Translating new poetry from Iraq

LAF’s Nia Davies reports from the Reel Iraq poetry translation workshop and Niniti International Literature Festival in Erbil, Kurdistan.  Last week Iraqis went to the polls and are now awaiting […]

Posted by Nia Davies on 1 May 2014 Literature Across Frontiers
  • Election bunting in Shaqlawa
    Election bunting in Shaqlawa
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    Getting ready for the event
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    Nia Davies and Mariem Al-Attar perform translations
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    The Reel Iraq 2014 group
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    Zhwen Shalai speaks on the panel 'Written on the Body' at the Niniti festival
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    Election bunting and the Erbil Citadel
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    Working on translations in Shaqlawa
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    The audience at Niniti Festival

LAF’s Nia Davies reports from the Reel Iraq poetry translation workshop and Niniti International Literature Festival in Erbil, Kurdistan. 

Last week Iraqis went to the polls and are now awaiting the results of the election that will decide their future. During the campaigning period last week I was there in Iraq walking under roofs of party bunting strung up on every building, between each telegraph pole and even draped across cliff faces. I was in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, for the Reel Iraq poetry translation workshop in the mountain town of Shaqlawa and then in the city of Erbil for the Niniti International Literature Festival. Having sat in on translation workshops in the past I was excited to get stuck into the translation as a poet this time and experience all the intricate conversations that come out of the process of transliterating texts between different cultures and languages.

We were four UK poets: Kei Miller, myself, Vicki Feaver, SJ Fowler and four Iraqi poets: Ahmad Abdul Hussein, Zhwen Shalai, Ali Wajeeh, and Mariem Maythem Qasem Al-Attar. We spent four days working intensively in pairs on translations between Arabic, Kurdish and English with the help of interpreters Dina Mousawi, Lauren Pyott and Hoshang Waziry and the Reel team Dan Gorman and Ryan Van Winkle. Reel is international festival showing a different side of areas behind the headlines. This workshop followed on from their first translation workshop in Iraq in 2013 and the festival itself which took place at events around the UK.

I learnt something profound from working with each of the Iraqi poets. Here is a little bit more information about them. Poems from the workshop will be published later in the year and further collaborations and events are being planned.

Ali Wajeeh

Ali Wajeeh is a young poet from Baghdad. His poems have been widely published in magazines and anthologies and he has worked as a political and cultural journalist. His three collections are: ManfaealMy fingers speak, your body listens; and Cancer; Black Prose. I translated a short love poem about an affair between a young man and an older woman and Ali also has a short, powerful poem entitled C.V. which Vicki Feaver has translated, it starts:

‘I was born after the war
but
my cries are khaki
and my cradle a trench…’

Zhwen Shalai

Zhwen Shalai is a writer from Sulaimanyia in Kurdistan. She writes in Kurdish and is also a journalist and critic. I heard her speak passionately about women’s rights in Kurdistan on a panel at the Niniti festival entitled ‘Written on the Body’ – a searing discussion about the way women’s bodies are treated and written on or about in Iraq and the UK.  I worked on an elegiac poem of hers entitled ‘Thirteen’ which consists of thirteen memories for thirteen months of the year which all reflect back on a 24 hour-long love affair. You can watch SJ Fowler’s translation of Zhwen’s poem ‘Tales of Solitude’ in this recording from the festival event:


Ahmad Abdul Hussein

Ahmad Abdul Hussein is a poet and journalist. A poet who is openly critical of religion and investigative journalist, he has had to leave Iraq several times due to threats on his life made in reaction to his writing. But he is currently living and writing in Baghdad and runs the magazine House of Poetry. His work is full of wondrously complex metaphorical and metaphysical landscapes that open out on to some urgent philosophical questions about how and why we live our lives in the way we do. I worked on a transliteration of a poem that is a dialogue between two slain soldiers lying on either side of a battle field in the Iran Iraq war. Here is another film from the event captured by SJ Fowler of Ahmad reading his poems as translated by Kei Miller.

Mariem Maythem Qasem Al-Attar

Mariem Maythem Qasem Al-Attar is a poet and translator living in the South of Iraq. Her recent poems speak of constriction, violence and familial tensions. And some of her poems are quite ferocious! I translated two of her texts. One of them I entitled ‘Fucking obsessed’, a description of the violent, sexual greed of a suicide bomber. ‘A letter to my mother in 1980’, asks the poet’s mother not to go out and meet her father and ‘give birth to me in a village on the border’. Mariem also spoke on the panel ‘Written on the Body.’ When asked by an audience member how she defends herself against the criticism leveled at her outspoken poetry she told the audience that her priorities are her family, friends and her poetry. She doesn’t bother paying attention to those critics. Here’s a few lines of my translation her poem ‘Fucking obsessed’:

‘makes himself comfortable within my walls,
smokes and blows away my strayling dreams
takes pleasure in chewing my heart, his cud…’

You can read blogs from the poets themselves on the Reel Festivals website.

Big thanks to Reel and the British Council for hosting the workshop and festival. I certainly learnt so much about Iraq, Kurdistan and Iraqi poetry.