Palestinian poet and journalist Mazen Maarouf has been given sanctuary in Reykjavík
Mazen Maarouf—who has lived all his life as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon—was recently granted sanctuary in Reykjavík through the International Cities of Refuge Network, or ICORN, which offers to relocate persecuted writers to a safe city elsewhere in the world. We met up with him to discuss this, and more. Before discussing why he was given sanctuary, we talked about his poems. His third book of poetry, whose title translates to “An Angel On The Clothesline,” has just been published in Lebanon by one of the country’s largest publishing houses. I ask him what it is like to have his book come out while he is so far away. “When I was present in Lebanon I did not publish a book for seven years. So my publication was absent. Now my publication is present and I am absent. I am very happy that my book will be there, because that is my voice.”
We also discuss why he writes poetry. “For me a poem is just a piece of freedom, just a tiny piece of freedom. I imagine freedom as a fabric that we all try to stitch a part of, or clean a part of it. I think that when we write a poem, regardless whether the poem is good or bad, it is something that makes us feel relaxed. It is a kind of treatment, like you are going to the hospital, and this hospital is established only for one hour and only for you. The only nurse in this hospital is you.”
“You are receiving yourself and treating yourself. In this treating room, this intensive care, no one sees you, and you can express and do whatever you want. You destroy a part of this hospital, you keep another, you sit wherever you want, and you establish one tiny piece of freedom. It’s like a magic pill that makes us very happy. I want to jump sometimes, when I write a poem and have conviction in what I wrote, I feel very happy. This sudden happiness is also confusing. You feel yourself losing your mind, but it is very good to lose your mind peacefully, without bad consequences. Poetry is the key to freedom for me.”
“YOU FEEL TRAPPED AND YOU WANT TO GET OUT”
Mazen’s political involvement started in the late ‘90s at the University of Lebanon, where he was studying chemistry. He established with others an organisation called Palestinian Cultural Club. “[We wanted] to establish a Palestinian movement that sprung from students and was totally nonviolent, using culture, history, literature, poetry, the internet—we have many tools to work with.” They also wrote articles critical of the established Palestinian parties in Lebanon. As the writer of these articles and spokesman of the Palestinian Cultural Club, Mazen felt he had to take responsibility. He told the other members: “If something bad happens, if anyone gets any kind of threat, tell them to talk to Mazen.”
In 1997, during his first year at university, two fellow students armed with guns pulled Mazen out of a group of his friends. “They took me and told me that it was better not to talk like this. They thought this was the way to get me to shut up. This was the first threat.” He was threatened in the same way every year until he graduated.
From 2000 to 2008, Mazen wasn’t as politically active, working as a chemistry teacher at a secondary school. Still, he was not left alone by those who had been angered by his articles. He had, as he put it, three ‘accidents’ during that time. “I got kidnapped and it was not a nice experience. I do not want to go through details. It is not easy and it is in the past. They were very tough. You feel yourself trapped when you are attacked many times by the same people. You feel trapped and you want to get out of this pattern.”
“WE WARN YOU THAT YOU WILL BE IN DANGER”
In 2008, Mazen wanted to start regularly writing about politics again. “I was thinking about doing a series of articles critiquing the Palestinian struggle against Israel. Because for me it was very important that if we are fighting and struggling to get our rights as Palestinians we do not have to be blind and ignore our mistakes. Maybe I sound pessimistic, but that is my view, that we failed. I sent one article to a newspaper and they said: ‘We do not feel that you will be okay if we publish this article, so if you want us to publish this article it is your own responsibility. We warn you that you will be in danger.’”
The warning from his editor frightened him, understandably. Through 2008–10 he wrote mostly reviews of books, theatre, and so on, but he never stopped writing about politics altogether. “I wrote a few articles criticising the Palestinian radical parties. Part of the big problem we have as Palestinians is the old Palestinian parties. But the radical parties must also be questioned: ‘What have you done for your cause?’ Again, some people were not very happy about it.” One article was so critical that a friend called to check if he was still alive. It was during this period, in 2010, that an Iraqi poet and friend of Mazen’s recommended that he seek sanctuary through ICORN.
“THE SECURITY NET IN LEBANON HAS MANY HOLES”
Soon after Mazen applied, revolutions spread around the Arab World. “I became really involved in social criticism when the revolution started in Tunisia. I increased the amount of my writing when the Syrian revolution started. Because the way the Syrian regime treated their people was brutal, beyond any limit.”
Mazen soon drew attention, both from those who supported the Syrian uprising and those who are for the current government. “Many Lebanese parties support [Syria]. In Syria and Lebanon there are also intelligence agents. The security net in Lebanon has many holes and you can easily fall through, or they push you. You feel yourself trapped. You are followed and you get messages. They were annoyed because they do not expect a Palestinian to say these things. They expect that you shut your mouth and blindly follow them.”
“THE SYRIAN CAUSE IS A UNIVERSAL CAUSE”
His articles appeared in many publications, including Arab magazines published in Europe. “There were people who felt angry about these articles, and they can reach you easily because Lebanon is a small country.” But that did not stop Mazen. “[The protesters] are very brave. Why should I stop writing if these people are continuing every day, protesting in the streets. The revolution in the Arab world did not start because a journalist wrote an article. It started because people took part in demonstrations in the streets, calling for the downfall of regimes. Writers were following them. This is true of every revolution in history. They were not started because of writing but because there are people who live in bad situations for many years and they explode.”
I ask Mazen why he continues to write about politics. “Maybe it is stupid to believe in humanity. Human beings prove all the time that they are violent creatures. Earth has not been at peace for one moment. Still it feels very beautiful to be linked to this sense of humanity, to the dream of humanity and the hope. Human beings are calling for their rights and you want to support them. The Syrian cause is a universal cause. It is important to me to be in alliance with those people. For me that is the least that I can do as a writer or a journalist.”
“A PLACE WITH NO ARMY”
Mazen has been making himself at home in Reykjavík. He spends his time writing and reading, frequenting the library and bookstore cafés. He talks to his friends and family through Skype. I asked him what he had told his family about his new home.
“I told them that the country does not have an army. For my father and mother, who lived all their lives seeing guns in the streets and armed people and wars and bullets, it sounds very different and shocking to them, in a good way, when they hear that their son is in a place with no army.”
Towards the end of our talk, the conversation turns towards literature. I mention that, aside from ‘One Thousand And One Nights’, I know very little Arabian literature. Mazen says: “I feel it is a pity that in the Arab world we know almost nothing about Icelandic literature. Literature is a universal language.
Literature can touch any mind. It is very sad that on Earth there are tools of communication that have never been here before, like the internet, and the accessibility to knowledge, so the world is much more connected and yet some areas are totally out of the consciousness of other areas. I think if we can establish some link between Icelandic and Arab literature that will be very good.”