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instructions

 

 

Instructions Within:
The Poetry of Necessity

Book review by Wally Swist

Instructions Within by Ashraf Fayadh
translated by Mona Kareem, with Mona Saki and Jonathan Wright; Edited by Ammiel Alcalay, Pierre Joris, and Lynne DeSilva-Johnson; Brooklyn, NY: The Operating System, 2016, 297pp., paperback, $28.00.

 

 

The Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), is known for his courageous book of lyrical poems written in prison, Things I Didn’t Know I Love.  The outstanding translation of these poems in English by Montlu Konuk and Randy Blasing was published by Persea Books in 1986.  If anyone is missing out on reading literature that is life-affirming, read Hikmet’s poems in this book.  They are a tribute to the human spirit.

Another, and more recent testimony to humanity is Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within.  The book shared the 2017 Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression, along with Malini Subramaniam.  Fayadh is of Palestinian heritage and is an artist and a poet but lives in Saudi Arabia.  Subramaniam is freelance journalist living in India who has made a name for herself by reporting the atrocities in the Maoist-infested Bastar area in Chhattisgarh state.

Fayadh was affiliated with the British-Arabian arts league, Edge of Arabia.  He also was active in curating art exhibits in Saudi Arabia.  In 2013, he was detained by religious police after a soccer game and charged with apostasy.  It is believed he was apprehended because Fayadh had been circulating a video of a man being publicly lashed.  He was sentenced to death.  However, in February 2016 Fayadh’s sentence was overturned and an eight-year prison term and eight hundred lashes, along with his publicly repenting for his apostasy, were imposed on him.    He was also charged with having promoted atheism by his having published the poems contained in Instructions Within, as well as in his texts, and in conversations he held in a coffee shop in Abha.Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, Adam Coogle, portrayed Fayadh’s death sentence as Saudi Arabia’s "complete intolerance of anyone who may not share government-mandated religious, political and social views.”  German PEN which is also associated with PEN International, made Fayadh an Honorary Member.  The Berlin International Literature Festival published an appeal  to support Fayadh with  a Worldwide Reading on January 14, 2016.  As of the writing of this review, Fayadh is still imprisoned. 

Although the poems included in Instructions Within were not written in prison they constitute a poetry written to stand up to oppression.  They are powerful lyrical poems that also double as trenchant political literature denouncing an oppressor.  Publisher Lynne DeSilva-Johnson’s design of the book enhances the reading experience of Fayadh’s poetry.  It is not only published in Arabic with face en face English translations, it also published as a book in Arabic would be, with the text reading right to left.  So, the book appears to be published in reverse, with the reader beginning at what, in the English-speaking world, would be the rear, or end, and then moving toward the beginning, or what we might commonly think as the front.  To read Fayadh’s work in the same format as it would be issued in Arabic brings the Anglicized reader closer to his cultural roots.  With this incisive insight in the book’s design, we, as readers see more clearly into Fayadh’s Arabic heritage and are able to hear the pliancy in his lyrical voice.

To read Fayadh’s poetry knowing he is in prison and that he either is having to or had to endure eight hundred lashes for his being framed by the authoritarian Saudi government’s harsh stance on political opposition, provides a background of a combination of compassion and unease.  We don’t read American poetry in the same way.  American poetry often differs just by its reflection of an entitled society.  There is no entitlement whatsoever in the poetry of Fayadh.  Instead, there is a kind of purity in it.  Take these “Prayers of Longing,” written to a lover, perhaps, as an example of how Fayadh condenses the largesse of emotion into the force of a poetry of necessity:

“with a leaf of thorns
I comb my hair . . . gathering the curls,
the way you would gather me in your arms.

***

“they said a siege was canceled
and that your worn-out hands
are no longer embraced with shackles,
and that I might meet you.”

How Fayadh steers clear of sentimentality and straddles the line between overt feeling and leans toward the stark beauty of the image and what is resourceful in the force of language is admirable.  Who could imagine both “curls” and “shackles” in the same poem and through their prudent juxtaposition bring “I might meet you” to a whole new level of human experience.  We are embraced and crushed, at once, in Fayadh’s poetry.

Perhaps the Saudi State discerned a trace of apostasy in this next poem, appearing on page 132, which challenges false beliefs and exalts freedom of thinking.  The simplicity of Fayadh’s poems is deceptive.  Few poets of any country in the world can write so directly but instill within their verses a reserved lyrical resonance.  “Night” is truly a haunting poem in that also exhibits Fayadh’s unique sensibility of Puer, or “the eternal boy.”  We are entranced and charmed, concomitantly. 

Night,
you are inexperienced with time
lacking raindrops
that could wash away the remains of the past
and free you of chastity
and of a heart that can love and play
asserting your abandonment
of a flaccid religion, a fraud revelation,
and of faith in gods
who had lost their pride.

 

In the following poem, and in just six lines, Fayadh manages to combine metaphor and symbolism in such a way that the reader is also made aware of not only a mystical message but also that of a political one.  There is an accented aridity that is almost desert-like in the poem in which the soul also springs to life in the darkness of the night.  If there ever was a poem regarding not only an individual dark night but also that of an entire nation or society, this is it.

“This body needs showers of soul water,
clouds to make rain with,
words of longing,
and degrees recognized in exile
to practice all the love rituals
that could overthrow the regime of Night.”

The title poem for the collection appears to be contained in the following poem, “God is Ours!”  There are several turns of phrase and meaning in the poem, and in it is a kind of hall of mirrors.  As Emily Dickinson writes in “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1263, R. W. Franklin Edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), Fayadh impresses a veracity upon the reader, presupposing or not, and he quite figuratively hands the reader a literary construction which employs an acute lens, actually several of them, in which he creates a poem as a kind of holograph.  He also seems to be giving guidance in how not to be apprehended by the  religious secret police.

“God is ours!
He made us out of mud
and for every illness he made a cure;
for the healthy he brought sickness
and for the joyful he made tears!
Wrap yourself with songs
and don’t get directly exposed to longing.
.
.

.
.

“your chances to be cured are slim
so follow the written instructions on the back of the mirror
and keep your picture away and out of reach!”        

 

Even in poems in which Fayadh fashions images with utter clarity he imbues his poetry with a mystical element in which there is an accompanying uncanny political echo.  “Logic” is such a poem.  How he shifts “an old door” with wind in the trees and “a dancing school” is  not only aesthetically accomplished but also entwined within the use of these tropes is a message of admonishment, of pause, and of exhilaration, as well as one of a wary discernment and acceptance.

“The old door applauds the wind
for its dancing performance with the trees.
The old door has no hands
And the trees were not trained at a dancing school.
The wind is an invisible creature,
even when its dancing with the trees.”

The poem also evokes a similar lyrical symbolism that prevails in the poetry of Cesar Vallejo, the Peruvian poet, whom Thomas Merton referred to as “the greatest universal poet since Dante.”  In what is perhaps one of the finest poems in Instructions Within, Fayadh offers a testament to the human spirit, at once downtrodden but unvanquished, Sisyphean but resurgent, impossibly hindered at times but perennially luminous as a sky filled with shooting stars.

“the star shepherds find it strange
that I exploit time
throwing future intoxications
behind my steps.
The clubs went on watching my worries
trying to avoid the slaps which no longer miss
the way to my face—
my destiny—to intersect
with all these suspicious fantasies
between cloud, thunder,
and astronomical objects in exile . . .
I claim to have mastered
the act of raining on sand grains
in order to make a memorial for mankind.”

 

Few poets of any nation come close to creating “a memorial for mankind.”  However, Fayadh does.  Not unlike Hikmet, his nondenominational late Turkish poetical cousin, and not dissimilar to Peruvian symbolist Vallejo, Fayadh offers us a resonant poetry of courage and even faith—certainly courage to take on Saudi political and religious norms and definitely faith in  his resilient representation of human spirit which issues like a fountain through the dross of the human condition.  Fayadh’s poetry is especially significant to read in lieu of the authoritarian leanings and wildly unpredictable wiles of the Trump administration.  Like Hikmet and Vallejo, Fayadh is an international poet of importance.  Reading poetry that matters is consequential.  Reading poetry that is necessary can be as illuminating as it is revelatory in providing new perspective in our lives—one of social value, spiritual courage, and inestimable moral worth.

 

 

“on the walls . . . you enjoy reading
until the time comes for you to read a lusty body

. . .

. . .

no voice is stronger
no voice is stronger . . . than the voice of people
but you cannot hear anything
moments ago the sound barrier was hit
so at least you don’t have to worry about the mosquitoes anymore”

 

 

 

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