Mansur Rajih: A Poet and Human in Exile
This year, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN, celebrates 50 years of defending freedom of expression around the world with a year-long campaign – Because Writers Speak their Minds. As part of this campaign, the Committee looks back on 50 emblematic cases illustrating how and why they have worked. One case on this list is story of Mansur Rajih. This poet was the first International Cities of Refugee Network’s guest writer in Stavanger, Norway, where he arrived in 1998 after spending 15 years in prison in Yemen. Sampsonia Way is happy to reproduce this interview and some of his poems.
“The sun also shines from here”,
his finger pointing to his heart
his eyes rimmed with tears
Mansur Rajih is an Arab Yemeni poet. A revolutionary writer and political activist, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a faked crime he did not commit. In 1998 he was released from prison after a long international campaign in which the Norwegian government participated along with Amnesty International and International PEN who paid great efforts to release him.
He came to Stavanger City of Refuge, where he since then has published several poetic writings such as “Horoscope of Prison? Horoscope of Love.” in 2000. Most of his poetry is an anthology of love. Now, he writes from exile about the life in a western country, strange to his country and different in many ways. He says: “Poetry is a struggle for freedom, therefore it is a lifelong program”.
And Yet They Sing
The world is more beautiful than we can imagine
The world is a river
and the atmosphere is a bird’s song
and green trees
The tiny movement of the leaves
is a fine song
Dreams without borders
the progression of seasons
How did you start in a strange country which is different from Yemen in so many ways?
“There is an age when every human being discovers and experiences life in its different levels, forms, life contradictions, difficulties and also happy times. Sadly, I was in prison at that age, from the time I was 24 years old until I was 40. Since the first moment in Stavanger I felt I had to start over again from a point even below zero. My body weight was 36 kilos. I don’t have any qualifications except my history and my dreams. I didn’t know the language to communicate with the Norwegian society, which is totally different from the Yemeni society. It was very difficult in the beginning, I felt like I was in a big beautiful prison of silent life because I couldn’t communicate with the people. I was in an endless circle of silence.”
Here, in this quiet, the trees are proud of themselves
Longing eats at the heart
There is no life in exile
Here, the sound has no echo
The poem flees from between your hands,
flees to the heat of Yemen
Love is blocked by questions
what does get through is strangled by frost
A new morning over you, the silent city
Pain wars pain within the heart
This stretch of time eats at the mind
The wind brings nothing to the banished man,
and leaving, it carries nothing hence.
(* A residential area in Stavanger)
How have you been affected by Norway and the society in Stavanger?
“Life has a large and direct influence on us; Stavanger is a relatively small city, which was very different to what I was used to. It is a new place and a new time. Norway lives in welfare and freedom, whereas Yemen lives in a state of poverty and persecution. Stavanger has affected me in the way that I became more calm, and more contemplating about life itself, rather than being affected by the events themselves. Also, in Yemen I was more politically active, more influenced by the history, stressed by the present and worried about the future. But the calm I have found in Stavanger gave my writing more artistic value, it is more focused on nature, more attached to the life and destiny.”
An asphalt sky: your memory
Your earth is only a body
Time is a poem approaching
Time is a poem withering
Time is a poem dying
& time is a wailing wall
for poems and dreams
Such is exile
Your bottlenecked bottleneck
The wounded Fatherland’s open sores
moaning within you
An asphalt sky: your memory
Your earth is only a body.
Read the rest of the interview here.