‘A poet’s work’, he answers. ‘To name the unnameable, to point a frauds,
to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.’
And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him.
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
And if my thought-dreams could been seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.
Bob Dylan, It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding
Ashraf Fayadh is a Palestinian poet and artist who lives in Saudi Arabia (he is the son of refugees from Khan Yunis in Gaza). He is an artist and curator for the British-Saudi art group Edge of Arabia, and curated a show of emerging Saudi artists at the 2013 Venice Biennale
Last November he was sentenced to death by a Saudi court for apostasy, for the poems in his 2008 collection Instructions Within. The religious police had first detained Fayadh in August 2013 after receiving a complaint that he was cursing against Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia and distributing poems promoting atheism. He was released on bail but re-arrested on 1 January 2014. ‘They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society’, said Fayadh. Instructions Within, he added, was ‘just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.’
In February, the death sentence was commuted to eight years imprisonment and 800 lashes, to be inflicted ‘50 lashes at a time’. He was also ordered to renounce his poetry, repent and apologize on official Saudi Arabia national television.
Last week there was a ‘Day of Creativity’ in solidarity with Fayadh. So, I am publishing here four poems, the first three of which come from the collection Instructions Within; the last, ‘Tense Times’, was written in prison. For details of the campaign in solidarity with Ashram Fayadh, contact PEN International, Mona Kareem or Marcia Lynx Qualey of Arab Literature (In English).
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.
(Translated by Jonathan Wright; published in Instructions Within and on the website Arab Literature (in English))
A Melancholy Made of Dough
Parts of you pile one on top of another—a mixture of your blood,
sweat, remains, and discharge from your eyes.
And discharge from your eyes.
The knot of your tongue at the midway point of the ocean,
and when the sphere of the sun swims
in a preconceived orbit –
What the sidewalk never mentioned
is that you used to step on it
and present your shoes on a plate of concrete,
your feet on a plate of shoes,
your legs on a plate of your misfortune.
You tune the strings of your head to affect your foolish delight,
you bury a skull—you’d rather not bear.
You heap yourself on a slate that claims whiteness due to a fistful of flour –
and you ferment.
You swell and puff your sadness like a hot loaf
You search for your water
Between your delicacy and your hardness
and your breaking.
and your forehead reddens
also, like a loaf!
You are stored
in the chaotic memory
of the earth, of its core
of al-Lauh al-Mahfuz on your shoulders
You grow mold, also, like a loaf!
In vain, you resist your body’s floundering atop the whitened slate
on your bed
on the sidewalks, on
reflecting and reflected surfaces
and surfaces that absorb light.
Your body always forgets that it’s a complex admixture,
that you have only the familiar look of your legs.
That you resemble a vagrant
whose features stick out among those who walk other walks.
He can neither master their walk nor speak their tongue;
has no right to walk as he pleases
or stumble or weep as he pleases.
No right to crack open the window of the soul
to renew its air and debris and mourning.
You forget that you too are
like a loaf!
You forget how your soul was mixed
at birth, since the day they ripped your placenta,
mixed, your soul
with clothes that conceal your genitals
and reveal what may be seen of them. Of you
and of women who have grown accustomed to ripping their own collars
and hanging portraits on walls.
Of boys who have trained themselves to draw on walls
and gravestones and cars in junkyards
and to march in your name, also,
like a loaf!
So your soul was mixed:
homogenized, fermented, kneaded, baked
and sold at stores that violated health codes,
forged—and used for illegal purposes,
voted on— and eaten
like a loaf.
(Translated by Tariq al Haydar; published in Instructions Within and on the website Arab Literature (in English))
petroleum is harmless, except for the trace of poverty it leaves behind
on that day, when the faces of those who discover another oil well go dark,
when life is blown into your heart to extract more oil off your soul
for public use..
That.. is.. the promise of oil, a true promise.
it was said: settle there..
but some of you are enemies for all
so leave it now
look up to yourselves from the bottom of the river;
those of you on top should provide some pity for those underneath..
the displaced is helpless,
like blood that no one wants to buy in the oil market!
pardon me, forgive me
for not being able to pump more tears for you
for not mumbling your name in nostalgia.
I directed my face at the warmth of your arms
I got no love but you, you alone, and am the first of your seekers.
you are inexperienced with Time
lacking rain drops
that could wash away all the remains of your past
and liberate you of what you had called piety..
of that heart.. capable of love,
and of intersecting with your obscene withdrawal from that flabby religion
from that fake Tanzeel
from gods that had lost their pride..
you burp, more than you used to..
as the bars bless their visitors
with recitations and seductive dancers..
accompanied with the DJ
you recite your hallucinations
and speak your praise for these bodies swinging to the verses of exile.
he’s got no right to walk however
or to swing however or to cry however.
he’s got no right to open the window of his soul,
to renew his air, his waste, and his tears..
you too tend to forget that you are
a piece of bread
on the day of banishment, they stand naked,
while you swim in the rusty pipes of sewage, barefoot..
this could be healthy for the feet
but not for earth
prophets have retired
so do not wait for yours to come to you
and for you,
for you the monitors bring their daily reports
and get their high salaries..
how important money is
for a life of dignity
my grandfather stands naked everyday,
without banishment, without divine creation..
I have already been resuscitated without a godly blow in my image.
I am the experience of hell on earth..
is the hell prepared for refugees.
your mute blood will not speak up
as long as you pride yourself in death
as long as you keep announcing -secretly- that you have put your soul
at the hands of those who do not know much..
losing your soul will cost time,
much longer than what it takes to calm
your eyes that have cried tears of oil
(Translated by Mona Kareem; published in Instructions Within and on Mona Kareem’s website.)
Tense times for me,
and sleep’s acting like a newly love-struck teen.
I shall disregard the state my heart’s in
and my mind’s upheavals like water bubbling
past the boiling point.
I am a part of the universe with which the universe is angry,
a part of the earth of which the earth feels utterly ashamed,
a wretched human towards whom
other humans cannot maintain neutrality.
Neutrality: an illusion
like all the graces of which humans speak, so shamelessly theoretical.
Truth is an inadequate term, just like Man,
and love bumps about,
a miserable fly
trapped in a glass box.
Freedom is very relative:
all said and done we live in a ball-shaped prison
barred with ozone.
Set free, our fate
is certain death.
I am incapable of laughing.
Completely incapable of smiling, even.
Incapable, at the same time, of crying.
Incapable of acting like a human being,
which doesn’t upset me in the slightest
though it hurts so
to have a body covered with light down,
to walk on two limbs,
to depend wholly on your mind,
to be drawn after your desires to the furthest point,
to have your freedom trapped,
to have others decide to kill you,
to miss those closest to you
without a chance to say farewell.
What good does Farewell do
but leave a sad impression?
What good’s meeting?
What good’s love?
What good is it to be this alive
while others die from sorrow
I saw my father for the last time through thick glass
then he departed, for good.
Because of me, let’s say.
Let us say because he could not bear the thought
I’d die before him.
My father died and left death to besiege me
without it frightening me sufficiently.
Why does death scare us to death?
My father departed after a long time
spent on the surface of this planet.
I didn’t say farewell as I should have
nor grieve for him as I should have
and was incapable of tears,
as is my habit, which grows uglier with time.
The soldiers besiege me on all fronts
in uniforms of poor color.
Laws and regimes and statutes besiege me.
Sovereignty besieges me,
a highly concentrated instinct that living creatures cannot shake.
My loneliness besieges me.
My loneliness chokes me.
I am choked by depression, nervousness, worry.
Remorse, that I’m a member of the human race, kills me.
I was unable to say goodbye to all those I love
and who departed, even temporarily.
I was unable to leave a good impression of a last meeting.
Then I yielded to the rifles of longing
levelled my way.
I refused to raise my hand
and became incapacitated.
Then I was bound by sorrow
that failed to force me to tears.
The Knowing gnaws at me from within,
killing every shot I have at survival.
The Knowing is killing me slowly
and it’s much too late for a cure.
(Published in the Guardian; translator unknown.)
The picture of Ashraf Fayadh is from his Instagram account. The other paintings are all by Palestinian artists: ‘Study of Sadness’ by Zahi Khamis; Latifa Yousef‘s ‘Emerging from 1948’; the installation ‘If I Wasn’t There…’ by Majdal Nateel; and Samia Halaby‘s ‘Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River’.