On Thursday 14 January, a ‘Worldwide Reading for Ashraf Fayadh’ took place across 122 events in 44 countries, all organised by the International Literature Festival Berlin.
Fayadh, a poet and curator who is the son of Palestinian refugees and legally a stateless person, was sentenced to death for apostasy in November by a court in Saudi Arabia, the country in which he has always lived. He had been found guilty on charges of spreading atheism and threatening the morals of Saudi society. The Guardian reports that Fayadh’s appeal lawyer is ‘confident that the trial will be reversed and Fayadh will be freed’, based on flaws in the court ruling and the unreliability and malice of Fayadh’s accuser. But as things stand, Fayadh, who has been imprisoned since January 2014, faces beheading – like many of the 47 people executed en masse by Saudi Arabia on 2 January. Comparisons have rightly been drawn between the current state of justice in Saudi and in Islamic State – except that Saudi Arabia is no rogue state but a major trading partner for countries such as Germany and the UK, and, thanks to some handy vote-swapping, is currently the leader of an influential panel on the UN Human Rights Council.
On Thursday evening, along with several hundred others, I went to the main Berlin reading in support of Fayadh which was organised by novelist Priya Basil at HAU (Hebbel am Ufer), one of Berlin’s most important theatre and art performance spaces. It was an appropriate venue for reasons Annemie Vanackere, the director of HAU, explained: ‘it’s part of our understanding of theatre that it’s an agonistic space, which means that it’s a safe space where you can disagree’ – precisely what Fayadh, in being convicted of apostasy on the basis of his work and lifestyle, has been punished for doing by the Saudi regime.
First, Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu, who has himself faced imprisonment harsh treatment for his art at the hands of his own country and who was the subject of a worldwide reading in 2010, performed his poem ‘Massacre’, written in 1989 – a powerful howl of anger and grief at political violence accompanied by delicate notes rung out on two metal bowls.
Iraqi writer Fadhil Al-Azzawi then read Fayadh’s own poem ‘Frida Kahlo’s Moustache’ in Arabic, with the German and English texts projected onscreen behind him. The poem comes from Instructions Within, the 2008 collection which formed part of the case against Fayadh, but ‘Frida Kahlo’s Moustache’ is no blasphemous polemic but a tender poem of lost love:
I forgot to tell you…that in the practical sense of the word
I’ve grown used to your absence
and that my wishes have lost their way to your desires
and my memory has begun to corrode
(translated by Fady Joudah)
And Frank Arnold read passages from Eqbal Ahmad’s essay ‘Religion in Politics’ and Edward Said’s essay ‘Literature and Literalism’, which ended on a note of resistance to the ‘authoritarianism and obscurantism’ of regimes which punish people on the basis of dogmatic interpretations: ‘Wherever books and ideas are banned on fraudulent “moral” grounds it is the duty of all intellectuals, writers and teachers to stand forth explicitly unafraid and in solidarity.’
Finally there was a panel discussion chaired by Priya Basil, between Palestinian intellectual Adania Shibli, Arabic Studies scholar Ulrike Freitag and novelist Peter Schneider. In a wide-ranging discussion of Fayadh’s case and the outlook for freedom of expression across the world, Schneider’s words picturing Fayadh’s current plight stood out: ‘I imagine a young man, a talented man, a writer, a rebellious man, who has done nothing but his writing. Now he sits in his cell and he thinks back and forth over the lines he has written, and he’s asking himself “Where is the word, where is the metaphor, where is the rhyme which gives me the death penalty?”’