Reel Festivals – Dialogue through Poetry by Zaher Mousa

28th December 2014

Marking ten years since the US and UK led invasion of Iraq, Reel Iraq was a huge endeavour, with over 50 events in 9 cities throughout the UK. It was an overwhelming success and audiences across the UK got a chance to engage directly with Iraqi poets, filmmakers, artists, writers and musicians.

Zaher Mousa was one of 8 poets that took part in poetry translation workshops and readings both in Iraq and the UK including Ghareeb Iskander, Krystelle Bamford, Jen Hadfield, William Letford, Awezn Nouri, John Glenday and Sabreen Khadim. 

Zaher Mousa

Facing the direct translations of poems from one language into your own, requires rebuilding the text using the main themes of the writer.  This is what we, myself and fellow friends from Iraq and Scotland experienced in Erbil, with Reel Festivals, a project which was established in 2008 and is this year focusing on Iraq.

It all began with a letter from the Iraqi expatriate novelist Sinan Antoon  saying that he had nominated me to attend a cultural event with Scottish poets in Erbil.  Emails were soon exchanged between myself, the organizers and the rest of the invitees.  On 23rd January I met with Ghareeb Iskander and Sabreen Kadhim from Baghdad as well as Kurdish poet Awazan Nury from Kirkuk.

Joining us was Hoshang Waziri, an Iraqi poet and journalist living in Erbil who writes in both Arabic and English, in particular providing political analysis on Iraqi issues and Middle Eastern affairs, as well as critical essays and reviews on a variety of literary and artistic works. He is also one of the co-ordinators and translators for Reel Iraq.

We met Dan Gorman, director of Firefly International, an NGO based in the UK.  The organisation aims to break barriers between communities through art and education, through various arts based community projects in the UK (including the Forest Cafe and Roxy Art House in Edinburgh), Europe and the Middle East.  Reel festivals is one of their projects, and aims to build dialogue and communication, whilst also strengthening justice and social equality through art.

We also got to know American poet Ryan Van Winkle, who is Poet in Residence at Edinburgh City Libraries. After a successful phase as first “Reader in Residence” at the Scottish Poetry Library, he still continues to present weekly podcasts for them, of which I featured as one of his guests during the Erbil workshops. He also presents the “Multi-Coloured Culture Lazer” podcast, as well as coordinating and hosting the ‘Golden Hour’, which has toured the world. In 2012 he received a “Robert Louis Stephenson” grant and has been the Literary Programmer for Reel Festivals since 2009.

We then met the other poets at the airport.  Scottish poet John Glenday won the Scottish Arts Council prize for his first collection “The Apple Ghost” and received a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for his second collection “Undark”, as well as his new collection “Grain” (2009).  He was also shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and Griffin Poetry Prize.

Jen Hadfield, is a nature loving poet based on the Island of Shetland, about two hundred miles north of the Scottish mainland. She won the T.S.Elliot prize in 2008.

American poet Krystelle Bamford who has lived in Scotland for 6 years and won the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award and shortlisted for the   Bridport Prize  in 2011.

Scottish poet William Letford is Poet in Residence in Stirling and winner of the New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust in 2008. In 2009 he received the SQA Star Award and the Edwin Morgan travel bursary, as well as  the Stirling Provost Award for Arts and Culture.  In 2010 he received an M.Litt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow.  His first collection “Bevel” was published in 2012 and was described by The Guardian as ‘one of the best poetry collections this year’.

We were also accompanied by two translators. Lauren Pyott is a writer and translator living in Edinburgh.  She has spent much time in the Middle East, most recently living in Syria from 2010-2011 and studying in Oman in 2012.  She joined Reel Festivals in 2011 and co-edited and helped with the translation for “I Chose to Listen” an e-book of poetry from Syria, Lebanon and Scotland.

Iraqi Dina Mousawi with British citizenship is an actress whose experience includes theatre, TV and film. She wrote a semi-autobiographical play “Return” about Iraqi women. It was performed at Soho Theatre in 2011 and opened the Theatre of Great Britain Festival at the Yard Theatre in July 2012. She also played Shahrazad in Arab Nights at Soho Theatre.

Famous documentary film maker Roxanna Vilk, who recently produced and directed the “Poets of Protest” series for the English Al Jazeera, joined us to beautifully document the trip, along with her brother James Sadri who is assisting her.

After we were all gathered, a car took us to Shaqlawa (40km outside Erbil). We passed winding hills and mountains and green expanses, revealing the heart of Kurdistan pulsating with life. We carried on until we reached a hotel at the foot of the wonderful Safeen Mountain.  At the end of the day, and after a light dinner, we were enlightened with details of the forthcoming workshops.

The First Day

The translation workshops began at 9am sharp and I was first partnered with Krystelle Bamford.  She gave me the bridge translation in Arabic of her poem “Cancer” and I gave her my poem “And You” in English, translated from my native language.  Dina Mousawi helped translate any questions we had for each other about the meaning of words. I particularly enjoyed the structure and vocabulary of Krystelle’s poem, which is about her father who had cancer, calling on him to open the door to his body so she can pluck out the tumour with her hands. At the same time Krystelle admired my own poem and was interested in the poetic images I had crafted.  Over the course of three hours we finished translating our two texts, drawing the morning session to a close.

At 3pm we began the afternoon workshop of the first day and this time I was partnered with Jen Hadfield.  We exchanged poems and as mine was very long I asked for two of hers, her poems being shorter.  She gathers photographic images of Scotland’s nature to give her an imaginary life and internal motion. Her poems centre around Lichen which listens to an isolated person, and gulls which are considered part of the furniture of Scotland’s cities.  My long poem was about a dead baby who sends messages to God.  Three hours passed and I finished the poems to end the first day.

The Second Day

The entire second day was assigned to poet William Letford given the difficulty of his language and because he had given me two wonderful poems which I spent the whole day working on. William, who likes to be called Billy, lets his text flow until the tension of the text and its lyrical weight accumulates at a specific point at the end, granting it a poetic image of the kind that inspires imagination.

I gave him my poem “The House and the Family” which is about the nature of narrow houses in the city of a revolution and the lives of the poor who inhabit them.  He liked the poem.  We began working with the help of Lauren Pyott who verbally translated questions regarding any ambiguities.

In the afternoon we made a trip up to the summit of the Safeen Mountain with our guide Hoshang Waziri, a son of that beautiful land. Despite the difficulty of the ascent, and the sudden downpour, we reached the cave at the summit, a place said to be sacred and which all religions worship. Roxanna Vilk filmed us reading our poems there for part of her upcoming documentary.

The Third Day

The third day was one of the days in which I had to gather all my skills and courage of language to work with the esteemed poet John Glenday.  He has more than four decades of experience in writing and I was afraid of not having enough experience to match him. I gave him two pieces and he chose the most difficult of the two, one which has some words with no English equivalent.  This poem is entitled “Iraqi Characteristics”. He gave me his poem “After Vesalius” in which he talks about the anatomical human body from a 15th century drawing by the eponymous Belgian doctor. He tries to extend the circle of this painting to embrace major cultures in northern Europe.  Hoshang Waziri, Lauren Pyott and Dina Mousawi all helped to clarify the text throughout the day, in which I was at my happiest.  It also granted me greater knowledge and enjoyment, and the challenge and power of language.  Night ended the practical workshop and we returned to Erbil to attend a dinner party to which we had been invited by the British Council.

The Fourth Day

The second Erbil Literature Festival was being held in Erbil, the first of which I attended last year, and which was this year held in conjunction with Reel Festivals. This gave us the opportunity to meet with other participants from Britain, America and Iraq. They had their own events and we had a few hours to discuss the texts which we had translated, turning the unfinished versions into the highest level of craftsmanship and refinement. The day passed, until evening, with tranquil work, after which we attended a reading with the invited participants of the Erbil Literature Festival, where we also read our poems in our native languages, without translation, to the tune of Kurdish musical accompaniment.

The Fifth Day

The discussion of the poems continued until the fifth day and the observations became even more useful with our developing ability to speak in English, in a manner that was simple and sufficient, and over the course of a beautiful day we enjoyed consulting our unfinished versions of the poems, annotating them and scrutinising the intended meanings of each line.

At three in the afternoon, we gathered in a teahouse, popular with intellectuals and artists, close to Erbil’s historic citadel. The event was among the events programmed in the Second Erbil Literature Festival and comprised a panel discussion, amongst ourselves and the invited guests, on the meaning of poetry through translation, particularly the concept of crossing borders in any way. A great number of heated opinions were offered, the most beautiful of which was Jen Hadfield’s who said that poetry is the translation of silence and so there exists no poetry which is untranslatable as poetry, ultimately, is an initial translation of contemplation.

The Sixth Day

Reel Fest Poets, Organisers & Friends in Iraq (Back Row L-R: New friend #1; New Friend #2; Dan Gorman; James Sadri; Dina Mousawi; John Glenday; Lauren Pyott; Jen Hadfield; Ghareeb Iskander; William Letford; Adham the bus driver; Krystelle Bamford. Front Row L-R: New Friend #3; Awezan Nouri; Roxana Vilk; Sabreen Kadhim; Ryan Van Winkle; Zaher Mousa. Missing: Reel Festivals Erbil Coordinator Hoshang Waziri

This was the day of the final performance.  We started the day with a trip to Lalesh, the Yazidi Holy of Holies. However, the road was intermittently cut off with rivers of rain water which became too dangerous to pass through. So we altered our intended destination and passed through a Kurdish town brimming with beauty, on the outskirts of Erbil. We spent a few hours amongst the natural spectacles and the flashing of pictures exchanged between friends.

When we returned, we had a brief rehearsal for the performance of our final texts that night. It was important for this performance to go well and for everything to be organised in such a manner as to befit everyone’s efforts. Thus we assembled on the stage of the main hall of Kurdistan’s Ministry of Culture, at eight o’clock. Ryan Van Winkle introduced us, in his American manner, to a crowd of over one hundred. With wonderful quietness, the readings began suitably and coherently, much like the quality of a beautiful girl’s hair.

The readings commenced with Ghareeb Iskander who was followed by Krystelle Bamford, then Jen Hadfield. Sabreen Kadhim read next, after which was William Letford, followed by myself and then Awezan Nouri. John Glenday was the final poet to read. Each poet read their own texts, as well as those which they had translated into their native language.

On my return to Baghdad, I thought about the extent to which I would forget these moments, and I am certain that I won’t forget a single thing. These workshops were one of the most successful of any attempts to connect the poets of the world, where you are able to cross the borders of language through the intermediary of whatever words you are presented with, without their connotations and compositions, to begin the delightful journey of interpretation. In addition to this, is the immense human dimension in the concept of brining cultures closer together on an equal basis, with no cultural or intellectual discrimination.

What I know is that we will all meet once more in March of this year, this time in Scotland, and I gather that we may have the chance to see our translations in the form of a book which may be published there. As a result we shall rejoin once more to write an inclusive poetic book, with one text from all the poets, and this is a challenge for which I am already yearning.

Zahir Mousa

Translated by Dina Mousawi and Lauren Pyott

This article first appeared in Al Sabah Al Jadid newspaper on 03/02/13


Al Sabah Al Jadid Full Article - Reel Iraq

Published on Reel Festivals website on February 21st, 2013.