Sunday, 27 January 2013

From Erbil 2

Cultural Centre of Saladin University, the entrance

Very full day in very full rain, the wind driving and swirling, the rain working its way up to major crescendos. Three sessions, the first on theatre, the second on epic poetry, the third on translation, then a reading with music in the evening.

The day sessions are in the main hall of the Cultural Centre, Saladin University. It's another postmod building and yet not really postmod. I am not quite sure what the term means in architecture now. It's not so much about irony as about a certain kind of playfulness, a playfulness that can look quite earnest on occasion. In heavy rain the irony, if there ever was any, simply soaks away and you don't feel so playful either, but its good to be under cover. We have carried our books to the hall (with help) and see the book-stall set up. Meanwhile people gather, mainly officials and students. We don't enter quite when we are due to because there has to be an official opening by the president, but then the president doesn't come because there is a demonstration somewhere in the city. We don't know what it is about.

We filter into the hall which is large and faintly Stalinist, comfortable, grand, with settees and extremely comfortable regal settees in the front two rows. A heroic portrait hangs above the stage which is furnished with four comfortable grand-looking chairs.

I have been in this hall or rather something very like it before. It is a hall of wary optimism with a strong regard for authority.

Everyone is equipped for simultaneous translation. We have three languages: Arabic, Kurdish and English. The translators' job is hard and generally thankless. We should thank these translators because they are very good.

The temper and fashion of such sessions is determined by custom, mood and precedence. Lucy performs heroically in the theatre session, lucid, full of courtesy and intelligent warmth, giving instances. The rhetorical forms are settling into my ear. The trick is to listen, listen very hard even if the rhetorical forms involve some repetition or circumlocution. The students are happy at the end and gather round Lucy. Then we all push off for lunch in another hotel. The rain is blowing here and there. The dinner is buffet style, the choice extensive and tempting. Water is brought to us at the table. We can ask for Turkish coffee. We talk while we may then we are back in the university again. This time on epic poetry where Adam is our representative. It's a difficult subject and much depends on the chair. The writers stand to read a passage from their work.

Half an hour break then it's the session on translation, all well bar for the fact I am the only translator among the three guests. But it skips along in lively enough fashion, thanks to the chair. Sometimes it's hard to know whether I am required to speak as poet or translator. Distinctly as translator this time. I've had twenty-eight years of translation to think about the subject so it's a matter of what to leave out rather than what to talk about.

I should have mentioned that the sessions are two hours long, and that after the lunch the students had gone so the afternoon was chiefly between professionals.

Then we eat again - another buffet in the same hotel before being driven off to the Shanadar Park Gallery which looks like an enormous stone yurt. Here the festival invited writers read five minutes each while a band plays along, the band consisting of a Korg keyboard, a clarinet and a violin. Their music is eclectic and in certain pieces quite virtuosic. Still, it's interesting to read to a musical backing. Adam being the first up is somewhat ambushed by it, reading the prelude to his John Clare book to music by Lionel Richie and the theme from The Titanic. After this the music beomes more folk-based with an occasional touch of jazz. The audience comprises the poets from the Reel Iraq group and they read one or two poems each, Billy Letford two by heart with great gusto.

I am old enough to remember a fashion show at midnight in Macedonia and haunting poetry readings in the night garden of the IIC in Delhi. I am not inclined to get ironic about any custom and while mood music under poetry is unusual in England, I know it is less unusual in other places. My first poem is not given music, but the other two are and it's interesting moving in time to it. I listen to the Arabic and Kurdish poems and note how much it is a slightly stylised dramatic performance complete with hand gestures and lilts of voice.

Life is always denser, more layered than you think it is. It's palimpsest not tourist brochure.

We are driven back to the hotel and have a drink at the bar, talking about China and daughter and taking chances. Tomorrow the pattern of the day is similar I see I've got the last session again, on the idea of national literature. Three two-hour sessions than my one-and-a-half hour one. It will be a matter of the last man - or woman - standing.

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