It is a tragedy that Mike Marqusee died on the day I was due to meet him, writes Talha Ahsan.
Yesterday at around 4.30pm I received a phone call that left me feeling numb all day. Someone I have never met had passed away. Mike Marqusee lived a life we can only envy. He was a journalist, poet and campaigner. He was a man who did more for me in the space of a year and a half than many who had known me all my life.
I first came across Mike’s work when Saleh Mamon of CAMPACC sent me a copy of “Street Music” – his last collection of poetry – as an Eid gift in 2013. At that time I was being held in solitary confinement at Northern Correctional Institution in Connecticut, the state’s highest security supermax prison, waiting trial for terrorism-related charges.
I must admit I groaned at receiving a book of poetry. It was too dense a form to read in those conditions. But I read a few pages as a courtesy to the sender, and then a little more and then more until I was restless with excitement. This was fine, carefully crafted writing. The part that gave me the greatest lift was “The Book of Liz” – a series of poems dedicated to his partner of many years.
I told all this to Saleh in my thank you letter to him. Months passed by and one morning the trap was unlocked. The counsellor wanted me to sign for a book. I rose from my bed tentatively unsure at what to expect. It was “The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer.” Mike didn’t believe in supernatural miracles but in this collection he affirmed his belief in the miracle of collective human endeavour.
Over the next months I received more books by Mike and then a letter. We began a correspondence. He nourished my mind with glittering thoughts which I was desperate to share with him. I was frantic to meet him. In my final letter to him I expressed my deepest wish to meet him. I wanted to hear his advice. I wanted to receive his counsel and guidance.
The last books I read in solitary confinement were his “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties” and “If I am not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew.” The latter I encourage all young people to read for its uncommon wisdom and good advice.
Mike was a humanist. He did not believe in any kind of god or afterlife. I summed up his creed as “There is no Liz but Liz and Blake is my prophet” which he approved wholly.
Mike was also a mujahid defending the rights of Muslims whether as British citizens or as victims of policies by the British government in other countries.
I was one of those individuals Mike fought for despite being in the final stages of his cancer. Not only did we have our cherished correspondence, he also wrote a letter to the judge speaking well of my poetry and describing the character he found in our exchange. He also participated in an event about my case despite his visible frailty.
Last week Paul Field, the writer and solicitor, rang me. He was a close friend of Mike’s. This was the first time I had ever spoken to him having only corresponded while I was in prison both in the UK and the US. He told me Mike was dying and had been moved to a hospice. Mike wanted to see me. Mike said I was like a brother to him. We arranged to see him today at 2pm.
Yesterday Paul rang me. He told me the visit was cancelled because Mike had taken a turn for the worse. Paul was hopeful he would recover and I could still visit him.
Tonight when many people around the world ponder what it means to have the right to speak freely and how much we are willing to sacrifice for it, I know there is one man who understood all that better than almost anyone else.
Mike had talent and eloquence. He used his gifts for the good of humanity, not to diminish it for some. He was a non-believer who wanted to inspire others to work for the rights of all human beings regardless of their beliefs and practices. He reinforced my conviction that every human being is created with an inherent dignity that must be protected at any cost.
He did this by showing me respect, brotherhood and love. I miss him and I have never met him.
My condolences to Liz and Mike’s family. Over the following days distinguished writers, academics and activists will pay tribute to Mike’s life and career. That his books enriched the mind of a stranger reading on the other side of the world in solitary confinement is perhaps the greatest testimony to Mike’s legacy.
Je suis Mike Marqusee
You can follow Talha Ahsan on Twitter @TalhaAhsanEsq