Another Sky

Anthony McIntyre 

As I write only days after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, widely interpreted as marking the extinction of liberal dissent in Russia, the threat to the uncensored voice is growing. This is not the time for those who deal in ideas to practise self-censorship; it is time to defend democracy - Carol Seymour Jones, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, English PEN. October 2006.

PEN is the organisation behind this anthology edited by two of its leading lights, Lucy Popescu and Carole Seymour-Jones. The work takes its title from a poem featured in the collection. It was written by Mansur Muhammad Ahmad Rajih, a Yemeni writer who has endured exile, imprisonment, torture, and a false murder conviction for which he was sentenced to death. That he was later released, having first spent 15 years in prison, was a consequence of the type of international campaigning that this book shows to be so necessary.
The first page opened makes a point common to the authors of the writings on the pages that follow: ‘they have all been coerced into not writing.’ Some faced ‘the ultimate form of censorship – murder.’ In an internet age which has been heralded as one that is pushing out the boundaries of freedom of opinion the book protests that ‘Internet giants Yahoo! and Google are cooperating with repressive governments to silence dissidence.’ In the midst of ostensible opportunity for free expression the ubiquitous censor is determined not to be denied its prize – silence. Prison, death and exile thematically structure Another Sky as its editors’ intention is to flag up three ways in which writers become prey for the censor. The spirit that animates the works chosen is exemplified by Angel Cuadra, held for 15 years in a Cuban prison. He captures the ethos of resistance that a writer must embody otherwise risk facing psychological destruction as in the much heralded new man of Cuban socialism, who is portrayed by Cuadra as a broken man.
After the horse is broken They reward it with pats on the shoulder … And he marches tame and docile - Blind in his vomit - Like a slinking dog

It need not be Havana or socialism. Examples abound from other places and regime types across the globe where the crushing of the writerly spirit is pursued by those determined to maintain the darkness. The case of Ken Saro Wiwa poignantly illustrates that writing is not a mere pastime but an intensely political activity that often brings deadly opposition. He was hanged in Nigeria in 1995 because of his outspoken opposition against the oil giants Shell on behalf of the Ogoni people. Five days before his execution he wrote a piece ‘On the Death of Ken Sara Wiwa’ which was smuggled out of prison. In it he ‘described his own death and its aftermath.’ It displayed a level of detachment, presence of mind and conviction rarely seen in human beings staring murder in the face.

Within these pages there are many nuggets but one brilliant line leaps out and imposes its own full stop. The reader may carry on but takes little in as the mind drifts back to those words of the Turkmenistan writer Rakhim Esenov: ‘a ruler who does not befriend a poet is a fool, but a poet who tries to befriend a ruler is twice as stupid.’ We see it in the North of Ireland where one-time powerful artists now line up with the state. It did little for their writing or creativity and much for the legitimisation and refinement of state repression.
Despite the prudence of Rakhim Esenov the state alone is not the sole censor. While many writers met their end through government persecution others provoked the ire of guerrillas. We learn from this collection that Thiagarajah Selvanithy was kidnapped and later killed by the Tamil Tigers. 

For certain, wherever censors are to be found there too will congregate clerics. Little to express surprise at when the censors of Iran feature in the pages of Another Sky. The Iranian writer Akbar Ganji is the author of Dungeon of Ghosts. This wielder of the pen has been imprisoned and endured hunger strike, yet has been unrelenting in his exposure of the Iranian government formerly presided over by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for its involvement in the murders of five writers and intellectuals in 1998. In an insightful observation often overlooked by apologists for the totalitarian Left, Akbar Ganji commenting on Iranian society made the point that it hosted fascist movements but ‘there are also individuals whose psychological disposition drives them into fascist movements.’ The point is well made. Often we find that the Left, while not fascist in itself, draws the same type of disposition to its own ranks. They are attracted to the Left not by its politics but by its authoritarianism. And with consummate ease they adopt political postures that can only be considered fascistic. Today we find them siding with the whip wielding morality police rather than with the women whose flesh is being ripped to shreds by the thugs of Allah. On the question of how writers should deal with the phenomenon of religious intolerance Orhan Pamuk is instructive.

To respect the humanity and religious freedoms of minorities is not to suggest that we should limit freedom of thought on their behalf. Respect for the rights of religious or ethnic minorities should never be an excuse to violate freedom of speech. We writers should never hesitate on this matter, no matter how ‘provocative’ the pretext.

Pamuk’s ‘crime’ was to validate the existence of genocide against the Armenians in 1915-17 when official Turkish policy is to deny it. Pamuk survived but his fellow writer Hrank Dink, who also features in Another Sky, was not as fortunate. He was murdered by a right wing death squad while awaiting trial on charges of having referred to the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide.

Depending on whom the victims are Holocaust denial is encouraged in some regimes and affirmation punished by death. Writers need to be able to think freely and not become automatons pushing a pen in the service of some political project. That is for bureaucrats not creative artists. The Zimbabwean Culture minister at one point in time got the notion into his head that writers should only write ‘socialist novels and plays.’ The type of dull world he wanted literature reduced to in which the main characters would address each other as comrade’ has little appeal – apart perhaps for dullards. And then because no one else would be allowed to write there could be no criticism of what is written and the situation would perpetuate itself. Imagine how rapidly a cultural environment would atrophy were that to be the ethos driving it. 

Thankfully Orwell gave us an all too vivid feel for that type of system and as a result its attraction has morphed into repulsion in the eyes of writers of all hues. Not that rejection of the Cultural minister’s proposal made Zimbabwe a secure inkwell for pens. Chenjerai Hove outlining censorship in the country described its police as referring to journalism as ‘the crime of practicing journalism.’ 

While many of the writers in this anthology are well outside of their normal geographic environment, Hove made an important point about what constitutes exile. In order to be exiled one does not need to be banished from the country but merely denied the right to participate in its affairs. It is not just far off places, alien to the West, that draw the ire of Another Sky. Documented in these pages is the experience of Cheikh Kone who fled the Ivory Coast and ended up in a detention centre in Freemantle Australia. There the conditions were atrocious and Kone describes how one prisoner attempted suicide by leaping from a tree. As he prepared to make his jump he cried in a voice containing both despair and cynicism, ‘I don’t want Australia anymore. Thank you, Australia, thank you, everybody. On release Kone received a bill for $89,000 to cover the costs of his detention. He summed the experience up:

Between adolescence and adulthood a political ideal called democracy caught my attention. Amidst the mosaic of ideas that offered themselves I quickly became an advocate of this ideal, believing in its great strengths. After spending almost three years in an immigration detention centre in a so called democratic country, I don’t know what to believe in anymore.


Whatever you believe keep saying it.

Another Sky: Voices of conscience from around the world. Editors, Lucy Popescu and Carole Seymour-Jones. London: Profile Books.


  1. Sorry if this is the wrong place to be posting this, but I am new to it and not too sure if it has to be posted under certain postings or just the latest?

    Was I the only one laughing at Gerry getting caught out yesterday on telling lies about his time in the H-Block, how he and all his mated used to sing 'Always look on the bright side of life' as they waited for beatings from the screws? Of course, the song hadn't even been written then...
    Poor Gerry. Is this what it's all come down to?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Anthony

    Thanks for this I enjoyed reading it, I just have a couple of points, I worry greatly at the ease governments have had in censoring the WWW. You mention Google and Yahoo, when they colluded with the State capitalist dictatorship in China. In Turkey you tube is banned and has been for some time, the government claim it is nothing to do with them, but due to an obscure imam bringing a court case.

    Perhaps I am the most stupid man to ever set foot in Turkey, but it seems to me the Turkish government has had no problem in the past influencing and circuiting decisions of the judiciary, so a sane man can only conclude you tube is banned because the State wishes it so.

    My other point is a bit more contentious, you seem to blanket all of us on the left together when you write.

    "They are attracted to the Left not by its politics but by its authoritarianism."

    In reality we are far from a homogeneous group, indeed we are more like squabbling cats in a sack. ;) True as with all political ideologies, whether they be of the left, right, or centre [NL for example) a small section of the left is authoritarian but most of us are not.

  4. Kate, the pity about this comment is that it is much too valuable to be buried in the comment section of a blog. It very much needs airing in its own right. You should think of some way of further highlighting this very important matter. I am pleased that the review prompted such a thought out response but it does need raised in many other places.

  5. Mick, no doubt there are obscure imans everywhere who hate the thought of free speech but in the case of Turkey I think you are right.

    As for the Left. I think you got the wrong end of the stick here. I do not believe that the Left attract only those who have difficulties coping with social situations and as a consequence need to find some structure that will allow them to impose their views on everybody else. I think it is a feature of the Irrelevant Left although even there we find people who are genuine in their pursuit of radical politics.

    I was reading a few days ago a piece you did on the SWP and Respect from about 2007. It was a very good piece in which I felt you summed up the problems of the authoritarian Left. Although I also felt you imposed too much of a dichotomy between the SWP and Galloway.

  6. Mary, it was already posted at the bottom of another article:

    I am posting it here again in case you don't notice that it was posted under the earlier piece. Although it is not directly relevant to the current review there is no point in me being formal or tight on these matters!

    What happened yesterday to him is a result of where the legacy of lies has taken him. There may well be an inability to distinguish between what happened and what he might like to have happened.

    And nobody in the party will come out and point it out to him

  7. There are major difference between George and the leading members of the SWP, (both here and over your way} not lease George is one hell of a political operator, whilst the SWP are, well Trots ;) who seem to have no idea politics is an art form which to be successful at takes considerable skill, finesse and tact; and marching down the street crying the workers united will never be defeated alone will not do the trick.(puts tin hat on)

    Nevertheless there are similarities between them, the most important is their bedrock is events that occurred in Russia/USSR in the first half of the last century. George is an incorrigible Stalinist, hence his partiality to a 'great and infallible leader' and the SWP are as I have already said Trots, although whether Leon Trotsky would claim them as 'disciples' is another matter.

  8. Mick, I am not sure the similarity you refer to is the one I had in mind. That bedrock divides them more than anything else. I have always preferred Trotsky to Stalin but guess the Trots we have in Ireland are pretty much like what you have over there. The good activists they have do themselves no good by being among them.

    The similarity between Galloway and the SWP I was referring to is their essential inability to deal with democracy. Which is all the more annoying with the SWP. After the experience of Trotsky at the hands of Stalin why they are so enamoured to Stalinist methodology seems best explained by their innate authoritarianism.

    I am firmly convinced that Trotsky would not be in any of the sects that wear his identity as a brand name. I can only speak for here and not England but the amount of jail hardened activists that have been dissuaded from socialist organisations by the Trots is evidence in itself of their failure. People who spent say a decade in jail have been tested in a way that people who spent a decade in university have not. In my view they will always be more reliable but they won’t touch the socialist organisations with a barge pole.

    In jail I would suggest to some people that as individuals we should consider remaining members of the IRA but politically align with some of the Left groups and avoid Sinn Fein. When they got out and would come back in again to jail I would discuss with them why that type of thing never occurred. They simply asked me to have a look at the Left. When I got out I learned very quickly how unviable the Left was. I tried working with them but it was like a Punch and Judy show. The first chance to roar and shout deviationist at one another they went for it.

    After that I concluded that the probability is great that these sects are state driven and populated by a sizeable section of spooks whose objective is to secure the organisational existence of the sects for the purpose of ensuring socialism is a an unattractive idea.

    If you have a better explanation I am willing to consider it.