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 (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.