Erbil literary festival proves words defy war and horror

al16may-music-21.jpgAnita Sethi
Writers outside the Chikhana Muchko Teahouse in the Kurdish centre of Erbil, where they had gathered for a historic afternoon of public readings by female as well as male authors and poets.

Poetry echoes around the courtyard of the vast, 6,000-year-old Citadel in Erbil. Passers-by stop and listen as writers read out enchanting words in Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac. I am at the inaugural Iraqi International Literature Festival held last week in the north-eastern city to celebrate Iraq’s rich literary history, a history that has been overshadowed by 30 years of war and conflict.

As varied as the languages are the locations: the city’s historic teahouse, universities, libraries and government buildings are filled with stories during three days of performances, panels and workshops, organised by the British Council in partnership with several Iraqi organisations, including the Kurdistan regional ministry of culture and youth, Salahaddin University, the Iraqi Writers Union and Writers Union of Kurdistan, and the Baghdad Emerging Poets Delegation.

The festival opened with a far-reaching discussion of “Current Trends in International Contemporary Writing”, which debated some serious questions. Is there such a thing as a national Iraqi literature? What are the shared themes in international literature? What are the challenges facing writers in Iraq? What are the readerships like? How do politics and creativity intersect? What is the role of the writer in society? What are the issues facing the writer in exile?

These are writers whose work tackles the most brutal experiences: loved ones lost in genocide, war, exile. A recurring issue was: with what techniques does a writer deal with such suffering and the struggle to retain or restore humanity? As the writer Ahmed Saadawi put it: “Humour is not only a literary choice, it is a life choice. Comedy pushes you forward, helps you to bear the atrocities and sadnesses in your life.” This was a festival touching on profound themes: ought art to be a reflection of reality, or an escape from its horrors?

In the historic Chaikhana Muchko Tea House, which lies at the foot of the Erbil Citadel, it was exciting to see history being made at the first-ever public reading given here by women. Among those reading alongside engaging writers such as Saadawi and Soheil Najm was Nazand Begikhani, a women’s human rights advocate whose forceful work explores gender and violence and who read a poem exploring “the thin line between life and death”.

The wealth of local talent was demonstrated as members of the audience joined in at the end, performing their own work in something of a “poetry slam”.

There were some powerful and provocative female voices. Rachel Holmes from the UK chaired an important discussion with several women writers from Iraq and around the world, discussing the challenges and expectations facing women writers. During the festival, Inaam Kachachi explored the need to dismantle cultural and sexual stereotypes, the lives of minorities such as Iraqi Christians and the relationship between victim and oppressor. “I concentrate on the marginalised hero,” she explained.

Iraqi writers were joined by foreign writers whose work resonates there, providing a fruitful opportunity for some international interaction. “I don’t believe that writing has national borders,” explained Robin Yassin-Kassab, the British-Syrian author of The Road from Damascus, which in part poignantly explores the lives of Iraqis in London. Indeed, the breaking down of borders was a theme throughout, including those literal and metaphorical “walls” established by the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and described by the Iraqi chairman of the festival, Fadhil Thamer.

Meanwhile, Bee Rowlatt gave a reading both funny and moving from her book Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, which describes an email friendship between herself and a Baghdad woman, May Witwit, that lead ultimately to Witwit’s escape to the UK.

The director general of the Iraq National Library in Baghdad, Saad Eskander, also took part in the festival. He has worked at rebuilding the National Library, replacing books lost during the invasion when libraries were burnt and looted and the National Library alone lost 60 per cent of its collection.

What is the process of archiving and documenting Iraqi literature? Eskander kept a diary between 2006 and 2007, documenting the terrors of civilians subject to slaughter and the destruction of property. “In my diaries I was trying to convey contradictions; there were bodies being taken to the hospital at the same time that we were rebuilding the documents. We thought that life had to continue. The importance of these diaries while Baghdad was in a state of civil war was to present the mind and reason. The daily diaries do not talk about me but the courage of the Iraqis, many who continued to work daily”.