Baghdad Blogs (7)

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 THREE – Sunday, 6th May – Afternoon/Evening – Poetry & Marigolds on the Euphrates

Our visit to Al-Mawahil had subdued us all, underlining our obligation as writers to report what we were witnessing in this broken country, and write about our experiences. Otherwise what was the point of us coming? If we didn’t write about the Festival and what it represented, surely it would be just another literary ego trip, something unusual to add to our biographies?  On the bus to the afternoon readings we could talk about little else, agreeing it had been a harsh and painful experience, yet an important one for us all to share.  It helped put Saddam Hussein’s expulsion from power into perspective, whatever we felt about the legitimacy of the war.

The Festival’s Book Fare was still doing good business when we arrived there for the day’s first readings later that afternoon. Each day we were given copies of the full-color newspaper supplements with photos of us sightseeing foreign writers, and translations in Arabic of the poems we had submitted to the Festival.  A young man took a photograph of Jona, Alicia, Lisa and me smiling in front of a large Iraqi flag, which would appear in tomorrow’s supplement.  I met the man who had translated the two pieces I had sent weeks ago, a delightful man called Hamid Al-Shammari, who praised my work enthusiastically. He wanted to put my poems on his website, together with photos of the two of us together…how could I refuse?

The afternoon eroded in a welter of heat and dust, the sun setting slowly in a flame-filled sky while more of the Arab writers read from their work.  Even though most of us Europeans spoke little or no Arabic, it was easy to understand the passion with which they read.  Each had their own stories of brutality and bloodshed to tell, their writing providing a common platform of shared experience that was translated into the language of empathy.  It was hard not to be moved by the emotion that was threaded through their words even if you could not see the pictures they created.

As the moon rose sedately in an indigo sky, we transferred to the arts centre for the day’s second readings, which would feature us Europeans (myself included).  The road from the Book Fare took us along the banks of the Euphrates, one of the great rivers of the world along with the Nile, Amazon and Ganges, and I became quietly excited I was seeing it with my own eyes.  Enthusiasm aside, it saddened me this ancient river was so polluted, with rafts of rubbish floating near the river banks.  All kinds of crap (literal as well as metaphorical) had welded into a messy carpet, a breeding ground for the voracious mosquitoes and evil-natured multi-legged bugs and beasties. I wondered why nobody cleaned it up. There were piles of garbage accumulated everywhere – surely it would be more pleasant to live in a cleaner environment and wouldn’t take much effort to clean it up?

Rhetorical questions.  I recently learned that anyone trying to do so would automatically be accused of getting above themselves, and be ‘disposed’ of.  Yet the spirit of those who had created the legendary Hanging Gardens in ancient Babylon still lived in this modern city.  Only inches away from the streams of evening traffic the river banks were transformed into one long garden centre with thousands of palms and marigolds for sale, a solid ribbon of green and gold foliage.  It was strangely comforting to see the need to create beauty in the midst of so much destruction.

Before the evening’s readings we had a chance to look at some of the visual arts display and catch the exhibition of Moammal Ekrema’s calligraphy. Each piece was a fluid and evocative masterpiece, a clear demonstration that Moammal was at the top of his game, a different kind of poetry.  And then we began to read our work – Jona, Tobias, Lasse, Angela, Lisa and myself.  I was surprisingly nervous as I read my two poems.  The first was entitled ‘Istanbul Moments’ about Istanbul, one of my favorite places, the second entitled ‘Refugee’, speaking with the voice of a refugee living far away from their homeland.  It seemed appropriate given the circumstances, and was greeted warmed by the audience, especially when Hamid read the Arabic translations.  More photos ensued, more hand- shakes, more enthusiastic young people surrounding me for a group picture.  You could get used to this, I thought.

And then Dr Ali got up on stage and in front of the entire audience described how emotional I had got when we’d visited Al-Mawahil that afternoon, and thanked me for crying.  He actually thanked me for crying, for showing human compassion at a site of such monstrous inhumanity.  Of course that set me off again, and soon I was surrounded by people taking pictures of me crying (not my best look!), which got an even bigger round of applause.  It was all a bit overwhelming.  Fortunately Jona, Lisa and Angela were at hand to cheer me up with their easy, undemanding friendship.

On the way back from the readings we stopped for coffee at a roadside coffee shop in the heart of town.  It was wonderful to sit in the open air watching young Babylonians relaxing and enjoying the pleasure of the moment.  The coffee was sweet and strong enough to stop conversation, the night benign, and for that one moment conflict and death seemed very far away.

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