‘Perhaps This Poem Has No End’: Reel Iraq in Edinburgh

Sarah Irving has been following events at Reel Iraq festival and was at the “Found in Translation” night of Scottish and Iraqi poets:

By Sarah Irving

Crowd at the Bakehouse for the Reel Iraq event 'Found in Translation: Poems from and for Iraq'. Photo credit: Reel Iraq.
Crowd at the Bakehouse for the Reel Iraq event ‘Found in Translation: Poems from and for Iraq’. Photo credit: Reel Iraq.

Reel Iraq’s lineup over the past few days, and indeed its very ethos, defy borders, boundaries and definitions. Anyone coming to the festival’s concert on Friday night in Edinburgh expecting ‘traditional’ Iraqi music, orientalist imagery and predictable expressions of ‘Middle Eastern’ culture will have gotten a shock.

However, sometimes the realities of a less enlightened system impose themselves, and there can’t be a system much less enlightened that the UK Border Agency. So Baghdadi poet Sabreen Kadhim was not present at Found In Translation, an afternoon of Scottish and Iraqi work at the Scottish Poetry Library, having had her visa denied by the British authorities. A campaign ensues to see Sabreen at the International Book Festival in Edinburgh this August instead…

Sabreen Kadhim.
Sabreen Kadhim.

Even without Kadhim, this was a wide-ranging, elegant, fascinating collection of poetry. For a majority non-Arabic-speaking audience, it started off gently with Scottish poets performing work inspired by the brutality and, for Western writers, guilt of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and by Reel Festivals’ core themes of freedom of movement — physically and artistically. Michael Pederson was self-effacing and witty, Miriam Gamble thoughtful and serious. Nick-e Melville’s work was probably the most directly political engagement with the Iraq war, the phrase ‘for your safety’ ironically permeating a poem composed of excerpts from leaflets dropped by coalition forces on inhabited areas of Iraq, warning of the consequences of harbouring regime soldiers and repairing communications networks. Peter Mackay, reading his works first in his native Gallic, reminded us that linguistic diversity needn’t go beyond national borders, whilst Vicki Feaver drew together the echoes of pain and loss which still affect those who survived World War Two – evoking the decades of mourning still to be lived through for Iraq.

A new “filmpoem,” specially commissioned by Reel Festivals, took Iraqi poet Zaher Mousa’s poem “Born to Die” and bracketed the interval with the film of the English version (by Swoon) and the Arabic version (by Alastair Cook). The two versions can be viewed on vimeo (English, Arabic).

Second up were the Iraqi poets (those who got visas from the UK authorities, anyway), and the Scottish poets who had worked with them to create translations/versions. Ryan van Winkle – who, by the way, did an excellent job of compereing the event, nicely balancing humour and seriousness – kicked off by explaining the process by which the poems in Arabic and Kurdish were translated. Reel Festivals use a technique of ‘bridge translation’ – creating rough, fairly literal translations which non-Arabic (or Kurdish)-speaking poets could then use to form new ‘versions’ of the originals. The two sets of poets, along with bridge translator Lauren Pyott, met up in January in Irbil for a week of collaborative working which culminated in performances at the Irbil Literature Festival, and then continued with the readings seen in Britain this week. According to Scottish poet John Glenday, one of the effects of this is that “you end up knowing and loving the country and its people.”

The products of this co-operation of minds and creativity included Zaher Mousa’s poem The Iraqi Elements, translated with Glenday, which was a moving paean to his country with observations such as “cancer flares and smoulders in the heads of children.” Awezan Nouri, a young Kurdish writer who is also a journalist and women’s rights activist, worked with William Letford and Krystelle Bamford to give us strong natural imagery and the occasional flash of political fire, in images such as “an emirate of knowledge overcome by an empire of ignorance.” The variety that emerges from the co-translation process also came out of Nouri’s work, with Nouri and Letford obviously having found humour and playfulness in their co-operation, whilst the relationship with Bamford seemed much more slow-burning in its considerations.

Despite Sabreen Kadhim’s absence, we did get one of her poems, “on the universal theme of unreliable boyfriends,” read by Bamford again: “I’ve lost myself in your dent on the sofa… has the wick blackened or was it never lit?”

The final Iraqi poet was Ghareeb Iskander, paired with Jen Hadfield and John Glenday. As if to emphasise the global sweep of literary links and meanings, Iskander’s ‘On Whitman’ was a meditation on ‘three types of grass’ – Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, the ‘grass of eternity’ from the Epic of Gilgamesh and “the grass of exile which you watch growing alone.” The stern, graceful despairing imagery of Iskander’s work, drawing on the ancient myths of Iraq, was perhaps a fitting ending to Found in Translation. “Uruk is an empty ruin… not a single tree… even the darkness burns” Glenday read, paying tribute to the “effortless music” of Iskander’s voice.

Ghareeb Iskander and John Glenday reading at a similar event in London:

Sarah IrvingSarah Irving [http://www.sarahirving.co.uk] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.