Baghdad Blogs (9)

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 – Last Days and Children being Children

Now that all of us European writers have read our work, been interviewed to the point of overdose, had our photographs taken with what seems like half the population of Babylon, and seen the omnipresent effects of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities, for the rest of our time at the Festival we only have to relax and enjoy ourselves. Jona and Tobias are planning to do a bit more traveling around Iraq, and as I listen to them discussing where they might visit and the best (and safest) ways of getting there, I wish I could travel with them. I feel as if I have only just scratched the surface of this extraordinary country, and that it and its people have so much more to offer. Agreed, it’s not the easiest or most comfortable place to go walkabout, but the sheer weight of history on offer here is overwhelming, an ancient civilization that should not be forgotten because of modern conflict. Iraq is a nation that has been demonized by the foreign media, by international politicians driven by their own agendas of greed and hypocrisy, and by its own inability to deal with its flaws (including extremists creating chaos for everyone living there). But I’m optimistic – the fact Jona and Tobias can travel to other parts of the country is an indication the wind of change is blowing across Iraq. If I ever get a chance to come back here, maybe I’ll be able to go walkabout myself.

We go back to the Book Fare for the afternoon’s last reading session, the Euphrates ambling sluggishly past only yards away. This time the readings are exclusively by Iraqi poets using a number of Iraqi dialects. We understand none of it, not even the multi-lingual Tobias, but just listening to the rhythm and cadence of another language unlocks a basic sympathy with the writer, and is a pleasurable experience in itself. The emotional words roll over me, but I’m distracted by two little boys – clearly brothers – sitting next to me with their head-scarved mother. They are both captivated by what’s going on on stage even though they can’t be more than 8 or 9 years old, clapping vigorously at the end of each reading. Although I doubt they understand everything they’re hearing, their faces are alight with enthusiasm, their oil-dark eyes a-gleam. Yet when I laugh and say hello, suddenly they become shy and silent, hiding behind their mother’s voluminous black wrap. She encourages them to say hello back. They retract even further. I hold out my hand in greeting, but they’re reluctant to take it. Eventually mum decides a photo is in order, and the two of them are placed in a rigid pose either side of me while the picture is taken. I am the only one smiling, but mum is clearly delighted and beams at me widely before shepherding her two boys away.

After that we then move onto the readings at the arts centre across town. Although we still attract mega attention from local people who continue to gawp whenever we show our faces, after several days of our presence, the heavily armed guards at the door no longer take any notice of us as we walk into the building. Moammal, the Syrian calligrapher, corners me immediately with a shy smile and gives me a present…a copy of one of his beautiful pieces of calligraphy I’d admired the previous evening. I am touched he has taken the time and trouble, especially when it’s unlikely we will ever see each other again. But if I ever do, hopefully I’ll be in a position to buy one of his exquisite calligraphic art works.

The evening slides gently into darkness, and we listen to the remaining local and Arab writers who still have to read their work. Dr Ali’s wife and mother come over to chat, embracing me with genuine warmth. His wife is a beautiful young woman with a perfect complexion and wide black eyes filled with gentle eagerness. Her sons surround us, all on their best behavior, but getting a bit tired of sitting still for so long. The youngest child is still a baby, his chubby little arms reaching up happily to whoever wants to pick him up for a cuddle. He clearly has no problem with being passed around like a fragrant parcel, and Jona happily bounces him up and down on her knee, laughing and cooing with him. I’ve never been that good with kids, so I watch in amusement.

And then we see that look on his little face, features red with concentration, that can only mean one thing when it comes to babies. Yes, he has pooped…onto Jona’s leg, all over her trousers. The squirming infant, now looking much more relaxed, is handed back to his mum, who is mortified with embarrassment. She rushes off to find napkins and water to clean the mess her errant son has made of Jona’s trousers. Jona and I are beside ourselves with laughter, and in only minutes the offending material is removed and all that remains of the ‘accident’ is a large damp patch on Jona’s leg. Another international incident avoided!

Things wind up quite quickly after that, and we all head back to the hotel for our last al fresco meal. But Dr Ali has one last surprise in store for us. Each of us is presented with a special wood and plaster statue of a cuneiform tablet from the time of King Nebuchadnezzer, as a memento of our presence at the Festival. As each of us accepts our gift, there’s applause, much laughter, and yet more photographs. But by this time, midnight is looming, and we’re all a little too tired to continue being jolly. Besides, I know I have to be up dawn to leave the hotel by 5.00 a.m., and I still have to pack. So I bid a genuinely fond farewell to all the friends I’ve made during the past few days, and head off to my room. I want to thank Dr Ali for inviting me to be part of this extraordinary event, but he’s disappeared…the Festival still has a few more days run, and he has a lot more to organize for all those artists arriving tomorrow.

I’m up at 5.00 a.m. as planned for my early morning flight home. The day is already warming up as we head away from Babylon for the hour-long drive to Baghdad airport, the sun burning its fierce farewell in a clear peacock sky. The dusty palm trees and thorny scrub give way to barbed-wire-festooned concrete walls the closer we get to the city. I’m sorry to be going, ‘though I am looking forward to sleeping in a clean bed where I won’t be chewed by gluttonous mosquitoes!

Security at the airport is tougher on leaving Iraq than getting in, and I’m momentarily irritated at the endless body searches before check-in. The departure lounge is a bit too well-thumbed to be comfortable, its sparse shops not yet open. I ask myself if I’ve enjoyed the experience? Enjoyed isn’t the right word, but it has been amazing, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Would I come back? Yes, because there’s so much more to see and experience in this place of poetry, deserts, conflict, disaster, atrocity, legend, ancient culture, and biblical riches. Because there are so many misconceptions I want, in my own way, to try and dispel. And because…I’m a traveler and this has also been part of my journey.

And then the flight is called. I gather my bags and head off across the cracked tarmac towards the waiting plane. I’m going home…..

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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.

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.

Baghdad Blogs (6)

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 – Morning – At Nemrut’s Tower, and the Graves of Al-Mawahil

By now all of us had given up on the idea that there might be a written programme of events telling us what each day would hold. We’d stopped fretting and were just going with the flow. This morning after breakfast we were taken to the tomb of a Muslim saint who had built a tower so that he could speak more directly and easily to God. Nemrut’s Tower of God was about an hour’s drive away, giving us a chance to see more of the extraordinary countryside.

The landscape was a mosaic of dun-coloured scrubland with ubiquitous palms standing like tired sentries, and an endless array of buildings split open by neglect or conflict, yet still with families living in them. Broken trees or fragments of rusted tanks lay scattered by the roadside. Occasionally there were the gated villas of the rich or powerful, as ostentatious and overblown as these types of dwellings anywhere. What was self-evident, however, was that this was a weary land, one that had had the stuffing knocked out of it, a patchwork of decay and exhaustion that filled me with sadness at the waste.

Arriving at the saint’s tomb, we were quickly surrounded by a troupe of soldiers stationed there to keep away looters. In their dark blue uniforms, hard muscular bodies and oil-dark eyes, they were a handsome bunch of boys, obviously delighted that the boredom of their days was to be alleviated for a little while by this posse of sightseeing poets tumbling from the bus like excited children. They all wanted to have their photos taken with us, but declined to allow us to take photos of them, saying it was forbidden, wagging their fingers at us.

The tower stood a few hundred yards away up a steep hill that might once have had trees, but was now bare of all vegetation. Over centuries the village that had once thrived in the shadow of the saint’s folly had fallen into ruin, now no more than a jumble of broken walls and doorways open to the cloudless sky. The earth was brown and stony, frilled with the detritus of 21st century living – plastic bags, Coke cans, sweet wrappings all fidgeting and gathering in untidy piles. A few tatty-looking stalls sold snacks and cold drinks, their ancient wizened owners eyeing us anxiously. People still lived here, ‘though it was hard to imagine what kind of living they could scratch out of such a remote and inhospitable place. In the distance an ocean of palm trees stretched in grey-green waves as far as the eye could see, smoke from distant fires pluming the horizon.

The others were much more determined to be tourists than me, with Lisa leaping up the steep slope to the crumbling tower that fingered the sky. I was happy to just stand and look at the eternity of trees spreading out before me, enjoying the chance to just be in this isolated spot. For a while there was only sunlight and silence, the hot air moving across the arid landscape as if God really was whispering in your ear. And then from the small blue-tiled mosque next to the saint’s tomb the muezzin called the faithful to midday prayers. As ever I found it oddly moving and incredibly beautiful, his thin voice threading the emptiness to remind us of our impermanence. As we got back onto the bus, the onyx-eyed soldiers waved us goodbye, and the peace of the place traveled with us for just a little while.

But Dr Ali had something in store for us that would erase all thoughts of peace and tranquility. He took us to Al-Mawahil, the site of one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious mass-graves, where the remains of 13,000 men, women and children lay right next to a new housing estate. The newly built apartment blocks stood empty and waiting only yards away, with the steady thrum of motorway traffic connecting it to graveyard. Corn-rows of unmarked graves stretched ahead, each one containing the partial remains of someone who had been butchered by Hussein for who knows what crime, real or imagined. These were the nameless ‘disappeared’, victims that it had been impossible to identify as often there was little left but dismembered limbs.

On a billboard by the graveyard’s entrance were pictures of women howling with grief, tearing at their hair and clothing in paroxysms of despair the depth of which I could not even begin to imagine. Even my time in Gaza had not prepared me for this, and I was overwhelmed by a tsunami of sorrow for all those who had been lost, and for those who had been left behind to mourn them. It was impossible for me not to cry, and we all stood joined by the anguish of the moment. Even now, writing about it weeks later, I can feel the ghost of the harsh emotion I felt seeing those graves, and the raw, savage grief that was being expressed by those weeping women. It was a cruel and shocking moment, but I’m glad I experienced it, for it was an unsubtle reminder how privileged our lives in the West really are.

We were all mute with distress as we returned to Babylon, and lunch was a quiet affair, that silent shriek of woe still echoing somewhere in our heads…..

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.

Baghdad Blogs (3)

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

During the night I am sure I must have lost at least an armful of blood, the mosquitoes were so prolific, so relentless and so hungry. Sleep was spasmodic and restless, partly because my imagination was in overdrive and I kept dreaming that there were dreadful faceless things prowling around in the shrubbery outside our rooms. In the light of day and over breakfast I learned that this wasn’t too far from the truth, as Saddam Hussein had ordered the construction of this hotel complex and the gardens it stood in. When he was ousted, the place closed down and had only recently re-opened – no wonder it was looking so shabby!

Not only that, the dictator’s summer palace was perched on a hill overlooking the hotel, literally a stone’s throw away…a chilling thought that we were sleeping in the shadow of a despot’s palace even though it was boarded up and no visitors were allowed in. Lisa, the Austrian writer who had already become a friend, confessed that she’d got up very early and walked up the hill to take a closer look, but only got as far as the outside of the palace walls before being stopped by armed police and soldiers. She said the atmosphere up there was eerie and unpleasant, like a stone on the heart – not something I wished to experience first hand.

After breakfast, and still with absolutely no idea what the day’s programme had in store for us, we compared notes on impressions so far. All of us agreed that Dr Ali had done/was doing an amazing job and that this Festival was a really important landmark for Iraq and its’ strife-torn people. That we were there at all was a tribute to him and the people he was working with. The first few days would be devoted to literature with readings by the European/International poets and writers, as well as the Arab poets drawn from Egypt, Syria, Turkey and from all over Iraq. There were also exhibitions of contemporary visual arts and calligraphy. Maami’s work was exhibited and was incredibly beautiful…even though I don’t truly appreciate the calligrapher’s art, I could recognize high quality when I saw it, and his work was extraordinary. Later on in the week there would be film screenings and theatre/dance productions and the Festival would culminate in a concert by the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra. I wished I was able to stay for the whole week instead of just the first few days. I didn’t even know Baghdad had a Symphony Orchestra. There’s so much about this place we don’t know, or have the wrong idea about.

Mid-morning we were taken to the ancient city of Babylon, the ruins of which were on the other side of the hill Saddam Hussein’s summer palace was perched on. It was only a five minute bus drive away, but nevertheless we were accompanied by armed guards and a bevy of what I later realised were plain clothes police. Dr Ali was making sure we weren’t captured by the opposition political party to discredit what the current government was trying to achieve. Another comforting thought to keep me awake at night alongside the voracious mossies!

In the 6th Century BC Babylon was the greatest city in the ancient world and the centre of culture, wealth and learning. Whether the Hanging Gardens were real or a myth, people from all over the then known world were drawn to it for its architectural marvels and to worship at the feet of the stone lions of Babylon, symbols of supreme power and might. I was completely overawed that I was actually there.

Over 2,600 years ago the biblical King Nebuchadnezzer commissioned the construction of streets I was walking down now, had entered the magnificent (and magnificently restored) Ishtar Gate, one of the six gateways to the city, devoted to Ishtar, Goddess of love, war and fertility, as I was doing now. The gate was breathtaking, covered in luminous indigo tiles interspersed with images of hybrid animals, mixtures of birds, bulls, fish and fowl, and the ubiquitous lions, Ishtar’s own symbol, all in brilliant yellow and white. Once inside there was a courtyard filled with stone benches, a cluster of palm tress, a mural of an ancient map of the world showing Babylon in the centre of things surrounded by ocean. An arrow pointed east to the Great Wall, another saying it was ‘six leagues in between where the sun is not seen.”

It was easy to imagine the bustle and excitement of this city, this gateway in those far-away days when it really was the centre of the world and people flocked there to learn and to marvel. Now we were virtually the only visitors, certainly the only foreigners, apart from a thin sprinkling of Iraqi teenagers or families here to see the glories of their past. A few years ago there had been plans to restore the whole site and make it a major tourist attraction, but those plans have been shelved for some time now. In one corner of the courtyard was a dusty little shop with a sign saying ‘Welcome – Souvenirs of Babylon’ under which another sign said ‘Closed’. To me it seemed an incredibly poignant metaphor for the whole of Iraq. I came to Babylon..and it was closed.

The temperature in the blistering sun was in the upper 40’s, so hot it was an effort to breath. In the shade of the courtyard’s palm trees an enterprising Iraqi had a stall selling cold drinks. We all looked longingly at the box of ice-cold cola’s and water, our tongues already glued to the roof of our mouths, but we couldn’t buy anything not having any Iraqi currency. Once again the kindness of local writers came to our rescue, and we were all bought drinks, with much laughter and generosity of spirit, plus the eternal “where are you from?”

Walking through the sun-baked streets I was aware of the weight of millennia, each brick in those ancient walls a word in the book of silence. The city spread out before us, an endless Aescher landscape of dun-coloured walls, broken doorways and roofless buildings that once must been grand and beautiful. When a wizened local elder pointed to the cuniform inscriptions carved in some of the bricks, translating in a shy voice that these were made at the time of King Nebuchadnezzer, I got very excited. Well…I’m a history buff, so things this old and precious will always excite me. And this was the King Nebuchadnezzer, who appeared in several books of the Bible. How could that not be cool? It hurt my heart to think that all this history, the wealth of culture and beauty that was here, was largely hidden from us in the West. All we hear about is despotism, war, death and destruction, but this is only a part of what this country has to offer. How could we not be told about everything else? A rhetorical question, I know.

In one ruined courtyard we visited the Woman’s Well, where your ‘womanly sins’ could be washed away. On the wall outside was a massive shadow clock pointing towards the dictator’s palace with a lengthening dark finger. The stone lion sat alone amidst the ruins, its face worn by the hands of the careless, by rain and turmoil, now only a symbol of loss.

We were quiet when we got back on the bus to return to the hotel for lunch. History has a habit of silencing you, and we were all even more aware now of what there had once been and how much had been lost. My grubby room seemed like a cool haven after the fierce heat and abrasive sunlight, and as I lay down for my post-lunch nap during the hottest part of the day, I wandered what other revelations this afternoon and evening’s reading might bring. While I slept, the mossies continued their relentless feasting….

Baghdad Blogs (2)

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 One – Evening, 4th May – Arriving in Babylon

Finally arrived in Babylon around noon, the aftermath of the sandstorm still evident in the orange colored sky and layer of fine dust covering everything. The hotel complex I am to call home for the next few days has definitely seen better days, with bungalow-style blocks of rooms set amongst threadbare gardens where roses struggle to lift their sorry heads. I have room number 5 in block 6. There doesn’t seem to be a plan or programme, but at this stage I’m too tired to worry about it, convinced that someone will tell me what’s happening and introduce me to everyone else later. Besides, from other visits to the Middle East and Asia, I’ve learned to go with the flow and take casual management in my stride. All will be revealed – eventually.

My room is enormous, filled with a suite of extraordinary bedroom furniture. The bed itself is about the size of the average Parisian ‘bijou’ apartment, and could easily sleep four people, six if they were thin! Bed, wardrobe, and chest of drawers are all in elaborately carved dark wood, heavily decorated with white metal, so bizarre I have to take photos. The room has everything it should have – fridge, phone, wall clock, TV, aircon/fan. Unfortunately only the TV is working, stuck on National Geographic without sound, plus the lugubrious fan (a blessing as it’s 40 degrees outside). It is also unquestionably the filthiest room I’ve ever stayed in, a layer of grit covering the grimy carpet, making walking barefoot hazardous. The bed linen on the gigantic bed is torn and stained – I don’t want to think about what with – and the bathroom is a cavernous, mucky room covered in cracked medicinal pink tiles. The toilet doesn’t flush, while a squadron of fierce mosquitoes hovers around me as I take a shower in the sunken pit that doubles as a shower cubicle. But the water is hot and plentiful, which is all I need right now. A hot shower and then a sleep for a few hours lying on top of the bed, covering myself with one of my shawls so the mossies don’t eat my feet.

I wake at 5.00 p.m. The sun is still high in the sandy sky, and I’m beginning to think food might be nice. I eat the nuts I saved from the ‘plane, have another shower then leave my room to find where everyone else is. Not a soul in sight, just a few surly gardeners watering the rose-beds, their eyes busy with curiosity and unasked questions. I say hello. They ignore me. I walk around for 15 minutes, see no-one. The ‘office’ is closed. Still no indication of a programme. So I go back to my room, watch more mute National Geographic, doze until 8.00 p.m. then try again, wondering if the Festival organisers have forgotten I’m here. The sun has set, the night is turbulent with flying things and there is the heady smell of jasmine in the air.

Determined to find someone who can tell me what’s going on, I head back to the ‘office’ where a cluster of middle-aged mono-eyebrowed men in grey suits sit watching TV and smoking cigarettes. They greet me effusively, usher me in, offer me cold drinks, insisting on taking ‘photos on their mobiles of us together. On the coffee table in front of them is a pistol, and I know each of them carries his own weapon under his jacket. I make a feeble joke about guns. Nobody laughs; for them, carrying a gun is normal, even at a poetry/arts festival. I couldn’t be further away from the Poetry Café if I tried!

Half an hour passes, still nothing happens, and I begin to get impatient. I ask again where everyone is and what’s programmed for tonight. At last someone calls Dr Ali Al-Shalah, the Festival’s hard working Director, who invited me to attend. Much rapid-fire conversation ensues and within minutes I’m dispatched into the night in a cab. By the time I arrive at the Festival’s launch event venue in an open air amphitheatre, the programme is almost over. At the door I see Dr Ali and he greets me effusively, as happy to see me as I am to be seen. I’m led to my seat where several of the other foreign writers are sitting – Lasse Soderberg and Angela Garcia from Sweden, Jona and Tobias Burghardt from Germany, Lisa Mayer from Austria and Aminur Rahman from Bangladesh. They smile and shout their hello’s cheerfully; I’ve rarely been greeted with such warmth by complete strangers, and I start relaxing in the enthusiasm of their reception.

On stage a troupe of pretty primary-school age girls in frilly frocks with matching hats are performing a simple but lively dance. When they finish, the applause is thunderous, and they giggle and kiss their hands at the audience like seasoned troupers. On the crenellated walls of this new amphitheatre, a bevy of soldiers listen to oud and poetry, clapping to the rhythm of the words, their AK47’s slung casually over their shoulders, forgotten for now. Before I came here someone said to me that poetry didn’t seem appropriate in a war zone. I had replied that surely that’s when poetry is needed most. What I’m witnessing now, under a watchful moon, surely proves my point.

Another few moments and the performances are over, and all the guest writers are shepherded onto a bus to take us back to the hotel complex where dinner awaits us. We dine al fresco, talk and laugh, poets and writers from so many places drawn together by our common love of words and the conviction that war and occupation are never the solution to anything. I’m glad I’m here, glad to be part of this Festival and all that it represents. Later, I fall asleep to the mute flicker of more National Geographic on the TV, the insistent whine of murderous mosquitoes.

Baghdad Blogs (1)

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 ONE – Morning, 4th May – On the Way to Babylon

We circle Baghdad airport in the early morning, sky dull with the beginnings of a sandstorm. It is impossible to see more than a few yards ahead with any clarity, buildings, trees, and people all blurred with a blanket of dust blown in from the desert that comprises most of this country. As soon as I step off the ‘plane my eyes and nose start to itch, and before long I am sneezing.

No hassle getting into Iraq; I hope getting out will be equally unproblematic. I’m met by the Festival driver (who speaks no English), and we drive through the outskirts of Baghdad as a tired sun trudges wearily higher in the grit-filled sky. There is a heavy military presence – not just soldiers with machine guns, but armored cars with all the paraphernalia of ‘protection’, tanks, and barbed-wire topped concrete walls with gun turrets every few hundred yards. I try not to feel nervous, but looking at the ruins of a city that has been completely flatted by decades of war, it’s easy for my already over-active imagination to run away with me.

The driver weaves slowly through the rubble-strewn streets. He is silent, and I am both too tired and too shaken to speak. He takes me to his house, a low-roofed gated building that has seen better days. Inside there is a flat-screen tv, a computer, heavy blood-coloured furniture, and photographs of solemn-eyed people I will never meet decorating the walls. I am invited to sit, given water to drink. After what seems like an eternity I am joined by other participants in the Festival, Fatma Naoot, a young Egyptian journalist and writer from Cairo, and Moammal Ekrema, a Syrian calligrapher from Damascus. A lavish breakfast of pitta, humus, eggs, cheese, and carrot jam is spread before us, but I’m too tired to eat, aware that my refusal of hospitality is considered discourteous. It’s good to meet Moammal and Fatma, whose English is excellent, and once again I’m ashamed I can barely say hello and thank you in Arabic. For a while we talk Egyptian politics, and then at 11.00 a.m. we set off at last – I’ve been up for 27 hours and my brain hurts.

I try not to be overwhelmed by the immensity of what I’m seeing, this town a broken ruin, more broken than you could possibly imagine, every single building wrecked, streets piled high with the rubble of endless conflict, and heaps of rubbish as far as it is possible to see. This is a city that has had its heart ripped out and the fragments scattered, so that streets, neighborhoods, all the normal signs of life that I’m used to seeing as the sun stretches into another day, are barely recognizable here. But there are people here, human beings trying their hardest to have a life, and that’s what I’ve come to see.

On the ‘plane there were men and women with their young children, returning home. I felt reassured. There must be something here, then, if children are being brought back I think. Despite the destruction, despair, the wreckage and the fear and pain written on the faces of everyone, there must be the tiniest shoot of hope that things might actually get better eventually. Perhaps the Festival is part of that slow, incredible revival. I hold onto that fragile hope as we continue the 80 kilometer drive through the sand-blasted landscape all the way to Babylon.