Programmes > Exchange > Arabic Writers Residency in Sussex Downs (2010)

Arabic Writers Residency in Sussex Downs (2010)

Visiting Arts, West Dean College (West Sussex) worked together in inviting two poets who write in Arabic, to take part in a one week residency in the Sussex Downs for the first week of November 2010.

Nujoom al-Ghanem is an Emirati writer who combines popular writing with challenging contemporary verse. Fadhil al-Azzawi originally from Iraq, now based in Berlin, has developed an extraordinary international reputation for his perceptive and entertaining verse and performance. Nujoom and Fadhil participated in Poetry International at the South Bank Centre, London from Saturday 30 Oct to Sunday 7 Nov, where they discussed their practice as poets and they time at West Dean.

Below Greg Mosse writer, translator and creative writing teacher recalls his experience with the poets and their residency:

“I met Fadhil at Haslemere station. Though I’ve known him for several years from the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai, he had on his mustard yellow leather beret. He wore it because he thought I would recognise him more easily.

The roads were clear and the sun low in the sky. We drove up and over the Sussex Downs, the hills gloriously clad in red and gold, scattering the fallen leaves.

Our destination, West Dean College, is an extraordinary combination of pastiche and authenticity, tradition and surrealist counterpoint. The vast stately building is clad in flint shards and stands in its own semi-formal park.

Fadhil was given a pleasant room overlooking the front lawn. The winterbourne isn’t yet running but still the sheep remain the far side of the ha-ha. Birds have made their nests in the huge rhododendrons that clothe the façade and surround the windows. We remarked that it was a different experience from our last jaunt together in the eastern Arabian Desert.

Nujoom arrived later that evening, travelling after dark and eating a cold supper after hours. Both were pleased to get to bed after a long day of travel.

The following morning both Nujoom and Fadhil walked some of the formal grounds, visiting the vegetable garden that can still feed a full house staff all year round, with clever use of cold frames, greenhouses, crinkle-crankle walls and the like. Next they went to work.

An important part of their stay at WDC was meeting the MA postgraduate students in Creative Writing. Fifteen nationalities are represented among the 85 full-timers and the College has a long and robust tradition of inspiring internationalism. As a Platform Event in front of the students, I interviewed Nujoom and Fadhil for 90 minutes – we could have gone on much longer, but it was time for a well-earned lunch break and the West Dean Restaurant waits for no one! Of course, the exchange of ideas, philosophies, cultures and sense of humour continued throughout the meal. At 2 o’clock the students were disappointed to let them go.

Both visitors used the afternoon to socialize and explore, before meeting for dinner once more in the dining room. Afterwards, they saw a presentation on the founder of West Dean College and its charity, The Edward James Foundation.

Edward was a remarkable man – a surrealist poet and philanthropist whose generosity and intuitive artistic understanding of the creative process helped make the careers of many famous names, not least Salvador Dalí and René Magritte.

The next day included a visit to Kingley Vale and its grove of yew trees. Some of them are over 800 years old. Some may have been saplings before the turn of the first millennium. There may be no living things in the British Isles older than these remarkable trees.

Even today, the grove is a place of worship. Visitors place apples or corn dollies in the branches as offerings to appease or please their gods. The wide-spreading branches sweep the ground. There is a local legend that tells of Viking raids in the 8th century. A battle is supposed to have been fought here, between the Scandinavian invaders and the mongrel early British – Saxons and Angles from Germany, local Celts. The defeated Vikings were said to have been turned into yew trees.

Today almost no one eats the red flesh of the yew berries. Every part of the tree is poisonous, except the flesh of its fruit. New growth is carefully harvested each year and processed to provide an anti-cancer medicine. They are trees of life, in a way. Perhaps that is the origin of the tale of the transformed Norse warriors; some connection with the eternal ash tree Yggdrasil, home of the gods, around whose trunk the dragon coils.

I hope that the visit to the ancient woods will one day be reflected in a poem or two.

Back at WDC, we had lunch with the principal, Robert Pulley, and Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon, the publishers of Banipal, the foremost magazine of contemporary Arab writing in English.

Nujoom and Fadhil returned to London the next morning, allowing them to take advantage of their trip to renew old friendships in the capital. This led seamlessly into an excellent event at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Poetry International. Our guests held the audience spellbound as they read some brand-new inventive poetic epigrams (Fadhil) and a selection of considered and emotive imagist verse (Nujoom).

Of course, Samuel and Margaret were also there, meaning that Margaret was able to step in at the last minute and take the place of Ramsey Nasser, whose flight from Turkey was delayed before the airline lost his luggage.

To sum up, from my point of view as host, it was everything that I hoped it would be. I am grateful to Visiting Arts for making my hopeful plan a reality. “

Nujoom Al Ghanem has been described as “one of the strongest modern Emirati poets… Her language is such that it permeates the soul with a rich and flavoured life experience that goes beyond the five senses.”

Nujoom holds a BA in Television Production from Ohio University (1996) and a Master’s degree in cinema direction from Griffith University (1999). She started writing poetry in the late 1970’s, but she did not publish until the early 1980s in local newspapers in the UAE. She finds prose poetry the best form to express herself and describe her world and has published six collections of poetry, the first of which was Paradise Evening (1989). She has also directed four short films, including the documentary Al Mureed (2008). Al Mureed was exhibited at the Fifth Dubai International Film Festival, where Nujoom was given the Best Emirati Female Filmmaker Award.

She has participated in many festivals and other cultural events in the Arab World and Europe. After appearing at Emirates Litfest 2010, she embarked on a mini-tour organised by Banipal Magazine and the Emirates Foundation, visiting the Ledbury Poetry Festival and the London Literature Festival. – Some of Nujoom’s poems in English translation

Fadhil al-Azzawi was born in 1940 in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. He studied English literature at Baghdad University, earning a B.A. degree, then earned a PhD in cultural journalism at Leipzig University in Germany. He edited a number of magazines in Iraq and abroad and founded Shi`r 69 (Poetry 69), which was banned after the fourth number. He spent three years in jail under the dictatorship of the Ba`th regime. His poetry and criticism have been published in the leading Arab literary magazines since the early sixties and his books published in many Arab countries. He has published eight volumes of poetry in Arabic and one in German, two open texts, five novels, one volume of short stories, two volumes of criticism and theoretical writings, and many literary works of translation from English and German. He left Iraq in 1977 and has lived since 1983 as a freelance writer in Berlin. His poems and works had been translated into many European and eastern languages, including English, German, French, Swedish, Spanish, Norwegian, Hungarian, Turkish, Hebrew, and Persian.

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Images – Nujoom Al Ghanem and Fadhil al-Azzawi