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Imprisoned Words: Un-Silenced by June Considine

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
Poetry Ireland

By June Considine

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It all revolved around the title of a book. The Finest Women on Earth seemed like an innocuous title but what was it hiding? What coded references were contained within those five words? Galal El-Behairy, the Egyptian poet, who had chosen the title for his latest poetry collection, claimed that his poems focused on the strength and perseverance of Egyptian women, and the support they offered to their menfolk. Not so, said his detractors, who were many and powerful.

The Egyptian Minister of Culture publicly denounced the book on live television. The poet was arrested and, at his trial, the prosecutor claimed the book’s title actually alluded to Egyptian soldiers. Soldiers are referred to in a hadith by the Prophet Muhammad as “the finest soldiers on earth”. The Arabic title of Galal El-Behairy’s book uses the term niswan for “women,” a word that has derogatory connotations in Egypt as it implies weakness and submissiveness.

Words and their convolutions, their distortions and connotations, their ambiguity, treachery, brutality. Flip a coin and their purity shines through, their clarity reveals truth, conquers evil, unmasks corruption. But words can also pave a path towards torture, imprisonment, even death.

Was the anger Galal El-Behairy aroused more to do with the addendum on the back cover of his book where he challenged the current public attitude in Egypt regarding terrorism and conflict plaguing the Arab World? Accused of ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news,’ he is currently serving a three-year sentence in a notorious maximum-security prison in Cairo, nicknamed ‘Scorpion’ – a word that cannot lead to any misinterpretation.

Words are never still, even within the darkest prison walls, and Galal El-Behairy continues to write his poems. Somehow, he has harnessed his creative spirit and his poetry reminds us that he may be out of sight, but not out of mind.  In an excerpt of his poem, I Have a Date with Tomorrow, he writes:

I have a date with tomorrow

But, man, I am in prison

I would love to see you tomorrow

So will you visit me, if only in my dreams?

Tomorrow is not coming tomorrow

And my heart is oozing blood!

Between coffee and smoke

Between mattress and prison bars

Between jail and jailer

Between lucidity and disorientation

I wait…

The poet, journalist and editor, Nedim Türfent, who is currently serving a sentence of eight years and nine months in a Turkish prison, also captures this defiant and courageous creativity when he writes, ‘No matter what the price or consequence might be, we will never compromise from the magical creations of writing and of the written word.’ He was imprisoned for reporting on Turkish military operations in southeast Turkey. Before he was sentenced, he spent almost two years in solidarity confinement in harrowing detention conditions. In his four-meter-long prison cell, where he was denied access to TV, radio, books or newspapers, he says he was forced to read ‘the back of detergent boxes’ to pass the time. Somehow, he continued to keep writing, turning to poetry to express his feelings. In an excerpt from Searching Trails of you (Love) he writes:

Solitude touches my heart

Within me

Somewhere right in there

A thin veiled ache,

A tender melody

How must I explain

In tar black darkness

I toil in your absence


Your absence

An adventure upon an obscured end.

I fall weaselling

Onto empty pages

Line by line

In your absence…

Turns out

To write about you

To touch upon your absence is heavy labour!

The courage to speak out – to use words to expose – has never been more dangerous in this era of fake news and managed misinformation. Even when a poet is one step removed from the words, they are still in danger, as was the case with the renowned Uyghur poet, Chimengül Awut. She was involved in editing a novel that met with the disapproval of the Chinese Government and is currently incarcerated in a Chinese ‘re-education camp.’  Another word that belies the reality of those who are being ‘re-educated.’

When these voices are unable to be heard, others must un-silence them. That  is what  Imprisoned Voices – A Hearing will do on the 14th November at Poetry Ireland when four Irish poets, Celia de Fréine, Chris Murray, Colm Keegan, and Maria McManus will read the poetry of the imprisoned poets, Galal el-Behairy, Nedim Türfent, Chimengül Awat and the Eritrean writer, Dawit Isaak. Dawit, who also has Swedish citizenship, has been held incommunicado in an Eritrean prison for over seventeen years and will be tried, according to the Eritrean Foreign Minister, ‘When the government decides.’

Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist and blogger, whose commitment to words led to her murder will also be remembered when Celia de Fréine and Chris Murray read the tribute poems they wrote for PEN International to mark the anniversary of her death. It is three years since a bomb was detonated beneath her car and she was silenced forever.

Imprisoned Voices – A Hearing is being held to mark the 2019 Day of the Imprisoned Writer and has been organised by the Freedom to Write Campaign (Ireland). Writers June Considine, Catherine Dunne, Kate Ennals, Anthony Glavin, Liz McManus and Lia Mills will also add their voices to the stories of the evening. Eamonn Sweeney and Cormac Breatnach will perform on classical guitar and flute.

Are you asking about justice?’ Nedin Türfent wrote in a letter to the Freedom to Write Campaign (Ireland). ‘Well, maybe years later. Please underline the word “maybe”. Even only for this maybe, it is worth hoping. If you hear my voice now, I wish you all a sunny and smiling future. To Ireland, to you… Don’t let your ink run out, neither your hope.’

Nedim Turfent 3 October 2019

The Freedom to Write Campaign has organised this special evening of poetry and music in conjunction with Irish PEN and Poetry Ireland.

Venue: Poetry Ireland, 11 Parnell Square E, Dublin 1. Date 14th November 2019. Starting time is 6.30 pm. and admission is free.


(c) June Considine

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