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Once Sentenced to Death in Saudi Arabia, a Poet Finds Global Recognition

Imprisoned Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh’s work is being translated into English for the first time.

The poet Ashraf Fayadh

I stand naked every day,
without banishment, without divine creation.
I have already been resurrected without a godly blow in my image.
I am the experience of hell on earth

To the literary world, Palestinian-born Ashraf Fayadh’s poetry is the brilliant work of a rare talent. But under the Saudi Arabian government, his words became a death sentence.

Last November, a Saudi court found Fayadh guilty of apostasy—the act of deserting Islam—a charge punishable by execution. His 2008 book of poetry, Instructions Within, the court ruled, contained evidence of atheism and “destructive thoughts.” Fayadh had been in prison since January of 2014, and originally sentenced to four years and 800 lashes. But a retrial of his case, before a brand new panel of judges, culminated in a decision to execute the 35-year-old writer. The new sentence sparked international outrage. Writers and intellectuals drew up petitions and spoke out against the charges. Earlier this year, poets around the world staged readings of Fayadh’s poetry as an act of solidarity.

Their efforts paid off. This month, his case was retried again, and the death sentence was overturned. “They gave him eight years and 800 lashes, which is very absurd, but he's like, ‘I can at least breathe a bit,’” says Mona Kareem, a writer based in New York and friend of Fayadh’s. A researcher for the advocacy group, Kareem is translating Fayadh’s book from Arabic to English for a volume to be published by The Operating System, an independent Brooklyn publisher. Fayadh’s poetry, some of which Kareem has alread translated on her blog, employs metaphors about God and oil to critique Saudi Arabia’s oppressive policies toward its migrant and working classes.

“Most of it is about the experience of being a refugee in an oil kingdom,” Kareem says. Specifically, a Palestinian refugee, born and raised in Saudi Arabia. With the perspective of someone within an Arab country, Fayadh challenges a common refugee narrative in which migrations end in Western countries. His work calls into question the role of Arab states in the displacement of Palestinians, and highlights the marginalization of Palestinian refugees in Arab society. Fayadh’s poetic protests are inherently political, says Kareem, and this is why the government has come after him.

Supporters of Fayadh say the charge of apostasy is a convenient red herring. The Saudi state declares itself over and over again as the ultimate authority on Islam. Claiming a mission that is divine, it places itself above the reproach of moralists and outside critics. Fayadh’s frequent references to Islam are often critiques of the Saudi state itself. His poetry, says Kareem, is not a promotion of atheism, but rather an indictment of the way the Saudi government monopolizes interpretations of Islam to control its populace and squash dissent. In a series of poems translated by Kareem, Fayadh writes:

Oil is harmless,
except for the trace of poverty it leaves behind,
the day, when the faces of those who discover another oil well go dark,
and your heart—will be filled with new life so that your soul is resurrected as oil for public consumption.

In another verse he writes that “earth … is the hell prepared for refugees.” Kareem says the court used literal translations of the poetry to prosecute Fayadh for apostasy. But Arabic poetry has always had a tradition of using Islamic imagery and language to critique theocratic Arab governments.

“As Arab writers who read the book, we were like, ‘I don't know what's blasphemous about this,’” she says.

Mona Kareem, who is translating Ashraf Fayadh's poetry into English. Image courtesy of Mona Kareem.

The World Rallies Behind Fayadh

Upon the news of Fayadh’s death sentence this past fall, the global literary community mobilized. In January, poets in 44 countries staged readings of his work. Other writers circulated petitions. Many spoke out.

Jo Glanville, the director of English PEN, said Fayadh received “a wholly disproportionate and shocking sentence,” and called for his release from prison.

The director of London’s Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, called Fayadh “someone who is outspoken and daring.” Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh told the press, “When this twisted barbarism is thought of as a compromise, it’s way past time Western governments stopped dealing with this pervert regime.”

Welsh’s comment, in particular, gestured at a specific tension present within the global discourse on Fayadh’s case. Despite Saudia Arabia’s numerous human rights violations, its government enjoys an amiable relationship with Western states. Fayadh’s sentence provoked a certain righteous anger from those living in the West, but that anger is rarely directed toward their own governments, which remain on friendly terms with the kingdom. “I get all these comments and letters, saying, ‘Oh, Saudi Arabia is awful,’ blah blah blah,” says Kareem. “I'm like, yeah, Saudi Arabia is awful! And your country sells arms to it.”

Image via the Society of Authors

Stateless in Saudi Arabia

“After his death sentence, suddenly the whole world cared about him,” says Kareem.

She was worried that pressure from Western countries would only spur the Saudi court to double down on the punishment, as it did in the case of blogger Raif Badawi, whose sentence was increased from 600 lashes to 1,000 after his case received international attention. “We didn't want this to happen to Ashraf, especially since Ashraf is even more vulnerable,” says Kareem. “He's a stateless Palestinian born and raised in Saudi. He doesn't even have a place to be deported to.”

Saudi Arabia is home to more than 240,000 Palestinian refugees. But Palestinians are excluded from laws that allow expatriates to pursue Saudi citizenship, so they remain without an official nationality. “When I tell journalists that he's Palestinian, they ignore that part,” says Kareem. “When I say that he's stateless but born in Saudi, they don't want to talk about the vulnerability of being an immigrant or refugee. They don't want to talk about what his poems are saying. So, then, he is just one case of a guy who talked about Islam and the Muslims didn't take it.”

Today, Fayadh sits in a Saudi jail cell. Kareem, who is in touch with him, says he is no longer writing. He’s preparing, instead, for a new appeal process and struggling to cope with the reality of more years in prison. But he feels relief, as well, that he can at least look forward to living. Says Kareem: “What he cares about is that people don’t forget him.”

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