Reel Iraq: Kurdistan diary #2

Spring in Shaqlawa is the time to be in Shaqlawa. Apparently in two months I would be lobster crisp. Now it is really warm but never roasting. I have a view of the mountains from my cabin. I slept little, as I normally do, but because I ate a whole sheet of dried apricot syrup paper and had at least 8 sugar teas the day before. Breakfast with Hosang, Dan and Ryan, already reflecting on how soon we will have to leave. Into the conference room, bedecked for the possibility of politicians, it is replete with questionable portraiture and decor, but we have baklawa in shaqlawa.

The translation process is full of potential. Literal translations of our poems have been made, and we are randomly paired, and do a round robin, working with everyone. We use different poems for each poet we work with, so a wide selection of the work we put forward will end up in Arabic or Kurdish. We then have two three hour meetings a day, for two days, to cover the four Iraqi poets we work with. An intermediary, who speaks the language, but does so much more than that, completes this translation triplet. And this is the work (!) I wrote ten new poems specifically for the occasion, about the history of Erbil, taking, in an abstract manner, ten points in its history, from 6000bc to 2014, as the beginning of each poem, linking them together through the place itself. Erbil claims to be the oldest town in the world, and so much has passed through it, Assyrians, Alexander, Romans, Timur, Genghis, Saddam etc...

My first session was with Ali Wajeh, the amazing Lauren Pyott as intermediary. Ali fits the notion I had in my mind of a male Iraqi poet to some extent, assured, lyrical in his style, full of poetic pontification. The main thing for me was that the translation of my work became new. Ali had no problem with that, my work seemingly 'inspiring' him onto his own track, and I welcomed his more careful guidance through his work, before I kind of wedged myself into it, opening up his dialogue structure with a wee bit of irony and references to Highway 80, the Highway of Death. Got in another gym session before lunch, bringing the poets Nia Davies and Ryan Van Winkle. Very funny mix, fitness and poets.
my work in Kurdish
The second session was the most engaging moment I've ever had in this kind of translation exchange, just really humbling and gratifying. I got to work with the female Kurdish poet Zhawen Shally and Hoshang Waziri, a playwright, man of the world and general literary fixer extraordinaire. The process of actually having to explain my own work line by line is deeply strange and discomforting. I write at speed, I defer care, and I welcome carelessness. Yet having to offer analysis of each line, in its deep and thorough explanation I find myself saying so much. Had I intended any of it? Is it just my verbosity in the moment, and not the text itself? A problem made a pleasure through the skill and interest of Zhawen and Hoshang. Zrwen could not be more kind and humble, and this poem I had chosen of mine to translate was about the year 1988 in Kurdistan, the height of the al-Anfal, Hussein's campaign of murder against the Kurds ( The poem is abstract, but that is what it is about. Zhawen is the only Kurd in the group, so I wanted to work on this with her, but still maintain a profound respect of the reality of that history I can know very little about. She handled my words with a care they didnt deserve. As we were working through her work, a beautiful poem in praise of solitude, Zhawen then revealed her father was a freedom fighter for Kurdistan, a resistance fighter, and after being betrayed, he was killed in 1987. His name was Bayiz Shally. He was very young when he died. Again I am rendered stupid in the face of people's openness and profound honesty and warmth.

After dinner we returned to Shaqlawa again. We strolled through the town, much quieter on a saturday night than a friday, and made our way off the main promenade to what looked like a warehouse, but what turned out to be a local gaming hall, with pool and table tennis. The owner (with the photoportrait hung in the hall, above) was a bear of a man, grizzly beard and expert snooker player. Lauren had met him the year before, and his ebullient wife, now ill, sadly, and his initially fearsome visage took on a sadder shade. They had come from Baghdad originally, and had a hard life by any standards. After leaving the poolhall, Dina Mousawi, irrepressible in her energy, ushered Ryan into to a local barbers, where he proceeded to have his four month old mountain man hair and beard wet shaved and cut with an audience, and furore, as though he were about to fireswallow. Yas, the filmmaker in our crew, filmed him reading a poem as the cut took place. The men and boys in the barbers welcomed us all to sit down, joked with us and could not have been more friendly and hospitable, as everyone has been, relentlessly. As we left they refused payment and instead, insisted on a memento.