They will not be silenced

As Salman Rushdie enters the tenth year of the fatwa against him, what of the hundreds of other writers around the world who are living in danger or forced into exile, far from the international spotlight? Paul Vallely remembers their plight
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's easy to be cynical about Salman Rushdie as he enters the tenth year of the fatwa that calls on Muslims everywhere "to seek out and kill" him. After all, what has it actually cost him, you might ask, with his increased book sales, police protection at the taxpayer's expense, and his enhanced celebrity status among the New York smart set and the London glitterati? No other writer has been welcomed onstage by U2 and invited to the White House by Bill Clinton in what one jaundiced commentator described as "a lugubrious version of Jennifer's Diary". How does all that compare to the round of book bannings, firings, arrests, kidnappings, incarceration, torture, death threats, assassination attempts and murder that was the lot of thousands of writers during the same decade? The international writers' organisation, Pen, has 681 such cases on its books for the last six months of 1997 alone.

And yet the fatwa for Rushdie has been far from the marathon publicity stunt cynics might suggest. The 1989 sentence imposed a relentless round of hiding and moving house - at first on a daily basis - and destroyed Rushdie's marriage. "He has spent around pounds 100,000 of his own money on protection," says one who knows him. "He goes to more parties than he would otherwise have done - it's a way of showing that he hasn't been beaten or broken."

The threat may diminish with time but it will never go away entirely. Rushdie's Japanese translator was stabbed to death in Tokyo and his Norwegian publisher shot outside his home in Oslo. His Italian translator was stabbed in Milan by a hit squad demanding Rushdie's address. In 1990 Islamic clerics increased the price on his head from $1m to $2m and the bounty reportedly went up to $2.5m on the anniversary of the fatwa last year. Special Branch takes the threat seriously enough to have asked London's literary editors recently not to disclose the identity of Rushdie's new wife.

But it is unarguably the case that there are many writers who have suffered as much and more, and often out of the international spotlight. I've been underground since June 4. You cannot imagine how I am spending every hopeless moment. I cannot see the sky, I cannot see my relatives, I cannot talk with them. I must stay in a closed, dark room, alone. I have no confidence in the law of this land. Even jail would not be safe for me. The situation is so charged I could be killed at any moment. Please save me.

This desperate SOS was sent by the Bangladeshi poet and novelist Taslima Nasreen when angry Muslim fanatics were stalking the streets outside her home shouting "Break her legs! Break her legs!" The anaesthetist-turned- writer had inflamed Islamic radicals by degrees. First, she wrote on taboo subjects such as female orgasm and rape within marriage. Then in 1993 she published a novel, Lajja (Shame), which highlighted the persecution of Bangladesh's Hindu minority; the government banned it and confiscated her passport and irate zealots beat her at a book launch and stripped her of her sari. But it was when she gave an interview to an Indian paper in which she purportedly said the Koran should be revised (because of its attitude to women) that Islamists called for her death and placed a bounty of $2,500 on her head. She claimed that she had been misquoted - since religious texts such as the Koran, Vedas and Bible did not need revision because their time was past - and was told her retraction was worse than her original statement and more filthy than The Satanic Verses. Her SOS to the women's committee of the writers' association Pen led to international pressure which persuaded her government to restore her passport; she fled into exile in Sweden.

The life of the exile may be preferable to that of the blindfold torture victim but it is one that writers have found to be a torment. In the 14th century Dante recorded the pain of living away from his native Florence: "You shall find out how salt is the taste of another man's bread, and how hard is the way up and down another man's stairs," he wrote. Exile is inimical to their art. "You start forgetting everything. Even the impression of what an African forest is like, the smells, the colours. Your poetry becomes drier and you compensate by making it more combative. But then you worry about writing propaganda," says Vincent Macombe who fled to Britain, via Moscow, after a Ugandan soldier put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger after a performance of his play The Fall and Trial of Idi Amin. It failed to go off.

"If someone gave me a single wish, I would answer without a thought: I want to go back to my homeland, Bangladesh," says Taslima Nasreen. "So many years have passed since I last looked on her beautiful face. To those who judge me from outside, I should be content. I don't have to worry about food, clothes and shelter like most of the people back home. I don't have to run for my life any more. There are so many caring, friendly people around me here. But still I cannot say I am happy. I've been uprooted from the very soil where I was born and grew up to be myself. Europe: `the land of dreams' for so many. But what am I here? A rootless person in this alien soil, no sense of belonging. Just another plastic plant in a painted pot."

Many writers are silenced by the ultimate sanction. During the years of the Rushdie fatwa perhaps the most famous author to die was killed by a government. The potency of the stance of Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer of Nigeria's most popular soap, and defender of the rights of the Ogoni people against the uncontrolled despoliation of their land by transnational oil extractors like Shell, is such that even after his execution in 1995 the Nigerian military regime continues to forbid anyone in his birthland to mention his name in public.

Saro-Wiwa's hanging had a traumatic effect on Pen, which was founded in 1921 as an authors' club but which in 1960 set up a Writers in Prison committee to speak up for authors silenced in their own countries. "We pulled out all the stops and we still failed. It brought home our powerlessness," says one of Pen's officials, Siobhan Dowd. "It also underlined that multinationals are the new power in the post-Cold War world and that those corporations and businesses must be persuaded to play a larger part in promoting democratic reforms."

Yet, even among those oppressors who wish to still the pens of those who seek to record their wrongdoing, execution or assassination is not the first option. The world's jails are full of those who have used their position as writers to speak out against intolerance and injustice.

Fragments

We cannot hold, linger

Parings of intuition

Footsteps

passing and repassing the door of recognition.

The words are those of another Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, the first black African to win a Nobel Prize for literature. For 30 years he has teased, satirised and confronted various military regimes in his native land. Early on he was jailed for two years. Like so many writers before and after him he made use of what another Nobel laureate, the poet Joseph Brodsky, who served his time in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, called "a shortage of space made up for by the surplus of time" to produce something creative from his prison experiences. Even so, it was not an experience he relished repeating and he slipped across the border into exile via Benin when his passport was confiscated by the current regime which has arraigned him, in absentia, for treason.

Long-term imprisonment is the hallmark of countries where the political process has stagnated: China (which holds more writers in prison than any other country), Burma, South Korea, Syria and Vietnam all specialise in jailing writers. Sometimes they make use of laws which on the surface sound reasonable enough. "Betraying state secrets" was the charge laid against Alexander Nitikin, who has recently become Russia's first post- Soviet political prisoner. A former senior inspector at Soviet Inspectorate for Nuclear Installations, Nitikin was arrested in 1996 after contributing a chapter to a book produced by a group of Norwegian environmentalists. He was charged with passing on secrets - even though all the information it contained came, according to Amnesty International, from material previously published in Russian newspapers. Nitikin was detained for 10 months in a secret police prison without trial before being charged with offences for which the penalty could be 15 years in a penal colony, or death.

But where reasonable laws cannot be made to fit, repressive governments have no compunction about creating catch-all legislation to silence opposition. The military regime in Burma has a law which even prohibits "descriptions that, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the time or circumstance of their writing". Burma's most popular woman writer, San San Nue, a novelist and short-story writer, is currently jailed for 10 years for distributing "false news that could jeopardise the security of the state" and giving "one-sided opposite views" in interviews with foreign journalists. She also made the mistake of contacting the UN Human Rights Rapporteur on Burma. It is her second time inside; during the first she was kept for 10 months in solitary confinement with no outside contact at all in a cell 9ft long by 7ft wide in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison. Today, other writers are forbidden to refer to her works or even to mention her name.

You took away all the oceans and all the room

You gave me my shoe-size with bars around it

Where did it get you? Nowhere.

You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

So wrote Osip Mandelstam, the prisoner poet who served time in Stalin's Russia, and died en route to a Siberian prison camp. Of no one is it more true than Indonesia's most celebrated long-term prisoner, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who was jailed by Dutch colonial authorities in the 1940s and then by the Indonesian Army from 1965 to 1979. Housed on the harsh penal island of Buru he spent the first three years without paper, but it did not stop him beginning his most famous work, a quartet of novels which he wrote in his head and memorised with recitations to his fellow prisoners. Ever since his release he has been under house arrest, or confined to Jakarta. His books are among 2,000 currently banned in Indonesia and students risk a seven-year sentence merely for circulating samizdat copies.

Ananta Toer was never charged with an offence, rather like the Malawian poet Jack Mapanje who was jailed, as he told me, for "three years, seven months and 16 days". When he asked his jailers why, he was told: "You were arrested on the direct orders of the President's office; it would be impertinent for us to ask why." No one knows what the Iranian secret police told Saidi Sirjani, but they told the people of Tehran, after he disappeared, that the poet and satirist was a drug-user, homosexual and spy. Few believed it; not long before, Sirjani had written a horribly prophetic short story about a man who was arrested for writing a short story and forced to go on TV to make false confessions. "Don't believe me if you ever see me on TV saying things like that," he told his wife. Shortly after, the prison authorities announced that Sirjani, who had no history of heart disease, had died in prison of a heart attack. They refused to release his body for autopsy.

The short story written by Saidi Sirjani was no inadvertent or reckless piece of writing which happened to catch the displeasure of the powerful. It was a calculated act of defiance which cost him his life as he knew it well might. Another such was the Argentinian writer Alicia Partnoy:

Daughter, dear, my tongue hurts and I can't say `rib-bit, rib-bit', even if I could, you wouldn't hear me. This little poem soothed you when you cried; you went to sleep listening to it ... I've repeated it for a whole day, but I still can't sleep. `Rib-bit, rib-bit, he sings on the roof' ... I told the torturers if they took me to the meeting place I would point to him. Then, when I saw him, I didn't do what I'd promised. Afterward, the electric prod again and the blows ... harder: `Where is he?' But my child ... `Rib-bit, rib-bit' ... Where are you, my little girl? `I don't know where he is.' The punch to my stomach. Stop it ... please! `Nobody knows where he hides' ... Soon you'll be two years old and you'll learn it all. `Rib-bit, rib-bit

Partnoy was among 30,000 people who disappeared after the military coup in Argentina in 1976. She was arrested for clandestinely collecting and disseminating information about the repression. After being imprisoned, separated from her one-year-old child, for three years - during which she smuggled out stories and poems, like the one above, which were published anonymously - she was reunited with her husband and child and fled to the United States.

And for those who take refuge in the self-satisfied thought that such things cannot happen here in the democratic West, consider the following case. Edward Hoagland is an essayist and author of 15 books who is also a lecturer at Bennington College, Vermont, in the United States' more civilised eastern reaches. Hoagland was a man with impeccable liberal credentials. He had been active in the civil rights movement; he had opposed the Vietnam war; he was in favour of positive discrimination for ethnic minorities and women.

Then one day he wrote a long article in Esquire criticising the amorality of the American novel and asking which US writers would today go to prison for their beliefs. Modern American writers were cynical and afraid to make judgments, he concluded, not just moral ones about drugs and crime, but even physiological ones such as that Aids spread so swiftly through the gay community because anal sex "employed the excretory orifice in a manner that mammals had all but stopped using 70 to 100 million years ago and that tore lesions in the rectal lining through which the strange, savage virus entered. Writers in numbers witnessed all this, but forbore to comment for fear of becoming unpopular." At once a tide of political correctness was unleashed. Hoagland was accused of "homophobia" and - despite his protestations in the New York Times that "anal sex was dangerous because it's not provided for physiologically, not because it's morally wrong" - he was fired. He appealed, with the backing of Pen, and persevered through a year of tension and unpleasantness to win back his job on the grounds that his academic freedom had been infringed. Many other victims of political correctness have been broken and capitulated.

No one would suggest that Hoagland's case is in the same league as that of Salman Rushdie, or indeed those writers who have suffered even more grievously than Rushdie over the past decade. But it hints at how easy it is for any people to begin to slip down the slope of intolerance in their inability to admit dissent. It is all too clear where it leads. If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance the alternative is the awful type of despair evidenced by the poet Faraj Birqdar who has been inside a Syrian prison for the past 10 years. In his writings he never once advocates violence but only emphasises qualities such as peaceful persistence and courage. Today he cannot walk unaided after being tortured in the German Chair, a metal contraption with moving parts which stretches the spine, neck and limbs. While inside he has written:

Then tell your master the sultan this:

your cell is no narrower than his grave

nor more lasting than his life.

The day will come when the earth

will welcome his corpse too, feet first

with oblivion for a funeral party.

He has five more years to serve

Extracts from prisoners' writings are taken from `This Prison Where I Live' published by Cassell.

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