“Tremblez, tyrans et vous perfides.”






“Words,” says Abol Froushan, “create the world.” He’s introducing November’s edition of “Exiled Lit” at the Poetry Café, the room is comfortably full, Abol explains that this is a monthly event which offers a platform for artists living in exile in the UK: “We believe the literature, art and culture of exile can provide a focus for communication and integration throughout society, and act as a force for positive change.” The broad theme for this evening is “Writing out of war and exile”: Abol first introduces Shabibi Shah Nala, a fifty-year-old woman, small, bespectacled, with grey hair and a genteel scarf, you’d pass her on the street and most likely not suspect for one second the action-movie life she’s led: back in Afghanistan, decades ago, her husband is imprisoned for writing articles criticising the Regime, in the cells he’s tortured to the point of brain-damage, when he’s finally let out the family flees, weeks stumbling over the mountains towards the border with their three children, the youngest is four months old. “I asked myself: Was this not too much to pay/For other people’s mistakes?” She loses her shoes in those mountains; when it’s not too hot it’s too cold; helicopters frequently have to be hid from, soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders, the Regime doesn’t like anybody to leave. “I just wanted to lie down and not wake up again/But I knew I had to go on.” They make it to Pakistan: there, Shabibi’s husband is arrested as a spy of the Afghanistani Regime.

Eventually they escape to England, they speak no English. Shabibi’s husband’s health, ruined from the wounds inflicted on him in jails, deteriorates, he dies; what can she do?

“A bridge had collapsed behind me.” She becomes a writer.

Next up is Abdul Sulamal, who apologises for his “weak English”: he’s not just being coy, he writes in Pashto and a friend translates it, nor is he able to read his work in English for us; however, he has his son with him, little Tasal Sulamal in his school-uniform: Tasal says he’s “eleven… nearly twelve! I’m,” he adds, “very nervous,” but he gives a brilliantly dramatic rendition of his father’s story “The Slingshot.” Again the setting is Afghanistan but approximately twenty years later than in Shabibi’s story, several regimes have been and gone, now the helicopters are manned by Americans and they’re patrolling not the mountainous borders but urban areas, the pilots flow so low they can make eye-contact with the locals.

“Daughter of a dog!” yells one indignant father, throwing a slipper at a girl who’s inadvertently allowed the men in one of those helicopters to glimpse her without her headscarf on. He draws the curtains shut, muttering about “those fuckers hovering above us, watching our women.” One young boy, overhearing that, is inspired to please his family by shooting down a helicopter: with his slingshot he fires a stone at one then flees. That act has a rollercoaster of repercussions which terminate with US soldiers at his door, come to get him. The Afghans plead: “He’s just a child.”

The American soldiers smile reassuringly: “He’s a child to us, too. We just need to ask him a few questions about why he did this,” they disappear him into their truck and the narration ends there… A very engaging story and a very engaging performance.

Next is Yvonne Green, who delivers a series of short, powerful pieces, beginning with a description of Alexandria which functions as a paean to multiculturalism: “Anyone who couldn’t manage wit in at least three languages was derided.” In the introduction to her set Yvonne thanked Britain for its historical generosity to refugees, but her second poem, written last decade during what she perceived to be a time of mounting racist rhetoric and intolerance, sounds a grim warning: “The sea turns red…” The sentiment may be coloured by Yvonne’s specific family-background – her parents were chased through Europe by the Nazis – but presumably anyone forced into exile lives with the constant knowledge that It Can Happen Again. In a subsequent poem Yvonne hints at the mechanisms behind the racism, the intolerance: different words create different worlds, the opposite of poetry is propaganda, she speaks of people being “lullabied by slogans,” hypnotised, tricked into “calling their shadows ‘enemy.’” In “Magic Carpet” she describes juggling the aesthetic appreciation of a carpet with the ethical awareness that it was produced using child-labour; she also reads some verse she translated into English but which was written by Semyon Lipkin. Lipkin, a functionary of the Soviet State during Stalin’s attempts to eradicate the languages of the lands he’d conquered, instead attempted to protect those languages, to preserve local tales: “The songs of desperate outlaws snipe at the words of the Ruler.”

Having decided to write an account of this night, I wasn’t sure whether to reference the current refugee crisis: happily the decision was made for me by one of the “Exiled Writers Ink!” organisers, Jennifer, who after announcing a fifteen-minute break first told us of the group’s recent day-trip to the migrant-camp in Calais, to set up a “jungle library performance space” among the tents, reading poetry and donating books in a variety of languages, as the ubiquitous military-helicopters – the French army, this time – hovered overhead.

I grab an “Exiled Writers” flyer, the poetry-excerpts on it effectively sum up the themes of the event: Mir Mahfuz Ali writes about the weight of the place left behind, the hole, the absence: “I will never return to this brown sugar dawn./No more dusty play for me on this lush lawn.” Nafissa Boudalia meanwhile addresses the anxiety implicit in exile, the psychological strife of adjustment: “The assassins are there/Now howl louder/They shout again/You are a spy… you are a spy.” This seems to me to simultaneously convey both the sense of being constantly confronted by the suspicions of the “Daily Mail” brigade who are so loudly certain you’re here with some economic/ideological agenda, but also the nagging voice which won’t stop reminding you that you don’t belong, that you’re undercover in someone else’s world, that the people around you are simply living life even as you’re covertly studying them so that you can pretend to be simply living life too; Shabibi mentioned in her set the humiliating moment when, on finally reaching the front of a long queue in a London grocery, suddenly every word of English vanished from her mind…

The second half begins with May Al-Issa whose poems are brief and evocative, May coats her experiences with layers of fantasy and whimsy, it’s appropriate that she evokes Scheherazade, the tale-teller of “The 1001 Nights” who lives with a threatening sword above her neck but who saves herself “with tricks and wit against oppressive Law.” We need Scheherazade now, says May: “Take us into your illusions… Wake up and liberate us,” and she spins stories of “Cuckoo comfortably shrinking in his cage” and of encircling wolf-hordes “celebrating their feast… Suckling the generations with their beastly milk,” stories of “shadows struggling for humanity,” she pleads: “Don’t kill the moon”; her “Tribute To Basra” begins in “paradise” but ends with “tenderness assassinated”; she weighs all the papers somehow stuffed in between life and death: birth-certificate, marriage-certificate, divorce-certificate and on and on, she concludes by offering an antidote to “the pain of exile”: “Let’s dance.” I hadn’t intended to mention that May was wheelchair-bound but it suddenly seems relevant: “Let’s dance.” This prognosis for happiness, contrasted with the physical-disability affecting her legs, initially seems to add a layer of poignancy to the words, and yet May certainly doesn’t seem to be a tragic or a beaten figure: I wonder if perhaps she regards writing as a dancing of the hands…

The last of the feature-acts is Abbas Faiz, a human-rights worker who begins with a piece entitled “Only A Laptop,” he contrasts a sign seen in a hotel, a notice demanding that guests deposit their guns at reception, with his treatment at an airport, the staff seized his laptop but returned it to him because, they reasoned, wrongly, it only contained words and pictures and therefore couldn’t be dangerous. Abbas then reads some poems that are more sensuous than political: in “Under The Silver Birch” he imagines falling asleep under a tree and getting into a conversation with his child-self; in “Feel The Air” he flees from bad smells! “The Memory Of Arrival,” his first poem written in England, captures the manic-depressive mood of the first few days of exile, “Dreams had come true at last,” “Fate was telling him: Thou shalt not rest.” Finally, Abbas recounts grappling with religious faith before all the world’s pain and chaos; he laments finding signs of “no Maker; only the Mistaker.”

There are just two poets on the open-mic: first, Greta from Hamburg, who begins by speaking about Germany circa 1932, when “beauty turned to terror,” when the nation’s financiers and industrialists were doing everything they could to support Hitler and his message; “hope wiped out by a gang of hooligans.” Greta goes on, in “The Wheelchair Of My Mind,” to talk about the post-war era and the German inability to really think about and discuss what had happened: from this perspective exile is a blessing, a chance to perhaps escape from the state of being “scarred for life with blond hair and blue-eyedness.” Greta fantasises about the moral equivalent of a theatre’s cloakroom: hand over all the worst elements of your heritage and receive in return a paper ticket that would disappear into your pocket and not weigh a thing. Then, last up, is Simi: when she introduces herself as being from Bangladesh I think of that country’s current descent into murderous theocracy right in front of everybody’s eyes, but in fact Simi’s poems have nothing to do with politics, with nationality, with migration or cultural identity as such: she talks about love, about affection, about states of mutual misunderstanding and outright lovelessness. It seems perfectly appropriate that a night themed around exile should end with poems that have nothing to do with exile, it perhaps even suggests a possible way of attaining that hypothetical ticket Greta had just fantasised about: words create the world, so emphasise the commonality of human experience, celebrate the universal, bring people together with poetry instead of laying down Laws made of bullshit and threat and division. Don’t assassinate the moon.

“Exiled Lit” meets at the Poetry Café on the first Monday of every month. For more info: http://www.exiledwriters.co.uk/cafe.shtml



Noah’s had lots of jobs, he’s harvested and sold sesame-oil for women to be anointed with, he’s smelted metals to make weapons for men to fight with, he’s fought, he helped dig the sewage-works, he’s been in gangs and armies, he’s planted trees and chopped down trees, he’s been a guard, long cold nights up in the watchtowers with shooting-stars and hyenas for company plus occasional spikes of adrenaline. He’s been an orderly at the hospital during outbreaks of swamp-fever, he’s dug graves for the casualties, he’s been a builder: yesterday he and his crew finished work on the biggest bridge ever, a new route open to the northeast; the king himself came to the opening-ceremony and sacrificed a bull. “Our king from Heaven!” mutters Noah, imitating the prancing bards: “Our deathless king!”

The man in front of him in the queue turns around: “Pardon?”

“Nothing. Thinking out loud.” That man turns back, he stands, they all stand, in silence, obeying the unwritten rule that everyone must be miserable while waiting to collect their wages. Occasionally Noah gets to shuffle a few feet forwards. To one side of him is a wall, his boss’s huge house; at the other side is a busy street and above him’s the sun, no shelter or shade, the only retreat for Noah is into his mind, his bridge, the bards and priests introduced the king:

“Your great-grandchildren,” King Noah told them, “will cross this bridge and think of you! Men from distant, ignorant lands will travel by this road and worship our gods at our temples and learn what civilisation is: because of you.” The king applauded his subjects. That was one of only half-a-dozen times Noah’s seen the man whose name he shares. Sometimes he hates his parents for that, sometimes he loves them for it, naming him after the kings: it’s brought him good luck and bad, and some of his fellow subjects, his brother citizens, have never been happy with it.

Noah shuffles forwards, towards the door into the grand house, into it, into a room decked with ornaments and artworks; the boss lounges on his couch: “Ah hello.” He wears a long dark robe, his hair is in plaits, beads have been sewn into his beard; he says the same words he says every week: “And what is your name?”


“Of course! …Yes. The boy who would be king, eh! Should I bow, should I kneel?”

“My parents meant only to pay their respects to the ruler.”

The boss frowns: “Yes, perhaps that’s only what they meant. Well, never mind! Here,” he gestures: on the carpet in front of Noah is a disposable earthenware tub filled with bread and grain and metallic coupons which can be exchanged for beer or wine. “Your wages. Minus taxes, we’ve done all that for you. Excellent work, incidentally; I was hoping the king would name the bridge after me but he didn’t, did he.”


“Our new bridge, named after… what’s his name… who sailed beyond the edge of the world and was never seen again. Perhaps he found the land where the gods live, as he desired. Or perhaps he drowned: maybe he is a great man, maybe he was a fool.” The boss shrugs. “There’s more work if you want it.” Noah nods obediently. “Something a bit different. The filthy Amurru have overrun Mari, they’ve slaughtered the natives and occupied its buildings, every one of their shrines is now a shrine to the secret god of those bastard fucking Amurru. They killed my brother, you know.” Noah nods. “They’ll kill each of us, given time, given the opportunity; it’s all they know. Their raids and their kidnappings, their sick rites; Mari should belong to us, to the good not the evil. That’s the plan, anyway: and there’s a part for you in it. I won’t lie, the chances of your personal survival are slim, but if you die on this mission we’ll guarantee you safe and direct passage to Heaven, you’ll be a god among gods and everyone shall sing of you as such; of course your family will be provided for.” Noah nods.

Mari, evening gloom: most men are slaves now, they hurry through the dank littered streets from one workplace to the next, they prostrate themselves when their Amurru masters pass, they wonder where their wives and daughters have gone.

Prostrate themselves: men fall to their knees on the dirty pavement, the pavement with grass growing through its cracks, men bow down as seven priests walk past, they wear dark cloaks and are hooded, their faces must never be seen but their voices can be heard as they walk solemnly through their town: “Our god has eaten your gods and spat them out. Our god is the Horrible One in all of us: he rules, whatever you think.” They walk, they reach their destination; the rest of the holy-men stay silent as their chief continues: “The rite of the Sick Spirit will take place shortly: we will receive your offerings.” The hooded men stand between thick stone columns under a stone roof, here where earlier today the latest batch of criminals and subversives were disfigured and crucified; the citizens line up carrying grapes and garlic and chickpeas and lentils and lettuce, onions and eggs and mint, cress and coriander, it all goes on a pile of timber which is set alight: “This is sustenance for the dead to eat; otherwise your ancestors would have nothing but dust to consume for eternity, eternity alongside hideous demons who punish you for what you did and did not do.” The priests don’t just take, they give too: the high-priest listens to men’s dreams and tells them what they mean: “In the future people will live shorter lives and will eat less. There shall be too much rain or not enough rain.”

Their offerings taken, the men of Mari depart; the priests leave too, they walk past the ruined courts and overgrown gardens, through the wastelands on which representatives of the town’s clans fight one another for prizes, by the offices where accountants work out how much everyone owes, along past the grain-silos, empty but there are always more territories for the Amurru to take. They walk to the cemetery: they’re alone, just seven hooded men and all these corpses under their feet; headstones and treasured trinkets have all been looted.

Curving stone steps lead downwards: down to a candle-lit crypt, red and black walls, sacrifices: disembowelled geese, water-snakes starving in cages, and there among them on the stone floor is a boy. “This child,” says the high-priest, “must die so that night follows day.” The high-priest has a knife; the jagged-walled pit is small, damp; the candles rise like phalluses from rock ledges. The high-priest lifts his knife; a naked little boy, hands tied behind his back, ankles strung tightly together, whimpers; the high-priest smiles: “Fear nothing. Fear nothing.” A swish of his arm: “I am Nothing,” the blade enters the boy’s throat again then again, the wide-eyed boy gurgles, spasms, the high-priest reddens his hands: “I,” he hisses at the ceiling, “shatter-God God-killer in the Darkness, I coil inside you, I plot inside you.” There’s a cup, the priest sips from it, a mouthful of old wine: instead of swallowing he spits it in the face of the child, the last sensation the kid will feel, these are the last words he’ll hear: “There is a Light which comes not from the sun nor from flame nor moon nor stars: I will extinguish it. My children shall suck up the Earth’s blood. Enemy of everything; soul-eater.” The high-priest hacks with his knife at the dead boy’s throat: “I, master of the east and west! I, lord of the within and the without! Commander of all, I war against all; I torment even the dead, there is no peace.” He holds up the decapitated dripping head, he screams. “All-choking, all-poison! My name… is… Apep. That which is to be denied shall be denied; that which is to be trampled on shall be trampled on; that which is to be spat on shall be… ggrgkll…”

A knife in the guts of the high-priest: a knife, another knife, blur of arms and blades, screams, falling bodies: then only two cloaked-and-hooded men remain standing. “Did you get that?” asks Noah, as he and his comrade sheathe their weapons. “‘Apep.’ Let’s get out of here: we’ll go different ways, hopefully one of us will make it.” They climb the stone steps, out into the evening, Noah walks, back onto Mari’s broken streets, if anyone challenges him he’ll kill them then run but none of these citizens notice anything’s wrong, they bow down as he passes. Noah reaches the outer-wall, slips through, it’s dark when he reaches his army: he tells his superiors the name of their enemy’s god.

A squadron led by Noah heads back to Mari, to the gate: they say they’re here to undertake Apep’s business and the way is opened for them, the gatekeeper is killed and the rest of the army arrives, storms through on foot, men in bronze breastplates and helmets, men bearing bronze swords and spears, torches and slingshots, they cry: “Apep is shit!” as they slaughter every last Amurru they find, “Apep is shit!” as they occupy the temple, “Apep is shit!” as they take the streets. “Apep is shit! Mari belongs to us!”

A few days later Noah’s home, he collects this week’s wages and accepts next week’s work, he’s allowed a few days to celebrate first, everyone is. A festival: Noah drinks himself into a blessed delirium and listens to the music, the speeches, listens to his high-priest declare: “Praise our lord, praise the king, praise our godly king! His parents were not of this world; he’s been places nobody has been. He owns all of us and all the land.”

“Praise,” mutters the man next to Noah, “Apep.”


The priest continues: “The gods are just like us: they try as hard as they can and then they fail. Let’s kill the old king to make space for the new!” The people cheer.

“Apep!” they cheer, Noah laughs, the priest says:

“New taxes on everything: a tax on birth and a tax on death.” The whole city seems to be here, in the city’s central-square, another cold evening, fires to keep them warm; the men drink and drink and when they’ve emptied a mug they throw it in a random direction then grab more from anyone who’s got more; the priest continues: “Let’s grow crops on all the fields all the time, let’s not ever leave them empty. Twice as much work for everyone! The old ways were wasteful.”

The priest stands at the centre of his men, they cheer. Except Noah: through his pleasantly-awful spinning inebriation he formulates a thought then says it aloud, “No that, that doesn’t work. The soil, you can’t…”

Not loud enough: “Let’s forget everything we used to know. Life was better when we knew nothing at all!” Noah tries to stand up but he falls down. Around him men start chanting:

“A-pep! A-pep! A-pep!”


“Yes!” The end of evening: the priest lifts a flaming stick out of the fire nearest him and holds it high: “Apep! Exalt the stupid and the vicious; glorify the barbarian! Apep!” Everyone follows the example of the authorities, everyone grabs burning wood and waves it and shouts: “Only sacrifice! Apep! Shit in the wells and canals; trash the irrigation-pipes; call plagues and drought on ourself! Apep! Let the dead rot where they fall; spend our wages on Apep. Apep! Smash babies against rocks; make women cover their faces. Apep!” Noah stands, adrenaline overrides alcohol, he grabs his friends and shakes them, tries to shake sense into them but they screech and giggle, dribble, listen to their holy-man: “Everyone fight everyone all the time; sell yourselves into slavery. Apep! Burn down the cedar-trees, burn down the prisons! Apep! Destroy the calendars, smash the windows! Apep! Build more prisons! Who is king, who is not king? Apep! Apep! Apep!”

Noah dashes towards the priest but he sees it’s too late: flames lick wooden tables and chairs. “Apep! Apep!” Noah turns and runs, away from the central-square but not away from the flames, in all these streets men and women are calling their new god’s name and setting fire to anything that will burn, they proclaim Apep’s empire and force poison down babies’ throats. Noah runs past, they try to grab him, they throw things playfully-viciously but he dodges every attack, sprints past the palace where the king’s loyal followers are having him eviscerated with hot spikes, Noah passes statues of the heroic ruler’s heroic ancestors, passes the royal stables and apple-trees and the fountain and… Noah stops running, turns back, dashes back to the stables, he frees a terrified horse, climbs awkwardly up onto it, he tugs the horse’s hair and slaps its flanks to get it moving, points it towards the city’s wall, the gate is wide open, the watchtowers deserted: Noah gallops from the burning screaming Apep city out into the night, there’s stone underneath the steed’s hooves then soon just soil and soon only sand, only the encroaching desert.



The celebrants climb steps, up past level after level of the temple-precincts, wide stone outdoor spaces usually bustling with minor-priests and astrologers and snake-charmers and amulet-vendors and epileptics and foreign mystics and musicians, they’re empty today though, oddly quiet: everyone is either invited inside the temple itself or they’ve been excluded from the Holy Place altogether.

At the summit of these three hundred and sixty stone stairs there’s a large arched doorway. Most of today’s guests rarely get to come all the way to the top: so they turn in a slow circle, this is what the gods see, vistas of brick houses and shops below filled with unlucky citizens luridly imagining this afternoon’s ceremony. Beyond them and their residences, beyond the farms in which workers on ox-driven carts battle motion-sickness as they hurl handfuls of seeds, there’s the circular city-wall, thick stone, guarded from atop fortified watchtowers. Outside the gates, outside the city proper, its territory continues: orchards and vineyards and fields on which cattle graze, shepherds swelter, there are travellers too, coming and going on foot or in animal-drawn wagons along roads which are paved near the city but which degenerate into mud-tracks as they reach for the horizon, reach past unclaimed meadows of grass and shrubs, past occasional ponds and streams, towards faraway little villages full of little villagers who still fight with sticks and stones, and towards other cities too, new cities which have assembled themselves in imitation of the city.

The temple: looking down on everything. At the peak of level after level of empty precincts is this stone cube, built directly over the ruins of the old temple which was itself built on the ruins of an older temple. People pass silently through the arched doorway, through darkness into light, the light of flames at the sacred hearth, some sun enters through hole-in-the-wall windows too, into this enormous hall crammed with people, with ministers and princes and soldiers and their wives plus the heads of various trades, representatives of the shepherds and the date-growers, the blacksmiths and ox-herders and builders and tailors, the fishermen and farmers and fowlers, artists and writers and of course the priests, here in this holiest of sanctuaries are the devotees of the Lords of this world, the gods of good fishing and good hunting, gods of water and marshland and desert and vegetation, gods of animals and seasons and boats, man-gods and woman-gods, moon-god and sun-god, sky-god, rainbow-god, gods of regeneration and charity and tragedy, the son-god who loves and suffers, here in this great hall are their separate priests bearing their separate emblems plus offerings of fruit. There are clunky statues of the gods as well, and friezes and mosaics on every wall, there are engravings and portraits of sideways-facing warriors; the Seven Sages are present in the form of small glass fish and birds.

These people bustling within the sacred walls, these allies and rivals: apart from their shared citizenship the men agree on only two things, they adore the king and they all want his daughter.

The butchered-lamb stink of sanctity. The altar: wide smooth stone, like the steps outside. On it are two figurines made of materials Noah’s never heard of, lapis lazuli and glass, they are placed on each other as though copulating. Next to them is an ancient animal’s-horn and a sea-shell collected from the ocean this morning, plus clippings from a hallowed cedar-tree and two silver rings.

Behind the altar stand the king and his daughter, and by them the royal bard: “I!” declares Nemmo, the fabulist, “proclaim the crown and the throne; I exalt the sceptre and the measuring-rod. Pray be silent and I will relate to you a Truth beyond truths,” he tells them about the time a goddess got the city-god drunk and slipped away with his Virtues, our Lord pursued her but the Love-goddess gave the goods to someone else and the city-god ended up having to share. The storyteller ends with a prayer to commemorate the occasion: “May new reeds and shrubs and grasses grow; may deer and oxen multiply; may well-watered gardens bear honey and juice; may the excellent loins of the king’s daughter be praised to Heaven; may vegetables fill the commons; may there be long life in the palace. Now hear the king, King Noah will speak!”

The monarch nods appreciatively. He’s ancient, the oldest man alive, he’s forty, although across the city they say he’s six hundred and he’ll never die. “Death,” says Noah, “approaches: I hope I have done good. Grey death approaches and I have a decision to make.” His audience all want his favour, they want the girl standing there. “The gods know best, we are here to ask them: to whom should I give the princess?”

“Me,” says the storyteller: the hall makes one noise that is simultaneously amusement and contempt and anger and disgust and hurt, Noah makes that sound too then he says, he jeers:

You?” The crowd snorts. This ratty weakling isn’t even from here: impudent upstart bard from an impudent upstart city far away.

“Because,” says the storyteller, “I and I alone know her name,” that shuts everyone up: he steps towards the king and, with his hands cupped around his mouth, whispers into Noah’s ear.

A silence. Sunlight and flames.

“This man,” announces the king, “is today my son, is the new prince,” the girl stares shyly at her bridegroom, the stranger with the words, who turns to face the crowd and barks in their faces:“Whoever would fight me for this honour, whoever would fight me for her, fight me now: the king and therefore the gods have chosen their man.”

The celebrants stare and seethe and slowly they stop seething, they stare: the ministers and princes and soldiers and shepherds, the date-growers and blacksmiths, the ox-herders and tailors and builders, the artists and scribes and priests break into cheers, a royal wedding! The bridegroom receives every blessing, receives a new and auspicious name, is given the king’s own copy of the Laws; then he and his princess are alone.

“I,” he tells her, “will treat you like the Goddess you are.”

She opens a palace-door for him. “How does the story end?”

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