Andrew McMillan supports fellow poet Ashraf Fayadh

Writers and artists around the world are being encouraged to produce new poems and artworks in support of Ashraf Fayadh as part of a Day of Creativity on 28 July. English PEN is delighted to take part in helping to raise and maintain awareness of Fayadh’s case by publishing the following piece by British poet Andrew McMillan.

Andrew McMillan’s poem ‘a week of living blasphemously’ was written and performed for the English PEN Modern Literature Festival, curated by Steven J Fowler, and also featured on a Lunar Poetry podcast highlighting writers at risk around the world and PEN’s efforts to support them. Andrew McMillan is also among a number of writers continuing to support Ashraf Fayadh, most recently by reading his poems at the Ledbury Poetry Festival.

We hope that many of you will consider writing pieces in support of Ashraf Fayadh and, if you’re in London, please do join our regular vigil at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia on Friday 29 July, 9-10am. More details here.

Andrew McMillan on Ashraf Fayadh

The world is so much smaller than we imagine it to be, and we can’t ignore the plight of those suffering for simply using their voice or their pen – to write or tell stories is the very bedrock of a civilisation; civilisation itself cannot be imprisoned, we must keep saying their names aloud.

Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes which are to be given in 16 separate punishment sessions. I took the number 50 from one of those sessions and considered everything I’d done, taken for granted, this week, that would have landed me in trouble in another country. I took the structure of ten sections from Ashraf’s great ‘Disputed’ poems. The reference to ‘four times’ comes from something I read about LGBT rights in certain countries, and that a ‘sus-pect’ is asked to admit they are homosexual four times before being put to death.

a week of living blasphemously 

‘I directed my face at the warmth of your arms, I got no love but you, you alone, and am the first of your seekers’ – Ashraf Fayadh, from the ‘disputed’ poems


forgive me   I am in love with a Catholic
I myself have no religion   whilst my boyfriend
was at church I had two glasses of wine in my
underwear   when he came home I pretended
I’d been polishing the door fronts of the cupboards


forgive me I do not call my mother enough
I got into the car and let my mother drive
me to the station yesterday      when we go shopping
I am always trying to get her to try
on nice things   accept her wants    as well as her needs


I encouraged a friend to leave her husband
I told her that being safe or being free
were not two different handles on the same jug
that there was a choice and what of the vow
we make to the self   to always be honest


I just finished a new novel about a man
who picks up a rent boy in a toilet  falls in
love with him  leaves him   and ends up with syphilis
I leant it to a friend   and wrote a review of it
encouraging others to read it as well


on Wednesday night by boyfriend came home from spin class
and hadn’t been bothered to change out of his shorts
he spent the evening reading fashion magazines
where often naked women are draped in expensive
fabric for the purposes of consumerism


I took my boyfriend out for a meal   held his
hand as we walked passed a group of football-charged blokes
bought the third most expensive bottle of wine
to feel extravagant    let’s get dressed up  I’d said
the food was that kind that’s all deconstructed


my boyfriend chose some black cropped trousers and a kilt
or skirt over the top to emulate a look
he’d seen at Paris Fashion Week   back at the flat
he deconstructed the outfit   turned each piece
inside out   built a dirty-washing pyre


I was too much of a coward to keep watching
the TV   sometimes in bed   at night   I wonder
what it would be like to be someone who did not
officially exist   from a country which did
not have the right to call itself a country


sometimes   in bed   at night   I list the things that would
make me illegal   my ink   which I would not cover
white wine   men   my lack of faith   my book collection
I am circumcised though   that inch of cut-off flesh
means I am clean   and could be   potentially   good


Ben   I would declare my love for you four times if asked
but do not think I am a martyr to my heart
I am weak from privilege   I have not endured
I am impulsive   sweating shame and doubt
I could renounce you in an instant to save myself


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