Drag, Dragons and the Al-Khawaja Family

Last weekend I was a guest at Smith College, outside Boston, at a wonderful little sci-fi convention called ConBust. It's a liberal arts college for women (where Sylvia Plath went) and the audience were some of the most engaged and switched-on people you could possibly ask for. The panels they had on were a real range - anything from "Dragons are Awesome", "Misogyny in the Geek Workplace", "How to Edit as a Writer" to "Videogames Poetry" - and those are just some of the panels I was personally involved in. It was a very intimate but active fun time, and it was a delight to be able to go and interact with the other panellists and the audience there. Also a delight was being in America when the first episode of the new RuPaul's Drag Race was aired live - an irreverent show that I love, that has done a huge amount to bring drag into the mainstream.

This weekend I read a poem at, and then listened to, all three sessions of the English PEN Modern Literature festival, where new works were performed by thirty different writers in solidarity with individuals from PEN's "Writers at Risk" programme: thirty new works in support of writers, journalists and human rights activists forced to live in exile, or in unjust incarceration, or who have simply disappeared.

In the space of a week, I went from a panel called "Dragons are Awesome" (in which I raised the possibility that dragon dressage would be a fun olympic category if dragons were real), to a piece I wrote about the Al-Khawaja family, a family of Bahraini human rights activists, the father of whom is still currently imprisoned in Bahrain for nothing more than being a human rights activist, while two of his daughters, Maryam and Zainab, are obliged to live in exile in Denmark to avoid further imprisonment themselves.

So I've been having rather a long think about what on earth my life is. One of insane hearty privilege, for one, though I suspect that goes without saying.

The piece I wrote for the PEN event that you can watch here reflected these two different modes. It mixed factual information about the family that I've gleaned from research, reading, podcasts, interviews etc, and tied them up in the idea of personal ads, spilling out intimate information. And the piece aimed to be funny, in places, which I still feel a little uncomfortable about.

I think Tom Jenks' piece on Nabeel Rajab (also a prominent Bahraini human rights activist who has been unjustly imprisoned) and Matthew Welton's piece on Tutul (a Bangladeshi publisher, writer and editor who is living in exile in Norway after surviving an extremist attack) both also tried to tackle this idea of wanting to write something in solidarity that was engaged and committed, but that also in some way reflected the reality of our own experience as UK writers trying to write about them (not that this was necessary of course - just something I noticed). Steve Fowler, who curated the event, described in his opening notes about the commission: "this project begins in impossibility, for us to understand, to acknowledge our own fortune to not be in such a position as the writers we are celebrating" and I wanted in some way to acknowledge this in the piece that I wrote.

Perhaps it's also worth saying that I did consciously write it with the context in mind, ie that it would be read in a day of 30 performances throughout the afternoon and evening, and that perhaps a small injection of humour might be a useful moment of relief or perhaps release for the audience. One concern I had was that if everyone made the same choice to employ humour, that we would then have had a whole day of lighthearted pieces being made in the context of human rights abuses that do not bear them. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, an excess of levity across the day was not a problem. The other concern I had of course was that levity is simply not appropriate for the subject, but I made my choice, as mentioned above, and hope that it has not caused any offence.

All the readings from the event have gone online this morning, and they are all worth watching, as everyone came to the impossible problem of how to write about these different people in very different ways, and are all so valuable, both as creative works, and in drawing attention to the work and plights of others.

I learnt so much in the process of research and writing for this project, not just about the Al-Khawaja family, but also about Bahrain in general. I had no idea how bad things were there, in terms of the way the ruling regime has treated those who protest against it, and no idea how little the US and the UK are doing about it. Trump, for example, has just declared his intention to forge ahead with a jet deal that drops the human rights conditions Obama had attached to it. The UK has just opened a Naval Base there (that Bahrain has largely paid for), which is being sold to us by the Telegraph, along with improved trade relations with Bahrain, as a "perfect platform" for a post-Brexit Britain.

I don't claim to understand all the nuances of the political situation, but the human rights abuses being carried out in Bahrain are well documented. Learning more about the situation is helping me find opportunities where I can do more. For example, it strikes me that writing to my MP about the Bahraini rulers' human rights abuses is useful, as hopefully is this blogpost, as is joining English PEN, and I am looking for ways to do more.

By the way, if you would like a place to start in terms of learning more about the Al-Khawaja family, you can start here, though I also recommend finding out more about Bahrain generally, and the 2011 uprisings that were largely ignored by our newspapers, by watching this Al Jazeera documentary "Shouting in the Dark" here.

Now I'm sat here, typing this up, and I'm still thinking about the leap to this from the "Dragons are Awesome" panel last weekend. My life is mixed and confusing and strange and overall fine, filled with these seemingly irreconcilable activities. Obscene as it feels, I need to acknowledge the coexistence of these two different modes of living, both my desire to be helpful in the world, and my desire to talk about, for example, how Katya never should have left season seven of RuPaul's Drag Race when she did. But I suspect that the more I can reconcile these two modes, the more it will liberate me to be more bravely useful - that I can do more once I accept and stop being ashamed of how different my life is, and how limited my experience and help.

One thing that Maryam comes back to again and again in interviews is this idea that she, they, are not exceptional in being human rights activists, that it is normal to say something when you see injustice. Perhaps that's a useful point to end on, making this sort of action more normal, something to fold into daily life. As normal as watching Drag Race, liking dragons or wanting to write a poem is to me.

No, wait, this is where I'll end. Linking to where you can sign up for English PEN's mailing list, even if you don't want to join.

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