On Saturday 1st April, I performed at the Rich Mix in London as part of the second English PEN Modern Literature Festival, organised by SJ Fowler's Enemies Project.
The event paired UK-based writers with writers at risk around the world. I was paired with Nabeel Rajab, a Bahraini activist who has now spent nine months in prison awaiting trial for highlighting human rights abuses. His trial was postponed for the eighth time on 23rd March, hence the title of my piece.
I was unsure right up to the event about how best to approach it. Talking to other writers on the day, it soon became clear I wasn't alone. Chrissy Williams, who was paired with the Al-Khawaja family, also from Bahrain, has eloquently set out her thoughts here. I was conscious that my usual way of doing things wouldn't be right here. I also felt, however, that I wanted to produce a piece of work that was respectful but also engaging.
Nabeel Rajab and his supporters use Twitter extensively to spread their message. In fact, one of the two charges he is being detained on relates to this. Thinking of this, I produced a conceptual piece made entirely of found text.
I first assembled five stanzas of ten lines each, comprising the first half of the poem. For the first two stanzas, I searched Twitter for instances of the phrase "has been postponed" and collaged nine of these, closing with the tenth line "Nabeel Rajab has been postponed". I repeated this process for the third and fourth stanzas with a slight variation, this time using the phrase "has been postponed again". For the fifth, I used the phrase "it's been 291 days", referring to the exact amount of time Nabeel Rajab had been detained on the day of the event.
For the second half of the poem, I used a spreadsheet to randomly re-combine lines from the the first half. I used a simple weighting system to ensure that lines referring to Nabeel Rajab himself began to appear more and more often. In the sixth and seventh stanzas, I set the spreadsheet formulae so that there was a one in three chance of him being directly mentioned. In the eighth and ninth stanzas, this increased to a one in two chance. In the tenth and final stanza, this became a 100% chance, closing the poem with a kind of echo chamber emphasising the repetitive nature of the Rajab case with its seemingly endless judicial deferrals.
Taking part in this event made me realise how little we in the UK, and I include myself in that, know about what is happening in countries like Bahrain. This is due in no small part, I think, to the UK government's ties to the Bahraini regime.
The work that PEN do in highlighting cases like Nabeel Rajab's and keeping them on the agenda is invaluable. You can support PEN by joining here. Enormous credit must also go to SJ Fowler for making the event happen.