Baghdad Blogs (4)

A blog diary of my time in Iraq as a guest and participant in the Babylon International Festival of Arts & Cultures, 4-11 May, 2012

DAY TWO – Saturday, 5th May – Afternoon – The Poetry of Loss

It’s late afternoon when we get back on the bus to go to the first of the Festival’s numerous readings, but it’s still hotter than Hades. While we wait for latecomers, it gives us a chance to learn more about each other and to share our thoughts on poetry, books, travel and everything we’ve witnessed and are experiencing in this oven of a country. And I get the chance to practice my German with Lisa Mayer, and my much better Spanish with the lovely Colombian Angela Garcia (now living in Sweden with Lasse Soderberg, who has the driest sense of humour ever!), and the shining Jona Burghardt, originally from Argentina, now married to the ever-helpful German writer Tobias, from Stuttgart. We converse freely in a tangled mixture of English, German and Spanish, with a sprinkling of Arabic thrown in for added flavour. Every one of these people is a delight, and I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to be here with them.

At last we set off for our first event, a reading by some of the Iraqi and Arab writers attending the Festival. Following the bus is at least one fully armoured vehicle complete with machine guns and significantly tooled up personnel. Our arrival at the open air venue in the heart of the modern city of Babylon inspires a flurry of flak-jacketed soldiers and armed police to make sure we’re well protected. Locals gawp as we get off the bus and walk into the compound on the banks of the River Euphrates. They’re not used to seeing foreign civilians here, blatantly staring at us in surprise. I’ve rarely felt so conspicuous or the object of such barefaced curiosity. But none of it’s aggressive; they’re just interested that foreigners want to come to their country for the pleasure of being there rather than to take something from them.

Entering the compound, there’s a book fair that’s also part of the festival, doing lively business. we are welcomed, given water, treated with respect, with endless requests for ‘foto, foto’ repeated again and again. Photos with children, proud parents, teenaged boys, young women, grandmothers in black headscarves and hijab, old men with the scars of loss engraved in their eyes. Everyone wants to be photographed with us, and we all feel modestly proud – it would be easy to start believing your own publicity! But all these people are here for the love of the written and spoken word, and to share the memory of the outrage of grief and sorrow they have experienced.

One elderly woman reads from her manuscript, her voice wavering with emotion. There’s something about her, her quiet dignity, the way she holds our attention with a soft voice. One of the Arab writers explains that she has written about her only son, who died on the last day of the war. How can she stand it, I thought? How can she still greet us with a shy smile and a word of welcome? Lisa, Angela, Jona and I sought her out to thank her for her words, even though we hadn’t understood them when she was reading. I wanted to hug her, but knew this kind of physical contact was frowned upon, so I made do with a handshake, hoping that all the sympathy, compassion and sorrow at her loss would somehow travel through my fingertips into her hands and finally settle somewhere within her, that she would know that her grief had not gone unnoticed. It was a harsh moment.

The sun was beginning to set as we left this first reading of the day. Dr Ali said we could go the next venue – an arts centre a couple of miles up the road, either on the bus or we could walk if we liked. It wasn’t far, and the walk would take us through the Saturday market. A chance to walk through the market and see ordinary Iraqi’s going about their business…no contest, we all agreed!

So we set off along the crowded, car-filled streets of Babylon, with the moon rising and the plain clothes policemen following in our wake……


  1. beautifully recreated Agnes…thank you for sharing the experience

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