Mazen Maarouf never thought that he would leave Lebanon forever. That changed in November 2011, when it became clear that his future there was on limited time. He left Beirut for Reykjavík as an International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) ‘writer in refuge,’ under which he was offered a home and a two-year lease on a future.
In that home he hung his paintings and put away his books. He became a regular at a café, developed routines, made more friends than he’s ever had and gave in to the ebb and flow of life here. He was tasked with sharing his poetry, creating more and translating Icelandic literature to Arabic. In this he fell in love with the Icelandic language and gained a solid command of it. The former chemistry teacher and writer from Lebanon found his niche in the Nordic poetry scene.
In November, his two years are up, and if 35-year-old Mazen is granted Icelandic citizenship in December, it will be the first time he has ever been recognised as a citizen of a country.
Mazen was born in Lebanon of Palestinian refugee parents, meaning he has neither Palestinian nor Lebanese citizenship. Life in Lebanon became too dangerous when he spoke out against the Syrian government and wrote articles condemning the divisiveness of Lebanese and Palestinian politics. In a Grapevine article written about Mazen in 2011, shortly after his arrival to Iceland, he mentions having experienced a kidnapping, an attack and multiple threats at gunpoint in Beirut.
But in Iceland, it was his poetry that made him visible. He’s published three books of poetry, translated more than 180 texts and has been a guest at literary festivals around Europe. He’s been covered by international media and has been featured in two documentaries aired on Al Jazeera.
He still has no passport. He’s mobile due to a Travel Document he carries from the Lebanese government that essentially allows nations to choose whether or not they want to accept him. During a recent layover in London, en route to a literary festival in Abu Dhabi with three other Icelandic authors, Mazen was sent back to Reykjavík. He was not permitted passage through London and his mother, who had travelled from Lebanon to the festival in the hope of meeting him there, did not get to reunite with her son. “An Icelandic passport would change my life,” he says.
Mazen isn’t reluctant to talk about politics, but it’s visibly not his favourite flavour of speech. It never was, but in Lebanon, writing about it was a matter of underscoring injustices he had witnessed moving from home to home amidst cyclical violence.
Mazen buffers questions that could have a political spin with breadth. He makes them philosophic questions. You can ask him if he believes something to be right or wrong, but you could be launched into a broader conversation about ethics and cultural relativity. He has developed the unique ability to near-constantly balance his experience in one hand and the historic/cultural context in the other. People who have hurt or disappointed Mazen are still deemed nice. Lebanese people and Icelandic people can’t be compared, he says, because we are all blanketed under our human likeness. What comes off conversationally as an unwillingness to critically analyse his surroundings becomes a triumphant element in his writing—it’s inclusive and humble; he doesn’t want to make comparisons, he wants to draw parallels.
When he’s about to say anything slightly political or critical, his voice lowers, as if someone might be listening or something might be misunderstood. He’s calculated about the words he chooses—no radical statements or emotive displays. Even being labelled as a refugee from birth to the present day seems overly political to Mazen. He tries not to see it as a distinction but as an equalizer. “We’re all refugees from something,” he says casually.
Growing up in Lebanon, this was a way of protecting himself. A conversation at university or with a neighbour could begin and end as quickly as political affiliations became clear. In many instances it commenced with a declaration of sides and hinged on whether all parties agreed with one another. The lack of free expression and diversity of thought was suffocating. When he tried to speak out, violence was used to subdue him.
Though the solace of Reykjavík is a tonic to that violence pervasive in his life before—a peaceful place to “evacuate his memory”—it took getting used to. “Peace can be confusing as well,” he says. “The way I lived in Beirut was all based on violence. The way people want to impose things on you—it’s all based on violence. That tension followed me here. My mind works on tension.” What he created was a new tension based on what he comparatively refers to as Reykjavík’s cultural arsenal—books and minds as opposed to weapons and aggression. “You walk down the street here and you run into three writers, and the artists here are very serious,” he says. “This is a serious atmosphere for me to be committed to.”
Life in Reykjavík
Mazen puts together a poem every few months but in the interim, he’s working on a novel, writing short stories or translating. At some point during the day, he usually goes to Stofan café where they run a tab for his mostly tea and Swiss mocha purchases. When he walks in, he stops to talk with one or several people he knows and the ease with which he interacts and laughs with these friends is indicative of how security and support can breathe life back into a person. “In Lebanon, I had three friends—close friends—but otherwise I was very solitary,” Mazen says. “In Reykjavík, I am surrounded by people I have roots in.”
When Mazen was teaching chemistry to teenagers in Beirut, talk of Iceland was usually in regard to climate change. He had little notion of the socio-political climate or what day-to-day life was for Icelanders. To that effect, he had little notion of what it was like to live anywhere that guns and loyalties weren’t worn in the open. “I never really imagined a place like Iceland existed,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine living totally void of violence.”
Initially, ICORN offered him placement in several central European countries in addition to Iceland, in cities such as Madrid, Berlin and Paris, but he was set on Reykjavík. “I wanted to be in a place where nobody knew me and I knew no one. I wanted to start from zero.”
He laughs at the thought now, of coming to a sinking island in the North Atlantic populated by polar bears. “At first I thought I would find all of these beautiful animals in Iceland,” he says. A basic Internet search proved him wrong. He laughs at the memory of arriving at Keflavík Airport, unknowingly early, and believing that his ride had forgotten him and he would need to walk to Reykjavík in the November wind and rain.
The misnomer about Mazen in all of the sombre memories of persecution and displacement is that he doesn’t actually carry himself this way. He’s not downtrodden or severe—he’s charming, he smiles more than he doesn’t and he jokes even about his lofty, poet’s responses to simple questions. He still prefers to go through his day-to-day routine alone. He likes to cook, paint, visit bookstores and walk along his familiar paths. But he celebrates sharing the products of the process—meals, a turning point in his book, a song on his Oud, an Arabic, petal-shaped guitar with a bent neck.
He apologises for small bits of clutter in his home, he doesn’t pay them much mind anymore because he’s not sure whether to pack things up or put them away. If he doesn’t receive citizenship, he’ll have to move elsewhere or find a creative way to stay, but he brushes this off like an irrelevant deadline. The idea of leaving another home doesn’t sit well. If he receives his citizenship, he’s considering returning to university to continue studies in chemistry or to pursue film studies or script writing.
“I came to Iceland intending to prove myself as a writer, believing people would treat me like a refugee,” he says. “In Reykjavík, they simply took a human being and treated me as a human being.”
Mazen’s mother still does not know that he came to Iceland as both a writer and a refugee –she knows the writer part. Perhaps her version of the story is more true to how he hopes it ends: Her son was welcomed to the country on the merit of his writing, he went to prove himself, and in the midst of it all he found a home that he could truly never leave and that would, at last, never force him to.
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