A note on: Moot, a videopoem from Iraq via Highlight Arts & The British Council

Almost exactly two years since I spent some time in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq, thanks to the amazing Highlight Arts and the support of the British Council, a video showing me reading one of the poems I wrote about the place and the trip specifically has been produced by Yasmin Fedda and hosted in a series of articles by Daisy Leitch on the British Council Website.


Reel Festivals in Iraq & Syria Speaks

Reel Festivals is a remarkable organisation that promotes events and programs of literature in areas of conflict to celebrate diversity, build solidarity and create dialogue with audiences internationally. They organise these events to explore alternative stories through direct interaction and shared experiences and last month, I had the extraordinary privilege to be a beneficiary of this work, as part of the Reel Iraq project in Erbil, Kurdistan. I was among four British poets who worked together with a group of contemporary Iraqi and Kurdish poets on translations and collaborations before reading at the Niniti Literature Festival, thanks to the British Council.
Next month, thanks to Reel Arts, leading Syrian artists will tour Britain throughout June to launch Syria Speaks, an anthology of art and culture from the Syrian frontline. The line-up will include award-winning Damascus-based novelist Khaled Khalifa, video artist Khalil Younes, writer and film maker Zaher Omareen, and authors Malu Halasa and Robin Yassin-Kassab. The tour begins with an event at the Rich Mix Arts Centre on June 11th, in the main space, from 7.30pm. http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/syria-speaks-art-and-culture-from-the-frontline/
The book and tour, organised by Reel Festivals, aims to demonstrate how Syria’s artists are leading the country’s resistance against tyranny. Syria Speaks is the first book to provide a window on Syrian creativity since the uprising, showcasing the work of over 50 artists and writers.http://www.saqibooks.co.uk/2014/04/syrian-writers-artists-tour/
In the interim, while in Iraq I had the chance to write some blogs about the trip, which can be found here: http://blutkitt.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/reel-iraq-kurdistan-diary-1.html
& a suite of poems I wrote for the project have been published online by Reel Arts here http://www.reelfestivals.org/the-arbil-suite-a-history-of-erbil/ “The Arbil Suite is a poetic history of a city that rightfully claims itself to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth…”
& here are videos from the Niniti Literature festival: 
Ryan Van Winkle & Dan Gorman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SrNw5Q3WKI
Kei Miller & Ahmad Abdel Hussein https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15yI3trw7ks
& there’s photos online here & here, as well as a great interview with Nia Davies who also attended, and more blogs from Ryan Van Winkle and others on the Reel Festivals site.
Please attend the event on June 11th if you’re free, and follow and support the remarkable work of this extraordinary organisation. http://www.reelfestivals.org/

Reel Iraq: Kurdistan diary #6

More eye bleed, happy not to sleep in order to do everything I can do, knowing how precious this time in Erbil is, and that while in it, things are so hectic that I won't be able to appreciate it until I'm gone. I finally got a chance to visit the city proper, though the bazaar and up into the citadel. Whereas the bazaar was alive, defined by its use, and the friendly, approachable people who populate it, the citadel, this incredible centrepoint to an 8000 year old city, a place assailed by Hulegu Khan, Timur, Alexander, is in the last ten years, finally defeated, stripped bare, renovated out of its appeal. In an amazing move, and it would seem against Unesco's wishes, the local government has decided to relocate the active, thriving community of people who lived within the walls of the citadel, in their own city within a city, and place them in a community elsewhere (called Citadel!) so that the ancient walls can be a pure tourist attraction. Walls are plastered, knocked down, rebuilt, the roads are dusty and empty, most paths are barred. So innately counterproductive to be breathtaking.

We managed to find the one ray of the light in an otherwise depressing excursion, the textile museum in the citadel. Really a beautiful, careful and honest enterprise, Hoshang met the curator, and discussed the programs they have to support the traditional methods of textile production and support the education of the Kurdish women who are preserving this dying art. Yasmin and I shot a video of me reading in the museum, my poem about Alexander and Diogenes. And I bought some beautiful crafts, all the money going back into the museum that is hanging on like a bastion of authenticity, at the heart of a project that has lost sight of itself/

Another brutal, drenched training session in the carpeted basement gym of the chawarchra, weird scaling the stairs back to my room dripping while all the glad handed, white suits shake and loiter. In the post gym fog, I worked further on my translation of Ahmad Abdel Hussein, and his wonderful declarative poem against the Qu'ran and the destructive legacy of Islam in modern Iraq. I had then the chance to read my workings on Ryan Van Winkle's podcast, where Ahmad and I discussed our exchanges and his courageous journalism. The more I know Ahmad, the more humble, gentle and considered he seems.
We were then invited out to a glitzy restaurant on the British Council, and took minibusses, like a proper tourist party, heaving me with flashbacks to childhood coach holidays. A nice evening talking outside, distracted by a giant screen showing football, but really picking Yasmin Fedda's brain about her documentary work and her thoughts on the medium. Dina Mousawi joined us a little later, having met friends of hers who have just relocated from Baghdad to Erbil. By their account, the difference is incalcuable. In Baghdad, a man and a woman cannot walk down the street together without being married and covered, and the army shakes down houses to rob them while pretending to search. This is not even taking into account the sense of lawlessness, and hopelessness, you get from anyone who lives and or has recently lived in that city. Horrible to hear, and yet, where I was once 'careful' about visiting Erbil, now I feel an urge to visit Baghdad, a very powerful one. This foolishness was dampened further when speaking to the British Council staff who live in Baghdad, and reside only in the International Zone, the old green zone, and see that tiny crop of guarded land alone, unless they are in a convoy of bullet proof suvs.

Night book making dominated the increasingly tested Reel team, they had to prepare a pamphlet of the translations between the pairs that were being read in the big event the following day, and it kept them up (perhaps fueled by Arak?) late into the night, formatting, sorting, printing. Impressive dedication while I swanned about, offering to help, and chatting to the BC pros and some weird poets in the bar before sack hitting far too late again.

Reel Iraq: Kurdistan diary #4

The days are piling up so beautifully, everything has taken on its own rhythm, due to Dan, Ryan, Hoshang & co. I spent the morning in the very last translation session, this time working with Ahmad Abdel Hussein. What can I say about him? He is perhaps so remarkable to be a literary stereotype, in that you might imagine, in your most optimistic thoughts, that poets like him roam the places where they are needed, writing poetry that actually changes the way people think, that actually allows their secular and democratic predilections to not be alien and individuated and lost. He is a beacon of sorts. His work is outwardly critical of Islam, and all monotheistic religion. It dense and profound and full of remarkable paradox and metaphysics. The poem I had the chance to work on, live translated with Ahmed and the brilliant Lauren Pyott begins with the sarcastic invocation of allah, and goes on to pillory the hypocrisy of 'peaceful' religion and the empty promises of monotheism. My own work for this project, the Arbil Suite, maintains a similar innate criticism of what I deem the fundamental meta-fascism of a monotheistic god and it's shifts throughout the history of Kurdistan. Ahmad has twice had to flee Iraq for his safety, both for his outwardly secular poetry and for his investigative journalism, which at one point was heavily focused on uncovering a series of bank robberies in Iraq perpetrated by a religious political party that used that money as bribes during an election. Here are two links to more information about Ahmed's actions, one of them being his death warrant, written and published by a religious group. http://burathanews.com/news/72386.html / http://mail.almothaqaf.com/index.php/reports/4128.html What can one say in the face of such dignity and bravery? It was a true privilege, the admiration I hold for his courage and conviction, and for his unassuming manner possessed as he is with the kind of poetic talent that makes him exceptional, even amongst a generation that has more to write about than it should
Ahmad, Lauren & I
I squeezed one more gym session out of the Stars in Shaqlawa, truly a sweat drenched griefhole after my week of pain in there, before we bundled into a minibus and headed out into the land of the Kurds. Such beautiful countryside, we passed through a series of smaller towns, including Harir, a station on the silk route. I have a bit of a fear when it comes to wild driving, having been in a wreck in my younger years, and this journey, which took place during an epic lightning and rain storm, in a rackety bus filled with 16 bodies, with no seatbelts, on mountain roads, in traffic jams and s-bends leaden with massive dilapidated oil trucks, while immensely loud Choubi music blared from the stereo, to which most of the bus danced and waved tissues, while Hoshang had full conversations with the Kurdish driver, forever turning his head, made me most afeared. The music was good though, I am being won around to the driving beats and epileptic shoulder shrugging of the local musical cuisine. For example, I share with you some OF THE VERY FINEST POMEGRANATES 
We arrived at our destination, a waterfall, surrounded by plastic animal dioramas, in stead of full taxidermy, and proceeded to marvel at Dan and Ryan who floated on a dinghy around the pool beneath the waterfall until it became strange and mesmerising, see below. There was a sharpened cleaver next to the water and the man who controlled the dinghys often picked it up. Again I had some lovely picture requests from friendly, shiny dudes, like I was the new Aziz Waisy. Back on the road, Hoshang showed us the remnants of the road the British cut into the mountain rock, which was once the only way through to Iran, and looked like a perch of doom above the river, before we turned back another 3 hours drive to Erbil. The camaraderie in the van was a beautiful thing, these people, as often happens when one finds oneself held in a kind of benevolent camp environment, have become friends, not something I'd easily say, and taking pictures of Ryan and Dina sleeping, or discussing the title of Hoshang's first autobiography are the small things that will stay in the memory.
Slightly dishevelled we arrived in Erbil, and the hotel Chwar Chra, or something like that, and the Niniti literature festival. Right off the bat I got to meet some of the other writers, the festival being a bridge point between British and Iraqi poets on the whole, and in Kurdistan of course, some amazing Kurdish poets, including Choman Hardi, whom Ive wanted to meet properly for sometime. We had a quick fluff and preen before heading down to the welcome dinner where we were roundly welcomed. It feels like there is real affection and appreciation for the Reel project, for its care of concept and execution, and it also feels like we are the cool kids in the room, at the end of the diner. After the mega buffet we sat around talking until late, the genuinely charming, hospitable and gracious Ted Hodgkinson from the British Council offered me an education on contemporary Iraqi politics in between gently absorbing my stupid jokes. For the Niniti International Literature fest, or NILF, as Im calling it, he flew in from a friends wedding in Fiji. That is commitment. I finished the day in Ryan's room, being regailed with stories as the arak (a local spirit, like aniseed vodka) flowed freely and I sat on, teetotal, as I had spent most of the day, in fits.

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.

Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

Really happy to say for this year’s Niniti literature festival in Erbil, Kurdistan, I'll be reading, doing some workshops and some mutual translation projects with Iraqi poets over a week spent in Iraq, thanks to Reel Arts and the British Council. I'll be keeping a blog of my time there, to be found here of course, when I travel out there in mid April.http://www.reelfestivals.org/reel-arts-returns-to-erbil 

What is perhaps more amazing than just the opportunity to go to one of the most rarely traveled countries in the world, all covered, to chat to poets and artists, for a week, is the fact that also heading out there are friends in Ryan Van Winkle, Nia Davies and Dan Gorman. Not only will I be immersed in an unforgettable experience of poetry and culture, but Ill be doing so with good peoples all round. Now I just have to find out if Erbil has a zoo..