When the world around you is falling apart, the present is dreadful, and the future is an impossibility, and you can’t figure out why all happen to you, then you seek refuge in the stories of the good old past. That’s how millions of people who are victims of armed conflicts feel. Instead of straying aimlessly in a relatively less violent past, he determined to pick his pen to talk about his people, culture, literature and world they shared with the others and cried for peace. In a world where the pen is often misused, he used it for the good of humanity. In this special interview, The Asian Review is pleased to introduce the best selling author of Exodus, the Rohingya poet Mayyu Ali.
Hi Mayu, Can you introduce yourself in less than three words?
You call itself a poet, known as a poet; when this happened and how? Who and what inspired you?
“When I was a child, my grandfather had a ritual, every night before going to sleep, he used to hear me Rohingya traditional folktale, folksong and lullaby. On his lap, I would fall into sleep while listening to the tune. The tune is very beautiful, and the verses are deep that keep haunting me until I understand its meaning well. When I grew up, I discovered that the way Rohingya parents, elderly people and imams talk in daily conversation is aesthetically poetic; they use old proverbs, metaphors and idioms that always makes me thoughtful whenever I observe their conversation. Later I came to learn that that is the wisdom and morals of our Rohingya ancestors who came before us in Arakan, and that has been passing down from generation to generation through oral tradition. At my secondary school’s curriculum, I came to read poems in Burmese and English. I read poems of the famous Burmese monk poet Shin Ratthasāra and the English poets; Long Fellow, Christina Rosette. At that moment, I recalled my grandfather’s teaching, and I wanted to write poetry. In my grade-8, I have composed the first poem ever, that is in Burmese, about friendship. I kept it in my notebook as a secret, wondering which friend I could share it with first since there is no Rohingya poet ever I heard in our area. After the violence in June 2012, our lives have changed from restriction to extermination in Arakan, today’s Rakhine State, Myanmar. I wrote, “That’s Me, A Rohingya”, published in a Rohingya blog; I am known as a poet from that day. A journey has begun.”
One day you meet an author, right at the midpoint between Maungdaw and Buthidaung; you recognised him, and then how that impacted your life?
“It was in June 2017, just a couple of months before the fastest Rohingya Exodus. For the first time when I saw him, I felt like I had seen that man somewhere before. I was thoughtful. It is Pramudith, a writer without borders. I read parts of his Bayan online. I was born in one of the most isolated zones in the world; I never saw a library in my school life, and meeting an author you read in such a place means you find a river in the desert. I was thrilled and greeted him. My hands were shaking. A few months later, in August 2017, Myanmar Tatmadaw launched a deadly operation against Rohingya people in Rakhine State and burnt my home and village; my parents and I fled to Bangladesh. In the refugee camp, I still write poetry; I write what I see through my eyes and articulate how my heartbeats. I finished a collection of poetry, and I was looking for a publisher. One day I asked Pramudith if he could help me. He agreed to my idea and published ‘EXODUS’ through his own Black Raven publication in August 2019. I am grateful for his navigation. He always reminds me; no poet is born to fall. He has always been encouraging to me.”
You were one of those who made that mortal flight for life, and your lines say a lot about it; how has the Exodus changed your life as an individual and a poet?
“Genocide is not just the matter of killing—genocide torn our families apart. The perpetrators erased our culture and birthmarks. They denied our existence. However, our history is much older than the policy of oppression. At the heart of the Rohingya genocide, it is my writing that helps me finding hope, resilience and strength within me. Whenever I write, I feel I am alive. Writing is my existence; it became my identity. And publishing EXODUS brought me to the international readership. I am the first-ever internationally published Rohingya poet. In March 2019, my friends and I established Art Garden Rohingya, an online Rohingya platform that publishes poetry, song and other artworks. Today, hundreds of budding Rohingya poets, including a female in our community, always look up to me. I feel it is my responsibility to fill the gap, mentor the new generation, and lead them toward preserving Rohingya literature, culture, and tradition. Yet way to go.”
What would be your topic if you were asked to write a poem about an issue except for Rohingyas, Muslims, Buddhists or Myanmar or Bangladesh? Why?
“When there is a crisis or war, people always tell about killing and material destruction. People who are affected are always seen as victims. Perhaps, they are much more than that. They are people with potential, strength and resourcefulness, and they have their own culture and tradition. Behind every crisis, there is the loss of culture a targeted people can face. That is the real destruction but unfortunately often told or reported. Every culture has psychological power of resilience and solidary shed to people in its own ways. That is the real power that makes people stand in rebuilding their lives and dignity. As a Rohingya, I see a renaissance of my people’s culture in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. There is a loss of culture and tradition in conflict-torn zones such as Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, and many others. I would choose that topic to write.”
Exodus has been rated by online forums and book retailers; what has Exodus brought to your community?
MA “I could not attend the promotion campaign for Exodus because I am at risk of my personal safety in the refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar. I had to cancel some promotional programs already, and I feel bad for that, not just as a writer but just as someone who braves to tell his own story and the stories of his people. However, there are some encouragements. Last year, the online Book Authority rated EXODUS in the list of the best 100 ebooks of all time. I am honoured. I shared the links through my social media, hundreds of my fellow Rohingya sending me their good wishes. Indeed, it is such an encouragement. Exodus is the reflection of what has happened against the Rohingya population for decades in Myanmar. It tells how the process of genocide started and how it ended when tens of thousands of Rohingya fled from their motherland for their security. If someone wants to understand the tragedy that Rohingya has been through, just read Exodus.”
You are a husband, son, father, and a man; what is your next big ambition?
“I don’t have that much personal ambition now. All I want to see is my Rohingya people in peace enjoying the basic human rights like all other ethnic groups of people in Myanmar.”
Poets never stop writing; once a poet forever a poet, can your readership expect something soon?
“My upcoming book ‘Erasure’, is being published by Editions Grasset, one of the leading publishers in French. The book is my biography, and hopefully, it will be launched at the beginning of next year. The first version is in French, and then it will be published in English and other international languages. Erasure could be the first personal story told by a Rohingya who survived the latest wave of genocide carried by Myanmar military forces against the Rohingya population in August 2017. I am super excited now. Stay tuned.”
This can be anywhere: can you recite a few lines you have written that is close to your heart?
“The poem “That’s Me, A Rohingya” is always close to my heart. Here is a stanza:
Even when I watch the sunrise, I’m not a living like you are Without the fertility of hope, I live, Just like a sandcastle
At last, what do you want to tell the world?
“My people have been persecuted for decades in Myanmar. We are counted as the world’s most persecuted people. We lost everything in this genocide. Today more of us reside in refugee camps or diaspora rather than those who live inside Myanmar. Yet, they are at risk of a further act of genocide at the hands of military forces in Myanmar. And tens of thousands of others are in the refugee camps, Cox’s Bazar. And some thousands of others are forced to relocate to the floating island called Bhasan Char. They are at risk of monsoon and natural disasters. We all wish to return to our homeland in Myanmar. However, we have been through two parallel crises now at the same time. One is the pandemic; living in a refugee camp is more challenging than living in other parts of the world. Imagine how much it could be difficult to survive through this deadly virus. In the world’s biggest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, where I live, it is extremely difficult to maintain social distance since the camps are overcrowded. Proper sanitation is a luxury for us. We live in fear and uncertainty. It affects mental health. The refugee camp is the worst place in the face of this pandemic. First, genocide, and the fire, flood and now the virus. How many more crises we would have to suffer?
On the other hand, Myanmar turned back to darkness again. On February 1, the military-controlled the power of the country by a coup. They arrested senior government leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. In Myanmar, every day sees killing and arresting. Thousands have been killed. From the refugee camp, I watched how my fellow Burmese poets were being arrested or murdered. People stand together against the oppression of dictatorship. Every day they go to the street and protest against oppression and scream for freedom. Through all these, the National Unity Government, the people chosen government is the glimpse of hope for the people in Myanmar, so does for Rohingya. From the refugee camps, Rohingya support the NUG. We all wish to go back to our homeland. All we want is to live in peace, enjoying the whole meaning of freedom and live altogether again like before in Myanmar. It has been already eight months since the military controls the country; the world just watches on. The world forgets my country, and my Rohingya people is the forgotten of the forgotten ever.”