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Poet arrested in Jordan for insulting Islam

October 21, 2008 |  1:09 pm


Reporting for the L.A. Times from Beirut, Borzou Daragahi writes that Islam Samhan, a 27-year-old poet, was arrested and charged with "harming Islam by incorporating Koranic imagery into his love poems" today.

According to the National, the Abu Dhabi daily, Samhan's work, "Slim Shadows," caught the attention of Jordanian clerics, including Jordan's Grand Mufti Noah Alqdah Samas, who called him an enemy of religion for comparing his loneliness to that of the prophet Youssef in the Koran.

Suddenly, Samhan's nightmare began. His book was banned and he began receiving death threats.

Next came today's arrest. According to a report by the Associated Press, authorities have charged him with harming Islam by violating the press and publication law "for combining the sacred words of the Koran with sexual themes."

The collection, called "Grace Like a Shadow" by the AP, is said to violate Jordan's law banning insults to religion. "But in the heady world of literature," Daragahi asks, "who decides when something is insulting faith or inspired by it?"

Exactly who decides depends on where you are, and some places are more dangerous for writers than others. The PEN American Center currently has 20 active campaigns to help writers who've been imprisoned across the world, in China, Syria, Cuba, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. They don't ask much -- simply that supporters send "clear, politely worded messages to the foreign governments involved." Many of these writers were journalists, deliberately challenging restrictive regimes.

Was Samhan aware that his lines about loneliness would put him in jeopardy? That isn't clear. But certainly, many other poets have written on the topic without such severe repercussions -- the Poetry Foundation's archive includes 85 poems that use the word "loneliness," written by Carl Sandburg, Tony Hoagland, Lord Byron, Dorothy Parker, Robert Creeley and more.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo of Amman, Jordan, by Argenberg via Flickr