Mark Moulding from the British Council Press Office blogs from the Erbil Literature Festival – which boldly went where no literature festival has gone before.
Two things greeted me in quick succession on my arrival in Iraq: a glimpse from the plane of Erbil’s 8,000 year-old citadel, at the heart of the oldest continuously-inhabited city on earth – shortly followed by one of the world’s newest international airports.
There’s no doubt that the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region is the perfect setting for Iraq’s first ever international literature festival. It’s a city with a rich history that extends further into the past than most of us can really comprehend – but now, with the horrors of the Saddam Hussein regime behind it, it is seeking to lead the way in Iraq’s cultural revival.
The Erbil Literature Festival is something of an adventure for all of us involved, as nothing like this has ever been attempted here before.
The British Council has brought some of the best contemporary writers from the UK together with Arabic and Kurdish Writers from Iraq. They’re here to celebrate and share good creative writing in three languages in a country that, as the British Council’s Director in Iraq, Brendan McSharry, told me over a cup of sweet Kurdish tea, has been starved of the opportunity to do so for a long time.
Working with our partners at Salahaddin University – the biggest in the region – we’ve created an unprecedented platform for debate, discussion and cultural exchange. And, in doing so, the Festival is building new bonds not only between the UK and Iraq, but also between the Kurdish and Arabic speakers in Iraq itself.
But this isn’t just an event for the literary elite, taking place in air-conditioned conference centres and auditoria.
At sunset on Saturday, we crammed into Erbil’s most famous tea house to hear a selection of poets read their work. The place was thronging when I arrived, but I managed to find a seat next to some local teenagers who had really just followed the crowds and TV cameras.
They asked me what was going on and, when I told them it was a poetry event, they weren’t that excited. But by the time the second poet was reading, they were filming it on their camera phones. When the festival poets had finished, the event turned into a kind of ‘open mic’ night – with local students standing up to read poems of their own.
Then, on Sunday, I found myself desperately struggling to stop using the word ‘wow’ as a crowd gathered in the ruins of the millennia-old citadel to hear readings from more writers – their words echoing off the ancient walls.
Minutes after the last writer stopped reading, the sun went down, the city’s muezzins started singing, and those walls began echoing with the loud and unmistakable sound of the evening call to prayer.
If Iraq has been starved of these kind of cultural opportunities, it’s clear that it’s built up quite an appetite. This certainly isn’t the Iraq that we usually see on the news. But it should be.