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Ashraf Fayadh: Palestinian Poet, Saudi Prisoner

Palestine-faces- Ashraf Fayadh
Ashraf Fayadh. Photo AP

Saudi-born Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh narrowly escaped the death sentence in Saudi Arabia, but has remained in jail for more than three years on charges of renouncing Islam and promoting atheism through his poems.

Fayadh was born into a Palestinian refugee family in Saudi Arabia in 1980 and grew up in the city of Abha. Like most Palestinian refugees in the kingdom, he is stateless, although he holds a travel document issued by Egypt.

Family members said in media interviews that Fayadh’s talent was obvious, even as child. His sister told al-Monitor that he was once punished in school because his teacher did not believe such a young boy was capable of producing such skillful drawings and thought he had taken someone else’s work. Fayadh attended college in Palestine, studying at al-Azhar University in Gaza City before returning to Saudi Arabia.

There, he was active with artistic organizations, including the Shatta group, which organized the kingdom’s first public exhibition of contemporary art in 2004. In 2008, he brought out a book of poetry entitled Instructions Within. It was originally published by the Beirut-based Dar al-Farabi and republished in English by The Operating System. Lines from some of the poems were later used against him in his apostasy trial, and the book was banned in Saudi Arabia.

Some of the poems dealt with religious themes. In one such poem, he wrote, ‘My grandfather stands naked everyday/without banishment, without divine creation.. /I have already been resuscitated without a godly blow in my image/I am the experience of hell on earth../earth/is the hell prepared for refugees.’ In another, he wrote, ‘Prophets have retired/ so do not wait for yours to come to you/and for you, for you the monitors bring their daily reports/and get their high salaries../how important money is/for a life of dignity.’

He remained active in the Saudi art community and, in 2011, co-curated Rhizoma, a collection of works by contemporary Saudi artists, at the 55th Venice Biennale, with London-based art critic and curator Sara Raza. Fayadh wrote of the exhibit, ‘We aim to provide a clear vision of the radical transformation in Saudi art, which is now more affiliated with its roots, to the real culture represented by the awareness of the different living conditions in Saudi Arabia. This awareness is creating a strong message from a new generation of artists to formulate art in their own way.’

In March 2013, he organized the Mostly Visible exhibit in collaboration with Athr Gallery in the Saudi city Jeddah. The group show displayed the work of 30 artists, including one of his own pieces, a video called Damage. Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Modern in London, visited the exhibition and praised its diversity and curation.

A few months later, in August 2013, Fayadh was arrested after a man who had overheard him arguing with another artist in a café reported him to the religious police. The man alleged that Fayadh had made insulting comments about God and the Prophet Muhammad and promoted atheism by passing around his book of poems.

Fayadh told the Guardian newspaper that the book was “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee, about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”

He was released the day after his arrest, but was rearrested in January 2014 and charged with apostasy and violating the kingdom’s cybercrimes law by taking and storing photos of women on his phone. Fayadh maintained his innocence and said he had met the women at an art gallery.

The prosecution sought a death sentence, but in May 2014, Fayadh was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes. The court rejected the death sentence based on court testimony indicating ‘hostility’ between Fayadh and the man who had reported him, and cited a statement of repentance Fayadh had made in court. During his trial, Fayadh reportedly said, “I am repentant to God most high and I am innocent of what appeared in my book mentioned in this case.”

The prosecution appealed and he was retried. On 17 November 2015, a judge ruled that Fayadh’s repentance was not enough and he was sentenced to death for apostasy.

Human rights groups and artists around the world called for the death sentence to be reversed. Some of Fayadh’s friends suggested that he might have been targeted because he had filmed a video of religious police lashing a young man in public.

A court overturned the death sentence in February 2016, after Fayadh’s lawyer argued that his conviction was flawed because he had been denied a fair trial. Instead, he was issued with an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes. He was also ordered to repent through an announcement in official media.

A month later, Fayadh published his first poem since his arrest in the Guardian. In the poem, entitled ‘Tense Times’, he wrote about his experience in jail and grief over the passing of his father, whose death from a heart attack he attributed to the shock of learning that his son would be beheaded. Fayadh was not allowed to attend the funeral.

The Guardian reported that in a message sent with the poem by a friend, Fayadh wrote, ‘I am in good health and staying positive but I am alone. Only my mother visits me twice a week. I just hope I will survive and that people continue to remember me. I am scared to be forgotten.’ The poem included the lines: ‘What good’s meeting?  What good’s love? What good is it to be this alive while others die from sorrow over you?’

Although the downgrading of Fayadh’s sentence came as a relief to his supporters, they continue to criticize his imprisonment. “Our relief that Ashraf no longer faces beheading is diminished by the extended injustice and mercilessness of the new sentence dealt to him for the simple human act of artistic expression,” Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, said in a statement. “Words do not constitute crimes. “