“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