Alle innlegg av andreaslyngstad

December 2016: Haile Bizen

Poet Haile Bizen Abraha (b. 4 December, 1966) hails from the Eritrean capital, Asmara.  Although formally educated in Educational Psychology at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, Bizen showed early promise as a young poet, gaining momentum and recognition for his unique style by winning competitions across Eritrean high schools, contests at the national level in Ethiopia, and at Addis Ababa University.  After Eritrean independence, Bizen also won the first Eritrean Festival in the categories for poetry and short stories.  In 1995, he began work as a journalist for the Political Affairs department of the PFDJ (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, Eritrea’s ruling party), and as an editor for Hidri Publishers (also owned by the party).  Bizen also served as a board member for Hiwyet, a private magazine, and the National Literary Prize Committee.

After thirty seemingly interminable years of civil war, Eritrea finally achieved independence from Ethiopia in May of 1991.  Bizen describes these first years of liberation as “years of inspiration and euphoria”, brightly colored by “family reunions, homecomings, stories of heroism, and future ambitions and dreams”.  This peace was disastrously short-lived, and conflict started anew with the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia escalating into war from 1998-2000.  During this time of dramatic change, Bizen began to feel the constricting grip of despotism, and he gravely remembers, “all artists became under one command”.  In 2000, he published a collection of short stories; because he, like the rest of the nation, was preoccupied by war for three years, his stories themes’ echoed thoughts of conflict and its effects.

Bizen, along with a multitude of others, marks 2001 as the “official death of our new Eritrea”: on 18 September, the government ordered the closure of all privately-owned media outlets, officials were detained if they dared to question the lack of implementation of the newly-ratified 1997 constitution, and twelve prominent journalists were disappeared – presumably imprisoned and held incommunicado to this day.

At first, Haile Bizen envisioned himself as a “young artist in a young nation”, though eventually, he says, “that hope started to melt, that dream started to evaporate, and every citizen was reduced to government property”.  He describes these as “years of limbo”, permeated by military round-ups, arbitrary detentions, and security surveillance.  Bizen completed his National Service under PFDJ for three years without receiving remuneration, while fighting to keep his personal and artistic integrity intact.  He became obsessed with the word ‘silence’, and the concept of graveyards, which was reflected in his self-published collection of poetry, Bidhri Ma’exo’ (Behind the Doors).

Ironically, the ‘silence’ that occupied so much of Bizen’s thoughts, was the very thing that propaganda chiefs and national security agents sought to impose upon him – somewhere along his journey for poetry and self-expression, he had become a dissident, subject to repeated interrogations and intimidation.  Forced to flee in a matter of weeks, his departure obscured in a cloud of secrecy, Bizen left Eritrea in September of 2009 without explanations or farewells to his closest friends, or even his family – his children (only two and four years old) and his wife, six months pregnant at the time.

Bizen was unprepared for the realities of the next three years as an asylum-seeker, moving between Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya, until finally an opportunity was presented by ICORN in 2011 for him to be resettled in Norway as a guest writer.  Bizen describes these interim years as characterized by long unproductive periods of writer’s bloc.  Despite the mountain of new experiences and potential material, Bizen felt a lack of concentration, plagued by the desperation of his new voice: “the voice of nothingness, the voice of agony, the voice of despondency”.  Though he remained optimistic for a reunion, Bizen’s communications with his family were scarce, fearing that his contact would imperil those back home, still living under state surveillance.  Eventually, his family managed to leave Eritrea and join Bizen in Norway, but only after paying thousands of dollars in ransom for their release from human traffickers; he confides that, “still, as a family, we are struggling to cope with the psychological and physical trauma of the torture and harassment”.

After prolonged silence, Bizen began to open up in 2014, knowing that he and his family were safe and settled in Kristiansand.  After commencing Norwegian classes, he began to translate children’s stories from Norwegian to Tigrinya, and “Karius og Baktus” was published by Cappelen Dam.  Bizen has also published an Ebook in celebration of Norway’s 200-year Jubilee, with one poem for each article of the Constitution.  He credits this publication with the reigniting of his poetic consciousness which in turn led to a productive period of original poetry and translations between 2015 and 2016.

Inevitably, his first poems from Norway were colored by deep anger and nostalgia for the things he was forced to leave behind; themes revolving around home, displacement, and his ‘new space’ led to the online poetry series “Ode to Exile”, as well as contributions to the Norwegian PEN guest writers’ Anthology, A Manual for Writing a Whore Poem (Instruks i å skrive horedikt).

Apart from the obvious benefits of better material resources and an increased sense of security, Bizen enjoys the connections his new home has allowed him to foster with writers from various countries who have shared similar experiences.    He comments, “I have been invited to different literary festivals and readings which continue to inspire me to produce new works.  It similarly opened up for me [the opportunity] to explore many talented writers from other countries.  Yet, I still remain eternally tied to my home country, and can’t [seem] to budge psychologically”.  Of course, in living an entire lifetime under conflict, war becomes an integral part of one’s identity; Bizen’s sense of self has been forged as much by fear, politics, and sadness, as it has by poetry, family, and beauty.

Recently, however, an opportunity to engage positively with his lasting connections to Eritrea presented itself– at the annual PEN International Congress, held in September 2016 in Ourense, Spain, Haile Bizen was officially announced as the new President of PEN Eritrea.  The organization currently operates in exile, since the restrictions on freedom of expression are so severe in Eritrea, with the country consistently ranked last in the world in the World Press Freedom Index (RSF) for the past eight years.  Alongside the continuation of his writing, Bizen has been working tirelessly in cooperation with Board Members, as well as partners in Norwegian PEN to propel PEN Eritrea forward as an initiator of political and cultural change.

Haile Bizen

Poet Haile Bizen Abraha (b. 4 December, 1966) hails from the Eritrean capital, Asmara.  Although formally educated in Educational Psychology at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, Bizen showed early promise as a young poet, gaining momentum and recognition for his unique style by winning competitions across Eritrean high schools, contests at the national level in Ethiopia, and at Addis Ababa University.  After Eritrean independence, Bizen also won the first Eritrean Festival in the categories for poetry and short stories.  In 1995, he began work as a journalist for the Political Affairs department of the PFDJ (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, Eritrea’s ruling party), and as an editor for Hidri Publishers (also owned by the party).  Bizen also served as a board member for Hiwyet, a private magazine, and the National Literary Prize Committee.

After thirty seemingly interminable years of civil war, Eritrea finally achieved independence from Ethiopia in May of 1991.  Bizen describes these first years of liberation as “years of inspiration and euphoria”, brightly colored by “family reunions, homecomings, stories of heroism, and future ambitions and dreams”.  This peace was disastrously short-lived, and conflict started anew with the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia escalating into war from 1998-2000.  During this time of dramatic change, Bizen began to feel the constricting grip of despotism, and he gravely remembers, “all artists became under one command”.  In 2000, he published a collection of short stories; because he, like the rest of the nation, was preoccupied by war for three years, his stories themes’ echoed thoughts of conflict and its effects.

Bizen, along with a multitude of others, marks 2001 as the “official death of our new Eritrea”: on 18 September, the government ordered the closure of all privately-owned media outlets, officials were detained if they dared to question the lack of implementation of the newly-ratified 1997 constitution, and twelve prominent journalists were disappeared – presumably imprisoned and held incommunicado to this day.

At first, Haile Bizen envisioned himself as a “young artist in a young nation”, though eventually, he says, “that hope started to melt, that dream started to evaporate, and every citizen was reduced to government property”.  He describes these as “years of limbo”, permeated by military round-ups, arbitrary detentions, and security surveillance.  Bizen completed his National Service under PFDJ for three years without receiving remuneration, while fighting to keep his personal and artistic integrity intact.  He became obsessed with the word ‘silence’, and the concept of graveyards, which was reflected in his self-published collection of poetry, Bidhri Ma’exo’ (Behind the Doors).

Ironically, the ‘silence’ that occupied so much of Bizen’s thoughts, was the very thing that propaganda chiefs and national security agents sought to impose upon him – somewhere along his journey for poetry and self-expression, he had become a dissident, subject to repeated interrogations and intimidation.  Forced to flee in a matter of weeks, his departure obscured in a cloud of secrecy, Bizen left Eritrea in September of 2009 without explanations or farewells to his closest friends, or even his family – his children (only two and four years old) and his wife, six months pregnant at the time.

Bizen was unprepared for the realities of the next three years as an asylum-seeker, moving between Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya, until finally an opportunity was presented by ICORN in 2011 for him to be resettled in Norway as a guest writer.  Bizen describes these interim years as characterized by long unproductive periods of writer’s bloc.  Despite the mountain of new experiences and potential material, Bizen felt a lack of concentration, plagued by the desperation of his new voice: “the voice of nothingness, the voice of agony, the voice of despondency”.  Though he remained optimistic for a reunion, Bizen’s communications with his family were scarce, fearing that his contact would imperil those back home, still living under state surveillance.  Eventually, his family managed to leave Eritrea and join Bizen in Norway, but only after paying thousands of dollars in ransom for their release from human traffickers; he confides that, “still, as a family, we are struggling to cope with the psychological and physical trauma of the torture and harassment”.

After prolonged silence, Bizen began to open up in 2014, knowing that he and his family were safe and settled in Kristiansand.  After commencing Norwegian classes, he began to translate children’s stories from Norwegian to Tigrinya, and “Karius og Baktus” was published by Cappelen Dam.  Bizen has also published an Ebook in celebration of Norway’s 200-year Jubilee, with one poem for each article of the Constitution.  He credits this publication with the reigniting of his poetic consciousness which in turn led to a productive period of original poetry and translations between 2015 and 2016.

Inevitably, his first poems from Norway were colored by deep anger and nostalgia for the things he was forced to leave behind; themes revolving around home, displacement, and his ‘new space’ led to the online poetry series “Ode to Exile”, as well as contributions to the Norwegian PEN guest writers’ Anthology, A Manual for Writing a Whore Poem (Instruks i å skrive horedikt).

Apart from the obvious benefits of better material resources and an increased sense of security, Bizen enjoys the connections his new home has allowed him to foster with writers from various countries who have shared similar experiences.    He comments, “I have been invited to different literary festivals and readings which continue to inspire me to produce new works.  It similarly opened up for me [the opportunity] to explore many talented writers from other countries.  Yet, I still remain eternally tied to my home country, and can’t [seem] to budge psychologically”.  Of course, in living an entire lifetime under conflict, war becomes an integral part of one’s identity; Bizen’s sense of self has been forged as much by fear, politics, and sadness, as it has by poetry, family, and beauty.

Recently, however, an opportunity to engage positively with his lasting connections to Eritrea presented itself– at the annual PEN International Congress, held in September 2016 in Ourense, Spain, Haile Bizen was officially announced as the new President of PEN Eritrea.  The organization currently operates in exile, since the restrictions on freedom of expression are so severe in Eritrea, with the country consistently ranked last in the world in the World Press Freedom Index (RSF) for the past eight years.  Alongside the continuation of his writing, Bizen has been working tirelessly in cooperation with Board Members, as well as partners in Norwegian PEN to propel PEN Eritrea forward as an initiator of political and cultural change.

November 2016: Mohammad Habeeb

mohammad-habeeb-1Mohammad Habeeb (b.1961) is a Syrian translator, poet, and writer. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from the English department of Tishreen University in Lattakia, Syria. After more than fifteen years’ experience as a translator and interpreter (working primarily in Arabic and English), Habeeb has translated a number of well-known literary and theoretical works, including the writings of T.S. Eliot, José Saramago, Khaled Hosseini, James Kelman, Carl Gustave Jung, Erich Fromm, Terry Eagleton, and Moris Farhi. Habeeb has worked as a teacher in Syria, teaching writing and translation techniques to junior university students. For the past ten years, he has been working as a freelance translator, and continues to conduct research, translations, and aids in drafting campaigns for Reprieve, a UK-based charity organization. He is a member of the Syrian Writers Union, a society for translators, and he also works as an editor and advisor to a publishing house in Lattakia.

In 1989, Habeeb co-founded the Committee for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), and became the co-editor of the organization’s underground magazine, The Voice of Democracy. CDF was primarily established to repeal Syria’s state of emergency from 1963, when the Baath party came into power as the result of a military coup.

In 1991, Habeeb was arrested together with several other activists, and sentenced to 9-10 years’ imprisonment for their activities. Even after his release, Habeeb continued to be persecuted, and was denied basic civil rights; he was unable to work or practice any public profession after his incarceration.

In the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, Habeeb co-founded, and was a leading member of Maan (Together), a movement to accompany the Revolution in Syria, and support the peaceful demands of Syrians (2011-2013).

Although Habeeb’s career now centers around translation and literature, it began as one steeped in politics, activism, human rights, and freedom of expression. He names his most defying issue, and a highly sensitive one: how to remain true to himself, to keep his sense of identity intact and ever-improving in a demoralizing and often disheartening political climate. Imprisoned for nearly a decade, Habeeb seems understandably disillusioned with the role of politicians and media in contemporary society. He warns of the frenetic, continuous changes in the world around us, and expresses a legitimate worry that we have to be at constant attention lest we be pushed onto an undesirable path from which we will not recover. For the most part, he comments, “mass media […] is being used to reshape everything all over the world”, leaving us at the mercy of the will of big decision-makers. “They tell us what to eat, drink, wear, and what gifts to offer each other”, and we imbibe these distractions because of our desire to be up-to-date and accepted. Habeeb contends, “they give us all those details to sort out; meanwhile, they are making wars and accumulating wealth from others’ blood”. […] We should not trust politicians to formulate our future”. Rather, he argues, we should participate in the decision-making process, and push and fight for our voices to be heard, to ensure we are creating a world we will enjoy.

Before he began any physical travels, Mohammad Habeeb travelled all over the world through books, and he says that novels were always the best guides. Through his work in translation, he came to realize that, “recreating what others have written is more difficult than writing it yourself”, and to be prepared for criticism rather than compliments. Habeeb stresses the importance of being “faithful to the artistic touch” of the author, as opposed to one’s own, and being skilled enough as a translator to allow the author’s creativity to flow through the translator’s hand.

In August, 2015, Mohammad Habeeb and his family arrived in Stavanger, a city of refuge through the ICORN program, where they currently reside.

Habeeb recollects the time when Syria was his home, and the rest of the world was rooms within that home; “Syria was, and will always be, the closest and warmest room, here, or in any other land”, though often he compares Norway to a “friendly, loving second mother”. Habeeb’s new home and new situation have pushed him forwards, and brought him to reflect in more open and sincere communication with others. He feels encouraged to share his opinions on the reality of the situation in Syria, and particularly the emotional and psychological effects the political climate has on its citizens. Habeeb is now in a position rife with new opportunities, but he aptly notes that “having all the possibilities is just a step”; it is what one does with possibilities, rather than merely possessing them, that counts, and Habeeb plans to take full advantage.

From the time Habeeb learned he was coming to Norway, he asked himself how to make use of his new life, and his instinct told him the answer was to delve into a new project, to have a goal to propel him forward in Stavanger. He decided that his main focus would be learning Norwegian and creating a new bridge, both for himself and in the world of translation, between Norwegian and Arabic cultures. He began ambitiously, working on translations of poetry by Sigbjørn Obstfelder, and reading them in the 150 year Obstfelder celebration during the Kapittel 2016 festival in Stavanger. Habeeb has now moved on to translating his own work, having recently completed a book of short stories, one of which he has translated into Norwegian.

Habeeb’s quiet intelligence, skillful writings and translations, and humble demeanour have quickly earned him recognition and respect in his new community. He was recently invited as an honored guest to the Jubilee celebrations in both Stavanger and Oslo, where he met the King and Queen of Norway, and he was recently featured on the television program Brenner og Bøkene.

Mohammad Habeeb

mohammad-habeeb-1Mohammad Habeeb (b.1961) is a Syrian translator, poet, and writer. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from the English department of Tishreen University in Lattakia, Syria. After more than fifteen years’ experience as a translator and interpreter (working primarily in Arabic and English), Habeeb has translated a number of well-known literary and theoretical works, including the writings of T.S. Eliot, José Saramago, Khaled Hosseini, James Kelman, Carl Gustave Jung, Erich Fromm, Terry Eagleton, and Moris Farhi. Habeeb has worked as a teacher in Syria, teaching writing and translation techniques to junior university students. For the past ten years, he has been working as a freelance translator, and continues to conduct research, translations, and aids in drafting campaigns for Reprieve, a UK-based charity organization. He is a member of the Syrian Writers Union, a society for translators, and he also works as an editor and advisor to a publishing house in Lattakia.

In 1989, Habeeb co-founded the Committee for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), and became the co-editor of the organization’s underground magazine, The Voice of Democracy. CDF was primarily established to repeal Syria’s state of emergency from 1963, when the Baath party came into power as the result of a military coup.

In 1991, Habeeb was arrested together with several other activists, and sentenced to 9-10 years’ imprisonment for their activities. Even after his release, Habeeb continued to be persecuted, and was denied basic civil rights; he was unable to work or practice any public profession after his incarceration.

In the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, Habeeb co-founded, and was a leading member of Maan (Together), a movement to accompany the Revolution in Syria, and support the peaceful demands of Syrians (2011-2013).

Although Habeeb’s career now centers around translation and literature, it began as one steeped in politics, activism, human rights, and freedom of expression. He names his most defying issue, and a highly sensitive one: how to remain true to himself, to keep his sense of identity intact and ever-improving in a demoralizing and often disheartening political climate. Imprisoned for nearly a decade, Habeeb seems understandably disillusioned with the role of politicians and media in contemporary society. He warns of the frenetic, continuous changes in the world around us, and expresses a legitimate worry that we have to be at constant attention lest we be pushed onto an undesirable path from which we will not recover. For the most part, he comments, “mass media […] is being used to reshape everything all over the world”, leaving us at the mercy of the will of big decision-makers. “They tell us what to eat, drink, wear, and what gifts to offer each other”, and we imbibe these distractions because of our desire to be up-to-date and accepted. Habeeb contends, “they give us all those details to sort out; meanwhile, they are making wars and accumulating wealth from others’ blood”. […] We should not trust politicians to formulate our future”. Rather, he argues, we should participate in the decision-making process, and push and fight for our voices to be heard, to ensure we are creating a world we will enjoy.

Before he began any physical travels, Mohammad Habeeb travelled all over the world through books, and he says that novels were always the best guides. Through his work in translation, he came to realize that, “recreating what others have written is more difficult than writing it yourself”, and to be prepared for criticism rather than compliments. Habeeb stresses the importance of being “faithful to the artistic touch” of the author, as opposed to one’s own, and being skilled enough as a translator to allow the author’s creativity to flow through the translator’s hand.

In August, 2015, Mohammad Habeeb and his family arrived in Stavanger, a city of refuge through the ICORN program, where they currently reside.

Habeeb recollects the time when Syria was his home, and the rest of the world was rooms within that home; “Syria was, and will always be, the closest and warmest room, here, or in any other land”, though often he compares Norway to a “friendly, loving second mother”. Habeeb’s new home and new situation have pushed him forwards, and brought him to reflect in more open and sincere communication with others. He feels encouraged to share his opinions on the reality of the situation in Syria, and particularly the emotional and psychological effects the political climate has on its citizens. Habeeb is now in a position rife with new opportunities, but he aptly notes that “having all the possibilities is just a step”; it is what one does with possibilities, rather than merely possessing them, that counts, and Habeeb plans to take full advantage.

From the time Habeeb learned he was coming to Norway, he asked himself how to make use of his new life, and his instinct told him the answer was to delve into a new project, to have a goal to propel him forward in Stavanger. He decided that his main focus would be learning Norwegian and creating a new bridge, both for himself and in the world of translation, between Norwegian and Arabic cultures. He began ambitiously, working on translations of poetry by Sigbjørn Obstfelder, and reading them in the 150 year Obstfelder celebration during the Kapittel 2016 festival in Stavanger. Habeeb has now moved on to translating his own work, having recently completed a book of short stories, one of which he has translated into Norwegian.

Habeeb’s quiet intelligence, skillful writings and translations, and humble demeanour have quickly earned him recognition and respect in his new community. He was recently invited as an honored guest to the Jubilee celebrations in both Stavanger and Oslo, where he met the King and Queen of Norway, and he was recently featured on the television program Brenner og Bøkene.

Celebrating Honorary Member Can Dündar

280full-can-dundarBorn in 1961 in Ankara, Can Dündar is a journalist, columnist, and documentarian.  After completing his studies in journalism in Ankara, Dundar went on to obtain a Master’s degree from the London School of Journalism, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

Alongside his work as a journalist, Dündar has published over 20 books, produced numerous television programs, and has written and contributed to screenplays and documentaries, most notably Mustafa (2008), chronicling the life of Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which Dündar wrote and directed.

Dündar’s primary contribution, however, has been his unwavering dedication to a rigorous brand of journalism that unapologetically demands honesty, transparency, and accountability from its government and political parties.  It is this very dedication, however, that has unfortunately led him into a position of conflict with the Erdoğan regime – a position in which Dündar, at one point, was forced to choose between freedom of speech and freedom itself.

Dündar has contributed to various print publications over the years, including Hürriyet, Nokta, Sabah, and Milliyet, before being appointed in February 2015 as the editor-in-chief of the center-left newspaper Cumhuriyet.  In January 2014, evidence emerged exposing Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) trucks intercepted at the Syrian border, illegally shipping arms to Syrian rebels.  The story’s publication in May 2015 immediately situated Dündar and the daily’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, as prime targets in a regime that is increasingly stifling the freedom of its press.

President Erdoğan filed an individual criminal complaint against Cumhuriyet; as a result, Dündar and Gül were arrested in November 2015 in Istanbul, and charged with espionage, collecting and disclosing state secrets, and supporting an armed terrorist organization.  Dündar and Gül spent over 90 days in pre-trial detention, including periods in isolation and solitary confinement, and although the journalists were freed in late February under a constitutional court ruling, the indictment ultimately led to a conviction on May 6, 2016, in which Dündar was sentenced to a reduced 5 years and 10 months imprisonment, and Gul was sentenced to 5 years.  This devastating decision was immediately followed by an equally drastic event: an attempt on Dündar’s life the same day, on the courthouse steps, during which his wife, Dilek, aided in detaining the shooter.

In August 2016, Can Dündar stepped down from his position as editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, though he will still be active as a columnist, and tireless in his personal and professional efforts to protect the freedom of the press in Turkey.  Throughout his persecution, arrest, detention, trial, and appeal, Dündar was adamant in his position to remain in Turkey, to fight from within its borders to preserve media integrity and protect their rights to a free press.  Now, however, upon his release pending appeal, Dündar has left Turkey for the moment, dismayed and unconvinced that he would be able to receive a fair trial under the current regime.  Dündar has stated that, “the state of emergency [is] being used the government as a pretext to control the judiciary”, and as such, it would be highly unlikely for him to receive a just, impartial, or public hearing, offering very little hope of the overturn of his conviction.

The already hostile climate for dissidents and opposition in Turkey was exponentially exacerbated by the coup attempt in July 2016.  Reporters Without Borders (RSF) names Turkey the “world leader in imprisoned journalists”, and their World Press Freedom Index for 2016 ranks the country as 151st of 180.  The organization reports: “[i]n the draconian state of emergency imposed after the abortive coup, the authorities have closed more than 100 media outlets critical of the government, placed 42 journalists in provisional detention and banned many others from travelling abroad”.

Spring 2016 saw the publication of We Are Arrested: A Journalist’s Notes from a Turkish Prison, Dündar’s account of Cumhuriyet’s decision to publish the controversial story, and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and the social and political events that led up to and followed the failed July coup.  

In March 2016, Norwegian PEN organized a protest outside of Parliament in support of Dündar, Gül, and several other imprisoned or at-risk journalists in Turkey, such as Aslı Erdoğan.  At this time, Norwegian PEN also announced its decision to adopt Can Dündar as an honorary member, in celebration of his monumental contributions to the protection of freedom of speech and human rights, particularly in the face of severe persecution, threats, and imprisonment.

Dündar has also been honored with the International Press Freedom Award (Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, 2016), and the Prize for the Freedom of Future of the Media (together with Erdem Gül, Leipzig Media Foundation, 2016).  Cumhuriyet also received the Reporters without Borders prize in the media category for 2015.

Perhaps Dündar’s merit is best expressed by the words of Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International:

“Can Dündar belongs to that elite of extraordinarily brave journalists who risk everything so the world can know the truth.”

October 2016: Asieh Amini

Guest Writer of the Month

asieh-amini
Photo by: Javad Montazeri

Asieh Amini, poet, journalist, and activist, was born in 1973 in Mazandaran Province in Northern Iran. While completing her studies in journalism at Allameh Tabataba’I University in Tehran, Amini worked for several newspapers such as Iran, Zan, and Etemaad (where she worked as social editor), and would later go on to manage the website “Women in Iran”.

From 2004, Amini fought indefatigably to garner international aid and attention for Iranian cases of stoning, juvenile execution, and various kinds of discrimination against women and girls. In October 2006, Amini co-founded the campaign “Stop Stoning Forever”, and became fully immersed in her work as an activist for women’s rights. Her seminal work in journalism has helped to expose Iran’s ongoing stonings, despite Ayatollah Shahroudi’s 2002 moratorium banning the practice.

Amini has emerged triumphantly from a world of arrests, threats, discrimination and censorship to be lauded for her achievements worldwide. In 2005, Amini’s first book of poetry was selected by UNESCO’s office in Tehran as the best poetry collection from young and emerging Iranian poets. Her other accolades include the Human Rights Watch Hellmann/Hammett award (2009), the Oxfam Novib/PEN award (2012), and the Ord i Grenseland Prize (2014).

After a brief imprisonment in 2007, Amini continued her work and activism under pressure. Following a controversial presidential election in 2009, she left her home and eventually came to reside as an ICORN guest writer in Trondheim (2010-2012). She published her first poetry collection in Norwegian in 2011, entitled Kom ikke til min drømmer med gavær (“Don’t come into my dreams with guns”, translated from Farsi into Norwegian by Nina Zandjani), which was followed by a second collection in 2013, Jeg savner å savne deg (“I miss missing you”).

Amini underlines that although her work fighting stoning and the death penalty is of grave importance, and the number of executions in Iran has even increased, these causes should not overshadow various other issues concerning human rights in Iran. Amini asserts, “I believe that the basis of transition and change should be arranged within a society, and in connection with a world community of civil societies. Unfortunately, in Iran, we have had problems with both”. Despite fierce and dedicated activism in the fields of women’s rights, workers’ movements, student movements, human rights groups, and media, Amini feels that the voices of these civil society activists are often silenced domestically, and “hardly heard in the international community because of political and economic interests”.

When asked to highlight a single issue for the international rights community, Amini replied unequivocally: “the freedom of expression of independent civil society. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, and especially after the political conflicts in the 1980’s, during which thousands of people were imprisoned or executed, [Iranians] have never really experienced freedom of speech”.

Amini compares the initial shock and impact of moving to Norway to a business man suddenly losing all of his wealth; “as a poet and journalist, [your] language and audience are your wealth. You can’t bring them to your new home when you move”. Amini recalls her tears upon hearing her daughter speak in her sleep, in a language her mother could not understand. The challenge of a new life caught Amini on the precipice of an abyss, in danger of falling into a deep depression. Rather than tumble over the edge, Amini gritted her teeth, learned Norwegian, and moved forward fearlessly. She credits her continued success in Norway primarily to her family, and to her ICORN coordinator. The latter’s efforts and familiarity with the challenges that face new guest writers helped to ease Amini’s transition into her new community, and aided in creating a growing network that would allow her to continue her work as a writer.

Amini is currently working on a new documentary book, as well as a new book of poetry, while simultaneously completing a Master’s at NTNU in Equality and Diversity. She continues her fight for freedom of speech in cooperation with Norwegian PEN, for which she currently serves on the Board of Directors, as well as maintaining her contacts in the Iranian community of human and women’s rights.

To read more about Asieh Amini’s work in Iran concerning stoning and juvenile execution, see Laura Secor’s article, “War of Words”, as featured in the New Yorker (January, 2016):

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/01/04/war-of-words-annals-of-activism-laura-secor

2016 Egypt: Ahmed Naji

Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji remains imprisoned on his birthday:

After nearly seven months in prison, novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji’s motions for a stay of execution have been denied, and he continues to await a date for his appeal, despite his lawyer’s having filed for one in late April.

Naji’s imprisonment began in February 2016, after published excerpts from his 2014 novel, Istikhdam al-Hayat (The Use of Life), were deemed to ‘violate public modesty’ under article 178 of Egypt’s penal code, largely because the work described scenes of drug use and sexuality.  Alongside Naji’s arrest and two-year sentence comes also a conviction and fine for his publisher Tarek El Taher, editor of Akhbar al-Adab magazine.

Ahmed Naji’s work was approved before publication by the Publications Censorship Authority, and as a work of fiction, is clearly a legitimate exercise of his freedom of expression under international law.  Criminal charges were brought against Naji because of an individual reader’s complaint, and though the former was originally acquitted on 2 January 2016, he continues to be persecuted and unjustly imprisoned by the Egyptian judiciary.

PEN International reports that “over 500 Egyptian writers and artists have signed a statement in solidarity with Naji, and in May over 120 international writers, editors and artists joined a PEN America statement calling on President Sisi to drop the charges against Naji, and to release him immediately.”  Furthermore, Naji has been awarded the 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

Sadly, in recent months there has been a steady decline for respect of freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Egypt.  Naji is just one of many writers, poets, publishers, and journalists, and activists whose voices are being punished or silenced for their dissenting, or merely creative, opinions.

According to PEN International, “Restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt have also been accompanied by a crackdown on cultural houses, [..] publishing house[s], and […] human rights defenders, with NGO workers repeatedly being summoned for questioning, banned from travelling and having their assets frozen”.

Norwegian PEN and the Writers in Prison Committee take this opportunity to stand in solidarity with Naji and his fellow artists, and call for his immediate and unconditional release.

Click here to read our letter to the Egyptian authorities.

An English translation of Chapter 6 of Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life) by Ahmed Naji is  available here.

Aslı Erdoğan: Norwegian PEN welcomes a new Honorary Member

Norwegian PEN is pleased to announce the adoption of prize-winning writer, columnist, and human rights activist Aslı Erdoğan as our newest honorary member.  In the wake of Erdoğan’s recent arrest in Turkey, Norwegian PEN wishes to honor her for over a decade of tireless contributions to the fields of literature and activism.

Originally obtaining an MSc at Boğaziçi University, Erdoğan worked as a particle physicist at CERN in Geneva before beginning a fruitful and prolific writing career.  The publication of Erdoğan’s first novel in 1994, Kabuk Adam (Crust Man) quickly established her literary presence, and subsequent works such as The City in Crimson Cloak, Miraculous Mandarin, and Wooden Birds have led to numerous prizes and accolades both in Turkey and abroad.  Erdoğan’s works have been translated into more than fifteen languages, and her most recent novel, The Stone Building, received Turkey’s most prestigious literary award (Sait Faik) in 2010.

As a writer of fiction, Erdoğan is a model of versatility, and her body of work includes poetry, poetic prose, several novellas and short stories, and seven novels.  Perhaps even more impressive, however, is Erdoğan’s prolific career as a journalist and columnist, and her dedication as an activist; publishing over 200 articles and championing causes for feminism, ethnic equality, non-discrimination, and free expression, Aslı Erdoğan’s most recent and controversial contributions stem from her position as a columnist, symbolic editor, and advisory board member of the pro-Kurdish opposition daily, Özgür Gündem.

In the aftermath of the failed military coup on 15 July in Turkey, a court order forced the closure of Özgür Gündem, and following a police raid on 16 August, Aslı Erdoğan was taken into custody alongside twenty other journalists and employees.  Erdoğan was arrested on 17 August and has since been charged with “membership of a terrorist organization” and of “undermining national unity”.

An international outcry has been raised in protest of the prison conditions under which Aslı Erdoğan is being held.  Erdoğan suffers from asthma, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and in her detention she has been denied essential medication, medical attention, and at times, even fresh air and water.  Recent objections to her arrest have been overruled by Istanbul’s courts, and Erdoğan continues to await trial in prison amid deplorable conditions.

The effects of the failed coup in July, and the ensuing state of emergency declared by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have resulted in the increased suppression of freedom of expression in Turkey, adding fuel to the fire in an environment that was already hostile to political dissent.  Aslı Erdoğan, like many of her colleagues, continues to be persecuted in her fight for free expression.

Through years of lost jobs, smear campaigns, and political and social exile, Aslı Erdoğan has remained unflinching in her convictions and defense of human rights.  A long-time friend, supporter, and member of PEN, Erdoğan served as the Turkish representative of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee from 1998 to 2000, as well as being an ICORN writer-in-residence in Krakow, Poland.  In 2005, the French literary magazine, Lire, shortlisted Erdoğan as one of “50 most promising authors of tomorrow”.  Norwegian PEN is proud to adopt Aslı Erdoğan as an honorary member, as we continue to hope for her release and the cessation of Turkey’s assault on free speech.

2016 Iran: Mohammad Sadigh Kaboudvand

Kurdish Iranian journalist, writer, and activist Mohammad Sadigh Kaboudvand was released from hospital after his most recent hunger strike, though serious concerns persist regarding his health. Norwegian PEN and the WiPC call for Kaboudvand’s immediate and unconditional release.  Read our letter to the Iranian authorities below: 

 

Leader of the Islamic Republic

Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei

Your Excellency,

On behalf of the Norwegian Writers in Prison Committee and Norwegian PEN, we write to you to express our grave concerns for the health and welfare of Mohammad Sadigh Kaboudvand.  Kaboudvand is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence, and facing the recent possibility of new charges he began a hunger strike on May 8th of this year.  Alongside reports of ill-treatment, solitary confinement, and even torture, we are increasingly concerned about Kaboudvand’s deteriorating health, and we demand that the Iranian authorities ensure he receives all necessary medical attention as a matter of the utmost urgency.

Furthermore, we call on the Iranian authorities to quash all convictions and drop any fresh charges against Kaboudvand.  We demand his unconditional and immediate release, since his imprisonment is based on a violation of his right to the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.  In November 2012, the United Nations Working Group of Arbitrary Detention found Kaboudvand’s detention to be arbitrary (opinion 48/2012), and also called for his release and right to compensation.  The Iranian authorities did not heed this call, and we deeply urge you again to reconsider the legitimacy of Kaboudvan’s imprisonment.

As an Honorary Member of Austrian PEN, PEN Català, Swedish PEN and Sydney PEN, Kaboudvand is an important pillar in the international community for freedom of expression and human rights.  We implore you to respect those rights, as Iran has committed to do for all of its citizens.

The WiPC and Norwegian PEN urge the Iranian authorities to ensure that the right to freedom of expression in Iran is fully respected in law and practice as provided for under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party.  We remind you of your obligations to protect these rights under domestic and international law, and the obligation to ensure the fundamental freedoms and health and welfare of your citizens while they exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Yours sincerely,

Ms Brit Bildøen
Chair of Writers in Prison Committee
Norwegian PEN

Ms Iva Gavanski
Advisor, Writers in Prison Committee
Norwegian PEN

 

Copy:    The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Oslo, 13.06.2016

2016 Iran: Narges Mohammadi

Narges Mohammadi

Letter from Narges Mohammadi to the PEN Membership

Imprisoned Iranian journalist and activist Narges Mohammadi writes a moving letter from prison to the international PEN Membership:

Dear members of International PEN,

I’m writing this letter to you from the Evin Prison. I am in a section with 25 other female political prisoners, with different intellectual and political point of view. Until now 23 of us, have been sentenced to a total of 177 years in prison (2 others have not been sentenced yet). We are all charged due to our political and religious tendency and none of us are terrorists.

The reason to write these lines is, to tell you that the pain and suffering in the Evin Prison is beyond tolerance. Opposite other prisons in Iran, there is no access to telephone in Evin Prison.  Except for a weekly visit, we have no contact to the outside. All visits takes place behind double glass and only connected through a phone. We are allowed to have a visit from our family members only once a month.

But it is the solitary confinement, which is beyond any kind of acceptable imprisonment. We – 25 women – have detained in total more than 12 years in solitary confinement. Political prisoners who are considered dangerous terrorists are held in solitary confinement indefinitely. Retention in solitary confinement can vary from a day up to several years.

However, according to regulations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, holding prisoners in solitary confinement is illegal. Unfortunately until now, the solitary confinement, as a psychological torture, has had many victims in Iran.

During 14 years long activity of the Center for Human Rights Defenders, the Center have published and held many protests against the use of this kind of punishment. But unfortunately the solitary confinement is still used against many of Iran’s political prisoners. The solitary confinement is used to get forced and false confessions out of the defendants. These false and faked confessions are used against the defendants during the trials. Many of the detainees in the solitary confinement are suffering from mental and physical health problems and the injuries will remain with them for the rest of their life. As a matter of a fact, the solitary confinement is nothing but a closed and dark room. A dimly confined space, deprived of all sounds and all light that can give the inmates a sense of humanity. Personally, I have been in solitary confinement three times since 2001. Once during my interrog