The death sentence on Palestinian Poet part1

Prof. Wole Soyinka

One is getting increasingly worried about the possible injurious nature of views and declarations recently associated with a revered country and an esteemed scholar over the literary creativity and, by extension, academic freedom of a Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayyad. The country involved is the sacred seat of the two Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabia while the scholar concerned is the esteemed Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka.

Both the state and the Laureate seem oblivious of their place or status in the estimation of the world and therefore get either consciously or unknowingly insensitive and unnecessarily meddlesome in religious politics. A conscious Muslim may be perturbed over alarming rate at which Saudi Arabia is getting enmeshed in avoidable scandals, lately.

First it was a case of moral liability in the form of mistrust or distrust among Muslim states as occasioned by its romance with some Western nations which paved way for the influx of certain alien, unethical experiences around the Holy Lands. It was thereafter a political scandal heavily shrouded in shenanigans over the Houthis of Yemen. It was later a survivalist endeavour revolving around some dirty deals concerning economic interest. It may not be fair to lump with all these the colossal and unprecedentedly large number of 2015 Hajj fatalities. Now it is another looming scandal precipitated by the death sentence hanging on the Palestinian Poet and Curator Art, Ashraf Fayyad. Saudi Arabia indeed has lately been an institutional news maker for unfavourable reasons.

The revered Laureate during the “Free Ashraf Fayyad Now” campaign led by him in Lagos on Thursday January 14th, 2015, said, “We need to know what the Prophet said about it or is it an imposition?” ”Islam has to talk to Islam to prevent interlopers like myself from talking about it…We are in this situation because the promoters of humanism are too tepid and not insisting on certain tenets of humanism that should be upheld. Too bad we have not structured what we call humanism which is perhaps the problem we are having, which makes a minority to impose their will on the rest of us. We ought to confront the absence of humanism. We allowed the sacred texts to overwhelm our lives. Why should a bunch of mortals sit down and pass death on others.

What kind of arrogance is that?”
Now the high-handed and ostensibly unprincipled Saudis. What exactly are the allegations or issues culminating in the death sentence? His poems are not Islamic? They promote atheism? He is licentious? He has liaisons with alien women? He stored photographs of women on his phone and therefore violated Saudi anti-cyber crime law? He smokes? His hair is long and bushy? These were the allegations leveled against Ashraf Fayyad. Yet no one is talking about the fact that what became a celebrated case in the world media only started as a disagreement between Fayyad and his friend while watching a football match together. The gentleman, an illustrious son of a prestigious Saudi family threatened to send Fayyad, a Palestinian settler, packing out of Saudi Arabia. Let it be assumed that Fayyad is guilty of all of the above, for the sake of argument. On what basis is his execution the only option to Saudi authorities. The most grave of the allegations is the purported promotion of atheism in the Holy Lands, through the disputed poems.

None of the highly educated Nigerian literary activists, who joined our revered Nobel Laureate in his “campaign against the death sentence”, thought it appropriate to access the content of the disputed poetry which was why they all failed abysmally to engage scholarly and even literarily with the subject of their protest.

Reading through the verses, a critical mind with a modest literary taste should not find any strain in demystifying the subject of Stanza 1 as purely admonitory to Saudi authorities with regard to their handling of the “commonwealth” while greater part of what follows is a figurative portrayal of the Palestinian Question and the “criminal” silence of those Arab nations whose opinions currently matter. Zionist authorities receive some hard punches in Stanza 2 and the hyperbole in the poet’s depiction of Saudi Arabia’s veiled unkindness to settlers is thereafter unmistakable.

The poet is at best where he says, “I am the experience of hell on earth, earth, is the hell prepared for refugees” in a bid to graphically capture in words the alarming nature of the “lacerations” suffered by his family across generations in their imposed “refugee status” in the Arab land, and one expects this to arouse sympathy and not the wrath of the affluent and influential Saudis. It is noteworthy that the poet employed a number of creative embellishments that were not well articulated in Mona’s translation. The poet’s original Arabic version features few instances of euphemism, anti-thesis, synecdoche, personification, onomatopoeia, metonymy, metaphor, alliteration, anaphoria, assonance, and others. Unfortunately most of those figurative expressions were “lost in translation”.

For instance, only once did Fayyad employ a simile through “like” as he successfully compares an object or subject with another rather creatively through metaphor without the use of “as’ or “like”. “Your mute blood will not speak up” in Stanza 10 is one of Fayyad’s impressive instances of demonstration of personification. However, Mona deserves plaudits for translating accurately “your eyes that have cried tears of oil” in this highly figurative fashion that leaves nothing out of the poet’s original Arabic.

The question seeking attention here is whether Saudi Arabia should always portray itself as destitute of formulating any punitive measure for errors or offenses, other than death sentences and executions, thereby promoting the erroneous perception that Islam is favourably disposed to killing. One wonders why there has not been a scholarly rejoinder to or deflation of Fayyad’s ideas as contained in the poetry since its publication almost ten years ago. Such an endeavour would have enriched the understanding of the contemporary world about Fayyad’s real “crime”. Or, could it be true that the ‘disputed poetry’ was just an attempt to give a dog a bad name for the purpose of hanging it.

Although Egypt too is not without its own record of violation of freedom of thought, ranks second to none among among Arab nations in the promotion of scholarship, and critical and creative thinking. This probably explains why Egypt has the richest Arabic literary heritage which perhaps navigated way for the emergence of Africa’s second Nobel Laureate in Literature, after Prof. Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, in the person of Najeeb Mahfouz. The issue under discussion revolves around creativity, critical thinking, freedom of thought and, by extension, academic freedom in Islam, and therefore should be subjected to critical examination at this juncture.
To be continued tomorrow
• Rufai, Ph.D is acting. dean, Faculty of Education, Sokoto State University. This is an excerpt of his inaugural lecture titled ‘Death Sentence on Palestinian Poet: Neither Saudi Arabia nor Prof. Wole Soyinka is right’

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