The Empty Chair: A Petition for Ghassan Zaqtan

By Fady JoudahJune 3, 2013

The Empty Chair: A Petition for Ghassan Zaqtan

THE FOLLOWING STATEMENTS OF SUPPORT for Ghassan Zaqtan and his beautiful and unique poetry, from fellow poets, were mostly written prior to the swift, unconditional, yet pressured reversal of the visa rejection he initially received from the Canadian government on May 27, 2013. Mr. Zaqtan is a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize Awards. The authors here, fully aware, chose not to alter their statements that were written before the political decision was rectified. So far, to my knowledge, no North American or International literary organization has made any public statement denouncing the events and supporting Ghassan Zaqtan’s rights.

Fady Joudah


May 29, 2013

Twice now, in a period of 14 months to be exact, a North American government denies the same Palestinian author and poet, Ghassan Zaqtan, ordinary rights of free speech, in the guise of preventing his entry to a country for purposes of reading and speaking about poetry. Last April, 2012, the US government promised him a visa but engaged in delay tactics that ensured he’d miss his scheduled tour. Now, the Canadian government finds no need to even feign negligence. It has outright denied the poet entry visa to attend the Griffin Awards in Toronto as a finalist.

Last week, the visa rejection from the Canadian government was firm. It stated that it had reviewed matters carefully; that this was no clerical error; that the international literary honors were not sufficient grounds for a visa; that suspicions of his financial motivation and commitment to his place of residence were not ameliorated by his straightforward application; that further proof is needed that he had been granted visa to other countries he had mentioned traveling to; that a personal guarantee from the Griffin Trust and its president, in short, were not enough.

Ghassan Zaqtan’s plight is also that of a thousand other writers. Yet his comes with particular twist. He is a Palestinian, an Arab trying to have a voice in North America. We know it is improbable, if not impossible, that this treatment would befall an Israeli author, in the US or Canada. Denying Ghassan Zaqtan an entry visa under the pretext of the administered world is a discriminatory governmental policy through the banality of bureaucracy. Denying him entry enforces the continued silencing of Palestinian voices and distortion of Palestinian humanity. Denying him entry and attendance aids the illusion that limits and demotes Palestinian art and literature, along with so many other literatures, to the so-called political, in a Western, “postmodern” sense of the word. But Ghassan Zaqtan’s poetry and Palestinian literature have long ago established their triumph. They continue to celebrate life.

– Fady Joudah


May 29, 2013

And when I fall asleep
I find a horse grazing grass
Whenever I fall asleep
A horse comes to graze my dreams.

– Ghassan Zaqtan

There was an empty chair at the Nobel Peace ceremony in Oslo, 2010. Liu Xiaobo was supposed to receive his award from that chair. China had refused to let him out of the prison, refused to give him a passport. Now the Canadian Embassy denies Zaqtan’s visa for the Griffin Poetry Ceremony in Toronto. There will be an empty chair for the poet from Ramallah. 

But who can stop the bird from singing? Who can stop the poet from dreaming of his black horse? Who can stop the horse from grazing his way into our dream, our tomorrow?

To be alive at home, it’s already a victory. To be alive and write poetry from Ramallah, it’s a victory for all the Palestinians. To write poetry and spread it around the world, it’s a victory for the entire humanity. Zaqtan’s songs do not need a visa to enter Canada. Poetry, like air, wind and water, runs free and everywhere. No politics or money or walls can block it. It runs within us, like blood.

– Wang Ping


May 29, 2013

To whom it may concern:

When I think of Ghassan Zaqtan, I think of a man who is incredibly generous, decent and kind. I think of a poet whose work is vivid, attentive, and masterful. I have met Ghassan Zaqtan, heard him read his poems, interviewed him, and wrote about his work, so I speak from first-hand experience. He is certainly a master of his art, one who is able to be a mythmaker and a witness at the same time, which is rare among poets.

So the news that Canada has refused to grant a visa to the writer who is, so clearly, respected worldwide (in US, UK, in EU, in Middle-East, and elsewhere) is strange and, frankly, insulting. Zaqtan is a poet and word-artist of the first order. He is also a passionate public speaker, a playwright, an intellectual, a human being of rare and beautiful gifts. I hope Canada will reconsider — and first of all for Canada’s sake. What a shame, what a low and dishonest way of thinking about the place of an artist in society, and what an idiocy not to allow entrance to the country to a person who's a finalist for the country's most important international literary award. America was once criticized for not allowing the Nobel Prize winning Pablo Neruda to come to USA. Decades passed, and Neruda is a beloved classic in this country now. Canada's decision in Zaqtan's case shows the country's disrespect for public intellectuals, in our time; what poverty of imagination. I feel sorry for Canadian readers who won’t be able to encounter in person this world-class literary artist.

– Ilya Kaminsky


May 31, 2013

While I’m relieved that Ghassan Zaqtan’s visa has been granted, I’m distressed that of the four international finalists for the Griffin Prize he is the only poet who has had to confront this sort of political/bureaucratic run around. Mr. Zaqtan is a great poet internationally loved and respected. If someone of his stature has to go through something like this, I shudder to think what obstacles other deserving but less well-known Middle Eastern poets, Palestinian or otherwise, have had to encounter trying to promote their work on this side of the Atlantic. The vitality of a free society depends on the vitality of the conversation it conducts about itself. The more wide open, robust and uninhibited the conversation, the more informed and healthier we all become. The ham handed censorship Mr. Ghassan has had to deal with in order to take his rightful place among the other poets on the short list is the sort of thing one expects from a weak, uncertain and defensive society, a society with little confidence in the very institutions and values it claims to live by and embody.

– Alan Shapiro


May 30, 2013

Last year, I had the good fortune of attending a reading by the poet Ghassan Zaqtan and his translator, Fady Joudah, at the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University. Zaqtan’s humane, elegiac verses captivated the audience:

Dear daughter
when you go to pick the quince
don’t wake me

I’ve been dead for a long time, as you know,
like an ancient summer I sleep on a cold stone
the sun turns me to the right and to the left
and the birds peck my head

Zaqtan, though, was not there. His promised visa had been “delayed,” and would continue to be “delayed” as the State decided whether this singer was indeed a danger to the State. Eventually, after agonizing efforts on his  behalf, a visa did come through, though readings had to be cancelled and tickets rebooked at great expense. That day, Zaqtan appeared before us by means of a tenuous video link, his voice and image fading and returning, as if his very presence on this earth hung by an electronic thread. The irony was inescapable.

Now we hear that Canada, following a series of Kafkaesque refusals, has indeed granted the man with a suspicious name and point of origin a visa to be present at the Griffin Prize ceremonies. Canada, after accusing him, in effect, and upon no grounds whatsoever (the name, the origin?) of lying on his visa application, sees fit to briefly admit him. The humiliation remains, of course, and whether he shall choose to appear is an open question. This poet who has written:

Try to sing a little in front of the trees
so they may love you

– Michael Palmer


May 30, 2013

Ghassan Zaqtan is a poet, novelist, and editor whose most recent poetry collection, translated into English, is being honored, which is another way of saying that he is not a politician who threatens the West, or a tyrant, or a war criminal, or a criminal of any kind. He is not a murderer, rapist, torturer, or someone who has in any way violated the human or civil rights of any individual, ever. Yet, such people — dictators, war criminals, torturers, rapists, murderers — have been and are regularly welcomed to Canada and the United States. Giving Zaqtan a travel visa should have been a no-brainer — it still is. Whatever the reason for the (now corrected) error — I'm willing to call it that, and to give those involved the benefit of the doubt — it should have not occurred in the first place.

– Hayan Charara


May 30, 2013

On Ghassan Zaqtan / Ron Slate

I met Ghassan Zaqtan last December when he visited the Boston area to read with Fady Joudah, his fellow poet and anglophone translator. We went to a restaurant in Brookline. A gracious and pensive man with an alert mind and a smoky voice, Ghassan quietly enjoyed his dinner and reflected on his reading tour of America. His visa to enter the US had finally been issued after inexplicable delays and tactics intended to placate the implacable and to frustrate the poet.

Now, on the threshold of the Griffin Prize shortlist readings and award ceremony, Canadian officials have played the same malicious trick, withholding and finally granting Ghassan’s visa after claiming uncertainty over whether he would return to Ramallah where he has lived since 1994 and demanding evidence (other than the facts stated on his visa application) that he had been previously granted visas by other countries. Once again, entry has been allowed at the 11th hour. Should Ottawa require further documentation, I herewith offer a copy of the bill for our dinner as proof of his sanctioned American visit, and I testify that he ate cod, the state fish of Massachusetts.

Ghassan showed me his humor, untainted by bitterness or facile ironies. At rest, his placid yet somewhat grave aspect seemed to embody a few lines of his I had set to memory: “the silence of survival / which I have been gathering for years / with the patience of one who’s alone with the garden in summer / or one who retrieves absence / the absence / that never stops.” What is absent? Many people, and many events and things that if allowed to flourish will comprise an ordinary life, like mine.

He is a profoundly important poet, but not merely due to the geopolitics triggered by his requests to travel as an unhounded human. The voice of his poems is one he has willed and consented to, not one assigned to him by cultural or political exigency. He has revealed his own strange image.


The one you accidentally found in the mirror
in its dark corner to be exact

was there alone thinking of you
befriending your solitude

The one, because you are in need of company no more,
you called out of his darkness and fed
with your hands

You used to call him and he’d come
point to him and he’d jump to his feet

and as soon as you’d turn your back he’d unload on you
his hyena stare before returning to his corner

Now you recall all this
since you must pass a long time here
staring at the mirror
at its dark corner to be exact

as he sits in your chair
feeds you with his own hands
and passes you some water
calls to you
and you come

Born in Beit Jala near Jerusalem in 1954, Ghassan has lived in Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Jordan, Yemen and Tunisia. His life has been marked by two constancies: exile and the sound of lyrical narrative. “I am not the kind of person who will walk in front of the demonstration,” he told Jeffrey Brown on PBS. “I feel that's not my place. I walk behind the demonstration in order to collect the small things that may fall, whether it's the handkerchief or a child's backpack or a purse. That's my attitude.” He writes as if in his presence there is another person, namely himself witnessing himself, a basic act requiring, as Fernando Pessoa wrote, that we “behave before ourselves as if before a stranger, with a studied, serene exterior mien, indifferent out of nobility, and cold out of indifference.” This is why, as Joudah writes in the introduction to his splendid translations of Ghassan’s poetry, Zaqtan consciously moved away from mythologizing exile and displacement and homed in on the poem as textural movements, visual and tactile, whose reservoir of everyday things became endless projections that sculpt (or crumble) sound and form.”

Ghassan Zaqtan is a most worthy nominee for the Griffin Prize. One could say quite justly that Ghassan, his global peers, and his audience deserve the ordinary courtesy of allowing his poems to be read at the event. But the allowing is the real issue and the locus of the toxin.


May 29, 2013

To the Canadian government,

I recently learned of your denial of visa to the acclaimed poet Ghassan Zaqtan, who was intending to attend the Griffin awards as his book of poems Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (translated by Fady Joudah) has been shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize.

According to my sources, the reasons for denial are dubious. Being on a shortlist for this prestigious Canadian prize is most certainly a reason to grant a visa. The notion that Zaqtan might have uncertainty regarding his desire to return to his place of origin feels a little absurd in the case of Palestinian nationals, many of whom live in exile and long to return to their (and their forbears’) places of origin.

Zaqtan's poetry is a meditation on the predicament of exile and disappearance, as his poem, “A Graphic 1995” so aptly demonstrates:

The endings are not ours
not anyone's.

Endings belong to strangers
who weren't born on wagons,
people we find in the dust of corridors
and who happen in speech

people who are born from shadows
and unraveling mats.

And while we were plowing
they were laughing
and filling our pockets with dirt.

I ask the Canadian government to reconsider its decision to reject Zaqtan's application for a visa, and make a different ending to this predicament. 

Philip Metres


May 29, 2013

Ghassan Zaqtan is a major international poet, recognized both in the Arab world, for decades, and in the Anglophone and Francophone literary communities, thanks to his translators and, there too, to the strength of his work. He has in the past few years made appearances in France, the United Kingdom and the United States, with no question of any motive other than response to his readers' desire to hear his work bilingually. A prominent literary figure in Ramallah and in the entire Arabic-speaking world, exile (except the exile experienced by all Palestinians) is the last thing on his mind.

– Marilyn Hacker


May 30, 2013

Tambourines like a Raft: In Praise of Palestinian Poet Ghassan Zaqtan

It is a fascinating question what was transmuted to make the poetry that only so far and no more bears witness to the everyday things, the orchard, the tambourines, the land, the lonely, mixed in with a way of feeling, and felt, of talking about more than the visible. Behind the poems is the experience of the writer crouched in front of a fire, away from habitations, or in a library with a white page thinking and not quite making himself heard in the customary vernacular, until he moves to the side, plunges in, which is a way to alter the medium of speech — not just speech — and fetches back for the tongue and the white paper the thought of what never took place quite like that. Who has ever seen what the poem has seen?

I’ve been dead for a long time, as you know,
like an ancient summer I sleep on a cold stone,
. . .
The signers’ tambourines were swimming like a raft
around the radiance
lifting me in a joyous air,
and I was by the orchard’s edge, the quince orchard,
reading an ode, perhaps by the captured prince:

                                                (“The Orchard’s Song”)

Who is dead and yet who is speaking from the inside of a death that is like summer, like sleep, like stone that is a bed, if not the same reader standing about the musicians and being lifted into joy? No one ever saw any of this, or thought any of it, before this poem made it and before I read it to you, on a night of music that has only the merest memory of the future. It is obvious that Ghassan Zaqtan, writer of the book Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, as translated perceptively by Fady Joudah, brings the utterance of a ghostly, joyous presence hidden away inside the world, walking and reading beside everybody else and completely invisible. It is obvious that the poet and the poems belong to different epochs, different planes of knowledge, I’m sure you will agree. The person who is author of these poems ought to travel beside them so as to heighten that difference — to read the poems aloud to make them even stronger, stranger. So he comes from Palestine and might wander through Washington, DC, or through Boston, Massachusetts, or New York, New York, or even — if the officers permit — through Toronto, Canada, singing of singing, like this: “singing / used to spin us like two straw birds” (“Song of the Orchard’s Watchman”).

This text is my way of saying consider the poems, consider the person who made the poems — yes, they are intimate and incommensurable — before moving to freeze them under an inimical label, to think that you know what it’s about before reading a page. Do not be skeptical of the humanity that is in the words in their own tongue and in the language of the translator. My profit has been to hear Ghassan Zaqtan read in his Arabic together with Fady Joudah’s subtle renderings of American English, at Georgetown University in the fall of 2012. May you be at liberty to do the same, in another place.

– Mark McMorris
Georgetown University


It has come to my attention that Canada has denied Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan an entry visa into Canada to attend this year's presentation of the Griffin Poetry Prize. The Griffin Prize is one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes, magnanimously reflecting on Canada's international role in the arts. The award is given to the best book of poetry published by a Canadian poet and by an international poet; Mr. Zaqtan's book, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, translated into English by poet Fady Joudah and published by Yale University Press, is shortlisted for this year's international prize. I am privileged to be quoted on the jacket of Mr. Zaqtan's book. I write: “Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me's generous selection of Ghassan Zaqtan's poems, masterfully and compellingly translated by Fady Joudah, is a gift. Zaqtan is not only the most important Palestinian poet alive, but also one of the most important poets of our time, embodying, in various sophisticated and cosmopolitan forms of expression, depths of feeling, complexity, compassion, and witness, beyond compare.”

I understand that Mr. Zaqtan was denied an entry visa because being a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize is not a sufficient reason to grant him a visa, and that there is uncertainty about his financial situation and if he intends to return to his place of origin. I do not know the Canadian laws that govern entry visas, nor the procedures for granting them, but I do know that the Griffin Prize is held in the highest esteem in Canada and throughout the world, and that having finalists at the presentation of the award is an integral part of the award's honor and prestige. I cannot fathom why Mr. Zaqtan's presence at the awards for the Griffin Prize would not be a sufficient reason to grant him an entry visa. I also doubt the validity of the other claims, which, I would think, can be easily verified. Unfortunately, I must also add my concern that the reasons given for the denial of a visa to Mr. Zaqtan are being used to mask what, in fact, might be invidious political biases.

I trust that this decision will be reconsidered and that Mr. Zaqtan will be allowed to enter Canada to attend the Griffin Prize reading and presentation. If not, I would ask that the appropriate party in the Canadian government let Canadians and the international community know, in writing, with detailed explanation, the reasons for its decision.

Lawrence Joseph
Tinnelly Professor of Law
St. John's University School of Law
New York City


May 29, 2013

Last week I was in Glasgow, waiting for Algerian poet Habib Tengour to arrive from Paris, as we were supposed to do a joint poetry reading and a shared presentation of our anthology of North African Literature at the University of Glasgow. Tengour never made it to Scotland because he never received his visa for the UK, & his passport was returned to him too late for a planned trip to Algeria for a conference. And on my first day back in the US, I am informed that Canada is refusing a visa to Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, shortlisted for the Griffin Prize together with his translator Fady Joudah. This has happened before to Zaqtan in the US: in April 2012 the US refused him a visa and he had to cancel a reading tour for the publication by Yale University Press of Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, his latest volume of new and selected poems translated by Fady Joudah. (That US tour eventually happened later, after many difficulties & frustrations.)  I cannot escape the feeling that right now in the Euro-American sphere anyone with an Arab name is presumed guilty and can thus be treated like a non-person.

Now, if Zaqtan was invited to Canada it is because his work is shortlisted for a major literary award, the Griffin Prize. The reason for this is the excellence of his work as a poet — though he is also a novelist, an editor and a filmmaker. With 10 collections of poetry to his name, a certain consensus now suggests that he is probably the most important Palestinian poet writing today (as even Mahmoud Darwish had suggested).  His is a poetry that remains, as Paul Celan said of his own historical plight, “eingedenk” (“in-thought-of,” thus mindful, conscious) of the load of the past and present, even as it tries to do poetry’s job, i.e. to construct, to invent, to imagine a place for an inhabitable future.

Where or how that place will be is still a predicament, Palestine being in the situation it is in right now. As I wrote in the blurb for Zaqtan’s book, “the poet’s trade is exile, & a Palestinian poet’s trade thus a double exile: Ghassan Zaqtan’s work is exemplary in that its lyrical intensity simultaneously hides & foregrounds this quest’s epic dimensions.” While waiting for the paranoid bureaucracies to hopefully come to their senses and allow Ghassan Zaqtan to travel to Canada, here is a poem from the book in question, as translated by Fady Joudah:


In Jabal Najmeh, by the woods, the wizard will stop me
by a passage for boats with black masts
where the dead sit before dawn in black garments and straw masks,
a passage for the birds
where white fog swims and gates open in the brush
and where someone is talking down the slope
and bells are heard and the rustles of flapping wings

resemble the forest passing over the mountain and nicking the night!
… and peasants, fishermen and hunters, and awestruck soldiers, Moabite, Assyrian, Kurd, Mamluk, Hebraic with claims
from Egypt, Egyptians on golden chariots, nations
from white islands, Persians with black turbans,
and idolater-philosophers bending the reeds
and Sufis seeking the root of ailment…
the flapping of wings drags the forest toward the edges of darkness!

In Jabal Najmeh, by the woods
where the absentee's prayer spreads piety's rugs
and the canyon is seen through to its limits,
the furrowed sea scent cautiously passes by
and the cracks are like a jinn's harvest
and the monks' pleas glisten
as I glimpse the ghosts of lepers sleeping on decrepit cypress
In Jabal Najmeh, by the woods,
I will hear a familiar old voice,
my father's voice throwing dice toward me
Or Malek's voice
as he tows a blond horse behind him in his elegy
Or the voice of Hussein Barghouthi
laid to rest beneath almond trees
as he instructed in the text
And my voice:
You're not alone in the wilderness!

Pierre Joris, author of the anthology Poems for the Millennium Vol. 4: The University of California Book of North African Literature.
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn


Fady Joudah's The Earth in the Attic won the Yale Series for Younger Poets in 2007. Alight, his second collection, is due from Copper Canyon press in 2013. His translations of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry have earned him a Banipal translation prize from the UK and a PEN USA prize. His most recent translation is of Ghassan Zaqtan's poetry, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me.

LARB Contributor

Fady Joudah's most recent poetry collections are Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance and Tethered to Stars, both from Milkweed Editions. He is also the author of the poetry collections Alight and Textu, both released by Copper Canyon Press. He is the recipient of the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2013 and is a Guggenheim fellow in poetry.


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