Forbidden Poetry: Ashraf Fayadh, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammed al-Ajami

It is a dangerous undertaking to write poetry. Each of the three poets about whom I will write in this post will probably agree with this statement. For this year’s World Poetry Day on 21 March 2016, I want to raise awareness for three poets who were punished for their poetry: (1) Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia), (2) Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran) and (3) Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar).

1. Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia)

IMG_2012
English PEN protest for Ashraf Fayadh at the Saudi Arabian Embassy, London

Ashraf Fayadh was born in 1980 in Saudi Arabia. He is a Palestinian poet and artist and a member of the Saudi-British group Edge of Arabia, a non-profit cultural initiative to connect artists and ideas between the Middle East and the Western World. Ashraf Fayadh curated a large art show in Jeddah in 2013 and was co-curator of the project RHIZOMA at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

2013 was not only the year in which he was curator of significant exhibitions. It was also the year in which his ordeal started. On 6 August 2013 he was arrested following the accusation that he was “promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas among young people”. Someone filed a complaint with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice about his book “Instructions Within”, a collection of poetry which was published in 2008. He was released on the next day.

Ashraf Fayadh gave in an interview more background about the allegations: He said that the context was a personal dispute he had with another artist about contemporary art in a café in Abha, a city in the South-West of Saudi Arabia.

On 1 January 2014 he was rearrested. The exact charges against him were initially unclear, but his long hair was criticised and it was thought that his ideas contradict the values of the Saudi Arabian society. After his arrest he was detained in a police station for 27 days until he was transferred to prison.

His case went on trial in February 2014. The charges which were brought against him were very severe: apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) which carries the mandatory death sentence and in addition a violation of Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law by taking and storing photos of women on his phone. Ashraf Fayadh denied the accusations of blasphemy and apostasy and offered a formal apology to the court. In relation to the Anti-Cyber Crime charges he explained that he had only photos of fellow artists on his phone which were taken during the Jeddah art week. The prosecution had three witnesses: the man who had reported his allegedly blasphemous remarks and two officers of the Islamic religious police who had arrested him.

In May 2014 the General Court in Abha sentenced him to four years in prison and 800 lashes (for the charges relating to the imagines of women). He was cleared from the allegation of apostasy, because the court had accepted his apology. Ashraf Fayadh filed an appeal against the judgement, but the court of appeal dismissed it. To make things worse they also indicated that he should still be sentenced for apostasy. The case was then transferred back to the General Court.

The retrial took place in November 2015. On 17 November 2015, the General Court sentenced Ashraf Fayadh to death. This trial was unfair and violated International and Saudi-Arabian laws. Ashraf Fayadh did not have legal representation at court, because he could not mandate a lawyer without his passport which was seized by the police. The judge in the new trial did not even speak with him, but only gave the verdict: death sentence for apostasy.

Ashraf Fayadh’s arrest, trial and sentence were heavily criticised. Immediately after his arrest in January 2014 100 Arab writers and thinkers signed a petition and many others condemned his arrest in the social media.

The public outcry got obviously even louder after he was sentenced to death last November. Amnesty International and 60 other human rights groups and arts groups launched a campaign for him. In addition a large number of authors, artists and actors and also the director of Tate Modern joined the efforts for his release. Since January 2015 English PEN has been regularly protesting at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair. Since 27 November they have also been calling for the release of Ashraf Fayadh. The international literature festival Berlin had called for worldwide readings on 14 January 2016 to highlight his case. This was very successful and readings in support of his case were held in 44 countries.

Ashraf Fayadh filed within 30 days an appeal against the court decision which sentenced him to death. He claimed that there is no legal basis for the judgement, because of a number of formal errors:

  • He was arrested by the Islamic religious police, even so the arrest should have been done by the state prosecutor.
  • The allegations of apostasy were only based on the witness statement of the one person with whom he had the dispute. They were not corroborated by other evidence as required under the laws of Saudi Arabia.

On 1 February 2016 the court of appeal reversed the decision of the General Court. They overturned the death-sentence and replaced it with the following verdict: eight years in prison, 800 lashes (to be carried out on 16 occasions with 50 lashes each time) and public repentance. Ashraf Fayadh’s lawyer said that they again filed an appeal against this sentence.

Ashraf Fayadh is currently in prison. Sofar he has not yet been flogged.

2. Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran)

hjFatemeh Ekhtesari was born in 1986. She is an Iranian poet and she is also a midwife. Her poems are often about women. On the one hand she writes poems about the female body with pregnancies, deliveries and abortions. On the other hand the poems are about the world of women including demonstrations and resistance. She also edited a modern poetry magazine.

Fatemeh Ekthesari belongs to the literary movement “Postmodern Ghazal”. Ghazal is a classic poetic form which consists of rhyming couplets and a refrain. Traditionally the theme of ghazals is unconditional superior love. Mehdi Mousavi who is a pre-eminent member of this literary movement explained that “ghazal” has a wider meaning in the term “Postmodern Ghazal”. It stands for all formal styles of classic poetry and is not restricted to the traditional ghazal. Poets who belong to this movement use classic poetic forms, but modernise them and write about contemporary themes in contemporary language.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s first book was published in 2010. She spoke in one article about her approach to deal with censorship. She put dots in her poems for all words which would not get past the authorities. After the book was approved and published, she added the missing words by hand before she sent copies to her friends.

In 2013 Fatemeh Ekhtesari took part in a literary exchange programme with Sweden with the title “A Resistance Movement on My Desk”. Six poets from Iran and six poets from Sweden collaborated in this project and translated together Persian poetry into Swedish. One of the highlights of the programme was the participation at the poetry festival in Stockholm and Gothenborg in September 2013.

On 6 December 2013 Fatemeh Ekthesari (and Mehdi Mousavi) wanted to travel to Turkey for a literary workshop. At the airport they were informed that they were banned from travelling and they were summoned for an interrogation.

Both of them did not go to the interrogation and two days later, on 8 December 2013, they were arrested by the intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp at their houses. They were transferred to solitary confinement and spent 38 days in the Guards’ Ward 2-A at Evin Prison. Both had to endure psychological pressure and repeated interrogations which finally led to forced confessions. These confessions were the main evidence in the following trial. On 13 January 2014 they were released on bail.

Fatemeh has not only been prosecuted personally, but also her poetry is under attack. One of her books which was published with the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was removed from the Tehran Book Fair in May 2015.

On 10 October 2015 the Tehran Revolutionary Court rendered their judgement. Fatemeh Ekhtesari was sentenced to 11 1/2 years in prison and 99 lashes (and Mehdi Mousavi was sentenced to 9 years in prison and 99 lashes). The charges against her were:

  • Insulting sanctities through her poetry (7 years)
  • Publishing unauthorised content in cyberspace (3 years)
  • Propaganda against the state (1 1/2 years)
  • Kissing (the cheeks) and shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex who was not related (99 lashes).

Her lawyer said that it is not entirely clear which of her poems were deemed to “insult the sacred”. The poems which were mentioned in court did not relate to sanctities. All her books were published with permits issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It is therefore difficult to understand why the censors did not take offense and prohibited the publication in the first place, if some of the poems were really against the law. There is some indictation that she was accused to “insult sanctities” because she was previously in contact with the exiled Iranian rapper Shahin Najaif who used her poems for one of his songs. Iran sees in him an apostate. However, he sang the song which was based on her poems some years ago and a long time before the allegation of apostasy were made against him.

The charge of “propaganda against the state” has to be seen in the context with her trips to Sweden for the exchange project. The ruling claims that she cooperated in Sweden with the press and with “spies” and is responsible for “negative propaganda about Iran”.

Her lawyer sees severe violations of due process and a fair trial, because there are some indications that the decision was made before the court hearing.

Several human rights organisations heavily criticised the decision against Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi. On 30 October 2015 PEN America sent a letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The letter is signed by 116 poets and writers and urges him to grant pardon for both poets.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi filed an appeal against the judgement. The appeal is still pending. In January they fled Iran. For security resons they do not disclose in which country they are currently. They mentioned however that they have both applied for political asylum.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari shall have the final word. She explained in an article about a months ago her motivation for leaving Iran:

“Self-censorship was among the reasons I left Iran. I was becoming afraid of writing. I feared that anything I write would be used by IRGC interrogations against me.”

“I used to say I have to be in Iran, I need to be in close contact with my audience. I need to see their problems and feel their pain. But I was forced to leave behind the people that I love, the people for whom I’ve been writing poetry.”

 3.  Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar)

IMG_2009Mohammed al-Ajami was born on 24 December 1975 in Qatar. He is married and has four children. He writes also under the name Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb.

The background of his arrest and his sentence are the following: In 2010 Mohammed al-Ajami recited one of his poems in his house in Cairo (“The Cairo poem”). The recitation was in front of a small private audience. However, one of the audience members made a recording of the performance and posted it without his consent or even his knowledge on YouTube.

On 16 November 2011 Mohammed al-Ajami was summoned to a meeting with state security officials in Doha. When he arrived he was arrested. About two weeks later he was transferred to the central prison. The laws of Qatar allow a pre-trial detention of up to six months, however his detention exceeded the legal maximum and his trial was postponed five times. He was held in solitary confinement for a long time. For several months he did not have access to books, television or writing material. Mohammed al-Ajami’s family and friends were initially not informed about his whereabouts and for months they were not given any right to visit him.

On 29 November 2012 Mohammed al-Ajami was sentenced to life in prison. The charges against him were “incitement to overthrow the government” and “criticising the ruling emir.” The charge of “incitement to overthrow the government” could have even lead to the death sentence.

The whole trial was unfair. It was a trial behind closed doors. Al-Ajami was not allowed to defend himself and his lawyer was not allowed to plead or defend his client. His lawyer also says that the evidence was tampered with. The court heard as expert witnesses three “poetry experts” from the ministry of culture and education. They gave almost identical evidence and asserted that the poem insulted the emir and his son. Al-Ajami never denied that he was author of the poem, but always emphasised that he did not intend to insult anyone. In addition the offence of “incitement to overthrow the government” requires a public action. Because of the private nature of the reading this requirement was not fulfilled. During his interrogations Al-Ajami was forced to sign a false confession which stated that the poem was read in public in the presence of the press. In the final hearing in October 2012 Al-Ajami was expelled from court (for being unruly) and was not brought to court when the judgement was handed down.

It is not entirely clear for which poem Mohammed al-Ajami was punished. A lot of people think that the reason for his punishment is not “The Cairo poem”, but rather “Tunisian Jasmine”. In this poem he praises the Tunisian revolution and denounces corruption and oppression by Arab rulers:

All of us are Tunesia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
shameful thieves.”

Excerpt of “Tunisian Jasmine”

If you want to read the whole poem “Tunisian Jasmine”, you find it in the following post. There is also a link to another poem which al-Ajami wrote in prison.

The judgement against Mohammed al-Ajami was heavily criticised by Amnesty International and many other human rights organisations and also in the social media.

Mohammed al-Ajami filed an appeal against the judgement. On 25 February 2013 the court of appeal reduced the sentence to 15 years in prison.

Another appeal to the Court of Cassation was not successful. The Court of Cassation upheld on 20 October 2013 15 year prison sentence. The court made his decision to uphold the decision in less than three hours.

Several human rights organisation continously called for his release and there were readings of poetry in solidarity for Mohammed al-Ajami. On 20 October 2015 the UN Special Rapporteur raised his case and declared that his arrest, detention and sentencing “seem to be solely related to the peaceful exercise of his fundamental human rights”. He added that the charges are “clearly incompatible with international standard, which protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including in the form of arts, and the take part in cultural life.” English PEN held a protest in support of al-Ajami on 25 February 2016 and delivered a petition to the Qatari Embassy in London.

After the decision of the Court of Cassation in October 2013 there were no further ways to challenge the judgement. The only hope which was left for Mohammed al-Ajami was a pardon by the Emir.

Two days ago, on 15 March 2016, there was surprising good news reported via social media: Qatar has granted Mohammed al-Ajami a royal pardon and English PEN reported yesterday that he has been released.

I have decided to include him nevertheless in my post as acknowledgment of his suffering and the unfair imprisonment for more than four years. His story and story of every other poet who is punished for their poetry shall be heard and shared.

Please read also the following post in which you find examples of Ashraf Fayadh’s, Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s and Mohammed Al-Ajami’s poetry. 

I want to thank English PEN which allowed me to use the photo of their protest for Ashraf Fayadh and the pictures of Mohammed Al-Ajami in this post and of Ashraf Fayadh in the next post. I also want to thank M Lynx Qualey, arablit.org, who allowed me to use translations of the poems of Ashraf Fayadh and Mohammed Al-Ajami in the next post. Finally I want to thank especially Fatemeh Ekhtesari. She sent me the two photos I used in this and the next post, English translations of some of her poems and was patient enough to answer my questions.

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