(photo: Bianca Sistermans)
The new international literary festival of Amsterdam
OPENING UP ( Friday evening)
While the public strolls in and evenings falls, majestic trees highlighted in soft blue, green and yellow turn the Amsterdam Tolhuistuin into a fairytale cathedral. A drink in the Gazebo Bar, buzz at long tables under a Tuareg canvas vault. On the main stage, at one end of a prolonged tipi tent of huge dimensions, writer-presenter Christine steams up the opening revue of Read My World in a pleasant pace. In her opening speech master travelwriter Lieve Joris honours her inspirators, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, VS Naipaul and Riszard Kapuscinsky. But more so the women and men who made her feel what ‘home’ is about during her many travels in Africa, South America and China.
Festival Curator Asmaa Azaizeh, a Palestinian journalist and poet in Haifa, Israel, owns a powerful contralto voice: ‘Literature Festivals in Europe usually choose well-known international stars needing little introduction. Read My World made a remarkable choice by giving young writers from the region substantial influence on the programme.’
With co-curator Abeer Soliman (l) Azaizeh chose eight, mostly younger writers, poets, journalists, documentary makers and bloggers from the Middle East to interact with Dutch, American and other writers before and during the festival. Soliman, herself a writer, blogger and storyteller based in Cairo: ‘There are plenty of artists and Orientalists who can tell what is happening in Egypt, but now you will hear our own voice. Not to mention many writers who can’t be here but have cooperated in the process.’
Art and politics, beauty and harsh reality, their mutual relations will be clearly on the agenda for the next days. The programme evidently poses another question. Can art, and its perception and forms, be cut loose from social and political circumstances? ‘As a Palestinian talking politics is inevitable, it is our reality’, Asmaa Azaizeh says. ‘But the writers I chose find their themes in their daily lives. Politics are necessarily there, but in a different, personal way. This other side I want to show you.’
‘Once I was a sperm’
Tariq Hamdan then immediately turns the image of the politically contesting West Bank poet to smithereens. His poem ‘Once I was a sperm’ had great impact among young Palestinians. ‘My mother told me that she was wearing an IUD (Dutch: ‘spiraaltje’) when I was born. Since then I know my life is a miracle.’ He contributes in the traditional Arabic mode, accompanied by his ud, the translation beamed on screen. But his posture and wit underline his mockery of moral and political conventions.
Strikingly similar does a heartbreaking song of Dutch poet and performer Nathalie Baartman. She sings in the nearly unintelligible ‘tukkers’-dialect, passionately accompanied by her accordion, reclaiming her mothertongue in a country that despises its farmers background. Her art contains politics too, subtle but no less insistent.
The Amsterdam city poet Menno Wigman, the Dutch ‘national poet Laureate’ Anne Vegter, Malaka Badr from Cairo and singer Frank Boeijen reflect all in a personal way the relationship between beauty and rude reality. It is the young rap-poet Typhoon, however, who fully conquers the audience with philosophical improvisations and the poem ‘Look Love’. No mechanical techno beat here but the tenderly buzzing double-bass of Pablo Nahar, heating up the well-stocked festival tent with a groovy solo.
‘Amsterdam needs such a festival’
Afterwards Azaizeh, Soliman and Typhoon have an enthusiastic conversation, leading to the spontaneous plan of a ‘jam’ on Sunday. Anne Vegter wanders dreamily through the Tolhuistuin, looking for her glasses. ‘Usually it’s all about the stars of the festival’, the poet laureate says. ‘You came for your moment and there little time to meet. The atmosphere here is much more relaxed, in fact just what you would want on a festival.’ Poet Menno Wigman shows himself excited that Amsterdam has a literature festival again. ‘Amsterdam needs such a thing. And here on the IJ, that’s good, it’s all happening here now.’
The first statement of Read My World is made. Actual art is not a museum piece, it wants to interact. Art as communication, as a bridge between worlds, makes use of substantially different shapes today. The audience will be seeing a lot of these over the next few days.
ROOM WITH A VIEW (Saturday afternoon and evening)
After a mild rainstorm, the sky clears gradually. A talk of singer Maite Laburu with writer Harkaitz Cano about his bilingual Dutch – Basque collection ‘Someone is walking on the fire escape’ is followed by Elke Geurts, Said el Haji, Sanneke van Hassel, David Vann and Maartje Wortel climbing the stage. They each read a story made in response to the photos that the foreign festival guests contributed of the view from their window at home. Every view, says Maartje Wortel, is memory. In a seemingly language the narrator blinds her window with gaffer tape to block her view of caressing pairs of pigeons in the tree outside. Her inner monologue explores the dark after her lover left her in the morning.
Elke Geurts describes the view of a mother who has just given birth to a handicapped child, her legs still in support brackets. She doesn’t want this child and will not be able to love it, the mother knows, while the father keeps yelling he just got the most beautiful baby in the world. ‘When things become unspeakable my interest begins’, the writer explains. American writer David Vann, writer in residence of Dutch Literature Fund, recites a story about a travelling student, dryly piling up loneliness and misunderstanding to a comical climax. ‘American readers don’t like tragedy, even wrapped up in humour. I find my audience especially in Europe, it seems more to be my place.’
Memory as a literary means is the subject of an interview of radio host Jeroen van Kan with frequent prizewinner Stephan Enter and Yasser Abdel Latif (Cairo). Alas, the questions are too general to provoke a lively conversation. Stephan Enter comes to his rescue. ‘On the Norwegian Lofoten-islands the smell of smoked fish is paramount. This you can only know if you have been there. I use the memory of such details to drag my readers into the story. Even if it’s pure fiction, the readers feels it is real.’
During the topic ‘Watching Arabs with Arabs’, confusion arises when the Dutch documentary filmmaker Hasnae Bouazza compares images of Arabs in Western and Arabic TV programs. ‘In the Western media we see mostly people who burn flags. In the region itself the programme Arab Idols shows more realistic human feelings.’ Curator Asmaa Azaizeh rears. ‘Films in the Middle East are often made to show the West that we are no barbarians. But the burning of flags is also an expression of genuine feelings of ordinary people.’ The clichés Bouazza shows strongly irritate both Azaizeh and poet Almadhoun. ‘If you really want to know more about us you should watch better films, also plenty of great art house films are made in the Middle East’, Azaizeh states afterwards.
Two art house films screened during Read My World also illustrate different emotions in East and West about the same images. The Agenda and Me (Naveen Shalaby) shows the events in Tahrir Square through the eyes of four people directly involved, the emotions are heartbreaking. In The house of the eyes Donna Verheijden and Martina Petrelli show an artistic workout of the attack on Gaza-City, of which they become witness on de last evening of the Qalandiya Art Biennial in Ramallah. As beautiful as shocking, their film became deeply philosophical essay on hope and despair and on the function of art in times of crisis. Two visions of raw reality, both digging deeply, but from a different emotional distance.
Eman Abdel Rahim and Milan Hulsing explore borders between reality and imagination in a different way. Abdel Rahim’s stories, like the graphic novels of Hulsing, blur these borders on purpose to find new ways of expression. Hulsings work is being translated into Egyptian. Abdel Rahim: ‘We want to create, think, be. As artists we have the privilege that we can switch easily between reality and imagination. In graphic novels you can express quite freely, just now they are hugely popular in Egypt.’
Humor and identity
Interviewer Wim Brands brings writer Ala Hlehel (Ramallah/Cairo) and columnist Asis Aynan handsomely to speak about humour as a weapon against excessive pathos. Aynan reads from I, Driss, the fictional story of a naive, brand new Moroccan guest worker wondering about the strange Dutch ways. ‘I virtually know nothing of the first generation’, Aynan says. ‘My father never told me anything, he just worked and prayed. Driss was completely fabricated , but through newspapers he received numerous letters and gifts. A municipality even offered him a job as a guide for other Moroccan immigrants.’ Hlehel asks, ‘ Weren’t you angry with your father? I was so angry with that weakling who did nothing while our people were humiliated. Only later I understood that he grew up under military rule, the generation of my parents was told to shut up. I’m of the Naqba-generation, rebellious and combative. I could not take up arms as a writer, so I decided to describe how simple people deal with the situation.’ He reads The Storyteller about his becoming a writer. ‘In essence, I put my ear to listen and just give the stories that I hear under Hajji’s porch.’
A real gem is the talk of Kirsten van den Hul with curator Abeer Soliman. Soliman wrote an Egyptian version of Heidi, created a blog for single women and became a national celebrity with Diary of a single lady. ‘A woman living on her own is hardly imaginable in Egypt. Women and girls are so desperate to get married that they swallow any crap before being trapped into marriage. We must get rid of the fear to be on our own if we want to become independent.’ Soliman comes from a country town. She always wanted become an artist but studied business and worked for IT companies to please her parents. With tears in her eyes she tells her parents still do not understand her choice to become a writer. ‘I look them up regularly, but there is no way that we can talk.’
The situation in Egypt? She sighs. ‘Okay, politics. Is it a coup? No, it’s something else. But the West does not want anything to happen that isn’t in its frame of understanding, so it has to be a coup.’ Egypt is looking for its own destiny, she says, sounding quite desperate. ‘And we will find it.’
For those not yet satisfied the evening ends with film in the Gazebo Bar, campfires, storytellers Sahand Sahebdivani and Krista Peters in the ‘conversation pit ‘, the ‘stray sounds festival’ and ironic folk of ‘The croissants terribles ‘.
ANSWERS AND MORE QUESTIONS (Sunday afternoon and evening)
The third day, Sunday, Yasser Abdel Latif has five students at his table in the Gazebo Bar. Initiated by the School of Poetry pupils from three schools have read five festival poets and made poems of their own. Lala reads her poem about two girls of 16, one in West and one in East, not aware of the others existence but sharing the same dreams and concerns. ‘Poetry is very important to me’, Lala says. ‘The poems of Yasser have a secret inside that you discover slowly. I try to write in the same way.’ A student of barely 15: ‘It strikes me that children of 15, 16 can have such deep thoughts. Also guys, normally just acting stupidly, can write sensitive poems.’ Abdel Latif is impressed. ‘Some are really good poets, I wish I had more time to talk with them.’
A few minutes later poetic abstraction reaches higher levels during a talk of four young Dutch poets with their American colleague Rob Halpern. Halpern wrote Disaster Suites, inspired by the moral confusion under President Bush, just published in Dutch translation. At the same time Ghayath Almadhoun and Willem Jan Otten prepare on the main stage for one of the beefs of Read My World, a combined reading of their poems The Road to Damascus and ‘Eindelicht’. Two seemingly incomparable poetic worlds: a stream of consciousness about the bowels of a lost city (Almadhoun) and an understated anthem for a windswept life on an imaginary island ( Otten ), surprisingly similar in their quest for meaning in the cruelty of fate.
Spectator Liesbeth Sarneel remains deep in thought in her chair. ‘I never do such a thing, but I ‘m really glad to have come. The story of that haunted Vietnamese blogger (Than Hieu Bui, fs) really took me, and then those two impressive poems, I need some time to think about it.’
Yes, says Willem Jan Otten about his meeting with Almadhoun, it was a real encounter. ‘Last week we rehearsed. Despite a large difference in life we found common ground in our poetic space.’ Delighted Otten is also about Read My World itself. ‘I am very happy with an international literature festival in Amsterdam. This is still the city with most poets and writers in Holland. If Poetry International could arise in Rotterdam, it must be possible to do such a thing in Amsterdam too.’ Rather than theatrical Malaka Badr’s reading in the Gazebo Bar is serene. Her anguish in a crowded bus to an unknown destination is a metaphor for Egypt after Tahrir. She and poet Maarten van der Graaff talk about irony in their work. Van der Graaff: ‘That irony has become a superficial everyday attitude does not mean one should completely abolish it. It remains an interesting way of looking at things.’ Badr: ‘ The irony in my poetry has changed since the Tahrir revolution. Sometimes I am astonished by the violence in my sentences. Meanwhile our themes remain the same as yours: failing love, how to act and feel in this world, the universal questions.’
Doro Wiese and Thomas Möhlmann put the spotlight on Lucebert, whose collected work is being translated into English. For Rob Halpern and Yasser Abdel Latif is the great Dutch linguistic alchemist is a discovery. The ‘young guns’ Tarik Hamdan ( Filistin Ashabab ) and Maartje Smits ( hard / head) study the artistic space of the Internet, where texts, film, music and visual art merge into new forms and combinations.
Time for an apotheosis. The closing session of Read My World, moderated by Chris Keulemans, is called ‘Documented reality’. Journalist and writer Frank Westerman, anthropologist and writer Matthijs van de Port and visual artist Jack Segbars shed light on the increasingly porous boundary between documentary and fiction. Keulemans examines in his Socratic way. ‘Are writers and artists not always and everywhere concerned with documenting reality?’ Van de Port: ‘So-called ‘facts’ simply mean little without a story, and that will always be subjective. Even in science this is gradually recognized.’ In other words, can reality be shared without narrative? Conversely, can fiction do without referring to the real world as we experience it from where we are?
By the end of the evening curator Abeer Soliman still has the energy to recall some unforgettable highlights of the past days. She is particularly affected, she says, by the great diversity of manifesta -tions of literary inspiration that the festival was able to show. ‘Thank you for giving me more questions’. Organisers Willemijn Lamp and Matthijs Ponte (r) are called to the stage by Asmaa Azaizah. As are Daphne de Heer (SLAA), Sarien Zijlstra (School of Poetry) and the complete festival crew. Azaizeh concludes with a personal summary. ‘This festival has made me less nihilistic, the encounter of writers here and in Palestine shows that our differences can be bridged.’ Again that stunning contralto. ‘Long live literature and poetry , f*** history!’ The closing party of Read My world’s first edition is on.
(Report by Frank Siddiqui | firstname.lastname@example.org)