Palestinian poet wins prize after Canada visa denial

Ghassan Zaqtan receives Griffin Poetry Prize for his collection in spite of Canada initially rejecting visa application.

June 15, 2013 09:03
2 minute read.
Ghassan Zaqtan reading his poetry in 2012.

Ghassan Zaqtan. (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)

Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan won the International Griffin Poetry Prize on Friday for his 10th collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, after initially being denied a visa to attend the awards ceremony in Canada.

According to a Facebook post circulated last week, the Palestinian poet and novelist – who is also founding director of the House of Poetry in Ramallah and the former director general of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture’s Literature and Publishing Department – was initially denied a visa to enter the country by the Canadian embassy in Cairo.

The Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada’s most generous poetry award, is given to one Canadian poet and an international poet who writes in English.

Fady Joudah, who translated Zaqtan’s poems from Arabic to English, said on Facebook that he was denied a visa by Canada after “uncertainty” about his true desire to return to his home in Ramallah and on the grounds that the reason for the visit was “unconvincing.”

Zaqtan called on the Facebook community to “share and mobilize” to urge Canada to grant him a visa. Other literary figures and organizations also spoke up about the situation on Twitter. On the Griffin Poetry Prize Twitter feed, officials wrote that they were “working through appropriate Canadian government channels in the hope we can welcome poet Ghassan Zaqtan.”

After the social media call to arms, the visa was granted in less than two days. The Guardian labeled it a “social media victory.”

It was important for Zaqtan to attend the ceremony, as on Wednesday, the seven finalists read excerpts from their books.

Each shortlisted poet was presented with a leather-bound edition of their book and $10,000 for their participation.

“I think the visa thing is recognizably an unfortunate twist of events,” said Joudah on Thursday, speaking to the Toronto Star. “But it was solved and I think one’s thoughts turn most importantly to the celebration of beauty and poetry.”

The situation was not new to Zaqtan, who was initially denied a visa for a trip to the United States for a book tour in 2012 before organizations such as PEN, an NGO that works to promote freedom of expression in literature, protested.

Zaqtan told The Electronic Intifada last December that the denial of a visa is “a continuous difficulty which all Palestinians face, not just writers and poets.”

The Griffin Trust, the world’s largest prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in, or translated into English, from any country in the world, aims to spark the public’s imagination and raise awareness of the crucial role poetry plays in our cultural life, according to its official page.

Zaqtan’s writings were described by judges as poetry that “reminds us why we live and how, in the midst of war, despair, global changes.”

“His words turn dark into light, hatred into love, death into life.

His magic leads us to the clearing where hope becomes possible, where healing begins across individuals, countries, races… and we are one with air, water, soil, birds, fish, trees,” the Griffin jury citation stated.

The winners were announced at an award ceremony in Toronto, attended by some 400 guests including trustees Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Toronto poet David McFadden took home the Canadian prize.

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