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Raed Anis Al-Jishi On Going Home

The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Raed Anis Al-Jishi:
Al-Jishi visiting a coffee shop upon returning to Saudi Arabia.

I lived in Iowa for more than 12 weeks. It felt like home—a dream home for a writer.

Libraries with enormous resources. An accommodating environment where I could spend eight or more hours, and find other writers and readers doing their magic.  I was feverish with topophilia when I was there, missing my city and the people. Now I feel the same sense of loss for Iowa, and the wonderful time with and memories I have of my friends--the writers, the translators, the IWP staff.

It has been hard to start another project, or even read a whole book, but I am now at work finishing the second project I’d started in Iowa City; I have also translated several poems by IWP participants.

Sometimes, though, I lose focus because of what is happening in my country. For example everybody knows, or should know, that poetry is not a diary, it is not a notebook of something you did, or that you plan to do in the future. Poetry is about feelings and about how you express them, mixing reality with fantasies and dreams. It isn’t a document by whose content a poet can be judged. Yet in the case of Ashraf Fayadh, I know that he was accused by someone who either misunderstood, or else tried to fabricate the meaning of his poems, and then used them during the trial as facts.

Ashraf Fayadh

Ashraf was detained and sentenced to death because of that.

This is the first case of its kind in Saudi Arabia. But if Ashraf is beheaded, it won’t be the last, for it will give some people the power to send any poet to jail or even to death if they disagree with him for whatever reason. 

And that is why I and many poets from around the world are standing up for Ashraf--putting hope in poetry itself in order to free the poet. We are writing poems to Ashraf, writing to the Saudi authorities explaining Ashraf’s poems, and reading them at public events. Our only hope now is that the Saudi king will stop this madness and save Ashraf, together with the other seven people given the death penalty because of political speeches or peaceful protests. One of them is Ali Al Nimr, the nephew of shaikh Nimr Al-Nimr, arrested when he was 17. I hope that they set them free not only because I am against the death penalty, but because I think this is the right time for Saudi Arabia to make believers from doubters, and to teach the world a lesson in justice and forgiveness. This is especially valuable at a time when we need to be focusing on fighting terrorism with everything we have—for instance religious addresses, and good poems.

Remnants of a castle in the center of Qatif, a place that inspires Al-Jishi.

That leaves me with the last thing that made an impact on me in the past month, namely the local councils elections here in Saudi Arabia where, for the first time, women could vote and also be candidates for office. Some women have indeed been elected, and that means that we are on the right way, making progress in this matter. But it means, too, that we didn't reach our goal. I boycotted the elections not because i don't trust the candidates—several were good, talented and hard-working young men and women I could trust—but because we can only elect 75 % of the candidates, and I will only vote when that number reaches 100%.

The only good thing for me as a poet—besides the support my wife gives me—are my regular weekend meetings with a writer and translator friend in a coffee shop, to talk about literature, our work, and our country.

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