As you will know, I am not in any way a fan of arguments which claim that artists are more sensitive than others, or indeed liable to be more insane than others. I do agree – and find it reasonable to assert – that any profession, or longterm activity, can leave its mark on the practitioner, physically, mentally and emotionally. Forensic anthropologists can identify archers from wear patterns on their teeth; the interested disinterest with which doctors and surgeons can view their fellows is a recognisable trait; as are the impulses towards control and improvement which manifest themselves in educationalists.
The arts, if I can be brief with my definition, are about communication. We can argue later about pieces of art which try not to communicate and why I think they’re not really pieces of art at all and more like telegrams from people who have issues with commitment. Put simply, someone who works in the arts notices things: emotions, actions, remarkable and humdrum elements of their lives and the lives of others and – of course – the fruits of their imaginations. The artist generates and captures material, analyses it, crafts it and then presents it. An almost infinite variety of inspirations combine, distil, appear without warning, bubble up over years and generally bother the artist, delight the artist, scare the artist and become insistent that they should be expressed. And the artist expresses. Something only they know about and have come to understand is given to us – we are made richer by a stranger, who takes us into times, places, situations and personalities which we could not otherwise experience. This is a beautiful and generous phenomenon and I have been glad of it for all my conscious life.
And artists do, through time, become recognisably artists. They love what they do and love to do it. Their desire to communicate to strangers can override very reasonable demands from family and friends that they should be a little more domestically focused and expressive. And specialities begin to show: someone like me will notice when words are repeated in conversations, or have unusual lyricism, or when an advert pretends to imply positive qualities and happy lives while meaning very little. Painters will see and see and see: the fall of clothes, the combination of colours, the alteration of faces, the endless effects of light. Actors will pick up minute alterations and inaccuracies in inflection, will assess strangers with horrible rapidity and accuracy and, having spent years making themselves deeply accessible to their emotions in a way that allows them to pay their bills, will cry at the drop of a hat.
To repeat, the artist generates and captures material, analyses it, crafts it and then presents it. I mention this, because the poet Talha Ahsan has been much in my thoughts lately. I have never met Ahsan, but I have read his poems; been given his expressions of landscapes, the touch of loved skin and something of his experience of being imprisoned.
I have written about Ahsan here before and you may be aware that he is a British subject and resident who was arrested on 19 July 2006 and who has been held without trial ever since, awaiting extradition under the terms of the increasingly notorious Extradition Act 2003. The US requested his arrest and the UK authorities obliged, although he has no case to answer in the UK. The Extradition Act doesn’t require the provision of prima facie evidence. It seems that evidence gathered during Babar Ahmad‘s interrogation – an interrogation described in the high court as “grave abuse, tantamount to torture” – may have helped form the basis of the case against Ahsan. Ahmad was later awarded £60,000 compensation by the Metropolitan police and also has no case to answer in the UK. He also remains in custody awaiting extradition to the US.
The situation of these two men is mirrored in a number of other appalling cases, some of which affected white Christians and therefore received rather more media attention. I would hope that any reader would feel compassion for their position, which is something far closer to purgatory than anything I would wish on anyone.
For me, Babar Ahmad is someone I have read about in newspapers and on websites. Talha Ahsan is someone who has written me letters from his prison and who has written the letters to a wider world which are his poems. The insight into his predicament and his humanity which his writings offer remind me why so many politicians prefer that unsanctioned forms of expression – especially artistic expression – should be limited, or entirely curtailed. And they remind me of how human beings can make beauty flower, even in a wasteland of absurd and willful amorality.
If Ahsan is finally extradited to the US and found guilty, he will be detained in a supermax prison where he will remain in solitary confinement for the rest of his life. The vast majority of his interactions with prison authorities will be provided virtually, via a black and white TV. Human contact will be limited to occasional strip searches, medical interventions and the arrival of his meals. He will have a tiny window. Less technologically advanced forms of solitary confinement were used in Victorian prisons until it was found they tended to make inmates insane.
This is intolerable. The lack of justice, the lack of transparency, the stain of torture, the calculation of imprisonment amounting to torture – this is all intolerable. This should not happen to Babar Ahmad – because it is intolerable. This should not happen to anyone – because it is intolerable. This should not happen to my friend Talha Ahsan who writes poems about drinking turkish coffee and getting a haircut and kissing while mouths taste of peaches and prayers and compassion and love and wishing to have never been born and illuminates each line with himself and his voice and his music – because it is intolerable.
In prison Talha suffers, as we all do, idiosyncratically. Should he be confined to a supermax facilty, he will become a man who has almost nothing to notice every day and who has no one to share his life with, or to hear his voice. He will be denied the right to communicate – something enshrined by the UN as fundamental to our experience of being human. One of the parts of who he is, his occupation, will have been constricted to its vanishing point. He will rehearse his death, the last of his absolute removal, until it becomes reality. Although he is a man of immense personal strength and compassion, I feel there may be no onwards for Talha which is not very dark. I hope I’m wrong. Free and in my study and with all the wider world under my fingers, I hope I’m wrong.