Today marks PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer, when we stand in solidarity with writers around the world who have suffered persecution as a result of exercising the right to freedom of expression. Each year PEN highlights five persecuted writers, each one representative of the hundreds who are targeted every year as a result of their work, who face harassment, oppression, exile and imprisonment.
As part of the campaign, renowned writers and activists have written letters of solidarity. Below, Kamila Shamsie, author of Home Fire, expresses her respect and appreciation to Razan Zaitouneh.
Razan Zaitouneh – human rights defender, blogger and lawyer – was co-founder of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria (VDC), an organisation that documents human rights violations in Syria. She was abducted in a raid of the VDC offices in 2013 by a group of armed men. Her whereabouts is unclear, but she is presumed to be held with others by an armed Islamic group in Douma.
I have to confess I’m sometimes suspicious of optimists. I think, ‘these people don’t want to see the reality of the world, how bad it truly is.’ But then I come across people who do see the reality of the world, those who look the worst of humanity right in the eye, and still hold on to optimism – and I know those people, the ones whose optimism is forged in fire, are the ones that we need in dark times as much as we need air to breathe or water to drink. I started to know that you’re such a person when I read what your sister, Reem, said about you, and your attitude to life: ‘To think that you are a part of the world around you; to feel that you are not a lonely tiny creature compared to the universe; is a great start to be a human being.’ And then I found an interview with you, from a time when you were in hiding from those seemingly all-powerful forces who were threatened by the work you were doing, in which you said, ‘There is no doubt that the protesters and our revolution will eventually win. If we don’t believe that we will win, we couldn’t continue under all this violence by the regime. We couldn’t bear all these crimes against our people.’ How many cases of torture and abduction and killings in Syria had you documented by this point? Enough to destroy most people’s optimism. But you were still able to imagine victory for your people, your country, and that gave you the strength to do your vital work. Your words made me think of the great Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz (I know from another article that quotes your sister, Rana, that you love poetry) – in some of the darkest moments of Pakistan’s history, he wrote the lines; ‘We Shall See / It is certain we shall see / That day which has been promised to us.’ Those lines have been a cry of hope and resistance and – yes – victory, in the nearly forty years since he wrote it.
People like Faiz – and like you, Razan – are not just important in the world, you are essential. You remind us to dream and to believe and to never give up. Those who’ve abducted you might have thought they could shut you up, but your lessons echo so powerfully and will continue to do so. We are not giving up – on you, and on everything you stand for. I hope one day after you’re returned to your family, I’ll have a chance to meet you. I’ll bring along a book of poems by Faiz, one that contains some lines that he wrote when he was in prison (for opposing autocracy): ‘though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed / in rooms where lovers are destined to meet / they cannot snuff out the moon, so today / nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed.’
I hope the moon is shining strong on your face. And I know that one day, in part because of the work and example of you and your colleagues, the darkness will lift entirely. You see, you’ve made me an optimist. Look how powerful you are, changing people’s minds about the world after reading just a few words by and about you.
In solidarity and admiration,
Image © PEN International