Letters from exile – connecting Reykjavik and Lillehammer

Meet ICORN writers Mazen Maarouf, Mehdi Mousavi, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Amani AboShabana.

Tuesday December 8th 2020 at 6 - 7:30 GMT at the House of Literature in Lillehammer / Litteraturhus Lillehammer AND online: Livestreamed via Facebook

Lillehammer and Reykjavik are cities who are both International Cities of Refuge (ICORN) and UNESCO Cities of Literature. This fall Lillehammer, in cooperation with Reykjavik City of Literature, invited ICORN writers Mazen Maarouf (Reykjavik) and Mehdi Mousavi (Lillehammer) to write letters to each other about their lives as exiled writers. You can read their letters at the bottom of this page.

Now, in a conversation with the head of Lillehammer City of Literature, Olav Brostrup Müller, they will talk about their letters, their experiences and their writing. Do they have anything in common at all? How has living in a city more or less in lockdown affected their daily life? And how is it living as a writer in a City of Literature? Mazen will take part from Reykjavík.

Two other authors will also take part, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Amani AboShabana.

The conversations will be in English.

About the Authors

This fall, poet and activist Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Lillehammer) has published her first book in Norwegian translation, Vi overlever ikke (We Dot Not Survive). She will take part in a short conversation about the book, followed by a poetry reading.

A new ICORN writer in Lillehammer will also be welcomed, Amani AboShabana from Egypt. She arrived in Lillehammer earlier this fall after living years in hiding and during the pandemic, waiting to be transported safely to her new home. Together with the City of Refuge Coordinator Patricia Griffioen and in conversation with Olav Brostrup Müller, she will be talking about the journey from Egypt, the situation for freedom of speech in Egypt and her work as a writer. This will be her first public performance in Norway.

Mazen Maarouf is a Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet, translator and journalist born in Beirut to a family of Palestinian refugees. He has published three collections of poetry, and a short story collection titled Jokes for the Gunmen. The book has been widely translated, and was nominated for the 2019 Man-Booker international award. Mazen came to Reykjavík as an ICORN writer in 2011 and is now an Icelandic citizen.

Mehdi Mousavi is an Iranian poet who came to Lillehammer as an ICORN writer in 2017. He is a poet, activist, editor and teacher who is known for his postmodern poetry and tackling social issues. He has published numerous poetry collections and also written lyrics for Iranian musicians. He, along with Fatemeh Ekhtesari, edited the journal Hamin farad bud that was banned in Iran in 2008.

The event will be held at the House of Literature in Lillehammer and livestreamed from there.

The letters between Mehdi Mousavi and Mazen Maarouf

Mehdi started the correspondance by writing to Mazen from Lillehammer in November 2020 and Mazen then replied from Reykjavík later that same month.

Mehdi Mousavi's letter to Mazen

Íslenska translation unavailable for Mehdi Mousavi.

Hi dear Mazen,

Years ago, when I was young and living in Iran, I used to write long letters to my friends. With the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of mobile phones and social networks, this old habit was forgotten. We writers prefer letter-writing to face-to-face talking or talking on the phone, perhaps because "writing" is our proficiency and we know how to hide ourselves behind words. However, it is difficult to write a letter to someone who you do not know and your information about him is limited to a few sentences on the Internet. It is even harder when it comes to the first time you want to write that letter. The first ones are always the hardest. The first time you are beaten by a teacher, the first sex, the first failed romance, the first experience of imprisonment and torture, the first white hair and maybe the first words between two people in the first letter! This is enough to break the ice, after that everything will be easier. People get used to everything very quickly. They even forget how difficult "the first" was.

My letter is about "not getting used to it." That some things never become normal. Let me put it this way: for "me" some things never become normal, and one of those is “exile."

Exile has a broad meaning. Everyone has his own definition. To me, it means "forced to be away from home." It might not be the dictator himself who writes a letter saying, "Go out of your homeland and never come back." The moment a situation arises in which you can no longer live in that land, you are faced with "exile" due to my definition. But the question that always arises here is what is the definition of "homeland" and a person like me who does not believe in any borders. Then how would it be possible that he becomes sad when he is far away from his homeland? The geographical boundaries and lines on a map do not create a homeland for me. I do not care at all to which extent those lines have exactly been drawn and who drew them. To me, the homeland is an inclusion of many things: my parents and families, the Persian language, my students, my friends, my fans, all the streets and alleys that I had memories with, even the beautiful things that could have happened to me there and are not happening here, even the cats in the street which were more than pedestrians... The homeland is all these things and thousands of other things and still it is a concept which cannot be concretized by words. But the hardest part for me is separating from the language and I like to talk about this issue.

Experiencing a new language is an opportunity. When I was in Iran, I enjoyed learning different languages, because each one opened a window to the world for me. But when I after prison escaped from Iran, everything changed.  At this time, changing the language was not an option, and my stubborn spirit does not like anything that is forced. In the city where I live, Lillehammer, I guess the number of people who speak Persian is a little more than the number of fingers on both hands. This is a tragedy for a poet who has been involved with the language topic all his life and has lived in it! Now you might ask, why don't you speak to them in English until you become fluent in Norwegian? The answer to this question is very long and too boring for this letter (and probably to you). But the bottom-line is that I am not fluent enough in English to live in it. When I speak Persian, synonymous words have different meanings and it works for me. And to express an emotion, I have hundreds of phrases with tens of different words, that using these alternative words make a slight change in the expression of my emotions, and the audience understands that change too. But when I try to speak English or Norwegian, this subtlety disappears. Sometimes I become so helpless in expressing my feelings that I want to scream. My friends say that these problems will be solved step by step, but we know it won’t. Yes! I can write beautifully a scientific article or even a story or a report.

But for writing a poem or in the most private moments of the life that I want to express my deepest feelings to someone, this new language is powerless… Moreover, of all these efforts and conflicts, I must fight, so my fluency in Persian doesn’t get lost and try to understand all changes in language, tones and terms, like someone living in Iran. Because many of my audiences are Persian and I feel a kind of commitment to them. A commitment that every morning makes me think of the Iranian people instead of enjoying the smokeless sky of Lillehammer and the window that opens to the lake. I think about my friends who are arrested and imprisoned on the same day, the people who are to be executed, the economic problems of the people that are getting worse day by day due to the US economic sanctions and, more importantly, the incompetence of the Iranian government. That is why I commit myself to writing and poeticize in Persian for those people and crying for their sufferings. Perhaps these poems are just the joy of a few teenagers who are tired of this long oppression.

People are very different. Perhaps one of my major problems in exile is that my personality and tastes sometimes do not match the place where I live. I love Norway's security, its system of government and economy, the kindness and patience of its people, its attention to the environment and human rights, its postcard-like scenery. It is difficult to criticize Norway except for small issues such as bureaucracy and the extreme cold. But it is strange that when it comes to enjoying life, I strangely enjoy living in places that may not fully meet these criteria. It is very strange that I am a happier person when I travel to Rome, Barcelona, Istanbul and even Paris, although I may have a lot of criticism of these cities. But that "passion of life" that has been dormant in me for a few years, suddenly wakes up and I feel I can still laugh. It may seem weird to you, but in the three and a half years I have lived in Norway, I have rarely laughed. Maybe laughter needs a friendly group, with people where love and friendship flows between them. I have not been able to find this group here yet and I feel like I am getting old. I feel that the opportunity to enjoy life is limited and the minutes and hours are passing very quickly.

I am not afraid of dying at all. One day, when I was severely beaten in the prison, I had a bad night in my solitary confinement. I felt like I was dying. I was not sad at all. I felt that I had lived the way I had loved, and I had been a happy person with all the hardships and bitterness that existed. I was just a little homesick for the persons I loved and felt I would never see them again. I thought about my mother, my father, my sister, my beloved ones, and my friends. But I was not sad. These days I think a lot about death, and I am sad, because I feel that my existence has not been so useful in these few years. I have not enjoyed life as much as I would have liked, nor have I been able to do anything special for my new country. Exile is like an earthquake. Everything falls apart in a matter of seconds, and for these three or four years I have just tried to collect the remaining pieces of my life from the rubble and survive at any cost, learn a new language, get used to new foods, get used to being alone, get used to walking on snow and ice, learn the administrative work of residency, passport, tax, education, etc. and be able to take care of such matters. Now my whole life is an attempt to get used to live in a new land, especially for a person who has escaped from getting use to the things for a lifetime! It might seem funny to you, but I still sometimes go out of the house at night, as is the custom in Iran, to walk around the open shops and hear the laughter and commotion of the people and to see young couples, out of sight of the police, in each alley they are saying romantic words and kiss each other. But closed shops and empty streets reminds me that I am still in Norway and I must get used to it.

Of course, I do not regret coming here. If I had stayed in Iran, I would have had to stay in prison for many years, and I might not even be able to write poems or stories. I could not see my loved ones even on a cell phone, even going to the street and seeing the sky would become like a dream to me. Even making new friends like you and writing letters to them would be impossible, and I just had to be scratching lines on the wall until the damn days passed and the day of freedom or death came. I do not regret it, and if I complain so much about exile, it is because of the stupid idealism that is on the minds of all poets and writers. Wishing to have a world that is a better place to love and live. Maybe the Governments are able to deprive us of our freedom, the exile may be able to deprive us of happiness, borders may be able to deprive us of our homeland, but no one can deprive us of "wishing", the only thing I have carefully cared for all these years and I will not miss at any cost.

I know this letter has been a little long and might have made you tired. It was very difficult for me to write this letter at first, but when I read about you on the Internet and realized that you have a book called "Jokes for the gunmen", I felt that there is a common pain beyond the differences between our countries and languages. I also have a book called "Goofing Around in Front of a Firing Squad" in which I feel the two names evoke a common look and pain, even if they seem to have nothing to do with each other. That tempts me to talk more to you and get to know you and read your work. How enjoyable is this "letter writing" that it can go beyond all boundaries and rules and words and reach someone who lives miles away from you. But his name is "friend" and he understand “pain".

For your friendly words, enthusiastically I remain.

Your friend: Mehdi

Lillehammer, November 2020

Mazen Maarouf's letter to Mehdi Mousavi

Dear Mehdi

After reading your letter, I decided to write you one by hand. The truth is, I do not communicate with people I don’t know, and to think for a second, that we are two clowns put together before the audience just because their outfit match, makes it even more difficult for me. However, the whole situation gives me a good reason to do what I do best in such cases: Lie, bearing in mind that there are things in life one cannot lie about.

I was 14 years old when I last time wrote a letter to someone. Back then, my younger brother and I fell in love with the same girl. She had fled with her mom and younger brother to our neighbourhood in west Beirut on the last cease fire. Not only they managed to bring most of their belongings, but even dug out the corpse of her father to bury him in our side cemetery. Me and my brother fell in love with her on the burial day when some grownup asked her if East Beirut fighters were as brutal as people say. People were scared of ending the war and. Her father was without ears. And some grownup asked her if this was because of East Beirut fighters’ brutality. Though the anecdotes she told were horrible, not only I fell in love with her but prayed that the war doesn’t end so we can stay with her in the same neighbourhood. She was closer in age to me than my brother, but she chose him. Maybe because he was the first to declare his love. I was heartbroken. Shortly afterwards, my brother asked me to write a letter for her. I told him I am good at composing subjects, but never love letters. He said he would pick up somebody else, I said no and decided to do it driven by jealousy. As I had never written a love letter before, I picked up a book titled “best love letters in history” and would sit in a byway and choose random paragraphs and compose a letter. The letters equally mesmerised and his beloved. My strategy was simple. I would choose the paragraphs that express my true love and jealousy for her and fill in pages with hints that the person who loves her is someone else. I would tell my brother “girls love you better if you got jealous and you became somebody else”. He trusted me as I was the clever one in school up to that point. However, to impress her, he made a huge progress that he skipped a grade and ended up with me in the same classroom before midterm which embarrassed me. The girl found out the truth when I sent her the book of letters as her birthday gift. I was growing bitter of their closeness. Especially after my brother sacked me, saying that their love is deep that there´s no need any more for love letters. She broke up with my brother who of course knew about my whole menace business. She was his first love as she was for me. And up to this day we think of her every time my mom talks about those good years in Beirut when people were brutally honest because they had nothing to lose. My brother till this day, refuses to read any of my stories nor he shows up to a book signing of mine. While other writers experience a feeling of joy, relief, satisfaction, or punch in the stomach, I myself feel when I am writing anything, even when it’s to-do list for the grocery, that I am apologizing.

Each shell, car explosion or massacre would transform people into either robbers, aggressors, fighters, or idiots. Thanks to my mom who followed a military method to keep us on good track in school, my brother and I were categorized as idiots. Old neighbours to this day remember those times. They say sarcastically, “the idiocy of the elder was so remarkable that he moved to live an hour-and-half by plane from the end of the world”. As for my mom she asks me sometimes “couldn’t you be a refugee in a less far city?”. Not that my mom is confused about me being an Icelandic citizen now, but she knows pretty well as I do, that I’ll always be a refugee. It´s simple. When you´re born in exile, you discover later that you’re programmed to live anywhere. Besides, as I look closely, I don´t see any big difference from my lifestyle in Lebanon. since I was young, I developed interest for what other people consider trivial. I remember that when our neighbour´s only son, bought a Nintendo, I would watch him and my brother playing Mario at our place. I found that I wasn´t interested in killing the dragon or collecting gold coins or saving the princess but what is there behind the trees? And why Mario is not allowed to go there? So, one day, I grabbed the joystick from my brother and pressed hard trying to push Mario to go in the trees and show me what´s there. The joystick broke and the neighbour’s son never came over with his Nintendo to play again.

It´s not easy to round up my life between Beirut and Reykjavik in two pages. However, Reykjavik resembles a village structured to function as a cosmopolitan European capital. For me, it is summed up in a circuit of three streets. In that triangle I live, work and hang out in my favourite cafés or movie theatre. I do not go farther than 11 min walk. People are too polite and unconfrontational, but they imagine crimes all the time, as they have some of the finest crime fiction writers in the world, which freaks me out. They are tied by kinship, friendship, neighborship, school, childhood memories, common beliefs, etc. They live in private matrixes, making it impossible for an outsider to be part of. The foreigners I know on the other hand, are desperate to socialize, to no avail. They try organize tarot gatherings, in-door poetry cabaret nights, dinners, or some Icelandic fortune telling games that would not hurt when it tells you something bad, or transform the hurt into some fun feeling or if none of the previous two possibilities work, divide and share the hurt equally among the attendees. I would watch them and think how pathetic and miserable they are. I even encouraged few of them to leave the country and they did.

I have one friend here. He´s Colombian. In early 90s he witnessed some street atrocities in Medellin during Escobar era. He focuses his energy on forgetting the past and living everything as if for the first time. He is pretty good at it that I have to remind him sometimes of whom I am as we meet.

I talk to my vegetables when I cook as to my socks, when I take them off. I also peer at my neighbour’s kids. Boy and girl. Twin. My office window overlooks their room. I started doing that after I heard that they´d been abused at school. I felt connected to them, so I would hold my superhero characters on sticks (1 Sinestro, 2 Bumblebee, 1 Flash and 1 headless Robin) and do shadow theatre from them, window to window, playing scenes from my childhood memories. The kids’ mother asked me after some time to stop it. She said her kids became aggressive in school since I started do shadow theatre for them, though I never exchanged a word with any of the two. I understand her concerns. There´s something in the way I communicate with people that make them aggressive. However, to know also that the kids are happier at school, is such a relief.

It took me seven years to see two people arguing in the street. The miracle happened shortly after the first COVID lockdown and under my window. A Yorkshire terrier of one passer-by got scared of the other for no reason. The same dog attacked me few weeks ago in a way that showed how scared he is. His owner carried him and said “it´s okay, it´s okay. He´s not a foreigner” asking me to say something to the dog in Icelandic which I refused to do. Speaking of COVID, what a failure of imagination it demonstrates. While science fiction writers tried their best to demonstrate urban and architectural dystopia but pair at the same time with some superb technological inventions, like supersonic cars or hi tech weapons, nobody predicted that our weapon for our survival would be a sheet of tissue used for the first time late 19th century, I mean of course the mask. We are traveling back in time to secure our future.

Sometimes my landlady calls me in the middle of the night to sit by her bed because she thinks she is dying and does not want to be alone when that happens. The idea came to her mind when I told her about my first love story and how my brother and I saw the corpse of my beloved’s father without ears. Only the head. She told me that the head of dead person is what matters the most in corpses. It´s what gets stuck in your mind. So, she always styles her hair and wear a light make up before going to bed, just in case, so she doesn’t add another trauma to the ones I have.

I´ve never been arrested in Lebanon. The only time I got arrested was in Iceland. I spent one night and half day in jail. It was after I got attacked by a tourist who thought I am a Jew. He pooped in one of the Christmas tents for children in the city hall, then started to harass me in the streets of Reykjavik. He would only spit, and you would smell like rotten meat if his spit hit you. I decided I should better carry my Laguiole knife with me all times before realizing that I´ve never used a knife against anybody. So, I would practice at home every morning before going to the café to write. Wearing of course only an underwear and undershirt. My American neighbour and his boyfriend didn´t feel safe about seeing me semi naked performing all kinds of non-sense stabs and gestures but also pointing most at their house unintentionally. Until one morning I noticed three police members in my neighbour’s flat taking photos of me with the knife. I got arrested as my neighbour who’s a CEO of a small company of spices, claimed that I am threatening him. The police asked me what I were doing, and I came up with the most stupid lie, saying that I was trying to slay some flies in air as a kind of meditation. They checked my phone, YouTube, it was full of Bruce Lee videos, gangsters’ biographies, bareknuckle street fights and women pole vault contests. No meditation whatsoever. They searched my place and found two big plastic bags and one suitcase with my clothes and belongings. The truth is, as a Palestinian I am not used on unpacking as I am on the verge of moving. Besides, my landlady stuck to our plan in emergencies and denied that I live in her place, so she won’t pay taxes from my rent. They handcuffed me and put a black bag on my head, and I was taken with all my belongings. I was scared at first. But after giving it some thought, I decided I won’t give them my social security number and trick them to believe that I am some immigrant hiding in an old woman’s house in Reykjavik. I thought, finally there’s something exciting happening to me. I was put in a cell with group of homeless people. One of them as he saw me, he spat on the floor and said, “go back to Africa”. For some reason I wasn’t offended but rather replied “tomorrow! I am going to Africa tomorrow” which cheered him for few minutes and wanted to tell me something about his life. He said he had once online sex with a girl, but the data of his gentiles was sold to some company that his computer and phone were flooded with advertisements on prostate gland problems. So, he decided not to use digital devices anymore. However, two immigrants beat him up couple of days ago and robbed him. I said I am immigrant too and he said we’re all alike, bums and opportunists, and he wants to kill us all after he go to AA meetings and gets sober. I said “let´s play a game, you give me a reason to kill me and I give you a reason not to, until one of us has no reasons left, so he loses. Let me start ‘it´s my taxes that pays off your booze and drugs´. Now it is your turn’”. The guy started screaming “take the fucker back to Africaaaaaaaaaa… take the fucker back to Africaaaaaaaaa” and I swear at him. The police officers were watching a golf game on a small TV. A golf player was wiping his tears and the police officers were heartbroken. But one policewoman turned and said, “Hey you, stop arguing... Oh! I know you” pointing out to me as if she recognized the circus monkey. “You used to argue with A. all the time. What are you doing here?”, she asked. I knew her too. She was friend of my ex A. and had a crush on her. Eventually, she never liked me. An hour later I was released thanks to my annoying character when I am in love relationship.

There are few stories more about my life in Reykjavik, but I would rather stop here. My mom used to say a friend is anybody who makes you do good deeds. You did that Mehdi by pushing me with your words, to feel safe enough to ride my bicycle as fast as I could and smash into my life like entering those Mario trees in Nintendo. Not to mention that my brother will never read this letter.

P.S I said I would write this letter by hand but as you see, I did not… that was the first lie.


Mazen Maarouf                                                                  

Reykjavik, November 16th, 2020