PEN International mourns death of Djibril Ly, president of PEN Mauritania

PEN International is deeply saddened by the untimely death of writer, poet, playwright and president of PEN Mauritania, Djibril Ly, who passed away during the 81st PEN International Congress in Québec City.

His unwavering passion for freedom of expression and mother language rights will live on in those he touched through his powerful writing and dedicated civil society work.

We extend our deepest sympathy and condolence to his family and friends, knowing that it can in no way make up for their loss.

Jennifer Clement, president of PEN International, wrote the following tribute 'to a great writer and man':

My thoughts are with Djibril Ly’s family and the Mauritanian PEN Centre at this sad time.

At the PEN Congress, by that strange fate of alphabetical order – Mali, Mauritania, Mexico - I was on the left side of Mauritania’s place.  Throughout those days, while Djibirl Ly was in hospital, Mali’s PEN President, Ismailia Samba Traoré, and I held vigil over his empty chair between us.

Mr. Ly was a poet and writer.  He had worked and been jailed for his defence of Mauritanian languages.   In his poem on being incarcerated in Oualata Prison he wrote:

The unusual is when an elder is afraid to answer the child
The unusual is when the young stands
And pisses on the wise
The unusual is when the generous, the prodigal
Hides in the dark
And nibbles at seeds like a mouse

And what is unusual?
I’ll tell you what is unusual!
The unusual is  Fort Oualata!
But the doors of the prison will open
But the wedding will end*

PEN International remembers and honours Djibril Ly’s dedication to PEN and I will always be inspired by his courage.

*Translation by Jennifer Clement

John Ralston Saul, International President Emeritus, wrote the following tribute in honour of Djibril Ly:

I write today in the name of the thousands of writers around the world who are members of PEN International, and in particular of those of us who are members of PEN Quebec, hosts of our friend and colleague, Djibril Ly in Quebec City during the 81st PEN International Congress. These words are addressed to his family, but also to his family of writers and publishers and translators in Mauritania, as well as across Africa.

We lived Djibril´s sudden sickness and death in the most personal way. He has  marked us for the rest of our lives. I realize how difficult this has been for his family and friends, who have been obliged to follow this tragedy from a distance. I can only assure you that he was never alone. At all moments through to the end, the warmth of our friendship was with him.

When I met Djibril in Bamako, not long ago, in September, he was exactly as he had been described to me by Carles Torner and Romana Cacchioli of our PEN International Secretariat.  Both of them had got to know him as they worked together to create the new Mauritanian PEN Centre, which Djibril was willing into existence.

We all know him as a wonderful voice of literature and a man willing to suffer the worst of prison in order to defend the principles we all share. We remember him as an admired advocate of freedom of expression, an admired voice of his country´s literature.

When we met in Bamako, I was immediately struck by his great dignity, his gravitas, his elegance of spirit, his wry humour, his passion for our shared cause. We spoke of the many initiatives to be taken by Mauritanian PEN and of how we would work together in his country and across the region to support literature, and in particular, the ambitions of young people.

I remember clearly, only a few weeks later, when we met in the emergency room of the Hôpital Hôtel Dieu in Quebec City, he still emanated all those characteristics of dignity, elegance, humour and passion; as if he were not in pain and far from home. I must add that he was in a fine hospital where we were able to follow as the doctors and nurses struggled to control and overcome the series of medical setbacks which Djibril suffered, one after the other. They struggled with all the might that modern medicine can bring, but in the end we lost him.

I want you to know the names of those of us who accompanied Djibril through those days: our friend, Ismaïla Samba Traoré President of Mali PEN, Carles Torner and Romana Cacchioli, whom many of you have met, Anne Laure Mathieu, Annie Pénélope Dussault and Émile Martel President of PEN Quebec, Roberto Alvarez, as well as myself. And we were all gathered around Djibril with an Imam during the last hours of his journey from life to after-life, where we will all join him, some day.

Once word went forth of Djibril’s departure, the Mauritanian community across Canada rallied in his honour, and your Ambassador travelled to Quebec City to pay tribute. A few days later, two thousand kilometres away in Winnipeg, a senior teacher of Mauritanian origin sought me out to speak of Djibril.

You are all gathered together in Nouakchott to mourn his passing and to celebrate his life and his contributions. Know that around the world the writers of PEN are with you in your sadness at his loss and in your respect for his contributions. For us his legacy must first be that of an admired writer. He leaves behind those words which inspire and move us. But there is also the legacy of his example, his ethical standards, his unflinching courage. And then there is the legacy of his creation – PEN Mauritania, which was unanimously voted into official existence by the General Assembly of PEN, each one of us conscious that not far away, Djibril lay in his hospital bed.

What then is our tribute to Djibril Ly? We will continue to read his words. We must remember his courageous and ethical example. And all of you, writers, translators, publishers of Mauritania will have the opportunity to build the new PEN Centre Djibril imagined and to make it a strong and creative voice for literature and for free expression.

On behalf of all members of PEN International I send you our deepest condolences on the loss of our friend, our fellow writer, with whom we share the case of justice and freedom, Djibril Ly.

Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee 2009 - 2015 wrote: Here is a photo of Djibril taken in Tunis one year ago, where he spoke with great passion about his freedom of expression beliefs and his work on the protection of mother tongue rights; Djibril served four years in prison between 1986 and 1991 for a manifesto he wrote about human rights abuses in Mauritania. Here is a poem he recited that day in Tunis: OSER (meaning DARE):

Oser oser
Oser regarder et voir
Écouter et entendre
Cogiter et comprendre
Aimer être aimé
Choisir agir
Lutter vaincre
Ose !



To read more tributes in French, please click here.