Jean Rafferty: Worldwide Reading for Ashraf Fayadh

Jean Rafferty describes the Worldwide Reading for Ashraf Fayadh event held in Glasgow’s Clutha Bar.

February 4, 2016

The Clutha Bar, Glasgow, 14th January 2016

Written by Jean Rafferty. You can visit her website here and follower her on Twitter at @fireopal19. Jean is the author of “The Four Marys”, published by Saraband Books, which was longlisted for the 2015 Jerwood Prize.

The power of words; as kids we used to chant, Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. It wasn’t true. The chant was a magic ritual of defence, a vain attempt to negate the power of the word. Names can hurt, words can hurt. Words can be incendiary, lighting off a touch paper and setting off explosions in many people’s minds. That’s why words are so feared by governments, totalitarian and the so-called democratic ones alike.

In November 2015, Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death by the Saudi government for ‘apostasy.’ He’s a poet, forfuckssake.

Scottish PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee had already done an event in support of Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison for opposing fundamentalist Islam. So when the international literature festival Berlin told us there would be a worldwide reading for Ashraf Fayadh on January 14th, we were keen to take part.

We ended up holding three events for Ashraf – one in Glasgow, one in Edinburgh and one in Aberdeen, where they had a Poemathon for him, organised by Ian Crockatt, poet and pamphleteer extraordinaire. The power of poetry;

Edinburgh’s event was held in the Scottish Poetry Library and was chaired by Sarah Irving, author and editor of four books on Palestine. The Edinburgh Makar, Christine de Luca, took part, as did Jenni Calder, Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum. Abla Oudeh, a copy editor on A Bird Is Not a Stone (anthology of contemporary Palestinian poetry) read one of Ashraf’s poems in the original Arabic.

In Glasgow we held our event in the Clutha Bar, under its new vaulted glass roof. As soon as events manager Ashley Crossan was told about Ashraf’s situation, she said, It’s yours. It was one of the first literary events to take place there since the helicopter crash of 2013, and fittingly, drew together the poetic community just as ordinary Glaswegians had been drawn together by the tragedy. This was largely due to the unstoppable Finola Scott of the Federation of Writers, who did the impossible and chivvied, commanded and cajoled poets into taking part. Herding cats would be easy in comparison.

Finola and the poets A.C.Clarke and Iyad Hayatleh read from Ashraf Fayadh’s poems, while novelist Carl MacDougall read a prose piece from the website, Middle East Eye, about the New Year’s Day executions in Saudi. In PEN we often feel as if we’re sending messages into some strange limbo. We often wonder if there’s any point in writing at all, but it was clear from the article Carl read that in Saudi they mattered. Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the young man sentenced to death by beheading for a protest he took part in as a teenager, was not included in the executions. Commentators put that down to protest from the West. The power of words – in this case the difference between life and death.

Glasgow South MP Stewart McDonald joined us and made a heartfelt speech off the cuff, telling people to get in touch with their MPs, and saying that many of them really cared about freedom of expression.

Our headliner was American poet, Katie Ailes, one of the Loud Poets, with a powerful and dramatic set. Her letter for the daughter she might have in the future was intensely moving.

It was more than an evening of poetry. It was an evening of humanity, an evening of solidarity, and the poets who took part all felt the responsibility of it keenly. Below are some of the poems which were read out on the night, in some cases written specially for the event.


Brother, what must I do

to remind you of my

innocence? All I did was raise

some questions and warn

you of a storm coming in

from the edge of Arabia.

But now you accuse me

of subversion! Yet I recall

that day precisely, you and I

sitting by the cafe in Abha,

drinking coffee laced

with cardamon.

The winter sun had settled

in the crease of your brow –

the light gradually softening

that hard glance you aimed at me

like a dart. And if I may say,

your judgement of me was harsh,

for if I am walking on the road

and I see a man, half naked,

being nailed to a cross –

I cannot restrain my tongue,

and although I cannot undo

what has already been done,

I can remember! How the light

glowed in the folds of his flesh –

how it stretched

and tugged

at ruptured limbs, how his skin

turned blue and peeled

like paper. Remember?

His right foot was lashed

tightly against the left.

The wrought iron nails

were driven in

with quiet purpose

and his cries soared above

the crowded square –

strangling the gasps,

the sighs of doves – the holy

call to prayer which rose

uneasily in the distance.

And still you admonished me.

Be silent, Ashraf! Your poems

and lyrics won’t shield you

from the lash

of the Mutaween –

so do not incur their wrath.

Brother, my answer

is simple. I sing to fill

the silence rising in

you! A silence

that stones to death

the voice of the nations,

the peoples of Arabia,

a silence that renders

mute arbiters of law,

of justice so-called,

a silence that condones,

by the edge of a sword –

the slicing of hands

and slicing of heads.

Brother, I will sing in this silence!

I will break this lineage

of fear, ring in the new paradigm,

animate the wings of doves –

disarm the universal

soldier, take back by force

of words all that truly belongs

to us, the people, the light

so beloved of Rumi,

the eternal song.

It will fill this crushing silence.

It will prevail in the courts

of kings. Conscience

will not be reduced to a cult –

or a pathology of the mind!

And know this, brother,

my voice will resonate

in the throat of the zealot,

my song will draw the poison

from life’s bitter root,

it will nourish the will

of the people, it will mend

the human heart,

sing long into the night,

outlast the sword

of executioners

and soar above

the venal stench

of money,

it will soar beyond

the terror –

high above

the bloody square

of totalitarian kings.


Here is the weather forecast
for shipping issued by the met office on behalf of the maritime and coastguard
agency at 0505 on ………… the …th of ——–.

Allepo and Cyprus.

Immigrants 10,029, slow-moving, drowning 1018 by

Westerley 8 or 10,000 Occasionally 12,000

Falling slowly into the sea

Vikings they are not.

Westerley veering off
course 50-60,000 displaced

Rough, becoming desperate.

Cyclonic, mainly southerly or southwesterly 5 to

Russian planes imminant.

Pharoahs Descendents
Drowning West North West

Weak possibly 3 or 5, becoming variable 8 or 9 .

Cyclonic, reminiscant of Europe 1942

losing identity, dissipating ,

falling slowly into the sea


West or northwest 5-600 in each rubber dingy,

becoming variable leaving 2-300 alive by morning

Falling slowly into the sea

Mediteranian waters
imploding North North West

5 or 6 year old child
washed up on beach.

Unsettling with morning
tea and full English

Poor becoming poorer,

falling slowly into the sea

German Bight

State of play

In south, welcominggood. 6 or 7

Moderate becoming kind

occasionally very welcoming. 8 or 9000

Dover and Calais

ill Wind 6 or 7 possibly
10 by morning

Northeast 4 or 5000, occasionally 6000 at first,
becoming variable

moderate becoming hostile

Fog and dark flags by morning

Falling slowly into the sea

Thames and Trafalgar.

Chilly becoming hostile.
Numbers reducing by morning

Not welcoming 3 or 4000 at a time.

Backing extreme right 8 or 9 to gale 9 or 10

Fascist State

Strong becoming more powerful over five years.

becoming predictable

mainly easterly or southeasterly every 5 to 7

depending on availabilty of oil

Losing identity

Falling slowly into the sea

Falling slowly into the sea

falling slowly into the sea.


When we hear a bird sing,

It is pleasure just to hear it sing

In the tales passed down

From all old generations

They said, it is a sin

To kill a mockingbird

Everything is divine,

Everything is sacred

Does it matter what a bird believes?

No, it simply sings.

The bird, as far as we know

Believes only in its song

And that, to me, is sacred.

No-one, no person or thing

Should be harmed for simply being.

I believe in God.

And whether he does or not

Should not matter.


We all find ourselves singing at times,

the tune to the one infinitely

variable song. No matter where we live

we all wake to some wee bird singing.


Laaahhh lalaa ahhhh ahhla lalalaaahh.


Red is the Rose in yonder garden grows

fair is the lily of the valley.*

Under domes, Holy chants rise.

Beneath village spires, Church bells ring.

All things sweeten as all songs fly

up beneath this same ONE sky.

I plead ye, set that cage bird free.

It sings for all divinity.

*From Red Is The Rose, Clancy and Makem


TAGS: A C Clarke Abla Oudeh Ali Mohammed al-Nimr apostasy Ashley Crossan Ashraf Fayadh Carl MacDougall Christine de Luca Clutha Clutha bar Edinburgh Edinburgh Makar Federation of Writers Finola Scott Glasgow humanity Iyad Hayatleh Jean Rafferty Jenni Calder Jenny Lindsay Katie Ailes Loud Poets Palestine poet poetry Rachel McCrum Rally & Broad Sarah Irving saudi arabia Scottish PEN solidarity Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald MP worldwide reading Writers at Risk