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Poetic Injustice

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Calicut University withdraws a critically acclaimed poem by a Guantanamo prisoner from its syllabus

The poem Ode to the Sea is part of the BA second semester syllabus at Calicut University. It is written by former Guantanamo prisoner Ibrahim Al-Rubaish. Now the Vice Chancellor of the university, Dr M Abdul Salam, has ordered the withdrawal of the poem because the poet is an ‘Al-Qaida terrorist’. The diktat has sparked off protests among social activists and writers.

“This is absolute idiocy,” says K Satchidanandan, poet and former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, in a Google group. “It is a poem about the sea and does not advocate terrorism. I don’t think [a poet’s] biographical background is of any importance in the enjoyment of poetry. Do we know anything about Vyasa or Kalidasa, or Homer, Sophocles or Shakespeare? Does that affect our appreciation of their work?”

Dr TT Sreekumar, an academic and cultural activist, says on his Facebook account, ‘Al-Rubaish was acquitted after six years of imprisonment. No charges have been proved against him. This anthology was edited by Mark Falkoff, professor of law at Northern Illinois University College of Law, and was originally published by the University of Iowa in the US. The poem is being taught in that university. An American university is not worried of his al-Qaeda connection, but a university in Kerala is.’

Even the Dean of Language and Literature at Calicut University, Dr MM Basheer, says Ode to the Sea is a high quality poem. “It is a marvelous piece of literature. Personally, I am very sad about this decision,” he tells Open.

“The V-C received complaints about this poem being included in the syllabus and asked me to look into the matter. I checked the background of the poet and learned that the allegations against him are true.”

Ibrahim Al-Rubaish was captured by the US army in 2001 when he was a teacher in Pakistan for alleged connections with Al-Qaida. He was imprisoned in Guantanamo till 2006. Ode to the Sea is from an anthology, Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, a collection of 19 poems written by prisoners of Guantanamo.

But the point is, should those details matter?

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