Hand and pen

PEN Lebanon brings acclaimed international writers to promote freedom of expression to public school students.

When four foreign novelists — one Dutch, one Polish, one Liberian and one Indian — pile back into a tour bus after visiting a public school in Aley, all they can talk about is how special the experience was. Indeed, out of all the talks and readings they’ve given during a weeklong tour of Lebanon, they say the most interesting and special were those given in schools to the country’s inquisitive youth.

Usha Kuniga Ramaswamy, Witold Szablowski, Martijn Knol and Vamba Sherif were in Lebanon at the invitation of PEN Lebanon, an organization run by Lebanese writers to defend freedom of expression and thought.

PEN Lebanon is a chapter of PEN International, an organization that claims to be the first in the world to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable. Since its founding in the United Kingdom in 1921, PEN has championed both. And as it has, the organization expanded around the world. What started as little more than a dinner club for writers to exchange ideas now operates in more than 100 countries, promoting free speech and campaigning on behalf of those denied it.

As of 2012, the list of countries with PEN chapters includes Lebanon, although PEN Lebanon’s founders will quickly tell you that although they only have been a formal entity for half a decade, the concept has been informally in operation for far longer.

“What you need to understand,” poet, novelist and PEN Lebanon co-founder Hyam Yared said, “is that the idea of a PEN Lebanon center is not new in Lebanon. It was established long ago by Camille Abou Souan and many other writers.” What happened in 2012 was that it was “recreated and renamed by a new generation.”

“All believe in the highly transformative power of literature.”

That new generation of writers involved in PEN Lebanon is a veritable who’s who of local- and foreign-based Lebanese writers, including Iman Humaydan, Hanan al-Shaykh, Zena el Khalil and Akram Rayess. Some write in English, some in Arabic and some in French. All believe in the highly transformative power of literature.

“What inspired us was the idea to be a literary platform that can be aware of any improvement or degradation of freedom of speech and expression,” Yared explained. As well as promoting literature, “one of our main interests is to be aware of any threats Lebanese and Arab authors may encounter.”

Lebanon is a natural fit for this role in the Arab world, being, as Yared said, “a literary platform and a scene for theater art.”

Indeed, PEN Lebanon’s establishment came at a significant moment for the region. “The Arab revolution (Spring) occurred while we were working on forming the center, and it is also what drove us to activate it as soon as we could in order to be able to witness all the changes that Arab societies will have to live through their writers and journalists,” explained Yared, who has authored or coauthored nine books.

“Unleash hidden memory and allow language to introduce dialogue into everyone’s mind.”

In addition to its “Way of Dialogue” tour with the four foreign writers in November 2016, PEN Lebanon has held several other outreach events.

Most recently, it organized “a unique encounter” with poetry reading at the recently renovated Beit Beirut in Sodeco in October. The “PEN Lebanon X Healing Lebanon” event brought together talented school students and established poets to read their work for an audience in the symbolic setting of a former sniper’s nest on the front line of the 1975 – 90 civil war. The literary readings project in schools and theaters was initiated by Iman Humaydan, president of PEN Lebanon since 2015.

“Our biggest achievement, in my regard, is the effort PEN Lebanon is doing in Lebanese public schools, organizing with many of them encounters with Lebanese writers around their books, which we had delivered to their schools previously, and which they can discuss very freely,” said Yared. “Making literature accessible to public schools who usually have little budget for cultural activities is very important to me.”

Lebanese literature is special and plays a major role in “healing trauma by trying to witness and understand it,” she said. “Lebanese writing works like a catharsis for unspoken war trauma. It is a way to unleash hidden memory and allow language to introduce dialogue into everyone’s mind.

“This is the beauty and essence of Lebanese writing — the articulation of a very complex memory, the reflection of our complex society.”

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

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