Reel Iraq: Kurdistan diary #1

I have, and had, no intention to experience my brief week in Iraq in a way many would imagine I would. I absolutely had no intention to reiterate notions of patronising surprise that people are warm, hospitable, friendly and welcoming in Kurdistan, as they, and all people of Iraq, have a reputation for being. I expected nothing, deliberately, and naturally, unthinking about the unpredictable nature of human and social circumstance that should define such an experience I am currently privileged to have. A proviso then, all of this in brackets.

Easy flight, the plane veering into dangerous airspace because of thunderstorms, but all a pleasure, meeting some of the other poets in the changeover in Istanbul. Into Erbil from the airport, the policeman in London asking my destination, and hearing Iraq, just saying Forces, and my not correcting him, so the saloon air conditioned car and empty, banner / bunting strewn roads making it seem I am here to do Work. We arrived at 4.30am local time, and Dan Gorman and Ryan Van Winkle are there, at the hotel, awake to meet us, setting the tone of genuine friendliness and above and beyond effort from the off. A small sleep. 
Alarm on earlier so I can have lots of coffee. It does not disappoint, and the bad taxidermy in the hotel. We all pile into a bus to leave Erbil and head into the mountains, to our cabins awaiting in Shaqlawa. The whole group is together, 4 iraqi poets, 4 others, Dan, Ryan, Lauren, Dina, Yazmin and Hoshang, who all will be instrumental in the translation / transliteration / documenting process, guiding through Kurdish, Arabic, English, to produce the new works that are the result of this week. Very far from my mind as we wind into the Safeen. Everyone is humble, open, everyone is relaxed. They are all genuinely nice people, and it feels like a purposeful collection of humans, offset by a sense of fortune that it seems everyone shares to be sharing the time with each other in such conditions of ease.

The hotel is too plush, amazing, each with our own cabin, air con, it overlooks Shaqlawa, a small resort town, bordered with mountains. We eat together, massive portions of food. Lamb's bodies go buy. I shotguns loads of strong sugary Iraqi tea, which is New coffee. Check in, I digest, and there is a gym, full of equipment barely used, matted floors, open space. I am very happy and smash out a hard hour of training, sprawling on the swiss ball and box jumps, cycle sprints, cleans.

Our opening meeting, formal and informal introductions to each and the process. The Iraqi's are immensely grounded, and funny. I know Nia Davies from all over, and get to meet Vicki Feaver and Kei Miller. After dinner we walk into Shaqlawa, up one central promenade. It is the pomegranate capital of Iraq, and flattened apricot dried fruit syrup sheets. I sugar load. Everyone stares at me, in pink shirt and yellow trousers, with a mullet, but are uniformly relaxed and friendly. We close the promenade and some of our party depart.

We sit in a bar called Rain until late, live Turkimen music. Young boys come to serve us. Some, like people we met in the town, are from Fallujah, displaced after recent fighting in that city, sending them north, to a place, in my limited view, that seems to welcome them, local Kurdish boys and them playing and working alongside each other, but has no schooling in Arabic, only Kurdish, so they cannot go to school. Hoshang from our group, full of life and honest humour, speaks to them, and they speak about their unlikely return to their home, the profound effects of their forced absence on them and their families with a clarity and brevity that is painful to watch, even without speaking their language. Im told 50,000 people have been displaced into Kurdistan, concentrating on Shaqlawa, from Fallujah, over the last 4 months. And 250,000 from Syria. Boys of 8 or 10, working, intent, trying to refuse money from one of the poets Ahmed, their stories told only because they were pressed, making another in our group cry with the simple, profound truth of their being denied things that no child should be denied. No freedom to choose where or what they do. A very brief pall falls over our table.

Walking to the lav a big group of teenage boys erupts in laughter as I go past. I keep going (I wouldn't necessarily say nothing in England). On the way back I try and skirt the table to return. As I do they all stand up, smiling, making the picture symbol with their hands, almost in unison, waving me over with intense and intimidating in a different way grins. They erupt in handshakes, welcomes, questions of where I am from, deep and genuine happiness to meet me, to speak to me in English, to hear what I think of Shaqlawa. I am made sheepish, embarrassed. I have individual pictures taken of me with every member of their party, and then all on the next table. I make it back to our table, and after more teas, they come over and take pictures with our whole group. An hour later, as we finally leave, I turn the tables on them. Ryan takes a picture of them, with me.