“I did not want to leave my country forever,” said Syrian author Iman Al Ghafari. When she left her homeland in 2012, she had hoped to recharge her batteries and return to fight for gender issues. Now she knows she cannot go back. Most recently, she worked at the Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality, as well as a stint as a guest writer in Utrecht.
Now Ghafari is the Sigtuna literary center’s newest sanctuary writer, a guest in Sweden for the next two years. Sigtuna itself is one of nearly sixty International Cities of Refuge (ICORN), an independent organization of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk, advancing freedom of expression, defending democratic values, and promoting international solidarity.
Ghafari spoke at a Sigtuna Literary Festival event yesterday about the plight of feminist and lesbian writers who wish to discuss the issues that concern them in the public sphere. She was joined by author Ola Larsmo, president of the Swedish PEN, and Sigtuna Foundation director Alf Linderman in a conversation about the freedoms we so often take for granted in the West.
She has a doctorate in English literature from Cairo University; her dissertation was on the poet Sylvia Plath. “There was a feeling of anxiety in Syria, a feeling of being excluded in my own country,” she said. “I was not able to appear in public or express my opinion.”
“Then the situation became unsafe in general – every day explosions and bombs,” she recalled. She left the Syria and has been an exile ever since.
The authorities gave other reasons for her marginalization – she said that to admit the truth “would have been a confession.” Or rather, they gave no reason at all. She insisted she had not resigned from her faculty post, but her university said it no longer wanted her. “Before I left, I was involved in a personal war in Syria. I was not allowed to get an income or leave.” She felt like she was a hostage in her own country and an exile even while living in it.
PEN’s Larsmo said that writers and journalists have a special position within society. When waves of people are fleeing a dangerous situation, they are heading in the opposite direction: “Journalists, truth-finders, those are the people who are trying to tell us what is happening there. They are heading in that direction as others flee,” he said.
He noted that the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie provided a model for the way these people are denigrated and held in suspicion by the very people who should be protecting them. He cited four commonplace accusations they face: 1) The threatened artist is “artistically bad,” he said. Hence, Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses is condemned for being a “lousy novel.” 2) The threatened artist was deliberately provocative to get fame and money. 3) The threatened artist is putting other, innocent people in danger – for example, publishers, illustrators, or bookstore personnel. 4) The threatened writer or journalist is fundamentally “a bad person,” or unhinged and unstable. In keeping with the blaming-the-victim mentality, Ghafari recalled fellow Syrians blaming her, asking her, “Why do you put yourself at risk? Stay on safe subjects. Keep quiet. Don’t create problems for yourself.”
Larsmo recalled an incident where asylum was denied to a Bangladeshi blogger for fear he might overstay his welcome in his potential host country. Instead, he was murdered in his own. “I get furious still when I think about this,” said Larsmo. “In spite of the world situation, you have to keep your decency.”
In the absence of free speech, governments exploit divisions among people and persecute writers. “Turkey is now literally a prison for writers and journalists,” said Larsmo. “Erdogan wants to emphasize polarization. Who knows where Turkey will be in five years?”
Linderman asked Ghafari to look in her to make a few near-term predictions. “I’m not optimistic,” she said. “I see more restrictions on freedom of speech moving to the Western world.”