by Joey Wilson-Brooke
The PEN/Pinter award has been presented every year, since 2009, on or as close to 10th October – the anniversary of Harold Pinter’s birthday. Pinter himself was once Vice Chair of English PEN and it is in his memory that the award was named. It is also from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, that the descriptor for the recipient is taken: someone that “casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’”.
The award is given to a British writer, or writer in residence in Britain, whose work has upheld this value and this year it was presented to Salman Rushdie. Mr Rushdie was selected by the panel “not just for his books and his many years of speaking out for freedom of expression,” as the panel’s chair Maureen Freely put it, “but also for his countless private acts of kindness. When he sees writers unjustly vilified, prosecuted or forced into exile, he takes a personal interest.”
What makes this award particularly exciting is that the recipient helps the English PEN Writer’s At Risk Committee choose an International Writer of Courage to share the award with. Rushdie announced at the ceremony on 9th October, held at the British Library, that Mazen Darwish had been selected to receive the honour. Mr Darwish is a Syrian journalist and human rights defender and the founding President of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression. Since the Arab spring in 2011, Darwish has also been working to document the human rights abuses occurring in Syria. However, in February 2012 he was arrested, along with two bloggers and faced up to fifteen years in prison for “publicising terrorist acts”. Despite the fact that in June 2014, the government announced an amnesty for political prisoners, Mr Darwish is still being detained. It was because of this detainment, that Mr Darwish could not be there to receive the award in person and in his place sent Zaher Omareen, a Syrian researcher and writer.
But it was Darwish’s acceptance speech that was the pièce de résistance – and I mean that to be translated literally. In today’s Middle East the political climate is, to say the least, volatile. With so much hatred for difference – Shia versus Sunni, democracy versus autocracy – it is no wonder that Darwish dwells upon this in his speech.
He acknowledges the “unforgiveable sin” that the Arab world “committed” against Rushdie when “we responded with indifference to the fatwas and calls for your death” after the Satanic Verses was published. He qualifies this by referring to the situation currently affecting Syria:
“What a shame this much blood has had to be spilled for us to realise, finally, that we are digging our own graves when we allow thought to be crushed by accusations of unbelief, calling people infidels, and when we allow opinion to be countered with violence.”
Darwish reminds us in his speech, that “morality, freedom and justice form the true essence and purpose of Islam, as they do for all other religions and human value systems” and that “it is on this basis that we must reassess our heritage and redesign our culture, to ensure that religion is compatible with human rights.”
The nomination of Mazen Darwish is potent. Not only does it acknowledge all the work that Darwish did before the civil war, but it also gives a platform for him to speak from behind bars; to address fellow Syrians and spread the message that civil war does not mean the loss of civility. “My dear friends, sects and dictatorship have divided our people for a long time now, but faith unites them.”
I leave you with Mazen’s final words from Adra Prison:
“Is it not yet time to stop this nihilistic war?
Is it not yet time to establish a new social contract that frees Syria from tyranny and cleanses her soil of terrorism, and saves our children from the perils of sectarianism?
Is it not yet time?!”