Stories for life

Khet Mar - A Delicate Warrior

City of Asylum Pittsburgh, and their online magazine Sampsonia Way, are among ICORN and Shahrazad - stories for life's good friends and important allies. We are happy to share an excerpt of this interview with their current writer-in-residence, burmese Khet Mar - a truly inspiring "story for life".




Fighting with Writing, Political Activism and Social Work.

By Silvia Duarte, Photo (c) Than Htay Maung


Since she was 19-years-old, Khet Mar has been persecuted by the Burmese government. She has been arrested, tortured, incarcerated, and threatened, but she has remained a warrior without guns. She fights with her writing, her political activism, and her social work.


In 2009, she was interrogated by intelligence officers for 20 straight hours and released. Afraid she would be arrested again, she left her country to become the writer-in-residence in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. Sitting in her living room on Sampsonia Way and sipping a green tea, she told me how the Burmese government has impacted her life, oppressed the Burmese people, and created a reign of terror. 


Even while relating these disturbing stories, Khet Mar never raised her voice or lost her calm-except when she mentioned the military government in Burma. "The generals don't deserve mercy," she said. 


In this interview Khet Mar details the crucial moments in her life and offers a rare glimpse into life under the secretive regime of the Burmese military junta, including how the publishing industry operates under the thumb of government censors. 


This is the first time Khet Mar has been able to tell, for print, her life story, openly and without fear of repercussion. 


In your essay "Night Flow" you describe the poverty in Maletto, the village you grew up in. You write about how your adolescent friends worked cutting chillies instead of going to school. They were paid with a small amount of chillies, which they then sold as the only way to help their families to survive. How was it that you were able to attend school? 


I was able to go to school because my grandparents were the principals of an elementary school in Maletto and then my mother became a teacher there. My family was one of the few for whom education had a great value, even though they were poor too. Another important aspect was that Maletto didn't have a high school and most of my friends didn't have the money to travel to another town's school every day. 


The first military junta came to power in 1962, before you were born. You grew up under a dictatorship. Was the country of your childhood different than the country today? 


Today, most of the kids don't have a chance for education and instead they do many jobs to survive, just like my friends in Maletto. However, my friends and I were not as threatened as children are today. Now children are forced to be soldiers. The military sexually harasses, assaults, and even rapes children. Also, children are afraid their parents will be killed or arrested any moment. 

Pegah Ahmadi: Analyzing Censorship of Women's Poetry in Iran

At last week's Writers' and Literary Translators' International Congress (WALTIC), Shahrazad proudly presented a panel of distinguished Iranian writers and human rights activists - Parvin Ardalan, Pegah Ahmadi and Asieh Amini - who discussed the current situation for women and freedom of expression in their home country. The discussion was moderated by Fataneh Farahani. Immediately following the event, we published Mrs Amini's contribution to the discussion here at Stories for life, and now we are happy to present Ms. Ahmadi's speech as well!




Analyzing censorship of women's poetry in Iran


by Pegah Ahmadi, ICORN Guest Writer in Frankfurt City of Refuge 


To do any research about women's poetry and women's writings, first we have to look at the role of gender in society and literature. In under-developed societies, gender and consequences of gender identity have direct influences on the literary creations of women. Limitations, restrictions and obstacles that women are facing because of their gender, have direct influences on their writings. In addition, in under-developed societies and dictatorship societies, literary works and evaluation of literary works are influenced by gender. As Helene Cixous has said: "Women throughout the history have always been faced by three kinds of suppressions: suppression of woman herself, suppression of women's body and suppression of womanly language. She added: "Women must break the silence. The womanly language is the language in which a woman must write all women's characteristics including the specifics of her body."


In traditionally closed and totalitarian societies, women are suppressed and discriminated by society, the government and the family in the forms of fathers, brothers and husbands. Some of these discriminations are:

- Existence of laws, based on injustice and discriminations
- Lack of equal opportunities in the market place
- Discriminative punishment laws
- Efforts to lower and weaken women
- Denial of women's abilities and capabilities
- Creation of obstacles, limitations and restrictions on women's education and employment opportunities

In addition, history has shown that an Eastern woman also suffers from the following problems:

- Thoughts of self-guilt
- Self limitation and shyness
- Lack of individuality
- Fear
- Feelings of insecurity
- Feelings of uselessness, except in the role as a mother or a wife


All these limitations, restrictions and discriminations have been imposed on women by the male dominated society and unjust laws, rules and regulations. In such a society, any kind of creation and creativity by women count as disobedience, rebellion and even as a threat to the structure of the system. In such a society as it is, a woman suffers from being a woman, let alone being a writer or a poet. Therefore, a female writer faces enormous obstacles and difficulties such as censorship, limitations and restrictions in writing as well as humiliation and lack of mental and physical security. These factors cause women to feel threatened and fearful and eventually force them to be isolated from the society. A female writer or a poet, instead of focusing on her own creativity, has to put her effort and energy to find a way to free herself of the existing crisis.


Asieh Amini: Women and Writing in Iran

At this week's Writers' and Literary Translators' International Congress (WALTIC), Shahrazad proudly presented a panel of distinguished Iranian writers and human rights activists - Parvin Ardalan, Pegah Ahmadi and Asieh Amini - who discussed the current situation for women and freedom of expression in their home country. The discussion was moderated by Fataneh Farahani. We are happy to publish Mrs Amini's contribution to the discussion here at Stories for life!




"Before I begin, please allow me to take a moment and to mention my imprisoned friends and colleagues. These are women and men who have been subjected to worst types of violence and their only crimes have been the mere acts of writing and thinking. Allow me to speak to you of all my imprisoned friends and colleagues and ask all of you, who are writers and poets from different countries, to act and to take your pens and ask others to do the same, in support of the freedom to write and the freedom of thought. 


Let me speak of Shiva NazarAhari. Let me speak of Bahareh Hedayat, Shabnam Madadzzade, Atefeh Nabavi, Hengameh Shahidi, Alieh Eghdamdoust, Mahdieh Golroo, Ronak Safarzadeh, and writers and journalists such as Bahman Ahmadi Amouie, Ahmad Zeidabadi, Isa Saharkhize, Koohyar Goudarzi, Majid Tavakoli, Milad Asadi.. The list goes on and on. 


But it seems that I am here to speak about the situation of female writers and journalists in Iran and the conditions and challenges that I and many of my friends and colleagues have had to contend with. I want to tell a story and perhaps in this one example, the conditions under which we have been forced to write will come to light.  


I have friend who is a graphic artists and we used to work in the same paper together. This person used women as a symbol in much of his artwork and was a staunch feminist. One day, dismayed, he confessed to me that "I am constantly being warned about my work. Why do the women you draw have breasts? Why have you drawn them with hair? Why are the women in your drawings tall? Why do the women have hourglass figures?" With great regret said that "I don't know any women who don't have breasts, or hair. This woman who is being demanded of me does not exist." 


With this example I want to demonstrate that the subject of women, from the first year following the Revolution in 1979, was transformed into a platform that symbolized the Islamic identity of the Islamic State. Unfortunately in the last thirty years since the Revolution, women, because of their Islamic dress, have served as a model, which the government of Iran wants to present to the world, as an example of its accomplishments. It wants to reinforce itself, its religious identity and its Islamic Governance through this symbolization and the creation of this model throughout the world. For this reason, it has needed to draft laws and regulations to make sure that the ideal symbol transforms into a reality. On the other hand, cultural organizations in service to the government have worked for thirty years to nurture and foster this ideal.  


Toward the realization of this goal, they first adopted the overarching slogan that the demand for the freedom of women is a Western concept and began to eliminate that which was feminine from society. Hejab or Islamic dress became mandatory. Very stringent laws designed to push women out of the social sphere and strip her of her human rights and responsibilities. Harsh punishments for those who undermined these concepts and laws too were also approved.  


In essence a cultural war with the western world was initiated and women served as the weapons of this war. The was not only that women were victimized, but they also lost many of their freedoms and as a result all that was feminine and associate with women was veiled and concealed, including literature and the language of the feminine, women's needs, women's perspectives, phrases associated with women and so on. 


From then on, a major part of our literature and our media was forced to observe strict censorship or self censorship in writings and in images of anything that was associated with women. Language moved toward euphemism and a type of complicated and difficult writing, became the fashion of the day. Some believed that the growth and the richness of our contemporary literature and writing is a positive result of this massive self censorship. But I believe differently. In my opinion people need to be allowed to express their thoughts freely. In a free society, those who prefer more complicated forms of writing and expression can also find their audience, but we should not justify cultural and gender tyranny under the guise of valuing complicated and euphemistic writing styles. 


This censorship was even more serious. Because the print press is the not the place where you should take up complicated and euphemistic writing styles, the issues facing women were banished from our papers and the print press, in a very noticeable manner. I have worked for 17 years as a journalist in Iran and these are my personal experiences which I am relaying. Even our most progressive papers view "equal rights between the sexes" as a red line not to be crossed. In the last paper in which I worked as the editor for the social section, I received warnings on several occasions for addressing issues related to feminism. These warnings were issued in an environment where there is much self censorship to begin with, because we journalists know that our papers are constantly on the verge of being shut down and we on the verge of being arrested. We have all turned into censurers! 


Mansur Rajih: A Poet and Human in Exile

This year, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN, an important ICORN ally, celebrates 50 years of defending freedom of expression around the world with a year-long campaign - Because Writers Speak their Minds. As part of this campaign, the Committee looks back on 50 emblematic cases illustrating where and how and why they have worked. One case featured among these, is the case of poet Mansur Rajih, who became the first ICORN Guest Writer in Stavanger City of Refuge in 1998. On this occasion, Shahrazad - stories for life is happy to present an interview with Rajih, and a collection of his poetry.


Mansur Rajih: A Poet and Human in Exile

(Interviewed by Shady Manasrah)


The Wound

"The sun also shines from here",
his finger pointing to his heart
his eyes rimmed with tears


Mansur Rajih is an Arab Yemeni poet. A revolutionary writer and political activist, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a faked crime he did not commit. In 1998 he was released from prison after a long international campaign in which the Norwegian government participated along with Amnesty International and International PEN who paid great efforts to release him.

He came to Stavanger City of Refuge, where he since then has published several poetic writings such as "Horoscope of Prison? Horoscope of Love." in 2000. Most of his poetry is an anthology of love. Now, he writes from exile about the life in a western country, strange to his country and different in many ways. He says: "Poetry is a struggle for freedom, therefore it is a lifelong program." 


And Yet They Sing

The world is more beautiful than we can imagine
The world is a river
and the atmosphere is a bird's song
and green trees
The tiny movement of the leaves
is a fine song
Dreams without borders
the progression of seasons


How did you start in a strange country which is different from Yemen in so many ways?

"There is an age when every human being discovers and experiences life in its different levels, forms, life contradictions, difficulties and also happy times. Sadly, I was in prison at that age, from the time I was 24 years old until I was 40. Since the first moment in Stavanger I felt I had to start over again from a point even below zero. My body weight was 36 kilos. I don't have any qualifications except my history and my dreams. I didn't know the language to communicate with the Norwegian society, which is totally different from the Yemeni society. It was very difficult in the beginning, I felt like I was in a big beautiful prison of silent life because I couldn't communicate with the people. I was in an endless circle of silence."



Here, in this quiet, the trees are proud of themselves
Longing eats at the heart
There is no life in exile
Here, the sound has no echo
The poem flees from between your hands,
flees to the heat of Yemen
Love is blocked by questions
what does get through is strangled by frost
A new morning over you, the silent city
Pain wars pain within the heart
This stretch of time eats at the mind

The wind brings nothing to the banished man,
and leaving, it carries nothing hence.

(* A residential area in Stavanger)


The Writers in Prison Committee celebrates 50th Anniversary

In 2010, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN celebrates 50 years of defending freedom of expression around the world with a year-long campaign - Because Writers Speak their Minds. In Frankfurt in June, Sara Whyatt of the WiPC spoke to the 5th General Assembly of ICORN, reflecting on the history of the committee, and the present situation for writers who dare speak up. Shahrazad - stories for life congratulates the WiPC, and now presents Sara Whyatt's speech to our audience. To learn more about WiPC's campaign, go here .


Because Writers speak Their Minds: 50 years of writers and exile


This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Writers in Prison Committee, set up in July 1960. As the anniversary neared, I found myself asking why was it that although PEN itself had already been in existence since 1921, did it take 39 years for the organisation to set up a formal committee, dedicated to gathering information on attacks on writers, and to galvanise and coordinate other writers world wide in their defence?


Sifting through PEN's archives, particularly the minutes of the congresses around the war years and up to the creation of the WiPC, I think I found the answer. 


In 1947 PEN's congress in Zurich was the first to be held since the outbreak of World War II. Photos taken by Time Life of those gathered in Zurich show writers who had not seen each other for years beaming, chatting, hugging each other. Friends re-united, relieved. There is even one of the poet Stephen Spender high up in the air on a seesaw, legs flying outwards. No doubt there were dark moments too not captured by the cameras. Many friends had died, many more had suffered, others were still living under repression. The talk would have been of exile. Many of those in the meeting would have lived as refugees, others would be wondering if they could ever return home. And there were those, such as David Carver and Storm Jameson, founder members of the WiPC, who could talk of their own efforts to help refugees find places of safety during the war years. But all will have been looking towards the future with hope. A year later, UN member states gathered to form the UN Declaration of Human Rights. All were looking towards "never again". 


Brussels for Beginners - by Dejan Anastasijevic

Serbian Dejan Anastasijevic is the ICORN Guest Writer in Brussels. He is an investigative journalist and writer, and has freelanced for Time Magazine and The Guardian among others. Anastasijevic is the Featured Writer this spring, presented with an interview at At the same time Shahrazad - stories for life presents some of his writing.






Who but Shrek, an ogre from the eponymous movie, would choose to live in Brussels, a city whose name, translated from Old Dutch, means „a home in the swamp"? Although half way between Amsterdam and Paris, Brussels lacks Parisian glitz or the Dutch tolerance towards commercial sex and substance abuse, it even lacks a river (they used to have one, but they buried it). It does, however, have an average of 200 rainy days each year, poor infrastructure, and one of the largest Islamic communities in Europe. It also has an army of Eurocrats, who might as well be Martians, spending their days in heavily guarded glass towers, and their nights in Irish pubs which the natives gracefully ignore.


Still this city has many hidden charms, easily overlooked by a casual visitor. Although many downtown old buildings were destroyed during the soulless modernization in the 60s - in architecture, this kind of vandalism is known as "brusselisation" - a short walk leads to intact art-noveau squares and green parks. Not to talk about the museums: there's something for everyone, from Flemish masters, through Magritte, to Tin Tin, and on top of that the Museum of Musical Instruments, of comics, and, naturally, the Museum of Beer, honoring the Belgian national beverage. 


Belgian beer is universally acclaimed thanks to the special kind of yeast, Brettanomyces bruxellensis, endemic to Brussels and it surroundings. An average café offers a choice of at least fifty brands, ranging from white beer (consumed with lemon) through Flemish Red, to powerful Trappist beers with the alcohol content of 8 percent or more. Maybe all this beer (an average Belgian consumes a few hundred liters each year), is linked to the fact that Brussels' most famous monument, Mannequin Pis, represents a boy who, according to the legend, extinguished the fire with his urine. During festivities, beer literally flows from the Mannequin's body, less often it's champagne or wine. 

© 2010 - Sølvberget KF, Stavanger Cultural Centre p.o. box: 310 4002 Stavanger, Norway. Visiting address: Sølvberggt. 2, 4006 Stavanger | tel: +47 51507465 | fax: +47 51507025
Design & development Sømme | Back to top