Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement was galvanised after the region’s governing body passed restrictive electoral reforms in August 2014. Here, writer and assistant professor Dorothy Tse investigates the role of literature in the movement, and asks what the future of Hong Kong literature is in light of rapid sociopolitical changes taking place.
On Wednesday, 29 July 2015, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, English PEN and Index on Censorship gathered outside the Bahrain Embassy in London to protest the ongoing detention of Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace.
Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace is a prominent academic and blogger who promoted human rights in Bahrain throughout the 2000s. Police arrested Dr Al-Singace for his participation in the peaceful Arab Spring protests in 2011. During his initial detention, security officials subjected Dr Al-Singace to torture and ill-treatment, including forced standing, verbal and sexual assault, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. He was tried by a military court in June 2011 and sentenced to life in prison for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
On 21 March 2015, Dr Al-Singace began a hunger strike in protest of the ill-treatment of inmates and the poor, unsanitary conditions at Jau Prison. Dr Al-Singace has now completed 132 days of hunger strike.
At the solidarity protest, BIRD associates read out extracts from the testimony of Dr Al-Singace, as documented in the Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which called on the government of Bahrain to respect its obligations under international law and to free Dr Al-Singace. English PEN spoke about restrictions on freedom of expression and called on Bahrain to safeguard freedom of expression. The organisations also called on Bahrain to investigate allegations of torture in Bahrain’s prisons and called for urgent medical attention for Dr Al-Singace.
Dr Al-Singace suffers from post-polio syndrome, heart, eye, and sinus problems, and requires urgent nasal and ear surgery. Prison authorities have denied Dr Al-Singace the specialist medical treatment that he urgently needs. He is currently being detained at the Al-Qalaa Hospital and is not permitted to go outdoors. He is also being denied access to novels, religious texts, television, radio, and pen and paper for writing. Dr Al-Singace was not even permitted a condolence visit when his nephew died.
In June 2015, BIRD, English PEN and Index on Censorship launched a social media campaign for Dr Al-Singace – #singacehungerstrike – alongside a number of other NGOs and the University College Union. We are also continuing to call on our supporters to send writing materials and messages of support to Dr. Al- Singace.
The release from prison after more than three years of Hani Al-Zitani and Hussein Gharir, human rights defenders and members of the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression (SCM), is a small step towards improving Syria’s freedom of expression situation which remains one of the worst in the world. However, we continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mazen Darwish, the founding president of the SCM, who continues to be arbitrarily detained.
On 16 February 2012, Syrian Air Force Intelligence raided the offices of SCM in Damascus and arrested all those present, including Darwish, Al-Zitani and Gharir. All other SCM members were later released.
The three men were detained for more than two years without trial, at times in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance. During this time they were reportedly subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
In February 2013, the three finally appeared before the Anti-Terrorism Court on charges of ‘publicising terrorist acts’. Since then, their hearings have been repeatedly been postponed, most recently on 22 July. The next hearing is now scheduled to take place on 31 August.
According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), prior to this most recent hearing, a list of detainees to be granted amnesty which included Mazen Darwish was sent to Hama Prison Administration. However, instead of being released, the prison authorities carried out a further security check on Darwish: as a result he is due to be moved from Hama Prison to the State Security Department in Damascus. His family are awaiting further news.
Furthermore, despite their releases, Gharir and Al-Zitani will continue to face further legal proceedings as the charges against them have not yet been dropped.
In October 2014, PEN Pinter Prize winner Salman Rushdie chose Mazen Darwish as the international writer of courage with whom he wished to share the prize, stating:
Mazen Darwish courageously fought for civilised values – free expression, human rights – in one of the most dangerous places in the world. His continued detention is arbitrary and unjust. He should be freed immediately, and we must hope this award may help, by shining a light on his plight.
Since their arrest, PEN and dozens of other human rights organisation have called for the charges against the three men to be dropped and for their immediate and unconditional release. PEN believes that Hani Al-Zitani, Hussein Gharir and Mazen Darwish were and are held solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression. We call for all charges to be dropped immediately and for Mazen Darwish to be released without further delay.
In Spring 2015, English PEN ran a series of workshops with WINGS, the young mums’ group at Bethnal Green-based migrant and refugee advocacy centre Praxis Community Projects. This was the first run of creative writing and translation workshops for Brave New Voices 2.0, a three-year project working with young refugees across London to celebrate multilingualism and mother tongues.
The workshop facilitator was writer, journalist and broadcaster Bidisha, whose most recent publication Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London is inspired by the stories of people she worked with during an outreach residency undertaken with PEN in 2012. Bidisha, the WINGS mums and their children met once a fortnight, sharing real and imagined stories about life in London and elsewhere.
On 12 May, award-winning young adult fiction writer Faïza Guène and her English translator Sarah Ardizzone visited the V&A Museum of Childhood with the group for a special feature workshop. The group focussed on creating characters, and had a lively Q&A with Faïza about writing, being a mum and her book Just Like Tomorrow (copies of which had been donated by Definitions, the UK publisher).
As summer approached, the group turned their attentions to the upcoming festival season and all the sun, good food, laughter and dancing that comes with it. Read some of the women’s poems, festival menus and thoughts on summer on these postcards:
Thoughts from Bidisha, writer-facilitator
‘The first thing I saw when I went to Praxis for my run of workshops this year was a heap of babies crawling, biting, playing and generally being too cute for words. That was when I realised it wasn’t going to be an ordinary set of writing sessions. Instead, the following months played out in a blur of literary inspiration, sisterly supportiveness, tough life lessons, maternal briskness and, more than anything great humour and wisdom. From the women, I mean. Not from me. The WINGS group may have come for the camaraderie – but I stayed for the talent I witnessed in every single one of the women, whether we were writing letters, poetry, affirmations or mottos, whether we were tackling romantic stories, making jokes or writing memoir. What struck us all during the sessions was the intense silence of concentration that would strike during the exercises, when everyone was writing. We amassed note-cards and exercise books of excellent work – but we also talked, about politics, about London, about life.
Every single one of the group’s members had a life story that was by turns inspiring, troubling, humbling and intriguing. Every single woman had overcome great odds in their home lives and their lives as citizens in the UK and were forging on and establishing themselves with a strength and focus, ambition, dignity and love which I found staggering and admirable. They channelled all this into their dedicated work at the writing sessions, but also the care and supportiveness they showed towards each other.
By the end of the workshops the babies were babies no more. Toothy, verbal, sturdy-legged and completely un-shy, they were little people with their own personalities. Neither I nor my students wanted the workshops to end; in fact, we felt we were only getting started. As any writer or reader will say, there’s always more writing to be enjoyed and absorbed, produced, performed and edited.
The greatest surprise of all came in the last session when the students complained that they hadn’t been given homework. I was heartbroken. I’d deliberately held back from giving out assignments because I thought my women had enough on their plate already. ‘Give us some homework’ are the four words every teacher, in any institution, in any city, in any country, longs to hear.’ – Bidisha
Huge congratulations to everyone who took part in the WINGS workshops, and thank you to the Limbourne Trust for funding them.
Etgar Keret is in the UK publicising his latest book, PEN Promotes-supported essay collection The Seven Good Years (Granta Books). The writer and film-maker took time out to talk to PEN Atlas about fatherhood, storytelling and the challenges of making the personal political.
Visit Etgar Keret’s website at www.etgarkeret.com.
Read more about The Seven Good Years and buy it through our book partner Foyles on the World Bookshelf.