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17 October 14 words: James Walker
An Afghanistan female rapper, books written on cigarette papers in prison and a Belfast writer's death threats

The world may no longer be in the throes of a Great War but when we consider the Civil Wars, Arab Springs uprising, Boko Haram and ISIS it is easy to see why Pope Francis called our current predicament a ‘piecemeal’ World War III. And this is before we’ve even got on to unreported drone attacks and illegal torture at Guantanamo Bay. Basically the world is in a  right shit storm which makes the role of the writer ever more crucial.  

Writer and Editor Malu Halasa showcased the work of artists and writers in Syria Speaks, a diverse publication which includes everything from comics to poetry to reportage. The aim of the publication it to challenge the culture of violence and intimidation in a country split between military factions. But this has caused great difficulties:

“During the commissioning and editing process for the book Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, we kept asking ourselves about the value of art and culture when such bloodshed was taking place in Syria. Wouldn’t the artists in the anthology suffer the same fate as Syria itself, and be deafened or blotted out as the sound of weapons reached a deafening crescendo.”

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Syria Speaks won the 2013 English PEN Award

If you listened to such logic and gave in to fear then nothing would change. Therefore Malu came to the conclusion that “creativity is not only a way of surviving the violence but of challenging it”. She recounted some incredible stories, such as one writer who wrote on Rizla papers in prison, such was the desire to share his feelings of what was going on with the wider world. It was odd to learn this story as during the evening (over in London) Richard Flanagan won the Booker for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which he started to write on beer mats one day when the story suddenly hit him. Of course their personal circumstances are completely different but it did serve as a reminder that stories are what make us human and that the need to share them is what compels people to write, no matter how adverse their personal situation. 

Poet Suhrab Sirat moved to London earlier this year and is unable to return to war-torn Afghanistan. He read three poems, two of which were in his native tongue and then translated by Jo Glanville. I always enjoy poetry readings like this as you can imagine the emotion in the poem through intonation, delivery and hand gestures before hearing the English version.
He talked about being a child growing up in a post 9/11 Afghanistan and how when the Taliban were eventually forced out, he and friends instantly burned the turbans they had been forced to wear. But the thing that was most significant for Suhrab was when he first heard music being played on a radio. Censorship of music - alongside most other forms of individual expression - were forbidden, though this can probably be traced back to the beginning of communist rule under Nur Muhammad Taraki in 1978. Part of the reason for the Taliban’s enforced ban on music related back to refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan that wanted to preserve a constant state of mourning. For modern Afghans like Suhrab, music is most definitely about celebration.
Suhrab kept drawing on the metaphor of flying, saying this was required if you are “to make something valuable”. He linked up with Afghanistan PEN and there found a platform to express his ideas. However, change in his home country is difficult as there are still extreme radical religious groups, many backed by the government, who are less accepting of youthful expressions of ideas.
The most prescient example of this is Soosan Firooz, who is, wait for it, Afghanistan’s first female rapper. Hip Hop is a natural form of expression for the marginalised and has become a platform for the 23 year-old to explore issues such as female identity, something unimaginable a decade ago. More surprising, too, is that she is not doing this in exile. Suhrab Sirat was hired to write Soosan’s memories and ideas into lyrics and is an incredible collaboration that must bring hope to those who have felt silenced for so long. The lyrics include ‘you raped me, you stoned me’ and although the process will be slow, will go some way towards changing attitudes towards culturally sensitive issues that have been ignored due to the weight of tradition and religious fundamentalism.     

Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell is possibly one of the funniest men I have ever heard speak and had that rich gallows humour that comes from growing up during ‘the Troubles’ (Na Trioblóidí). As a child he became aware that something was wrong when he tried to cross the road to play with a friend and inadvertently crossed the protestant/Catholic divide. He left school at an early age and became a self-taught reader. The first book he read was the bible, the second a dictionary, the third a thesaurus. Eventually he discovered the meaning of words and from this has become a very successful playwright.

He talked about how communities hide away their fear in hatred and how he has tried to address this through his plays. This has resulted in him moving house 9 times, having shots fired through his windows, and seeing crucial witnesses to such intimidation disappear in the night. It kind of put things into perspective and reminded me that my noisy neighbours aren’t so bad after all (but they are still noisy tossers). But the funniest story he told was about his car being blown up on his drive in 2005. At the time he’d been working in England and rushed home to Belfast to watch a Glasgow Rangers match on the TV. The men who blew up his car had Rangers scarves on and when he saw them he had a go. “Why aren’t you at home watching the match?” he said. It was a crucial game as if Rangers had won they would qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in their history.  

The thing that motivated Gary to write is he wanted to see a Protestant as the hero of a play, although his original ambition was to be an actor. He's tried to bring a human dimension to 'the troubles' which led to a strange situation where he was given an award by a Catholic for a TV play. Rather than being celebrated for using words to unite his community, his Loyalist brethren perceived this to be evidence that he was a traitor.

But the awards and national acclaim are not something that matter to Gary. The most significant thing to happen to him was when a man came up to him in a shop and said are you Gary Mitchell. Naturally fearing that he was in for a hiding or worse, the man then said he left the Loyalists after seeing one of his films. There can be no better validation for writing than knowing one less person in the world is causing bloodshed.

Faultlines was at Waterstones on Tuesday 14 October 2014

Festival of Words website


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