zaqtan-ghassan

Ghassan Zaqtan can now come to Canada to attend the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony, after initially being denied a visa. (Griffin Trust)

Canadian immigration officials have reversed an earlier decision and will now permit Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan to attend the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony in Toronto, after a social media campaign conducted by fellow writers.

Zaqtan, who writes primarily in Arabic, was shortlisted for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize in April for his 10th collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems. He is one of four poets competing for the international prize. Three Canadian poets are vying for the Canadian half of the annual honour.

Zaqtan lives in Ramallah in the Palestinian Territories and the Canadian embassy in Cairo initially denied him a visa to travel to Canada to attend the upcoming ceremony, according to his U.S.-based translator Fady Joudah.

In a post on his Facebook page, Joudah said Zaqtan was told by immigration officials that the prize was insufficient grounds for a visa and also that there was uncertainty about his financial independence and desire to return home after the ceremony.

On Tuesday, members of the Poetry Trust Facebook page began rallying support for Zaqtan, who is founding director of the House of Poetry in Ramallah. Literary luminaries such as Margaret Atwood and writers group PEN also raised awareness of his situation via Twitter.

Meanwhile, the Griffin Trust — administrators of the Griffin Poetry Prize — worked with Canadian officials to resolve the visa issue. On Thursday, the trust confirmed that Canadian officials have approved a visa for Zaqtan and thanked "everyone who has offered their support and good wishes."

Hailed as 'important, original' poet

In their citation, the Griffin Prize jury praised Zaqtan as one of the "most important and original Palestinian poets of our time.

"His poetry awakens the spirits buried deep in the garden, in our hearts, in the past, present and future. His singing reminds us why we live and how, in the midst of war, despair, global changes. His words turn dark into light, hatred into love, death into life," the jury said.

Joudah, an American-born Palestinian, is a poet and doctor who was praised by judges for the "grace and power" of his translation of Zaqtan's Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems.

The remaining contenders for the international prize are:

  • Liquid Nitrogen by Jennifer Maiden of Australia;
  • Night of the Republic by Alan Shapiro, a professor at the University of North Carolina;
  • Our Andromeda by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Brenda Shaughnessy.

Winners of the Griffin Poetry Prizes will be named June 13 in Toronto.