Reading at the Iraqi Cultural Centre

On Saturday 9 August Adnan and I went in the afternoon to the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Shepherd’s Bush with Patricia de Mayo who plays oud with our poetry readings. We had been invited by the Director of the Centre, Dr Abdulrahman Dheyab, to give a performance of our poetry to an invited, mainly Iraqi, audience. The Centre is quietly luxurious with richly coloured carpets and Mesopotamian artefacts. There were posters for ‘Baghdad, City of Culture’ on the walls. The staff were very kind and brought us teas and coffees with little biscuits and snacks as we rehearsed

Lucy Wilkinson arrived at 4.00pm to bring the specially collapsible screens she has made to frame our reading. We started at 7.00pm and were introduced by the Marketing Director, Waheda Al-Mukdadi who said of our work -“At a time when the great heritage of Iraq is being attacked and destroyed, by presenting this work you are leading a civilised counter-revolution against the backward mentality of the terrorist ISIS gangs. I suppose every Iraqi individual feels indebted to you. Thank you.” Which was humbling in the extreme!

There was a large and responsive audience. Because poetry is still very centra l to Iraqi culture, people love and respond to it far more vocally than in the UK where it has become marginalised. When we read some lines particularly well, or the sentiment was particularly liked there would be spontaneous applause and sounds of appreciation from the audience who also kept eye contact with us throughout the one and a half hour reading, smiling and nodding to show their enjoyment and understanding. This warmth and energy fuelled our reading considerably and it became very much a two-way dialogue.

Before we started, we showed our film, Anthem for Gilgamesh, which was received with emotion and tears by many in the audience – especially when my granddaughter, Abigail, sang her solo in her lovely, innocent child’s voice. Anthem for Gilgamesh was launched on YouTube later that evening by Mouthanna, Adnan’s son and has had nearly 5,000 hits to date.

After the reading, I was presented with a beautiful gold-coloured replica of the lyre found in the Royal Burial Pit at Ur – one of the artefacts we showed on our background reel of Mesopotamian art. I was taken totally be surprise and overwhelmed by this gift. After a TV interview and many, many talks with many, many people we went home with the prospect of working more with the Centre in the future. It’s amazing that all this has come from finding the album of photos my father took in Iraq when he fought there in the First World War and the research and work that followed that discovery which led to my book, Taking Mesopotamia. In fact, Waheda said to me as we left “When it’s safer, we will get you to Iraq to walk in your father’s foot steps, we promise!” Wonderful prospect!

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