Qatar: Mohammed al-Ajami’s ‘Poem from a Prison Cell’


Poem from a Prison Cell

Is it my mind or my heart that I’ve lost

to you, Arab lands, home of enemies?

If you held our minds with law and reason

if you respected our opinions

then you’d hold my heart as well

Who am I? Don’t ask the days about me—

I’m nothing but a prisoner

in an isolation cell

Here in my country, oppression

is what takes our rights away

Here, ignorance

determines our convictions

Here, the people

no longer have a voice, cannot

spell out the language of reproach

My country, if insight required an apology

I’d never stop apologizing

Tell your children, east and west

—and keep telling them, until

the birds sing it in the branches—

that a people without opinions

is nothing but a herd that’s thirsty

yet blind to the nearby oasis

Fight for your convictions: this is how

you ride your steeds and bear your arms

against a ruler who seeks to oppress

and who molds your silence

into a pretext for injustice

Tell them that I, stubborn, persistent

was unmatched in my victory

and my defeat

Time may have disgraced me

but I haven’t been easy for time to shackle

Lord of rabble, what of yours compares

to the thrones of Ibn Ad’s people

in Iram, the city of pillars

which God spoke of in His revelation?

You’ve been insincere, a false prophet on earth

though you, like Jesus, spoke in the crib

You’ve wounded truth, and my proud allegiance

is lifeless now, and clad in black

How can you expect obedience

when you call for injustice?

If we obeyed you, then what would become of our principles?

When we pray, who do we pray to?

To God, or to God’s servants?

There’s no room for virtue under oppression

there’s no room for vice on the road of justice

Whoever wrongs and deceives his people

will never be able to guide them

If history were objective, it would tell

how you’ve sought glory in my so-called enmity

Go ahead and be miserable, though you and I

are not enemies

I avoid enmity, and make enemies

only of those who are truly worthy

If you ask after my finest day

on an occasion when words of pride are called for

I’d call history to mind, and say:

It was when I was a prisoner in my own country

for when you shackled my wrists

history gave me strength

and confidence in victory

These disgraceful chains

are power in my hands, not power

for those who lord it over me

Doors and guards, wake me up gently

whenever I sleep too long

It is not desire

but fear

that makes me ask this, fear

that the enemies will see my weakness when I sleep…

though I no longer know

if my eyes are closed, or if

I’ve been awake all this time

by Mohammed al-Ajami

To mark the second anniversary of the sentencing of Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami to 15 years’ imprisonment last month, English PEN joined forces with our colleagues at Amnesty International to hold an event in his honour and to call for his immediate release.

Al-Ajami event photo

Ahead of World Poetry Day this Saturday, 21 March, we are once again urging our supporters to take action for al-Ajami:

  • Sign and share our petition for the immediate release of Mohammed al-Ajami
  • Share information about his case with your friends and contacts – #FreeAlAjami
  • Send a message of support to al-Ajami and his family via

About English PEN staff

This content is published by the English PEN staff.

View all posts by English PEN staff →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *