Written by Malka Al-Haddad, this article was first published in Alhadath International Agency, and was translated from Arabic by Malka Al-Haddad and Alexandros Plasatis
Iraqi culture and arts in Leicester: Everybody’s Reading Festival
The 7th Everybody’s Reading Festival took place across many cultural centres in the city of Leicester, from 1-9 October 2016. There was an Iraqi representation at the festival from its opening day, as postcards with poems, including the Children of War by the Iraqi Malka Al-Haddad, had been given out by poets at Leicester Railway Station. That was part of the event “Journeys: pop up poem library”, which ran throughout the festival. On every postcard there was a poem taken by the book Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge, an anthology of poems edited by K. Bell, E. Lee and S. Logan, and published by Five Leaves.
The Railway Station was chosen as the setting for this event, as organisers wanted to inspire the commuters with a different journey, that of immigrants and refugees, suffering on their journey across counties, the sea and the forests, putting their lives in danger to reach safety and live a peaceful life, fleeing from wars and sectarian conflict that forced them on risky and daring trips.
The event was a success and the postcards run out long before the end of the festival.
During the festival’s seventh day, the African Caribbean Centre hosted the launch of an anthology of poetry entitled Welcome to Leicester, edited by Emma Lee and Ambrose Musiyiwa, and published by Dahlia Press. The subject of this book is to show how this city welcomes all people and especially refugees and immigrants. About 50 poets from Britain have contributed to this anthology, which features two poems by Malka Al-Haddad who represented the Union of Iraqi Writers. Malka’s poems describe the aspects of the lives of immigrants and refugees: their suffering in their homeland, and their grief when finding themselves in the new country mixed with love and hope to make this new country their homeland, as the old country was shattered, destroyed by war, discrimination and conflict.
On the ninth day of this festival, there was a strong presence of Iraqi culture in an event called “Walls”, organised by the People’s Art Collective and hosted by New Walk Museum and Art Gallery – one of the first public museums in the UK, opened in 1849. Malka Al-Haddad was involved in three parts of this event.
Firstly, in a documentary film about Iraq, Noble Najaf, which was screened in The Lord Mayor’s Room. Directed by the French filmmaker Morgan Railane, produced by Al Hikmat Foundation in Iraq, it was translated from French to Arabic by Dr Mohamed Alkaraishi. The film focused on the city of Najaf, Cultural Capital of Islam for 2012, and the holiest city of Shia Islam as well as the centre of Shia political power in Iraq. The film unveils historical, political, religious and cultural aspects of Najaf City. It shows how the city was rebuilt and restructured after being bombed during the American invasion in 2003 and how the Mehdi Army fought the Americans in order to get them out of Iraq and gain independence, and how, later, the city sent ambassadors to European countries for cultural exchanges and introducing Najaf as the capital of Islamic culture and the holy centre of the Shia faith, where the Libraries still hold ancient manuscripts. It showed how the clerics hold high and powerful positions in Iraq and how all people in the city follow and obey them, how they influence the decision-making of the Iraqi government, and even how they guide ordinary people in aspects of their everyday life. Finally, the film shows Najaf’s arts and culture and how NGO charities attempted to develop women’s rights.
After the film, Malka Al-Haddad – who appears throughout the film, back when she was the director of Najaf’s Women’s Centre for Culture and Art – explained to the audience how Najaf is at risk from potential future Isis actions and the goal of Isis is to destroy this city and destroy the Islamic culture because the faith of this city is different from the beliefs of Isis.
In another part of the museum there was another event, with poets, musicians, and storytellers, and Malka read her poems and presented some of her artwork.
It was an honour for the Iraqi poet Malka Al-Haddad to represent her culture in such a prestigious place in this city, the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.
Despite the pain and sadness in Iraq, the voice of the Iraqi people, through culture and the arts, managed to be heard in this European multicultural city. Iraqi culture was the smile of hope for Iraqi people who live in exile and, for Malka Al-Haddad, the experience of taking part in Everybody’s Reading Festival was like listening to Ishtar guitar.
About the writer
Malka Al-Haddad is an Iraqi poet, academic and defender of Human Rights. Registered with Front Line Defenders, she has lived in Britain since 2012. She is member of the Union of Iraqi Writers, Director of the Women’s Centre of Culture & Arts in Iraq, and was one of first delegates to the US for the Iraqi & American reconciliation project. Currently, she is an activist with Leicester City of Sanctuary and Leicester Civil Rights Movement. https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/malka-al-haddad
About the co-translator
Alexandros Plasatis is an ethnographer and writes fiction in English, his second language. Some of his stories have been published in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud, Unthology, Crystal Voices, blÆkk, and (forthcoming) Total Cant. He has a PhD in Creative Writing and is working on the creative writing project Write Here: Sanctuary with Cities of Sanctuary and Writing East Midlands, aiming to find and develop new creative talent within the refugee and asylum seeker community in Leicester.