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…..