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Chair’s Notebook #3 March 15, 2010
Past…present…next steps

I. Our past

Since my first steps along the path of being a writer,  I have been well aware that I have chosen a rocky path and a way which is strewn with pitfalls.In my Islamic culture, and Koranic culture in particular, my attention has been much drawn towards the proximity of prophesy, poetry and madness!In all these three areas, the protagonist is characterized by the courage to declare what he/she believes to be the truth, even if, over the course of history, people have taken it amiss and feared it and recoiled from it.
— Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar, February 2010, translated from the Arabic

Because Writers Speak Their Minds—a rich resource

The 50th anniversary campaign of the Writers in Prison Committee was launched on the website of PEN International, and with a news release sent to all PEN centres, in the first week of February. The heart of the campaign, in every sense, is the catalogue of 50 writers chosen to represent each year of the campaign. Each writer has his or her own webpage; there is a photo, a short bio, a writing sample and links to additional material. Almost all fifty cases are now available on the website [link to 50 Cases home page]; please go to the site and browse through this extraordinary record of courage in the face of persecution. Each story is unique, and yet there are striking parallels between cases, the grounds for persecution and arrest, often shockingly banal.

For example: a fragment of a play called The Taxi Project,  a 2008 collaboration by four writers now living in exile in Canada, one of whom is Martha Kuwee Kumsa (1984) imprisoned for nine years for an article calling for Oromo women to reclaim their cultural heritage. In the play Kumsa recalls the terror of being a fugitive and the unbearable agony of leaving her children behind.

Or this excerpt from a poem by Maria Elena Cruz Vareda (1994), Cuban poet  terrorized by a large crowd, held incommunicado for days, finally imprisoned in harsh conditions for  “insulting the heroes of Cuba”:

And it was a lie. The coward's defenseless lie.
Not even a speckled truth,
the epitaph of an old prostitute.
It was also a lie, my lie of amianthus
against the mortal fire.
It was a lie, the squatting fear,
the broken porcelain,
the quality of the clay.
It was a lie, a pious fiction for the dying one
that we say sea
and the fish jumped at our voices.
We also said arc, intention, monotype
or just another argument.
They were all lies.
Dumb, saddened, ineffective, futile lies.
—from Ballad of the Blood/Balada de la Sangre.

The statement above from Faraj Bayrakdar (1988) is one of a number of such statements being collected by Sara  over the course of the year from those writiers in the 50/50 case list who are still living; these will also be placed on the website. Faraj writes: ….During the first ten years of my detention I felt that I was part of that same tragedy by which many throughout history have been oppressed by blind forces from which there is no escape.
 However, during the subsequent years in prison (and when some news leaked through about what the PEN International Club [and other organizations]was doing for me…some completely different feelings arose within me and I realised that I had not been forgotten.... and I must acknowledge here and now that for prisoners, the thought that they are forgotten is a sort of spiritual death.

I hope that centres will use this collection of stories and writings, in public events, or on their own websites, or as the basis of articles, or consideration in blogs, as a way of marking the 50th anniversary.

II. The present—two recent initiatives

In February, the WIPC joined a coalition of other freedom of expression organizations for a campaign on the plight of writers, journalists and bloggers in Iran. The campaign Our Society will be a Free Society was created to draw attention to the more than 60 writers currently in prison in Iran; there have been several op-ed pieces in international media, interviews, news releases, and an open letter to His Excellency Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei.There is an excellent weblog on the site, good interviews with Maziar Bahari, etc: oursocietywillbeafreesociety.org.

Our piece of the campaign was to organize an appeal from PEN centres to their diplomats attending Iran’s appearance before the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on February 15-17. We had a great response to Patricia’s letter; centres from Russia, South Africa, Belgium (Flanders), Norway, Netherlands, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzogovinia, and USA and Zambia wrote letters and reported back to us. The coalition issued a news release calling on Tehran officials to “open the door to the United Nations’ special rapporteurs on human rights – including its expert on freedom of expression Frank la Rue.” Tehran’s envoy Mohammad Javad Larijani told diplomats and the media on the first day of Iran’s appearance that there was a “standing invitation” for the UN’s special rapporteurs to visit Iran and investigate claims of rights abuse – only to reverse his position the next day.

There is currently a petition on the campaign website, which can also be found on Facebook. The intention is to send the petition to Iranian authorities on March 20th.

For International Women’s Day on March 8th, Sara did an excellent essay, reflecting on the fourteen women on the 50/50 list and recommending action on current cases in Tunisia—Sihem Ben Sedrine; Burma (Myanmar)—Aung San Suu Kyi; Mexico—Lydia Cacho; Russia—Natalia Estemirova and Vietnam—Tran Khai Thanh Thuy.

III. What’s next?

Centres! Let us know what you are planning to do for the 50th anniversary—everything from books to bake sales to blogs. There will soon be a way to post such news on the website, and Sara is putting together some other suggestions for action and activities your consideration. We’d like to know what were the memorable cases for your centre, either from those on the 50/50 list, or some of the hundreds of other cases; we want to put up posters, photographs, pieces of writing as well.

We also would like to encourage more centres to take up the cases (the most recent version of the case list is now available online) as honorary members, and possibly for a group of centres to get together to work on a particularly difficult case. Please contact Sara, Cathy, Tamsin and Patricia for suggestions.

During Free the Word! Literary Festival in London in April, there will be several events celebrating the 50th anniversary. I very much hope to be there. For the annual “Literary Lunch” (free admission/bag lunch) we are assembling a selection of writings from the 50/50 list, which will be read by writers attending the festival. There will be an Empty Chair every day, and we are hoping for a Twitter campaign as well.

Last word to Faraj Bayrakdar: For me freedom of expression is something non-negotiable, and which cannot be explained away or glossed over or haggled over.  In one sense it is a question of whether one is a human being or not, and in another - no less important - sense it is a question of whether one can be a writer or not.

Link to all the PEN notebook entries