It really is time I blogged about the Reel Festivals reading at the Scottish Poetry Library on Friday 20 May. But how to sum it up? As I said on Twitter,
and I can think of no more apposite description. Among all the anxiety about why poetry is marginalised in our culture, against all the internecine strife in the UK poetry world between those who say we need to be more accessible to be relevant and those who say accessibility is irrelevant to relevance, it was hugely powerful and moving to hear poets whose work means something not only for their culture but for the present situation of their country, whose work means something for their personal safety. It was also deeply refreshing.
I truly hope that last comment doesn’t come across as glib. I also hope it’s not taken as a criticism of the Scottish poets who read. The truth is, poetry simply doesn’t have the standing here it has in the middle east and nor does it have the desperate political repression to fight against. In that circumstance, it takes a truly exceptional writer to wield the level of power and command the respect of the Arabic poets who performed, particularly the Syrians.
For me, the power and resonance were particularly evident in the work of the Syrian poet Golan Haji, whose presence in Edinburgh had been in jeopardy after it looked like the authorities might prevent him from travelling. That he made it was true gain for us. His work is rich and strong, with an uncommon depth of humanity and imagination. (You can hear him read and discuss it on this SPL podcast, which I linked to before) Golan has a quiet authority, which is always the most powerful kind. He’s also obviously an extremely able man; not only has he translated Stevenson into Arabic, but he was able to translate his own work on the spot into near faultless English without the aid of a piece of paper.
You can catch some of the flavour of the other readings from the YouTube footage of some readings from the Golden Hour, two days earlier. There’s none of Golan — he wasn’t in Scotland at that point — but you can watch Mazen Maarouf with Emily Ballou here and a brief snatch of the witty, theatrical Yehia Jaber here. There doesn’t seem to be any footage of Rasha Omran on the Reel Festivals YouTube channel, which is a pity, but there’s plenty other stuff worth exploring. And there’s a visual flavour of the SPL evening here on Chris Scott’s flickr stream of the reading and subsequent socialisng, including some great shots of the marvellous calligraphy that was on display.