Robin Yassin-Kassab

Writers in Erbil, 2011

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I wrote this account of the Erbil Literature Festival in early 2011, as Assad was bringing war to Syria, before the PYD militias took over Syria’s Kurdish areas, long before Mosul fell to Daesh. Since then there’s been a revolution in Syrian culture, and a further expansion of Iraqi literature. Ahmad Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad”, mentioned here, last year won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as ‘the Arab Booker’.

the Chaikhana Muchko in Erbil

the Chaikhana Muchko in Erbil

5th May 2011

It was an annoying journey out: a thirty-mile lift to the train station, then a train, a bus, a plane, a transit zone, a plane; unfitting and refitting my belt, tired and prickle-skinned among the glassy hustling public, and the jarring mesh of duty-free odours, and the funneling tunneling lights. My night in Vienna, old Austro-Hungaria, was spent in a very contemporary airport hotel. The windows were sealed by regulation. I lay on the bed and watched TV – all I ever do in anonymous, upmarket hotels – on pillows too bulky, sheets too sterile. I watched too much Arabic Jazeera, slow eyes chasing the script on the news bar, about the killing in Syria, in Homs and in Dara‘a. I slid to sleep to the hiss of airconditioning.

6th May

Inaam Kachachi is a Paris-based novelist and journalist. Her most recent novel, available in English too, is “The American Granddaughter”, which concerns a young Iraqi-American woman who ‘returns’ to Iraq as a translator with the American military.

When Inaam returns home these days she finds that Baghdad, the cradle of her early life, has become a foreign city. Last time she was there an American soldier assumed she was the foreigner because she was dressed only in T-shirt and trousers, revealing her light skin, startling orange hair and (by her own description) her plumpness. ‘When he passed by me he said “Hi Ma’am!” I replied in English,’ (she puts on a parodic American growl) – ‘“Fuck you, I’m Iraqi!”’

Once she mentions her plumpness I notice it. She’s elegant and swish with it too. Her size seems to be an outward manifestation of powerful inner warmth, as if her raging humour requires great space to rush about in. We’d met before, half a year earlier in Berlin, and we wave to each other as she comes through the Vienna airport gate.

So: eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey. And south over snow-caked mountains towards the flatlands of Iraqi Kurdistan. I think I glimpse the glistening Tigris from my port hole. On the other side of the river is Mosul, where Inaam’s family originates (and, so rumour has it – much more distantly – mine too), and near Mosul are the ruins of Nineveh, where Ashurbanipal’s library was buried and dug up, and with it the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest versions of the flood myth, the omens and divinations of the ancient world. I experience a frisson of firm location: my first time in Iraq, which is the homeland of all writers, the birthplace of literature, the Babel-land of stories. This is where human beings first discovered writing.

The airport is contemporary, spacious and airy. Our group of writers is processed through passport control and into a minibus, green fields and long grass on either side; after a kilometre we stop at a lonely concrete hut where our bags are scanned again. We change buses here, for security’s sake.

And into the city. It’s called Hawler in Kurdish, Erbil in Arabic, Arbaa-ilu (Four Gods) in Akkadian, and Urbilum (The Upper City) in Sumerian. It’s the fourth largest city in Iraq, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Its population is well over a million, but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s spacious like the airport, low rise, and most of it is in very good shape.

Our hotel compound is surrounded by blast walls. The public side of the walls is painted with murals – prisoners breaking through bars, the Pepsi logo, mountains and flowers. Our bags are searched and scanned at the entrance to the compound and again in the foyer of the hotel.

Once that’s done I hurry to greet Ahmad Saadawi, the novelist, poet, painter and journalist, who I spy smoking in the lounge. I know his face from his Facebook profile and his voice from his unfinished novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad” (an extract of which is one of the very best contributions to the recent “Beirut 39” anthology). In the story a man finds work clearing debris and body parts from the Baghdad streets, and keeps the parts, and constructs a body which eventually stands up and walks. Thus Ahmad writes life from death, sews reality back into one fabric.

We gather: the ‘international’ group, the Baghdad Seven poets’ group, the Kurdish writers, the British Council staff. The British Council has organised this first Erbil Literature Festival to encourage the reforming of links sundered by decades of dictatorship, sanctions, occupation and war – this kind of thing is the very best of their work – and now Zaid Badri of the BC’s Baghdad office tells us the local rules. Leave a note before you leave the hotel to say where you’re going. Carry your fully-charged mobile phone at all times. Don’t accept lifts. Only use the recommended taxi service.

We eat a meal. I sit with Ahmad, and the poets Samarqand al-Jabri and Soheil Najm, and I listen to their Baghdad lives. Stories of blood told through laughter and silence.

Rice and meat, salad and fruit, plenty to drink, the crackle of language. Laughter surpasses silence, and soon we swoop as one group up through the elevators to the bar on the 9th floor. The point of being here is the terrace’s view of the citadel, or rather the walled tell, mountainous remnant of 8000 years’ litter. But after only five minutes of gazing, Zaid, whose mournful countenance is reinforced by his heavily joined-up brow, ushers us inside, for security reasons.

Some retire; some sit and talk. Zaid tells the foreigners that after a while dead bodies in the street no longer scare you. They only make you sad.

7th May

Into town to find breakfast. About half the men wear Western smart casual, about half wear the Kurdish variety – baggy sirwal trousers and a kuffiyah used as a cummerbund. One or two visible Arabs wear dishdashas. The ladies wear bright colours. People sit smoking and talking between the fountains on the plaza beneath the high citadel. KRG soldiers unobtrusively police the streets.

Kurdish is the overwhelmingly dominant language, and no Arabic newspapers are on sale, but everyone I speak to can speak some Arabic too. Several of the shopkeepers have returned from exile in Hackney, Manchester, Gothenburg. The atmosphere is pleasant, relaxed and friendly – which is just as well, since my phone has run out of battery. A banner draped across the entrance to the souq reads ‘A Muslim Must Be Honest and Reliable with the People’. The sky is clouded and heavy with dust.

I buy a couple of hand-made goats for my children. The same shop specialises in illustrated rugs. Those hung on display include Chinese-fantasy rural idylls, the Imam Ali in green turban, a Virgin and Christ, the Prophet’s mosque at Madina… and Massoud Barzani, president of the KRG and head of the Kurdish Democratic Party. Erbil is Barzani territory.

Both Kurds and Arabs are victims of the imperialist map. Neither won their unitary state from the conspiring of Mr. Sykes and M. Picot. But (excepting the Palestinians) the Arabs have had it somewhat better. The Kurds formed minorities wherever they lived, and in Ba‘athist Iraq they met state Arabism’s most fascistic formulation. In addition to regime assaults, and to the tendency of regional powers to instrumentalise the Kurds in their own conflicts, the Kurds have been plagued by tribal and factional division. The rival parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – the Barzanis and the Talabanis – have at times called on Iranian or even Ba‘athist support against the other. (Rifts are currently in a state of abeyance. High officials have formally reconciled, but on the popular level resentment still thrives.)

It’s lunchtime when I eat breakfast. It consists of a meat sandwich and soup which I recognise as Middle Eastern beside a deliciously spicy chutney I would have assumed was subcontinental.

Sated, I stagger to the hotel, and thence by minibus to a writers’ roundtable discussion. The Kurdish Writers Union, the Iraqi Writers Union and the Syriac Writers Union are represented. Plus the Anglophones. Rachel Holmes, the biographer, arts organiser and activist, deftly manages the four languages and the many loquacious writers speaking them. Simultaneous translation helps a great deal.

Speakers offer introductions to contemporary Iraqi Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian writing. Rachel talks about contemporary trends in English-language publishing. Then over to the floor. For my turn, I say that this is potentially a time of opportunity for writers of Iraqi, Arab and Muslim background; the West is translating more work than before; there’s a genuine popular interest in this part of the world. Then I praise two writers who I believe are deserving of praise: Ahmad Saadawi and the great Hassan Blasim.

Blasim, shortlisted for the Independent’s Foreign Fiction prize, has published a collection in English translation called “The Madman of Freedom Square”. The book contains stories on Iraq’s bloody chaos, and migration, and both at once; it mixes horror, comedy and the surreal; it slips between persons, tenses and perspectives with remarkable accuracy and ease. It’s certainly some of the very best writing I’ve read in recent years. I gave a copy to Booker-listed writer Mohammad Hanif, and Hanif agreed with me: Blasim is shockingly good.

I had no idea that he was such a controversial figure in his own country. I learnt afterwards that the British Council chose not to invite him to Erbil, at least not in the literary festival’s first year, so as not to attract unwelcome publicity. It’s true Blasim writes about sensitive subjects – about blasphemy, self-hatred, sadism, sex, madness. It’s true that his dreams unsettle and provoke. But isn’t that what a writer is for?

Several writers are eager to disabuse me of the notion that Blasim is worth reading. The Iraqi prose writers of note in the conference hall – Ahmad and Inaam – I’m happy to say, speak in his defense. But many are embittered that Blasim has met European success. Do I detect a note of jealousy? I do; but there’s more to it than that. ‘Art is beautiful,’ says a poet, ‘but Blasim’s work is dirty. Art should be spiritual.’ – As if the spirit were a Christmas tree fairy, pink and pretty, with useless wings.

‘Tell it to James Joyce,’ I say (or words to that effect), ‘who wrote about the stink of people sitting on the toilet. People thought he was dirty too.’

‘If you took away the swear words,’ puts in another, ‘there would be nothing left.’ My breath is taken by that one. I cannot answer. The discussion drifts to other topics. At some point someone says that Iraq has suffered a calamity ‘beyond imagination’. I agree, thinking particularly of the couple of years which followed the attack on Samarra’s Askari shrine, the destruction of the country’s ancient social fabric in a manner more comprehensive than ever before, the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad, the mass flight of educated Iraqis, the filth of it all, the mass human failure, Western and Arab, Sunni and Shia.

After the terrible events of September 11th, after one day of explosions, certain chatterers rather pompously asked how fiction could ever be relevant again. The question was asked more meaningfully after Auschwitz, and now must be asked again after Iraq. After this horror, does art have anything useful to say?

I think Blasim answers the question in the resounding positive. He shows us how to write after the collapse. He offers so much more than dirt. Yet (apart from online, at www.iraqstory.com) he hasn’t yet been published in Arabic. This is a symptom of an Arab cultural tragedy which extends far beyond Iraq.

Inaam Kachachi describes how writers must pay Arab publishers to publish their work. Hassan Blasim refuses to pay, and so remains unpublished. Another writer explains that many distribute photocopies of their stories and poems for precisely this reason, just as they used to do under Ba‘athist censorship. Surprisingly, not everyone complains about the exploitation. One man says the publishers demanded a mere five hundred dollars to publish his book, not the two thousand figure that Inaam quoted. But how many Iraqis have five hundred dollars to spare?

Dr Saad Iskander, director of the National Library in Baghdad, talks about the lack of a readership, about the illiteracy and semi-literacy which grips the country after educational collapse, about the lack of a national identity, or at least a consensual notion of national identity, despite or because of the decades in which (Ba‘athist) nationalist discourse was ubiquitous.

It’s a busy schedule. In the evening there’s a poetry reading event in the Chaikhana Muchko, a traditional tea house built into the citadel wall. Ahmad Saadawi reads through the smoke. Then Soheil Najm, a gentle man of considered movements. His collections have intriguing titles – Breaking the Phrase, Your Carpenter O Light, No Window Outside the Window – and the images he puffs out like smoke rings hang intriguingly in the air. Soheil edits the Iraq Literary Review, which showcases English-language translations of previously untranslated Iraqi writers. And he’s translated Saramago and Kazantzakis into Arabic. (Most of these writers are bridges).

Next, Nazand Begikhani, and most memorably (though I don’t speak Kurdish) her poem on Saddam Hussain’s campaign against the Kurds in the late 80s, when 100,000 were killed and 182,000 ‘disappeared’. She reads it with haunting emphasis on the long second syllable of the title and refrain: ‘Anfaal, Anfaal’. (It was one of the dictator’s peculiarities to name his genocides with Quranic or early Islamic names, ‘Anfal’ for the Kurds and ‘Qadissiyyeh’ for the attack on Iran.) Later on I read Nazand’s collection “Bells of Speech”, which confirms my first impression; it’s very fine poetry, clear, quiet and stark. Nazand’s own character is similar: underlying her calm poise there’s a rawness, an intensity. Her father and three brothers were murdered by the old regime. She’s spent a life on the run, sometimes literally and always figuratively. She writes about exile, the persecution of her people and gender, about the uselessness of prayer and the pointlessness of declaring God dead. She’s translated Baudelaire and TS Eliot into Kurdish, and is a member of Kurdish Women Action Against Honour Killing.

Once the visitors have had their say, local poets rush to take the mic.This, and the level of café engagement with the poems, the warm applause and the ears straining above clinking glasses and scraping chairs, attests to a powerful thirst for poetry in Erbil. The atmosphere echoes the literary cafés of Baghdad’s famed Mutanabi street in the days before occupation, before sanctions, when Iraq boasted the Arab world’s most accomplished readership. There’s an old saying, ‘Egypt writes the books, Lebanon sells them, Iraq reads them,’ – which is perhaps a little unfair, as it forgets the books written in Iraq by such pivotal figures as Mahdi Issa Saqr, Saadi Youssef and AbdulWahhab al-Bayati.

We spill out onto the street talking in our many tongues. Before long we’ve all been rounded into the minibus, and we’re heading – flagging now – to the Syriac Writers Union in Ainkawa, a suburb home to Christian refugees from the south as well as to local Assyrians.

Again there is no translation, which is not a bad thing. Listening to poetry in a language which is unknown but which nevertheless belongs to a familiar family is something like reading Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”: you are conscious first of the music, and then of the rustling connotations arising from half-recognised words.

One poem is read in English, for the benefit of the British visitors. It’s a very poor poem intended to thank the West for removing Saddam – When the tyrant’s statue fell, birds sang, children smiled, the sun laughed – that sort of thing. In the post-reading huddle on the steps outside, a man insists on distancing himself. ‘This poem doesn’t represent me. We don’t agree with it. Yes, Saddam was a monster, but who brought him in the first place? And what happened after he fell?’

The Assyrian community treat us to another hearty meal. We sing Iraqi songs in the minibus afterwards.

During the night the sky’s oppression finally breaks into a clanking, shrieking thunder storm. I watch it from my room’s tall windows – snakes of lightening and lashing rain.

8th May

It’s the Prose Fiction event at the KRG’s Ministry of Culture and Youth. The Anglo session is ably hosted by Rachel Holmes, and includes Tahmima Anam, author of “A Golden Age” and “The Good Muslim”, and winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; Bee Rowlatt, author with May Witwit of the epistolary “Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad”; and me. Tahmima makes an excellent case (amid these cultures which value poetry foremost) for the necessity of the novel – ‘for only through the novel can you see through someone else’s eyes.’ And Bee tells a very successful joke about an Iraqi in New York saving a child from a dog.

In the afternoon I buy a sirwal and jacket. I just have to. Next I buy a rucksack from a shop which sells American hand guns beside Iraqi and Kurdish flags. After that I climb the steps to what’s called the citadel, the enwalled tell thirty metres high. A large Kurdish flag flies from the highest point, a sun blazing out from red, white and green.

A photograph of Erbil in the 1920s hangs in the hotel lobby. Erbil then was the citadel alone, surrounded by brown ploughed fields. Across the millenia the citadel has been the seat of those ‘four gods’, and of a Syriac bishop, and Assyrian, Persian, Parthian, Roman and Greek governors. Once it was the centre of a Turkmen state. It declined after the Mongol depredations, like everywhere in Mesopotamia. Then in 2007 the citadel’s inhabitants were evicted, in the name of restoration. At this stage it looks like a questionable decision; a few big houses are being done up, and some excavation is going on, but most of the homes are already crumbling. (The restorers aim eventually to rehouse fifty families).

We go exploring. The straw-wattle rooms are cool and light, stairways climb over the roofs, each home has a garden and the figs still grow. Anita Sethi (the journalist) finds a slipper. I find a school book. It puts you in mind of Halabja, but nobody says so.

Dusk settles. In this incongruous setting a quartet plays European classical music. Then the highly-regarded poet Sarkawt Rasul reads. By now my ear is tuning in to Kurdish somewhat. (I think I’m listening to the Kurmanji dialect.) I pick out words I know from Arabic and Farsi. Sometimes I even believe I’ve picked up a poem’s theme. I may be wrong.

Nazand reads. Soheil reads in Arabic.

There’s enough time for members of the Baghdad Seven to read a brief poem each. One poet feels slighted. ‘When we come here we are guests. We should be treated as guests, and given time to read like the local poets.’ Sarkawt Rasul responds with icy politeness: ‘On the contrary, Erbil and its people are known for their hospitable treatment of guests.’ Does this dispute concern the reading schedule only or is it indicative of deeper Kurd-Arab tension? ‘The latter,’ an Iraqi tells me, rolling his eyes.

9th May

Tahmima Anam, Bee Rowlatt and I are reading to a packed hall of students and teachers at Salahuddeen University. Amongst the Kurdish students are a few refugees from further south. A girl from Baghdad tells me she isn’t forced to wear hijab in Erbil, and her parents, not having to fear abduction here, allow her to go out with her friends.

After tea (the same strong stuff served in waisted glasses in Turkey and all over Iraq) Bee and I host a workshop on journalism and blogging. Bee makes the thing work. She’s a BBC World Service journalist, and a very good teacher. Of course, the students – engaged, eager, good-natured – contribute most of all.

In the evening we return to the Culture Ministry for the formal final event. Ministers and diplomats make formal speeches. Then the tone rises. There’s wonderful music, and all the writers read.

Including Samarqand al-Jabri. She reads so beautifully, letting the words escape her lips one by one with tender care, as if she fears for their fragility, that they might break. In her own life a great deal has broken: her father was a prize-winning chemist, also a Communist interrogated and tortured several times; he was executed in 2000. Samarqand has won prizes herself, an Emirati prize for her short story collection ‘Two Small Bears’ and the Gold Prize in Baghdad for her poetry. She’s currently finishing her third book of poems.

Back to the hotel, and then to a restaurant for our final dinner – the most epic yet.

While sampling the mezzeh I talk to Dr. Saad Iskander. By now the group has him codenamed Doctor Love. (Because when he came back from exile to manage the National Library he employed people who subsequently fell in love with each other, including a woman he fell in love with, who became his wife.) Saad is a Feyli Kurd. ‘We’re the old Baghdad Kurds, and we suffered enormously. We were Communists. We opposed the Ba‘ath when it came first. Even my mother was arrested.’

The masgoof is brought to the table, a fish grilled beside an open fire. I know Baghdad is famous for its riverside masgoof restaurants, so here’s another of those so-near-and-yet-so-far moments when I can nearly sniff the capital. Haroun ar-Rasheed, the Dar al-Hikma, al-Hallaj and al-Ghazali … the Mongols and the Americans, Saddam Hussain…

During the fish course I talk to Taman Shakir, head of communications at the KRG’s ministry of culture, who tells me about being imprisoned as a young woman. She doesn’t say exactly what happened to her, but she tells me she was ill until she was cured by counselling in Germany a decade later. Between prison and Germany she lived in the mountains, with the peshmerga. Then she says, ‘Come back one day. You have to see Sulaymaniyah. You haven’t seen the villages. You haven’t even seen the mountains.’

And then sweets and fruit, during which I talk to Brendan McSharry, the hardworking but unruffled British Council director in Baghdad. He’s flying out of Erbil in an hour, not direct to Baghdad on the domestic service because Iraqi Airlines may in an emergency land in a city – Mosul for example – in which security can’t be guaranteed. So Brendan will fly to Amman, then on to Baghdad in the morning. He’ll be met by an armoured convoy. He’ll be taken to the Green Zone, where he lives in a mortar-proof pod. He isn’t permitted to visit Iraqis who live beyond the Zone.

One writer I would have liked to talk to but can’t is Choman Hardi. Now UK-based, the poet chose not to attend the Erbil festival. She felt her participation would be tantamount to normalisation with a regime which fails to recognise basic human rights. In April, while Arabs were demonstrating from Morocco to Bahrain, Kurds in Sulaymaniyah also protested against the corruption of the Kurdish region’s two dominant parties. The KRG’s security forces, in response, attacked protestors and journalists and imposed severe restrictions on the media.

10th May

Tonight I’ll sleep in Vienna’s airport hotel. Tomorrow I’ll be in Scotland. Therefore at breakfast I eat as much hummus as I possibly can.

We gather in the lobby for a last time. Cheeks are kissed; emails are exchanged. The writers from Baghdad express their appreciation of Erbil. It’s so clean and peaceful, whereas you can’t walk down the street in Baghdad without meeting a checkpoint. Socialising there is a tense and difficult affair. Bodies still show up in the street.

But they hope the situation will improve. Grimly they insist that it must improve soon. Among them there are Sunnis and Shia, and no sign of communal tension. That’s normal, of course; before the invasion a third of Iraqi marriages crossed sectarian boundaries. And these writers are mainly leftists. ‘The people realise now it was a mistake to vote for the religious parties. Saddam, the occupation, Iran – they all tried to divide us through religion.’

The Anglophones head for the airport. Long grass sways on either side. I remember the Syrian poet Adonis’s lament for ‘the different forms of obstruction that the Arab creator faces…in the form of politics and religion. He lives and writes in a state of siege, inspired by a mystery, from which he begins to weave a hope, which will open up a horizon, that will destroy the siege.’



Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 23, 2014 at 12:58 pm

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