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Fellowship of the exiles: a tale of writers' resilience

By Megan LindowSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 2003


When Mir Mahfuz Ali arrived in London nearly 20 years ago, his voice was lost in more ways than one.

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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.