Poet Andrew McMillan reads and reflects upon the writing of Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian-born poet, artist and curator living in Saudi Arabia. A key figure in taking Saudi contemporary art to a global audience, Fayadh was charged with apostasy and sentenced to death in 2015. The sentence was later overturned but the court ordered a harsh new sentence of eight years and 800 lashes. Despite ongoing calls for his release, Fayadh remains in prison.

To maintain awareness of his case, English PEN was invited to publish a UK edition of Fayadh’s collection Instructions Within, translated by Mona Kareem. Ten pages of the collection, first published by the Beirut-based Dar al-Farabi in 2008 and later banned from distribution in Saudi Arabia, were among the evidence used to convict him. Proceeds from this edition will go towards English PEN’s ongoing campaigns in support of Fayadh’s release and on behalf of other writers at risk around the world.

Before he was the symbol of a struggle, or a cause to fight for, Fayadh was a writer, and so it’s his words which deserve attention. There’s a down-to-earth plainness about some of his work, even a wry humour which I think it’s important to keep hold of despite the dire situation he finds himself in:

The time has come for you to pick up the pace — not sexually —
and for you to change your smelly socks.

A scientific fact: bacteria…. grow rapidly.

So yes, as you’d expect, there is a weight (of history, geography, politics) to these poems, and yet it feels important to celebrate the joy and wit in this work as well. In ‘An Aphorism’, Fayadh writes:

To be in love is not to be a bird in the hand of the one you love,
better for them than ten in the bush.
A bird in the bush is better than ten in the hand,
from the bird’s point of view.

I’d suggest using that one as a greeting in the next Valentines Card you send, just to mix things up a bit!

In a poem called ‘Your Luck Today’, Fayadh goes further:

Mercury crashes into the moon due to an odd dispute!
an old friend calls you out of nowhere to inquire
whether it was Haifa Wahbe herself in that porn video.
And an old love floats on the surface
(though only dead bodies usually float)!

A poem that starts off like an over-enthusiastic friend telling you an anecdote has that chilling moment at the end, like a punchline to a joke that leaves you thinking rather than laughing afterwards.

As someone whose head is bereft of hair, I was particularly drawn to the three lines of ‘Equality’:

It is said people are like the teeth of a comb
but they are not… anyway, I’ll shave my head
so I won’t be forced into the comparison

A verse like that isn’t just throwaway though, there’s a note at the bottom of the page which gives the full quote the poem is based on, and attributes it to the Prophet Mohammed – there is a brave answering back going on in a poem like this as well.

This is a vital book that needs to be read by all those interested in literature; if poetry has any job at all it is to be a witness, and to make us pay attention to things by describing them in such a way that makes us consider them afresh. Fayadh understands this mission, nevermore so than in a poem like ‘The Last of the Line of Refugee Descendants’, and this opening stanza:

You give the world indigestion, and other problems, too.
Don’t force the ground to vomit,
and stay close to it, very close.
A fracture that can’t be set,
A fraction that can’t be resolved
or added to the number,
You cause some confusion in global statistics.

Order you print-on-demand copy of Instructions Within (translated by Mona Kareem, Jonathan Wright and Mona Zaki) here. 

For further information about Ashraf Fayadh’s case and how you can get involved with English PEN’s ongoing campaigns for his release, visit the website here. You can also find out more about our Writers at Risk work and current campaigns.

The featured image, which is also the cover image of Instructions Within, is by   Hala Hassan.