At his retrial in November 2015, the court not only found him guilty a second time but decided to change his sentence from flogging to death by beheading. The poet Ashraf Fayadh, a stateless Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in January 2014 and charged with apostasy, with renouncing his religion. His poetry was put on trial. His life is at risk.
When a court appoints itself as a literary critic, both the judicial system it is a part of and literature are diminished.
Today, writers around the world are focusing attention on Ashraf Fayadh’s story: according to The Guardian, 122 events in 44 countries are being held in which Fayadh’s work will be read. It is being organized by the “International literature festival Berlin.”
Consider this column, with my recording down below, one more event.
Irvine Welsh, the author of “Trainspotting,” will be participating at an event in Chicago and was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “I have distaste for all clerical regimes. I believe that people should be free to practice and renounce any religion they see fit. If you believe in human rights and are anti-fundamentalist terrorism, then isolate the regime in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, you are guilty by association.”
Ashraf Fayadh was born to Palestinian parents who were living as refugees in Saudi Arabia when he was born in 1980. Under Saudi law, he is also considered a refugee, hence the “stateless” classification. He has lived most of his life in Saudi Arabia and rose to prominence in the burgeoning arts scene there, which is a remarkable thing in and of itself as there are no art schools in the nation and even movie theaters are banned. Fayadh was the curator of an event at the 55th Venice Biennale, “RHIZOMA (Generation in Waiting),” held in 2013. He has been a part of an arts collective called “Edge of Arabia,” which has mounted exhibitions around the world, including the United States, over the last three years.
The trouble started with an argument in a cafe in the summer of 2013. Fayadh and another artist started to fight about art. The argument was verbal, loud, but never physical. The rival decided to press charges against Fayadh, claiming that the poet cursed God in public, was promoting atheism in his poetry, and was consorting with women and even publishing photographic evidence. (His Instagram account has photos of Fayadh in galleries looking at art with other artists, some of whom are women. Those are the photos that were used as evidence of the latter charge.)
At first, the authorities appeared to agree with Fayadh’s description of the argument as a “personal dispute about art,” and he was released on bail. One day later, on January 1, 2014, he was arrested again. One of the charges was that he did not have an I.D. His I.D. had been confiscated in the first arrest.
He was put on trial in February 2014 and charged with blasphemy and worse, atheism, apostasy. In Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist Sharia judicial system, a conviction for the charge of apostasy leads to a sentence of death. According to media reports, Fayadh said, “They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society.” His poetry, he said, “is just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
Fayadh spoke out in court against the charge of apostasy, attempted to prove that he believes. In any court, it is difficult enough to prove a positive when one is charged with a negative. All the court records quote him declaring, “I am repentant to God most high and am innocent of what appeared in my book mentioned in this case.” It was not sufficient. The court found him guilty of blasphemy and sentenced him to four years in prison and 800 lashes. He was granted a chance to appeal, but, like many prisoners in Saudi Arabia, he was given no representation. The appeal was tossed out and he was re-tried; again, he had no legal representation.
After the second trial, in November, he was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to die. His father suffered a heart attack and died upon learning of the sentence.
Abha, the city in Saudi Arabia in which Fayadh lived and worked and was arrested, is where the boundaries of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia are being tested. An attempt was made several years ago to open an underground cinema there. As a prominent artist, as a stateless refugee, Ashraf Fayadh’s case suits the nation’s hardliners as an example of what they will do to those who think differently and, worse, express it.
As of now, his death sentence stands. In December, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights condemned the death sentence and urged that it not be carried out. “Sentencing a poet to death for his writings and alleged blasphemous comments is obviously unacceptable in accordance with any interpretation of human rights,” David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, is quoted as saying. “The promotion of such a violent response against a legitimate form of opinion and expression has a widespread chilling effect across all of Saudi society,” he added.
That “chilling effect” is not cold enough for some in Saudi Arabia.
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Fayadh’s volume of poetry, “Instructions Within,” was published in 2008 and was used as evidence against him. The following poem, “A Space in the Void,” is from that collection. Thanks to Arabic Literature (in English) for publishing it this translation, by Jonathan Wright.
A Space in the Void
Everything has weight.
Your weight is well known to the back walls
because your heavy shadow doesn’t give the asphalt, the paint, or the writings stuck on the windows a chance to appear.
You also have space, significant space,
in the void.
The air is polluted, and the dumpsters are too,
and your soul, too, ever since it got mixed up with carbon.
And your heart, ever since the arteries were blocked
and it refused to grant citizenship
to the blood coming back from your head.
Without your memory, you’d lose much of your weight.
You need to follow a proper diet
to lose more of you.
Make up your mind quickly,
because the earth’s gravity
doesn’t wait long.
Hint: replace the time factor with your name
so that you find the right way to throw the last page
of your diary
right into the rubbish bin.
You consume enough air for two new-born babies
if the screaming was equal,
given that the air molecules around you
carry sound badly, and your throat
A beggar woman of more than fifty displays her dignity in
a rag studded with coins. She prays that you, and that
pretty woman who happens to be walking beside you,
will soon be blessed with a child,
to fill another part of the void
in return for a coin.
The time has come for you to pick up the pace, not sexually,
and for you to change your smelly socks.
A scientific fact: bacteria grow rapidly.
Succumb to sleep.
because the time has come for you to melt, and dissolve,
to take the shape agreed for the alienation into which you’re have been poured.
and go back to your void,
to occupy your usual space
in the You.—Ashraf Fayadh, translated by Jonathan Wright
A recording of me reading “A Space in the Void”:
A self-portrait by Ashraf Fayadh:
The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 14 asks, “Write about something that happened over the weekend as though it’s the top story on your local paper.”
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