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 (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.