Having this title, a guest-writer, would certainly generate the most logical questions, why? What have you done? What have you written about so it became impossible for you to remain in your own country and keep on doing what you were doing! As I said, those are logical questions, but sadly they do not, in any way apply to the level of violence witnessed in Iraq 2004-2007. I would be hiding the truth if I said that writers/journalists were targeted exclusively because of the subjects they wrote about or because of the nature of their job; back then, everyone was a target. We, writers are rather lucky to have international organizations to help us to get out of our countries when the going gets tough there, but back in those years hair-dressers, police men, singers, dancers, homeless boys selling newspapers in the streets needed as much help. Al-Qaida was actually killing everyone, as long as you are an easy target, you do not carry a weapon or have body guards, then you are exposed to be kidnapped, tortured, and they might as well let you dig your own grave before they end your life. However, for me, every element of my social and intellectual life was leading to that morbid scenario. I belong to a politically active family, I am the child of a mixed marriage ( father is Shia and mother is Sunni, living in a Sunni-dominant city), the stigma of publishing a book of poetry that got too much unfriendly attention when I was still a university student, my work in an NGO that promoted democracy and human rights, my work as a translator/interpreter with the local government, and finally my name in Al-Qaida hit list and their threatening messages and phone calls were actually the reasons why I felt like I should abandon the ship and seek help somewhere else.
Friends from the literary circles, and family members encouraged me to escape the country, but I did not have any idea about how to do it. In 2005, I started corresponding with the International PEN, and after a long and complicated process, and by the help Bente Christinsen, a translator from Norway, Cathy McCann from the International PEN, and Kjell Olaf Jensen of the Norwegian PEN, I was finally able to pack up my bags and leave the battle field. Now that I think about it again, I do not have much expectations, it was enough for my family and I just to put our feet on a piece of land, anywhere in the world, where our lives are not in danger.
The reception was amazing, the housing was excellent, and the people were welcoming. Everything was a million times better than I expected. In the next few years for me in Norway, I had the slogan of “do not complain, you should have been dead” and this is exactly what I used to say and what I am still saying to everyone who complains to me about anything that is less important than being alive, breathing, and having the wonderful feeling of safety.
In order to be fully honest about issues like having a job, continuing with writing as a career, having a healthy social life, then this part of the story is not as happy as the first part. Honestly, I do not know who’s to blame. I know that the ICORN board and administration staff are doing a great job, and I am doing good job (or as good as my tangled state of mind allows me to do) but I dare not ask the Norwegian society or the employers to give me any special treatment just because I have been into a war and I badly need to make a living.
If I could say anything to a writer who is going through real hard times in his/her country and thinking of applying to ICORN, I would say DO IT. It is a great chance to escape whatever situation you are going through, You are going to be received kindly and warmly and you are going to meet great people who are working day and night to help you out, and then to make your life easier. I would just like you to keep in mind that ICORN is not a publishing house, and your new city of residence is not fully crowded with your readers and fans. You will receive help from those great people, you will benefit from their expertise, but the rest of the job is yours and yours alone. As a human being, you might find the time to relax a little, to wash away the remains of war or prison or whatever you have been through, but as a writer, I am sure the flame is still there, but it is only you and you alone who is responsible of keeping that flame burning.
Final words: a kiss of gratitude on the forehead of each and every one who was, is and will be involved in this project, you gave us a chance and that was exactly what we needed.
Friends from the literary circles, and family members encouraged me to escape the country, but I did not have any idea about how to do it.
— Basim Mardan
c/o Sølvberget KF, Stavanger Cultural Centre p.o. box: 310 4002 Stavanger Norway icorn (at) icorn.org Email ICORN