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…..

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.