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February 16, 2019

Freedom for Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh

“I still chase light, not because I want to see…the dark always frightens even when we’re used to it.” These words are lifted from the poem, Frida Kahlo’s Moustache, by the jailed Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, sentenced to death for apostasy by a Saudi Arabian court. “Justice will always suffer the disturbances of menstruation/and that love is a backward impotent man at the end of his days,” Ashraf writes. Ashraf Fayadh is well known in Saudi Arabian art circles. His problems started following an argument with a fellow artist at a football match. Ashraf was arrested and detained by the country’s religious police in 2013. He was released on bail, rearrested, tried again, and sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes. Ashraf appealed the judgment with the Saudi’s Court of Appeal which returned the case to a lower court where a new judge was assigned to the case. At this lower court, Ashraf was sentenced to death, accused of having promoted atheism in his book, Instructions Within (2008). It is this circumlocution that novelist Moraa Gitaa calls “weird.”

 Ashraf’s death sentence shocked the world. The Berlin International Literature Festival took up the case and published an appeal calling on writers and art organisations around the world to organise spontaneous Worldwide Readings for Ashraf Fayadh on January 14, 2016. The call received global support, and the Kenyan Centre of PEN International, took up the matter and mobilised writers for a solidarity reading for Ashraf at the Freedom Corner, Uhuru Park in Nairobi. Retired educationist Prof James Mburu gave the keynote speech on writers in society: “Ashraf is being persecuted for being a critical thinker – for being resolute, and objective.” Ashraf has been ‘misunderstood.’

 How important is misunderstanding or misinterpretation? Come with me: Poet Jacob Oketch, read Ashraf’s poem, The Last of the Line of Refugee Descendants: “You give the world indigestion, and some other problems/Don’t force the ground to vomit/And stay close to it/Being a refugee means standing at the end of the queue/To get a fraction of a country.” Writer Tony Mochama read Eqbal Ahmad’s essay, Religion in Politics: “Jihad is an Islamic precept with multiple meanings which include engagement in warfare, social service, humanitarian work, intellectual effort, or spiritual striving. The word is formed from an Arabic root, Jehd which denotes an intense effort to achieve a positive goal.” This fundamental precept of Islam has been jettisoned by Islamist fundamentalists and what the world knows today about Jihad, is “warfare” alone, something that the Christian fundamentalists harp on to punish all Muslims.

 The greater Jihad, Eqbal informs us, “was that which one undertook within the self and society, to conquer greed and malice, hate and anger, ego and hubris, above all, to achieve piety, moral integrity and spiritual perfection.” In his essay Literature and Literalism, Palestinian scholar Edward Said writes: “All written texts are themselves interpretations, just as all readings of texts are also interpretation.” Ashraf Fayadh is being persecuted because his writing is interpreted to mean promoting atheism. In early 1970s, then a tutorial fellow at Makerere University, Okello Oculi, was abducted by Idd Amin soldiers. When this news was conveyed to the intellectual Prof Ali Mazrui, the Kenyan intervened with Idd Amin, and a life was saved. Today, Ugandan scholar Prof Okello Oculi, the great Pan-Africanist, is a renowned political scientist, poet, and novelist. If General Idd Amin, a dictator could listen to the voice of reason, I do not see why the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, should not listen to the voices of reason!

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