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.

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.

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