Baghdad Blogs (8)

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 FOUR – Monday, 7th May – Morning –  Interviews, Interviews, Interviews 

Lisa left early this morning to return to her native Austria (I’ll miss her lively company) but before she left she gave me the remainder of her mosquito spray. It has helped a little and I curse myself for not bringing my own. Every time I go to the loo a cloud of the evil little buggers rises from the bowl to chew at my bare flesh. I have so many bites it looks as if I’ve caught a strange tropical disease – 76 bites on my left arm alone, and I’m not even going to talk about my legs, feet and bum!

At breakfast once again we all wonder why the waiters in the restaurant are so surly, slamming down plates of food in front of us and greeting requests for more coffee with scarcely concealed irritation. And then one of the local writers explains to us that they haven’t been paid for five months, with little chance to complain about such gross unfairness. Saddam might be gone, we agree, but corruption and exploitation are still rife, the norm rather than the exception, all making it even harder for ordinary Iraqis to believe that genuine change has taken place and that building a new country is a possibility. Little wonder these unsmiling young men are feeling a tad hacked off; but at least if they keep on working, their families can still eat, if nothing else. I can hardly imagine what workers in the UK would do if they hadn’t been paid for months on end but were still expected to turn up for work each day!

After breakfast Dr Ali says I should prepare for an interview with Iraqi tv in the main hotel building. It is a room with the largest chandelier I have ever seen (no really…the size of a London bus, and probably costs enough to keep a whole village fed and clothed for a decade!!). We sit on over-upholstered gilded chairs, and the walls are decorated with antique and modern guns (not my idea of ideal interior decoration or wall art). Fatma Naoot, the young Egyptian journalist is working overtime as translator, a job she undertakes with unflagging enthusiasm and professionalism.

Naturally the first question I am asked is what is my impression of Iraq. I decide to be honest and tell them I am seeing a country decimated by decades of conflict that will take generations to recover, a broken country. Events like this Festival are important, a tiny shoot of optimism struggling for life and recognition in the debris of destruction that surrounds them, and something that might give local people a better sense of confidence for the future. That’s why it is important for it to be supported.

And why did I think it was important to come here? I explain because in the UK so little is known about the country and its’ people; the only images we ever get on our tv screens or in the media are those of shootings, bloodshed, and soldiers at war. The message I want to take home is that there are ordinary people living in Iraq, people who are falling in love, getting married, having babies, going to work or school, and doing all the things ordinary people do everywhere…just trying to have a life.

And then they ask me to read one of my poems, not a full one, just an extract as interview time is running out. Fatma insists on a bit of my (infamous) ‘Shoes’ poem – not what I would have chosen, particularly not with its overtly erotic sub-text, but I can’t argue with her, and fortunately there’s only enough time for the first two stanzas before filming has to finish. On the way out I am stopped by another film crew from a different channel asking me similar questions. Again, Fatma obliges with translation, and I tell them again how deeply affected I have been by what I am witnessing here, and the courage and strength of the people trying to rebuild both their country and their lives.

Interviews over, we go to a talk given by one of Iraq’s most prominent women writers, who fled the country years before, leaving her family behind. Elegantly dressed in a pale green business suit, she explains that on one hot summer’s night years before the shooting outside began again. Hiding in fear with her children, she said she put her hand up to her neck to discover it was dripping wet. In the darkness she couldn’t tell if it was just her sweat, or blood, which meant she had been wounded. At that moment she knew she had to leave Iraq, and the very next day she began her journey into exile. That she is back in her homeland now after years of exile is a miracle, and she is filled with hope for the future, although recognizing it isn’t going to be an easy or quick fix.

I wonder if the writers and poets from this troubled land will ever be able to stop writing about their bloody past and open the doors of their imagination once again so they can write stories about the future. But for today Iraq’s yesterdays are still too close, old memories are still too raw, the wounds are still healing, and there is too much grief and desperation to fill their poetry, novels and stories for the foreseeable future.


  1. I will love you until the seas run dry and the rocks crumble.I was taking care of Sally.She is a composer for the harp.Is that why you don’t want to go home?How’s everything? The doctor is taking my blood pressure.The doctor is taking my blood pressure.You need to workout.I heard some one laughing.Every man is fool sometimes, but none at all times.

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