This year, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN, an important ICORN ally, 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 where and how and why they have worked. One case on this list is the case of Mansur Rajih, this summer's featured writer, and we are happy to present an interview and a collection of his poetry here at icorn.org.
MANSUR RAJIH: A POET AND HUMAN IN EXILE.
Interviewed by Shady Manasrah
"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.
Can you give us some examples of this influence?
Writing is the home where I find myself, and the prison experience cannot be shortened in a specific time in poetry or literature. For example, I suddenly moved from the time of frustration to the time of freedom. I was taken from prison to the airport to fly like a bird in a cage to Norway. But the prison travelled with me. It was no picnic."
While he was answering me, Mansur kept silent for a while as he travelled in his memories of years ago. I remembered the film "Just a city" where Mansur says "I did not eat a meal made by my mother, I did not greet a friend in the street, I did not share a smile with a brother, I did not smile to a sister..." "Now", Mansur continues, "I lived as an individual in Stavanger, where in the beginning I had no social relations like family or friendships. Therefore, Stavanger was just
a city I lived in as an individual. On the other hand, in my previous life in Yemen, I was not able to have a normal social or political life.
My loved ones are gone
But love remains
My friends are gone
But friendship remains
The body takes its leave
When imprisoned like this-
So the spirit
How would you describe the nature in Stavanger in comparison to the nature in Yemen?
Nature in Yemen is not neutral to me. It has history, memories. But Stavanger´s nature is neutral. It gives me other associations of meanings, more effectively, it gives insights deeper than before. To me, it gives a meaning of being alive.
Moreover, the relation between the sea and land in Stavanger is a relation of struggle all the time. The weather is changing in minutes, which reflects a more vivid style and not an ordinary, static way of thinking and expressing myself in writing. However, the nature in Yemen is not coastal - it is a mountainous area. I feel that Stavanger's nature is closer to the people, like it is a shining beauty which at the same time can't be touched by my hands. This was the theme in my writings in "Near and far".
What were the difficulties in the first years in Stavanger and Norway?
The language barrier was difficult for me. In reality, it replaced my actual prison in Yemen by another type of prison that is silence. I was not able to react to all the various life levels here. In terms of culture, or feelings, I needed such a long time to get rid of the prison life. The second thing was, and still is, the economic question: How can I make a living? This is a dilemma that has taken and exhausted my thinking and energy.
As a writer, the question concerning where I belong has been the biggest due to the prison which will continue to live with me wherever I go or live, because that prison I was in for 15 years lives inside me. I was jailed for the sake of my country and my people. But, tragically, I lost the people and the country I fought for. In addition to my years I lost in prison, I lost my youth."
Mansur continues: "Time does not travel back, and I communicate with the world by writing about life. Feeling that I am human being, and a person who breathes clean air and who has warm feelings. In particular when I see Muhammad, my son, he means life itself to me, and that life is much stronger than what is done against it. I also want to say that my wife is not an ordinary wife. She had to bear my prison for this long time because she has believed in our love, she is the sun that gives all light to my life. This was my shelter in the prison. My wife has been a staple of my defense and my struggle to stay alive. Our love was the weapon against the repressing and dictatorial authorities. Because of this, I am convinced that life is nothing but love.
What about religion? How are you affected by religious ideas?
As I said before, love was the motive for me to stay alive in the prison. My wife gave me the light. In this sense, I see that God is represented in love and beauty. In freedom, in hope and in the light that gives strength against darkness and repressive authorities
I have no age.
I will not be the first poet
nor will I be the last victim.
My country's market has a constant thirst
quenched with my blood.
My eyes have the color of the moon.
I was one with this land before I was born
on a summer night.
My voice is like the neighing of horses.
My echo is of a woman killed for her love.
I have no other virtues-
You, who shall murder me, know that I have hidden
my identity in my eyes.
You have been purchased to murder me.
I am your problem.
"I see religion as a way to cope with life in a better way. Religion means the relation with God and people in a beautiful and fair way that lights peoples' lives, but religion was used against me in my country, to justify torture, and terror against me. There is no god or religion that allows torturing or horrifying people, because all prophets came with the message of peace, love and light to the earth and people. I try to light at least a candle through my writings."
And Yet They Sing (continued)
The earth hovers
around the sun
This is the world
More beautiful than we want to know
and more delicate
More fragile than we can abide.