In Solidarity with Imprisoned Poet, Ashraf Fayadh

Sentenced to death on charges of apostasy and promoting atheism, Ashraf had his sentence reduced to eight years and 800 lashes.

Somewhere, maybe on the other side of the world from you right now, countless people are sitting locked in small rooms because of things they wrote. It’s a strange idea. How could the written word be so dangerous that the person responsible for it should be placed in a box, locked away from society along with arsonists and murderers? So many of these journalists and artists are unknown. They do not have hashtags. But one of them, Ashraf Fayadh, has become a rallying call around the world. More than 60 international arts and human rights groups have campaigned for his release, and readings of his poetry have taken place in 44 countries in solidarity with his suffering. Some days it seems so simple: if we can save this one man, then why not the others? Perhaps one day we’ll be able to open their small boxes too, and let them walk back into the light, to their families, their coffee shops, their pens.

When I read about Ashraf Fayadh’s story back in November of 2015, I felt an instant attachment to the case. I’d spent the past five years writing a novel about a poet trying to work beneath a tyrant regime, and here was the real thing – an artist and writer suffering under state power because of what he wrote. It made me feel ashamed to have trespassed on his life, to have spoken almost in his words, when I had done so little to help those like him.

If Fayadh’s story chimed with the book I wrote, it also contains shades of The Count of Monte Cristo. In 2013, Fayadh was arrested by the mutaween, Saudi’s famously unaccountable religious police, after arguing with a rival artist, who testified that he had blasphemed during the argument. The mutaween had a grudge with Fayadh: he had previously shared a video online showing them lashing a man in public. Fayadh was held and evidence was piled up against him. He was tried in early 2014 by a religious court, and after a lengthy period of appeals, was sentenced to death on November 17, 2015. The panel of judges accused him of apostasy and of promoting atheism in his poetry collection, Instructions Within.

‘I didn’t do anything that deserves death,’ Fayadh told the media. His book of poems was ‘just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee… about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.’

Poetry doesn’t deal in certainties. Part of its beauty is its ability to contain a cloud of meanings through which the reader can plot a course. But the very nature of his art seems to have damned Fayadh.

Even by the shockingly low standards of evidence required to try someone under Saudi’s religious laws, the accusation of blasphemy by Fayadh’s rival was flimsy. It wasn’t even corroborated by another witness, which is a requirement under sharia.

After receiving his death sentence, Fayadh was denied access to legal representation, and was given only 30 days to appeal. When he did, the sentence was reduced, if reduced can be used in this context, to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, to be carried out on 16 occasions. He was also forced to renounce his poetry on Saudi state television and radio, a cruel twist of the knife for someone who takes such pride in his work, and has done so much to promote the work of Saudi artists internationally.

In 2013, Fayadh co-curated a Saudi art show at the Venice Biennale. He called the show RHIZOMA, after the ancient Greek word for a plant’s underground roots, which grow both horizontally and vertically. This metaphor represented the fearless new generation of Saudi artists who have been forced to develop underground in the ultraconservative kingdom, but who also reach outwards for the support of others in the wider world. These roots are growing longer and thicker every day. In 2012, for instance, an anonymous collective of filmmakers set up a secret cinema in Abha, despite death threats and the prospect of a fate like Fayadh’s if the police found them. One of the films screened was about women’s rights, and was shot with a camera hidden in a traditional abaya covering. Many Saudi artists today can only exhibit their art abroad, and even then do so beneath the constant and chilling gaze of the religious police.

For all its everyday struggles, my life is inherently comfortable. I live in a country whose government doesn’t care what I write in my books, or which religion I follow. I can visit the cinema whenever I want, and watch whatever film I please. This is an accident of birth and geography – and it’s up to us lucky ones to reach out to those on the other side of that accident. In his poem ‘Tense Times’, the first written since his incarceration, Fayadh promises, “I shall disregard the state my heart’s in / and my mind’s upheavals like water bubbling / past the boiling point.”

Have we reached the boiling point yet? The case of Ashraf Fayadh is just one of many around the world, but it is one around which the whole world should rally. Today, this international day of solidarity, should be the day we join our voices together and say no more – not now, not ever – and I’m proud to add my voice to that chorus: #FreeAshraf.

Paul MM Cooper has worked as an archivist, editor and journalist. His first novel, River of Ink, was published by Bloomsbury in 2016. Read other articles by Paul MM.