"Do You Miss Death?" Asks The Voice At the End of the Phone: The Story of An Exiled Author

One afternoon in 2007, Basem Al-Nabriss, poet and author, incensed by the death of his friend caught in the crossfire of the 2007 Hamas coup, wrote the article that would finally lead him into exile. Five years later he arrived in Barcelona helped by a programme for exiled writers. The peace he has found on the other side of the Mediterranean sea is allowing Bassem to write more than ever, and later this year, the work of this persecuted Palestinian poet will be translated into a language that for only 40 years has itself been free of state persecution: Catalan.  

In June of this year, Basem will have been in Barcelona for three years, supported by the International Cities of Refuge Network Guest Writers programme with a wage, apartment and a temporary visa.   Since 2012, living in the tightly packed medieval streets of El Born, in the city’s centre, Bassem has written two books of poetry, three books of prose and countless pieces of journalism for the digital newspaper Elaph and the London-based New Arabic. In Palestine it would have taken five years to complete a book. “One of the things I was scared of when I came here was, would I loose my capacity to write?  It was completely the opposite.  Barcelona gave me all this energy, all this room… Gaza is like a big cage for birds.  It’s completely under siege.”

We meet to discuss his life and work in the Catalan branch of PEN International, the international NGO founded to protect freedom of written expression. We meet once in March and again in April, at the end of a week of heavy media attention for the organisation after PEN America granted it’s Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage award to the writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. It’s the afternoon and the office is surprisingly quiet.  As tourists drift around El Gotic below, replicas of commissioned art by local artists hang on their walls, the originals of which were sold to raise money for their quarterly publication of Catalan writers. The remaining wall space is lined with a slim document calling for universal linguistic rights.

For Basem, 54, mild-mannered and softly spoken, publishing in foreign languages has come much easier than publishing at home.  While his poetry regularly features in Arabic and Palestinian anthologies, and has already been translated into German, Hebrew, English, French, Turkish and Farsi, the road to a literary career was always going to be testing.  Born a refugee in Khan Yunis camp in Gaza in 1960, he left his studies early to provide for his family. He found work as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Culture, working as a journalist in his free time. His outspoken opposition to Israeli occupation and the presence of this within his work led him to serve four years, in and out of prison during the 1970s and 80s.  

Everything however changed in 2007. By the end of June of that year, Hamas had defeated Fatah in a battle for control of the Gaza Strip. “At that time Hamas was controlling everything – anything that happened [was] under their control,” he says.   It was one day when watching the news on his TV that Basem heard about the death of his friend, another poet, killed in the crossfire during the coup. Lifelong witness to Gaza’s struggle with Israel and longstanding victim to censorship, Basem’s writing would again put his freedom at stake.

Before the day was out he had written an online piece claiming his friend’s death had been Hamas’ doing. The following morning it was published in print in the daily Al-Hayat for all to read.  Soon after he received a phone call from Hamas officially refuting his claim.  “They used to do this with writers and people who [were] talking against them, so it is natural that it was them, but they deny it, it is also their way of doing [things], they always deny.”

Not long after, while at home with his mother and daughter in the courtyard, several grenades were thrown at the house. Hamas denied the attack. No one was hurt, but the message had been clearly sent: Bassam was to stop writing. Under pressure from his family, he agreed to stop writing. He lasted just six months.

What proceeded reads like any in a society ruled by a government that uses violence and authoritarianism to wield control.  “No one dared to write against them (Hamas) or say anything, even the union of writers that I was one of the founders of didn’t even condemn it publicly. Comments came from outside, not from the people who were under [the] control of Hamas.” Was he surprised? Not at all, he says “I’m used to doing something and paying for it straight away.”  

Back at his keyboard he again began writing critically of Hamas. Death threats soon came through the end of his phone. “Do you miss death,” the voice on the other end asked. “Do you really want to die again?” His editor offered him a pseudonym.  He turned it down.

“Oh father, they went into the clouds, and I remained to remember them. Neither women nor fortune smile to let me forget, to take me out of this house of memories”Basem’s asylum in Barcelona is temporary. “It’s hard for somebody that is 54 to begin from zero in a new place.” He’s in contact with Gaza and Palestine daily, and he believes his life to be in danger from what he names, “the fascist religious power of Hamas” should he return to Gaza.    The financial support for his asylum has ended.  He now faces the predicament, stay in Barcelona poor without an income away from his family, or return home.   “I’ve never ever dreamed of anything else but Palestine for these three years.  When I heard I would come to Barcelona I was very happy. It was like going from death to life.” 

Over the last two years he’s visited Portugal and Poland. His visa - which he carries in the front of his wallet and produced at the very mention of its name - is now more restrictive than it once was.   This year he’s had to turn down twelve European literary festival invitations.  If he gets his visa renewed, he’ll return, knowing that if his writing endangers his life again, he can come back to the safety of Barcelona. Cosmopolitan Barcelona; multilingual Barcelona; capitalist Barcelona for this self-proclaimed Marxist - all have been rich and deep sources of inspiration for Basem. “There’s something that gathers Palestine and Catalonia,” Bassem tells us. “The Catalan reader will get what no other reader in the world would.”

In 2015 Catalan is Europe’s seventh most spoken language.  Its public use however has only been permitted for 40 years. From 1939 when Catalan writer Carles Rahola was executed by firing squad in Girona, Catalonia’s third largest city, Franco implemented a concerted campaign of censorship against the Catalan language.  A carpet-ban on using the language in public was enforced; no schools were to teach it, no books were to be published or newspapers distributed in the language. 

For Bassem to be writing at his current speed and for an organisation, like PEN Català, to be funding a translation of his work into Catalan are two remarkable stories running in parallel.  Perhaps only surpassed by the fact that we meet at No.6 Carrer de la Canuda: the former office and home of the head of Francisco Franco’s forty-year-long censorship.  “There was a giant fireplace,” Carme Arenas, Professor of Catalan Literature and President of PEN Català jokes, as we sit in the small office on the large floor that has since been divided in two.  Opposite now stands a large library, downstairs a Creative Writing School.  “When we moved in we didn’t know what to do.  There was a photocopier and printer in the kitchen too.” 

“Every day, I hunt shadows in the fold of darkness. I monitor the rattle in every sound. And I never descend to rage.

The gatekeeper of Basem’s poetry and culture is sitting in the middle of us. Catalan translator Valèria Macías Pagès stops Basem mid sentence with a delicate coming together of her fingers; a touch for precision.  He duly stops, and she begins translating the poet’s words into English.  Noticing this encounter in the long passages of the interview spent in Arabic, I wonder how much will be lost in the translation.  “I’m afraid, as all writers are, as there is something in translation that is lost, but on the other side I am happy because I know it’s the only way for cultures to meet.”

Basem was one of the first Palestinian writers to publicly say he was an Atheist.  He read Marx at an early age and has been a member of the Communist Party.  As much as safety has marked his exile in Barcelona, the time this Marxist Palestinian poet has spent  “inside this capitalist system” won’t have gone unnoticed. “This balance of having the economic side covered gave me this help to change my psychology, and then gave open mindedness.” Although he does point out the conflict.  He’s under no illusions about the difficulty for artists not just in conflict zones, but those struggling in capitalism.  “If you don’t have a job, if you don’t have money, you cannot write or live in general.”

Basem maintains his poetry isn’t “directly political.” “My way of resistance is through beauty.  So every paragraph or verse that is beautiful is already by itself a way of resistance.”  The relationship in Basem’s work between beauty and violence, harmony and conflict are all rooted in the struggle he has spent his life witnessing. His most recent book of prose consists of short, concise sentences.  They neatly distill what he’s experienced since living in the Catalan capital. 

His subtle combination of the chaotic and the precise, the quiet and the loud, all tell stories of defiance, trauma and tragedy.  Writing, he insists, “is the way for cultures to meet.” His brevity in his prose and in his poetry will now enrich yet another language.  As the interview ends, before Basem disappears into the warm night, we exchange information on key literary sites in Barcelona.  I learn that in the north of the city, in the wealthy neighbourhood of Sarria, Gabriel García Márquez lived and wrote.   It’s clear that Basem has absorbed the city and the culture. Having read almost everything that has been translated from Catalan to Arabic, he proves a knowledge of the city that perhaps even locals do not hold.  

Basem’s personal and literary futures hold change.  A return to his family and life is almost inevitable, his continued safety less so.  Political organisations, Nation States, even his family, have all tried to stop Basem from writing.  But he refuses.  I ask him once more if he could ever imagine closing his notebooks and putting down his pen. “No,” he responds, without waiting for the Arabic translation. “Even if writing is a second of my life, I am ready to sacrifice everything in life for it.”

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