See How I Land: Oxford poets and exiled writers

Series 3 No.12 - Freed Speech

We wanted to give a voice to those whose voices are seldom heard, and whose stories are so often deemed ‘lacking in credibility’ by the UK asylum system.

In autumn 2008, the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, in partnership with the Oxford charity Asylum Welcome, launched a new initiative: the ‘Oxford Poets and Refugees project’. 

The project, funded by the Arts Council, brought together fourteen  published Oxford-based poets and fourteen exiled writers, most of whom were refugees and asylum-seekers. Each established poet worked one-to-one with an exiled writer over a series of three half-day workshops, held at Oxford Brookes in November and December 2008, and led by Carole Angier. 

One of our main objectives for the project was to facilitate the production of new, high-quality, thought-provoking literature. We also wanted to enhance readers’ awareness of the human stories behind the politically-charged issue of immigration. But, perhaps most of all, we wanted to give a voice to those whose voices are seldom heard, and whose stories are so often deemed ‘lacking in credibility’ by the UK asylum system.

Each pair worked together on a piece of poetry or prose which was written by the refugee and mentored by the established writer. Each established writer also wrote a poem arising from or inspired by the experience. And, finally, each pair produced a jointly-authored prose statement providing a context for the two main pieces – explaining, for instance, where the ideas came from, whether or not translation was involved, and how particular words or forms were agreed upon. 

The resulting work has been collected into an anthology, See How I Land: Oxford poets and exiled writers (Heaventree Press, 2009), and the contributions from two of the pairs who participated in the project – Dawood and Jamie McKendrick, and Yousif Qasmiyeh and Bernard O’Donoghue – are featured here.

Carole Angier, Rachel Buxton, Stephanie Kitchen, and Simon White

Jamie McKendrick

We spent the three workshops talking about Dawood’s journey from Iran to Britain. Dawood has learnt some English, but for the details of his story we needed the expert assistance of Sheherazade McKean, a Farsi interpreter. 

There must now be many hundreds of thousands of parallel and similarly epic journeys undertaken by people desperate to leave impossible situations, each one in its own way both unique and representative. These journeys require courage and endurance, particularly for those – the majority – with little money, and often subject the travellers to unbearable hardships. Even if they reach their intended destination, a whole new set of difficulties and uncertainties awaits them. When Dawood set off from Iran to Turkey he was in a group of a hundred and fifty people, mainly from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Along the way he was prey to ruthless exploitation by various paid ‘agents’ who were responsible for arranging the stages of his journey, as well as utterly dependent for his survival on his fellow-travellers, and on the rare acts of goodwill he encountered. Many die en route, and most well know the risks they are running. 

Dawood, who has written many poems before leaving Iran and since arriving in Britain, has offered one of these, ‘Night Letter’, for the anthology. This was fluently and effectively translated by Sheherazade. It deals with the bitter experience of exile. The only explanatory note which the translator suggested it might need concerns the image of the rainbow-like tablecloth – this refers to the colourful array and variety of the neighbour’s food rather than to the fabric of the cloth itself.

Jamie’s poem relates to a small portion of Dawood’s story. It deals freely with the material, and though written in the first person, makes no pretence to speak in Dawood’s own voice.

Dawood and Jamie

Night Letter 

sometimes I scribble over my name with a black pen
to leave no trace though maybe a trace remains
sometimes I see a dead sun in the looking glass
as I look at myself I paint the mirror black
I always write about the moon and sun
night scares me yet I write about the moon
tonight and every night I’ll write a night letter
a stricken letter from the stars to the moon
saying how darkness suffers from the lack of moonlight
our sun was asleep –  God’s will had veiled it
if I say God does not exist  I may be hanged
they’ll call me an atheist  –  God will be angered
my God knows only that I’m homeless wandering
close by the sea longing for a drop of water
my next door neighbour's daughter sleeps hungry
when she asks for bread her mother says there’s none
misery is all my brother’s seen since youth
this was his destiny my mother said – God did not care
another neighbour plays with bread
God slips between the fingers of his hands
his tablecloth’s more vivid than the rainbow
we are as different as the earth and sky
though both of us are human born into the same world
if this is how I had to be  –  maybe God’s will was unwilling
why was He not willing? Did I not pray enough?



‘Burly, unscareable, only the rats
were at home in the camp at Patra
– you can see for yourself this foyer of hell
if you go on holiday to Greece.
I stayed, unsure how to leave, nine months in all,
apart from the two days in hospital
after being picked up by the police.
I survived, unlike Ali
whom I’d been with from the start – we’d argued
and agreed every step of the way, walking by
night through the mountains to Turkey,
avoiding landmines, praying for rain
to drink, rationing out the tinned food
we’d thought to bring, our trainers in tatters.

That day we had a lunch of rice
then said goodbye. He chose a lorry
he was hoping would board the ferry
to Ancona. You have to hold on for
dear life above the back axle
to a sheaf of oily wires – one pot-hole,
a sudden stop or an acceleration,
and chances are you’ll lose your grip and fall.
To send his body back to Iran
would have cost many times more than
the few dollars we kept hidden
in a bar of soap, carefully hollowed out
and sculpted over. All we could do
was bury him by the camp at Patra.’

Jamie McKendrick

Yousif Qasmiyeh
Bernard O’Donoghue

From our first meeting in November 2008, Yousif expressed concerns that the term ‘asylum-seeker/refugee’ was featuring so prominently as an overarching heading for this poetry project. Being a refugee should not require foregrounding one’s legal condition above all else, overshadowing, for instance, one’s personal, professional and writing history beyond and before asylum.

Both members of this writing partnership are outsiders: Yousif is a Palestinian refugee by birth, having been born in a Lebanese-based Palestinian refugee camp; Bernard is Irish. 

When Carole Angier proposed a 30-second, quick-response exercise to devise an image, Bernard, like most people in the room, invoked an idyllic, and perhaps rather defensive image of his home or family, set in his native area of North County Cork. For the larger initial writing project, he responded to Carole’s suggestion of writing a letter to an earlier self by situating himself as a nine-year-old Bernard. This was a fun, and yet unremarkable creative process, perhaps the natural response of someone who has had a relatively free and unpoliticised life.

Yousif, on the other hand, responded to the first exercise with the idea of ‘holes’. Initially, perhaps, this idea was provoked by the gap between the request for an instant image and the eventual response. However, the notion of ‘holes’ immediately widened to include a range of meanings and implications. In our subsequent meeting, this proved very productive, and Yousif planned to write a poem – closely following a modernist structure – constituted around a series of episodes: that is, holes with holes between them on the page.

The fundamental opposition which emerged is whether ‘holes’ are seen as destructive or creative; clearly, they can be both. We recalled the story of the Dutch boy who put his thumb in the hole of a dam and saved his country from the floods. Perhaps a further challenge is to explore an uncomfortable, intermediate position between the two. The pre-holed condition is also the child’s link with the mother at birth, while the final ‘hole’ is arguably death. It is important, we agreed, to distinguish ‘holes’ from ‘gaps’: the latter are examples of discontinuity, with little sense of anything deeper. 

Unlike gaps, ‘holes’ can be seen as ingredients of a larger entity. They may even be that which ultimately defines the entity. They are also considered to be active concealers of things, and one of Yousif’s episodes explores this ‘holey’ function. Indeed, in keeping with the ambiguity of ‘holey/holy’ roles, Yousif’s father rejected his son’s temporary infatuation with the notion of prophecy, favouring his son’s incorporation into the more productive activities of shop-keeping. It is interesting to ponder the possible trajectories of these two callings, and to ask whether the child’s first preference is still acted on in the adult’s writings. We quoted Dryden’s ‘great wits are sure to madness near allied’: prophecy, like madness, can be seen as a hole in the mind, with the corresponding possibilities of destruction and creation.

In addition, we discussed the issues which arise with the term ‘hole’ itself in English, especially its – productive or complicating – homophone ‘whole’. This was exploited by Yeats in his risqué poem ‘Crazy Jane talks with the Bishop’: ‘For nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent.’ 

Concluding our reflection is the recognition that translation is complex, yet artificial: this is its difficulty but also its possibility. The first issue, of course, is the problem faced by a Palestinian poet working towards publishing in English. Writing poetry in a language other than the mother tongue is immeasurably difficult (yet often with intriguing outcomes), and Yousif continues to prefer writing in Arabic and translating his own work into English.

Yousif and Bernard



How will I die
While all
Can see me?


When is the rain
Going to admit
Its fall?


I was born
On the seam of a dress,
In the last hour
Of the sixth day,
Between clusters of stars
And the borders of a river.

I was neither
Adam reaching the ground,
Nor was I myself
In cities
Which share their water
With the agents of doom.


I lean on
The footsteps of my past
As I slip towards
My shadow.

The shadow which I left
Outside our house
On the morning
Of that funeral.

I am that dead person
But I don’t know
He managed to escape.


May we watch the rain falling,
And may we follow its rhythm
Like those bereaved of children.

May we count the moons
That evening:
A moon for every face,

And for every exile,
As they roll their prayer beads
Along the journey.


They said: Here is the accoucheuse
Who dropped you
Off her hunch
And screamed,
On behalf of your mother,
At the crowded heads
To disperse
A shade
So the air
Might reach you;

So your trembling mother
Might place you
At the threshold
Of the shrine
Before the holy man’s tomb,
With three
Thick candles
That the widow
Of the guardian
Would light
Once you awoke.


I can almost
Her exhalation
In that wind-shaken coffin,
On the shoulders
Of those
Who hoped
To hunt the moon down
With their prayers.


The flock of frightened angels
I follow,
Roaming at a low height
In the morning of the war.
I say:
Please stop,
So you can return safely
To your dead ones.


The caravan descends
With no invocation on the window
To save its passengers
From envy.

Those on board
Spend their time
Collecting cocoons
In ashen bags.

A black woman
Who has tapped
With her shoes
The courier’s head
Alights, and enters the tunnel.
She kisses the charm on her chest
And punctures her neck.


Upside down
And in the middle
Of the yard
His picture was hung.
They did not change
The place of the pail.
He will cry,
And the image
Will float on the
Face of the pail. 

Yousif Qasmiyeh

for Yousif Qasmiyeh

Unhappy the man who keeps to the home place
and never finds time to escape to the city
where he can listen to the rain on the ceiling,
secure in the knowledge that it’s causing no damage
to roof-thatch or haystack or anything of his.
Unhappy the man who never got up
on a tragic May morning, to go to the station
dressed out for America where he might have stood
by the Statue of Liberty, or drunk in the light
that floods all the streets that converge on Times Square.

Unhappy the man who has lacked the occasion
to return to the village on a sun-struck May morning,
to shake the hands of the neighbours he’d left
a lifetime ago and tell the world’s wonders,
before settling down by his hearth once again.

Bernard O’Donoghue

Copyright © Dawood, Jamie McKendrick, Yousif Qasmiyeh, and Bernard O’Donoghue. Published in See How I Land: Oxford poets and exiled writers (Heaventree Press, 2009). Re-published here by permission of the publisher with thanks to all copyright holders.

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