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.


Published: Modern Poetry in Translation: issue 3 2015

Really delighted to feature in MPT, the legendary magazine under the editorship of Sasha Dugdale, for the first time, with my co-translations of Maryam Alatar, taken from the Highlight Arts Iraq project I attended last year. You can buy the issue here, which also features a focus on new and classic Uruguayan poetry: new translations of Líber Falco, Horacio Cavallo and Ida Vitale, plus a conversation between two women poets from Uruguay: Laura Chalar and Laura Cesarco Eglin http://www.mptmagazine.com/product/no3-2015-the-tangled-route--160/

Upcoming: Mondo - a world of avant-garde poetry, a course for the Poetry School

Thursdays : November 5th - December 3rd : 6.45pm to 8.45pm at the Poetry School in Lambeth, London. £90.00. Concs: £72.00

5 sessions 5 international avant-garde poetry movements / methodologies from Japan, Canada, Nigeria, Brazil, Syria & Iraq

Book online using this link: http://www.poetryschool.com/courses-workshops/face-to-face/mondo--the-global-avant-garde.php

I'm very happy to be presenting a new course for the Poetry School focusing on 5 global avant-garde poetic movements of the post-war period, in five different nations, aiming to elucidate traditions that might be occluded in the UK, and explore how their innovations in writing can compliment people's poetry in the now. The onus is on how these great moments in modern poetry can enrich writing practise, rather than dense historical analysis. It’s a rare chance to excavate avant-garde work in such a setting, please sign up above if interested. 

Participants will have a chance to share their work at a post-course reading and you can see further information about Mondo and my previous courses & activities with the Poetry School here: www.stevenjfowler.com/poetryschool

Week One: November 5th – Japan
The ASA group to the VOU: Kitasono Katue & more
Logogrammatic poetry: The abstract illustration of language

Week Two: November 12th – Canada
The Four Horseman: bp Nichol, Paul Dutton & more
Sound poetry: Language as Sound, resonant, non-lingual, vocal.

Week Three: November 19th - Nigeria
The Mbari Club: Amos Tutuola, John Pepper Clark & more
Experimental mythology: Mythic tropes as paths to the new.

Week Four: November 26th – Brazil
Noigandres: Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos & more
Concrete poetry: The visuality of the poem as its meaning

Week Five: December 3rd – Syria & Iraq
The Tammūzī Poets: Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb, Adonis & more
The ancient as modern: Free verse as liberation.

four poems from Iraq in Colony

http://www.colony.ie/#!sjfowler/c1p49 the wonderful Irish journal Colony has published my four translations from the Iraqi poets I worked with for the Reel Iraq project a few months ago. A huge honour to have had the time with them. 

"A product of the remarkable Reel Iraq project in April 2014, where four British and four Iraqi poets spent a week together in the Safeen mountains of Kurdistan, I had the pleasure to spend time meeting and transliterating the work of Ahmad Abdel Hussein, Miriam Al Attar, Ali Wajeh and Zhawen Shally. These works appear without their Arabic originals to emphasise that in the process of their being reconstructed into English, I have transliterated, rather than translated the original poems, and while I was as loyal as I found myself able to be (feeling deeply responsible to the poets, if not the poems, I have actually been very careful to maintain the original texts, by my own mangling standards), they now exist somewhere between myself and the original authors, in a no man’s land of sorts, possessed by neither, and better for that. They are four complete failures. – SJ Fowler

in the name of god (lower case)
transliterated from the Arabic of Ahmed Abdel Hussein

you are the well of thirst
you are the black prize in the mouth of the wolf

leave off your endless light of miracles
which lights up the name of Iraq
raise up your blindfold
which has been gently knotted upon the eyes of Baghdad
gather the decorations of war from the thresholds of home
turn the guns of battle
to brooms, so that they might not kill
snuff out that light which propagates the darkness of the mothernight
and don’t leave my lover to course in dread
from her home to the halls, and from the halls to her home
but print on her heart instead, the furthest stars
until she knows while she’s tightening her hijab
that you are the rictus grin that proceeds death

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 #7

Up for reading, the reading, the grand reading. Travelled half way around the world. Not that this is the work really, not that anyone really believes that, but it is like fighting, in its model, that all the funds, all the time, builds for one payoff and you get a little belly rumble at that pressure, that it is to erupt in one moment, and one has to keep nerve. Well I didn't, Dan and Ryan did, and did so beautiful. It was great. The event was very well attended, the room packed out, the work we delivered was really strong, a lovely moment for the Reel people to be very proud of themselves I think. Zhawen and I read one poem, and the relevant translations. I gave a little waffle about the people of Iraq Id met being more important than the poetry, and being ashamed of the privilege I enjoy, all the stuff writing this blog has made me confront. You can see for yourself below of course, in the vid. I also slipped in a few inside jokes, a few kippers in there. The Q and A was great, unvideod, went full wild west, with long didactic speeches in place of questions and some genuine feeling against the freedom of our translations, or what we all know to be transliterations from the off. I had fun answering one and then rocking back and letting the communication communicate. Good vibes afterward, high energy and engagement. The Reel project is amazingly well conceived and run, and this is the result, an event that would be powerful in any festival, in any context in the world.
Finally I had a chance to go back into Erbil and explore the city properly, and buy some weird trinkets. I returned to the bazaar, found some pretty nifty glowing sponge elephants and some camo tshirts, and lots of dried plum sugar sheets, before making my way out into one of the really beautiful parks of the city. If some of Erbil's regeneration is Dubai-esque, to its detriment, its parks are really wonderfully rendered. Music blaring from public speaker systems, immaculate gardens, sculptures. It looked like archival footage from the 70s in the middle east, families on display, picniccing, hobknobbing.
Ryan & the former writer's union president during the Ba'ath parties evil rule
I returned to the Charmander hotel, had a final brutal sweatlodge gym session and then got one of the creepiest thai massages in the world, before dragging the others from the seemingly endless procession of rigmarole at the closing event out into the city for the last time. Started to feel a bit exhausted at this point, and the night became a blur, eating out and visiting the tea house beneath the citadel. The next twenty four hours were and are a blur. Saying goodbye, knowing that in the moment of its happening this week will seem like a concentrated hallucination, that I drifted upon its regiment, its intensity, its privilege, and never had the time to properly reflect upon it, and all the better for that, for it isnt the norm. And yet still, knowing Ill never be back here most likely, that this has happened at the best time it couldve in my life, young enough to enjoy it fully, and be free to enjoy things in their moment and limitation and place in a way i never could when i was younger, and yet old enough to appreciate it too, that all of it is made by its transitory nature. Nothing in Iraq was overdone. Sad to say goodbye to all, but especially heartfelt was my goodbye to Hoshang. The man is all power to this place and its people. I walked Vicki back to the hotel at midnight, slept for an hour, and then spent the next day, sleepless, that dried fruit brain sick feeling crammed into tiny bucket seats on Turkish airlines, trying not to vetch myself, before haunting the gatwick express, actually feeling ok in London, aside from the overbearing psychological wave of unhappiness that always hits me when I return to the city from elsewhere and haven't adjusted to the currency of banal depression. Hammersmith v Erbil. Then I got norovirus and have lost the last two days to fever, and worse. All the better, Iraq feels a different life away, as it was.
here is our party in Erbil (as inflatable donkeys)

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 #5

Niniti International Literature Festival begins! From now on referred to as NILF (by me, perhaps only by me). Nilf is a collaboration between the British Council and Artrole. No joke. Art-role. Up, feeling like a giant sack of dying cats, early, for the press conference. Very spaced out today, no sleep. Lots of Turk coffee. Worth it to see the raconteur stylings of Ted Hodgkinson, and a ten year old Iraqi girl reading Choman Hardi in homage while Ted became a human mic stand, and then Ryan Van Winkle introduced as Dan Gorman, gave a lovely opening speech about the Reel project and its place in the wider literature festival. I then went to do some filming with Yasmin Fedda, a brilliant documentary filmmaker and generous companion on this trip. She couldn't be more generous with her time, and I've learned a lot about the middle east from just talking to her. The rare mix of humility, intelligence and talent that seems to make up the majority of those involved in the Reel Iraq week. I suppose an exceptional project will be peopled by exceptional people. Here is her beautiful doc Breadmakers, http://vimeo.com/m/21718544 & another about a boxer & a squatter in Rome https://vimeo.com/63646958; look for more of her work off the back of this festival, and a work on Syria imminent. Yas and I shot a small interview and some footage of me reading in the creepy subterranean gym in the hotel Chrwa Charw (?) which is low on equipment and high on mirrors. It looks like the final scene of Enter Dragon. It means my fat face will be refracted into eternity.

We then had a group meeting to prepare for our big reading at the fest, where I will be reading with Zhawen Shally. We talked over our performance, reading each others translations. Such a privilege to read with Zhawen, who is really wonderfully talented and kind, and who is the only Kurdish writer in our group. Hoshang Waziri really helped us again, not only translating but convincing Zhawen that my often radical translations were the right thing for her work in English. I found out Zhawen has seven siblings and Hoshang ten! Four of Zhawen's kin live in London in fact. Clearly the fertility stone is working.
no reason for this, I just liked it, found it in the hotel somewhere

I trained in the carpeted basement doom gym, grunting next to the weird massage parlour that also fills out the hotel basement in the chraw chaw, before attending the big opening reading event. It was a colourful affair, a real wild mix of stuff. Local writers, Iraqi's travelled in from Baghdad and the like, British Council writers and a few of the Reel Iraqers. I was prepared for the 'allah' wails of pleasure from the audience, but it wasn't really like that in the end. No need to open it up really, but I think with my events and art performances, I'm known for a pursuit of friendliness, authenticity and anti-pretension, whatever that means, in the face of stereotyped 'literary' poetry brouha, and I was prepared here for some crimping, lip biting and selfharm. It wasn't that bad, more wild west than ferrero roche, more a smorgasbord of real variation of style, delivery and quality. Nia, Kei, Zhawen and the ten year old girl were amazing. There were at least 20 readers. And someone came dressed as aquaman and wept uncontrollably as they read, which I thought was pretty hot avant garde. A good marathon sesh to set us off.

After that we got a bit creeped out by a super strange man in a maroon tuxedo who was touring the hotel, who was touching me a lot but professing his love for the ladies. It was worse than that but I won't blog it. It was as awkward as a really really long awkward silence, and I enjoyed that immensely. To escape we all met up to take a taxi to the christian area of the city for a big mesgouf fish barbecue. After a very long cab drive we were dropped off near the American embassy, strangely underwhelming and hidden and walked to find an open plan garden restaurant that seemed more a park than a restaurant. I had an interesting conversation with one of Dan's friends from SOAS, a Dane called Henrik, who worked for a charity in Kurdistan that provides psychological care for torture victims. He educated me on contemporary Kurdish politics and the work he's involved in, and once we started talking poetry (by his request) it turned out he knew and loved the work of Morten Sondergaard! Spending such lovely time with Morten in Copenhagen a few weeks back made the world feel small while making time seem slow. That feels a long time ago, reading in the literature house in copenhagen, as I write from Iraq. We sat for hours, til midnight, on a very mild evening, talking, eating coaly flayed fish and generally being merry. 

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 #3

The day began translating with Maryam Alatar, a female poet from Baghdad, and one whose work I have been intrigued by since I heard of its ferocity. Maryam's poetry is pared down in execution but takes the patriarchy of Iraqi society head on. A quiet assurance in her manner is reflected with poems which can easily be described as outwardly aggressive toward oppression, abuse and misogyny. I had a great experience working with her, helped ably by the spritely Dina Mousawi, whose down to earth Bradford Iraqi charm rather offset the subject matter in a way that allowed me a certain permissive objectivity, one I needed to actually translate the work into English and make it my own.

Back from lunch and the grime gym (the owner of the complex, once a resident of Derby, and a former kickboxer, sorted me out with a bag and some good kit), I returned to my room to find it being cleaned. I got talking to a man from Nepal, who has come to Iraq for work. I made him some tea, and we talked for as long as he was allowed to before moving on to the next cabin. Him and his wife moved here a few years ago, and though the money isn't good he characterised the place as good because the worst it got was disdain, and not violence. He said they needed to move on at some point, the money they were earning in Shaqlawa was not enough to feed them and support their family back in Nepal. He spoke perfect English, told me he had a uncle who was a Gurkha and was incredibly mannerly and well spoken. His dignity in the face of treatment that he tried to downplay, but was obviously difficult, bordering on brutal to bare made me feel stupid in the way one does when realising the futility of any notion of fairness on the earth. I am being paid to be in Shaqlawa, being flown here, fed, given time to talk about, translate and write poetry. I believe it can only be good at times to find this absurd. He said we could chat tomorrow before we leave.

I then spent some time in the afternoon working on my translations of Ali, Maryam and Zhawen. My intention was to begin as loyal as possible to the original text, and then veer carefully, when it was required. It didn't turn out like that. The context felt freer, and so I was free. I introduced new ideas even, at points. The poems became mine. I wanted this for my own work, but for theirs...I hope they're okay with that in the end! Those of them who speak English anyway. 
The whole crew then climbed a mountain. I never caught its name, but in the Safeen range, and we were driven there en masse in a minivan that shouldn't have been able to climb as it did. At the foot a group of typically slick Iraqi dudes were just hanging, all shiny jeans and tight shirt and gelled hair, and we began to climb they joined us. The party started to stretch out, each taking the climb at their own pace. The climb was well staired, with views into the valley of Shaqlawa behind us. I was driving forward with Hoshang and Dina and Ryan, and the metal stairway at the summit of the climb came into view as the steps stopped and a dirt path took its place. The point of this pathway was apparently to reach a fertility stone. By sliding down this stone, face first, women apparently increase their chances of having a child. Sounded counterintuitive to me. I skipped ahead and reached the top first. Climbing the metal rigging I made my way to the dead end, the stone, to find a single man, sitting high above, in full body camo attire. He just looked upon me as the climbing beginner I was. Heading back down I came first to all the cool Iraqi guys we met. The first thing they said was 'picture'. Again I offered my white face up as some sort of pleasure for others, happy to do so for such friendly people. Eventually the whole group was at the shrine, with most doing the slide and we milled, Hoshang even mountain goating further up the increasingly sheer mountain. We then spotted the camo man, on an adjacent peak, frighteningly high and clearly requiring some ropeless vertical climbs. Rather him than me.

Passing us on the way down was a whole group of men with shisha pipes and wood, ready to barbecue at the top. At the bottom itself all the Iraqi dudes started dancing, choubi music blaring from their car stereo, doors open. Arm over arm, they sucked in most of our party before the cab came to take us back.

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Anfal_Campaign). 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.

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..

Sarah Zakzouk on Reel Iraq poetry

http://www.reorientmag.com/2013/04/reel-iraq/ "Reel Words, an evening of poetry in translation, was but a small element of the Reel Festivals lineup. This year’s festival, Reel Iraq, was comprised of a series of cultural events marking the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by US and UK forces. Dubbed ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, America and Britain’s stated mission was to liberate the Iraqi people from despotism, and disarm Saddam Hussein  of ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. Serving as a poignant reminder of the consequences of the invasion, Reel Iraq brought the nation’s cultural sphere to the forefront, exploring Iraqi contributions to art, culture, and creative expression in the UK, during a time of conflict and unrest. Featuring film, art exhibitions, poetry readings, and concerts, as well as panel discussions with audiences across the UK, the festival not only celebrated cultural diversity, but also provided a forum for people to reflect on the suffering and hardship endured by the people of Iraq during the past decade.

Hosted by Ryan Van Winkle, Reel Festival’s’ Literary Coordinator, in collaboration with Maintenant and 3AM Magazine, the Reel Words event was an evening of poise, impact, and eloquence. Introducing the readers of the evening, 3AM’s Poetry Editor, Steven Fowler, emphasised the theme of the evening as a reminder to people of the ongoing events in Iraq, and spoke about the cyclical nature of news stories presented via Western media. ‘It might have been our country, our culture that was invaded … this [event] is about peoples’ lives’, he remarked, as he asked the audience to compare the situation in Iraq with that of the UK.
The first half of the night played host to a variety of poets. Particularly outstanding was Patrick Coyle, who read a poem entitled Kirsty Wark’s Questions to Tony Blair, Reversed. Dictating a series of events backwards, Coyle counted down as the narrative progressed in Kirsty’s dialogue with Blair. Images were confused, and the narration distorted, as he disoriented minds with his verse in reverse. Highly engaging, his careful intonation lending itself to the backwardness of the text, the audience was still able to make sense of his words in their chaotic format....."