Building Jerusalem . . . in Jerusalem

Rachel Searle and Naomi Foyle at the ‘Banksy Dove’, Bethlehem. Photo by Salah Abu Laban.

 

September’s song is soaring, but the chords of summer echo on, not least my visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in late July for readings from A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry, the bilingual anthology I edited last year for Smokestack Books. Travelling with Rachel Searle, the Director of BlakeFest (Bognor Regis) – for whom I am consulting on the imminent Building Jerusalem event this Friday in this year’s festival – Palestinian-American poet Farid S. Bitar, and performance artist/historian Catherine Charrett, I chaired two poetry events in East Jerusalem and Ramallah; visited with Jewish peace activists in Haifa; and, in the Occupied Galilee, met with poet and political prisoner Dareen Tatour on the eve of her sentencing. Rachel and I returned home sobered by the manifold injustices we had witnessed, but also inspired to ‘see the world in a blade of grass’, and motivated to continue creating poetic bridges between Palestine and West Sussex.

A Blade of Grass contains poems in English and Arabic by Palestinians from the homeland and the diaspora. Launches have been held in London, Chichester, and New York, but celebrations would not have been complete without events in Palestine. Readings in Ramallah and East Jerusalem were necessary because, due to travel restrictions imposed by the Israeli Occupation, most Palestinians living in the West Bank cannot get permits to come to a reading in East Jerusalem. And a private celebration at Dareen’s house was also necessary: when the political prisoner cannot go the book launch, the book launch must go to the political prisoner!

Both public events featured celebrated locally-based poets Maya Abu Al Hayyat and Marwan Makhoul, and Farid Bitar of New York City, visiting his homeland for the first time in eleven years. The readings in East Jerusalem were hosted by Al Ma’mal Foundation, an art gallery housed in a converted tile factory in the Old City. In Ramallah the venue was the garden of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, an arts organisation and library located in an old Arab house where Palestine’s beloved poet Mahmoud Darwish once had a writing desk. The legendary Educational Bookshop of East Jerusalem supplied the books for both events.

Farid Bitar, Naomi Foyle, Marwan Makhoul & May Abu Alhayyat launching A Blade of Grass at the Al Ma’mal Foundation, East Jerusalem.

 

Returning these poems to their origin in an occupied land made for an emotional visit. Of his time in Palestine, Farid Bitar told me: ‘Visiting the homeland left indelible tattooed painful memories of intense moments: being held for hours crossing Jordan into Palestinian land, searching my knapsack at the Qalandia check point crossing from the West Bank into Jerusalem, being accused of having a set of knives while it was my set of drawing charcoals.’

Rachel, Catherine and I also got a glimpse of life under occupation, taking tours of Bethlehem with independent Palestinian guide Salah Abu Laban, and of East Jerusalem and the Old City with young Jewish guides from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD). These tours showed us life on both sides of the apartheid wall that, in defiance of the internationally agreed ‘green line’, snakes through the West Bank, dividing leafy, lavishly funded illegal Jewish settlements from impoverished Palestinian neighbourhoods, which are deprived of social services including water, electricity, education, garbage disposal and healthcare.

For Rachel, the experience was sometimes overwhelming. ‘It was a trip to build cultural links with Bognor but I felt like I was witnessing an ‘impossibility’,’ she said. ‘How is it that a ‘friendly’, civilized, democratic and oppressed State, has actually been systematically denying the Palestinians the most basic of human rights even in Jerusalem unnoticed by the mainstream for 70 years?  A propaganda machine that works not only in Israel but in the UK and the US too. Blake’s hapless soldiers just one brutal tool in the daily degradation cleverly systematized through the civil, legal and even tree-planting systems.’

 

The ever growing apartheid wall, seen here outside Bethlehem. Photo by Rachel Searle.

For me, my third visit to Palestine in six years revealed shocking new dimensions of what ICAHD terms the Israeli ‘matrix of control’. After ten years of activism, I thought I knew how bad it was in Palestine, but that was a naive assumption. From one guide we learned that Area C, representing 60% of the West Bank, and under the terms of the Oslo Agreement already under Israeli civil and military control, is likely to be annexed soon. If so, the 160,000 Palestinian inhabitants will be made, not citizens, but ‘permanent residents’ of Israel (giving them no right to vote in national elections) and warehoused in impoverished villages and towns, killing off the Bedouin culture of the region, and burying the already moribund ‘two-state solution’ six feet under. Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, Salah pointed out a facial recognition gun mounted above the graffiti: an AI weapon that can be programmed to kill at a range of up to 1500 metres. Quite apart from the fact that extra-judicial assassinations are illegal, the gun has a 65% accuracy rate. It is in fact a prototype, being field tested on a civilian population. Confronted with this moral obscenity, I was brought to the verge of tears.

But while the obstacles to a just peace may seem as insurmountable as the wall, I took hope from the myriad forms of non-violent cultural resistance we encountered. The trip allowed Farid to visit his mother’s grave for the first time ‘putting closure on that chapter’; and made him ‘proud to read from A Blade of Grass in Jerusalem & Ramallah, under the fig tree of Mahmoud Darwish.’ Our guide in Bethlehem also embodied a creative response to violence and injustice. Salah, who spent four years of his adolescence in hospital and lost several fingers after picking up what he thought was a tennis ball, turned to poetry as a means of protest and self-expression, writing nearly three hundred poems as a young man. Now, through his hostel and tours, he welcomes foreigners with bear hugs of humour and warmth, educating them about the realities of Palestinian life.

In Bethlehem, Rachel, Catherine and I also met with Mazin Qumsiyeh, scientist, human rights activist and scholar, and, with his wife Jessie, co-founder of the Palestine Museum of Natural History, an eco-centre where Palestinians and international volunteers of all religious backgrounds work together to build respect for each other and the land. In Haifa, travelling with Farid, Rachel and I stayed with Jewish activists Yoav and Iris Bar, who have bought an old Arab house with the intention of finding the original owners and returning it to them. Haifa, a city in Northern Israel with a sizeable Arab population and a history of good Jewish-Arab relations, is also home to a new Palestinian-led campaign for One Democratic State, an inclusive vision long-endorsed by Mazin Qumsiyeh in his landmark book Sharing the Land of Canaan (Pluto Press, 2004).

Olive tree at the Palestine Museum of Natural History

 

For William Blake, Jerusalem represented peace and harmony: thus he wished to build the city in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. I love the famous hymn, but when I hear it I always think it would be a good idea to build Jerusalem in Jerusalem first, and amidst all the violence engendered by the Israeli occupation it was inspiring to meet people who still hold fast to a dream of sharing the land – a hope for the future to be discussed by an interfaith panel on Sept 14th at the ‘Building Jerusalem’ event at BlakeFest Fringe. Intending to make the event an annual part of the festival, Rachel and I have begun conversations with Palestinian arts organisations we hope will develop into creative collaborations between Palestinian and West Sussex school children.

Our pilgrimage ended on a defiantly Blakean note with our visit to the village of Reineh to meet A Blade of Grass contributor and political prisoner Dareen Tatour. Dareen (36), has spent over two and a half years under house arrest on charges relating to her poem ‘Resist, My People, Resist Them’, and was convicted of incitement earlier this year. As Blake wrote, ‘Poetry fettered, fetters the human race,’ and Dareen’s arrest has been denounced by International PEN, English PEN and other international human rights organisations. Thanks to Yoav, who communicates regularly with Dareen, Rachel, Farid and I were able to help cheer her up a bit on the day before her sentencing. After poetry readings at her family home, Dareen, who was allowed to go outside for two hours a day, gave us a tour of her beloved city, Nazareth, with its stray cats, angels and spice markets. The next day she was sentenced to five months in jail.

As a poet, painter, and the victim of legal injustice, Dareen has much in common with William Blake. It was fitting to end our journey following her through the stone streets of Nazareth, which shone, like her vision of a free Palestine, with a delicate but enduring light.

Naomi Foyle, Dareen Tatour and Farid Bitar – possibly laughing at the absurdity of being arrested for writing a poem . . .

Dareen Tatour in Nazareth, the afternoon before her sentencing.

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Photo Diaries of the visit can be viewed here:

A BLADE OF GRASS IN PALESTINE 1: TEL AVIV/YAFO

A BLADE OF GRASS IN PALESTINE 2: JERUSALEM, THE OLD CITY

A BLADE OF GRASS IN PALESTINE 3: BETHLEHEM

A BLADE OF GRASS IN PALESTINE 4: EAST JERUSALEM

A BLADE OF GRASS IN PALESTINE 5: RAMALLAH

A BLADE OF GRASS IN PALESTINE 6: THE OCCUPIED GALILEE

All images by Naomi Foyle unless otherwise stated. Please use only with permission.

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BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, is a small locally organised festival in Bognor Regis that celebrates the life and legacy of William Blake who lived in the area 1800-1803. The festival has its roots in Blake’s Beulah, a vision of which he had in Felpham, telling us that ‘Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates’ , where he saw angels and wrote of building ‘Jerusalem’.  Aside from the festival, the project has worked at many levels; creating trails, publishing books to hosting poetry salons and art workshops.  The aim is always the same: to regenerate Bognor Regis through cultural change.

Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, held as part of BlakeFest 2018, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn ‘Jerusalem’, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. A talk from English literature scholar Dr David Fallon (University of Roehampton) will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Daud Pidcock (Muslim Council); Dr Atef Alshaer (University of London) author of Poetry and Politics in the Modern Arab World; Rabbi Alexandra Wright (London Liberal Jewish Synagogue) [TBC]; Canon Peter Challen (Southwark Cathedral) and Blake scholar Dr Luke Walker. The panel will be chaired by Dr Simon Mouatt (Associate Professor, Chichester University). ICT Lecture Theatre (F11) Chichester University, Bognor Regis Campus, PO21 1HR. Friday 14th September 2018, 7-9pm. Free entry, Donations welcome. For more information contact Simon Mouatt S.Mouatt@chi.ac.uk

Al Ma’mal Foundation is a non-profit organisation based in a former Tile Factory in New Gate, in the Old City of Jerusalem, serving its surrounding community, their guests and the city’s visitors through a programme of exhibitions, live music and workshops. Since 1998, Al Ma’mal has been a hub for art, cultural vibrancy and learning while building bridges with the world and honouring Jerusalem’s own enduring qualities as a complex, culturally rich, ageless city.

Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre is a leading Palestinian arts and culture organization that aims to create a pluralistic, critical liberating culture through research, query, and participation, and that provides an open space for the community to produce vibrant and liberating cultural content. Located in Ramallah, KSCC is housed in a renovated building dating back to the early 20th century. The centre is named after the Jerusalemite scholar, poet, and nationalist, Khalil Sakakini.

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD) is a non-violent, direct-action group dedicated to ending the Israeli Occupation and achieving a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Over the past two decades ICAHD has focused its activism on Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes (close to 50,000 in the OPT since 1967).

Free Bethlehem and the West Bank Tours, run by Salah Abu Laban, is a personal initiative that started in January 2015 with the aim of helping travellers discover Bethlehem and other cities in the West Bank, and educate themselves about the political, cultural, and historical aspects of the region. Free BAWT also runs the Bunksurfing Hostel and organizes hiking, camping and many other fun activities, and enjoys a solid 5 star reputation on Trip Advisor.

The One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC) is a Palestinian-Israeli initiative to establish a constitutional democracy between the sea and the river, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Currently based in Haifa, ODSC is a new initiative and will officially launch its movement this autumn. Meanwhile, it is building support through its website, Facebook page and articles in Mondoweiss.

The Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) and the Palestine Museum of Natural History (PMNH), operate under the auspices of the University of Bethlehem, and were established in order to research, educate about, and conserve our natural world, culture and heritage and use the knowledge gained to promote responsible human interactions with our environment.

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Some recent events: or, l’esprit d’escalier outwitted!

I used to be a performance poet. Wearing an eyeliner moustache I’d throw myself around the stage like a deranged Russian count, or adopting an ersatz German accent I’d impersonate a formidable Frau on the warpath. I never got nervous before these appearances: it wasn’t me up there, what was there to worry about? When I began writing SFF novels it came as rather a shock, therefore, to realise that only very rarely would I get invites to read my work, or even to discuss it. Instead, I was expected to come to conferences and festivals and talk about all sorts of other things, sometimes only tangentially related to my fiction, to audiences who – given I’m an SFF late starter – generally knew far more about those things than I did.

It took a good couple of years to adjust to this blow to my theatrical ego. Initially I would over-prepare and feel hugely anxious beforehand and afterwards. Not entirely without reason: I recall once sitting on a dais in a massive hotel conference hall, being asked what war in history should have turned out differently, and having to speak over a wave of muttered disagreement at my reply.* Not funny at the time! Gradually though, as I developed a keen interest in SFF and Islam, disability studies and gender, I’ve started to relax and enjoy myself at these kind of events. Though perhaps I have just developed yet another persona, Naomi the Diverse SFF novelist . . .

But that’s another blog post altogether. This point of this one is to share the captured versions of some recent live events. Yes, I’ve got so comfortable blathering away I’m even fine now for events to be recorded. Mind you, I can’t watch or listen to myself: I’m not bothered about what I look like or the sound of my voice – it’s just too painful not to be able to edit what I’ve said! Still, it’s nice that other people think these events are worth recording (and, in the case of poetry readings, watching it back does enable me to edit the written text). So in the interest of archiving the ephemeral and vanquishing the spirit of the staircase, I present here some recent poems and conversations, with the odd note on what I should have also said . . .

June 13 
Poetry reading at the Underground Cafe, Eastbourne.
Filmed by Mister John. [The videos are all too long for WordPress, so I’ve included links to YouTube.]

This event coincided with the start of the 24 hour vigil to mark the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire (Jun 14 2018).  In the first half I read my long poem ‘Going on Crutches to Grenfell Tower’ (12 minutes). If that’s a bit long for you, you can also read the poem in London Grip.

I also read my epic ode to football, ‘The World Cup’ (4’30”) which after this year’s magnificent tournament, I might have to rewrite – certainly to include Pussy Riot’s pitch invasion of the final match!

As Mister John said, these two videos are a little dark. The lighting was better in the second act, during which I read some shorter poems including ‘Bernadette’ – a sisterhood poem in honour of the effin’ ineffable Bernadette Cremin.

June 27
Interview by Dan Jones for the British Science Fiction Association (The Artillery Arms, London)
Audio and video of the event (53 minutes) are available on the BSFA website, courtesy of the impeccable Chad Dixon. [Contains spoilers]

Dan Jones, possessor of an enviable day job at the UK Space Agency (yes, we have one!), is the author of Man O’ War (Snow Books), the story of an AI ‘pleasure model’ called, er, Naomi . . . it therefore seemed inevitable that he would one day interview me about Seoul Survivors. It was fascinating to get his reaction to my creepy cyberchiller – and collect another genre tag for the book, which Dan has decided is ‘tech-noir’. It was a great chat, ranging from the nature of villainy to the prospects of peace in the Korean peninsula, and my only real regret is not talking more about Korean SF and horror.  I was gripped by Han Kang’s Vegetarian, and am thrilled that Lee Bul is exhibiting in London right now – her headless Cyborgs were a big inspiration for Seoul Survivors, so why I forgot to mention her I do not know!  I did enthuse incoherently over Korean football though – they had just humiliated Germany, so I think being gobsmacked was allowed – and also talked about Korean peace campaigners Nodutdol, so I hope I didn’t do too badly by my host nation. I’ve since visited the Lee Bul show, a glamorous futuristic dreamworld which gave me a huge longing to return to Seoul. Meantime, though, I will be returning to the Artillery Arms in September to interview Dan about his novel, which I’m now extremely curious to read!

Lee Bul_Various Works

June 30
Islam and the Imagination: A talk with Samir Mahmoud, chaired by Remona Aly, at the Bradford Literature Festival.
[Video Forthcoming]
It’s a shame this video hasn’t been published yet by the organisers, because at this event I said nearly everything I wanted to say!  I do wish I’d managed to praise the marvellous short story collection The Djinn Falls in Love, though, which I’d brought along especially and placed on a chair beside me, and then completely forgot to talk about. Editor Jared Shurin came up to me afterwards though, to say he’d tweeted a photo of it to his co-editor Mahvesh Murad, who’d replied ‘I like the fourth speaker!’.

My hotel bed the night before the talk – I still do prepare a bit!

 

 

July 12th
A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry on WBAI Radio 99.5FM, NYC
A celebration of the book I edited last year for Smokestack Books, featuring Palestinian-American poet Farid Bitar and members of Jewish Voice for Peace, NYC.  Click through and search for Arts Express, July 12.

I’m not on this programme – but my introduction to A Blade of Grass is quoted, which was touching to hear at midnight across the ocean, especially on the 24th anniversary of my mother’s death. My mother, Brenda Riches, was also a writer and editor, and listening to a old CBC radio interview with her at Christmas I realised how much she inspired my own philosophy of writing, in which editing plays a significant role. I was also simply moved to hear the poems I’d chosen voiced, the context clear, the community united and a Palestinian poet singing for his fallen sister.

 So it’s been a fulsome start to the summer. Next stop Jerusalem and Ramallah, for the Palestinian launches of A Blade of Grass. Watch this space!

 

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*Boudica’s last battle was the wrong answer, I guess, as the Romans left Britain eventually anyway. Still, perhaps if they’d left earlier England would be more like Britain’s ‘Celtic fringe’, with less of an identity crisis and imperial complex? [Wave of muttered disagreement rises to a crescendo . . .]

Photo of me in the Lee Bul exhibition by Karlien van den Beukel.

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Syria: Who to Trust?

I haven’t posted about Syria this week because I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say.

In recent weeks I’ve met people who’ve told me that:

1) Assad has to stay because otherwise Syria will end up being controlled by a US-Wahhabi-Zionist alliance, and Christianity will be wiped out in the Middle East – once there is peace, though, then he can removed from power by the UN;
2) that the White Helmets belong to ISIS;
3) that after the first gas attack in Ghouta Israeli gas canisters were found – that is to say, the attack was an IDF false flag, which is why the West never responded to it
4) that we don’t know who is responsible for the attacks, or if gas has even been used.

I don’t mention these claims because I want to debate them. I’ve already debated them in person. But as everyone is urgently discussing Syria right now, I will state my opinion of them:

1) Yes, it is complicated on the ground. But overwhelmingly, as Idrees Ahmad documents here, in his article Aleppo is Our Guernica, the killing is being done by the regime, on an industrial scale. To allow Assad to stay condones genocide. And to claim that the opposition is all American-Wahhabi-Zionists set on wiping out Christianity from the Middle East is fearmongering that absolves Christians of their duty to speak truth to power, and completely ignores the secular Syrian opposition – some of whom have joined Islamist militias simply because those outfits have weapons, and many of whom have successfully created neighbourhood councils and participatory democracies in rebel-held areas. Note also Annas, doctor in Ghouta, speaking about one of the earliest demonstrations: ‘the “Great Friday” demonstration was held in solidarity with Easter. We wanted to encourage Christian Syrians to come out and participate.’ (As quoted by Wendy Pearlman, in an email from The Syria Campaign). And if the UN can’t get it together to remove Assad while he’s murdering hundreds of thousands of people, I can’t see how they are going to remove him after he’s won the war.
2) has been thoroughly debunked by the Guardian.
3) is completely wild – I can’t even find a reference to it online.
4) is what is always said after these attacks, and although the April 7th attack in Douma needs to be investigated, the general question has been sufficiently answered in the past.  Here is an OPCW report on two chemical attacks last year, one in Umm Hawsh and one in Khan Shaykhun. The report assessed evidence from a variety of sources, and concluded that ISIL and Assad were respectively responsible for the attacks (the regime for Khan Shaykhun). As far as I can make out from their site, the OPCW is currently investigating the use, in general, of chemical weapons in Syria and they cannot comment on any more instances while investigations are on-going. At the same time, however, the report was part of a 2 year investigation that has now expired, and the UN is basically ineffective anyway because Russia blocks all its draft resolutions on Syria. However, from this shameful state of international inertia, it is at least clear that OPCW has concluded that Assad is not at all afraid of dropping chemical weapons on Syrians.

If your opinion differs radically to mine on these issues, please take some time to investigate the links I have posted.  I am not an investigative journalist, but I respect the profession, and I have tried hard over the last seven years to sift through the news to find sources I trust on this volatile, heart-wrenching and, to most non-Syrians, very confusing issue.

I trust Pulse Media because the Scottish-Syrian editor, Robin Yassin-Kassab is embedded in a network of activists and has dedicated himself to publishing accounts of the conflict no-one else is covering – those of the revolutionaries, in their own words. He and activist Leila al-Shami are also the authors of Burning Country, a critically acclaimed book about the war, telling stories that the mainstream media simply ignore. Fellow editor of Pulse Media Idrees Ahmad, is a lecturer in journalism who has also written extensively on Syria, including the article linked to above, which contains a long list of verified information about regime atrocities in Syria.

I absolutely do not trust Assad or Vladimir Putin. While all news media is inevitably biased, there’s a difference between slanting and omitting truths (as the BBC does on Palestine), and telling out-and-out lies. My 2014 visit to Ukraine demonstrated to me that the Russia media consistently blatantly lied about their military involvement in the country – Putin’s ‘toxic assault’ on the truth is well documented. Like all Putin’s political opponents, Russian independent journalists are routinely jailed on trumped up charges, beaten or killed. The Guardian article linked to above also reveals the extent of Kremlin trolling and fake news dissemination. That’s why I don’t watch RT, and don’t for a second believe that the White Helmets gassed their own people.

It’s terrible choice the world is facing – to establish as a precedent that a dictator may gas his own people with impunity, or to potentially spray oil on a bonfire. I’ve also spoken to people who are quite simply terrified and infuriated by the prospect of escalating the conflict, causing even more suffering for the Syrians, and possibly even a world war.  Much as I believe the Leftist position of appeasement has utterly failed Syria, this position is one I do now have sympathy with.

I don’t trust Trump and the Tories to intervene appropriately – that is to say, conducting targeted strikes against arms factories and military bases, and supplying the secular opposition with self defense equipment and weapons. Even targeted strikes risk raising the ante. In the end, not that my opinion matters one whit to anyone trapped in the inferno of East Ghouta, I agree most with Paul Mason, who essentially argues for ‘Banks not Tanks’ – hitting the Russians with economic and political sanctions, and bolstering our international multilateral institutions of justice and democracy. What if oligarchs suddenly couldn’t buy London flats anymore, and no-one showed up at the World Cup this year? Unless things have changed dramatically by then, I won’t be watching it, at least, much as I love it.

At the heart of this argument is a stress on the importance of due process. But due process has already been followed in the case of Khan Shaykhun. It is long past time for the world to take action. All the dire warnings about military intervention from our Left leaders need to be followed up with alternative plans for a robust political response, including demands to reform the UN. The UN was created (by the victors of WW2) after the failure of the League of Nations. Now that the UN is so manifestly failing, it should be, if not replaced, vitally restructured. Why should there be five permanent members of the Security Council, three of them Western powers, none from the global South? Why should they be able to veto anything at all, let alone resolutions about wars they are directly involved in?

But this is just a creative writer’s blog post. The only thing I really can do right now that makes a drop of difference is to give money to Syrian relief charities. People are burning in hell, and other people are risking their lives to help them. The least I can do is help send them some medical supplies. It’s not an adequate response to this unending tragedy, but currently I don’t know what is. I work on Palestine, not because I don’t care about Syria, but because the situation there is clear to me – the Palestinians are calling for BDS, which I can help create. In Syria, while previously I thought that intervention was needed, I fear that it’s too late for that now, and the wrong hands and minds are at the controls. The Syria Campaign is calling for Europe and the US to enforce a ceasefire in Ghouta, but I just don’t know any longer if I can join calls for the use of force in Syria. I do believe in cultural resistance, and using my position as an editor and lecturer to help give Syrian voices a platform, and a megaphone. Currently, apart from my own writing, I am still focused on promoting my Palestinian anthology and on looking after my health. I hope that the time will come soon for an opportunity to make good on that wish.

More than that, though, I hope against hope that somehow the world finds non-violent but effective ways to challenge and punish Assad and Putin, strengthen the moderate opposition, and support Syria’s eventual transition to a democracy of its own people’s making.

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April in London: Poetry & SF Events

Shivering through the cruellest month? Didn’t book your Eurostar ticket to Paris? Never mind, London is blossoming too, at least for this Brighton lilac – it would be lovely to see you at one or t’other (or both!) of these upcoming literary flowerings . . . a Red Hen Press poetry reading at the Betsey Trotwood pub in Farringdon Rd, and Spicing Up Sci Fi: The Dunes Strike Back, a panel discussion on Islam and the hybrid imagination at the British Library. 

 

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Curated by Sindbad Sci-Fi, the event is being staged in partnership with MFest, the UK’s inaugural annual arts festival of Muslim cultures and ideas.

Buy Tickets https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/spicing-up-sci-fi-the-dunes-strike-back-tickets-43553180736

£5 | Concessions £3

Exclusive 20% Early Bird discount code: MFestSINDBAD (valid until Friday 13th April)

 

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A Blade of Grass: Launched!

It’s here! And it’s a beaut: bursting with sharp, fresh and tender poems, and well and truly launched at a sell-out event on Thursday Nov 16th at P21 Gallery in London, a contemporary arts centre dedicated to the promotion of Arab culture. Thank you to the gallery for hosting us, to the University of Chichester for promoting the event with a press release to national media and a banner article on their website, to Andy Croft of Smokestack Books for training it down from Yorkshire for the gig, and most especially to poets Mustafa Abu Sneineh and Farid Bitar – who journeyed from New York City especially for the event – and translators Katharine Halls and Waleed Al-Bazoon for their depth-charged readings from A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry.  Thank you also to everyone who came and made the launch such an uplifting occasion. While I was thrilled to realise that, in fact, I personally knew only about a fifth of the audience, it was tremendous to welcome friends in the crowd, some of whom had supported the book through the crowdfunding campaign, which raised £240 each for the legal campaigns of poets Ashraf Fayadh (jailed in Saudi Arabia) and Dareen Tatour (jailed in Israel). I thank also Rob, Keith and Lily in Brighton, who gifted me a stunning bouquet of roses, sunflowers and wild grasses to get the celebrations off in style, and it was a great pleasure to meet a young lad, William, from Farid’s hostel, who came along out of curiosity and shook my hand firmly after the readings, thanking me for the enlightening evening. My belief is that poetry provides a way in to the Palestinian narrative for people who know little about it, or get ‘turned off’ by the news – and William’s response was a heartening confirmation of the power of the lyrical word. Altogether it was an magical night, brimming with faith in humanity and art: I’m still relishing memories of dandling Mustafa and Rebecca’s little Eskander on my knee, and admiring Farid’s pop-up exhibition of spacious, wind-blown paintings, drawings and calligraphy, which he brought over the ocean in his suitcase. Also unforgettable was hearing Andy Croft read British poetry the riot act, and listening to the panellists field ‘heretical questions’ about classical meter in a pan-Arab context!

On a more sombre note, I’m glad too that I could honour an absent translator, the late Sarah Maguire, an award-winning poet and the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, who very sadly died on November 2nd, the day before the book was published. I read Sarah’s translation of ‘The Lost Button’ by Fatena Al Ghorra, plus the last lines of her own poem ‘The Grass Church at Dilston Grove’, which seem to herald the anthology, as well as foreshadow our loss:

Everything the grass has asked of me
on this earth, I have done

except give myself
up

except lie
under its sky of moving roots.

(From The Pomegranates of Kandahar)

Sarah has fulfilled that ultimate task now, but in giving herself so passionately, in life, to the cause of poetry in translation she has left a vital legacy, cracking open the bastion of British poetry to plant the seeds of human empathy and understanding across geopolitical and linguistic borders. Always a great friend of Palestine, she died on a date of enormous significance to Palestinians, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the UK government so wrongfully promised to support the creation of Israel in lands inhabited by other people. As I go forward, as the editor of A Blade of Grass, to help challenge the ever-escalating results of that disastrous document, and make this a century of justice for Palestine, I humbly feel I am picking up her grass-stained baton.

This is just the beginning of the festivities for A Blade of Grass. I’ve already had interest in 2018 events from New York, Cairo, and Jerusalem, and will be organising readings also in Brighton and Chichester. My dream is for all of the living contributors to the anthology to be able to read at an event, so hopefully the book’s other translators Josh Calvo, Raphael Cohen, Tariq Al Haydar, Andrew Leber, Wejdan Shamala and Ahmed Taha and poets Fatena Al Ghorra, Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, Fady Joudah, Deema K. Shehabi, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marwan Makhoul, Sara Saleh and, when they are freed, Ashraf Fayadh and Dareen Tatour, will all have their turn on stage. For now, should you wish to buy the book, you can order it online direct from Smokestack Books, or at bookshops in the UK or North America – and, hurrah, the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem!  xxx

Here I am with Mustafa Abu Sneineh and drawings by Farid Bitar.

With Farid Bitar

Waleed Al Bazoon and Farid Bitar

Reading from A Blade of Grass

 

 

Fuzzy happy people – poets and editor celebrating in the pub!

 

Back home with my gifts from Farid Bitar: freesias for freedom, and my name in delicate Arabic

 

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Disappearance without absence: Book Launch on National Poetry Day

 

In my role as Associate Editor at Waterloo Press, I was honoured this year to help publish a book of profoundly moving poems, Disappearance without absence/Desapariencia no engaña, by Néstor Ponce, exquisitely translated by Max Ubelaker Andrade. Written in honour of the ‘disappeared’, the book is a testament to those thousands of individuals targeted for death and erasure by Argentina’s military junta (1976-1983). Now on the shelf of every school and library in Argentina, its publication is part of an ongoing process of national and international remembering, mourning and justice-seeking. Thanks to the Sur Programme of the Argentine government, Waterloo Press is proud to enable English-speaking readers to share in this vital witnessing.

I am also very grateful to Elspeth Broady, a family friend and the Secretary of the Brighton and Hove Freedom From Torture Supporters Group, for offering to co-host the book’s Brighton launch in the Chapel Royal on Sept 28th – which, as we discovered later, just so happens to be National Poetry Day, with the theme of ‘Freedom’. It’s becoming an international local event already: Elspeth and her husband Chris Sevink are generously hosting Néstor Ponce on a visit from France, where he is a leading Latin American Studies scholar, while my friend Helen Dixon, who lived in Nicaragua for twenty-two years, has kindly agreed to contribute her considerable linguistic, cultural and political acumen to the event. Please join us all for wine, nibbles, a bilingual poetry reading, discussion and Q&A. I just *so* wish Max could come – but unfortunately the local crowd-sourcing just couldn’t stretch to a ticket from Massachusetts, where Max, a Borges scholar I had the pleasure of meeting at the Blind Creations conference, teaches Latin American Studies. But this is just the beginning of the book’s journey out into the world, and hopefully I will have the chance to hear Max read his stunning translations at some point in the future.

Thursday Sept 28th, Chapel Royal
164 North St, BN1 1EA Brighton
6:30-9 pm
Free entry, wine and nibbles, with suggested donations*

*Suggested donations: £6 entry to include a glass of wine.
All profit to benefit the work of Freedom From Torture.

Should you not be able to attend, the book is also available from me directly, or on Amazon.

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No Enemy but Time: A New Pamphlet of Old Poems

Being cured of cancer last year gave me a powerful sense of priorities. It seems that keeping up with this blog wasn’t one of them . . . Instead, in between a short course of radiotherapy and an unexpected return to hospital to treat a broken ankle (!), I’ve thrown myself into book production mode. Currently I’m finishing the final volume of The Gaia Chronicles for Jo Fletcher Books and editing an anthology of Palestinian poetry in translation for Smokestack Books, both of which will appear at the end of the year. In the spring I spent six weeks editing two collections for Waterloo Press, Disappearance without absence/Desapariencia no engaña by the Argentine poet Néstor Ponce, translated by Max Ubelaker Andrade, and Gratitude on the Coast of Death, David Swann’s long-awaited second collection, which were published along with No Enemy but Time, my new pamphlet which I launched at the Belfast Book Festival in June. Launches for the two collections are being planned for the autumn, so I’ll save that fanfare, and for now just officially introduce my own new title.

No Enemy but Time is my tribute to my close friend, the Northern Irish poet, journalist and cultural activist Mairtín Crawford (1967-2004), and his quietly remarkable mother Flo (1939-2011). The pamphlet contains a sequence of poems in memory of Mairtín, most written in the wake of his sudden death; and what I have called ‘Some Loose Aislingi’ or ‘vision poems’ – a traditional genre in which a woman symbolises a dream of Ireland. The title of the pamphlet is a phrase from the W.B. Yeats poem ‘In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz’, and my aislingi include a lyrical response from the famous sisters, rebuking his denigration of their political work; as well as an homage to the linnet, a reflection on the Belfast peace process, and an oral history of the Falls Rd and the Troubles, as told to me by Flo.

The pamphlet was clearly many years in the brewing, and time did seem set against it for a while – I’d initially hoped to publish the poems for the tenth anniversary of Mairtín’s death, but the then-Irish publisher got sold, the poems languished, the momentum was lost, and then I got sick. Although I wrote a sequence of cancer poems during my treatment, as I recovered I felt an urgent need to bring these old poems into the light. My faithful collaborator John Luke Chapman – with whom I’d once co-authored a literary manifesto Mairtín published in his legendary magazine The Big Spoon – created a stunning cover photograph, and some more poems flowed. Then lo, just as I was preparing to ask Northern Irish poet Moyra Donaldson for a back cover quote, she emailed to tell me that the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast had just established the Mairtín Crawford Award, a prize designed to do what he did in his teaching, editing and festival directorships – encourage new poets. Although I was on crutches from my broken ankle, with the help of EasyJet special assistance, and time my friend again at last, I was honoured to launch No Enemy but Time at the prize-giving ceremony, where Mairtín’s friends read his own tender, playful and exuberant work, and the worthy winner, Rosamund Taylor, debuted her exquisite poems.

I hadn’t been to Belfast since 2010, and it was my first time back since Flo’s death. It was an emotional visit, that stirred some painful memories, but also deepened my connection to the city that Mairtín had first guided me through in 1994, the summer that my mother died. The poems about our relationship excavate layers of personal and political history, cross the ocean to Canada and New York, and ultimately look to the stars – Mairtín was an idealist and a futurist, an agitator and rebel who pushed every boundary out into the cosmos. It was heartening to hear from his friends that my poems brought them some closure and comfort, and I hope they also convey something of his magic to those who didn’t know him.

 

 

Space

You were known for being obsessed
with space:

scored an arts grant to visit NASA,
sat in the cockpits of rockets;

wrote poems about Jupiter
and UFOs, Moonmen and Mir;

worried about asteroids
falling on our heads.

I read your cover story
― ‘Belfast Astronomers on Red Alert’ ―

foolishly believed myself
a little safer on the Earth.

No Enemy but Time (Waterloo Press) is available at The Crescent Arts Centre, on Amazon, or email me (enfoyle@gmail.com) to arrange postal or hand delivery.

 

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Farewell to 2016 – and Cancer

What a year. When it comes to traumas we’re spoiled for choice, but as Amnesty International and Greenpeace remind us, 2016 also brought many victories for humanity and the planet. Here at home, I’ve been celebrating the official All Clear, which clear as a bell, arrived with impeccable timing on Dec 23rd. I’ve still got follow-treatments to come, but to bid farewell to cancer, I’m looking back on ten books that have enriched my journey thus far through the ‘kingdom of the sick’. What should you read during chemotherapy? I like to laugh, sure, but in my frail state I also wanted to see my suffering and that of the world reflected with compassion and insight. Thus the themes of illness, migration and climate change flow through this list of poetry, essays and fiction.

Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott (Faber and Faber, 2011). Spending five months on the strongest drugs Western medicine has to offer, it was hard to concentrate sometimes, but I took as my motto a line from Julia Darling’s poem ‘Chemotherapy’: ‘I have learned to drift and sip’. And thus in the stark nights of chemic insomnia I read poetry, sipping of its beauty and truth. This Costa Award-winning collection treats subjects ranging through breast cancer, war and modern architecture, Shapcott’s deft allusive touch encompassing the world with airy room for the imagination to fly. The wonderful extended metaphor of ‘Uncertainty is a Not a Good Dog’ – no, it rushes ahead and rolls in the mud! – helped me accept the new psychological terrain I had just entered. I can get a little frustrated (understatement!) with English understatement, but sometimes the problem is with readers, not the poet. The Guardian reviewer didn’t get the answer to Shapcott’s ‘Riddle’, which you didn’t need to have had chemotherapy to solve – it was placed opposite a poem called ‘Bald’.

Excisions by Clare Best (Waterloo Press, 2011).  Aware she was carrying the gene for breast cancer, Clare Best had an elective double mastectomy in her forties and declined reconstruction. Instead, tracing her journey in graceful, lucid poems, while fully acknowledging her grief at losing her ‘sentenced flesh’, she embraced the opportunity to lie closer to the earth, and feel her heart beat closer to her husband’s. I helped edit this book for Waterloo Press, and had seen photographs of Clare’s serene new shape. Having the imprint of her experience in my mind helped me to accept the possibility of mastectomy, and I turned again to the book immediately after my diagnosis. I can’t quote more because I recently gave my copy away to another woman contemplating elective surgery, but writing this blog reminds me to reorder it for myself – an essential title for my library.

Writing My Way Through Cancer by Myra Schneider (Jessica Kingsley, 2003). Combining a journal of the author’s experience with breast cancer with her own poems and writing exercises, this sensitive and rakingly honest book helped calm my own struggles with anxiety, and encouraged me to move between experience and vision in my own poems about the illness. Although I didn’t in the end need a mastectomy, it was encouraging to read of Schneider’s journey to acceptance of her new ‘Amazon’ shape. And I loved her poem ‘Choosing Yellow’, which in ranging the spectrum of this colour of sunshine and jaundice, gloriously evokes the paradox of coping with cancer: ‘a bittersweet colour / which feeds emptiness in the middle of the night, / a state of mind that refuses fear.’

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde (Aunt Lute Books, 2007) This collection of essays by the late African-American poet Audre Lorde, who died of breast cancer in 1992 fourteen years after her diagnosis, was invigorating, bracing and sobering to read. Lorde, like my late mother (who died of colon cancer in 1992) had a mastectomy but refused chemotherapy: while I respect everyone’s right to choose their own treatment, as someone who was helped far more than harmed by chemo I can’t help but wonder if, even though far more arduous in the nineties, it might have helped them both survive. But cancer is a personal journey, and seeking alternative treatment in Germany, Lorde trod her path with famous dignity, eloquence and leadership. Refusing reconstruction because she didn’t want to deny her encounter with mortality, or conform to cultural norms of female beauty she didn’t, as a Black Lesbian identify with, Lorde challenged the medical establishment in important ways. When being prepped for a possible mastectomy, I’d been told that silicon implants can impede the effectiveness of breast cancer drugs, and when I read that Lorde was told by a nurse to wear a softie next time she came to the clinic because the sight of her asymmetry was ‘bad for morale’, I completely felt her rage. I also fully understood how her decision to own her scar empowered her: “Yet once I face death as a life process,’ she wrote, ‘what is there possibly left for me to fear? Who can ever really have power over me again?”

Becoming Earth by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2016). These autobiographical essays by a marine biologist about breast cancer and nature were another difficult read at times: knowing that the book didn’t have a happy ending, and being unsure what direction my own treatment was taking me in, I had to take long breaks between sections. But I was always drawn back to Saulitis’s fiercely delicate reflections, ranging from her youth in her home state of Michigan, where she grew up feasting on pesticide-coated fruit; and her work in Alaska, where she and husband observed a pod of orcas that hasn’t calved since the Exxon Valdez oil spill; to her own body in its state of rapid decay. Thanks perhaps to Saulitis’s involvement with Buddhism, the dominant mood is not anger, though, but elegy and acceptance. Whatever its cause, cancer, an overgrowth of cells, is not itself a pollutant but an entirely natural process – an insight Saulitis evokes in the image of a glut of dead salmon. “We have no dominion over what the world will do to us,” she wrote. “We have no dominion over the wild darkness that surrounds us.… Death is nature. Nature is far from over . . . In the end—I must believe it—just like a salmon, I will know how to die, and though I die, though I lose my life, nature wins. Nature endures. It is strange, and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.”

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein (Oversteps Books, 2016). As you can imagine, I quite often wanted an escape from cancer stories, and this collection beguiled me with its tender family truths, and restful long lines. In its careful respect for a temperamentally sensitive father, there is a touch of Robert Lowell about Klein’s sequence ‘Seen From Below’. Her highly regarded political poetry is well-represented here, but poems rooted in personal history also have a global reach: ‘Tisch’ unpacks a word that will keep a family ‘. . . stuck together / when the bombs begin to fall.’ As a writer of the long poem myself, I also much admire the way Klein summons mystery from her wealth of well-orchestrated detail – keeping up a rhythmic soft-shoe between her lyric and narrative impulses.

Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (Penguin, 2007). I wasn’t grief-stricken by Cohen’s death – he achieved a great age and had lived a charmed life. But in paying my respects and expressing my affection, I turned to his poems as well as his songs. Sometimes this book annoyed me – with his obsessive pen-and-ink self-portraits and endless lamentations over unattainable young women Cohen seemed too content to milk the myth of the solitary male genius, refusing his Muse greater empathy with a wider humanity. But then he rises to the summits of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, a song that always makes me think of my mother, or attains the simplicity of ‘Mission’, a poem that could be his own eulogy. Cohen being the first to ruefully acknowledge his own flaws, this book ultimately makes loneliness, baldness and poetry seem worthwhile endeavours – all very reassuring for a single writer on chemo. Plus ‘Something from the Early Seventies’ was hilarious!

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press, 2015). Emily Jeremiah, a friend from my MA I worked with at Waterloo Press on her Finnish poetry translations, achieved great success with this short novel, which was long-listed for the Man Booker International this year. It deserved it. A spare translation of a historical novel about the 1867 famine in Finland, in its harrowing portrayal of starving peasants trudging through winter toward the mirage of St Petersburg, the book evokes the determination of today’s refugees into Europe from the South – and their pain. Just when you think the agony in this book can’t get any worse, it does. Like the futuristic novel it resembles, The Road, there is redemption of sorts in the end, but no glimpse of hope can erase the ghosts of those who did not survive. Reading White Hunger, like watching the news from Syria or Calais, was a humbling experience: what was my suffering in comparison? The book was also inspiring, though: by bringing the anonymous dead to life, literature can indeed connect the reader with all of humanity.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate, 2014). For those lucky enough to have homes, long novels and chemo go together like sofas and snow, and this absorbing, informative, lyrical epic gave my side-effects an enormous sense of purpose. I learned a huge amount from Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu’s reflections on race in America, and was riveted by Adichie’s sharp yet compassionate eye for complexity. As plot devices Ifemelu’s pursuit of the perfect rich feminist husband, and celebrity status as a blogger had a slightly fairy-tale quality, but at the same time these dreams come under lucid scrutiny in the book. The narrative, and Ifemelu’s achievements, are also driven by trauma, and being an African woman in an individualist, racist and sexist country both gives her depression and allows her to acknowledge that mental health is not just a white Westerner’s concern. Her own well-being – and her desire to win back her remarkably patient (and married) heart-throb Obinze – demands that she return to Nigeria and create a successful life there on her own terms. Meanwhile Obinze’s sudden launch into the country’s wealthy upper echelons is shadowed by his failed attempt to live in Britain – a chapter in which Adichie makes a powerful case for emotional migration: the freedom to move where we please.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Penguin, orig 1924). God, I loved this book! As I faded into skin and bones, it was such an pleasure to sink into a seven-hundred and fifty page novel in which illness is the norm and self-enwrapment in blankets an art-form, or at least a Winter Olympic sport. Amused at first by young Hans Castorp’s self-regarding priggishness, I was ultimately moved by his long journey to become a sensitive mediator between his passionate friends, history and art, life and death. Like my cancer, the TB sanatorium became, for Hans, a spiritual retreat. The book also charts the build up to the first world war and although in my chemo fog I couldn’t follow all the arguments of the novel’s two voluble scholars (who between them trample the supposed differences between East and West into a bitter frenzy of intellectual envy), Mann’s nuanced portrayals of Hans’s milieu – the ‘East’ represented here by Russian and Jewish characters – throws rope bridges of humanity across politically engineered fault-lines. Finally, as a new inhabitant of the Kingdom of the Sick, I found Mann’s insights into illness still ring true; as one character opines, the awe people hold for sick people is misplaced:

For the sick was precisely that; a sick man: with the nature and modified reactions of his state. Illness so adjusted its man that it and he could come to terms; there were sensory appeasements, short circuits, a merciful narcosis; nature came to the rescue with measures of spiritual and moral adaptation and relief, which the sound person naively failed to take into account.

Cancer and chemo became my new normal in 2016, and I accepted my condition because I had to. I honestly don’t mind people telling me I am ‘inspirational’, but to end this list, and 2016, on a note of traditional resolve, I would be best pleased if that took the form of quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption or eating more vegetables! Happy New Year, everyone – and may more and more people tread the path of health, love and peace in 2017.

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From Indeterminate Cats to Interfaith Cathedrals

From Schrodinger’s Cat to Salisbury Cathedral, Prague castle to the Princess Royal Hospital, my cancer journey has come full circle, back to a strangely euphoric, possibly disease-free state. As I wrote in June, in the days just prior to my diagnosis, I felt both terminally ill and joyously alive; now, having just had an operation to remove four lymph nodes and a sphere of breast tissue at the site of the vanished tumour, but not yet the results, I will spend the weeks until Dec 23rd in a state of far gentler uncertainty. The best case scenario, as my oncologist put it, is that yesterday cancer and I parted company – I left the hospital by the front door, and any cancer cells remaining in my body after the chemo were sent on their way to the lab. The worst case scenario is that all four nodes will be found to be diseased and/or cancer cells are found at the edge of the breast tissue (rather than safely isolated in the centre). If so, another minor operation will be needed, to remove more nodes, and/or a small slice more of the bap.  After all I’ve been through so far, these are not traumatic possibilities.  Recovering from surgery in my peaceful private room at the Princess Royal yesterday, I felt filled with a enormous sense of peace. I am now, or nearly am, cancer-free. And at the same time, all I’ve been through has enabled me to contemplate without panic far more difficult outcomes. To quote, if I may, my own poem ‘Winterpause’ about the German chanteuse Nico: ‘The winter sun has won her foggy struggle with the cold.’

img-20161206-00509

I’m currently resting again, willing my eyelashes to grow back, and reflecting on the weekend: a post-chemo, pre-op energy window that framed me as traveller in a more familiar sense. Thanks to the kindness of the organisers, who drove me to Salisbury, I was able to attend the Muslim Institute’s annual Winter Gathering at Sarum College, an ecumenical conference centre just opposite the magnificent Salisbury cathedral. Last year I was invited to speak on my approach to Islamic SF, after which I became an MI Fellow. This year I attended as a guest, enjoying the company of activists and intellectuals from all over Britain, and hearing talks on the theme of ‘Blessed Are the Innovators’. Or are they? One hard question that arose was whether humanity has embraced change for the sake of change, heedless of the consequences for all living beings and the planet itself. Having dealt with Windows 10 and Outlook upgrades during my cancer treatment, as a result of which ‘improvements’ none of my devices can communicate with my laptop anymore, and I am no longer able to conduct a Keyword search on my university email, I am more inclined to that view than ever before!

It was hard to feel despairing though, in the presence of a group of people so deeply committed to dialogue and progressive values that a un-ironic Muslim singalong of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was a highlight of the Saturday Culture Night. Another unexpected moment came in a talk by anti-extremist activist Usama Hasan from whom I learned that Wahhabi-Sufism is a thing – it turns out ISIS have hijacked not simply Islam but the sect of Wahhabism, the austerities of which can, as Usama’s life work proves, be lived in the context of love for all. It was in that deeply Islamic spirit that I felt welcomed again by the Winter Gathering. On Saturday night I read a new poem about cancer, healing and gratitude, ‘It Takes A Global Village’ joining a line-up including hard-hitting, big-hearted rapper Mizan the Poet, and multi-talented Hodan Yusuf-Pankhurst, who in her role as Reporter in Residence captured me reading from my tablet – for the second time, and for the second time having the text disappear from the screen as I stood in front of the audience. This time at least it had the courtesy to do so before I began reading! (I do say I’m an SF writer because I hate IT . . .)

wintergathering

As well as sharing powerful poems about race, refugees and belonging, Hodan tweeted, photographed and Storified the weekend in lavish detail. Please do check out the link – there’s a lot there, but while you may not be able to follow every thread, scrolling through gives a great flavour of the weekend, including the halal Full English breakfast! As my university department’s Equality and Diversity Champion, I was especially excited by the discussion of ‘inclusivity’ in relation to the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, a volunteer group who hold mixed-gender Friday prayers led by female Imams in various venues including interfaith churches. To paraphrase co-founder Naima Khan, being inclusive does not mean preaching a type of inclusivity, but housing it – letting people define themselves, and asking them to refrain from judgement of others. She and Imam Halima Hussain described holding Jummah (prayers) in a way that reminded me of the Quaker meetings I attended as a child – creating a sacred space in which everyone is allowed to speak without fear about whatever is on their mind. There’s so much to look forward to exploring when I’m fully recovered, but on another full circle seems a good place to pause . . .

interfaith-circle

 

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‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ . . . and Fascism

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I’m home from a weekend in London where, with the help of wonderful friends and a small wheelie suitcase I celebrated the end of chemo by taking a few baby steps back into the world beyond Brighton hospital clinics – and a big breath of freedom before my operation on Dec 6th. Thanks to the success of my chemotherapy cycles, during which my tumour disappeared, this will be minor day surgery on my lymph nodes, but still, my first time under the knife: I will be spending the next couple of weeks mentally and physically building calm strength.

The weekend was a great start in that direction. Saturday night I saw the musical ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ at the National Theatre. A musical about cancer, featuring dance numbers with people dressed up as tumours in weird glitzy knitted costumes . . . what an outlandish idea, but it so worked! Also featuring interwoven true stories by turns touching, humorous, sinister, heartbreaking; tunes ranging from funkadelic to country to tap dance; a set that developed cancer as the show went on; and a script that took big risks with the ‘fourth wall’, the show’s proof of success was the unembarrassed audience participation at the end, creating the palpable atmosphere of a shared deeply personal experience. Add to this a diverse cast, with three women of colour, two white working class male characters, several female doctors, and a small actor whose height became an integral part of some stunning choreography, and this radical musical firmly occupied places far more theatre ought to be going – challenging cultural narratives as much as exploring individual stories. My one main wish was for more script and shorter songs, as the character conflicts came alive most for me through dialogue. But overall, riveting – my three friends who have seen both all rated it higher than the current King Lear. (With the caveat that Glenda Jackson herself was phenomenal – I so wish I’d been able to see that show too!) Highly recommended, though if you can’t afford to go, but you’re on the South Bank while it’s running, do pop into the Dorfman Theatre lobby and watch the moving and informative video interviews (subtitled) with the cast, creators, researchers and real-life people the characters are based on.

I’m still tired and weak, so didn’t race around galleries. The rest of the weekend was spent being pampered by friends in cosy homes, catching up on poetry, travels and the state of the world. Although I haven’t been participating in online discussions lately, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about the giant steps the world is suddenly, rapidly taking toward fascism. In my last blog, I celebrated the loving kindness I’ve been shown by so many people during my alchemical treatment by posting an image of a Rose Window by another Toronto friend, stained glass artist worker John Wilcox. You might think I’m understandably looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses – but in fact my experience being ill is leading me to believe the opposite: that when we lead from the heart, and  put ourselves in the service of beauty and healing, we create powerful collective resistance to the sickness that is violent intolerance of any kind. Thinking about it further this evening I realised that fighting the world’s current slide into fascism and healing cancer both require determined and organised commitments to:

1) challenging corporations that poison the planet with dangerous chemicals
2) ensuring safe food (organic plants and well-treated animals)
3) making that food affordable (economic justice)
4) priority public spending on health and education, with strong awareness of how some socioeconomic groups are more vulnerable to disease. Black British women, for example, are twice as likely to die of breast cancer than white women, mostly for reasons of late diagnosis, so public health education needs to be better at reaching these women.
5) valuing every single person as an individual with sovereign rights over his or her own body
6) gratitude for the gifts we all – scientists, cooks, exercise boffins, artists, thinkers, mystics – bring to the table.

Well, I guess that’s my 2017 cut out for me then! Oh, and maybe some knitting and tap dance lessons too . . .

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