I went to the Writers Unlimited and it was amazing to see the wordsmiths at play. The first event I attended was the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award on Thursday, January 19th 2012. I was actually there because an Indonesian journalist/writer Leila S Chudori would join the talkshow on women’s right and sexuality. I didn’t expect the night to be exceptional…
But Asieh Amini, one of the awardees, proved me wrong. She’s an Iranian journalist, poet, and activists for human right, particularly against stoning and juvenile execution. She fled Iran in 2007 after a brief imprisonment due to her involvement in a peace protest of a fellow activist’s arrest. She now lives in Trondheim, Norwegia, and became the only awardee who can come to the Hague to receive the award.
“Thank you for the award but how can I be happy? For people are stoned to death and teens are killed in my country,” she said with a wavering voice on stage.
Amini proceeded by reading some of her sad poems, mostly about violence and fear, topics so close to her heart. It was the first time I heard poems in Farsi — depressingly beautiful. I don’t understand Farsi but the translation in Dutch and English was projected to the screens on the background. Too bad I can’t memorise the poems, except the last one which was different than the rest, with playful tone against the Genesis story: ‘I’m taller than Eve / I’ll pick all the apples.’
Later she also participated in the talkshow on women’s right and sexuality, along with Chudori and Bejan Matur, a Kurdish journalist/writer/activist against Turkish occupation. To be honest, it was a bit dull and slow, and at some point the moderator went to say, ‘Iran is an Islamic country, Turkey is too, and Indonesia is the country with the most moslems, so is Islam the problem?’
Perhaps she was just trying to be the devil’s advocate but somehow I felt offended — what kind of generalisation was that? Anyway, Amini canvassed the question by responding, ‘You should bring Israel to the table, since you only invited muslim to this discussion.’ The audience laughed and the moderator said, ‘I’m also a muslim, but I just want to know your opinion.’
The discussion then spent some time criticising the patriarchal societies. I don’t remember the details. Maybe because after that, Kader Abdolah practically stole the show.
The Iranian/Dutch writer had the task of closing the session by reading his essay. Despite his misogynist tendency in his response/joke to the discussion of patriarchal societies (‘Women make us do bad things!’ he said), dramatically and comically he entertained everyone when he told about how he became a writer in The Netherlands.
‘I had two dreams: of becoming a great Persian writer, and to be a president.’ He didn’t tell that he joined the left-wing movement opposing the Shah regime, and later the Khomeini regime. He just spoke that he ran to Turkey, where the corrupt officials could be paid to smuggle people.
I forget the exact words (and cities) but here’s how he kind of said: ‘For $ 10,000 they will smuggle you to New York. For $ 9,000 they will smuggle you to Los Angeles. For $ 8,000 they will smuggle you to Paris…. If you’ve got nothing, they’ll send you to Amsterdam.’
And that was how he first came to Amsterdam as a political refugee in 1988, and once he arrived, ‘Guess what was the first place I went? I went into a Persian carpet shop. I told the owner that I wanted to be a great Persian writer. But he said, “Your dream is big but The Netherlands is too small!” ‘
So Abdolah bought a fake passport to go to: ‘New York, of course! But I got arrested at the Schiphol airport. So I bought another fake passport to go to.. New York, of course! But then I was arrested again at Schiphol. Then I bought a new fake passport to go to.. New York, of course! When I arrived at New York and went to the passport control, the officer looked to the passport, to my face, to the passport, to my face… And then I was deported back to Amsterdam.’
He did not elaborate the reason why he was so eager on going to New York, but Abdolah then said he gave up, and started to write. He wanted to write in Persian, his own beautiful mother tongue, ‘But it made me sick. The language made me sick because it was already taken by the Ayatollahs.’
Then he started to write in Dutch, and ‘I felt liberated.’