The Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh has been sentenced to death for apostasy. In the eyes of Saudi authorities, his involvement in the international art scene may have made him suspicious.
It was an argument with extreme consequences. Sometime in the summer of 2013, the poet Ashraf Fayadh got into a dispute with a stranger. The latter was so enraged that he got the religious police involved in the conflict, claiming that Fayadh had offended God and the prophets in his presence. The “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” as the Saudi religious police is officially called, arrested the poet on these claims. They let him go a day later, but his case was later brought to a Saudi court.
Fayadh was accused of having committed a whole series of charges, such as offending God and the Prophet Muhammad, ridiculing the Koran and denying the Coming of Judgment Day. He was also accused of spreading atheism and mocking God in his poetry.
Expressions of regret pointless
Fayadh denied the allegations. He said he did not aim to offend God, neither privately nor through his poems. If someone found such suggestions in his poetry, he claimed to be sorry about it.
The court accepted his statements of regret. Nevertheless, it sentenced him in January 2014 to four years in prison and 800 lashes. From the perspective of conservative hardliners, the sentence was considered too light, and they called for its revision. The case was re-opened. In mid-November, the court sentenced Ashraf Fayadh to death.
These death sentences are usually carried out by decapitation.
Free interpretations of a poem
Ashraf Fayad is known far beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia. As with many other poets of the Arab world, religion is not the only instance governing his reflections. Even if God exists, it is not always easy to understand the meaning of life, he says. “I am searching for consolation, but my situation does not allow me to interpret your lips the way I want to,” writes Fayadh in his poem “Frida Kahlo’s Mustache.”
Love poem, metaphysical reflection or political commentary? Many things can be read in these verses, but nothing in particular attacks God. Or is the expression of a feeling of abandonment in itself an act of blasphemy?
Born in Saudi Arabia, but stateless
Fayad’s poems describe the anxiety and restlessness of modern man. “Home: A card you can put in your pocket,” is a line from his poem “Asylum,” which continues, “And the return: A mythological creature… from the stories of my grandmother.” These images referring to a lost homeland and ancestral myths correspond to the poet’s concrete situation. Even though the 35-year-old was born in Saudi Arabia and has lived there ever since, he has no access to Saudi citizenship because his parents are Palestinian refugees.
All immigrants from the Bilad al-Sham (Levant) region, which includes the present states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, are considered suspicious in Saudi Arabia.
That is one reason why Saudi Arabia is not currently accepting any refugees from Syria. The country’s ultraconservative religious leadership believes they could potentially import modern world views. Ashraf Fayadh is also affected by this prejudice.
Jeddah, former multicultural center
Saudi guardians of public morals were probably also irritated by the fact that Fayadh is a prominent member of the artist group “Edge of Arabia.” Located at the outermost tip of the Arabian Peninsula, the edge of Arabia used to be the cultural center of the Arab world – until the discovery of oil. The port city of Jeddah once served as a gateway between Asia and Africa. From there, ships left for India and Somalia, leading to many multicultural contacts with religions other than Islam.
Ashraf Fayad identifies with that spirit. It led him to develop contacts with the Tate Modern in London. He invited the museum’s director Chris Dercon to an exhibition of his collective in Jeddah. In 2013, Fayadh was then invited to curate a show by a group of Saudi artists at the Venice Biennale. The group was called “Rhizoma,” the Greek word which describes roots proliferating right under the earth’s surface in such a multiform way that no hierarchies can be recognized.
It is a concept well established in contemporary cultural theory. Ashraf Fayadh applied the interpretation, as his group sought to document radical changes in the Saudi art scene, which is increasingly in confrontation with accepted lifestyles in the country.
‘Why more slashed throats?’
With Ashraf Fayadh’s death sentence, the Court seemingly wanted to put an end to these artistic actions. Their exact justifications and arguments remain secret.
The Internet newspaper “Al Araby Al-Jadeed” (The New Arab) criticized the judgment laconically: “In these times of ‘Islamic State,’ do we Arabs really need further scandals involving slashed throats?”