Baghdad Blogs (5)

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 – Evening – Walking and Smiling in Babil

I’m pretty sure that when a lot of people think about the Middle East – if they think about it at all other than when the media reports conflict or despotism – they imagine that the locals live in tents and get about on camels or donkeys. Or that they’re a bunch of wild-eyed fanatics with tea towels on their heads and a Kalashnikov under each arm. Well, surprise, surprise – the truth is far, far away from this ignorant fantasy.

Babylon (Babil to the locals) is a modern city, albeit a battered and bruised one. It has traffic jams, cafes where men (and women) sit drinking coffee and eating cake, car show rooms with state of the art motors for those who can afford them, kiosks selling mobile ‘phones and computer software, neon signs advertising banks and wedding dresses, and young people wearing blue jeans and trainers. And the people? Well, they’re just trying to have a life, just like you and me, albeit after 40 years of despotism and war.

Walking through the Saturday market was a real pleasure, and we all wished we could linger and look, talk to some of the people trying to make a living selling the thousand and one things you’d expect to find in a market. These were men and women with faces so sunburned they looked as if they’d been carved out of teak and then stained with coffee grounds, their hands gnarled as old tree roots, with decades of hard work and misfortune under their fingernails, scarring their cheeks. Yet seeing us among the luminous scarlet tomatoes and oranges the size of footballs (you won’t get produce as fresh as that in your local Tesco Metro), they smiled at our presence, the ever-present glimmer of curiosity in their eyes.

Lisa and I were both cross that we had not Iraqi currency to buy fruit or biscuits. There were these little bright green fruits that I thought I recognized from my time in Turkey – unripe plus that were eaten with or without salt as an aid to digestion – that we were eager to taste. Dr Ali took pity on us and treated us to a bagful. They were so sour they almost took the enamel off your teeth, and despite Dr Ali’s generosity we both agreed they were revolting.

The walk down that bustling street with the market stalls alive and busy was another high spot in a day of high spots. Again the attention we were attracting just by virtue of our fair hair and skin, our foreign-ness, was extraordinary. Parents pointed us out to their staring children, and teenagers nudged each other in surprise and pleasure. Our faces began to ache with the effort of smiling – after all we were cultural ambassadors of a sort. Sadly, some of the old women, dressed from head to foot in black with only hands and faces exposed regarded us with a greater degree of disapproval. They were not used to seeing bare-headed, bare-armed blondes who looked them in the eye so boldly. All we could do was continue smiling. And anyway, I think I’m a bit long in the tooth to be considered a hussy!

The walk to the next event took longer than expected, and by the time we got there I for one was purple with heat. Most of us Europeans were not going to be reading tonight, the majority of readers being the visiting Arab writers. Listening to the rise and fall of their voices, I reflected again what a beautiful language Arabic is, and how much poetry is respected and loved throughout the Arab world. This love isn’t only for academics or intellectuals, but is evident at every level of Arab society. The audience included many families with children who were actually paying attention, not fidgeting and yawning as they might have done in the UK. Appreciation starts at an early age here, and poets are deemed special people – a nice change from being considered precious and irrelevant.

The moon was fat and full as we sat and listened to the poets speaking in voices of storm and thunder about things we would (hopefully) never know first hand. Tomorrow it would be our turn to read. But for tonight all we had to do was listen and keeping smiling under a waiting sky.

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