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Sabbath Day – Yemen

April 14, 2016

“Poetry is a struggle for freedom, therefore it is a lifelong program”

Mansur Rajih, Yemen

One of the gifts of intentionally reading multi-national literature over these last fourteen months are the serendipities and surprises. In ways too numerous to count, the “literature of the week” has presented itself to me, rather than my having to search for it. For example: before today I have never heard of the poet Mansur Rajih, who spent fifteen years as a prisoner of conscience in Yemen. And yet the following poem welcomed me to this beautiful spring Sabbath day:

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
love
morning
the progression of seasons

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Here is how I came upon Rajih. I have spent the last ten weeks reading international prison literature, a focus that I happened upon because I am studying mass incarceration at my church. But last week I decided I was through, for now, with prison writings. What I really needed was a week with a quick read. Someone had recently given me a copy of I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by the young Yemeni girl who escaped her abusive husband and became the first in her country to acquire a legal divorce. I finished it in one sitting. I planned to cross YEMEN off my reading list.

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But before bed last evening, in preparation for my Sabbath, I opened my Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, to check and see whether it had any poems from Yemen. It had just one, “The Fatherland” by Mansur Rajih, a poem that seem dangerously innocent and nostalgic after reading Nujood Ali’s story. That, and the fascist overtones that forever taint word “Fatherland.” Yet the author bio in the back of the book described Rajih as a revolutionary poet and political activist from Yemen, and political prisoner from 1983- 1998. I had stumbled upon another prison writer.

And so it was that first thing this morning I sought to learn more. In 1992, Amnesty International initially published the the story of his imprisonment, describing him as “a writer and poet and member of the political opposition in the former Yemen Arabic Republic, … sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.” I found a little more information here. Under pressure from an international campaign led by Amnesty and PEN International, Rajih was finally released after serving 15 years that included frequent torture. He now lives in exile in Norway.

I found several interviews with Rajih online, including this one (with several of his poems), in which he speaks about the influence of both prison and exile on his poetry:

“My time in prison was a daily struggle against death – the death penalty, darkness, hunger and fear. It was a battle. It is not easy to be in prison and forced to fight against the idea of prison itself. When you want to create poetry in prison, you are naturally going to write in opposition to it, fighting darkness with light.

The welcome surprise in this serendipity was the discovery, through Rajih, of ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, an independent international organization of cities and regions, offering safe havens for writers and artists at risk. I am reminded of Michelle Alexander’s notice that “it is not the prison time but the prison label that matters,” and realize that this is true not only in life but in art. Mansur Rajih now lives and writes in the ICORN city of Stavenger, Norway, as described in this interview in exile.

ICORN currently shelters 115 writers and artists in 53 cities worldwide. Radical hospitality indeed.

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