Calicut University withdraws controversial poem

Calicut University has decided to withdraw the controversial poem by suspected al-Qaeda leader Ibrahim al-Rubaish from its syllabus based on an expert committee’s recommendation on Thursday.The move, however, has triggered another debate about strictures on creative expression.

The poem—Ode to the Sea—that appeared in the textbook of Literature and Contemporary Issues for undergraduate students spelled trouble for the university because of the poet’s past. Al-Rubaish is a former inmate of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp where the US administration held and interrogated terror suspects. The committee, headed by Dean (Languages and Literature) M M Basheer, has sought withdrawal of the poem even as editors of the textbook who are also former members of the university’s Board of Studies in English (UG) saw it as a move that limits creative expression.

T Y Aravindakshan, former head of the english department at MES College, Ponnani and one of the editors of the textbook, said critics were overlooking the fact that the poem was published as part of an anthology of 22 poems by 17 Guantanamo detainees—Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak—in 2007.

“There is no ban anywhere on the poem. The book has been translated into 14 languages. Most importantly, at the time of the textbook’s inclusion in the syllabus, the large-scale human rights violations at the detention camp were being widely discussed,” Aravindakshan told Deccan Herald on Thursday. He edited the textbook along with C R Murukan Babu, associate professor at Panampilly Government College, Chalakudy.

Eminent poet K Sachidanandan has termed the university’s move unfair. Al-Rubaish’s poem has the narrator intensely communicating to the sea on themes including solitude, injustice, faith and oppression. In the textbook, it appears under the poetry module along with works by Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Kamala Das and Imtiaz Dharker. Marc Falkoff, attorney for Guantanamo prisoners and the editor of Poems from Guantanamo, calls al-Rubaish “a religious scholar who dislikes hostility”.

Ibrahim al-Rubaish spent five years in Guantanamo Bay where he wrote poems on the prison walls. Reports said he managed to escape after he was transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2006 and is one of the 85 men listed by Saudi officials in 2009 as suspected terrorists.

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