“Instructions Within” by Ashraf Fayadh [Why This Book Should Win]

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is the first about the poetry longlist, and is written by Emma Ramadan, translator from the French and co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar in Providence, RI.


Instructions Within by Ashraf Fayadh, translated from the Arabic by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki, and Jonathan Wright (Palestine, The Operating System)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 86%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 14%

In times like these, we hear a lot of people talk about how writing and literature are more necessary now than ever. It’s easy to scoff at the idea that literature can solve society’s problems, that a really good book of poetry might have the power to topple totalitarian leaders. But we have to admit that there must be something to the idea when there is such a long, disturbing history of writers and poets who have been imprisoned for criticizing their countries in their work. From China to Iran to France to Israel to the Philippines, governments and leaders have felt so threatened by the words of their country’s poets that they have felt the need to imprison them, disappear them, punish them, make an example of them. What is it about poetry that is so powerful its writers risk death? Perhaps it’s as Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, the woman behind The Operating System, says: “It will, indeed, be the poets (musicians, artists, creators of all kinds) who ‘wake up the world.’”

For revenge
you take pleasure in your pain—
singing, with what is left of your voice,
on the high wires of effort.

One poet currently serving time in prison for his work is Ashraf Fayadh. Fayadh was born to Palestinian refugee parents in Saudi Arabia. Using art as a way to explore the painful memories surrounding his exile, Fayadh helped form a group called Shatta that aimed to turn art, perceived as elitist and abstract, into something accessible and grounded in reality. In 2015, in part because of the words in Instructions Within, he was sentenced to death for blasphemy in Saudi Arabia, a sentence that has since been lessened to eight years and 800 lashes. The book is about Fayadh’s experience as a Palestinian refugee. It is about fundamentalist religion in Saudi Arabia. It is also about the hypocrisies of a world in which Western governments, supposed protectors of freedom and democracy, maintain financial ties with Saudi Arabia, turning a blind eye to the country’s human rights offenses at the expense of people like Ashraf Fayadh in order to keep a steady supply of oil.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the line
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
Country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you return.
Return: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
Here endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is
“what do you signify”?

I was a nightmare
my steps carrying me towards the unknown
towards lonely roads
away from the societies of eternal honor.
I was betrayed even by my steps
they took me far into exile . . .
away from a homeland
that had no ports.
The smell of home is stuck in my nose
and in my memory there remain fragments never to be forgotten.

Suddenly people everywhere were reading Ashraf Fayadh’s poems, at the Berlin International Literature Festival, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, at the NUS Middle East Institute in Singapore, at the Ledbury Poetry Fesival in the UK, in Austria and Nigeria and Bolivia and all over the world. How many people would have read his book had he not been sentenced to death? What should have been a poet, a book, silenced and forgotten about instead became an explosion. In the words of Tahar Ben Jalloun, “This sentence teaches us all we need to know about his poetry—about his strength, about his violence.”

Surrender to sleep.
The time has come for you to melt, and dissolve,
to take the agreed shape of alienation
into which you’ve been poured.
Evaporate, condense,
and go back to your void,
to occupy your usual space
of the You.

Your soul was forged and used for illegal purposes,
voted on—
then eaten
like a loaf.

Instructions Within was published by The Operating System as the first title in their series Glossarium: Unsilenced Texts and Modern Translation, “established in early 2016 in an effort to recover silenced voices outside and beyond the familiar poetic canon . . . in particular those under siege by restrictive regimes and silencing practices in their home (or adoptive) countries.” All proceeds of this book go to support the ongoing fight against Ashraf Fayadh’s prison sentence. One additional particular the book worth noting is its format. The book was designed so that English readers would be reading the same way as Arabic readers: starting the book at what we normally perceive as “the end” and flipping the pages left to right, or “backwards,” taking to a whole new level the idea of translation as providing an experience for the reader of the target language that is as close as possible to the experience of the reader of the source language.

God sits on the throne
as you stain the stillness of night with your voice
looking for a light to exhibit your darkness

So what is it about Ashraf Fayadh’s poetry that threatened the power of Saudi Arabia’s leaders so much that they felt the best way to keep themselves safe was to lock him away forever, to kill him?

I am Hell’s experiment on planet Earth.

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