Poems of Protest


The Fortitude of Poetry


Brother, what must I do

at this late hour

to remind you of my innocence?


I only raised some questions

to warn you of a storm coming in from the edge

of Arabia.


But now you abandon me

and accuse me

of subversion.


Yet I recall that day precisely.

You and I sitting by the cafe in Abha

sipping coffee laced with cardamom.


The arc of  the winter sun had settled

in the crease of your brow —

the evening light softening that hard glance


you aimed at me like a dart.

And may I say now, brother,

your judgement of this refugee is harsh.


I spoke only of my paintings

and poetry — how they mitigate

the lash of the Mutaween —


make visible the shadow world

of Sharia — this consumption

of flesh and spirit. 


Yet you chose silence.


Brother, you know as well as I

how things stand

in the House of Saud.


The quiet terror spreads

like a virus

in muted streets and markets


and a new dark age brings down

with a thud the broad sword

of executioners.


Yes, I raised the stoning of lonely wives,

the wild tales of witchcraft and sorcery —

the fear their strict whip-hand has of women.


Yet, by the power of male decree,

the zealot makes it plain what’s on his mind:

the female form must be disfigured or hidden.


Yet you chose silence.


Here anything that reeks of love

must be routed out and crushed,

for they miss nothing, —


not one unlawful kiss

that may pass between

the lips of many lovers.


But in this stone cell mercy has its price.

Money buys the killer pardon,

and spares his helpless neck from the block.


Yet for me?  The worst lies in wait

simply for the crime

of speech or thought.


They’d rather unsheathe the blade

and gild the truth with blood

than acknowledge a kingdom run by vice.


You see, brother, if I’m passing

on the road and see a man half naked

being nailed to a cross —


suspended there until the sky darkens, until

the ripe olives turn red —

I must ask you: what have we become?


Do you remember?

How the light took refuge in the hollows

of his flesh — tugging and stretching


the sagging limbs — tearing the skin

until it turned blue

and peeled like paper.


His right foot was lashed tightly

against the left —

wrought iron nails were driven in


with quiet purpose, until his cries soared above

the crowded square

silencing the gasps of tourists,


the sighs of doves,

the holy call to prayer

rising uneasily in the distance.


“Be silent, Ashraf!” you cried.

The Commission for Virtue and Prevention of Vice

will always have its way.


But my answer then, as it is now,

Is quite simple.

I sing to fill the silence rising in you.


For it condones, by the edge of a sword,

the slicing of hands and the slicing of heads —

rendering mute arbiters of law.


Brother, I sing into this silence

to break a lineage of fear

and ring in a new paradigm.


My song will fill the silence

that prevails in the courts

of kings and queens.


Conscience will not be reduced

to a cult  — or a pathology

of the mind.


And know this.  My voice

will resonate in the throat

of the zealot,


it will draw poison

from this bitter root

and nourish the will of the people.


This is the fortitude of poetry.

It will outlast the silence of good men

who would say nothing —


and soar above the venal stench of money —

beyond the blood-drenched square

of totalitarian kings.


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