Monday, October 27, 2008
Poet Arrested for Insulting Islam
Last week I came across this article on the New York Times website, and then this one on the BBC website. A 27-year old Jordanian poet, Islam Samhan, was arrested for combining Qur'anic verses with sexual themes in his poetry. According to The Guardian the controversy surrounds his first collection, Grace Like A Shadow, Menassat that it is called Elegant Like A Shadow (oh the rich problems of translation), and The National says it was a collected works called In a Slim Shadow. This blog hedges the middle saying that the current controversy surrounds Grace Like A Shadow despite the popularity of his previous release of collected poems In A Slim Shadow. Whichever it is, sources agree that his poetry has been called innovative and beautiful, and is now at the center of a heated controversy in Jordan.
The poet is still imprisioned in Jordan, and will appear in court on October 30th on charges of apostasy which might carry a potential death sentance, a banning of the book, fines and imprisonment according to various sources. This blog has it that the poet could be forced to divorce his pregnant wife and not contact her or their children again were he to be found guilty of the charges. The details may be skewed but the issue is painfully clear.
It is both terrifying and heartening to know that in some places poetry can land you in jail. In the United States poetry hasn't been able to land you in jail since the 50's, which some may think speaks of tolerance and I think speaks of unimportance. But here, this poet and the writers who are supporting his cause, are given an opportunity to make a difference in their world, change perception. Reminiscent of the controversy over the Danish cartoons, which drew global attention, a major difference is that Islam Samhan has said he was not intending to mock, disparage, or insult Islam, that he was merely influenced by the beauty of Qur'anic language. Intention should count, especially in the interpretation of abstract, perhaps even esoteric art forms like poetry. But it can't be everything, and it traces a dangerous line to assert no harmful intention, for where would that leave more controversial poetry? Islam's poetry, in any case, cherishes and celebrates Islam, but in a way that makes it surprising, new, unexpected, as any poet worth the name must do. This is called innovation.
Saud Qubeilat, head of the Jordanian Writers Association, warned: “One shouldn’t judge poetry based on literal terms, otherwise many of the poets would be declared apostates. And if anyone has a say in literature, it should be a literary critic and not anyone from a different field who doesn’t know anything about old or contemporary literature.” This is similar to the arguments made in the smut trials in the US during the 50's over now-classics like Ulysses. Artistic freedom must be granted in order to allow the best art to develop unfettered, and art can only be interpreted by artists. All in all, a sound argument, at least so determined the US courts. Now we can only hope the Jordanian courts will see the logic of letting poets to their own devices, and not interpreting literally the verses they read. Perhaps an Art of Poetry class is in order for the officials charged with determining the offense of poetry.
All glibness aside, this poet deserves the freedom to express that which he finds beautiful and moving, deserves the possibility of surprising his contemporaries and the ability to intend to innovate. I hope he will be acquitted, and his book made available. Frankly, I would love to read it.