Dawit Isaak is an Eritrean-born Swedish citizen, arrested in 2001 for his work as a reporter on Eritrea's first independent newspaper.
I found it hard to track down Dawit's own writings, but found plenty of material about his predicament – one shared by many writers imprisoned without charge and tortured by the Eritrean government.
One phrase that echoed in my head was the reported response by security guards when a group of mothers arrived at one of the prisons to ask after the condition of the inmates. "You have no right to ask" was the reply – it later became the title of an Amnesty report into the situation.
This initially led me to write a different poem to the one submitted. It went like this:
Don't ask me who I am.
You have no right to ask.
Don't hide your face in your hands.
My face is its own mask.
Don't ask me what I mean.
Don't ask me what it's like.
You have no right to scream.
What gives you the right?
I felt this worked as an echo chamber for the guard's comment, amplifying its unnerving lack of humanity. However, I also felt the poem could work harder and be more specific to Dawit himself. Thinking about his role as a journalist led me to the language of that world, which was the inspiration for the poem I finally submitted – a kind of writer's revenge fantasy, and a place-holder for the better words that Dawit will one day, hopefully, be free to write.
In both cases, the 50-word limit led naturally to an eight-line poem with a two-word title. On finishing each poem, I was surprised and relieved at how they fitted exactly to the limit.
can find out more about the campaign to free Dawit Isaak and sign a petition at
http://www.freedawit.com (see top
right of page for English language option)