Last night I went to bed double-booked and conflicted. Such is my wealth and the luxury of neurosis it permits. And the fact that I can write the following and still expect to sleep and speak in safety is testament of my rare good fortune.
I had committed to participate Sunday in a group recitation of poems by a Palestinian refugee named Ashraf Fayadh. He is imprisoned and condemned to death by Saudi Arabian authorities for apostasy, atheism and other offenses against the Muslim faith.
Alas, participating in this event would keep me from my beloved monthly Dance of Universal Peace. Both causes promote the same goal–sanity, justice, peace, harmony and unity among people of all faiths, cultures, races, etc. However, being mystically inclined, my strength– and, admittedly, my preference– is to bend fate with song and celebration in embodied prayer, rather than to rail in anger, blame and indignancy.
I’d made a commitment, though, and, through the night I dreamed of tonight’s poetry event, and I woke knowing that, despite my preferences, Wisdom’s arrow had me aimed for the reading.
Santa Fe’s event was one of 14 in the U.S. protesting and raising awareness of the plight of Ashraf Fayadh (who is one of too, too many others). And these events were among many more coordinated events held this week around the world. You can find more on the story on line (and I can include some at the tail of this post).
I had read the details provided us about Fayadh’s predicament; and I had flinched numbly at the familiar-sounding account. I had read Fayadh’s poems, relatively few of which are available in English, and tried to find his voice (through the translation) and to inhabit, at least a little, the words I was to read.
As I joined the others gathered there tonight and listened to his story– a litany of travesties recounted aloud by a fellow reader– all hearts in the room ached, heads shook, and numbed boundaries dissolved. Then we began reading his multi-part poems “Oil” and “Frida Kahlo’s Moustache.” For myself, and I would guess for many others there, the poetry came to life in a way it hadn’t as we had privately read his words and prepared our recitations. Fayadh was summoned to the room in a seance of earnest voices and held there in the vapors distilled from our common humanity.
I know my account can’t conduct the poignancy of such a moment into the hearts of those who weren’t there beating together on another poet’s behalf. Yet, I apprehend more viscerally now why governments, seeking to disempower a populace, outlaw assembly. Said another martyr for freedom, “When two [or more] of you are gathered….”
We in that room tonight were aware of how fragile enlightened governance and mutual trust can be in the face of iniquity and devastation the likes of which so many populations are experiencing around our planet, and even in our own country; it made us that much more aware of our own fortune and responsibility as people and as poets…mystics, activists or both.
Poetry is not frivolous. Authorities know the power of one person’s truth to liberate that of another. And it is “dangerous.” As I listened to Fayadh’s personal poetry given voice by others, I could hear the conviction that was found threatening. Yes. I confess I could hear irreverence. I could hear commentary on greed and injustice. These are not threats to Islam, of course, but to False Powers rooted in the thin dusty top soil of Fear, rather than the deep aquifer of humanity beneath, into and out of which flows what beats our hearts.
(After typing that last sentence, I was called to check, and, among the meanings I found for “Fayadh”– Generous, Liberal, Noble, Bounteous–was “Plenty of Water.” )
Finally, I’m reminded that this week, I heard three bits on NPR that played into each other, three notes that, sustained in my consciousness, formed a coherent, stirring chord. I listened to an interview about Hitler’s rise, his gift for oratory and swaying a tavern full of common folk, and the evolution (if you can call it that) of Mien Kampf. Right afterwards I heard a segment in which an audience was responding with implausible enthusiasm to some regressive spoutings of Donald Trump. And later I heard an author’s report about her experience retracing the steps of her Armenian refugee grandfather– and of the people in Syria who helped her find the peoples and places he encountered. A number of those persons who helped her with the story are now refugees themselves. When asked what she thought her grandfather would most want people to get from his story, the author basically said: to learn from history in order not to repeat it.
Ashraf Fayadh’s plight is neither new nor unusual, but at this time in humanity’s evolution, I’d like to think we are at a tipping point, when it is no longer acceptable nor irremediable. It’s up to us.
We can’t fix it all. But that is why there is more than one of us here.
Speak up when you can, while you can, my friends.
…and Happy Martin Luther King Day.
Here is to the Mountaintop.
Below is some back story:
After nearly two years in prison, Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh, age 35, was sentenced to death by Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, November 17.
The Independent reports that the Human Rights Watch has seen the trial documents, and the charges against Fayadh include apostasy and abandoning his Muslim faith. Other artists who have recently been prosecuted by conservative regimes include Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
Fayadh is a member of Edge of Arabia, a British Saudi art organization, which on November 16 installed two murals at the United Nations as part of “Our Mother’s House,” an arts initiative run with Art Jameel in support of the women of southwest Saudi Arabia. The two groups were highlighted at the Armory Show’s Focus Section 2015.
“He was instrumental to introducing Saudi contemporary art to Britain and connecting Tate Modern to the emerging scene,” Edge of Arabia co-founder Stephen Stapleton told the Guardian. “He curated a major show in Jeddah in 2013 and co-curated a show at the Venice Biennale later that year.”
Fayadh was arrested on January 1, 2014, having been accused of having promoted atheism in his 2008 book of poems, Instruction Within. He was initially detained by police in August of 2013, but was released on bail just a day later. On social media, Fayadh’s friends have alleged that when police were unable to prove his atheism, they became critical of his long hair and smoking habit.
“They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society,” Fayadh told the Guardian, explaining that his poems were “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee… about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
Initially sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes in 2014, Fayadh was subsequently retried. He has 30 days to appeal the new ruling, which was made in accordance with Sharia Islamic law, on which the Saudi justice system is based.
A prosecution witness who testified in the trial reportedly accused Fayadh of cursing God, Muhammad, and Saudi Arabia. Fayadh believes that the complaint stemmed from an argument he had at a cafe with another artist about contemporary art.
The Guardian reports that court documents quote Fayadh as saying “I am repentant to God most high and am innocent of what appeared in my book mentioned in this case.”
“I was really shocked,” said Fayadh of the new verdict, “but it was expected, though I didn’t do anything that deserves death.”
Ashraf Fayadh is a Palestinian poet who came to Saudi Arabia as a refugee, and is now facing execution by his adopted homeland for a series of poems that he wrote describing his life while fleeing war in Palestine.
Fayadh was charged in November 2015 with apostasy, or abandoning Islam, over the contents of his 2008 collection of poetry, Instructions Within. Apostasy is punishable by death in the theocracy, in which the last recorded judicial execution for the crime was the 1992 public beheading of a man alleged to have called Mohammed a liar.
In addition to his poetry, an unnamed witness and two members of Saudi Arabia’s Mutaween religious police force testified to having overheard Fayadh “cursing God, the Prophet Mohammed, and Saudi Arabia” to a fellow artist in a café.
Fayadh himself continues to state that he is a practicing Muslim, and denies all accusations brought against him.
Fayadh was originally sentenced in 2014 to four years in prison and 800 lashes, but his penalty has been upgraded to death as a result of the effective absolute power granted to Saudi judges to interpret Sharia law as they choose. The judge presiding over the recent review of Fayadh’s case dismissed the testimony of the defense in favor of only accepting those of the witnesses who testified against the poet.
Evidence presented by the prosecution as proof of Fayadh’s atheism included the length of his hair, his smoking of cigarettes, and photographs on Instagram in which Fayadh posed with female artists at an art show in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
Many of Fayadh’s friends have stated their belief that the true motivation for the case against the poet was a video which he posted online criticizing a public lashing by the Mutaween.
The poet, who was denied access to a lawyer after his ID was confiscated in 2014, has been given 30 days to appeal his trial. The date for Fayadh’s execution is not known yet, those sentenced to death have been known to spend anywhere between 5 years and over a decade in prison prior to the carrying out of their sentence.