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Translation of Arash Ganji’s interview for the Sydney PEN AGM 2021

Arash Ganji is a writer, translator, and the secretary of the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) who has been unjustly sentenced to an 11-year prison term in connection with his translation of a book about a Kurdish-led uprising in northern Syria. He recorded this video for the PEN Sydney Annual General Meeting. We encourage PEN members and others interested to contact the relevant government members to request diplomatic action. 


My dear comrades and colleagues in Australia, please accept my congratulations for your Annual General Meeting (AGM). Today you are holding your AGM while freedom of expression in other parts of the world and especially in the Middle East has come under attack from reactionary states, the servants of imperialism. The number of people imprisoned who have defended freedom of expression or exercised this right, is growing every day; and this is while the internet and social media have made the ability to express opinions and exchange thoughts and ideas so easy.

You can find an obvious example of this in Iran and in The Iranian Writers Association (IWA), where three of our active members, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Baktash Abtin and Keyvan Bazhan, have each been sentenced to six years in prison…and in a humble way I should say that I too will go to prison, for 11 years for translating and editing a book in defence of the Kurdish struggle in Northern Syria (Rojava) and for being the secretary of the IWA. I will start my sentence in Evin prison soon.

Of course, this situation is not limited to the Middle East, but here it is more miserable than other places. I know that you, more so than I, are aware of the systematic and daily violations of freedom of expression by governments all around the world.

But I would like to take this opportunity today, that my international comrades have given me, to talk about the campaigns and battles for freedom of expression in the Middle East. Obviously, my thoughts are not the official position of The IWA.

My presentation is around three axes:

First, International Solidarity: We know that people all around the world are more interconnected than they have ever been before, national boundaries are collapsing in the virtual world. Global populations, through international systems of production and communication, have merged, so the concerns of all nations are becoming one and are less dependent on local conditions.

For example, suppression of the freedom of expression of a person like Julian Assange is the suppression of freedom of expression of oppressed people and war-torn countries all around the world. Basically, one of the reasons PEN International was established was to respond to the increasing necessity of writers’ international solidarity. But international solidarity in the Middle East, like any other region, has its own characteristics and demands.

While we writers should cultivate our relationships worldwide, we should also attempt to establish relationships within our own regions as well. These efforts in the Middle East have been crushed in the past three-four decades, due to the invasions and wars staged by imperialist powers and reactionary states. The physical possibilities for cooperation have disappeared and massive crackdowns and suppressions have become a real obstacle to reconnecting our long-established relationships.

And the new emerging powers in the Middle East do not allow their people to use dialogue and democratic processes to achieve their rights. For example, what is happening in Northern Syria, what is happening in Palestine or what we witnessed in the Arab Spring.

These examples show the importance of the relationship and interconnectedness of writers on the world stage. Middle Eastern writers have no other way of obtaining their freedom of expression, except through international solidarity among those organisations who are defending freedom of expression in Iran, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan and more.

In this way, the assistance of other writers’ organisations around the world, including yours in Australia, is vitally important.

Second, campaigns to push for the right to freedom of expression to be legislated by the Middle Eastern regimes.

I know very well that real freedom of expression cannot be guaranteed simply by being mentioned on a piece of paper and we should not see that as an ultimate solution. But the lack of those guarantees gives governments a free hand to attack that freedom violently. Middle Eastern governments have not and would not easily accept freedom of expression, so we need to fight and struggle to bring freedom of expression into the constitutions of these countries; and whether we achieve it or not, it will be a huge democratic fight. This struggle will lay the ground for alliances and international solidarity with other democratic movements like the working class, women, the environment, migrants and others. And this will be a way for us to learn how to practise struggle and internationalism.

To achieve this, we should use organisations like the United Nations to put pressure on the Middle Eastern regimes.

Third, to publish the writing of progressive and democratic writers and the organisations who defend freedom of expression in the Middle East:

All of us, who are not linked to reactionary powers, know that freedom of expression in the mass media of these countries is only allowed when the point of view expressed, or the voices heard, match the interests of those in power. Where a person or an organisation has different views from the mainstream, not only do they have no voice in the media, but they are labelled as terrorists. In the Middle East, because of the interests of imperialist powers, this issue is stark.

Furthermore because powerful forces in the Middle East support all the different terrorist organisations, as soon as a writer or a freedom-loving organisation expresses a view that’s in contrast to the official line and in defence of the interests of his/her people, they are immediately labelled as a terrorist. This has happened many times. Because of this the writers and freedom-loving organisations need their voices to be reflected and raised, not through the mainstream media but through their international friends. This too, would enhance international solidarity.

I touched on these three axes; I would like to add these three points as well:

We should enhance cooperation between all the organisations that support democratic society in the Middle East and we should exclude all the fascist individuals and groups.

Secondly, we are not expecting you to take up the struggle for us, each nation has to fight their own battle, but we want to start a constructive dialogue and cooperate, in a way that we can learn from the other freedom-loving people in the Middle East and teach them as well.

And the final point, I might not know what the problems are for writers in Australia, but I understand the sacrifices and efforts that you make. You, along with PEN International, have organised many forms of support for the Iranian writers. Personally, and through this video I express my gratitude to every one of you.

Arash Ganji


26 May 2021

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