Fellowship of the exiles: a tale of writers' resilience
LONDON — When Mir Mahfuz Ali arrived in London nearly 20 years ago, his voice was lost in more ways than one.
Riot police in Bangladesh had shot the young writer in the throat during a protest, leaving him unable to speak. When he left home for Britain - seeking both medical treatment and political freedom - he found his old literary voice of little use in a new country where he was regarded as an outsider.
"I didn't have an identity," Mr. Mahfuz Ali says, his voice a rasping whisper. "I had lost my mother tongue. I was invisible."
The loneliness and confusion felt by many exiles and refugees can be especially acute for writers - those poets, journalists, academics, and playwrights who make a living communicating ideas. For members of Exiled Writers Ink, a group of émigré authors who fled war-torn and repressive countries such as Iraq, Bosnia, and Angola, life in exile in Europe's most diverse city affords a striking mixture of alienation and enrichment.
Exiled Writers Ink began three years ago as a forum for these writers to gain exposure for their work and to meet one another, says Jennifer Langer, the group's founder. At monthly meetings in a café basement, writers from such disparate places as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe explore themes of loss, belonging, and identity. They often find much in common. In countries where acts of criticism and self-expression are forbidden, many have endured imprisonment, torture, and censorship because of their writing.
Albanian writer Tomor Bahja lost his job, received death threats, and was attacked by men toting machine guns after the publication of his novel "The Endless Cry," which details government links to the Mafia and features a love affair between a Christian boy and a Muslim girl. He was smuggled into Britain on the back of a melon truck and spent his first few months sleeping on the streets in London.
Ghazi Rabinhavi, an Iranian playwright, had his plays banned and spent eight months in prison for criticizing the government. As a writer living under a repressive regime, he says, he felt it was his duty to speak out against the country's war with Iraq, the oppression of women, and the execution of gays following the 1979 revolution. Living in exile, he says, has broadened the scope of his work, which has aired on the BBC and has been performed in London and San Francisco.
"I think about human conditions, about human rights," he says. "I cannot only think about my country when I see such similarities in the world, so many countries that are like mine."
Ms. Langer, a teacher who has worked with refugees for many years, is herself the daughter of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany. During the 1990s, she began to discover a surprisingly large number of distinguished writers living in London's refugee communities, unknown except to their fellow exiles. Motivated in part by a keen awareness of her own family's unspoken history of loss, she says, she began to collect their stories.
The project led to the 1998 publication of a collection of stories by exiled writers, "The Bend in the Road: Refugees Writing." A second collection, "Crossing the Border: Voices of Refugee and Exiled Women," was published in March 2002.
The stories in these collections are filled with harrowing tales of clandestine border crossings, imprisonment, and armed conflict. Then there are the contrasts in style: the lyricism of Afghan poetry influenced by Rumi, alongside the wry style of many Eastern European writers. Bosnian novelist Himzo Skorupan, for example, recounts dialing his old phone number from London: "I heard an unknown voice saying I wasn't there. I asked him if he knew what had happened to me, where I was, and he said that he had moved in recently and did not know."
In her introduction, Langer writes that exile is a condition of belonging nowhere: "The refugee feels in a kind of limbo, physically here but mentally there, unwilling to be in the host society but unable to return."
Suzan Salih, an Iraqi Kurd, was forced to flee on foot to Turkey in 1995 because of her husband's criticisms of Saddam Hussein's government. In London, she studies law and publishes stories and poetry in local Kurdish newspapers, but she rejects the idea that this has become her home.
"Every day I'm thinking about the country I want to go back to one day," she says. "I just feel that I'm living temporarily here."
Yet even as some members of the group say they are shunned by mainstream society, Exiled Writers Ink is attracting increasing media attention. The BBC's Panorama program recently featured a panel discussion of exiled writers from Iraq. And invitations and information requests have poured in from organizations across Europe and as far away as Mexico.
Langer, for her part, welcomes the group's increased visibility as an opportunity to introduce refugee voices into public dialogue. "We have to confront the issues of the day through literature," she says. "There's a lot of information in the media, but it's very general. Through the voice of an individual writer, one can gain a much deeper perspective."
When the group began meeting three years ago, only a handful of writers attended. Now Exiled Writers Ink has about 90 active members. Meetings are packed with students, writers, and émigrés heatedly discussing politics, poetry, publishing, and the translation of their work. While most authors write in their native languages, some have switched to English.
Unfortunately, says Langer, many of the works lose their nuances in translation. Most of the stories in her two collections are first-time translations, often the result of lengthy effort. More often, the tendency is for authors to self-publish their books in the original language, for diasporas living in the United States, Britain, and Canada.
Others, such as the Bangladeshi writer Mahfuz Ali, write in English as a way of embracing a new identity. After years of feeling lost in Britain, he has come into his new voice.