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 which was really very special.
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. We thought the title “The Prisoner and the Pen” would perfectly represent our ideas and plans.
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: https://www.facebook.com/gc4hr/videos/818901928922383
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.”