Art in a time of conflict

An Irishman’s Diary: Reel Iraq marks the invasion of Iraq with collaborative poetry, film and music

Reel Iraq poets and co-ordinators at Raban Boya/ Sheikh Wsu Rahman shrine, Iraq.

Reel Iraq poets and co-ordinators at Raban Boya/ Sheikh Wsu Rahman shrine, Iraq.


Thought to date back more than 2,000 years, the Raban Boya or Sheikh Wsu Rahman shrine near the top of the Safeen mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan is known locally to promote fertility and virility. Generations of people have visited the site, smoothing the face of the “wishing rock” at the heart of the shrine by sliding down it, face first. I found myself there in late January and felt the need to join in, sliding down the rock belly first, much to the amusement of the group of Iraqi and Scottish poets who’d accompanied me up there. Not that I was the first one to slide down, that prize goes to Hoshang Waziri, the twinkle-eyed Reel Iraq organiser who brought us up there. This was an Iraq we don’t get to see so often, one of writers, poets, musicians, and ordinary people going about their lives.

I was in Iraq to help co-ordinate the first stage of Reel Iraq, a year-long series of events marking 10 years since the US- and UK-led invasion of Iraq by promoting collaborative work and hosting Iraqi poets, filmmakers and musicians in various places including London, Edinburgh and Derry. This first stage saw us bringing together four Iraqi poets with four Scottish poets to work on new “versions” of each other’s work. In Iraq poetry is a hugely popular and respected art form. Literary cafes with a strong focus on poetry are common in many cities, the well-known Shahbandar Café on Al-Muttanabi Street in Baghdad has attracted writers for centuries. However, as a centre for the arts it has also been targeted: on March 5th 2007 a huge car bomb exploded there, killing 30 people and injuring many more.

These translations were worked on in Shaqlawa, a village about 40km outside of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and a popular tourist resort for Iraqis. However, as you might expect, most of the international visitors to this part of the world are not coming for tourism. The oil and gas industry is booming, with the constant sound of construction ringing out across the beautiful valley, morning, noon and night. Iraqi Kurdistan is viewed as a “safe place” to work in the industry, and hence provides a base for many of the multinationals working in Iraq. Oil and gas reserves continue to be discovered in the area around Shaqlawa, and, indeed, on our first morning in the translation room we were greeted with a number of left-over maps plotting pipeline routes in the region.

This formed part of the juxtaposition within which we worked, a collision between culture, conflict and economy. The poets were focused on their work, and much was found to share; many common threads were found between the Iraqi poetry and that of the Scots. The topic of lousy boyfriends was a common refrain. And yet at the same time, the impact of the conflict and war formed an ever-present backdrop to some of the work, such as Zaher Mousa’s poem Born to Die (translated by Jen Hadfield), with the verse “Baghdad plucks its people like grey hairs from its streets and, all of a sudden, like a family throwing its possessions into a couple of hastily packed bags, Iraq doesn’t know where it’s going”.

These new versions were then presented at the Erbil Literature Festival, and then brought on to London, Edinburgh, Dumfriesshire and Glasgow. A legitimate question might be – “So what?”. Given all that Iraq has been through in recent years, and that violence continues on a daily basis, what’s the point in working to promote Iraqi poetry?

On a personal level, I was involved to highlight that people continue to make art in times of conflict. I suppose coming from Ireland I shouldn’t be surprised, we have a strong enough history of it here. But going to Iraq, meeting people who are living with the possibility of extreme violence on a daily basis, and yet seeing how they choose to make art, almost overwhelms me. There is something in this that bypasses lazy cultural generalities and stereotypes and takes art out of a superficial aesthetic realm, and places it firmly in the role of “necessary for survival”.

I aim to get back over to Iraq as soon as I can. While conflict and violence rages on there and we mark 10 years since the invasion, Baghdad has been named Arab Capital of Culture 2013. There is more to Iraq than violence, there are also people there. And against all the odds, some of them are writing poetry and making music.