‘Become Iraqi to become a poet’: Arbil poetry festival builds bridges

For the past week, the historical Iraqi city Arbil has turned its attention to a unified love of poetry, in a country where diplomacy and politics have failed time and again. 

The final day of the Niniti International Literature Festival in Arbil has culminated with the event “Found in Translation,” where contemporary and emerging poets have had their works presented with new translations in Arabic, English and Kurdish. 

It has been described as a special platform for both Kurdish and Arabic writers, in a nation where historical resentments still linger. Iraq and Kurdistan are replete of literary cities from Baghdad to Sulaimaniya. 

In his poem “Nothing but Iraq” the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote: “For poetry is always being born in Iraq, so become Iraqi to become a poet, my friend.” 

With the first poets considered to stem from the region as far back as the ancient Sumerian civilization, poetry has been an inherent part of the culture and has also played an integral role during times of conflict. 

It’s this love of poetry that bought the four Iraqi and four UK based poets - Mariem Maythem Qasem al-Attar, Ahmad Abdel Hussein, Ali Wajeeh, Zhwen Shalai, Nia Davies, Vicki Feaver, SJ Fowler and Kei Miller - together to spend three days, before the festival, translating each other’s works into English, Kurdish and Arabic. 

In the tranquility of the Safeen mountains, the translation process organized by Reel Arts has been a way to create engagement: to use a shared interest to facilitate communication about other matters. 

Whilst Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region of modern day Iraq, is relatively peaceful, its people still bear the scars, especially those recently displaced from Fallujah, from decades of war and economic sanctions. 

Issues of integration and resettlement were a regular reminder for the poets during their interactions with locals over black tea, “baqlawa from Shaqlawa,” visits to the barbers and their walking escapades. 

The Iraqi poets all come from diverse backgrounds: from Misan (southern Iraq) to Sulaimaniya (Kurdish Iraq), with a couple from Baghdad in between. 

The UK poets are just as diverse, with Jamaican, Welsh and Scottish backgrounds. Strong friendships have been forged in the process of interpreting each other’s works. Dan Gorman, one of the leading organizers of the translation workshops, told Al Arabiya News that “some beautiful works have been produced along the way. 

These friendships mean an opportunity for contemporary artists to reach wider audiences and for Iraqi voices to be heard where they were not heard before.” 

During the translation process, the poets worked from “Bridge” translations, meaning literal word by word translations in order that they could have freedom to create something new from their counter-part’s work whilst remaining faithful to the ideas of the original text. 

The aim was not only to convey the original poetic intention of the authors but also the unique intimacy and empathy possible between poets with different cultures and traditions, but with surprisingly similar concerns. 

“It becomes less a translation and more a version... in fact, some of the new works created could be seen as a poetic dialogue of sorts.” explains Lauren Pyott, one of the three “Bridge” translators during the project.

Not only has the process produced stylistic challenges but also a challenge of the poets’ own preconceived ideas and stereotypes. 

The translation process in the lead up to the readings at the festival has been about dismantling gender and racial barriers as well as celebrating free cultural expression and the exchange of ideas. 

The third International Literature Festival in Arbil, has been renamed NINITI – which is a Sumerian epithet for a goddess meaning “lady of life” – to reflect this year’s focus on women writers. 

The three day event has been held as at the atmospheric Chwar Chra Hotel, a short walk from Arbil’s 6000 year old Citadel, bringing together a lineup of international and local writers to give readings and discuss politics and literature.  

Organized by the British Council in partnership with several Iraqi organizations, the past three days have provided a platform for leading authors and cultural figures to explore the relationship between feminism, art and politics today and ask the question - what are the strengths of literature in shining a light on political issues, from the local to the international? 

Writers that participated have included Kapka Kassabova, Julia Copus, Ghareeb Iskander, Choman Hardi and Rachel Holmes. According to Ted Hodgkinson, British Council literature manager for MENA region: 

“It’s hard to not overstate the importance of literature in Iraq. I like the saying that in this country if you throw a stone, it will likely land on the head of a poet... Poets in many ways can operate as the keepers of a country's sanity, especially during difficult times.” 

By Nabila Pathan

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