Culture

When writing is deemed a crime

In an effort to support displaced writers in Lebanon, PEN Lebanon staged an event for displaced writers at Beirut's Arab Book Fair, December 2016. Photo by Akram Abed Khalek

BEIRUT: “Wherever I go in Europe and elsewhere I meet many Arab writers who cannot go back to their countries,” novelist and PEN Lebanon president Iman Humaydan told The Daily Star. “Not to mention the other parts of the world where writers flee persecution and most probably death – such as China, Iran, North Korea and Turkey.”The global human rights association of writers and editors, PEN International has launched a campaign devoted to creating opportunities for writers forced into displacement and living in exile, called “Make Space.”

In creating spaces for writers fleeing political instability and threats, the campaign intends to share marginalized ideas and elevate silenced voices, thereby challenging xenophobia and common misconceptions about refugees. The campaign’s platforms for visibility will include workshops, publications, community organizing and digital action.

Founded in London in 1921, PEN International operates in a variety of capacities in 144 centers in over 100 countries. Each chapter works according to its respective political situation. PEN International also holds a consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO (the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

According to Sarah Perry, global campaign manager of PEN International, one key aspect of the Make Space campaign is to erect further protection measures for journalists who face political persecution for their work.

“I wouldn’t necessarily separate issues faced by writers or journalists though,” Perry said. “There are certain things that affect journalists more but [all writers], be it a poet or fiction writer, are subject to danger for their work. Both are in need.”

Prominent writers from across PEN’s global membership have backed the international campaign. Their number includes Chilean-American novelist and 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Isabel Allende, critically acclaimed English author Neil Gaiman and Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, who has garnered international praise for her feminist writing.

“What I know is that my relationship with writing started the moment I started to express myself through language,” said Syrian writer Sanna Aoun, who now resides in Norway, as quoted in the PEN campaign’s press release. “I gradually reached the point [where] writing became the only thing that kept me balanced and sane. Writing allows me to compensate my personal losses and widen my personal space. It allows me to do what I can’t do in reality.”

In an effort to support displaced writers in Lebanon, PEN Lebanon presented works of refugees during December’s Arab Book Fair. According to Humaydan, they are in the process of preparing theatrical readings for Syrian writers and theater actors.

In the upcoming weeks, participating PEN writers will stage a performance on Beirut’s Hamra Street, under the direction of Syrian writer and theater director Sari Mustafa.

“The second project is readings in schools, where Lebanese and displaced non-Lebanese writers visit schools to present their literary work to secondary classes,” Humaydan added. “Through literature we are trying to build bridges with the young generation and to launch an awareness campaign with respect to vital issues [such] as freedom of expression, and the situation of writers in different parts of our world.”

Humaydan highlighted the Lebanon chapter’s participation in a January PEN International trip to Turkey. Working with other association members, the Lebanese chapter investigated the situation of displaced writers and journalists in the country.

Humaydan characterized the Make Space campaign as only the latest example of PEN International and PEN Lebanon’s commitment to raising the volume of the displaced community’s voices.

Efforts to protect writers and increase their representation in the art world have been ongoing, but the current global climate has further pushed the association to create a campaign to increase visibility.

“We are living in the most savage period of modern history,” Humaydan stressed. “Displacement is the most significant issue that we are all concerned about. We are a part of what is going on and no one on Earth can keep themselves away from what is happening.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 06, 2017, on page 16.

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