Life and Freedom For Ashraf Fayadh
Ashraf Fayadh is a Palestinian poet, living in Saudi Arabia. In November of 2015, Fayadh was sentenced to beheading by a Saudi court that convicted him on charges of apostasy. In his poetry collection Instructions Within, Fayadh wrote about supposedly “atheistic and blasphemous” themes. A personal altercation with an individual later led to his being reported to Saudi Arabian religious authorities. In mid-December, 2015, Ashraf Fayadh appealed the death sentence against him, and after a long wait, Fayadh’s final verdict was posted via Twitter on February 2, 2016. On March 11, 2015, PEN International utilized World Poetry Day 2016 to encourage taking further action on Fayadh’s behalf.
In support of Fayadh, PEN America and the Brooklyn Museum organized “Life and Freedom for Ashraf,” an event on January 17, 2016 that brought together Brooklyn-based PEN writers in a celebration of freedom of expression and solidarity with Ashraf’s case. Sampsonia Way interviewed Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Freedom of Expression programs, about the reading and its aftermath.
How did Ashraf’s case first come to the attention of PEN America?
In mid-November, right after the death sentence was handed down, we were contacted by English PEN, which is the UK branch of PEN. They do a lot of work on cases in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. They were organizing a joint letter from different organizations—mostly PEN Centers, but other organizations as well—to the Saudi government about Ashraf’s case. We joined in.
There was also a public letter circulated for signature by writers from all over the world: PEN members, but also other writers and concerned citizens. It was an open letter which we publicized on our website. At the time it got around 900 signatures, and may have more at this point. This was over Thanksgiving, when the US was pretty much shut down, but it was great to see the international community take the lead at that point. We signed onto those two letters, got involved in the case, and since then have been tracking it more since the verdict came down.
In early December, PEN America organized a letter to President Obama, which was on behalf of two major Saudi cases that we have been working on. One is Raif Badawi, the blogger who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. He’s been in jail for over a year now. The other was Ashraf’s case. We are really trying to press President Obama to have the US government speak out more forcefully against these cases in Saudi Arabia. Traditionally the US does not criticize the Saudi government on human rights issues very much because it’s seen as a major geopolitical ally.
We tried to mobilize prominent writers who are PEN America members to sign onto this letter. It was a much smaller number of prominent writers, and we had a total of 76 people sign on. That was one of main actions.
In December the International Literature Festival in Berlin decided to organize a worldwide reading in support of his case. Our public and literary programs department organized a reading at the Brooklyn Museum on January 14, the international day of solidarity by writers from around the world. Our event at the Brooklyn Museum was one of 123 events in 43 countries. An array of PEN centers, other human rights groups, other literature groups took part in these readings and organized events. Everywhere from Myanmar to South Africa, Haiti. It was really quite impressive, the global reach of last Thursday’s event.
Have you heard any updates about his case?
There was a month he was given to appeal, and he did file the appeal in mid-December. Since then, we’ve been waiting. It was expected that there might be news on the verdict this week, so people have been watching very closely this week. I’ve just heard on Twitter that the verdict may have been pushed off for two weeks, so we are keeping an eye on that.
What kind of reactions have you heard about Thursday’s reading?
It was a very moving event. I spoke on behalf of the Free Expression team, and it was a great melding of PEN’s different missions and other things that we try to do in terms of the free expression advocacy component, and also celebrating literature and having writers stand in solidarity with one another. We had several people get quite emotional as they were speaking. All the people in the audience and the poets who spoke were equally moved and felt it was an important way to show solidarity with a writer who is facing a death sentence.
The purpose of it was basically to draw more attention to the case, to keep it in the public view, to show that the world is watching, writers are watching, and we want there to be a spotlight on this—on both Ashraf’s case and also the conditions in Saudi Arabia, where he’s not the only one facing this type of sentence or getting put in prison for expressing himself.
We did readings from Ashraf’s poetry and also a few other cases that PEN has been working on, including poetry from two Iranian poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi. We received news over the weekend that they had just managed to flee Iran, where they were facing a sentence of nine to eleven years for each of them, and a hundred lashes. It’s great to hear that they actually managed to escape Iran and are now hopefully making their way to safety.
We’re highlighting several cases in the region where people are facing harsh and disproportionate sentences and also things like lashes for expression, for consorting with members of the opposite gender. It’s a very serious violation of expression that’s going on, not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran but also in Qatar and other countries in the region.
Is there a particular aspect of Ashraf’s event that connected with the participating writers?
We try to reach out to a range of PEN writers to take part in different events like this. If it’s a Brooklyn-based event we try to highlight our Brooklyn-based writers. Rob Spillman is a chair of the PEN membership committee and is a very involved and engaged member, and is very interested and involved in the Middle East. We also wanted to pull in a few writers of Middle Eastern heritage. One of them read in Arabic as well as English. We wanted to highlight a range of voices, but the readership was from Brooklyn-based PEN members.
Any word on whether Ashraf knew that the event was taking place?
I would hope that word has gotten to him somehow, or gotten to his family. His father actually passed away from a stroke in November when they heard the news of the sentence, which was very harsh and after an appeal so it was not expected. I hope that other family members do know what is happening and hopefully he does as well; I have not had any direct connection to the family so far but I am hoping to be able to reach out and have a bit more of a connection to some of the family members.
What would you say to those who argued, as is mentioned in PEN’s letter to President Obama, that the relations between the US and Saudi Arabia come before the issue of one poet’s life?
That is a long-standing US policy. Saudi Arabia is a long-standing ally, and these human rights violations have been going on for years and it’s very rare that the US will speak out in an overtly critical way. I think there is, perhaps, more pressure behind the scenes or in a not-so-public way. In general, what we see – not just in Saudi Arabia, but in other countries as well where there are very strong geopolitical reasons for US partnership or engagement with the country, that human rights often take a backseat. It’s unfortunate but it’s the way of the world. Our job is to make sure that human rights do remain at the forefront. They can’t be swept under the carpet.
In general, with PEN what we’ve heard is that when we have a writer in prison and they hear about these types of events or solidarity with other writers, it can really mean a lot to someone facing a severe sentence. It’s very meaningful for them to hear that the world is not forgetting them and that their case is being kept in the spotlight. We have had testimonials from other writers in prison over the years and I suspect that it is the same in this case, that he is very moved that all of these people are coming together on his behalf.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) just named 2015 as one of the most deadly years for journalists. What does Ashraf’s case indicate about the status of creative writers?
PEN looks at cases of journalists, literary writers, bloggers, and poets. Usually what we see is that the trends that CPJ reports for journalists are also mirrored in the broader free expression environment. Quite often these crackdowns go hand in hand. Especially in countries where the press itself is highly muzzled and controlled, and the only way to express oneself is by blogging or social media or softer types of creative freedom, often there is a crackdown on those types of expression as well.
So for example what we’ve seen in Iran, there’s been a very broad crackdown on journalists and traditional media, but also filmmakers, poets, bloggers, artists, and cartoonists. Saudi Arabia as well. In Saudia Arabia the traditional press has always been tightly controlled, but I would say that in the realm of social media and creative expression there’s been a worsening in the last year or two in the types of cases that are coming up and the sentences that are being handed down.
We often see that crackdowns on journalists are a part of a much broader trend. And in some countries that shows up in terms of murders of journalists or physical attacks on journalists. In other countries, the legal system is the main way in which there is a crackdown. So you see a lot of harassment of journalists, and a lot of disproportionate sentences or jail time for different writers, poets, bloggers.
Ashraf was particularly vulnerable to persecution because he is effectively stateless, as a Palestinian refugee living in Saudi Arabia. How did you see the scale of this event in relation to the current and ongoing refugee crisis we are facing right now?
It’s a reminder that these issues are very important. Some people have been refugees for years. Ashraf was born in Saudi Arabia but is from a Palestinian refugee family. He doesn’t even have a passport, he has a travel document that is issued to Palestinians. The themes of displacement, of refugee status come out in his poetry. I think one reason why the Saudi government cracked down on him is that he is very critical about the situation of Palestinian refugees in Saudi Arabia.
One of the poems we read last Thursday was a very provocative piece of poetry describing what it is like to be a refugee and I think it had a huge resonance for the people in the audience, especially thinking about, as you said, the current refugee crisis and what’s going on with the refugees in Syria. For me, that was one of the most powerful readings of the evening because it had such a resonance with the current situation.
What more can people do to demonstrate solidarity with Ashraf and other creative writers facing persecution?
Spreading the word, putting things out on social media, trying to retweet to make sure the case does not go away and that the Saudis know that the world is watching–this type of pressure can have an impact on a government and make it more difficult for them to carry through a sentence like that. Right now, with this appeals process, the Saudi government may realize that all the bad press and bad attention, it might be better to have an acquittal or even release Ashraf into exile and be able to get him out of the country. That, I think, is the best case scenario that we are hoping for right now: that the pressure and attention will persuade the government that it’s not worth trying to kill him or keeping him in jail.