Andy Croft reports on his recent visit to Basra, for the Al-Marbed international poetry festival.
I have never seen so many people at a poetry festival before – or so many Kalashnikovs. A few weeks ago I was in the southern Iraqi city of Basra with my friend the Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan. We were guests of the Iraqi Writers Union for the thirteenth annual Al-Marbed international poetry festival.
‘Poetry is the Present and Future of Basra’ read the banner over the stage in the main hall of the Basra International Hotel where most of the readings were held. Dedicated to the late Iraqi poet and communist Mehdi Mohammad Ali, the festival attracted almost a hundred poets, from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Iraq, Assyria, Lebanon, Syria and the Iraqi diaspora scattered across the world.
During a crowded week of readings and debates, poetry and music, food and friendship, we visited the birthplace of Basra’s most famous poet Badr Shakir al Sayyab, as well as the Basra international football stadium. There was a showing of the film Samt al-Rai/The Silence of the Shepherd introduced by its director Raad Mushatat. One of the festival readings took place on a river cruise on the Shat al-Arab waterway.
The British poetry world likes to think it is popular, with its prizes and awards and celebrities. But this is nothing compared to the role of poetry in Arab culture, where TV shows like Million’s Poet and Prince of Poets regularly attract more viewers than football. Although six million Iraqis – 20% of the population – cannot read or write, the idea that poetry is a publicly-owned, shared and common language somehow persists across all classes. At some of the evening readings, there must have been a thousand people, men and women, young and old. One of the most striking performances was by a six year old boy reciting, entirely from memory, a ten minute long poem comparing Iraq to a beautiful woman.
Although Amarjit and I did not know the literal meaning of many of the poems, we were able to concentrate on the richness of their different cadences and rhythms. Thanks to our hard working translators we were also introduced to the work of some fascinating poets, including Iraqi poets Abdulkareem Kasid and Chawki Abdelamir, Hani al-Selwy from Yemen, Mojtaba Al Tatan from Bahrain, Sabah Kasim, Najah Ibrahim, and Souzan Ibrahim from Syria, and Al Wathiq Younis from Sudan.
But of course the festival was taking place in a deadly context. Iraq is still at war. The billboards by the side of the roads advertise, not consumer goods, but the faces of young men killed fighting Daesh. Each night I was woken by the sound of gunfire to mark the repatriation of local boys killed fighting in Mosul. A notice outside the new shopping centre in Times Square solemnly reminds shoppers, ‘No smoking. No weapons’.
With a heavily armed security presence at most of the readings, it was hardly surprising that the festival was a serious-minded affair. There were no stand-up poets, comics or performance poets. Instead most of the poets recited long poems usually about the suffering and grief of the Iraqi people.
An old man read a poem about the death of his son, killed fighting in Fallujah. One poet compared Iraqi children to a forest of young trees cut down before they are full grown. Another observed that every Iraqi child grows up with an older brother called Death. There was a long poem about a local teacher injured by a Daesh car-bomb; although she managed to crawl out of the car, her clothes were on fire (which meant that her modesty before God was threatened) so she climbed back into the burning car to die. Another poet described the poor of the world as the fuel that keeps the fires of war burning. The prayers of the religious, he said, do not belong to God, only the tears of a mother grieving for her dead child.
It is more important than ever that we understand as much as we can about our neighbours on this small planet. Despite the commercial, ideological, cultural and political pressures to emphasise our uniqueness and our separateness, the differences between us are not very great. The Al-Marbed poetry festival is a brave and important reminder that poetry is one of the ways in which we can enjoy and explore those differences and at the same time assert our shared humanity.
This article was first published in the Morning Star.