Saudi Arabia is hardly a place for writers. The country's strict dictatorial regime and dubious human rights record are notorious. Mass-executions, the incarceration of bloggers and political dissidents and the systematic discrimination of women and religious minorities have been well documented. Late last year one Saudi Twitter user even compared the country to the jihadist group "Islamic State" (IS).
But, now one poet has found himself on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Sharia law.
Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian artist and poet and member of the internationally acclaimed Edge of Arabia arts group, lived in the southwestern city of Abha, some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the capital Riyadh.
It was here where he worked as curator of Mostly Visible, an exhibition showcasing the best of Saudi Arabia’s art scene – so popular was the showing, the then head of London’s Tate Modern praised his curatorship.
In 2013, Fayadh had an argument with a friend during a soccer match. At the duration of the game, the now 35-year-old was arrested by the state’s Islamic religious police for allegedly "offending God," "promoting atheism" and endorsing other anti-Islamic sentiment through his poetry.
Fayadh maintained his works did not renounce Islam. A day later he was released, only to be arrested again in 2014 on the same charges. At trial, the judge sentenced him to four years imprisonment and 800 lashes. He appealed the decision, which was thrown out and he was retried. He was found guilty. This time though, the trial judges sentenced him to death.
Writers and artists from across the world have banded together on social media to show support for the Palestinian poet, calling for his immediate release. But, it is not just individuals highlighting his plight; writers associations, including PEN International, have voiced their concern for Fayadh’s wellbeing.
As part of their initiative to have him released, a devoted group of activists have translated his Arabic works into English and posted it to Twitter.
One step further
Berlin’s International Literature Festival (ILB) decided something more needed to be done. So, festival organizers posted a message to their Facebook page at the end of November advertizing an event where Fayadh’s poems would be read publically. The date was set for January 14.
“We feel that it is a great injustice that a young artist is being sentenced to death due to his artistic work,” the ILB said.
Marcia Lynx Qaley, an Arab literature blogger and activist, agrees: "(Fayadh) is a significant poet who sees the world in a fresh way. He is part of us, and we must stand together," she says.
Soon after, the Brooklyn Museum in New York picked up on the idea. The number of interested organizations keen to do similar projects continued to grow.
According to the ILB, events are scheduled to take place in as many as 121 locations across 43 countries – from Singapore to Bolivia, Austria to China on Thursday. The Festival's main event is to be held in Berlin.
Under no illusion
While the reading events have attracted global attention, organizers are under no illusion as to the impact their action may or may not have on Fayadh’s case.
The ILB says it is aware Saudis are "unimpressionable" - as was seen recently when Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Iran. But, the organization says, such injustices by the Islamic regime have to be brought to the fore.
Lynx Qualey says, Thursday’s events are more than just a call for Fayadh’s release, but an opportunity to show the world how writers, bloggers and poets are being treated in some corners of the globe. "It is important that we stand together for writers everywhere around the world,” she adds.
Sadly Fayadh’s story is not unique - blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after authorities deemed he had insulted the religion of Islam.
For the full list of reading events around the world, click here.Felix Tamsut