Creative Witnesses brings together musicians and creative artists in support of writers who have been imprisoned, harassed, or put at risk because of their commitment to freedom of expression. It was founded and organised by PEN International's Youth Engagement Coordinator, Ege Dündar in collaboration with Gabriel Moreno. The first episode is released on Thursday 15 October on YouTube.
Here, Ege explains to Verónica Maza Bustamante, the reasons behind the project and the impact he hopes it will have, not just on writers at risk, but on all those who bear witness to their experiences.
“No one is trying to save the world here. But it's imperative to recognise that one life is a world of its own. The act of reaching out with kindness and solidarity can bestow on another a whole new way of life, which can and does ripple outwards. I'm sure that everyone in a position of privilege at least, can take some action in response, rather than doing nothing except feeling sad.
“I think our biggest struggle is with crippling cynicism rooted deep in people's psyche because of the endless streams of bad news they face daily. That cannot be a viable option if we want things to improve little by little,” Ege says, explaining what has led him to mobilise for human rights.
In favour of freedom of expression
The first time he went to Poetry Monday’s at the Hackney Empire in London, Ege met his current collaborator, writer/musician Gabriel Moreno. This gave him an idea: "Clearly, artists of the like I was seeing on stage have developed profound skills in responding to experience and in deeply touching and moving their audience. But I asked myself: why they don't respond more often and more proactively to pressing current causes and problems rooted deep in our societies, such as free expression?
“I wished to get beyond entertainment and into something more real, which connects practically with cold facts and ultimately with the foundations of expression itself; born out of a need. Creative Witnessesis a rediscovery of that need.”
The plan is simple but powerful: organising artists to create original pieces of work in response to and in solidarity with ongoing, dire free expression cases at risk. To raise awareness, aid their campaigns and inspire others to take action.
The first episode, focusing on Europe and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, will premiere on PEN International's YouTube channel. It will feature the cases of Ibrahim Gökçek and İlhan Çomak from Turkey; Sanaa Seif from Egypt; Abdel Wahab Yousif from Sudan and Belarusian protestors in general. The remaining two parts of the production will focus on Asian and Latin American cases in the coming months.
When Ege's father, Can Dündar, was jailed for his journalism in Turkey, Ege went to a meeting with committed rights defenders from different NGOs organised by PEN International: “I cannot tell you how much it meant for a young kid in London feeling lonely and desperate. That meeting restored my resilience. I believe they were influential on raising the profile of our case. It proved the power of global solidarity to me and later bestowed upon me a new life as a rights activist,” explains the young man, who hopes Creative Witnesses can create a sense that frontlines on ever-globalising problems, such as free expression, can be held across border. This is what he calls, ‘chains of solidarity’, in resistance to the 'chains of imprisonment' which hold writers and artists captive.
Dündar decided to organise three separate events, each focused on a different region of PEN International, the first one on Europe and the MENA region, the second on Asia and the third on Latin America: "I knew that the writer with the longest service in Turkish prisons with 26 years and counting İlhan Çomak, would have to have a place. To decide on others, I consulted with regional colleagues and with Belarus PEN to see who would benefit the most from this type of action. I thank them wholeheartedly for their help in suggesting the cases of Sana Seif, Abdel Wahab Yousif and the Belarusian protesters in general.”
Music will play an important role in the project, because "it is a higher form of art somehow, since its capacity to create that shift in consciousness that every form of expression strives for, faster and more directly. While other forms, like writing, often require understanding a message before being able to be moved by it, with music, this effect can be instant and may require no such preparation.”
Seeing the beneficial power of this type of action for everyone involved, including the world of human rights campaigns, Ege and Gabriel Moreno, his collaborator in Creative Witnesses, asked to some musicians to compose pieces in response to the cases: “As an example, Adam Beattie and Fiona Beevan wrote a heartbreaking tribute to the poetry of Abdel Wahab Yousif, a young Sudanese poet who died at sea seeking refuge. I hope this can move more people to actively care about the issue of immigration, who might not otherwise.”
The first event was launched on 15 October at 9am on the PEN International YouTube channel.
What does Ege hope Creative Witnesses will achieve? “I hope it can be a source of strength for creative artists at risk to keep fighting for their right to free expression under heavy conditions. I hope it can establish long lasting connections between the cases and the artists responding to them. I hope it can help their campaigns gather support and achieve results. I hope it can inspire other creatives to take similar forms of action and realise the power in their skills and a sense of purpose, rather than cynicism and incapacity to respond to the world as it stands today.”
His other goals are to inspire rights groups to commission young artists in the commission to produce creative works in response to urgent cases and to inspire in the public the feeling that, despite the overwhelming power of tyrants in contexts seemingly desperate, “just like our resilient cases, we too are not empty handed and have it in us to push back.
“Increasingly, what we do on one side of the planet affects the other, so the more we're told we're not citizens of the world, the more we should prove we are, by addressing problems across borders creatively and collectively, because it does make a difference. That's a lot, I know, but we're just starting out!”
Ege is Youth Engagement Coordinator at PEN International and Founder of İlkyaz Young Writers Network — a literary platform supported by Norwegian PEN, PEN Turkey and PEN International to share and promote the work of writers aged under 35.