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Erbil, on leaving

George Szirtes

UEA’s George Szirtes was invited to attend the Erbil Literature Festival in northern (Kurdish) Iraq¬† by the British Council. Here he discusses the relationship between poetry and music. You can read more at


A couple of times, once in the bus, and once at the Tea House in central Erbil, just by the citadel, singing would start up. On the bus two of the young women began it and others joined in, singing, clapping along or snapping fingers in time to it. At the Tea House one man started a haunting air, then a woman took it up, then another man, then the woman again. They sang impromptu. It was, I learned on asking, a love song. People joined in clapping. The whole place was suddenly beautiful, burning with life. It was celebratory. It came alive.

And again, on the last night, after the Reel Iraq readings, after an interval and an awkward spell of roughly tuned chamber music, followed by another interval, a group of dancers came on. The tunes were familiar as were the dances. The hall was far from packed, and even barer by this time, but there was clapping and dancing in the aisles. It was spontaneous. The hall was rather forbidding, but the dancing in the aisles might have been anywhere in the street, in a tea house or in a bazaar.

The music of a place is where its intimacy and identity open up. At this point the sense of community is at its most receptive, and anyone from anywhere becomes emotionally a part of it. Music and dancing are beautiful infections. We all have bodies that like to move in beloved patterns.

Erbil may have money pouring into it, it may have constructed an international-standard airport – which, as Gulanar Ali wrote, was of great symbolic importance because, for once, aeroplanes were not associated with bullets and bombs but were ways of connecting this much damaged place to the outside world – it may even have raised a few hotels, but it is essentially poor. It is not so much a city of a million as an enormous township hugging the ground, a gathering of urbanised villages. It is a wounded place that needs time to heal. Maybe it will get the time but that is not assured. It is poor, half-finished. In the shadowless rain that haunted our three days, it felt almost spectral.



The mind is always looking to comprehend some key part of its circumstance and condition.There were people at the festival who had undergone suffering and tragedy of the kind we only read about. They don’t speak about it directly. It’s in the voice, the posture, the eyes which are sometimes guarded, at other times warm and pleased that we are there to see them, not as victims of troubles but for the deeply civilised people they are. The music is a sign of that.

As is the poetry, though language has walls that music can transcend. There are many languages in a single place. That is not simply a matter of Kurdish and Arabic, but of the varieties of language common to any culture: the language of the street, the language of formal beauty, the language of thought with all its own metalanguages, the language of meetings, introductions and goodbyes, the coded languages of community, family and friendship, the language of this or that person with their own personal history of usage.

Even so, poetry and story can touch others though in translation, or indeed without translation, as gesture, rhythm, performance. We feel our way through other people’s codes. We want to understand what the other is saying, not as a series of rational statements, but as a way of being and feeling in the world.

Festivals are necessarily formal. The hall we started in heightened the sense of formality and it took a little time to feel relatively relaxed in it. The hotel was a good hotel with good rooms and good food, but hotels are hotels, varying only in degree. There is staff you rarely see. You return and the room is tidy, the bed made. You glide up lifts. You return to the buffet. You sit with those you know or have met. The language barrier is always hard work. I exchanged books with the writer Hameed Al-Rubayee. We won’t be able to read each other. The exchange is a gesture to say: I think we would like each other’s minds so let this be a token of that.

For me the highlight was the session I was offered to take at the end. It was good to be able to run something at what I thought of as an open pace, with students present. I liked the students. I liked to see them smile. I liked their courage in writing to a given pattern. I liked it when they asked questions. There should always be questions. I make no assumptions about them, their home lives, their histories. Their home lives, judging by dress and looks, were probably traditional in ways that they might sometimes love, at other times resent. That is their affair, but since we are all people with a love of music, poetry and stories, we can present ourselves in ways that seem natural to us. These are our other selves, those curious instinctive selves we discover at points of singing, stories, poetry and dancing.




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