First the light that seems to have travelled huge distances, pouring over the blue tarps and oblong pits of chalk-green water, to meet us here and wrap its arms about us, wipe our faces: warm and diffuse and peachy light. I have never seen light like this…
Sense of the city expanding rapidly, like lichen does; amidst the girders and piled earth, men are gathering round a fire. Hens roam, and peck, and are trod. One nimbly descends a ladder leading from one half-built storey to another. A guy on the roof of the hotel opposite doubles over in his black suit to drill.
Children are wheeling each other on an office chair through the streets of Shaqlawa. Tinsel zigzagged over the street. An abacus of chickens revolve on their spits. The long necked baskets full of nuts and seeds and kernels and dried peas.
Tall in quarter-tones come the calls to prayer, and draw us out of our Swedish-style cabins.
Consuming all I can of here: the glasses of sweet tea frisbeed across the table on their painted saucers, the turnip simmered in date juice, its black gravy served in a teacup. Awezan’s sister sends a deep, lidded tureen full of homemade dolma: stuffed vine-leaves, stuffed cabbage leaves veined like ears.
Conference hall: mothballs, and chandeliers. Sabreen and I are working on ‘Birches and Maples’. She and Dina are discussing something in Arabic, at length. While I wait, I listen greedily to their faces. Sabreen draws the balls of her spread fingers down her cheek. She’s going to ask me a question about crying.
Can you all tell with how much effort I open my mouth, except to stuff it with dolmades, and pitta, and hummus and baba ghanoush, and the white curd with the bitter aftertaste, and the highly citric salad of tomato and cucumber and fried flatbread, and the stew of lamb’s leg with its stump of hollow bone, thickened with chopped pitta? Breakfast is lentil soup hyphenated with thin noodles, yoghurt with fig syrup. Some of us stayed up too late. We blink at each other, ‘beyanee bash’, and lay out our dreams before each other, piece by piece. I dream I’m holding a large stoneware bowl in my lap, polishing it to a high sheen. Dreams about abandonment, a dream about a train, dreams about the way home, sexy dreams.
Zaher explains his poem line by line. It’s called ‘Born To Die’ and is a letter to God which he asks his son, born a month premature, to deliver. There’s an image at the end, which troubles me, as he translates it. The image, I think at first, is both too complicated and too stark. It sounds like it refers to a foetus preserved in alcohol. It bothers me all week. The morning before our readings in Erbil, I sit down with Zaher and Dina again. When it comes clear, I want to cry. The glass he refers to is the transparent wall of the incubator. His friends are looking through it at his baby son, and saying ‘he’ll never make it; his heart isn’t fully developed yet.’ So much rides on our understanding each other.
And the poisoned apples in Awezan’s ‘Oblivion Season’ refer to the smell of the chemical weapons deployed by Saddam Hussein.
It dawns on me, through the week, what extraordinary poems these are.
When Lauren and Hoshang and Dina are busy, we have to find ways to communicate for ourselves. We choose for each other morsels of food; we lay a hand on the upper arm; we smile like loons, laugh louder; we mime, drawing with our hands in the air; we press a palm to our heart. We point to things and name them: pass a phone with a photo of a child, a husband, a house, a cat, a view of the sea. It’s exhausting. It’s astonishing how often we guess right.
Behind the carpet curtain over the warehouse door, a battalion of pool tables with bleach-spotted blue baize, trio of shishas, a picnic table for a card-game; ping-pong table. Foxed and splintered cues. Dina drags off a red leather glove between her teeth and flings it down on the cushion. We’re going to get trounced.
Lauren says the woman in charge says whoever comes here, wherever in the world they come from, says there is no work. She says that everyone who comes says they are tired.
On the Purple Poetry Bus back to Erbil: small towns, women in black hijab, piled red silt greenish clay, twirled cypress, pine, eucalyptus, an endless plain below the hairpin bends, the guards at the checkpoint levelling his rifle at something in the trees, his colleagues egging him on. Statuesque goats, a thin horse. On the outskirts of the city, we pull over for ten minutes while Dan sorts something in a hotel. Two lads are playing a throwing game on a demolished lot. They chuck their bits of rubble and watch carefully to see where they fall. They measure the distance with handspans. Then they pick up their stones and chuck them back in the opposite direction. When we leave they’re still playing.
I wake, saying: ‘don’t rehearse what you’re going to say.’
In the citadel, the others have disappeared down a rabbit-hole…I totter on through the rain. A strata of bright muddy fabric is exposed in the clayish walls. A length of brocade, a shirt cuff with the button on, a ragged scar of red, a gush of coarse cream fishnet, vinyl tablecloth. A clear glass bottle neck pouting fishily from the mortar. A perplexing geology. I ask Awezan about it in the tea-house. She asks some guys behind us. No-one is sure about the fabric. The KRG evacuated the city for renovation in 2006. This was the first time the tell had been uninhabited for thousands of years. We wonder if the fabric is a protest. But, I say, it’s cemented into the wall and the wall doesn’t look recent. Surely the fabric predates the evacuation. Though it’s hard to tell. I’m thinking of D, a Shetland friend, who strengthens the plaster in his stane-wark with straw. I wish I could speak Kurdish. It’s driving me nuts. There is the language and there’s getting the nerve up to speak. Keep trying.
We’re still in the citadel’s cochlea when the call to prayer comes. It is raining hard. I’m recording video, for audio’s sake, on my little camera. The camera is running with water. So am I. I need to come back, but on our last morning we run out of time. I spend my last couple hours in the ancient city buying, not looking. Feels very wrong.
Our panel event where we talk about our translation project in the tea-house below the citadel. Thunder like depth charges, reverberating through the bench below the window of the tea-house. Scrolling the channels of the interpretation unit…Kurdish…English…Arabic…lightning over the souk. I jump, and a old guy in the audience laughs his head off. ‘No bombs in Erbil!’ he says.
Oh…I can’t remember. Don’t talk about…lying awake…sheet rain falling. Waking to the sound of pouring rain, and the call to prayer and endless construction. I’m getting profligate with bottled water. Next to our grand hotel is a great half-flooded crater, with a torrent of rubbish flowing down into it. Dust and mud and dud and must. A dry day: the souk smells of honey and the engine oil that Dina smells everywhere, and in this alley, a bilious smell from crumbly bombs of goat’s-cheese in a long-haired goatskin bag. I wonder if you shape these cheese by cupping a pile of curd between your palms and pressing. the whey out between your fingers. They look like that. And here, woodsmoke, where carpenter’s are varnishing cribs and planing. Honey. Hey honey. A wad of weeping comb on a knife passed to me by the honey-seller. Wet hair, muddy jeans. Brooks running through the alleys of the covered souk. Sucking it down to a thick pellet of brown wax.
The aborted trip to Lalish; the road is flooded with muddy water. The first flood is outside a premises advertising ‘speedwash’ but I think it’s a coincidence. The traffic police have rolled up their trousers and are going barefoot. Cars and trucks overtake the crawling traffic on both sides, skirting the flood at its shallowest point. We’re all hanging out the car-windows and photographing each other hanging out of car-windows. We head to the flooded Tigris instead. There are wild dogs with huskies’ crescent tails. Teetering blades of silt and rubbish island the spate: the trashy fount of civilisation. I’ve been asking after wildlife ever since I got here, and finally begin to see birds: a black and white bird with a kingfisher’s anvil-shaped skull, crouching on a cement pile by the overflow; a bird like a game of consequences, half a cormorant and half a cuckoo; an unassuming-looking passerine which hovers acutely like a bird of prey. Something fleeting, looping and pale. Unsmiling teenagers out of school gather to be photographed with us, and we with them. They all have oiled quiffs. One of the boys has a sickly pale complexion, and dark circles under his eyes. We want to make the most of each other.
A guy is herding a mixed bag of ovines towards the drainage ditch. I say I’m trying to separate the sheep from the goats, which nobody finds as funny as I do. I feel like a boiled egg with the top lifted off.
Ghareeb’s Strip the Willow needs some work, but so do my salsa and my…what was that Kurdish dance called? Hoshang fills a pipe for me. That’s the last I see of him. Somewhere between dances he slips away.
Train to Edinburgh. In the nick of time. I’m never late. It’s good for me to be late. Two hours sleep the night before last, four last night. Feeling younger. Everything looks fleeting and distant, and hilarious, like this lady in the windowseat, who has wrapped her banana in bubble wrap.