Monday, 28 January 2013

From Erbil 3

More rain as before, billowing, lowering, frowning, blibbing and blebbing. After breakfast a ride to the Tea House by the Citadel. This is the very centre of old Erbil and insetad of pale cars and no people, there are crowds, veritable crowds, or so it seems. It's not exactly Oxford Street on a Saturday at this time of year, and in this weather, but there is the grand bazaar with the Tea House opposite. The Tea House is a much less formal venue than the university, with part-tiled walls and crowded with pictures. It easily gets packed even when it isn't quite.

Four sessions: the first at 10-12 a discussion of short stories and novels with Adam, Mohsin Hamed and Omar Al-Saray, a good start. Then a two hour lunch break. A group of us choose not to go back to the Sheraton for buffet and prefer to walk round the bazaar. Good choice. Osama from the BC is in charge of us. Such a very good man. He takes us through food and woodcraft rows, past a stall selling rare animal hides, as almost here in the photo, but, considerately, just off-shot to the left, hanging on plastic rods.

We buy all kinds of delicious stuff, some more than others, Osama doing the bargaining and money changing. The bazaar is a mixture of the tourist trap and the not-quite-finished meeting the on-its-knees. I like it very much. In this respect it is like almost everything else, a country getting back onto its feet after its feet have been shot away.

In summer the temperature can reach 50C+ here and generators are vital. Nadia tells us food is cheap and plentiful in Iraq, that it's the land where 'no one can starve". The market - and the streets - are 90% men. The cafe where we have lunch is all male. The sky remains resolutely grey, the streets a mixture of mud and concrete. The cars remain resolutely white. It's like walking into an unfinished house. The citadel looms above us but we don't enter it until tomorrow. In the meantime the muezzin calls for prayers but there is no general rush to prayer mats.

After lunch it's the Reel Iraq project talking about translation: Scottish poets talking with their translatees. Lively and packed, the whole preceded by spontaneous singing. It is an old folk tune, a love story. The song passes from person to person, from man to woman and back. The very glamorous Samaqand joins in. A thunderstorm breaks out.

That is Samaqand in the middle with Kakman Botani on her right and the chair, Hindad A Qadir, on her left

Samaqand is very queenly. She is very famous. She makes little eye contact (practically none with me) but that is an aspect of her regal - and popular - persona. The planets move around her.

The singing is high quality, in tune, and bold with a lot of clapping and some finger-clicking. Nadia had showed us how to finger click the Iraqi way back in the bazaar but it's hard to master.

I join in the Reel Iraq discussion with just a tiny matchwood spoke in the wheel of agreement, partly as an automatic response to the enthusiastic privileging of anything, in this case of the local and oral as against the standard written (I mean WTF language am I, who am not of your tribe, or others like me, supposed to write in?) It's not important in some ways as there is no disagreement about the status of language versus 'dialect'. Of course they are both languages, neither more valuable than the other. I simply think that migrant people in cities can relate perfectly well to standard language, which has existed in every country as a way of ensuring that there is reliable communication between people speaking deeply local languages, and I suspect that the logical outcome of the moral stance on local oral language is Eliot's dislike of rootless cosmopolitans such as myself. And we don't have to guess where that leads to, because we already know where it has led to.

After that events move in a blur. Lucy and Gulanar Ali are involved in a discussion with Hameed Al-Rubayee and Kakmam Botani on literature and conflict. Well, there's been no shortage of conflict here and, under everything, feeling still runs high. Lucy has Belfast to refer to.

Gulanar Ali and Lucy Caldwell with white cars behind

Then I am involved - at the end of the long day - in a hasty discussion on National Literature: Is there such a thing. My line, as ever, is to ask what we are really talking about? State national literature? critical & canonical national literature? the art forms of the people? Who decides what is national literature? Is a national literature a good thing or does it lead us to define the nation in too restrictive and exclusionary a way. I mention my parents arriving in England with little more than the memory of Hungarian poems, songs, jokes and sayings (my father in his latter years would wake up in the middle of the night remembering such old sayings and jot them down). That was their national literature. 

And what of the current Hungarian government's project to define both a national culture and a specific form of nationhood. I say these things and half hear the rest because I am tired. But we have been talking for close on seven hourts in the day, and all I really want is a touch more reason and a touch less rhetoric. I doubt I am the one providing it.

But who defines rhetoric? And who am I to judge of other people's rhetoric or indeed the simple manners of speech in different cultures. I am just tired. I have also begun to wonder - as I always do after the second day anywhere - what I am doing here. Why me? What am I thought to have to offer? I am a poet but haven't said a word about my work as a poet, which is what I chiefly do and what I have dedicated the last fifty years of my life to. I have given away most of my new books, (asked to bring 20) to anyone who has shown the least interest and probably to some who have not.

These are thoughts I have every time I feel at a bit of a loss as to my purpose. I then reimagine my purpose to be as intelligent, articulate, courteous and generous as far as it is possible to be given the circumstances, and I continue in the way my imagination proposes. I hope I am being useful. I hope to do the state some service. Would you rather be a good man or a great artist is not a much-asked question. It would get some interesting answers. Surely one has to try to be both.

But this is about Kurdistan not about me. It is about finding some kind of affinity between people of quite different backgrounds who share a passionate interest in a certain form of art.

Peace on earth and goodwill to all folk. I hope, like Othello, to have done the state (whatever that is) some service.


Harry said...


Your report put me in mind of this:

"It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand."

Good luck,


Nadia Mohammed said...

The clicking finger activity was so much fun. My friend Dia took some photos for us as we were doing that. this kind of movement needs lots of practice to master and has been always associated with the Iraqi gypsies. I hope I can finish translating the volume "Clicking Fingers" so that everyone can have an idea about this Iraqi tradition.