English PEN is deeply saddened by the news that our friend and colleague Raficq Abdulla has died.
A passionate poet, essayist and broadcaster, Raficq was also a valued and dedicated supporter of English PEN. A Trustee of many years, Raficq made valuable contributions to many different aspects of PEN’s work, including through his role on the Management Committee and his involvement with our Writers in Translation Committee. In 2014, Raficq took on the role Acting President, guiding the organisation through a period of transition with considerable skill, wisdom and energy. Raficq was a generous colleague and friend and will be greatly missed by us all.
English PEN are honoured to be joining Raficq’s family and friends to host a memorial service on Thursday 19 March. Please join us at St Peter’s Church, Black Lion Lane, Hammersmith, W6 9BE. Refreshments will be served from 6.45pm and the programme will run from 7.30 – 9.30pm (no interval). All welcome. RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org
In the meantime, we are inviting friends and colleagues to send your tributes to Raficq to share here and with his loved ones. Please send your memories, thoughts and photos to email@example.com
It was a lovely thing to walk into a room where Raficq was. That clear, bright smile, that genuine openness and interest in the people around him. He served on the editorial board for In Other Words, the literary translation journal for which I’m one of the editors, and was a wonder to work with, always wearing his erudition and searching intelligence lightly, always adept in enabling others to be heard, and such an asset to us in his lawyerly acuity. In an email he sent on some proofs in 2018, advising us to ask one of our authors to better substantiate her article (which included allegations against a publisher), he said: ‘I’m sorry to take this position, I like the combative tone, I’m on the side of the angels but I need the angels to grow more feathers, if not wings.’ This was Raficq all over, and not only in his ability for a juste metaphor. He gave so much of himself to the angelic causes that it meant his incisive good sense came through with generosity. I know everyone involved in In Other Words will miss him.
– Thomas Bunstead
Raficq was a truly incredible person. On a personal level, he was always incredibly generous with his time. He made the effort to introduce me to PEN and I know he helped many people in their various walks of life.
Raficq was a true scholar and defender of the rights of writers. His beautiful poetry will always be with us.
– Mike Harris
I had the privilege of serving alongside Raficq for five years on the Board of English PEN. He was a terrific Trustee: wise, impassioned, dedicated and collaborative. He made an enormous impact on PEN and did so much to champion the cause of writers and of freedom of expression. I admired Raficq very much as a colleague, but I admired him even more as a person. He was such a kind and thoughtful man, and he had really sharp sense of humour, which I loved. He had a fierce intelligence which he wore lightly, and I learnt a great deal from him. He shall be very much missed, but I feel proud to have known him and will remember him fondly, always.
– Charlie King
Raficq was the warmest and kindest person imaginable. He welcomed me into PEN as if I were an old friend who’d just stepped out of the room. To me he seemed the incarnation of the best kind of humanist, as if he were meeting every situation afresh and without prejudice, always ready to find common ground and so quick to laugh. It was obvious he was deeply intelligent and passionately engaged in the work and of course in his own work, and very serious about both. But at the same time he made you feel you were engaged in an endeavour that above all would be the greatest – and possibly the wickedest – fun. As if he always had a sense of how lucky we were to be there, all together, at that moment in time, to be doing that work, to be alive. So I – and I am sure so very many others – are sad beyond words to learn this terrible news.
– Lulu Norman
Raficq was always a dedicated and enthusiastic supporter of English PEN’s work. When he joined the organisation as a trustee I got to know him better, and I was amazed to discover his incredibly wide range of interests and achievements, as well as his warmth and mischievous sense of fun. He was incredibly passionate about poetry, and once he discovered that I wrote myself he never ceased to encourage me and take an interest. His first question when I saw him was always, ‘and are you writing?’ and he was unerring in his conviction that writing was an important force for good and change that demanded to be taken seriously. He will be much missed.
– Sarah Hesketh
It was such a joy to serve with Raficq on the PEN board. He was all those things you would want in a fellow trustee – dedicated, reliable, able to listen and also to speak eloquently, and prepared to roll up his sleeves and do the work without complaint – but he was also much more than that. A lovely man he saw people, actually saw them for who they were and for what they were going through, and yet he never judged. He treated everybody with equal compassion and at the same time he treated us all to his impish charm. We will miss him, all of us, and particularly those of us who were privileged to work alongside him for so long.
– Gillian Slovo and Kamila Shamsie.
Raficq was a key member of the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Advisory Panel when I came to know him and offered unwavering support, critical friendship and commitment to his colleagues there and at National Centre for Writing (then Writers’ Centre Norwich) as well as to the art, craft and power of literary translation – particularly in service of freedom of expression. This support continued through his ongoing role with In Other Words – the national journal for practising literary translators – where the breadth, depth and generosity of his intellect and networks were always made available to his colleagues on the Editorial Board.
He noted to us in an email from last year (and in response to a discussion about a future edition of In Other Words focusing on the role of translator) that ‘Roles demand honesty and balance in today’s binary world of narcissistic displacement and rhetorical assertions. Heroes are not automatically models. Utopias are inherently problematic.’ His lawyerly concision always seemed to find a happy meeting with his artistic and intellectual energies and he wasn’t wrong: he himself offered honesty and balance in his every dealing with us. We will miss him.
– Chris Gribble
I first met Raficq in the basement of the Poetry Café, Covent Garden. An evening of international poets convened by Exiled Writers Ink in support of Palestinians in Gaza, the place was crammed with writers and avid listeners.
Raficq stood up, imposing in his rangy, eagle eyed six-footedness. Emanating the mindset of an occupying regime, he pinned his eyes on the audience and read out his Wall poems. Elegantly, he threw down the gauntlet, spitting out measured rage and frustration with a wrangling deadlock eked out for over half a century without a chink of recognition yielding to common humanity. A wall indeed.
Sharply challenging, his poems were acute and personal in the same breath. I was transfixed. I felt as if he was addressing me, a Jew alongside communities of all faiths ranged behind me, present and absent. I approached him as if drawn by a magnet. We became firm friends.
He invited me to an evening he was chairing at the Arcola Theatre: an interview with film director Jamil Dehlavi with whom he’d written the film scripts Blood of Hussein and Born of Fire. It was a task he undertook with acuity and zest. He had the capacity to set the room alight with his questing, darting curiosity and intellect, interjecting only when necessary, stimulating debate and steering us, the audience into impromptu conversation.
He came to see me incarnate a Liverpudlian teenager doing the twist and a 98-year-old Greek great-grandmother jigging across the stage of Southwark Playhouse in Visible Theatre’s epic: Who do we think we are? He brought with him a Norwegian pianist, ever extending the links of communication between all of us involved in the arts, politics and interdisciplinary collaborations. I could feel his delight in the energy radiating back-and-forth between actors and audience, our work rendered more vivid through his eyes.
Not only did he bring his sharp, iridescent poetry to my own informal salons in Hackney but he took part in those events with a bracing upbraiding of everyone he encountered: `Who are you? Where, why, when and what?: the classic journalists’ tenet he made his own.
As a long term member of the Royal Academy, he would usher me in for free and afterwards sit me down in the coffee shop and challenge me. Why do like this painting? How exactly do you view that film about Shelley? What is it about Yeats’ poetry that affects you? Analysing the heart of the discourse: my discourse, rendering me more confident and alive, such was his generosity and largesse of spirit.
His restless mind was so fast-moving, his beam so focused, so alert to new situations, modestly belying his own brilliance. Presiding over book launches for his work on the Islamic mystics Rumi and Attar, his Reflecting Mercury: Dreaming Shakespeare’s Sonnets and recent co-authoring with fellow musketeer Mohamed Keshavjee Understanding Sharia Law in a Globalised World, I’ve seen him capture audiences with wit, clarity and charm.
And he was angry, so angry with the forces of reaction facing us here and internationally. Apart from being a fine poet with a poet’s sensibilities and delight in language, he was a keen radical, expressed via his award-winning, multi-faith work, his community activism, his involvement with English PEN, his sensitive intervention in issues of public and private importance, his latest, upcoming collection from a prolific output.
In the wake of an uncouth, cataclysmic electoral result affecting the future of our children’s children, I have appropriated his warm, confrontational manner myself. In his name, I now strike up conversations and altercations with every innocent passer-by I meet, be they on the bus, at the railway station or even in the street. Where, why, when, how and what next?
Celebrating his playful, quicksilver spirit, we must cherish his flame and that of his wife Marianne, who – alongside their devoted son Adam – provided the steady, yin-yang balance that underlay and lengthened their enduring partnership. We should strive to embody his goodness and be as radical as we possibly can – with kindness, with sensitivity, with an open mind – but true, with a marvelling, ever piercing gaze.
– Norma Cohen
I knew Raficq Abdulla for many years and long admired his energy and commitment to the causes close to his heart. He was a regular performer of his poetry at our Exiled Lit Cafe nights. It was clear that he was intensely close to the spiritualism of Sufi poetry and I particularly recall an evening of his own mystic poetry at which he also presented and discussed the work of Rumi and Attar. In fact he published two books of new interpretations of the work of these mystic poets: Words of Paradise: Selected Poems of Rumi (Frances Lincoln, 2000) and Conference of the Birds: Selected Sufi Poetry of Attar (Frances Lincoln, 2003).
It was always evident that he cared deeply about human rights and peace, a sensibility which he expressed through his poetry and participation in our literary activism events. This was exemplified by his contribution to Poets for Peace in Colombia organised by our late chair, Fatieh Saudi, and in 2014 he was one of the Arab and international poets who read their work in support of Palestinians in Gaza. Raficq was a profoundly deep and reflective thinker and I remember the impressive paper he presented to our 2012 symposium ‘Hospitality Poetica’ in relation to the ‘other’.
Now I realise that I was familiar with only a few facets of Raficq Abdulla as he was always a modest man and I am saddened that I was not more aware of all his other prodigious achievements in terms of law and scholarship on Islam.
We will miss him at Exiled Writers Ink.
Dr Jennifer Langer. Founding Director Exiled Writers Ink
Raficq Abdulla, besides being a co-author of a book we wrote together, was a friend. During our collaboration what came through each time was his sense of fairness, honesty, intellectual incisiveness and non-judgmentalism. He believed in freedom and abjured authoritarianism regardless of wherever it came from. He was always suspicious of certainty. He was secular in his outlook but believed in the inner life and the need to search for the mysteries of the universe with the humility of knowing his limitations. He always asked the rhetorical question: “how do we even know that we do not know, and how will we ever know?”
Raficq’s activities covered a wide range of interests including music, poetry, an appreciation for art and above all a love for people. He was curious and took great delight in getting to know someone when he was introduced to them. He was a good listener. He was always ready to share his knowledge and he embodied a strong sense of social justice. A man of prodigious curiosity, Raficq was a constant learner and used his education and contacts to help others including the most marginalized in society. He was a mentor and made people feel that they could achieve the highest self-fulfilment that they were capable of. A voice of reason and moderation, he played an important role in promoting greater interfaith understanding in the United Kingdom and elsewhere through the medium of the humanities and more particularly through his writing and poetry.
A remarkable individual, Raficq will be missed by many for his warmth, his sense of humour, his sharp mind and his willingness to engage in a good argument.
– Mohamed M Keshavjee
One of the greats!
I came to know Raficq as the editor on his last book, an introduction to Sharia. From the very first meeting Raficq’s enquiring mind, his sense of humour, his love of serious music, his passion for poetry, his love of female company and above all his dedicated and scholarly approach to the subject we were working on — these all dictated that we would become fast friends, and from that point I was ineluctably drawn into his wider life of wonderful family (for who could not fall in love with his fantastic wife) and friends from the worlds of music, poetry and literature. We spent a good few evenings trotting off to concerts – particularly at Pushkin House where we listened entranced to the virtuouso Japanese pianst Maki Sekiya, the weird and wonderful Theramin proponent Lydia Kavina, or watching and crying over Janacek’s Jenufa. It was Raficq who pushed me to write and publish articles on various bits of Arabic poetry that had gripped me and also to write more of my own poetry. He was always willing to read anything I had written and his love for the written word knew no bounds.
Raficq was a great man and never shy about his dedication to seeking out young brains who could produce works of culture, of thinking, of consideration, and of beauty. I am sure that anyone who had even a passing acquaintance with him has had his/her life immeasurably improved and we will all miss him sorely.
– Russell Harris