Words for the Silenced

February 6, 2018


On February 5, I hosted an event at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden on behalf of Exiled Writers Ink, London’s longstanding umbrella organisation for refugee and immigrant poets and writers. It was our second “Agit Lit” event — where we combine an evening of poetry and performance with some kind of action on behalf of other writers elsewhere who do not have the power to speak for themselves.

On Monday, we shared the evening with Howell Productions, a young theatre company who have written a play about the imprisoned British Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Longlisted for the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award and praised as “political theatre at its best”, the hour-long production tells the story of a woman visiting her family in Iran, who was torn from her one year old daughter and thrown in prison, accused of being an international spy.

I had heard of Nazanin already, signed petitions and sent letters on her behalf. One of my friends in West London worked with her at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charity that promotes media freedom and the rule of law around the world. This story of a mother separated from her baby, of a husband stuck behind in England with no access to the murky world of Iranian justice, of the series of arbitrary accusations, detentions, near-releases, and heartbreaking set-backs, became part of the national discourse late last year when the bumbling foreign secretary mistakenly described Ratcliffe as a trainer of journalists — a blatant falsehood that reinforced the narratives of suspicion that shackle her. The backlash on her behalf sent him to Iran, finally, and hopes were raised again that she might be released over Christmas. As of today, she remains in prison.

The play takes us up to the present moment, and as I watched the young actors portray the husband and wife at the heart of the story, and a variety of judges, journalists, politicians and guards, I was aware that Richard Ratcliffe was in the audience, and I could not help but imagine what it was like to see his life re-lived for a live audience, in the middle of story with no resolution.

Before the evening, I had been anxious. On a cold Monday night in London, there is no way to know how many people might show up. An hour before the start, people began to filter into the café, and by the time we let them downstairs into the performance space, we were so full a few people had to sit in the hallway.

After the play, Kathy Voss from Amnesty International gave a short speech about their campaigning work on behalf of Nazanin and of others unjustly imprisoned in Iran and elsewhere. She invited us to fill out letters she had brought and postcards that might join the pile of 20,000 they have not yet been allowed to deliver to her.

Then Richard Ratcliffe spoke. He told us that Nazanin and others imprisoned with her knew about the event that evening. Some were writers, and had written poems which would be shared later in the evening. They were pleased to know their words had made it all the way to listeners in London. I could not help but imagine those words — fragile, ephemeral and yet somehow alive, powerful — linking the women in their impenetrable prison to us, who were thinking about them with all our hearts.


My first thought at the end of the evening was relief — that we had filled the space, created the silence, listened and gathered the words, fulfilled our promise to take action.

The next morning, I woke too early and lay in bed, thinking of the women, their real physical selves, and the link we made to them with our real, physical selves, through the smallest, most fragile of instruments — a spoken word.

The word — sometimes I doubt it, even deny it. Yet sometimes I believe what Shelley told me in his poem; it remains, stronger than tanks, stronger than strongmen, stronger than the tallest Ozymandias whose feet crumble into dust while the word leaps, nimbly, ephemerally, light as a butterfly, out over the bars and into the air.


Reflections on EWI’s Second Agit Lit event


Taken from Exiled Writers Ink - to read the full post please go to www.exiledwriters.co.uk/words-for-the-silenced/

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