Scottish PEN Writers In Exile review by Pat Byrne

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As part of the Refugee Festival Scotland, Scottish PEN’s Writers In Exile committee presented a literary event at The Project Cafe´, Glasgow on 24 June, 2019; they brought together exiled writers and writers who are far from home.  Liz Niven chair of Scottish PEN’S Writers in Exile Committee was host  the participants were:  Samina Chaudry (English born Pakistani who has made her home in Scotland – she is Scottish Book Trust’s awardee of  Next Chapter Award 2019 ) Gianinni Mastrangioli Salazar (exiled Venezuelan journalist now living in Edinburgh), Abdulrahman Ezz (exiled Egyptian television presenter and journalist),  Leela Soma (Scottish based writer from Madras, India) and  Sawsan Al-Areeqe  (poet and filmmaker from the Yemen –  a recipient of the prestigious Artist Protection Fund.

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Samina Chaudry kicked off the event reading her story ‘Rejection’ published in I’m Coming With You – 90th Anniversary PENning Anthology

Samina spoke about her childhood in England and Pakistan. She described how she had come to live in Scotland with her husband after they experienced violence and ethnic strife in Karachi, where they had been held at gunpoint.  She also spoke of how she had experienced racism as a child living in London and sought sanctuary in the local library. Samina explained how memories and different place, cultures and times influenced her writing.  She is currently working on her first novel.  I’m looking forward to this as I have long been a big fan of her writing and fascinated by her stories set in Pakistan.

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Gianinni Mastrangioli Salazar – made a very moving contribution to the event.  Exiled from his homeland in Venezuela and now living in Edinburgh. Gianinni expressed the horror on learning of  his mother and sister’s intimidation by Government forces because of his work as a journalist in Caracas. He had carried out an investigation into the appalling conditions in the Hospital Los Magallanes de Catia and this exposure triggered a response by Maduro’s regime. By chance he was already in Europe when the military came looking for him at his mother’s home.  He spoke of the hundreds of people imprisoned in his country and his fear for his friends and family. He explained the sadness experienced by people living in exile, something imposed upon them, not chosen and how hard it is not to see your family.  How you feel you don’t belong anywhere.  He explained how the distance from Venezuala made it difficult for him to continue with his journalism.

His recounting of the oppressive regime in Venezuala and not knowing when he will see his family again brought home how lucky we are in comparison; living in a country where journalists will not be jailed nor their families terrorised when they expose the truth.

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Abdulrahman Ezz an Egyptian journalist and television presenter was first imprisoned in Egypt in 2003. In 2011 he was attacked by the police during the Arab uprising against Hosni Mubarak. He spoke of the joy experienced when mass protests forced  Mubarak to resign in February 2011 –  then the horror of the return to oppression when hundreds of journalists in Egypt were arrested following the ousting of Morsi by Sisi’s military coup.  As a journalist and political dissident, who has opposed the Egyptian regime of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi,  Abdulrahman has been sentenced in his absence to 20 years in prison. He strenuously denies the claims of the Egyptian court.  He has been arrested and detained in various places including Berlin and Edinburgh but the Egyptian authorities have  been unable to substantiate accusations against him other than that of a political activist.

Abdulrahman explained how he had fled Egypt with his wife and baby daughter after ten photographer and journalist friends had been killed.  He spoke with fondness of ‘his wee family’ in Scotland but feels the impact of exile and censorship. He worries about how in his absence his family in Egypt is a target.

Abdulrahman made the point that the UK has lucrative arms deals with Egypt and that we hear nothing of the atrocities and human rights violations in his country.  He called for people to support and share information.  

You can hear more of Abdulrahman Ezz on Scottish PEN Many Voices Podcast

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Leela Soma is a Scottish based poet and writer from Madras.  I was really pleased to hear Leela read at this event as she writes some fabulous poems, which I have been delighted to publish on my website.  Her poem recalled childhood memories of Madras and was rich with imagery and a wonderful sense of place.

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 Sawsan Al Areeqe, Yemeni poet and film maker,  read her work in Arabic and English. I had been introduced to Sawson at Creative Conversations, a literary event at University of Glasgow, where she completed a Fellowship residency facilitated through the Artist Protection Fund. Whilst at the university she finished work on her fourth poetry collection, ‘Expired Death’.

Sawson’s performance was uplifting, joyful and animated and it was a pleasure listening to her recite in her own language.   I think we will be hearing a lot more of her in Scotland’s world of literature as she has just been granted five years stay.  (She will be performing at The Old Hairdressers in Glasgow on 23 July, 2019).

Writers in Exile was a very thought provoking event.  It highlighted  how literature informed by other cultures inspires writers and fascinates and informs the reader. It also brought home how much we take freedom of speech for granted, whilst simultaneously raising the question as to why we hear and know so little of the plight of journalists and the oppressive regimes in countries such as Venezuela, Egypt or the Yemen.

MSM in this country seldom reports on issues of human rights and crimes against journalists in these countries. However, recently it was reported that the Campaign Against Arms Trade successfully challenged in court the legality of UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia in relation to the horrific war in the Yemen. New licenses have been curtailed but shockingly the response of Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, was to say that the government would challenge the Court of Appeal.

It’s shameful to hear the stories of writers in exile when it can be argued that too often the UK is complicit in their plight.

Pat Byrne, July, 2019.

 

 

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