roll into Kiev as they did into Grozny, but Russia could stir up secessionism among ethnic Russians in Crimea and the Donbass, as it did in Moldova, Georgia and Tadzhikistan.”

As we now know, Russia first did the second from 2014 onwards and then at the beginning of the war tried the first.

12. Chapter 11 is the first chapter of part two of the book which was written in 2015. It is called “The Rise and Fall of the Orange Revolution”. She describes in the chapter the developments from the mid 1990s until the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004. People took the streets after Yushchenko whose campaign colour was orange lost in the elections in autumn 2004. There were allegations of fraud and vote rigging. Opposition observers were attacked at polling stations and Donetsk and Luhansk showed an alleged voter’s turnout of 96 per cent (Donetsk) and 90 per cent (Luhansk). The Monday after the election, the opposition called for a rally in Kyiv and 200,000 – 300,000 followed. Anna Reid sees in the protests

“an expression not just of party political allegiance, but of frustration with dreadful government and insult at being taken for fools”.

For me two things stood out in this chapter. At the beginning of the chapter Anna Reid speaks about a meeting with Ukrainian friends in London and her bewilderment how they spoke about funding the Ukrainian army through private donations.

“You can donate to the army through Facebook – there are several sites. Or you can help like us, directly. It’s nothing unusual. All our friends are doing the same”.

The Ukrainian army now is much equipped than in 2014, but the support of the Ukrainian people for their army and also the urge to donate and raise funds to help the army is incredibly strong. One remarkable example is the crowdfunding which was initiated by the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation at the end of June. They collected enough money to buy three Turkish drones Bayraktar. The Baykar company decided to give three drones for free and the donated money was used to buy a satellite which will be used by the Ukrainian army.

Towards the end of the chapter Anna Reid writes about Yanukovich’s estate in Mezhihoriya, just outside of Kyiv which had a size of 140 ha (350 acres) and included “yacht pier, an equestrian club, a shooting range, a tennis court and other recreational facilities”. After Yanukovich fled the country in 2014, the estate was turned into a museum. Anna Reid describes the grounds and some of the contents. She mentions that there was a whole room full of Yanukovich portraits – “in beaten metal, dried beans, tapestry, porcelain and amber.” When I read this I thought what a stark difference this is to Zelenskyy. It is probably difficult to appreciated that at the moment, because since the beginning of the war and because of the strong presence of Zelenskyy in the media and in particular on social media his picture is everywhere. However when he gave his inauguration speech in 2019, he specifically asked people not to have a portrait of him in their offices:

“[W]e need people in power who will serve the people. This is why I really do not want my pictures in your offices, for the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”

Since the beginning of the war, he received numerous prices and awards. In his acceptance speeches, he regularly said that they should really be for the Ukrainian people and not for him and that he accepts them on their behalf. When asked in an interview with the CNN reporter Matthew Chance at the beginning of March whether he is “iconic”, he smiled and answered that not he is iconic, but that Ukraine is iconic and the Ukrainian people.

13. The twelfth Chapter has the title “The Maidan” and gives an account of the Euromaidan protests which started in Kyiv on the Maidan, the central square.

The protests started as a reaction to a trade agreement. The Ukrainian president Yanukovich tried initially to strengthen the links between Ukraine and the West and suggested that Ukraine should join NATO and enter into an association agreement with the European Union as a first step towards EU membership. The public opinion was split about NATO, but clearly in favour of an EU membership. Putin was not happy about the progress in the negotiations of the association agreement.

“Threatening a wider trade war, [Putin] slapped restrictions on Ukrainian food exports, holding up hundreds of Ukrainian trucks and goods wagons at the Russian border.”

A week before the planned signing of the Association Agreement, on 21 November 2013, Yanukovich gave in and announced that the agreement with the EU would not be signed for “national security reasons”. He also took up the negotiations for a closer economic relationship with Russia.

The people in Kyiv and then in Ukraine generally were deeply disappointed and started to use social media, in particular Facebook to encourage each other to join demonstrations on the Maidan in Kyiv. First only a few students followed the appeal but within three days around 100,000 turned up on the Maidan and it did not stop there. Anna Reid explains that the growth into a mass movement happened because of the violent handling of the protests through the government.

“Though the protests grew substantially over the next few days …, what turned them into a mass movement was the government’s clumsy use of violence. At 4 a.m. on Saturday the 30th the police moved in with riot sticks, diving into tents full of dozing young people and indiscriminately beating them up. … The brutality of the attack mobilised people who had previously only grumbled from the sidelines.“

The demonstrations were quickly not anymore limited to Kyiv. Other cities followed and even Donetsk saw “mini-Maidan” protests with a few hundred demonstrators. The protests continued through December and so called “Automaidan” protests were organised by car owners who drove i.a. to Mezhihoriya, Yanukovich’s estate. Yanukovich reacted with repressive measures and a “dictatorship law” which restricted the rights to demonstrate and made car conveys of more than five cars illegal.

On 19 January the police used water cannons and on 22 January the first people were killed, when the police beat to death two demonstrators. On 20 February the police used snipers from the roofs of several public buildings and shot in the group of protesters.

“Amazingly, the protesters continued to press forward, relying on sheer force of numbers to overwhelm the better armed opposition. …Initial estimates for the day’s dead were 70 killed and 166 missing. According to the Ministry of Health, 405 were hospitalised, with burns, gunshot wounds, head injuries and broken bones. Over the next weeks the death toll rose, as information came in about the missing and the most seriously injured died. A martyred ‘Heavenly Hundred’ become 103.”

Anna Reid says that the slaughter ultimately destroyed Yanukovich. He lost the support of his party and the parliament voted to sack him. There were emergency talks with Western foreign ministers and a Putin representative and it seemed that a deal was reached. However, Yanukovich decided to flee the country early on 22 February.

If you want to more about the Maidan movement and their background, I recommend you Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine DiariesDispatches from Kiev. Andrey Kurkov is a well known Ukrainian writer who writes in Russian. He lived during the Maidan protests in Kyiv. The Ukraine Diaries are excerpts of his diaries from 21 November 2013 until 24 April 2014. It is absolutely fascinating to read, if you want to get a sense what happened during these days.

14. The penultimate chapter is called “Putin Strikes Back”. It speaks about the aftermath of the Maidan movement and Putin’s reactions to these developments. Anna Reid gives some background information on Putin and also mentions his appetite for “Russian nationalism”. She quotes him there when he said already in 2008 to Bush:

“Do you understand, George, Ukraine isn’t even a state!”

She says that Putin hated the Maidan and the Russians claimed repeatedly that

“[they] were the work of European intelligence agencies and CIA, all part of a grand plan to trap and claw the peaceable Russian bear”.

After the flight of Yanukovich, Putin invaded Crimea with 35,000 unbadged Russian troops who took over police stations, airports and the roads between Crimea and Ukraine mainland. The Ukrainian troops were outnumbered and surrendered. Many activists who protested were arrested, including the filmmaker Oleh Sentsov. Russia took full control in about one months and staged on 16 March a pseudo-referendum on the “reunion of Crimea with the Russian Federation”. The result was a ridiculous 97 per cent in favour on a turn out of 83 per cent. At the ceremony of the signing of the “Accession Treaty” Putin made a long speech about the history of Russia and of Crimea and also mentioned the Maidan which he called

“a ‘coup’, using ‘terror, violence, murder and pogroms’, carried out by ‘neo-Nazis, nationalists and anti-Semites'”.

You can see that not much has changed in Putin’s opinion about Ukraine.

In Kyiv a new interim government was formed by the three largest parties until the next elections. Putin used the instability for his next action, an “insurrection in the Russian-speaking industrial east”, the Donbas. This time, there were initially no Russian troops, but Yanukovich previous party, the “Party of the Regions” staged protests which mirrored the Maidan protests, but asked for a reunion with Russia and autonomy within Ukraine. In some areas these protests did not find any echo, like in Kharkiv. In other areas they were more successful and police and army cooperated with the armed locals. Anna Reid said that even so the protest found a greater echo in the Donbas, the majority of the population disapproved the armed seizure of public buildings and did not want to join Russia. On 11 May there was a “referendum” in the Donbas and the voters agreed to be “self-supporting”. Anna Reid mentions that this can either mean “independent” or “autonomous” depending on context. In May the insurrection in the Donbas turned into a war and Ukraine sent his army in the area who fought against the separatist forces which were backed by Russia. Anna Reid gives quite a lot of details of the situation in different cities in the East and South.

On 25 May 2014 there were new presidential elections in Ukraine and Petro Poroshenko, “an oligarch best known for his ownership of the large confectionary company” won. Five years later he would loose the presidential elections against Zelenskyy.

15. The final chapter of the books is called “What Next?”. Anna Reid says that the answer to this questions depends on three different groups: Putin and Russia, the West and of course the Ukrainians themselves. She first looks at Putin’s role in answering this question and gives some inside in the situation in Crimea and in the Donbas at the time when the book was written in 2015. Then she moves to the West.

“The West too is having to decide how much it cares about Ukraine.”

For a long time it seemed that the West did not care much about Ukraine. She highlights the dependence of the European Union from Russian gas and the reliance on trade and investment from Russia. Also in 2015 countries of the European Union provided Ukraine with money to help the economy, but they did not deliver weapons and Poroshenko, even so grateful for the humanitarian aid, mentioned that Ukraine could not “win the war with blankets”.

“Probably the best that Ukraine can hope from Europe – unless the situation changes radically – is that it toughens existing sanctions. Even this may be asking too much, the expectations in the corporate world being of a quick return to business as usual.”

The situation has certainly changed radically with the full scale invasion of Russia in Ukraine six months ago and with Zelenskyy’s ability to capture and move hearts and minds of the West. This time the USA, Europe and other Western countries are much more supportive to Ukraine and also deliver weapons, but the discussions about the type of weapons which could be delivered to Ukraine is ongoing. Anna Reid highlights that even if the West is only interested in their own security, standing with Ukraine is right thing to do.

Finally she speaks about the choices and decisions the Ukrainians have to take and describes different possible scenarios and also gives details where she sees as positive developments in Ukraine.

III. Conclusion

Well done, if you made it to the conclusion of my blog post. As so often it is quite long. I hope that you agree with me and find the book as fascinating as I did and get it and read it and forgive me that I wanted to share so much of it in this post.

I want to close this post with two quotes. Paul Celan received in 1958 the literary award of the city Bremen. He spoke at the beginning of his acceptance speech of the region where he came from and mentions that it is probably unknown to most of the audience. He then calls it a region which was “der Geschichtslosigkeit anheimgefallen” (roughly “fallen out of history” or closer to the German “fallen victim to a historylessness”). He was obviously speaking about Czernowitz and Bukovyna and not about Ukraine. Nevertheless, I had to think of this quote recently and I was wondering whether this did not also happen for many in the West with Ukraine, because they did not pay attention to the country before the full scale invasion and that for them, or maybe I should say for us, the country was in a sense “fallen out of history”. Anna Reid’s book and other books like hers show how much there is to know about the history of Ukraine and I hope this book will find also now, so many years after it was initially published, new readers.

My final words are again a quote from the book and so I end the post in the same way as she closed the first part of the book and the second part

“with the hope that Ukrainians were set for a happier future, and the observations that ‘after thousand years of one of the bloodiest histories in the world, they surely deserve it’. It is truer than ever.”

Raif Badawi released, but not free

Exactly one month ago, on 11 March the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi was released from prison. Sadly he is still not free. He cannot leave Saudi Arabia, because of a travel ban.

If you have been reading my blog for a long time or you are following me on Twitter, then you know that Raif Badawi was the reason why I started campaigning for human rights in a more serious way and why I started using social media, in particular Twitter. I wrote over the years several blog posts about him. For basically all the time of my campaigning a photo of Raif Badawi has been my profile picture on Twitter and Instagram and I tweeted for him every day since my first tweet for his release in February 2015.

I want to give you in this blog post an update on his current situation and suggest what you can do to help him and his family.

I. Who is Raif Badawi?

I am sure many of you know Raif Badawi, but I still want to give you a few key data about him.

1. Raif Badawi is a Saudi Arabian blogger und human rights activist. He was born on 13 January 1984. He is the creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals. His website was a place of political and social debate where Saudis could discuss different topics freely and exchange their ideas. Raif Badawi is married to Ensaf Haidar. They got to know each other when he was 18 years old. They married shortly afterwards in 2002. They have three children: Najwa Badawi (born in 2003), Doudi “Terad” Badawi (born in 2004) and Miriyam Badawi (born in 2007).

Before his arrest in 2012 Raif Badawi has been harassed by the authorities for years. He had been previously arrested in 2008, but was released after one day of questioning. In addition, the authorities froze his bank account and put him under travel ban, so that he could not leave the country.

2. On 17 June 2012 Raif Badawi was arrested again. The charges against him were “insulting Islam through electronic channels”, later also apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) was added which carries a mandatory death sentence in Saudi Arabia. His trial began shortly afterwards. In December 2012 the Jeddah District Court referred the charge of apostacy to a higher court. This higher court found him guilty of apostacy, but did not sentence him. In July 2013 he was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for founding an internet forum which “violates Islamic values and propagates liberal thought”. His website was closed. One year later in 2014 his sentence was increased by an appeal court to 1000 lashes, 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 million riyals. On 9 January 2015 he received the first 50 lashes in public in front of the mosque in Jeddah. He was supposed to received the complete 1000 lashes over 20 weeks, however this did not happen. Initially further lashes were postponed for medical reasons by first one week and then another week. Ultimately the Saudi authorities did not give him further lashes. One reason was probably the large international public outcry which followed the first flogging of Raif Badawi. Around the same time the courts reviewed again his case and there was even the risk that a new court would sentence him for apostacy to death. Luckily this did not happen.

3. Ensaf and the children fled Saudi Arabia before his arrest. They were first in Egypt and then in Lebanon when the trial against Raif began. However they received threats and did not feel safe. They were granted political asylum by the Government in Canada in 2013. She now lives with the children in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Ensaf and the children are in the meantime Canadian citizens.

II. Release of Raif Badawi on 11 March

1. As mentioned Raif Badawi was arrested on 17 June 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. However these years were not calculated on the basis of the Georgian calendar which is used in the West and in most of the world (365 days / year), but on the basis of the Islamic Hijri calendar. The Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar with 12 lunar months in a year of 354 or 355 days. The last day of his sentence was 26 Rajab 1443 which is equivalent to the 28 February 2022. Amnesty International therefore assumed that he would be released on 1 March 2022. Also the Twitter account @Raif_Badawi (tweets by his son Doudi “Terad” Badawi) and his wife’s Twitter account @miss9afi started a countdown on Twitter a couple of days before the 1 March.

2. Raif Badawi was not release on 1 March, but on 11 March his twitter account finally sent this tweet:

His wife informed the press that Raif called her and told her that he was finally released. This news was obviously widely shared by NGOs and individual activists.

Everyone is overjoyed. I have been campaigning for Raif Badawi for such a long time and there are many people I know from my very first days on social media. I assume many of us still cannot fully believe that this event we have been waiting and campaigning for for such a long time has finally occurred.

There is sadly not much information available about his current situation. I also have not seen any current photographs. The future for Raif Badawi remains uncertain. There is still the 10 year travel ban against him which hinders him from joining his family in Canada. This release should also not be interpreted as a softening of Saudi Arabia or an embrace for human rights. Just one day after his released Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in a single day. This mass execution was decried by the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and human rights NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to name just two.

However, it is doubtful how much criticism about Raif Badawi’s travel ban, the mass execution, the impunity around the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and generally human rights violations in Saudi Arabia will currently come from the countries around the world. The Ukrainian-Russian war means that many countries try to become independent from Russian oil as quickly as possible, for some this means trying to buy more oil from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. Boris Johnson, for example, travelled on 13 March to Abu Dhabi (UAE) and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and asked for a step up of the oil production in both countries. He said that he raised human rights violations, but there are doubts with how much efforts he did this and in fact Saudi Arabia executed three more people while he was there. He also did not get the reply from Saudi Arabia and UAE he had hoped for.

III. What can I do to help?

I think it is important not to stop campaigning for Raif Badawi until he is really free and reunited with his family in Sherbrooke, Canada. You can continue to protest for him, use social media and there is also a fundraiser in support of Raif and his family.

1. Organise a protest

There are still vigils in support of his unconditional release in Canada, but also in many other countries around the world. I think it would be good to organise protest in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassies in particular on key dates (date of his arrest, his birthday, date of his release) and in relation to key dates to make clear to Saudi Arabia that his release his not enough if he is not also allowed to travel to his family.

In addition, we should also continue reminding the Canadian government that they should do more to help reuniting Raif Badawi and his family. In January 2021 members of the Canadian House of Commons approved a motion to demand that Raif Badawi should be given Canadian citizenship.

The Canadian government welcomed his release and said:

The Government of Canada is pleased that Mr. Badawi has been released from prison. We have consistently advocated on his behalf and will continue to use every opportunity to do so … His well-being is foremost in our minds.

However, so far Raif Badawi has not been granted Canadian citizenship and it is unclear when he will be reunited with his family.

2. Use Social Media

Many of you have been campaigning for the past years for Raif Badawi’s release on social media. We should continue to do to support him.

Amnesty International made this social media picture. You can obviously also continue to use the photos of Raif Badawi which you have been using so far.

I think it is probably in particular effective to use photos of him and his wife or of him and his children to emphasise that the aim is really that they can finally again spend time together.

I would suggest using the same addressees as before, in particular the King of Saudi Arabia (@KingSalman), the Ministry of Interior (@MOISaudiArabia), the Ministry of Justice (@MojKSA) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (@KSAMOFA) and ask them to lift the travel ban on Raif Badawi. Please use for these tweets the new hashtag #LiftRaifTravelBan (if you want to in addition to #FreeRaif).

3. Support the fundraise for Raif Badawi

Ensaf Haidar started – together with Giordano-Bruno Stiftung (in Germany), Secular Refugee Relief, Geneva Summit for Human Rights and other organisations a fundraiser with the title “Solidarity with Raif Badawi and his family”. Here is an excerpt from the description :

Raif Badawi and Ensaf Haidar had to pay a high price for defending human rights. For this they were symbolically honoured in many ways (among others with the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament), but neither the fine nor a family can live on honour alone. For this reason, civil society is now called upon to support Raif and Ensaf: Help raise the money so that Raif does not have to go back to prison, but can be reunited with his wife and children. Even small contributions help. Join in!

The purpose of the fundraising to get the money together for the fine of 1 million riyals. This is roughly GBP 205,000 or USD 267,000 or EUR 245,000. In addition the fundraising should also allow them a new start once they are reunited.

There are two platforms for donation. You can donate money on and for donation from Germany also on

The websites make clear that 100% of the donations will be put in (trust) accounts for Raif and Ensaf. Please consider supporting these fundraisers and please also share them with friends and family and on social media.

It is wonderful that Raif Badawi was released, but please do not stop supporting him, until he is truly free and reunited with his family.

Ali Mushaima – on hunger strike in solidarity with Bahraini prisoners

Ali Mushaima is currently on hunger strike and sleeps outside in a small tent on the pavement in front of the Bahraini Embassy in London. He wants to raise awareness for his father Hassan Mushaima and for Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace who is also on hunger strike. I visited Ali on Saturday evening and want to ask you to support Ali.

I. Who is Ali Mushaima?

Ali Mushaima is a Bahraini human rights activist. He has been in the UK since 2006. He is living in London together with his wife and their two little daughters.

Bahrain has sentenced Ali Mushaima to 45 years in prison (he was tried in absence) and has revoked his citizenship in November 2012.

Ali Mushaima is the son of Hassan Mushaima a prominent Bahraini human rights activist and a leader of the opposition in Bahrain. Hassan Mushaima was arrested more than 10 years ago and was sentenced to life in prison.

This is the second time that Ali Mushaima is on hunger strike and sleeps outside in front of the Bahraini Embassy in London. The first time was three years ago, in 2018. He had started his hunger strike on 1 August 2018 and was on hunger strike for 46 days. He wanted to raise awareness for his father and had three demands:

  1. Adequate access to medical care, including the regular cancer scans
  2. Allow him family visit
  3. Give him access to books.

At the end of his hunger strike, two of the three demands were met: Ali’s father got access to medical care and was brought to the hospital without shackles and his family was finally allowed to visit him. I wrote in August and September 2018 two blog post about Ali Mushaima and his hunger strike. These also include a lot of information about Hassan Mushaima. If you want to know more him and about the hunger strike in 2018, then please have a look at “Ali Mushaima – on hunger strike for his father Hassan Mushaima” (27 August 2018) and New developments in Ali Mushaima’s hunger strike (15 September 2018)

II. Why is Ali Mushaima on Hunger Strike?

Ali Mushaima started his hunger strike two weeks ago on 25 November. He is again sleeping on the pavement in front of the Bahraini Embassy, but this time he has a small tent.

When I spoke with him on Saturday, he said that the police asked him whether he would use a tent and encouraged him to do so. With the tent he has at least some protection against the rain, but it does not protect against the cold. The hunger strike in 2018 was in summer and early autumn (started on 1 August). I remember that Ali also faced the last time periods of bad weather and rain, but this time it is the whole time cold and often wet. It as had at the moment hardly ever more than 10˚C and often it is close to 0˚C in particular during the night.

Ali has this time two reasons to be on hunger strike: The current situation of Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace and of Ali’s father Hassan Mushaima.

1. Dr. Abduljalil Al-Sinagace

Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace is a human rights activist and academic. He is a former Professor and Head of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bahrain. He was a also member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering and a board member of the Bahrain Society for Engineering. He was dismissed from University of Bahrain for his human rights activism.

He is disabled and uses crutches or a wheelchair to get around.

Dr. Al-Singace was arrested on 17 March 2011. He was tried in the same trial as Hassan Mushaima and as Parweez Jawad. If you look at my blog post about Parweez Jawad you can find more information about the trial.

On 22 June 2011 Dr. Al-Singace was sentenced to life in prison. Since his arrest he has been verbally and sexually harassed, beaten and tortured. He also has been repeatedly forced to stand for a long time without crutches.

Dr. Al-Singace went on a hunger strike on 8 July 2021. He protests with this hunger strike his ill treatment and that the prison authorities took away from him books which he wrote in prison. Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) has a detailed timeline about his hunger strike and I recommend that you look at it for further information.

2. Hassan Mushaima

Hassan Mushaima is 74 years old. He has been a teacher for thirty years and campaigned for a long time for democratic reforms and human rights in Bahrain. He was arrested on 17 March 2011. On 22 June 2011 he was sentenced to life in prison.

You can find general background information about Hassan Mushaima in my blog post from August 2018. There was also a urgent action from Amnesty International which was published in December last year. Amnesty International says that the health of Hassan Mushaima has severely deteriorated. He had a stroke in November 2020 and suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes.

I spoke with Ali on Saturday about his father’s current situation. He confirmed that his father’s health has deteriorated and that he suffers from several medical conditions.

Ali told me that his father was transferred from prison to another place a couple of months ago. The guards in the other place were initially quite friendly. He was allowed to see his family and to use the telephone regularly. They then asked him whether he want to be released. When he asked whether there would be any conditions for the release, they explained that they would expect that he would not get involved in human rights activism or politics any longer and also that he would not attend any large meetings to celebrate his release. These were conditions which are not acceptable for Hassan Mushaima. He told them that he has not done anything wrong and that he should be released unconditionally. After he told them that he would not accept their offer, they withdraw the right to use the telephone, but he can still receive family visits.

Ali is concerned about the ongoing medical neglect of his father. He told me that his father has pain in one of the knees and it is swollen. He initially only received pain killers, but nothing to cure the underlying issues. After he was transferred, he received some injections in his knee. They provide some relief, but he is still very much in pain. As mentioned Hassan Mushaima has also diabetes. He was told that it is important that he walks around and does not spend all the time sitting of lying down. However, he can currently only walk the short way from his bed to the bathroom. That is not sufficient. He had asked for the possibility to do some exercise, but this was not granted.

Hassan Mushaima asked to be transferred back to prison. He thinks that he might then have more chance to do some exercise there. He also has very limited outside contact at the moment and feels that he is basically in solitary confinement.

Ali is really concerned about his father. He fears that he is slowly dying in prison. In his opinion that there are only two situations in which Bahrain would release him:

  1. There is a general amnesty for political prisoners in Bahrain in particular because of pressure from other, mainly Western, countries to Bahrain
  2. Hassan Mushaima’s health has deteriorated so much that Bahrain fears that he could die in prison and releases him so that he can die at home and Bahrain avoids public attention because of their neglect of prisoners.

III. What can I do to support Ali Mushaima?

Ali Mushaima knows that he puts his own health at risk, because of the hunger strike and the cold temperatures, but he also feels that he has to do something and cannot simply wait and see his father and Dr. Abduljalal Al-Singace dying in prison.

There are a couple of things you can do to support Ali Mushaima, his father Hassan Mushaima and Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace.

1. If you are in London, then please go to the Bahraini Embassy and visit Ali. The address of the embassy is 30 Belgrave Square, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 8QB. The nearest tube stations are Hyde Park Corner Station, Victoria Station, Sloane Square Station and Knightsbridge Station. There are people visiting him, but give that it is winter and many people are still working from home and minimise going outside because of Covid-19, there are not that many visitors. Ali is always happy and grateful, if people come and talk to him and ask him about his situation and about his father. Also the embassy watches him. As the last time, they complain to the police for all sorts of reasons. It is good for Ali’s cause, if the embassy sees that many people are interested in Ali’s hunger strike and support him

2. Please also write to your MP and ask them to support Ali Mushaima and generally human rights in Bahrain. There have been a couple of MPs visiting Ali and showing there support, but it would be great, if there were many more. You can easily contact your MP via the website “Write to Them“. Tell them about Ali, his father and Dr. Al-Singace and ask them to raise the cases and show their support. There is also an Early Day Motion in support of Dr. Al-Singace. It is the motion 578: Over 100 days of Dr Al Singace’s hunger strike in Bahrain, tabled on 25 October. So far it has been signed by 35 MPs. It would be great, if many more MPs would sign the motion. You can mention the EDM when you write to them. BIRD has some text which you can use, if you are uncertain what you should say. You find the button to contact your MP at the end of the timeline about Dr. Al-Singace (“How you can help”).

3. Please help Ali Mushaima to raise awareness for his hunger strike and for the situation of prisoners of conscience in Bahrain. Please follow Ali Mushaima on Twitter for updates, retweet them and make your own tweets in support of Hassan Mushaima, Dr. Al-Singace and other prisoners. Please use the hashtags #FreeHassanMushaima #FreeAlSingace and #FreeBahrainiPrisoners, then others can find and retweet your tweets.

Gulf Centre for Human Rights has eleven campaign video clips on their YouTube channel. They are short and very good. They include a video about hunger strike, about Dr. Al-Singace, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Women Rights Defenders and many other topics. You can find the whole playlist here. Please feel free to share the playlist, but also the individual video clips.

I hope that Ali Mushaima will soon achieve some results and that he will stop his hunger strike. I am concerned for his health because of the cold weather and because of the strains of the hunger strike. Until he stops, I hope that he will receive a lot of support for his brave actions and I would be delighted if you some of you decide to help and support him.

IV. Addendum (18 December 2021):

Ali Mushaima ended his hunger strike yesterday after 23 days.

He received support from different UK MPs, but also from politicians from France, Ireland, Austria and Germany. The SNP MP Chris Law mentioned on 16 December Ali’s hunger strike in the House of Commons and raised the cases of Hassan Mushaima and Dr. Al-Singace. Patrick Wintour from Guardian wrote a very good article about Ali’s hunger strike and the Bahraini prisoners.

I am glad that Ali Mushaima has stopped his hunger strike and is back with his family. I would like to ask you not forget his hunger strike and the cases of Bahraini prisoners. You can still contact your MPs and ask them for updates on the situation of Bahrain prisoners and you can also continue to tweet about Hassan Mushaima, Dr. Al-Singace and other Bahraini prisoners and support on social media Ali’s campaign for freedom and justice for his father and for many others.

Let us hope that his father and other Bahrain prisoners will be released soon and that Ali will not feel compelled to go on hunger strike a third time.

Paul Celan’s Paris

I originally planned to write this blog post last year. 2020 was an important year for anyone who is interested in the German poet Paul Celan. It was the centenary of his birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his untimely death in 1970. I have been fascinated by Paul Celan and his poetry since my school days.

Sadly I could not travel to Paris in 2020 because of Covid-19, therefore the post comes with a one year delay. It is a tribute to him to mark the centenary plus one of his birth on 23 November.

Paul Celan lived for almost half of his life in Paris. He died and is buried there. I visited places which have a connection with him and I want to share in this post photos of these places and information about his life and his poetry.

1. Paul Celan – a German poet

Paul Celan is without doubt a German poet. His mother tongue was German and he wrote his poems and also a few prose texts almost exclusively in German. He is probably the most important poet in post-war German literature.

However, he lived only for a very short time in a country in which German was spoken as the main language. His origin and his story is closely connected with the history of Eastern Europe and a lost world.

Paul Celan was born as “Paul Antschel” on 23 November 1920 in Czernowitz, Bukovina. Czernowitz was once called the “Vienna of the East” or “Jerusalem upon the Prut”. Until 1775 the Bukovina belonged to the territory of Moldavia which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Then it was annexed by the Habsburg Empire and Czernowitz became the capital of the region. In 1849 the status of the region was raised and it became as the Duchy of Bukovina, a crownland of the Austrian Empire. With the emancipation of the Jews in 1867 the “Golden Age of Czernowitz” began.

In many ways Czernowitz was a typical city of the Austrian (or since 1867 Austro-Hungarian) Empire, because it was a multicultural city. The majority of the population was Jewish, but also Romanians, Ukrainians, Poles and Germans were important minorities. German was the lingua franca in Czernowitz and the cultural focus point was Vienna.

When Paul Celan was born, Czernowitz was already a Romanian city (Cernăuți), because the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart at the end of the World War I, but until 1940 not much changed in the city and German continued to be the dominant language.

With the end of the World War II Czernowitz become part of the Soviet Union and since 1991 the city, which is now called “Chernivtsi”, has been a part of an independent Ukraine.

2. Paul Celan’s Early Life.

a) Czernowitz (1920 – 1938)

Paul Celan was born into a traditional Jewish family. His father was Leo Antschel-Teitler. His family came originally from Galicia. Leo Antschel qualified in structural engineering. During the World War I he was conscripted. Afterwards he could not find any occupation fitting his qualification. He worked therefore as a broker in the wood trade. He was a Zionist and a traditional Jewish education and the Hebrew language were important for him. His mother was Frederike Antschel (née Schrager). Her family was from Sadagora, a village near Czernowitz and her parents were shop owners. Also Frederike Antschel kept the Jewish traditions, but had at the same time a great love for the German language and German literature.

Paul Celan’s father was very strict and the father-son relationship was difficult and riddled by conflict, not least because the young Paul did not share his father’s Zionism and did not want to learn Hebrew. He was however very close to his mother and shared early on her passion for the German language and German literature.

I have already mentioned that Czernowitz was a multicultural city. Paul Celan had a great affinity and love for languages. From his early childhood on there were four language spoken around him: German, Romanian, Yiddish and Hebrew. He went his first years to the Meisler Institute (kindergarten and primary school). The language of instruction was German. However, the parents could not afford the school fees after one year and Paul had to change to a Hebrew primary school. Instructions were in Hebrew and his family was released from paying school fees by the Zionist organisation which was responsible for the school. He went afterwards first to the Romanian state grammar school (language of instruction: Romanian). This school was not very popular with Jewish families, but it was a very reputable school and his parents thought it would help him in his future life. He also started learning French and Latin in this school and did one year Italian. For the last three years he changed to the Ukrainian state grammar school. In this school the majority of the students were Jewish. German played an important role in the education. He continued to learn French and Latin and started Greek and English. During the occupation of Czernowitz by the Russians he learned Russian and was shortly afterwards (in Bukarest) able to work as a translator from Russian into Romanian.

During his free time, he spent much time with his friends. For a short time they belonged to a communist, anti-fascist youth group. He followed the news from Germany closely and in particular the information about increasing antisemitism. They were not only interested in politics, but he also shared his passion for literature with them. In particular Rainer Maria Rilke, but also French writers, like Paul Verlaine played an important role in their conversations. He probably wrote his first poems in 1933. In 1937 / 1938 he started reading his own poems to his friends.

b) Paris and Tours (1938 / 1939)

After the baccalaureate in June 1938 Paul Celan decided to study medicine in Tours, France. He travelled on 9 / 10 November 1938 from Czernowitz via Krakow and Berlin to Paris. You are probably aware of the significance of this date. It was the date of the November pogroms which were organised by the Nazi Party through Germany and Austria. During the week of the pogroms hundreds of Jews were killed, about 300 committed suicide shortly afterwards. Jewish homes, schools, hospitals, shops and synagogues were ransacked and destroyed. In addition about 30,000 Jewish man were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Paul Celan reflected on these events in his poetry and his letters. His poem La Contrescarpe which is included in the collection Die Niemandsrose (“The No-One’s Rose”) mentions this train journey and speaks about “ein Rauch …, der war schon von morgen” (“a smoke which was already from tomorrow”). In a letter to his friend Edith Horowitz he also mentions the smoke which he saw over the tree tops and he adds that he was wondering whether there were synagogues in flame or maybe even human beings.

Paul Celan remained in Paris for a little bit less than three weeks. He stayed in an apartment at Rue des Écoles with Bruno Schrager, an uncle from his mother’s side. His Paris during these weeks was the Paris of a conventional visitor. He had specific ideas what he wanted to see and they visited in particular the Louvre, the Rodin Museum and a performance at the Comédie Française. In a letter to his friend Gustav Chomed he mentions that he had mixed feelings about Paris, because it was so expensive and that he was often sad and heavy-hearted. He told his friend that he then liked to sit in the quietness of a church, often in Notre Dame.

From Paris he travelled on to Tours where he studied at the university. It was a foundation course in physics, chemistry and biology. He returned in July 1939 for the holidays to Czernowitz and thought that he would continue his studies in Tours after the summer.

c) During the World War II (1939 – 1945)

With the beginning of World War II it was impossible for Paul Celan to return to France. He also could not study medicine in Romania. The university of Czernowitz did not have a medical department and in other universities there were heavy restrictions for Jewish students. He therefore decided to begin Romance studies at the university of Czernowitz.

Czernowitz was occupied several times within a short period of time. First on 28 June 1940 Russian troops occupied Czernowitz. Initially this occupation did not have too many negative consequences for the population, but on 13 June 1941 the Russians deported 3,800 people from the North Bukovina to Siberia – 70% of these were Jews. Romania under military dictator Antonescu changed alliance from France and Britain to Germany. On 5 July 1941 Romanian troops retook Czernowitz as a part of the attack of the Axis troops (Germany, Italy, etc.) on Russia. On the next day German troops entered Czernowitz. Within two months the regulations about Jews were implemented. Jews lost their citizen rights, could be called to do unpaid forced labour, had to wear the yellow star and were not allowed to leave their home after 6 pm. Antonescu ordered also the creation of a ghetto in Czernowitz. 45,000 Jews were forced into this ghetto. Many of them were immediately deported. 15,000 Jews received a temporary permission to stay. These were people who had occupations which were important for the functioning of the city. In June 1942 there was a second wave of deportations mainly to Transnistria, an area between the rivers Dnjestr and Bug. The majority of those who were deported to Transnistria died from starvation, exhaustion or were shot by German troops. In April 1944 Czernowitz was again occupied by Russian troops.

Paul Celan and his family were not deported in the first wave of deportations, but they knew that they were at a high risk to be deported in the second wave. Paul Celan tried to convince his parents to go into hiding to avoid deportation, but they were not willing do so. On 14 June 1942 his father and his mother were deported. When he came to their house to which they had returned after the ghetto was dissolved they were not there anymore. He was shortly afterwards sent to a forced labour camp in Tăbăreşti about 100km north of Bukarest. In August 1940 Paul Celan had met and fallen in love with Ruth Lackner. She was only a few years older than he and was an actress at the Yiddish theatre in Czernowitz. He wrote her frequently letters from Tăbăreşti and also included very often his poems in these letters.

Paul Celan’s father died in autumn 1942. It is unclear whether he died from typhus and exhaustion or whether he was shot. It seems that Paul Celan heard about this from a letter from his mother around this time. At the end of 1943 he heard from one of his relatives that also his mother was dead, she was killed by a German soldier through a shot in her neck.

The death of his parents, in particular his beloved mothers, and the Shoah as such influenced his poetry and his life until his death. His Muttersprache (which can be understood in two ways in German as “mother tongue”, but also as his “mother’s language”) became the Mördersprache (the “language of (his mother’s) murderers”). As so many who had survived the Shoah he felt guilty – guilty because he had survived and guilty because he was not able to save his parents. It must have been particularly painful if he compared himself with his school friends, in particular Erich Einhorn whose parents could avoid deportation and Immanuel Weißglas who was deported with his parents, but was able to help them through different camps and could return to Czernowitz with his mother.

After the Russian troops marched into Czernowitz in April 1944, Paul Celan worked for a months as an assistant in a mental hospital (to avoid being subscripted as soldier) and took up his studies at the university in September 1944. This time he focussed on English language studies. He also worked as a translator to earn some money and translated Ukrainian texts into Romanian for a Romanian newspaper. He also made two compilations of his poems, in 1944 and in 1945. When it was clear that Czernowitz would stay with the Soviet Union, he decided to leave and went first to the Romanian capital Bukarest.

d) Bukarest

Paul Celan arrived in Bukarest in June 1945. He brought his two compilations of poetry with him. These included the poem which should become his most famous one Todesfuge (“Death fugue”).

He met in Bukarest many writers and artists, including Romanian surrealists like Ghersim Luca and Paul Păun. The writer Petre Solomon became a close friend. They worked i.a. together on the translation of the Todesfuge into Romanian. On 2 May 1947 the poem was published in the Romanian translation under the title Tangoul morții (“Death tango”) in the magazine “Contemporanul”. Another important friend and mentor became the writer Alfred Margul-Sperber who was born in 1898 and also came from the Bukovina. Margul-Sperber was impressed by Celan’s poetry and gave him a number of letters of recommendation also for literary contacts in particular in Austria and Switzerland.

During his time in Bukarest Paul Celan also changed his name from “Antschel” via “Ancel” to “Celan”. He worked during his time there as a translator and lector for the publishing house “Carte Rusă” which aimed to make old and new Russian literature available to the Romanian public. Paul Celan had to translate a lot of propaganda pieces, but he also made translations from Russian to Romanian of Michail Lermontov’s “Hero of Our Times” and of several novels by Chekhov. For these translations of works which he appreciated he used the name “Ancel” (a Romanian form of Antschel). Alfred Margul-Sperber’s wife Jessica then suggested the anagram “Celan” for the publication of his own poetry.

e) Vienna

Paul Celan was certain that he wanted to write in German and therefore decided that he should try to get to a German speaking country. He thought Austria and in particular Vienna would be right place. He probably left Bukarest in October 1947. To get to Vienna from Bukarest was a difficult and dangerous endeavour. Since May 1947 the border between Austria and Hungary was closed and also the Romanian border was closely guarded. He had to walk much of the way and there was always the risk that he would have been arrested or even shot when trying to cross the borders. He does not give any detail about his journey, but he describes it in a letter to Ruth Lackner as sehr schwere Reise (“very difficult journey”). He arrived in Vienna on 17 December 1947. He first stayed for a few days in a refugees’ camp for “Displaced Persons” and then in different flats and sometimes with friends.

He was able to make a couple of friends in Vienna. One of the most important friendships was the one with the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann. They met presumably in January 1948 and fell in love with each other. Even so they realised about a year later that they could not live together, the relationship stayed important from a personal but also a literary perspective. In addition he became involved in the surrealist circle in Vienna and participated at a reading in the context of the “First Surrealist Exhibition in Vienna” on 3 April 1948. He read texts by Aragon, Breton, Éluard, but also some of his own poems. A few weeks later was a second event in which he participated. He was also finally able to get some of his poems published in German. Thanks to recommendations by Margul-Sperber Otto Basil included 17 of Celan’s poems in the Viennese magazine Plan and Max Rycher in Zurich included seven of his poems in the magazine Tat (“Deed”). He was sadly not successful with a publication of his poems in book form. The first publisher Erwin Müller embezzled the money which was meant to cover the printing costs. The second publishing house A. Sexl published his book Der Sand aus Urnen (“The Sand from the Urns”). Paul Celan could not read the proofs himself, because he was already on his way to France. He asked friends to do so, but he was so disappointed with the result that he asked the publishing house to destroy all copies, because there were so many printing errors which changed the sense of his poems. In addition he did not like the two lithographs by Edgar Jené which were added.

Paul Celan stayed only seven months in Vienna. He said later “I did not stay long. I did not find what I had hoped to find”. This likely refers to the limited possibilities to get his poetry published, no proper opportunities to earn money and the general atmosphere of Post-war Vienna which was so different from the ideal he had longed for. He certainly also struggled with the half-hearted attempts of Austria of a “denazification” and the still prevailing antisemitism.

3. Paul Celan’s Paris

a) Why Paris?

Why did Paul Celan go to Paris? Probably the fact that he knew the city from a previous stay played a role in this decision. Also he liked French and spoke it fluently. Towards the end of his life, he showed the American student Esther Cameron the house in which Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his book Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (“The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”) and told her that mainly because of this book he decided to come to Paris.

With this in mind, I decided to visit a few places which are connected with Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and this novel. Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet and writer who came from Prague. He had a special relationship with Paris and visited the city between 1902 and 1925 frequently. He wrote Malte Laurids Brigge between 1908 and 1910. During this time he also worked as a private secretary for Auguste Rodin and introduced Rodin to the Hotel Biron, the house which Rodin later bought and which houses now the Rodin Museum in Paris.

b) First years in Paris (1948-1953)

Paul Celan arrived in Paris on 13 July 1948. He did not have any money and was stateless. He also did not know many people, but there were a few friends. One of them was Gabrielle Cordier. She lived in 26 Avenue Dode de la Brunerie (16e). Paul Celan gave her address as an address for correspondence until he had found a place to stay (e.g. in a letter to Ruth Lackner from Innsbruck on 6 July 1948). Once he had arrived, he quickly looked for a room in Rue des Écoles, the same street in which he had stayed with his uncle Bruno Schrager in 1938. He found a cheap room in Hotel d’Orleans, 31 Rue des Écoles (5e). Today there is still a hotel at this address, but it is not any longer Hotel d’Orleans. When I was there the name of the hotel was Hotel Atmosphere and it seemed to be closed (maybe because of Covid-19).

In September 1948 he started studying at the Faculté des Lettre of the Sorbonne University. He did German language studies and linguistics. As a student he received a small scholarship from a Jewish organisation, but money was always tight. He therefore did translations from French into German, including two Maigret stories by Simenon which he did not find particular inspiring. He also worked as a language teacher for German and French. Because of his profound knowledge of German literature he achieved already in 1950 the “licence ès lettres”, but stayed enrolled as a student until 1953 to preserve his residence permit for France.

Paul Celan met his future wife Gisèle de Lestrange in November 1951. It is not entirely clear where they met. Theo Buck mentions in a new biography that they met in St. Germain Quarter. Bertrand Badiou / Barbara Wiedemann mention in their comments to the letters between Paul Celan and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange that they met around 9 November 1951 through Isac Chiva who worked as an ethnologist at Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires (Place de Trocadero). He was a friend of Paul Celan and Gisèle de Lestrange worked temporarily at the office of the museum. They were in a sense an unlikely couple. Gisèle was not Jewish and she did not speak German. She came from Roman Catholic conservative family which belonged to the French aristocracy. She was a painter and graphic artist. Her family was not very enthusiastic about their relationship but she knew what she wanted and they were both in love with each other. On 23 December 1952 they married at the town hall of the 5th Arrondissement in Paris (just opposite the Pantheon). Only two of her friends were present as witnesses.

Also from a literary perspective 1952 brought changes. Paul Celan got his first poetry collection published in Germany: Mohn und Gedächtnis (“Poppy and Memory”), Deutsche Verlagsanstalt Stuttgart. He made contact with the publishing house on his first visit in Germany since 1938 in May 1952. He was invited to a meeting of the Gruppe 47 (a meeting of German writers invited by Hans Werner Richter which took place between 1947 and 1967) in Niendorf. From a professional point of view this was a successful visit, apart from the contact with the Deutsche Verlagsanstalt Stuttgart, he also made contact with someone from the Hamburg broadcasting house who invited him to a reading of his poems at Radio Hamburg. However, from a personal perspective the meeting was for him deeply disappointing and hurtful. He read during the meeting some of his poems, including Todesfuge. The writers did not really understand his poetry and the poems did not fit to their Realist concept of literature. They laughed about his recitation. Richter commented that the way he read reminded him of Joseph Göbbels, chief propagandist for the Nazi Party. This comment was incredibly insensitive and was highly offending for Paul Celan. He never again went to another Gruppe 47 meeting.

c) Family life and literary successes (1953 – 1960)

After the wedding Gisèle moved initially to him into his room at Hotel d’Orleans, 31 Rue des Écoles. In July they could move into a small apartment at 5 Rue de Lota (16e). This apartment belonged to Gisèle’s family. She was at that time pregnant and gave birth to their son François on 7 October 1953. It was a difficult birth and the physicians probably decided too late that a caesarean was necessary. She survived but their son died after only 30 hours. They were devastated about the death of their son and went on a journey through Italy to get some distraction.

Gisèle’s mother decided in 1955 to withdraw from public life and joined a convent. She sold the house in 5 Rue de Lota and gave all her possession the convent and her daughters. Paul Celan, his wife and their son Claude François Eric, who was born on 6 June 1955, could move into her former home at 29bis Rue de Montevideo (16e). Another positive development was that Paul Celan was finally naturalised as a French citizen on 17 July 1955.

Thanks to an inheritance Gisèle made, the family could move again in November 1957 into a larger apartment at 78 Rue de Longchamp (16e). This apartment stayed their family home for the next ten years.

The late 50s were a busy time for him. His second collection of poetry Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (“From Threshold to Threshold”) was published in 1955 again with Deutsche Verlagsanstalt Stuttgart. It contains 47 poems which he had written after he had met Gisèle. The collection was also dedicated to her. Paul Celan worked from January to May 1956 as a translator in Geneva and also made a number of literary translations, in particular Alexander Block, Arthur Rimbaud and Ossip Mandelstamm.

The reviews of his books were mixed, but he received a number of prestigious literary awards: in 1956 the award of the Kulturkreises des Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (“Association of Arts and Culture of the German Economy at the Federation of German Industries”) and on 29 January 1958 the Literary Award of the city Bremen. His third collection of poetry followed in the next year. Sprachgitter (“Speech Grille”) was published in March 1959 with S. Fischer, Frankfurt. It contains 33 poems which had been written between 1955 and 1959.

In autumn 1959 Paul Celan started working twice a week (Tuesday and Wednesday) as Lecteur d’Allemand at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) at Rue d’Ulm. He enjoyed this work a lot.

d) Goll Affair and mental health problems (1960-1967)

These three photos are photos of the grave of Yvan Goll and Claire Goll. The grave is at the cemetery Père Lachaise just opposite the grave of Frédéric Chopin. The grave in particular of Claire Goll is not one I visited to honour her but rather to document the disgraceful and infamous role she played in Paul Celan’s life.

Paul Celan got to know Yvan and Claire Goll in November 1949. His mentor Margul-Sperber had given him a letter of recommendation. Yvan Goll was a writer and poet who described himself as “a Jew by fate, born in France by coincidence and a German national by a stamped paper”. He wrote his poems mainly in French, but there is also one collection Traumkraut (“Dream herb”) with German poems which he put together at the time when they met. Initially they had a very warm and friendly relationship. Yvan Goll was suffering from leukaemia and Celan brought his poems and even donated blood for Yvan Goll. Yvan and Claire Goll were impressed by Celan’s poems and asked him repeatedly to translate Yvan Goll’s poems from French into German. Yvan Goll died on 27 February 1950. Intially Claire Goll liked Celan’s translations, but then took absolute control over the publishing of her husbands poems. She claimed suddenly that his translations were useless because they sounded too much like Celan’s own poems. Nevertheless, she used his translations extensively without giving credit to Celan. Paul Celan was annoyed by that, but initially did not take things further.

This changed in the following years. From 1954 onwards Claire Goll alleged that Paul Celan had plagiarised her husband’s work, in particular the German poems in Traumkraut. These allegations culminated in 1960. Claire Goll published an article Unbekanntes über Paul Celan (“Unknown points about Paul Celan”) in the magazine Baubudenpoet. She renewed in this article not only her plagiarism allegations, but also casted doubts on his personal story. She wrote

Seine traurige Legende, die er so tragisch zu erzählen wusste, hatte uns erschüttert: die Eltern von den Nazis getötet, heimatlos, …

(„His sad legend which he knew to tell so tragically, had shattered us: his parents killed by the Nazis, homeless…”).

This article alone in a very minor magazine would probably not have received much public attention. However, the literary pages of many newspapers willingly took up the allegations and published several detailed articles – each time without proper research. Otherwise they would have noticed that many of the poems which were allegedly plagarised were in fact older than Yvan Goll’s poems and they would have also noticed that Claire Goll manipulated her husbands poems to make them sound more like Paul Celan’s poems. These hostile allegations seem to be welcome to some critics, in particular those who did not want to acknowledge the historic background of Paul Celan’s poems and questions of guilt or responsibility which came with it. Even before Goll’s allegations they liked to misunderstand his poems. They either praised them as “pure poetry” and tried to distance them from the historical truth or spoke about “arbitrary metaphors” in his poems so that they did not have to confront the Shoah, the mass murderer of the Jews, which is so present in many of his poems.

For Paul Celan these allegations became more and more unbearable and it made him question the loyalty of many of his friends who did not defended him as passionately as he had hoped for. For him these allegations were an attack on his work and his person which ultimately tried to annihilate his existence (as poet) and his poetry. He felt that they continued an endeavour which the Nazis during the Third Reich did not manage to do. He certainly sensed the still prevailing antisemitism of many of the allegations to which the stereotype of the Jew who can only copy but cannot be creative fitted too well.

Even high honours like the prestigious and important Büchner award which he received on 22 October 1960 could not give him much comfort.

The poems in his next book Niemandsrose (The “No-One’s Rose”), published by S. Fischer, Frankfurt in autumn 1963 can be read against the background of the Goll allegations. The book contain 53 poems which he had written between 1959 and 1963.

By the end of 1962 Paul Celan got seriously ill. He spent two weeks from 31 December 1962 until 17 January 1963 in a mental hospital in Èpinay-sur-Seine (near Paris). This was just the first of several stays over the next years. All in all he spent about two years in different mental hospitals until his death and struggled not only with his mental health, but also with the medication and the often drastic treatments he had to endure.

I have written already more about this topic than I should. However, if you are interested in the so-called “Goll affair” (and if you speak German), then I can recommend the excellent book Paul Celan – Die Goll-Affäre by Barbara Wiedemann which includes the newspaper articles, letters and poems and very instructive explanations.

e) Final years and suicide (1967-1970)

Gisèle Celan-Lestrange did all she could to support her husband in these terrible and difficult times. In February 1967 he tried to commit suicide and she also feared for her security and the security of her son, because in one episode of his mental illness he had threatened her and him. After another stay in a mental hospital he did not return to the family apartment in 78 Rue de Longchamp (16e), but moved in November 1967 into a small apartment in 24 Rue Tournefort (5e) which is just a few steps away from ENS where he continued to work. It was also close to the Place de la Contrescarpe and the restaurant La Chope which he liked to visit.

It is remarkable that Paul Celan continued to write poetry. In autumn 1967 his poetry collection Atemwende (“Breathturn”) was published and in October 1968 Fadensonnen (“Threadsuns”). He also put together manuscripts for other collections like Lichtzwang (“Lightduress”), Schneepart (“Snowpart”), Zeitgehöft (“Timestead”) and Eingedunkelt (“Benighted”) which were all published after his death. He also continued to travel, including a trip to Israel in 1969, and read his poetry in public.

On 6 November 1969 he moved a last time in an apartment in 6 Avenue Émile Zola (15e). From this house it is only a few steps to the Seine and to Pont Mirabeau – the bridge about which Guillaume Apollinaire had written a famous poem. Paul Celan committed suicide most likely in the night of 19 to 20 April 1970. It is assumed that he went into the Seine from Pont Mirabeau. He did not leave a note, but a biography about Hölderlin was open on his desk with the following sentence from a letter by Clemens Brentano about Hölderlin underlined:

Manchmal wird dieser Genius dunkel und versinkt in den bitteren Brunnen seines Herzens.

(“Sometimes this genius gets dark and sinks in the bitter wells of his heart”)

Paul Celan’s body was found on 1 May at Courbevoie 10km downstream from Paris.

f) Paul Celan’s grave at Thiais Cemetery

On 12 May 1970 Paul Celan was buried at Thiais Cemetery. It was a burial without any religious ceremony. His wife chose this cemetery, because also their son François had been buried here in October 1953. Gisèle Celan-Lestrange who died in 1991 is now also buried here.

Thiais Cemetery is the newest of the three Parisian cemeteries extra muros and it is the second largest cemetery of Paris. It is located in a banlieue southwest of the city of Paris. Apart from Paul Celan also the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth who died 1939 in exile in Paris is buried here.

g) Monument for Paul Celan in Anne Frank Garden

Even so Paul Celan lived for more than 20 years in Paris, there was for a long time no monument for him, no street or place named after him and not even a plaque on one of the houses in which he lived. Since 2016 there is finally a monument for him by the German sculptor Alexander Polzin. It is called “Hommage à Paul Celan” and it is in the Anne Frank Garden near Centre Pompidou. The monument shows two figures: a pregnant women and a man who is arching backwards. There is a sign with Paul Celan’s poem Nachmittag mit Zirkus and Zitadelle (“Afternoon with circus and citadel”) which Paul Celan wrote in 1961 and which was published as part of Niemandsrose (“The No-One’s Rose”). You can find more information about the sculpture in this article.

I am delighted that there is now such a monument, but I had to notice that it is a little bit hidden away, it is a little bit overgrown and the dates on the brass plaque are incorrect (it gives 1921 as birth year instead of 1920).

h) Résidence Concordia, 41 Rue Tournefort (5e)

Since October 2020 there is another place which honours and remembers Paul Celan. It is a fresco on the ceiling of the common room at Résidence Concordia, 41 Rue Tournefort (5e), a student accommodation. It was realised by Mathilde Torteau, Marianna Faleri, Raphaël Roche, Éloi Regnier, Sami Haj-Chehade in collaboration with Giulia Puzzo et Giulia Gregori. The fresco uses Paul Celan’s poem Aus dem Moorboden (“From the marsh soil”) which he wrote on 19 July 1968 in his apartment Rue Tournefort and which is included in the collection Schneepart and the French translation of this poem by Jean-Pierre Lefebvre. You can find more information about the project in this French article.

4. Conclusion

I remember when I first read a poem by Paul Celan. It was in my final year at school and it was his famous Todesfuge (Death Fugue). I remember that I was so fascinated by the poem and the person that I wanted to know more about him. In 1990 / 1991 I could not find a comprehensive biography about him. There was Israel Chalfen’s Paul Celan. Eine Biographie seiner Jugend („Paul Celan. A biography of his youth”) which focusses on his time in Czernowitz. There were also a couple of collections of correspondence available. The first comprehensive biography I bought and read was John Felstiner’s book “Paul Celan. Poet, Survivor, Jew” which was published in 1995 in USA. I bought it in the same year when I was as visiting scholar in Berkeley and discovered it by chance. Felstiner included many poems by Celan and I remember that I read the biography and had the German poems next to me so that I could read the German poem and Felstiner’s English translations.

30 years later, there is a plethora of books about Paul Celan (certainly in German). I took many details from Theo Buck’s excellent biography Paul Celan which was published (in German) last year. In addition to the many German books which were published to mark the centenary of his birth, there are also a few in English which were published in the last years which I want to mention: two bilingual editions of Paul Celan’s poetry translated into English by Pierre Joris: “Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry: A Bilingual Edition” and “Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry: A Bilingual Edition”, Jean Dave’s book “Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan” (translated from French) and Petre Solomon’s “Paul Celan: The Romanian Dimension” (translated from Romanian, already published in November 2018).

I want to close this post with a link to a very special event. Last year the head of state of Germany, Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier (or rather his office) organised an evening to honour Paul Celan. You can find the text of Steinmeier’s speech in German, but also in a English, French, Hebrew and Ukrainian translation here. Because of Covid-19 the event did not have a live audience, but the whole remarkable evening is available as a video clip and I recommend this video highly. It includes a speech by Paul Celan’s son Eric Celan, video and audio takes of Paul Celan reading his poetry and much more. I think it is a very worthy event to honour Paul Celan equally as “one of the greatest poets of German language” (Steinmeier) and “a poet of Europe” (Steinmeier).

Ahmed Mansoor – another birthday in prison

Today is Ahmed Mansoor’s 52nd birthday. It is his fifth birthday in prison, in solitary confinement separated from his loved ones.

I am writing his blog post to mark this day and ask you to speak out for him. I also want to give an update on his situation and current developments, introduce you to the Alternative Human Rights Expo which was launched by Gulf Centre for Human Rights together with other NGOs in parallel to the Dubai Expo and share an Arabic reading of one of his poems and the English translation of this poem.

1. Key Information about Ahmed Mansoor

Most of you will probably know Ahmed Mansoor, but a few key information might still be useful:

Ahmed Mansoor is a highly regarded blogger and human rights activist. He is an engineer and a member of several human rights organisations. He is among others a member of the Advisory Board of Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Middle East and North Africa Division. In 2015 he won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights.

Ahmed Mansoor was arrested on 20 March 2017. His arrest was the culmination of years of harassment, arrests, travel bans and physical and electronic surveillance. On 29 May 2018 he was sentenced to ten years in prison for “false information on social media” which “insulted the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and “incited hatred and sectarian feelings”. The court of appeal decided on 31 December 2018 to uphold the sentence which is now final.

On 17 March 2019, Ahmed Mansoor went on a four week hunger strike to protest poor prison conditions and his unfair trial. His situation in prison is terrible. His cell does not have a bed and he has to sleep on the floor. Ahmed Mansoor has been in solitary confinement since his arrest more than four years seven months ago. He was only allowed to leave his cell for a handful of very infrequent family visits. After the hunger strike in March 2019, he was once allowed to walk in the prison yard. He has no access to books or newspapers.

Ahmed Mansoor went on a second hunger strike in early September 2019. This time he was on the hunger strike for 49 days and lost during this time 11 kgs of weight. Gulf Centre for Human Rights and other NGOs said that his health is at risk.

There is no information about him specifically in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, but if you read my blog post from June last year, you might know that Human Rights Watch had a quite alarming article about the dire situation in UAE prisons during Covid-19 outbreaks.

2. Current information and recent developments

It is always difficult to find up to date information about Ahmed Mansoor, because he has virtually no contact with the outside world. Even the contact with his family is only very limited and even if his family had up to date information, they run the risk to endanger themselves and possible him if they openly share such information with the public. Nevertheless, there is some recent information which I want to share with you.

a) The Persecution of Ahmed Mansoor, Report by Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch (January 2021)

At the beginning of the year Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch published a detailed 35 page report “The Persecution of Ahmed Mansoor. How the United Arab Emirates Silenced its Most Famous Human Rights Activist”. In addition to past research conducted by GCHR, HRW and other organisations, it is based

“on statements obtained from a source with direct knowledge of Ahmed Mansoor’s court proceedings as well as interviews with two former prisoners who, at different times during his detention in al-Sadr prison, were detained alongside Mansoor in the designated isolation ward. Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) are withholding the names and identities of some sources for their security”

The report contains background information about Ahmed Mansoor, information about the original trial and the appeal hearing and details about his treatment in prison. It also includes recommendations to the UAE and to Western states and deplores “A Complacent International Community”.

The report is fascinating and at the same time horrible to read. It shows clearly the unfairness of the trial against him and illustrates the terrible prison conditions which he has to endure. Some was known before through individual articles, but it is certainly worth to read the whole report. Please read the report and share it widely.

b) A tribute to Artur Ligęska (May 2021)

The report I have just mentioned would probably not have been possible without the late Artur Ligęska (at least not in the current form)

Artur Ligęska was a Polish fitness instructor. He went to Dubai in 2018. His plan was to open several fitness clubs there. During the opening of one of the clubs he got to know Angel, Prince of Abu Dhabi, who fell in love with him. Because he rejected the love of the prince, he was arrested in April 2018 on trumped up charges of the possession and the use of drugs. There was no evidence in the trial and no witnesses and also the drug test which was carried out on the day after his arrest was negative. Nevertheless, Artur was sentenced to life in prison. He experienced torture and sexual abuse in prison. Thanks to international pressure he was released in May 2019.

There is a special link between Artur Ligęska and Ahmed Mansoor. Artur was in in the same prison as Ahmed, in a neighbouring cell and they got to know each other. They shouted to each others through the prison walls (in particular in the evenings) and were so able to communicate with each other. When Ahmed Mansoor went on his first hunger strike in April 2019 Artur was so worried about Ahmed Mansoor’s health and life that he asked Ahmed for telephone numbers of human rights organisations. As soon as he got a chance to use the telephone, he did not call his family, but he tried to call Human Rights Watch and Gulf Centre for Human Rights. He did not manage to reach HRW, but he spoke with Kristina Stockwood from GCHR. Without his courage the outside world would probably not have heard of Ahmed Mansoor’s first hunger strike and the terrible prison conditions he is in. The public attention to his situation lead to slight improvements for him. There are two articles worth reading “A look inside Ahmed Mansoor’s isolation cell after two years in prison” on the GCHR website and “Artur and Ahmed: Prison Mates in UAE Hell” on the HRW website.

On 26 May 2021 Artur was found dead in his apartment in Amsterdam. The circumstances of his death are unclear.

His sudden death was a great shock for the human rights community. There are several tributes to him in articles and video clips. The Austrian film maker Manu Luksch made a beautiful, moving and at the same time terrifying documentary film about Artur Ligęska. It is called “Cry and Sing. Sing and Cry”. The film will be shown at different film festivals. You can find a preview of the film on Vimeo. Manu hopes that she will also be able to make the whole film available on Vimeo, once the film festivals are over. Please watch the film if you have a chance to do so.

c) Caleo Castro about Ahmed Mansoor and leaked letters about trial and prison conditions (July / August 2021)

Caleo Castro is another former prisoner who was in a cell close to Ahmed Mansoor. Caleo Castro is Brazilian. He is a former flight attendant who used to work for Emirates Airlines. He was in prison in UAE from 7 November 2019 until 21 October 2020 after he was arrested on far fetched charges.

He spoke in August about his experience in prison with newspapers and at online events. He tells a similar story as Artur Ligęska. He was first (until 29 January 2020) in Dubai’s central prison, but was then transferred to Abu Dhabi and was in the same prison as Ahmed Mansoor. Also he and Ahmed could communicate with each other by shouting through the walls. He was moved to a cell next to Ahmed Mansoor’s cell and found out who Ahmed Mansoor is. Caleo Castro says that he had a right to a mattress and a blanket, but Ahmed Mansoor had no such rights and slept on the floor, without a mattress and without a blanket. Ahmed Mansoor was allowed occasional phone calls with his family, but they were always cut off after 3 minutes or less.

Castro says that Ahmed looks much older than 52. His hair gone white and he has developed several health problems, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In one way it is reassuring that he apparently receives medical treatment for these problems. But Castro says that Ahmed “joked” about this attention and said

“listen, they just want to make sure that I would not die (during) the ten years inside the jail and that I would die at the end”.

Also Caleo Castro did a very brave thing. Ahmed Mansoor gave him a handwritten letter in which he described his trials and his prison conditions, including the many depravations he has to endure. When Castro was released he smuggled the letter out of prison. Also he decided to speak out for Ahmed Mansoor, because he was impressed by him and had the feeling that he had to do whatever is possible to get Ahmed Mansoor out of prison.

These letters was leaked to press and published by a London-based Arab new site on 16 July 2021.

d) Resolution of the European Parliament on 16 September 2021

I finally also want to mention a positive development. About one months ago, on 16 September, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in which they called for “the immediate and unconditional release of Ahmed Mansoor, Mohammed al-Roken and Nasser bin Ghaith, as well as all other human rights defenders, political activists and peaceful dissidents”. The resolution even went so far to “invites the international companies sponsoring Expo 2020 Dubai to withdraw their sponsorship and encourages Member States not to participate in the event”. Let’s hope that more pressure from the European Union and individual states will follow and will show results.

3. Alternative Human Rights Expo

On 1 October 2021 the Expo opened in Dubai. It will run until March 2022. It is the the first expo in the Arab world. Dubai and UAE uses the Expo to white wash their image from human rights violations and present themselves as an open and tolerant nation. The motto of the expo is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future through sustainability, mobility and opportunity”. However, this motto sounds hollow and hypocritical given that all UAE Human Rights Defenders are locked up and serve long sentences in horrible conditions just because they tried to share their ideas, connect with minds around the world and wanted to create a positive and open future for the UAE and the Arab world. 

Gulf Centre for Human Rights together with 20 other Human Rights Organisations decided to organise an “Alternative Human Rights Expo”. You can find more information about this Alternative Human Rights Expo on the website.

There is an open letter which was signed by more than 80 human rights organisations. The letter is an appeal to UAE to release detained UAE human rights activists. It mentions in addition to Ahmed Mansoor, specifically Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith, Mohammed Abdul Razzaq Al-Siddiq and the human rights lawyers Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken and Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori.

There is also a petition which urges UAE to release the human rights activists during the Expo. Please sign and share the petition.

Last Thursday, 14 October, GCHR organised together with other organisations an “Alternative Human Rights Expo” online event. It was similar to last years “Prisoner and the Pen” event, but had a wider scope. It again had a focus on imprisoned human rights activists and their writings and featured in particular:

  • Ahmed Mansoor & Mohammad Al-Siddiq, UAE
  • Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Bahrain
  • Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Iran
  • Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Sanaa Seif, Egypt

However, it also showed poetry, art, prose texts and music from a cross the Middle East. You can find the full programme here (choose the tab “Programme”) and the video clip of the full event here. It was a wonderful and moving event. Please watch it, if you can.

Until the end of the Dubai there will be more actions and potential also further events. Please keep an eye on the website and follow the social media accounts of the participating NGOs for further details.

4. A Poem from his collection “Beyond Failure”

If you read my blog post “Ahmed Mansoor – a poet” from March last year, then you know that Ahmed Mansoor published in 2007 a collection of poetry (in Arabic) with the title “Beyond Failure”. I included in my blog post last year the English translation of all poems for which we had translation at that time. For the Alternative Human Rights Expo event, Gulf Centre for Human Rights asked someone to make an English translation of another poem in the book. In the event his book was described as follows:

His first poetry collection “Beyond the Failure” was published in 2007 and contains 29 texts in which all of the human suffering and torment, and the perplexing hardship he is going through, are manifested.

The poem was read in the event in Arabic by Khalid Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. You can watch a video clip of this reading (with English surtitles) here. .

And here is the English translation of this poem:

First day: 
with my hand,
I dug a small hole
put in the vase hole
I filled the bowl with water.
in front of the bowl,
the earth was paved, and on its flanks,
protruding stones are planted,
behind the paved ground,
dune pile
behind the dunes,
I hid my secret.

Second day:
from my secret,
made little clouds,
and scattered over stones, water and steppes.
behind the clouds,
I stuck little stars and a lonely moon.
I blew into the scene tenderly,
I had a slight jerk in it
the murmur was fixed in the forehead.

Third day:
between the jutting stones and the water,
cracked some grooves,
and one of them,
It brought 2 canals to the steppes and dunes.
and without careful care,
I dug scattered spots in the place,
About jutting stones and spots,
scattered wildflowers and algae,
then I planted reeds around it,
I repeated it,
I let the dunes absorb the puff.

Fourth day:
near the water,
I built a hut out of sticks,
for the hut, window on each side,
a tongue on the water.
I put a sofa for two and a single stove,
made a sailboat,
the boat is tightened in the tongue.

Fifth day:
I fixed a bug in a cloud and a bug in a channel,
I trimmed the edges of the sticks,
and arranged some tables,
among the reeds,
I sent down two lovers and enveloped the scene with transparent darkness,
above the lovers
rained clouds,
and across the steppe,
valleys ran from jutting mountains
the streams were filled with water,
reed sticks, green
the wildfire of herbs rattled,
and algae sprouted on the ponds.
the murmur took off,
she gave birth to a wind that tickles the sail hanging at the tongue.

Sixth day:
the two lovers went to the hut,
sitting on the sofa by the sea
lit the stove,
and kisses.
What is missing then for the world to level and shine? The poet notes that there must be a sun, the sun of freedom, in order for the whole scene to be manifested, and therefore on the seventh day he adds a sun to the scene.

Seventh day: 
the sun stayed,
I will add it,
until the lovers are concluded,
from the kiss.

5. Please take action for Ahmed Mansoor

I want to close this blog post in the same way as always. Please do not forget Ahmed Mansoor, but speak our for him and campaign for him.

It was wonderful to see during the day many people who tweeted their #BirthdayWishes4Ahmed. There were also protests and actions for him in Brussels, Geneva and in London.

Please continue to support Ahmed Mansoor also when his birthday is over. Please use the hashtag #FreeAhmed and tag Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum  @HHShkMohd, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash @AnwarGargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan @MohamedBinZayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Urge them to release Ahmed Mansoor immediately and unconditionally.

Please sign and share the petition for Ahmed Mansoor and other human rights defenders in UAE which was launched in the context of the Alternative Human Rights Expo and which I have mentioned above.

Let us hope that this birthday will be the last birthday Ahmed Mansoor has to spend in prison and that he will soon be released and re-united with his family and his friends.

Join our tweetstorm for Raif Badawi on 10 April #FreeRaif

On 12 April is the beginning of Ramadan this year. This is traditionally a time for the pardoning for prisoners (including political prisoners). We want to invite you to join us on Saturday, 10 April for a tweet storm in support of Raif Badawi. He was arrested almost nine years ago and it is high time for the Saudi the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally.

Please join and share the post. We want as many participants as possible. Please read the post and continue to support him even when the Tweet Storm is over.

1. Who is Raif Badawi?

Raif Badawi is a Saudi Arabian blogger und human rights activist. He was born on 13 January 1984. He is the creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals. His website was a place of political and social debate where Saudis could discuss different topics freely and exchange their ideas. Raif Badawi is married to Ensaf Haidar. They got to know each other when he was 18 years old. They married shortly afterwards in 2002. They have three children: Najwa Badawi (born in 2003), Doudi “Terad” Badawi (born in 2004) and Miriyam Badawi (born in 2007).

Before his arrest in 2012 Raif Badawi has been harassed by the authorities for years. He had been previously arrested in 2008, but was released after one day of questioning. In addition, the authorities froze his bank account and put him under travel ban, so that he could not leave the country.

On 17 June 2012 Raif Badawi was arrested again. The charges against him were “insulting Islam through electronic channels”, later also apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) was added which carries a mandatory death sentence in Saudi Arabia. His trial began shortly afterwards. In December 2012 the Jeddah District Court referred the charge of apostacy to a higher court. This higher court found him guilty of apostacy, but did not sentence him. In July 2013 he was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for founding an internet forum which “violates Islamic values and propagates liberal thought”. His website was closed. One year later in 2014 his sentence was increased by an appeal court to 1000 lashes, 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 riyals (roughly $266,000; £133,000). On 9 January 2015 received the first 50 lashes in public in front of the mosque in Jeddah. He was supposed to received the complete 1000 lashes over 20 weeks, however this did not happen. First further lashes were postponed for medical reasons by first one week and then another week. Ultimately the Saudi authorities did not give him further lashes. One reason was probably the large international public outcry which followed the first flogging of Raif Badawi. Around the same time the courts reviewed again his case and there was even the risk that a new court would sentence him for apostacy to death. Luckily this did not happen.

Ensaf and the children fled Saudi Arabia before his arrest. They were first in Egypt and then in Lebanon when the trial against Raif began. However they received threats and did not feel safe. They were granted political asylum by the Government in Canada in 2013. She now lives with the children in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Ensaf and the children are in the meantime Canadian citizens.

2. What is Raif Badawi’s current situation?

Raif Badawi has in the meantime spent 3220 days in prison. These are 8 years 9 months and 25 days. He has been on hunger strike a few times and there were threats that Saudi Arabia would start to lash him again (in particular in June 2015 and October 2016). On 12 April 2021 Ramadan will begin. This is a typical time for pardon of prisoners (including political prisoners). Irwin Cotler, the international legal counsel to the Badawi family, had conveyed a clemency petition to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

There are further developments, in particular in Canada and in Saudi Arabia:

In January 2021 the House of Commons in Canada voted unanimously to demand the Immigration Minster to grant Raif Badawi Canadian citizenship. So far the federal government in Canada has not yet granted him citizenship and argues that such a step might even worsen his situation. However Brandon Silver who is a member of Raif Badawi’s international legal team argues to give Raif Badawi Canadian citizenship is not unprecedented and would give Canada a better standing in discussions with Saudi Arabia. Also Irwin Cotler argues in the Washington Post that it is important to act and put concerted public pressure on Saudi Arabia to secure the release of political prisoners. A decision of the Canadian government about the citizenship is still open.

There are also recent reports that there are new investigations against Raif Badawi for allegedly “harming the reputation of the country”. There seem to be also investigations against Ensaf Haidar who campaigns tirelessly for her husband. It is feared that the authorities could use these investigations and new trumped up charges to keep Raif Badawi for even longer in prison. It is not clear yet, whether these will result in further legal proceedings against Raif Badawi and maybe also his wife.

There are also positive signs from USA. About two weeks ago the US Senator Dick Durban made a speech on the US senate floor and asked in this speech for the release of political prisoners around the world. He emphasised in particular four prisoners, among them Raif Badawi. The other prisoners were Waleed Abu al-Khair (Saudi Arabia) who defended Raif Badawi and was himself arrested in 2014 and as sentenced 10 years and a 15 year travel ban, Senator Leila De Lima who has spent four years in prison in the Philippines and Ahmed Mansoor is an UAE human rights defender who was arrested in March 2017 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you certainly know him.

3. When does the Tweet Storm take place?

The tweet storm will take place on Saturday, 10 April 2021 at 4pm6pm (GMT).

This is equivalent to 5pm (London), 6pm (Paris), 7 pm (Saudi Arabia), 12 noon (Quebec), 12 noon (New York), 9am (Los Angeles).

If you cannot make it, then please let your followers know about the tweet storm and ask them to join. We want to have as many tweets as possible. Please retweet the tweets of other people and post your own tweets.

4. What shall I tweet?

  • Send tweets to Saudi Arabia, in particular to the King of Saudi Arabia (@KingSalman). Please send also tweets to other authorities in Saudi Arabia like the Ministry of Interior (@MOISaudiArabia), the Ministry of Justice (@MojKSA) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (@KSAMOFA). Ask them to quash the judgement against Raif Badawi and to release him immediately and unconditionally.
  • You can also tweet to politicians in Europe, the US and Canada, e.g. Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF). High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Marc Garneau, Foreign Minster of Canada (@MarcGarneau) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of your country. Feel free to tweet in your own language.
  • Send tweets to raise your followers’ awareness for Raif Badawi. You can also send tweets to journalists and newspapers and ask them to report about him.
  • Send tweets to @RaifBadawi with words of support. You can tweet that you stand with him, that you have not forgotten him and that you will campaign for him until he is released and similar messages. Please also send messages of support to Raif Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar (@miss9afi) and the children.

It is always a good idea to use pictures or tweet newspaper articles. You will find links to a few articles below under 7. Further Information.

5. Is there a special hashtag?

Please use for all your tweets (irrespective of the language in which you tweet)  the general hashtag #FreeRaif. it is easy to find and retweet the tweets of other

6. Suggested tweets

You can write your own tweets, but if you need some inspiration, then here are some examples. Kimberly Lenz also prepared a Pastebin with a large number of tweets: Many of the tweets include links to newspaper articles or two photos. They are all a great source. Please use them.

Here are a few more examples for tweets:

  • #SaudiArabia: @raif_badawi is not a criminal, but a brave human rights defenders. He has in the meantime already spent more than 8 years 9 months in prison. Join me and urge @KingSalman to release him immediately and unconditionally @MOISaudiArabia @MojKsa @KSAMOFA #FreeRaif
  • @KingSalman quash the unfair sentence against @raif_badawi and release him immediately and unconditionally. He is a blogger, human rights activist and prisoner of conscience #FreeRaif @MOISaudiArabia @MojKsa @KSAMOFA
  • @KingSalman @KSAMOFA @MOISaudiArabia With #Ramadan approaching, now is the time for good will. Release #RaifBadawi immediately & unconditionally so that he can reunite with his family in Canada. #FreeRaif
  • #SaudiArabia: @raif_badawi has now been separated for almost 10 years from his wife @miss9afi and their children Najwa, Terad and Miriyam. They miss him, can’t wait any longer for him and want to put their arms around him. Please @JustinTrudeau do what you can to #FreeRaif
  • “Raif Badawi was brave enough to raise his voice and say no to their barbarity. That is why they flogged him.” Please @JosepBorrellF intercede for @raif_badawi. He received in 2015 the Sakharov Prize of @Europarl_EN, but he is still in prison, separate from his family. #FreeRaif
  • Please @guardian write about @raif_badawi #SaudiArabia. He was arrested more than 8 years 9 months ago. In 2015 he received 50 lashes. According to his sentence 950 more should come. Please do not forget about him, but support the campaign to #FreeRaif
  • “@Raif_badawi is not a criminal, but a courageous advocate of coexistence. He should be lauded, rather than lashed, for his leadership.” @IrwinCotler #FreeRaif
  • Please be assured @raif_badawi that we stand with you and will campaign for you until you are free at last. We will not forget you, but call for #FreeRaif as long as it takes.
  • We will keep shouting: #FreeRaif until #SaudiArabia finally releases you, @raif_badawi immediately and unconditionally. We will also keep supporting your brave wife @miss9afi and help her in her struggle for your freedom. #FreeRaif
  • We will not be silent or turn away, but continue to demand #FreeRaif. You have been arrested more than 8 years 9 months ago and we have been already campaigned for you and stood at your side for all the way. We will there until you @raif_badawi are free at last!

7. Further information

I want to provide you with a couple of links to recent articles about Raif Badawi with further information.

a) One Way Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman Can Prove He Is Sincere About His Reforms: Free Raif Badawi, by Brandon Silver and Evelyne Abitbol, Time, 5 April 2018

b) House of Commons unanimously approves motion to grant citizenship to Raif Badawi, CBC News, 28 January 2021

c) Jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi under new probe for ‘damaging the reputation of the Kingdom, National Post, 1 March 2021

d) Would giving this man Canadian citizenship help him — or make his life in a Saudi jail even worse? by Douglas Quan, Toronto Star, 3 March 2021

e) Opinion: Saudi Arabia is persecuting a peaceful blogger — again. Silence could be disastrous, by Irwin Cotler and Brandon Silver, The Washington Post, 8 March 2021

f) Liberals accused of ignoring unanimous motion to grant Canadian citizenship to jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, by Anja Karadeglija, National Post, 17 March 2021

g) Would Canadian citizenship free Saudi blogger Raif Badawi?, by Jennifer Holleis and Kersten Knipp, Deutsche Welle, 25 March 2021

h) Raif Badawi – Dreaming of Freedom. A documentary graphic novel, published by Radio Canada.

8.  Can I do anything after 10 April?

Please do not stop supporting Raif Badawi when the Tweet Storm on 10 April 2021 is over.

As always, if you are on Twitter or in other Social Media, please continue to raise his case and make other people aware of it. If you like the suggested tweets, just continue to use them.

Show your support and show Saudi Arabia that we will not forget Raif Badawi and will campaign for him until he is free.

I want to finish this post with a quote from my first blog post about Raif Badawi which was published on March 2015 on Raif Badawi website (which does not exist anymore) and which I republished in June 2015 on this blog. The title of my article is “Why I do care about Raif Badawi”

“I hope that we all will not relent in our support, even if it might take longer to free him than we all wish for. I hope that we all continue to protest and campaign until he is released and reunited with his family.

This is what I still hope and the fact that we all have been standing with Raif Badawi and his family for such a long time makes me hopeful that we will continue to do so until he is free at last.

#GiveThemAVoice Yalda Night Online Event

Just a few days before Christmas, on 21 December 2020, Amnesty Westminster Bayswater and Letters with Wings invited everyone to watch a Facebook live stream for Yalda Night in support of prisoners in Iran. Yalda Night is an Iranian feast which marks the longest and darkest night of the year. Yalda means rebirth (of the sun). Family and friends gather to share food and drink and read poetry (in particular by Hanfez and Sa’adi).

I want to share in this blog post the YouTube clip of this event and give you some insight on the campaign and the clips we received for this evening. .

I. #GiveThemAVoice campaign

If you read my previous post, you know about the #GiveThemAVoice campaign. We asked people around the world to be the voice of a political prisoner in Iran and make a recording of themselves reading a poem or another text (often an excerpt from a letter) which was written by a political prisoner in Iran and help that their voices will be heard across the prison walls and not silenced. I suggested in my previous post ten prisoners and one or more texts for each of the prisoners, but I also said that people are free to read other texts of the same prisoners or read texts of other prisoners. We asked people to tweet their contributions with the hashtag #GiveThemAVoice. In a post on our Amnesty website on 1 December, we also asked people to submit the clips to us via a Dropbox link.

The resonance was very positive and we had in the end 82 files in our Dropbox folder. We received contributions from all over the world, in particular many clips from different parts of the UK, from Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, USA, Canada and Australia. Many individuals sent their clips, some of them are associated with Amnesty International, some are not. In addition a good number of Amnesty Groups in the UK and beyond participated in the campaign. I want to mention and thank in particular the Amnesty Group Reading, Amnesty Group Richmond Twickenham and Amnesty Group Mayfair & Soho (all UK), as well as Amnesty Group Furesø, Denmark and Amnesty Toronto Iran Action Circle, Canada for their support and their wonderful clips.

II. Yalda Night

Viviana Fiorentino, Letters with Wings, saw my blog post about the campaign and suggested that Amnesty Westminster Bayswater and Letters with Wings could run the #GiveThemAVoice campaign together. She also suggested that the campaign could culminate in a joint online event on Yalda Night (21 December). Letters with Wings is an initiative of Northern Ireland based poets. They started during the first lockdown and invited the public for Poetry Day in Ireland to send poetic letters to artists who are in prison all over the world.

Our event was live streamed on Facebook. If you want to watch the event on Facebook you find it here.

The video of the event is in the meantime also on YouTube. If you prefer to watch it on YouTube you can find the clip here:

When we put the event together, we discussed whether we should show all video clips or just a selection. Some people submitted more than one clip and for some prisoners we received various versions containing the same text. In the end we decided to show all the clips in our event. We thought it is wonderful to hear so many different voices reading these texts and reading them in different ways. It is also fascinating to see a wide range of different video clips. Some people filmed themselves reading the text, some used one or more pictures of the prisoner and you can only hear the voice of the person who is reading the text. Some people even used music in their video clips. Some only read the text they have chosen and some decided to give some background about the prisoner or end the clip with a demand to the Iranian authorities to free the prisoner.

The whole event lasted about 2 hours 50 minutes. If you are looking for a specific section, the following overview and time data (for the clip on YouTube) might be helpful.

1. The event starts with an introduction to the campaign and to Yalda Night.

2. The first prisoner is Anoosheh Ashoori (starting at 5.29 min). He is a British-Iranian dual national and a retired engineer who was arrested on 13 August 2017 when he visited his mother in Iran. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on trumped up charges. We received five clips in support of him. The activists in the clips read a text by Anoosheh Ashoori from 2020.

3. The second prisoner in the event is Aras Amiri (at 14.29 min). She is an Iranian national who lives in London. She is a British Council Worker and was arrested in March 2018 when she visited her sick grandmother in Iran. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison. We received one clip in support of Aras Amiri, reading her text “Remembrance”.

4. The third prisoner is Arash Sadeghi (at 18.16 min). He is a civil rights activist who has been harassed for years. The last time he was arrested was on 7 June 2016. He is serving 19 years in prison (15 years from 2016 and 4 years from a suspended sentence in 2010). Arash Sadeghi is very ill, because he suffers from a rare form of bone cancer and he does not receive proper medical care. We received five clips in support of him. The activist read the end of an open letter by Arash Sadeghi from March 2020.

5. After Arash Sadeghi follows his wife, the poet, writer and human rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (at 27.30 min). She was also arrested several times. On 24 October 2016 she was arrested to serve 6 years in prison for an unpublished story about stoning and her Facebook posts. She was temporarily released on 3 January 2017 (after Arash Sadeghi’s 72 day hunger strike), but rearrested after three weeks. In 2019 her original sentence was reduced and she was released in April 2019. In November 2019 she was rearrested to serve a new sentence (2.1 years in prison). We received ten clips in support of Golrokh Iraee and activists read the following poems: “The Lips of the Wind”, “Couples in Prison”, “For Gisou”, “Standing Straight” and “Counting Up, Counting Down”.

6. The next prisoner is Atena Daemi (at 48.52 min.) Atena Daemi is a human rights defender, campaigner against the death penalty and for children’s and women’s rights. She was arrested on 27 March 2014. She initially was sentenced to 7 years in prison (on appeal). She was meant to be released on 4 July 2020, but the authorities brought new charges against her and in July 2020 she was sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes. We received five clips in support of Atena Daemi. The activists read excerpts from a letter by Atena Daemi from 2020.

7. After Atena Daemi follows a poem by the French-Iranian anthropologist and academic Fariba Adelkhah (at 57.21 min). Fariba Adelkhah was arrested on 5 June 2019 in Iran. On 16 May 2020 she was sentenced to six years in prison. She was given furlough at the beginning of October 2020 and she is currently with her family in Iran under house arrest. We received two clips. Both are readings of her poem “Le silence”, but one is a reading of the French poem and one of its English translation.

8. The following section is about Kylie Moore Gilbert (at 1.03.38 h). She is fortunately not any longer a prisoner in Iran. Kylie Moore Gilbert is a British-Australian national. She is a lecturer and researcher in Middle East Politics at the University of Melbourne Asia Institute. She was arrested on 14 September 2018 when she was about to fly home after participating in a university programme about Islam for foreign academics. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “espionage” and other trumped up charges. On 25 November 2020 it was confirmed that she was released in exchange for three Iranian prisoners. She is now back home in Australia. We received three clips in support of Kylie Moore Gilbert, one activist reads excerpts from her letters from prison and two read her poem “Endure”

9. The next prisoner is Maryam Akbari Monfared (at 1.10.46 h). Maryam Akbari Monfared is a human rights activist. She was arrested on 31 December 2009 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. According to Amnesty International Maryam’s conviction is solely based “on the fact that she had made phone calls to her relatives, who are members of a banned group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), and had visited them once in Iraq”. We received six clips in support of her. The activists read an excerpt of an open letter she wrote from prison for Nowruz.

10. The next section is about another human rights defender who is fortunately not any longer in prison: Narges Mohammadi (at 1.19.55 h). Narges Mohammadi is a human rights defender, journalist, member of Centre for Defenders of Human Rights (CDHR) and in particular active against the death penalty throught her membership in the group Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” (LEGAM) .The last time Narges Mohammadi was arrested on 5 May 2015. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In addition she had to serve 6 years from a previous sentence. On 8 October 2020 she was released and is now reunited with her husband and her tweens Kiana and Ali (born 2006). We received one clip in support of her and it contains a reading of her poem “Three Goodbyes”.

11. After the section for Narges Mohammadi follows a section for another well known Iranian women rights activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (at 1.24.43 h). Nasrin Sotoudeh is married with Raza Khandan and they have two children (son Nima, 12 years & daughter Mehraveh, 20 years old). She was arrested twice. First in 2010 and then again on 13 June 2018. She was sentenced to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. In addition there were a five years sentence from the previous trial. In accordance with Iranian law, she will “only” serve the longest sentence for one of the convictions against her, which is 10 years. However, another two and a half years were added due to the high number of charges against her, raising her total sentence to around 12 years. After six weeks of hunger strike she was temporarily released on 7 November 2020. She tested positive for Covid 19. At the beginning of December she was ordered back to prison. We received two clips in support of her. One contains a reading of an excerpt from an interview with her from March 2014 and the other one a reading of two letters to her children (March 2011 to Nima & April 2011 to Mehraveh).

12. The next is a clip which we received from Nasrin Parvaz in support of 14 men who were condemned to be executed in Iran (at 1.35.00 h). Nasrin Parvaz is Iranian, but lives in the UK. In the 80s she was herself arrested in Iran, tortured and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison. She spent eight years in prison until she was released. She is now fighting to save 14 men in Iran who were sentenced to death. Nasrin started a petition on and it would be wonderful, if you could sign and share her petition. If you want to read more about Nasrin’s own story, then please read her book “A Woman’s Struggle in Iran: A Prison Memoir

13. The next section is dedicated to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (at 1.37.02 h). Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian dual national. She is a project manager for Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charitable arm of the news agency Thomson Reuters. She is married to Richard Ratcliffe and they have a daughter Gabriella (now 6 1/2 years old). She was arrested on 3 April 2016 when she was visiting her parents together with her daughter. She was sentenced to 5 years in prison. She was temporarily released on 17 March 2020 and is currently in house arrest at her parents place. However there are threats that she has to return to prison. There is also a new trial pending and she could potential be given an additional long sentence. We received eight clips in support of her. Activists read three different poems by her: “Autumn Light”, “For Our Parents” and “A Yard of Sky”.

14. After Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe follows Niloufar Bayani (at 1.57.15 h). Niloufar Bayani is an Iranian wildlife activist and researcher. In January 2018 she was arrested on charges of espionage and similar charges. She was held incommunicado for eight months, was tortured and intimidated with sexual assault. She said that she was interrogated for 1200 hours. She was sentenced to 10 years of prison the “returning the funds” she had allegedly received from the US. The conviction is based on forced confessions. We received one clip in support of her. The clip is a reading of her powerful poem “A Blindfold Remains”.

15. The next section is also dedicated to a poet, to Sedigeh Vasmaghi (at 2.03.43 h). Sedigeh Vasmaghi is also a theologian and women rights activist. She was sentenced to one year in August 2020 for signing a petition against police brutality in November 2019. There is in addition a suspended five year sentence which is open from 2017. This means that she will have to serve 6 years. She is currently free, but can be arrested every day. We received six clips in support of her. They contain readings of her poems “When the Stars Die Down” and “Just Think of All the Freedom I Have”.

16. The penultimate prisoner in the event is Soheil Arabi (at 2.13.18 h). He is a photographer, blogger and human rights activist and was arrested in November 2013. He was initially sentenced to death for “insulting the Prophet of Islam” on Facebook. This sentenced was commuted to ultimately 6 1/2 years. There are a number of other charges and other convictions against him. He is currently in Rajaei Shahr prison. We received seven clips in support of him. All contain a reading of an excerpt from a letter from August 2017.

17. The last prisoner is Zeynab Jalalian (at 2.22.40 h). Zeynab Jalalian is a Kurdish human rights activist. She was arrested on March 2008. In December 2008 she was sentenced to death in a summary trial for being a member of the Kurdish group Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). Zeynab denied that she is a member. In December 2011 her sentence was commuted to life in prison. She has several medical conditions and the authorities deny her medical treatment. In June 2020 she was diagnosed with Covid 19. We received 13 clips in support of her and therefore more clips than for any other prisoner. Most of the activist read an excerpt from a letter she wrote in June 2018, but the clips also include two readings of an open letter for International Women’s Day (8 March 2018) (one in Farsi and one in English) and an excerpt from a letter to her mother in March 2018.

18. The last few minutes of the event (at 2.47.44 h.) are dedicated to a few concluding remarks and thank yous to everyone who watched the event, who submitted clips and who supported it in other ways.

III. Conclusion

I close this post, as many other of my posts, and want to ask you to continue to be a voice of political prisoners in Iran and campaign for their release. We put not only the recording of the whole event on YouTube, but we also put up all clips which were submitted to us. You can find them in the brand new YouTube channel of my Amnesty Group Amnesty Westminster Bayswater. Please subscribe to the YouTube channel. Please watch and share in particular the individual clips and like them. There are playlists for each prisoner which you can also share.

I think the words of all the prisoners and former prisoners in this campaign are very powerful. It would be wonderful, if you continue to use the videos in your campaigns for them and if their words will continue to be heard.

Give them a voice – join our campaign for Iranian prisoners

A few days ago, on 15 November was the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. On this day people around the world are encouraged to support and recognise writers who are in prison. I would like to invite you to share poems and other texts of Iranian prisoners and give them a voice.

I. Background of the Campaign

Some of you probably watched our event “The Prisoner and the Pen”, a joint event by my Amnesty Group Westminster Bayswater and Gulf Center for Human Rights, or read my blog post about the event (I encourage you to watch the YouTube clip, if we have not seen it yet. You can find it in my blog post).

Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband participated in the event. He spoke about poems which were written in 2017 by five women in Evin prison (Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari). Richard and others read these poems at a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy on World Poetry Day 2017. I shared the poems in my blog and the poems were read afterwards at different protests and other events. Richard said:

“It was really powerful for the women that their voices had reached across the walls … and despite all that happens in Iran’s prisons that their voices had not been silenced.”

“The Prisoner and the Pen” focussed on so many prisoners from different countries in the Middle East that there was not so much time for the Iranian poems. Therefore I thought we could start a new campaign and make sure that these poems but also other texts by Iranian prisoners really “reach across the walls”. You can help to give your voice to the prisoners and make their words to be heard.

II. What do we want you to do?

I discussed this idea with my Amnesty Group and we would like you to do the following:

  1. Please pick a text by an Iranian prisoner. This can be a poem or an excerpt from an open letter. We have a couple of suggestions for prisoners and text which you can choose. You will find them in the next section, but you can of course also choose any other text from an Iranian prisoner.
  2. Please make a recording of yourself reading this text and urge Iran to release the prisoner. You can make a video clip using your phone or computer to record yourself. You can also use Zoom to make a recording and choose a photo of the prisoner as your background or, if you do not want to show your face, you can choose a photo of the prisoner as your profile picture and turn the camera off, then the picture of the prisoners is on screen.
    As an alternative, you can make a just a sound recording or write the text on a picture, if you are really uncomfortable making a recording or have technical difficulties.
    Ideally your clip should not be longer than 2 minutes. If it is shorter than it is more likely that people will listen to the whole clip.
  3. Please share the video clip, the sound recording (maybe together with a picture of the prisoner) or just the text on Social Media. Please use the specific hashtag #GiveThemAVoice. Please also use the usual hashtag for this prisoner, like #FreeNazanin, #FreeAtena, #FreeGolrokh etc. If you do that, then people who look for the hashtag of the prisoner, will also find your tweet.
    Please tag in your tweets Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani. You can also tag the Iranian embassy in your country or politicians in your country. Let them know that the prisoners will not be silenced but have a voice in campaigners around the world. If there is a special account who campaigns for the prisoner, you can also tag this account.
  4. Please retweet other tweets which use the hashtag.
  5. Please consider making more than just one clip. Even if you usually support primarily the campaign for one of the prisoners, please pick a couple of them or make even a clip for each of them over the next weeks.
  6. Finally, please ask you followers to join the campaign.

We hope that many people will join the campaign. We thought it would be good to have the campaign running until Yalda Night. Yalda is an Iranian feast which is celebrated on the 21 December (Winter Solstice). It celebrates the longest and darkest night of the year. One of the traditions in this night is to read poetry to each others.

III. Prisoners and Texts

We want to suggest ten Iranian prisoners and theirs texts, but please feel free to use other texts from these prisoners or texts written by other prisoners. All our suggestions are English translations, but can obviously also read texts in Farsi or any other language. As long as you use the hashtag #GiveThemAVoice people will find you tweets and can retweet them.

1. Atena Daemi

Occupation: Human rights defender, campaigner against the death penalty and for children’s and women’s rights

Date of Arrest: 27 March 2014

Place of Detention: Evin Prison

Sentence: 7 years in prison (on appeal in 2016). In July 2020 she was sentenced to an additional five years in prison and 74 lashes

Key information: Atena Daemi has developed over time severe health issues and has been on hunger strike several times. She was originally meant to be released on 4 July 2020, but there was in the meantime a new convictions against her.

Suggestion for a text: Atena wrote several open letters while in prison. One suggestion is a few paragraphs of the text which we used in our event “The Prisoner and the Pen”. Here is the first paragraph:

To think, tell and write freely is one of the most basic rights of every
human in the world! However, to see, hear and read the diverse thoughts
is intolerable for the rulers of authoritarian governments and the
freedom to speak about it is a great crime. When these basic rights are
taken away and forbidden or what they call Haram [unlawful], the strife
for achieving it becomes the reason for social and political struggles which has consequences like prison, detention, execution and … which is based on pure injustice!

You can find the full text in this presentation on page 52:

2. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Occupation: Project manager for Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charitable arm of the news agency Thomson Reuters.

Date of Arrest: 3 April 2016

Place of Detention: Nazanin was in Evin prison. She was temporarily realised on 17 March 2020. She is at her parents home In Iran. However there are threats that she has to return to prison.

Sentence: 5 years in prison

Key Information: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian dual national. She was arrested when she was in Iran visiting her parents together with her daughter Gabriella (now 6 years old). There is currently a new trial against her (which presents the same evidence as in 2016). The last hearing was on 2 November. She could potential given an additional long sentence.

Suggestion for a text: Nazanin wrote a couple of poems in prison. You can find them in a blog post I published three years ago.

Here are two poems put in pictures. They were made by activists and are frequently shared on social media

3. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee

Occupation: Writer, poet and human rights activist

Date of Arrest: 24 October 2016.

Place of Detention: Qarchak Prison

Sentence: Initially 6 years in prison. On the basis of new charges in September 2019 Golrokh was sentenced to an additional 2.1 years in prison.

Key Information: Golrokh is married to Arash Sadeghi. She has been (temporarily) released and arrested several times since 2016. She was released on 3 January 2017 after her husband Arash Sadeghi went on hunger strike for 72 days. She was rearrested on 23 January 2017. Her original sentence was reduced and she was released in April 2019. In November 2019 she was rearrested to serve the new sentence.

Suggestion for a text: Golrokh wrote a number of poems which are translated into English. You can find them in a blog post I published three years ago.

Here are two poems put in pictures. They were made by activists and are frequently shared on social media.

You can also find one additional poem “Counting Up, Counting Down” in the presentation for the event “The Prisoner and the Pen” (see for the link at Atena Daemi’s section).

4. Arash Sadeghi

Occupation: Civil activist and human rights defender

Date of Arrest: 7 June 2016

Place of Detention: Rajaei Shahr Prison

Sentence: 15 years in prison. However, there was a suspended sentence of 4 years from his conviction in 2010 which was added to his sentence. He therefore serves currently 19 years in prison.

Key Information: Arash Sadeghi has been on hunger strike several times. In July / August 2018 he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. The Iranian authorities withheld medical treatment several times. He had surgery in September 2018 outside of prison, but was transferred after three days back to prison. Even so he contracted an infection he was denied another transfer to hospital for weeks. In August 2020 he was again denied medical check ups.

Suggestion for a text: Arash wrote several open letters while in prison. One of the latest was in March 2020 where he blamed the officials for their neglect in relation to Covid-19. Here is the conclusion from his letter:

“If living in a labyrinth of lies is the pillar of this authoritarian regime, it is no surprise that the most dangerous threat to it is living in the circle of truth and reality. This is why, the truth is suppressed more than anything else… Because all the real problems and vital issues are concealed underneath a thick cover of lies.”

5. Anoosheh Ashoori

Occupation: Retired engineer

Date of Arrest: 13 August 2017

Place of Detention: Evin Prison

Sentence: 10 years in prison.

Key Information: Anoosheh Ashoori is a British-Iranian dual national. He was arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned while visiting his mother in Iran. His convictions is based on trumped up charges.

Suggestion for a text: I asked Anoosheh’s wife Sherry Izadi for a text. She made a short recording of a text he wrote, when she spoke with him on the phone.

Here is the text:

The world of the living dead

When you die, you are completely detached from this world, but here in Evin, it’s another universe. Looking around me, I see prisoners with long sentences, including myself, and the unfortunate ones who are awaiting execution. Desperate individuals, clinging to hope and daydreams, despite the worst odds. Most spend their days walking back and forth in a small yard, constantly asking themselves: What have I done to deserve this? Agonising days turn into months and years, while any chance of happiness fades away.

We are not disconnected from your world, but in a parallel universe, we witness how in your world, young children grow up, deprived of the love and comfort of their father’s or mother’s presence. As for our spouses and partners, some stay and bear the pain, but for others, the pain becomes too much and they finally succumb and drift away towards an alternative future. A once warm and close family gradually disintegrates into nothingness, into the abyss. All this happens in front of our eyes, out of reach, in the parallel universe, while we watch helplessly as we get older, weaker, and lonelier. Meanwhile, the evil tyrant keeps on killing, burning, and destroying everything it can, just to stay in power, even for one more day, and the world powers claiming to be advocates of justice, remain mostly indifferent as politics and trade dominate all else.

Cosmologists are still searching to find intelligent life out there. Maybe they too have given up on finding any compassion or humanity here on this earth.

6. Kylie Moore-Gilbert (Released on 25 Nov!)

Update on 25 Nov: It was confirmed that Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been released in exchange for three Iranian prisoners!

Occupation: Lecturer and researcher in Middle East Politics at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute

Date of Arrest: 14 September 2018

Place of Detention: Evin Prison

Sentence: 10 years in prison.

Key Information: Kylie Moore-Gilbert is a British-Australian national. She was in Iran to participate in a university programme on Islam for foreign academics. She was arrested when she was about to fly home. She spent months in solitary confinement and she has been on hunger strike.

Suggestion for a text: Kylie Moore-Gilbert wrote a number of letters between July – December 2019 which were published on the website of Center for Human Rights in Iran. You can choose an excerpt from one of these letters. I think there two short excerpts which I find particularly suitable:

“I, an innocent woman, have been imprisoned for a crime I have not committed and for which there is no real evidence. This is a grave injustice, but unfortunately it is not a surprise to me – from the very beginning [of my arrest] it was clear that there was fabrications and trumped-up accusations, by the hands of IRGC and intentionally.”

Letter, 2 August 2019


“I have never been a spy and I have no interest to work for a spying organization in any country. When I leave Iran, I want to be a free woman and live a free life, not under the shadow of extortion and threats”

Letter, 23 August 2019

7. Soheil Arabi

Occupation: Photographer, blogger and human rights activist

Date of Arrest: November 2013

Place of Detention: Probably Rajaei Shahr Prison. He was informed at the beginning of November 2020 that he will be transferred from Evin prison. “His” Twitter account tweeted on 11 November that he is now in Rajaei Shahr Prison.

Sentence: 6 1/2 years in prison (and additional sentences at a later point in time).

Key Information: Soheil Arabi was on 30 August 2014 sentenced to death for “insulting the Prophet of Islam” on Facebook. On 3 September 2014 he was in addition sentenced to 3 years in prison for “insulting the supreme leader”. On 27 June 2015 the Supreme Court commuted the sentence to 7 1/2 years in prison, 2 years of “Shi’ism studies as well as the hand copying of thirteen Shi’a textbooks“. In November 2015 the sentence was reduced to 6 1/2 years in prison. In July 2018 he was sentenced to another 6 years in prison and in September 2018 in another case to three years in prison, three years exile to the city of Boazjan and a fine. Soheil Arabi defends prisoner’s rights and speaks often about the conditions in prison. He has been harassed for that. He has been on hunger strike several times. Also his mother who campaigns for him is harassed and punished for campaigning for him.

Suggestion for a text: Soheil Arabi wrote over time a number of open letters. I would suggest an excerpt from an open letter from August 2017 which you can find on the Journalism is not a crime website:

“I, Soheil Arabi, was the cry of a generation who no longer wanted to be part of a burnt generation and a generation that has not lived; that was afraid of death, not free and that was afraid of your prisons. I spent four of my birthdays behind prison bars. My daughter is four years old and all of her memories of me are in meeting rooms in Evin Prison. 

I have forgiven all the oppression that was inflicted on me. But I could never be silent in the face of the unjust and continued harassment of my family”.

8. Maryam Akbari-Monfared

Occupation: Human Rights activist

Date of Arrest: 31 December 2009

Place of Detention: Evin Prison

Sentence: 15 years in prison.

Key Information: Three of Maryam’s brothers and one of her sisters were executed during the 1988 mass executions in Iran. According to Amnesty International Maryam’s conviction is solely based “on the fact that she had
made phone calls to her relatives, who are members of a banned group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), and had visited them once in Iraq”.

Suggestion for a text: Maryam Akbari Monfared wrote several open letters during her time in prison. I would suggest an excerpt of an open letter which she wrote for Nowruz:

“My beautiful daughter grew up walking along prison walls and going through metal gates and looking through the thick glass in meeting halls. I mark her growth on the wall next to the visiting booth. My daughter learned what prison is all about from a very early age.” 

9. Zeynab Jalalian

Occupation: Human Rights activist

Date of Arrest: March 2008

Place of Detention: Yazd Prison

Sentence: Life in prison.

Key Information: Zeynab Jalalian is Kurdish Iranian. In December 2008 she was sentenced to death in a summary trial for being a member of the Kurdish group Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). Zeynab denied that she is a member. In December 2011 the sentence was commuted to life in prison. She has several medical conditions and the authorities deny her medical treatment. In June 2020 she was diagnosed with Covid 19.

Suggestion for a text: There are a number of open letters by Zeynab Jalalian. I would suggest and excerpt from a letter from June 2018:

Do you hear the voice of my liberation behind bars? Let me relieve your imagination; A free man uses one’s mind (and not one’s body) when fighting for freedom, So I do not feel pity that my body is secluded in the prison. Thankfully, a liberal mind can never be captured.

For me, even death and pain in the way of freedom is sweet. In fact, the authorities are their own best enemy and their efforts are futile and condemned to failure.

No one and nothing is strong enough to prevent me from achieving my goals. I am stronger than all and I will continue to be stronger than ever.

10. Sedigeh Vasmaghi

Occupation: Theologian, poet, writer and women’s rights activist

Date of Arrest: Currently free, but can be arrested every day

Place of Detention: N/A

Sentence: 6 years in total

Key Information: Sedigeh Vasmaghi was sentenced to one year in August 2020 for signing a petition against police brutality in November 2019. There is in addition a suspended five year sentence which is open from 2017. This means that she will have to serve 6 years. After the one year sentence was upheld on appeal in October 2020, she waits to be summoned to prison. Her books are banned in Iran.

Sedigeh Vasmaghi was one of the case on which Pen International focussed this year in their campaign for the Day of the Imprisoned Writer a few days ago.

Suggestion for a text: Pen Sweden published some of Sedigeh Vasmaghi’s poems. You can find them here.

The Prisoner and the Pen

Our online event “The Prisoner and the Pen” took place a little bit more than two weeks ago. I watched the video clip over the weekend and I decided that I want to write a post about it. I mainly want to have a place to share the video clip (which you find under III 2) and I hope that there are many more people who will watch the video and will continue to support the prisoners we included in this event.

I. The Idea

Some of you might remember that my Amnesty Group, Amnesty Westminster Bayswater organised last year in March the event “Words for the Silenced” at the Poetry Café in London. It was a joint event with Exiled Writers Ink and we shared the poetry written by and in support of four writers who are in prison for their word: Ahmed Mansoor (UAE), Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia), Galal El-Behairy (Egypt) and Nedim Türfent (Turkey).

It was a great event and we had wonderful speakers, however the fact that the event was in London meant that some of the speakers we wanted to have, could not participate. That applied in particular to the Egyptian singer Ramy Essam who campaigns for Galal El-Behairy and other Egyptian prisoners. He lives in exile in Finland and there was no way that he would be able to join us live. Therefore we asked him for a video message that we showed in our event.

In March this year the first lookdown in England began and it was clear that many of the events my Amnesty Group would usually organise, were not possible. However as one door closes, another door opens. Suddenly everyone participated and organised online events. Zoom and other similar video communication platforms meant that distance was not an issue any more. People from all over the world could participate in a joint event.

I thought that this was really exciting and I decided to get in contact with different people and organisations to see whether they were interested in such an online event. Last year we had Manu Luksch, Bill Law and Drewery Dyke as speakers about Ahmed Mansoor. All three know him and could speak about him also from a personal perspective. I thought this year, maybe Kristina Stockwood from Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and April Allderdice who started the Friends of Ahmed Facebook page might be interested in participating in such an event. Kristina lives in Canada and April in USA. Both know Ahmed Mansoor personally and both are involved in the Facebook page for his support. Kristina really liked the idea of such an online event and she and GCHR decided that they wanted to became co-organisers. That was really fantastic news and meant a couple of weeks of intensive cooperation with Kristina and her colleagues Zaynab Al-Khawaja, Salma Mohammed and Weaam which was really very special. On the GCHR side Zaynab was particularly instrumental and coordinated the art work, the music, organised the translation for Galal’s video, a budget and organised many of the speakers.

II. The Prisoners

In our event last year, we focused on only four prisoners who all write poetry. From the beginning of our discussions for the event this year, it was clear that we wanted to include more prisoners than last time. It also became clear in the discussions in our group as well as in conversation with GCHR that we wanted to look at a wider range of texts. Instead of only including poetry, we were generally looking for texts written by those who are imprisoned. Some of the texts were written in prison, but not for all prisoners it is possible to get pen and paper and also to get their texts out of prison. We decided therefore to have a mix of texts, some which were written in prison, others were the reason for the imprisonment and others which had no specific connection with the imprisonment. Zaynab suggested the title “The Prisoner and the Pen”. We all liked it and thought it would perfectly represent our ideas and plans for the event.

As with the event last year, we wanted to focus on texts from writers from the Middle East, again including Egypt and Turkey. There are so many prisoners in this region that it is really difficult to choose which prisoners to include. We were in the end probably a little bit too ambitious and I am sure we could easily find contents for at least another event, if we want to.

Here is the full list of all prisoners / writers in our event:

III. The Event

1. Ahmed Mansoor’s Birthday

We chose for our event the 22 October. This date has a special significance, because it is Ahmed Mansoor’s birthday. It was his 51st birthday and the fourth birthday he spent in prison. Given that I campaign so much for Ahmed Mansoor, it was wonderful to do this event on his birthday. I also learned something new about him. Some of you probably know my blog post about his poetry. I do not speak Arabic and I only have the translations for some of his poems. I learned in the preparation of the event, that in some cases, we only have snippets from some of the poems. The verse

Time does not gore my wounds anymore
For I have no wound and there is no such thing as time
And no consolation

which I described as a “short” and “succinct” poem is actually only the first verse of a poem which is called “An Excess of Fire”. The full poems runs over 19 pages. I think I will probably add an addendum to my previous post to rectify the errors in it.

2. The Participants and the Programme

We had a very impressive panel of speakers and I am very grateful to everyone who participated in our event and to everyone who helped to get in contact with all the potential participants. We did the event on Zoom (webinar) and livestreamed it on GCHR Facebook page and we also recorded it. This means you can also find it on GCHR YouTube channel.

Here is the link to the clip on Facebook:

And here is the link to the clip on YouTube:

When we planned the event, we thought it should last about 90 minutes. In the end it lasted more than 2 hours and the sections towards the end (in particular the Iran section) would have benefitted from more time. Anyway, I thought it would be good to give you an overview of the programme and include time marks (for the YouTube video). Then it is easier for you to find specific sections. I obviously recommend you to watch the whole event:

a) I had the great honour and pleasure to present the event together with Salma Mohammed, a colleague from GCHR. You can hear at the beginning of the video the end of my introduction and from 2.11 min onwards Salma’s introduction to the event in Arabic.

We not only included texts in the event, but also art work which was specifically made for it. You can hear more about the art from 5.14 min onwards. Khalid Albaih made the pictures I use in this post and Maha Alomari made three amazing pictures which you will see, if you watch the event.

b) The first country on which we focus is United Arab Emirates and the prisoner and writer is Ahmed Mansoor. The section starts at 7.14 min in the YouTube clip. The writer and activist İyad El-Baghdadi begins this section with reading an excerpt of Ahmed Mansoor’s poem “An Excess of Fire” in Arabic. He speaks then about Ahmed Mansoor whom he first met in 2012. İyad explains how difficult Ahmed Mansoor’s life was even at that time. He describes it as “a living hell” in the time between his release from prison in November 2011 (after the UAE5 trial) and his arrest in March 2017, but despite of all the repressions Ahmed Mansoor was brave enough to speak out against human rights violations. Very often he was the only one who dared to speak out against it. Artur Ligęska speaks next. He was imprisoned in Al-Sadr prison in the UAE for eight months (in 2017 and 2018). He met Ahmed Mansoor there and became his friend. Artur reads a section about Ahmed from his book and then speaks about him and the terrible conditions in prison. His recollection of Ahmed Mansoor’s birthday in 2017 was very poignant as were his Polish birthday wishes. The section closes with a short excerpt from “Isolation cell 32“, a documentary by Hossam Meneai.

c) The second section is about Bahrain and Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. It starts at 28.07 min in the YouTube clip. Maryam Al-Khawaja reads a quote of her father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. He was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison for his human rights activism. She then reads a powerful poem which she wrote for her father “Letter to my father”. The sections ends with the video “Free Bird”, a story told by Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja to his daughter Zaynab Al-Khawaja during a phone call from prison in 2012.

d) The next section in the event is about Egypt. It starts at 39.08 min in the YouTube clip. This section focusses on Shadi Habash and on Galal El-Behairy, The section starts with the voice of Galal El-Behairy who reads his poem “Ana Kafir” (“I am the Infidel”) in a very moving video clip. Next is Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American human rights advocate who was shot, arrested and tortured in Egypt in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison for tweeting. He was released after two years in prison. He speaks about the human rights situation in Egypt, his own story and experience in prison and the difficult situation when people are disappeared and family members do not know whether their loved ones are still alive. He calls the prisons the “grave yards of the living”. Mohammed reads then Shadi Habash’s last letter from 26 October 2019. Shadi died on 2 May 2020. He was 24 years old and had spent more than two years in prison in pretrial detention (for making the video “Balaha”). The Egyptian singer Ramy Essam takes over and speaks about Shadi and Galal El-Behairy. Galal El-Behairy wrote the lyrics to several of Ramy’s songs (including “Balaha”) and Ramy introduces and sings one of these songs “Segn Bil Alwan”. The song speaks about the girls and women in the prisons “who play a role in the revolution fighting for equality”. It is a song I really like and I thought it was very moving to hear Ramy singing this song live.

e) The next country in the event is Syria. The section starts at 1:02:14 h and speaks about Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and founder of Violations Documentation Centre in Douma who was abducted on 9 December 2013 together with her husband and two colleagues. There is no information about her current situation. Laura Rawas, her niece speaks about her and reads the article “The resistance is consumed by waiting” which was written by Razan in November 2013 shortly before she was disappeared. Laura says that she “made it her mission to keep the words of her aunt at the forefront”. She says about Razan:

It is Razan who taught me the power of a voice and the importance of freedom and justice. When I was younger, I thought of her as a hero. That admiration was reinforced when the revolution arose in 2011, and I watched as her heart, courage, and strength grew.

f) After Syria follows Turkey. The section starts at 1.10.56 h. Yasmin Çongar is the founder and director of P24, a non-profit platform for independent journalism in Istanbul. She is also a writer and translator and friend of the Turkish writer and journalist Ahmet Altan who was arrested on 10 September 2016. Yasemin translated his book “I Will Never See the World Again” into English. She speaks about him and reads the chapter “Writer’s Paradox” from this book. Ahmet Altan wrote this book in prison and I was particular struck by these lines:

I am writing this in a prison cell. But I am not in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. You can imprison me but you cannot keep me in prison. Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through walls with ease.

g) The penultimate country in the event was Saudi Arabia. The section starts at 1.21.32 h in the YouTube clip. We decided to focus on two of the women rights defenders who were arrested between May and July 2018. I wrote about five of them in blog post in August 2018. There are altogether 13 women rights activist who were initially arrested around this time and still face trial. Eight of them were temporarily released, but five are still in prison: Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani. We choose texts from two of them, who are probably less well known to the public: Nassima al-Sadah and Nouf Abdulaziz. The speakers for this section are Dr. Hala Aldosari a well know scholar in women’s health and an activist from Saudi Arabia and Charlotte Allan, a lawyer and friend of Nassima al-Sadah. Dr. Hala introduces both women and reads excerpts from one article bu Nassima and one by Nouf. The section closes with Charlotte who speaks about her friend Nassima al-Sadah.

h) The last country in the event was Iran. This section starts at 1.36.52 h. I campaign quite a lot for prisoners in Iran and I thought it was particularly difficult to choose one or two prisoners for this event among the large number of Iranian prisoners. We decided to focus on two women: Atena Daemi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. I wrote last December about Atena, if you want to know more about her. She was meant to be released in July 2020, but was then sentenced to an additional five years in prison and 74 lashes. There are potential further charges against her. The prominent Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Mahnaz Parakand reads a text by Atena in Farsi. Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband joined our event and spoke about poems which were written in 2017 by five women in Evin prison, including Golrokh. You can find some of the poems in a blog post from November 2017, there is also a blog post from the same time with more information about Golrokh and one from February 2017 about Golrokh and her husband Arash Sadeghi . I thought it was very generous of Richard to come and speak at the event, even so we did not focus on his wife. Finally the human rights activist Nick Sotoudeh read two of Golrokh’s poems: “Couples in Prison” and “Counting Up, Counting Down”. I was sad that he could not read the full poem “Counting Up, Counting Down”, however we had technically allocated a maximum of two hours for the event and we feared that the event would automatically end after two hours. We were anxious to have a little bit time left for the closing section.

g) Elsa Saade, a Lebanese cultural and social activist, closes the event with a song based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish “To My Mother” which he wrote on a pack of cigarettes after a visit of his mother. The section starts at 1.51.46 h.

IV. What can I do to help?

Please share the clip about the event on social media and with your family and friends. Even more important, please speak out about the prisoners, share their stories and be their voice.

GCHR published a press release about the event and also included a link to the presentation of the event. You can download the presentation and you will find in the presentation prisoner cards about all prisoners which were included in the event with key information. You can use this information to campaign for them. It is always good to highlight the birthday of a prisoner on social media or the anniversary of his or her arrest , the judgment against his or her or other significant dates.

We also prepared a few sample tweets with quotes from all the prisoners and writers we included and asked people to tweet during the event. You can continue to use these sample tweets. You find them on the Amnesty Westminster Bayswater website.

I want to finish with a quote by Mohammed Soltan from the event which echoes my own feelings and thoughts:

“Please don’t forget about these people. Every tweet that you tweet about these people, every post, every time you speak up and raise and amplify these people’s voices, it is one step closer to their freedom or at least we make sure that they are not forgotten.”

Happy birthday to my blog!

I published my first blog post on 21 June 2015, exactly five years ago. Now five years and 60 blog post later, I want to look back on the themes and topics over the past five years. I hope you will enjoy this retrospect.

1. Visitors and views

Let’s start with some statistics.

This is a map which shows in different shades of pink from which countries the visitors to my blog came over the past five years:

My blog had in the past five years 15,487 visitors with 26,148 views (because many visitors look at more than one page at their visit to my blog). Most of my visitors were from the USA with 7,039 views, this is followed by visitors from the UK (5,901 views), Germany (2,011 views), France (1,434 views) and Canada (898 views). Visitors to my blog came from 141 different countries, including countries like American Samoa, Kenya, South Korea, Panama and Zimbabwe to name a few countries from which I had recent visitors.

2. Themes and Categories

In my first blog post, I wrote that

I will basically write about all topics I am passionate about.Currently these are mainly two which are very different, the one topic is human rights, the other one is the arts. 

That is exactly what I have done over the past five years. The 60 blog posts I wrote are in six categories (some posts are in two categories): Human Rights, Poetry, Twitter, Classical Music, General and Art.

I wrote 40 blog posts about human rights topics, eight of these posts are in the category human rights and the category poetry, because they share poetry and are human rights related, most of the time, because the poet is in prison and was punished for his or her poetry. Eight of the human rights topics are also in the category Twitter. Sometimes these were blog posts about tweet storms, at other times, they included or reported a campaign on Twitter like the “Sky For Shawkan” campaign for the Egyptian photographer Shawkan or the translations project of a phrase of support for Raif Badawi.

The second most important category in my blog was “Classical Music“. I wrote 14 blog posts about classical music topics. Most of these posts were about the programme of concerts with one of my choirs, Highgate Choral Society. I have been writing the programme notes for our concerts for almost five years and I usually put the programme note for the main work (or the work I find particularly interesting) on my blog.

In addition to the human rights posts and the ones about classical music, I wrote one blog post about art and five blog posts in the “General” category – usually a post at the beginning of the year with some thoughts about the previous year.

3. My most popular posts

There are six of my post which got more than 500 views since their publication. I want to give you a short overview over these posts.

a) On 25 June 2016 Highgate Choral Society sung in our summer concert J.S. Bach’s massive choral work B Minor Mass – in a sense the culmination of his choral writing. I published on 2 June 2016 the post “Bach: Mass in B Minor – a “Great Catholic Mass”?“. This post got since his publication four years ago 1,059 views and is the most popular one in my blog.

b) The second most popular one is a human rights post about Saudi women rights defenders which I published on 13 August 2018. It is called “Where are the Saudi reforms? Saudi women rights defenders Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef in prison“. Between May 2018 and end of July 2018 Saudi Arabia arrested 13 women rights defenders. My blog post is about five of them: Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef were arrested between the 15 and 18 May 2018. Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah were arrested on 30 July 2018. Eman al Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef were both temporarily released on 27 March 2019, but their trial is still ongoing and they could still face years in prison. Loujain al-Hathoul, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah are still in prison and on trial. There are allegations of torture, sexual abuse and long periods of solitary confinement.

This post got since his publication less then two years ago 692 views. Given that the women are still on trial and some of them are still in prison, I hope that this post will continue be viewed by many people.

c) Almost the same number of views (686 views) got my third most popular post: “Brahms: A German Requiem – a Requiem for Humankind“. I published it on 1 November 2016 and it is about a concert of Highgate Choral Society on 12 November 2016.

d) The fourth most popular post is about the Egyptian photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also called “Shawkan”. On 11 August 2016 I published the post “Three years of injustice – Freedom for Mahmoud Abu Zeid “Shawkan”“. Shawkan had been arrested on 14 August 2013 and my post marked the third anniversary of his arrest. It was viewed 637 times.

I wrote over the years five blog posts about Shawkan. We started in September 2016 the photo campaign “Sky for Shawkan” where we asked people to share photos of the sky with the hashtag #SkyForShawkan, because Shawkan said in a letter from prison that he missed the sky, In my posts in September 2016, December 2017, October 2018 and the final post in March 2019 I gave updates of his situation and shared in each post photos of the sky which activists from all over the world had posted on Twitter in support of Shakwan. My final post “After 5 years 6 months 18 days: Shawkan released from prison!” had the good news that Shawkan was released on 4 March 2019. However, it was not an unconditional release and he was still required to report at the police station at 6 pm every day and potentially sleep there. Shawkan described this as “half free”. This obligation was meant to be in place for five years, however I am not sure how the situation is at the moment. In any case you can follow Shawkan on Twitter or on Instagram and see his amazing photos.

e) My fifths most popular post is again one about classical music. Highgate Choral Society sung in our concert on 11 March 2017 Edgar Elgar’s The Music Makers. I published on 21 February 2017 “Elgar: The Music Makers – a musical autobiography?“. This blog post got 590 views over time.

f) The last post which was viewed more than 500 times is the post “Poetry behind bars: The Poems“. It got 515 views and it is one of two post about five women in Evin Prison, Iran and the poems they wrote. The five women are Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari. The post shared the poems by these women. When I published my post on 15 November 2017 four of the women were still in prison. Mahvash Sabet Shariari had been released 18 September 2017 after having served almost 10 years in prison. On 29 March 2018 Nasim Bagheri was released after having completed her sentence of four years in prison. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee and Narges Mohammadi are still in prison. Please continue to support them.

4. Countries and prisoners

a) The country about which I wrote the most posts is Iran. 13 of my 40 human rights posts are (also) about a human rights defender and / or prisoner in Iran.

I mentioned in my first post five years ago two prisoners from Iran for whom I was campaigning at that time: Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki and Saeed Malekpour.

Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki with his parents in June 2015

aa) I wrote three posts about Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki all of them in 2016.

In January 2016 we organised a Tweet Storm for him. On 17 June 2015 he had been given furlough on medical grounds.

On 11 January 2016 the authorities called him back to prison. We could not do much about that, we could at least show him that we stand with him and support him. On a Twitter Day on 18 January 2016 people from all over the world tweeted in support of Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki.

Tweet by Laleh, a close friend of Hossein,
on the day after he went back to prison

He returned to prison on 19 January 2016. I shared a few days later the last blog post he published before returning to prison (in an English translation by his friend Laleh).

In May 2016 there was finally good news, because he was again temporarily released on 4 May after 105 nights in prison and 38 days of hunger strike.

This was an uncertain freedom for a quite a long time, but one year ago on 24 June 2019 he posted that his 15 year sentences had been suspended and that he was finally unconditionally free, almost 10 years after his initial arrest.

An Iranian-born Canadian resident has returned to British Columbia after being imprisoned and allegedly tortured in his home country for 11 years. Saeed Malekpour, left, poses for a photo with his sister Maryam Malekpour in a Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Kimberley Motley,

bb) There was also fantastic news last year about Saeed Malekpour.

Over the years I tweeted regularly for Saeed Malekpour. In June 2016 I wrote a post for Saeed Malekpour’s birthday.

Saeed Malekpour is a Canadian resident. In autumn 2008 he went to Iran to see his dying father. He was arrested on 4 October 2008. He was initially sentenced to death, but then his sentences was commuted to life in prison.

After almost 11 years in prison he was able to use a temporary release last year to flee Iran and returned to Canada on 3 August 2019.

He is now finally reunited with his sister Maryam Malekpour who has been campaigning for him tirelessly over all the years. There is a fascinating article about his escape from Iran which I highly recommend you to read.

Nazanin-Zaghari Ratcliffe after her temporary release
from prison (with ankle tag).

cc) The third Iranian prisoner about whom I wrote several times is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Nazanin was arrested on 3 April 2016 when she went with her daughter Gabriella to the airport in Tehran to travel back from a family visit in Iran.

I wrote three posts about her. The last one was last year, one months after her hunger strike and the hunger strike of her husband Richard.

Because of Covid-19 Nazanin was temporarily released on 17 March 2020. She is under house arrest at her parents home and her movements are restricted to 300 m from her parents home. She also has to wear an ankle tag. The furlough was extended several times and she is currently still free. She and her husband hope for a pardon, but there is still no decision made by Iran and at the moment she has to call the prosecutors office twice a week on Saturdays and on Wednesdays.

Please continue to support the campaign for her release. I hope that there will soon be a positive decision for her and she can return to her family in London.

b) I wrote over the years eleven posts about prisoners in Saudi Arabia and also eleven posts about prisoners in the United Arab Emirates. I mentioned in my first post Raif Badawi and Waleed Abukhair from Saudi Arabia and Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken from the United Arab Emirates.

aa) Raif Badawi is the reason I started using social media and he was in a sense also the reason why I started writing this blog. I wrote over time four blogs post about him. The first one was my first proper post in this blog on 27 June 2015: “Why I do care about Raif Badawi“. Others post were about two boooks (one biography by Ensaf Haidar, Raif’s wife and a book of texts by Raif Badawi), another one was about the translation project for him.

There is sadly no news about him. There was some information that he had been on hunger strike a few times, but I find it always difficult to assess how reliable the information is. Even so his wife campaigns for him and seems to have regular contact with him, there is often conflicting information.

Just a few days ago, on 17 June, was the eighth anniversary of his arrest. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes and a fine. After the first public flogging on 9 January 2015 (50 lashes) there were further threats that Saudi Arabia would continue to flog him, but it seems that this has not happened. I still hope for a Royal Pardon and his release, but there are sadly no indications that this would happen anytime soon.

bb) The situation of Waleed Abulkhair, a human rights lawyer, is very similar. I wrote one blog post about him. He worked among others also for Raif Badawi. He was arrested on 15 April 2014 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Also he has been on hunger strike a couple of times and there is no new information about him available.

cc) When I started writing my blog, human rights in the United Arab Emirates was not a major focus for me. I included in my first post Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken. I wrote also one blog post about him and have been campaigning for him ever since. As Waleed Abulkhair also Dr. Al-Roken is a human rights lawyer, and I assume being a lawyer myself, I am particularly drawn to campaigning for him. However, ten of my eleven posts about the United Arab Emirates are not about Dr. Al-Roken, but rather about Ahmed Mansoor. There is no human rights activist and prisoners of conscience about whom I have written more blog posts than about Ahmed Mansoor.

Ahmed Mansoor with two of his four boys

Ahmed Mansoor is blogger and human rights activist. He is an engineer and a member of several human rights organisations. He is poet and he is also a husband and father of four boys.

Ahmed Mansoor was arrested on 20 March 2017. I wrote my first blog post about him in May 2017 and as mentioned I have written in the meantime ten blog posts about him, the last two were in March this year to mark the third anniversary of his arrest and to share his poetry. As always there is only limited news available about him. Gulf Centre for Human Rights published the last article about him at the beginning of June. Because of the Covid-19 crisis there are currently no visits allowed to the prisons in the United Arab Emirates. Therefore Ahmed Mansoor and his family have not seen each other since January 2020. They are theoretically allowed to have phone calls, but the last one was in April 2020. There was no contact between him and his family since then. Also his situation in prison has not improved. He still has no bed and no access to books, no access to a shower and cleaning products and is not allowed to leave his cell, except for rare family visits. There is more worrying news from Human Rights Watch. They published on 10 June an article about reported Covid-19 outbreaks in several prisons in UAE, including Al-Sadr prison in which Ahmed Mansoor is detained. There is no specific information about him in this article, but Human Rights Watch quotes family members of other prisoners in Al-Sadr prison:

“He [my relative] told me it’s filthy,” …. “There are cockroaches everywhere. There are no blankets or pillows. It’s so overcrowded, they’re kept like cattle. And there’s no sunlight.”

One family member of a prisoner told Human Rights Watch at the end of May that seven prisoners were tested positively for Covid-19. They were transferred to a hospital and others were quarantined in solitary confinement cells. The relative of the prisoner said:

“He is so scared to go into that dark hole,” … “He has a heart condition too.”

I am really worried about Ahmed Mansoor’s situation and I would like to ask you to continue to support the campaign for him. I am sure more blog posts about him will follow, if he is not released soon.

c) I mentioned in my first post three other prisoners / human rights activists: Shawkan (Egypt), Nabeel Rajab (Bahrain) and Hussain Jawad (Bahrain). I wrote eight posts about prisoners and human rights defenders in Bahrain, seven about prisoners in Egypt, two posts in which I mentioned a prisoner from Qatar (Mohammed Al-Ajami) and two in which I mentioned a prisoner from Turkey (Nedim Türfent).

aa) I already wrote in the previous chapter about the photographer Shawkan who was in prison in Egypt and my five blog posts about him.

bb) Nabeel Rajab was released a few days ago after almost four years in prison. I hope that he will stay free.

Hussain Jawad with his father Parweez Jawad

I wrote over the years five blog post about Hussain Jawad (including two about his father Mohammed Hassan Jawad, also called Parweez Jawad). Hussain fled Bahrain and currently lives in France, but his father is still in prison in Bahrain. Hussain wrote over the last weeks quite often about him on social media. His father is over 70 years old and not in good health anyway. In particular because of the Covid-19 crisis Hussain fears for his father’s health and even his life. You can read more about Parweez Jawad in my blog post from March 2017. Please support the campaign for Parweez Jawad’s freedom.

Please support also Ali Mushaima and his campaign for his father’s freedom. Ali Mushaima went on a hunger strike for some basic demands for his father in summer 2018. I wrote two blogs about him. Hassan Mushaima is about the same age as Parweez Jawad and has also several health conditions.

Both belong to the so-called Bahrain 13, a group of human rights activist and opposition leaders who were arrested during the Arab Spring in March 2011. Hassan Mushaima was sentenced to life in prison, Parweez Jawad to 15 years in prison. Both are prisoners of conscience and should be free.

5. What will come next?

We will see what will come next. I really enjoy writing in my blog and I will therefore certainly continue writing blog posts. I also assume that the topics will not change much, therefore you will be able to read more blog posts about human rights, mainly in the Middle East, and about classical music. I enjoy doing research about these topics and share my results and thoughts with my readers. I would like to write more posts about art, but we will see how things will go.

I do not think I can be more specific about future posts. Some of my posts are planned for some time, e.g. the mark the birthday of a prisoner or the anniversary of his or her arrest or the judgement against him or her. I also wrote posts for World Poetry Day, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer and in particular Human Rights Day. However, very often posts react to something which happens, like the arrest of someone, a hunger strike or also a happy event like the release of someone. These are posts which I obviously cannot plan in advance, but I certainly plan to give updates on the prisoners about whom I have written before. I usually write about classical music in the context of the Highgate Choral Society concerts, but with Covid-19 it is uncertain when these will resume.

If you are curious about my future posts, the please consider following this blog. You only need an email address to do so. If you follow the blog, you will get an email whenever I publish a new post. I usually also share my posts on social media. If you have the impression that there is a human rights defender or a prisoner or conscience about whom I should write, then please leave a comment and I will see what I can do.

Let me end this post with saying thank you to everyone who read and shared my posts and in particular thank you to everyone who supported the prisoners I am writing about. Please continue to support human rights and prisoners of conscience.