Tag Archives: Syria

Six poets, three countries, transcending borders

13 May

BEIRUT: “All writers have to cross a border of some kind,” said Scottish poet Tom Pow, “real or imagined.”

Pow was one of six international poets to participate in “Crossing Borders/Bearing Witness,” a panel discussion held Wednesday evening at the Saifi Urban Gardens as part of Reel Festivals 2011, an event devised to celebrate and instigate cultural interplay between Syria, Lebanon and Scotland.

Six poets, two from each of the three countries, gathered to discuss notions of border and the “role” (if any) of the poet.

Borders and witnessing, Pow continued, are at the essence of what Reel is about: “Learn[ing] from one another and understand[ing] each other’s worlds better [through] art and culture.”

The poets met for the first time only last week and have already begun collaborating on casual translations of one another’s work. The poets were asked to give a three-minute talk on borders, witnessing or both in relation to geography, language or the past. The subsequent discussion was wide ranging.

Emily Ballou, a Glasgow-based American-Australian poet emphasized her multinational background. She said she was frustrated by the traditional ice-breaking question, “Where are you from?” since it forces upon her a thwarted sense of belonging.

“I want to be asked ‘Where do you belong?’” she continued, “and I want to know what happens when you can’t live where you belong.”

For Ballou, who is also a screenwriter and a novelist, the question of exile, whether self-imposed or necessary, is also related to the question of bearing witness.

In a reference to Syria – where the first segment of Reel 2011 had to be canceled because of the current political situation – Ballou remarked that, as a writer, she is now “bearing witness to witnesses” – to the Syrian poets taking part in the festival who are living in a place she as a foreigner has been advised not to visit.

“I can witness the pulse in each writer’s work that helps me to connect to [it] and to their experience.”

Poetry’s ability to recreate experience was also celebrated by Scottish poet William Letford, who described poetry as “language that opens up moments. The poems I love most are the ones where my eyes are opened to someone else’s perspective.”

Coming to Lebanon, Ballou said, has “infused the border question” with greater meaning, explaining that she was only now beginning to “feel a connection to Scotland, having left.” There is a paradoxical relationship between location and identity, she suggested, between the existence of geographical or linguistic divisions and of a connection that surpasses them.

Syrian poet Golan Haji referred the question to sometimes random notions of the border. Describing the “imaginary border” between Kurds and Turks, he described a man killed by Turkish soldiers. “His body was burnt black in the yellow fields” he said, “ … and just because he was on the border.” Simultaneously though, children were giving food to these same soldiers “because they spoke the same language.”

For Mazen Maarouf, notions of the border held an arbitrary aspect. A Palestinian poet and journalist living in Beirut as a refugee, he identified a strong connection between borders and memory. “I was always stereotyped by people who had a memory of the [Civil] War, because the Palestinians took part and made mistakes. I am surrounded by blocks that stop me from reaching my country.

“I never thought of borders being about geography,” he continued. “ … Borders are made not by systems, protocols or society but by the accumulation of evils that take place in life.”

Maarouf’s hope was that poetry might circumvent these borders, not by being explicitly political, but by exposing borders to be things created by history and time.

Lebanon’s Yehia Jaber also saw borders in political, social terms. He spoke of the way that, in Lebanon, the very act of naming oneself imposes borders. “When you hear a name, you can identify. And your next question is, Where do you live?”

Though Jaber described Lebanon as “a country without official borders,” he spoke of social, political and religious barricades that extend deep into society. “I feel uncomfortable everywhere,” he added. Born to a Shiite family, Jaber lives in the traditionally Christian area of Ain al-Rammeneh.

Since he is not affiliated to Hezbollah, he said, he feels anxious both in Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. “Even in Hamra Street I feel nervous because there, there are the national parties.”

Letford took the discussion in a different direction, evoking the border between life and death. The acknowledgement and embrace of the delicacy of this border daily makes him live better. “You are linked to the person on that border,” he said. “And if you live life like that, everything is a gift.”

Syrian poet Rasha Omran remarked that “borders are not significant in my work. Ideas of borders are different now, because of the Internet. There are no longer barriers to communication.”

Omran, who directs the annual Al-Sindiyana culture festival, introduced the controversial topic of poetry’s place in modern society. Maarouf insisted that it is poetry’s role to “witness the world in a modern way.”

Ballou preferred to focus on poetry as “an opportunity to connect with someone through writing. I’m filtering myself, through a mask … [and] by losing myself I know more.”

“Each poem holds many others inside it,” Haji agreed. “Poetry has made me an eyewitness – even to things I did not live.”

Much as these six poets sometimes disagreed, the rapport that developed among them provided a compelling argument for the power of poetry to surpass borders and create dialogue.

The paradox of this monologue, discussion and debate – and thus the festival as a whole – is that while it crosses and transcends borders, it also celebrates them.



The art of bringing people together

9 May

BEIRUT: Art’s ability to incite social change is one of history’s most discussed topics. Since “The Republic,” in which Plato famously argues for poetry’s removal from the state, the subject has been debated by philosophers and artists alike.

Plato wasn’t as anti-art as is popularly believed. His stance against poetry was rather against its power; poetry, he urged, ought to not “only give pleasure but bring lasting benefit to human life and human society.”

It is a strong claim for the form, and one that might – and has – put off artists and readers alike. Not, however, Reel Festivals, an international arts festival that hopes to “bring a different face to regions in conflict.”

“Art,” says festival coordinator Daniel Gorman, “can bring people together like nothing else; it can speak directly to our emotions and bring us together to celebrate both similarities and differences.”

Reel is all about bringing people together. The concept was born in 2007 after Gorman and his colleagues visited Afghanistan with the Scottish organization Afghan Schools Trust. “I met a huge amount of inspiring people,” says Gorman. So many, indeed, that the idea of communicating through each nation’s art took hold, and Afghani culture was brought home along with the returning voyagers. “Reel Afghanistan” took place in 2009 in Edinburgh, though regional instability prevented the festival from presenting a reciprocal festival in Kabul.

A year later “Reel Iraq” continued the cultural exchange, bringing to Edinburgh an entirely different Iraq from the one seen in daily headlines.

Now Reel Festivals is being held in its partner countries for the first time. This year’s festival is trilateral, crossing the borders between Scotland, Syria and Lebanon.

Recent events in Syria have led to the cancellation of the Damascus-based events, which were to have begun on May 7. The Syrian-inspired events planned to take place in Scotland will go ahead.

The first festival bringing Scottish films, music and poetry to Lebanon, Reel is as much about exposing Scottish culture to the Lebanese as the other way around.

The Beirut section of Reel 2011 begins Monday and continues until Sunday, May 15. Events include screenings of six classic and contemporary films, musical performances, discussions on poetry and a live poetry session.

Films, showing daily at 8 p.m. until Saturday at Metropolis-Empire Sofil, include premieres, documentaries and shorts. Three question-and-answer sessions with Scottish directors will also take place. A “Story-Telling of Cinema” workshop will take place following Thursday’s film, Amy Hardie’s “The Edge of Dreaming.”

The organizers seem to be savoring a sense of irony, having scheduled a Scottish horror film, “The Wicker Man,” for Friday the 13th. Saturday sees the first ever Arabic-language screening of Christopher Young’s “Seachd – the Inaccessible Pinnacle,” the first feature film made in Scottish Gaelic.

Music is also a crucial part of the festival. Internationally renowned Scottish musician Bill Drummond will be in town with his new choir “The17,” and is to give a lecture Wednesday at USJ’s Beirut campus on the future of music. The lecture will be followed by a performance with the choir.

Art aficionados will want to keep a lookout for a piece of graffiti which, courtesy of Drummond, is to appear somewhere in Beirut over the next seven days: “Imagine waking up tomorrow and all music had disappeared.”

Four poets hailing from Scotland (Emily Ballou, William Letford, Tom Pow and Ryan Van Winkle), two Syrian poets (Golan Haji and Rasha Omran) and two Lebanon-based poets (Mazen Maarouf and Yehia Jaber) will take part in poetry events in Beirut and Edinburgh. Somewhat topically, they will also be discussing borders and the poet’s (in)ability to cross them.

Celtic folk-techno fusion pioneers “Shooglenifty” are set to play at Beirut’s legendary Music Hall in a grand finale Sunday.

While Reel Festivals exists partly in order “to empower cultural figures and encourage their development,” another of its stated intentions is to “spread awareness of areas in conflict beyond the headlines.” The final sector of the festival thus takes place from May 16-21 in Scotland, and is to include a selection of Lebanese films – one of which is Zeina Daccache’s “Twelve Angry Lebanese” – and a retrospective from the acclaimed Syrian director Omar Amiralay.

Scotland will also witness a fusion of dabke-electronica beats from Syrian and Lebanese artists. Reel Festivals is a project of Firefly International, a Scottish charity aiming to encourage dialogue and communication through the arts. Run by Gorman and Syrian-born Palestinian Yasmin Fedda, both of whom are filmmakers, Firefly aims, through Reel, to “shine a little light” on the aspects of the Middle East that international media tend to shun – namely, its arts and culture.

Reel wants to encourage both “engagement with the arts and international issues” and “dialogue between communities.”

Given recent developments in Syria and the fact that the festival has had to be cancelled there, such exchange has never seemed more necessary. “We believe that art can transcend barriers,” says Gorman. Whether or not Plato would agree, it has got to be worth a try.

Reel Festivals 2011 begins in Beirut Monday and continues until May 15. For more information and the schedule of events visit www.reelfestivals.org.


The US, Syria, Saudi Arabia, France; where did Lebanon go?

10 Jan
President Barack Obama walks with French Presi...

Image via Wikipedia

Who is in charge of Lebanon? Anybody who can answer that question knows more than most.  We’re not even talking Suleiman, Hariri or Hezbollah here; it could be Hillary Clinton, or the Saudi King Abdullah; Ban-Ki Moon or Nicolas Sarkozy.  Everyone wants a piece.

Today saw a meeting between US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy – and, unsurprisingly, the situation in Lebanon was on the dialogue table.  Both America and France have been keen to emphasise their desire for calm in the country.  In fact, so have most of the principal players.  According to a Washington spokesman, the Syrians have promised the US that “their interest lies in a stable Lebanon and that Syria would be the first affected from instability in Lebanon.”  The “first affected” gives it away a little; what about Lebanon?

Each country with an interest in Lebanon is focusing on pointing out to the other influential countries that their aim in and for the region is peace.  They promise one another this even while they suspect the other of lying.  Hezbollah, Syria and Iran (one side) and Hariri, Saudi Arabia and the US (the other side) are all promising one another that their priority is Lebanon’s wellbeing – which means peace.  Unfortunately the lack of trust between sides has left the words ringing hollow.

Saudi Arabia and Syria have for months been involved in talks aimed at calming tension caused by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s investigations into Rafik Hariri’s death.  While the precise clauses of the Saudi-Syrian settlement have not been made public, the impact the agreement has so far had has not been promising.  Both camps, March 14 and March 8, have accused the other of backtracking on their commitments.  So far no progress has been made.

The US and France, meanwhile, took care today to stress their support for the tribunal, saying that it cannot be toppled and that any agreement must not come at the expense of the indictment.  Both Sarkozy and Obama have acknowledged the important regional role played by Saudi Arabia and Syria, as well as the contribution France itself can make.  But the influence of Iran on both Hamas and Hezbollah is also very much on the minds of foreign powers.  According to Kuwaiti daily al-Anbaa, Sarkozy is hoping that a settlement will not strip Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri of his authority and demands.  Neither, though, does he wish for the settlement to compromise Hezbollah or remove the group’s arms.

Al-Anbaa also pointed out that the American administration has not been pleased by Sarkozy’s approach of receiving members of the Lebanese opposition such as Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, a key ally of Hezbollah.

But French sources have warned that “any security shake-up would be useless politically and would lead to dangerous consequences for those who stirred it.”

All of which comes at a time of apparent détente in America’s relationship with Syria.  Obama recently appointed Robert Ford to the position of US Ambassador in Syria.  The West, clearly, sees its role in the Middle East as fundamental.  This article (http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/01/10/2008252/a-good-call-by-obama.html) shows how very much in the US’ interests it is to be seen to have good relations with Middle Eastern powers.

We might call it telling that Hariri’s meeting with Ban-Ki Moon, in which he pleaded with the UN Secretary General to end all violations of Lebanon’s borders, took place in New York.  The Lebanese PM with a South Korean UN head, talking about Israel? Yep, the US is probably in there somewhere.