Krystelle Bamford on the Erbil Literature Festival in Iraq

‘IRAQ?” friends repeated, eyebrows raised, as if hoping my American accent had mangled the Gaelic name of some lovely Highland town.

“Well,” I’d say, “Erbil … Kurdistan, really.” This seemed to put their minds at ease, if only because they weren’t entirely sure where it was.

I’m being unfair here; if anyone was clueless about Kurdistan’s history and culture, it was me. I thought I knew a bit about Iraq itself; for me, Iraq’s geography was defined in terms like No-Fly Zone, its culture by what had been sacked during the US-led invasion, its history a sequence of bloody footage covering Saddam Hussein’s reign and fall.

At some level, I was aware this could only constitute a small fraction of what Iraq was actually like to live in, just as my potted history ignored the fact that Iraq was home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. I went, in the end, because I wanted to conquer my panic, which was fed by doses of the nightly news. I patted myself on the back. I was officially open-minded. I was brave.

Four poets – Jen Hadfield, William Letford, John Glenday, and me – and two translators –Dina Moussawi and Lauren Pyott – flew to Iraq, where we joined the rest of the Reel Festivals organisers for a week of translation workshops, readings and panel discussions, the idea being to promote cross-cultural understanding through poetry.

The bus waiting for us at arrivals was a lavender Toyota. Pinned above our driver Adham’s head, two photos of the vehicle itself – one a normal shot from a car park and the other a dreamy Photoshopped print, the tires floating a few inches above a rolling meadow. As the landscape around us shifted from Erbil’s sprawling highways and half-constructed breezeblock neighborhoods to the twisting, sheer-drop two-lanes around Shaqlawa, the resort town we’d be staying in about 50km north, the split reality captured by the two photos started to take root.

nside our bus, we felt festive. We had finally met our Iraqi counterparts – Sabreen Khadim, Awezan Nouri, Ghareeb Iskander and Zahir Mousa – three of whom had just made the long car journey up from Baghdad that morning. We passed around nuts and chocolate biscuits, compared levels of exhaustion, cigarette packaging, favourite authors. The sun was setting, the mountains were growing around us, and we were in Iraq.

Suddenly, the bus stopped.

Adham leaned out the window and spoke quietly to the armed checkpoint guard who had materialised from the darkness. The guard motioned the bus over to the side, where Adham explained our visit’s purpose, handing over letters of invitation and passports. We waited as the guard thumbed through the documents. Move on, he gestured, so we did. As unsettling as it was, the Erbil region’s tight security makes it a safer place to travel, at least for us foreigners.

We spent three days in Shaqlawa. Every morning, we were awoken by calls to prayer echoing across the valley below the hotel. The Scottish-based poets were partnered with Iraqi poets. We ate our meals together and spent the time in between trying to conjure sense, and ideally some poetry, out of our translations. We swapped partners and got to try on new voices. Our translators ping-ponged across the conference hall, from one pair of poets to another, patiently explaining things like “Drinking water from a cup has enormous significance for Shias” and “You can’t use that word in a classical Arabic translation”.

We learned to love the strong, super-sweet cups of tea and to put a boiled egg inside our Lafah bread. We played table tennis and blackjack, and became comfortable enough to start teasing each other. We visited a mountainside shrine where you slide down a rock on your belly to encourage fertility – some of the men were persuaded to give it a go; all the women except Awezan stayed well away. Afterwards, she shimmied up the rock face in her knee-high platform boots and wrote her name across the tangle of graffiti, as if in defiance.

The Erbil Literature Festival kicked off in a windowless conference room in Shanadar Park, an odd Neolithic-themed amusement park, complete with models of cavemen clutching Iraqi flags and gondola lifts. As the first poet began his reading, three musicians launched into a mournful rendition of Lionel Richie’s Hello. The atmosphere was both serious and surreal—and to the immature (OK to me), very funny. It also provided a contrast to what followed in the next few days.

Many of the week’s events took place in the city centre teahouse across the street from the bazaar’s astonishing warren of shops, where you can pick up an engagement ring, a pair of plastic Iranian sandals and your week’s groceries in one go. The audience was comprised of the men and women who knew an event was on, and the men who didn’t – there were very few women on the streets, even fewer in the café, and I saw now the daring of Sabreen and Awezan’s short sleeves and bared heads. The audience’s questions about poetry’s place in society were passionate and frighteningly well informed. Poetry mattered here in a way that felt somehow more central and yet everyday than at home.

Over the next few days, as we got to know each other over glasses of arak, an aniseed spirit, hints were dropped about brothers executed under Saddam Hussein’s government, a father killed during the invasion, political exile. Awezan, whose day job is running a women’s crisis shelter outside Kirkuk, had received death threats only a few days before. In fact, violence against Iraqi women, by most accounts, was on the rise. The Iraqis spoke about death and violence in a quiet, even tone – this, apparently, was as much life in Iraq as the tea and table-tennis.

More and more, I began to notice the many-sided Iraq that I first saw captured in the photos in the lavender bus.

Here, you found a plush hotel gleaming between abandoned building sites, a stand of colourful bras that stood out in a marketplace filled with men, and the severity of checkpoint guards belied by the courteous curiosity of the people we met on the street.

Before the trip began, I felt uncertain about going on a mission of poetry to a country still mired in social and political turmoil. As a response, it felt insubstantial at best, irrelevant at worst. But now poetry, I realised, was a way to reconcile, at least momentarily, the mundane and the comical with darker tides – a way to hold them together in one space and let them speak meaningfully to each other.

As the translations took shape, we came to recognise ourselves in each other’s work (a lousy boyfriend, a dying father). Moreover, the necessity, the urgency, and the boldness with which the Iraqi poets wrote started to come into focus.

At the risk of sermonising, I’ll venture that poetry is at its best when it presents a complicated vision of the world; in places where clashing ideologies resort to literal weapons, nuanced, truthful art becomes dangerous practice.

The Iraq these poets were risking so much to craft was an expansive one that took in many voices and perspectives.

It looked, in fact, very much like the Iraq flashing past us through the windows of our lavender bus as we made our way back to the airport. As the plane ascended above the cloudline I thought about our arrival, how I had felt like the bravest person on the bus. And now here I was, leaving having made new friends, with a belly full of Lafah, and the knowledge that true bravery doesn’t reside in visiting; it’s in staying.

•  Krystelle Bamford appears as part of the Reel Festivals: Poems for and from Iraq at the Scottish Poetry Library, 5 Jackson’s Close, Edinburgh, on Saturday 23 March, 4pm (£3).