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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Poetry is harmless.

1 February 2018
Ahead of the Hibr: Festival of Arab Poetry, this Saturday 3rd February at Goldsmiths College - William Herbert reflects on the life and work of Ashraf Fayadh.

Like many people, I first read Ashraf Fayadh’s work on posters, placards, and on websites calling for his release. Or on the paving outside the Richard Hoggart Building, where last year the English PEN society wrote lines of his poetry in chalk. We wrote lines of Ashraf’s work, and lines from other imprisoned writers (Ahmed Naji, Raif Badawi, Saimaa El-Shabbagh, Asli Erdogan) on the ground before moving on to the Saudi Embassy in Mayfair to read them aloud. We chose extracts for their universal quality, their call-to-arms, or for their comment on Saudi Arabia and its government, who arrested Ashraf just over four-years-ago.

“…petroleum is harmless, except for the trace of poverty it leaves behind.”

Initially, Ashraf was charged with apostasy and sentenced to death: upon hearing this, his father suffered a fatal stroke. This sentence was then changed to 8 years and 800 lashes after appeal, along with the demand that Ashraf renounce his 2008 collection ‘Instructions Within’.

The extract above is from this collection, and was translated by Mona Kareem and published on her blog, as part of Ashraf’s ‘Disputed’ poems. In the English ‘Instructions Within’, the same poem was translated by Mona Zaki and begins ‘Oil is blameless…’. It is the last section of a long poem ‘On the Virtues of Oil Over Blood’, but like most of the work in ‘Instructions Within’, it can be treated as its own piece.

Although it is not unusual to discover such differences in the publication of translated literature, and I do not know the circumstances of each of his poems, there is something especially free in the way Ashraf Fayadh’s work circulates: a condition that is no doubt partly due to his imprisonment. In his lecture ‘Right and Wrong Uses of Political Literature’, Italo Calvino pointed out a paradox that it is only when literature is persecuted, ‘does it show its true powers’.

“Would to God that even dictators realized that the best method to free themselves from the dangers of the written word is to treat it as it counted for nothing!”

I am not sure if I agree that a poem’s force has everything to do with its suppression, but, the persecution of a writer can have a liberating effect on their work, once it is written. It is noticed by more people, and taken more seriously, though whether or not this translates into a serious readership, who’s to say.

It probably requires a tireless effort by translators, like that which has been undergone by the translators of Ashraf Fayadh. Nevertheless, it is when a writer becomes at risk, that activists need to become cautious regarding their work.

What I find to be the most interesting of Calvino’s ‘wrong ways of thinking about possible political use for literature’ is the search for universality in poetry; ‘to see literature as an assortment of eternal human sentiments’. When we choose extracts of poems to write on placards, we are first trying not to break copyright laws, and then we are looking for something in that poem, which can be read without the rest.

Particularly, in Ashraf’s case, because he was working within a very small arts community in Saudi Arabia, one has the tendency to declare, ‘Ashraf speaks the truth!’. Therefore, he is being persecuted because he speaks the truth, and was ‘confirming what is already known’ about his adopted country, and its government, in his poetry.

But this is not true. I think I prefer the ‘Oil is blameless…’ poem in ‘Instructions Within’ because it comes at the end of a long discussion of ideas, addresses to different figures, subtly managed that I think is present in the best of Asrhaf’s work. It is hard to describe in a few words, but sometimes when I read his work I feel, what Adrienne Rich called, ‘the liberative language, connecting the fragments within us’.

His poems have as much dialectic as declaration, and in truth, he is being persecuted by a government that believes, when it speaks, it is universal truth. Joining the discussion by reading poetry, is one way to resist this, and others who wish to oppress us. One can assume that, when enough people are reading it, poetry will show its true powers.

Selected Poems: al Tarikh al Maradi (Epicrisis) was written by Ashraf Fayadh, and translated by Goldsmiths PhD student Farah Aridi. It is available at Hibr: Festival of Arab Poetry, this Saturday 3rd February at Goldsmiths College. All donations will go towards the campaign for Ashraf’s release.

Words, William Herbert

Image, English PEN