Alan Pary is one of six hundred refugees corralled behind a fence north of Copenhagen in Sandholm Camp. The Camp is situated across the field from a training ground for military maneuvers, set off by another fence of rusty metal. It looks like a combat zone. Alan Pary is perhaps thirty years old and has been in the refugee camp for more than nine years. His application for asylum has been rejected twice by the Danish authorities, and he is awaiting an exchange agreement with his home country that will send him back where he fled from, although there is still a slim chance that his application will be reconsidered.
Meanwhile he dangles there, behind the fence.
We learned about Alan Pary from a Danish playwright named Michael Svennevig, who wrote a chronicle about him in the Copenhagen daily newspaper, Politiken.
A Kurdish Christian, born in northern Iraq, Alan Pary fled from threats of death for an offense against his society. His offense? Poetry. He was writing poetry about women, his fascination with women and their bodies. What young man is not fascinated by women? What man is not? But in Alan Pary’s society, to write poems about women is offensive. Fearing for his life, he fled. To Denmark, a country with a well-earned reputation for the high quality of its humanity and its democracy.
In Denmark, he was given a bed in a room just large enough to hold three other beds and a small coffee table. In that claustrophobic room he lives with sometimes two, sometimes three other men in a barracks with many rooms flanking a claustrophobically narrow hall in a camp with many barracks, holding in all six hundred men in a country with many camps holding in all, according to the Danish journalist Karl Johan Mikkelsen, 8,000 refugees.
While they wait, they are not allowed to work. Every fourteen days they are given $120 – about $8.50 a day – for food and incidentals. They are not allowed to earn more than that. “Good thing I don’t smoke,” says Alan with a smile that reveals a missing tooth. They are left to their own devices. They are not allowed to leave Denmark except to go back to their home countries, where death or torture or both awaits most of them.
Alan Pary dreams of a future where he might get an education, a job, where he might contribute to his society, pay taxes, find a wife, make a family, friends beyond those in the camp with him.
Aside from dreams, Alan also has patience. Waiting for nine years teaches patience. He maintains his humanity by writing poetry. He writes in Arabic rather than Kurdish because he is inspired by the long Arabic literary tradition, although after his many years in Denmark, he has begun to write in Danish as well.
Circumstances put Alan Pary into contact with Michael Svennevig, a playwright and member of the board of Danish PEN. Michael Svennevig and Karl Johan Mikkelsen visited Alan Pary in Sandholm Camp to make a recording of his poetry, but having discovered the conditions under which Alanpary has been living for all these years, behind the fence of Sandholm, Michael’s focus shifted to a broader scale. This is what is happening on the dark side of the otherwise so humanistic Danish society.
Michael Svennevig paid repeated visits to Sandholm and wrote a play – Fence – based on his observations there and on Alan Pary’s poetry. Fence premiered in Copenhagen for three days in late June – and hopefully will be staged again, many times, throughout Denmark, to call attention to this situation.
Fence consists of a monologue written by Michael Svennevig and performed by Niels Vigild with music and songs composed and performed by the Danish musician and sound technician, Thulla. No one involved in the play receives any monetary compensation for his or her work.
The little theater on the west side of Copenhagen where we saw it last weekend – Den Sorte Hest (The Black Horse theater) – was filled to capacity, perhaps a hundred people. The dramatic experience is strong – a naked stage, three walls painted black, a black door in the far wall through which two actors emerge, a man and a woman, fixed lighting. On the stage, two chairs, a keyboard table, a sound mixer.
The one actor (Niels Vigild) wears a dark suit, white open-collared shirt, his hair dark with strands of silver, his face large and strong. He is, in fact, Danish, but that is not apparent – he might as well be middle-eastern, and in the course of the monologue, one does not doubt that he is. The other actor is a woman (Thulla), slender with a glory of golden curls. She is barefoot, wears only a thin white sleeveless cotton gown to just below her knees, on one upper arm and shoulder an ornate abstract blue tattoo. Her face is long and slender, speckled with a trace of glitter, and her eyes seem to glow. She looks rather like an angel, and when the actor begins his monologue and you learn how in his youth, the man portrayed dreamed of angels, the connection is made.
The monologue is just under an hour, but in that time, you learn what you need to know about this man – about any man. That his dreams are simple really, much like our own: he dreams of love, of being part of a society, of family, of being able to work and having a home and being able to express himself freely. But there is one thing separating him from us: that fence.
Why must he stay behind the fence, dangling, waiting, struggling to maintain his own humanity? Michael Svennevig suggests the answer; that fence is there, he says, those six hundred people are corralled behind it, as a message to others who might think of fleeing here: Stay away!
After the performance, we met Alan Pary, and he gave me permission to translate one of his poems into English for this blog:
Just do it – kiss me
by Alan Pary
Before time ends
To end the war
So I can become a flame against the cloud
And dance gently upon the earth
Because we must teach others to kiss and forgive
Kiss me and make me happy
Come with your red lips
because when you smile the world falls so still
because there are those who hate kisses.
Alan Pary is a gentle-mannered man with a gentle smile, tall and slender. How does he maintain that gentleness through all his waiting?
When will we ever let him out from behind that fence?
Greetings from the ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy