Tuesday, 7 June 2011

When what you write (and what you stand for) is a matter of life and death

Ayat al-Gormezi is a poet. If, like most of my readers, you live in the UK, the chances are you will never have heard of her. I have to admit I'd never heard of her until a day or two ago.

Ayat is currently in prison in Bahrain. She was tried before a "security court", where her lawyer was not allowed to speak, and there are indications that she has been tortured whilst in prison. Her crime? Reading out a poem at a pro-democracy rally.

Poets in the UK are a well insulated lot, by and large. Our world is comfortable, indulgent, and – let's be honest – pretty self-satisfied. The sort of poetry we write doesn't change the world. Our journals prize the esoteric, the obscure and the intellectual – or else make a virtue out of being "experimental", without it being at all clear what the experimentation is for. We take for granted the freedom that we have to paint our little odes about a daffodil or a glass raindrop on a leaf. It's all too easy to forget that there are poets around the world risking their lives for their words – so that their compatriots can enjoy the freedom that we have.

I want to talk about another extraordinary international poet before I sign off. His name is Javier Sicilia. That's him in the photograph that accompanies this blog entry. On March 28th, Javier's son and six friends were murdered in an outbreak of violence between warring drugs traders. Such violence is nothing unusual in Javier's native Mexico; but this poet refuses to be crushed by his loss, or the enormity of the challenge of setting things right in the face of government inaction. Instead he's leading a caravan of hundreds of poets and peace activists across the country – a focal point for non-violent demonstrations calling for an end to the bloodshed.

Javier is taking a risk. No doubt the vested interests controlling the drugs trade will take a dim view of his campaign. But he has something to believe in. "May the light be the road", says the placard that he carries. May it be the road to freedom for him, for Ayat, and for all who suffer for their words. May it be our road too, so that we can stand in solidarity with our fellow poets across the world – and make it clear that what they are suffering should not have to be tolerated.

Sign the petition to free Ayat al-Gormezi here.