Last week, PEN International, in affiliation with Oxfam Novib, named Ashraf Fayadh and Malini Subramaniam co-winners of the annual Oxfam Novib/PEN International Free Expression Award. The two join fifty previous winners, including the late Hrant Dink of Turkey.
Ashraf Fayadh remains in prison in Saudi Arabia and was not able to attend the ceremony. He is a poet, an artist, who has faced an array of blasphemy-related charges in Saudi Arabia, from “insulting the divine self” to being an infidel.
He was sentenced to death by beheading in November 2015 and then in February 2016, the court in Abha, Saudi Arabia, announced that it would retract its death sentence for the poet Ashraf Fayadh and exchange it for a sentence of eight years in prison and 800 lashes with a cane. He must also make a public statement of repentance.
This new sentence switched his conviction from one of apostasy, or renouncing his religion, to one of blasphemy, insulting that religion and its leaders.
Almost a year later, Ashraf Fayadh remains in prison. He has filed an appeal, which has not yet been heard.
* * * *
In the already complicated legal history of Ashraf Fayadh, the chapter in which his sentence was reduced from execution to a caning has two sides to it: one, an outrageous death sentence was lifted, but, two, caning is torture, and his sentence of caning is an official response to his poetry.
When a court appoints itself as a literary critic, both the judicial system it is a part of and literature itself are diminished. So while expressions of relief are appropriate, this sentence of flogging—a sentence that we do not know to be the final sentence that Ashraf Fayadh will be given—this sentence “extends the injustice” against the writer, as a statement released last year by PEN America read. He was arrested for his words, after all.
The charge of apostasy was changed to one of blasphemy, but according to the web site Arabic Literature (in English), the charge of “inappropriate relations with the opposite gender” was kept in place. These “relations” were photos of Fayadh standing next to women in art galleries at exhibitions he curated. The photos were in his cell phone and on his Instagram account because they were appropriate, not salacious, and not worth noticing. In Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabi form of Islam, however, this is inappropriate contact with the opposite gender and is an act worthy of legal remedy.
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, so he is, even after 35 years, classified in his country as “stateless.” He has lived most of his life in Saudi Arabia, and he 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. In 2013, Fayadh was the curator of an event at the 55th Venice Biennale, “RHIZOMA (Generation in Waiting).” 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, however, claiming that the poet cursed God in public, was promoting atheism in his poetry, and was consorting with women and even publishing photographic evidence. (As I wrote above, 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., but his I.D. had been confiscated in the first arrest and not restored to him, which is never an indication that good things are about to happen.
He was put on trial in February 2014 and charged with blasphemy and worse, apostasy. In Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist Sharia judicial system, a conviction for the charge of apostasy leads to a sentence of death. It is as serious a charge as one of murder. 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, in any country, it is difficult 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.”
His statement was deemed 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 instead; again, he had no legal representation.
After the second trial, in November 2015, he was found guilty of apostasy, the worse charge, and sentenced to die. His father suffered a heart attack and died upon learning of this sentence. Like many prisoners, Fayadh has not been the only person punished, his entire family has been punished.
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.
In Saudi Arabia, the fight for freedom of expression is a fight for life itself.
* * * *
For more than two years now, since the essayist Raif Badawi was flogged by Saudi Arabia as punishment for his words, I have read comments online and seen popular news personalities like Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks (a person whom I otherwise consider to be correct more than 90% of the time), describe the video of Badawi’s flogging as unimpressive or appearing to be not particularly violent.
Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and received twenty on January 9, 2015. Ashaf Fayadh now faces 800 lashes, and we do not know how or when or how many will be administered. The first set, or all 800 at once, could be administered (such a clinical word) as soon as this coming Friday. All 800 would kill him. Twenty at a time is torture.
Uygur called what he saw in the video of Badawi’s torture a “light spanking.” I do not know if he saw my response to his statement on Twitter earlier this year:
— Mark Aldrich (@Mark_S_Aldrich) January 10, 2016
Raymond Johansen wrote to me in February 2016 about Fayadh’s sentence of 800 lashes: “People may think that 800 lashes is somehow a penalty that starts at one lash and ends at the last one. It simply does not. It does not end. The effects of torture lasts a life time. The scars on the inside heals slowly, the ones on the inside does not. Torture never ends.”
Johansen knows this first-hand in two different ways. In August 2015, he allowed himself to be tortured in solidarity with Raif Badawi. He was hit fifty times with a cane in Trafalgar Square, where public corporal punishments were once seen regularly but not since the 1830s. He had difficulty walking afterwards, and he even expressed confusion as to where he was after it was finished and he was speaking with a reporter.
When a caning is administered it sometimes does not look as severe as one thinks a beating would look; even one of the words we use minimizes the severity: “lashes.” In writing about Badawi, I have run into this weakness of language. All language is analogy, and I have wanted the analogy to convey the pain of judicial corporal punishment. Few do. Perhaps none do. Raymond Johansen’s action pumped life into the analogies.
The death sentence for Ashraf Fayadh has been retracted and replaced with torture. No more, no less. Torture.
In January I recorded one of Fayadh’s poems. Instructions Within was published in Arabic in 2008, and ten pages from it were 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 in 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”:
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