Reading in the third edition of the Tanta International Festival of Poetry in Egypt (27-31 October 2017) was, above all, a joy. One of the features of this year’s festival that made it special for me was the interaction with small communities in areas on the outskirts of the city of Tanta, places that one wouldn’t normally associate with an international poetry event.
Reading at the Ekhnawai Youth Centre was a particularly beautiful moment. When we got there in our van after negotiating the very narrow streets, we found a packed room of people of all ages eagerly waiting for us. There were five of us reading: Mohamed Bentalha from Morocco, Zizi Shousha and Ibrahim Bagalati from Egypt, and Juan Manuel Uría from the Basque Country in Spain. Dr Awad Bayyoumi presided over the evening and read the translations into Arabic of my poetry and that of Juan Manuel.
The audience appreciated the different voices, the different traditions and languages, the different moods and emotions. And we really appreciated their passionate participation in our readings, their applause, their enthusiasm to take selfies with us and tell us, time and again, how much they appreciated our presence among them. We thanked them for their warm welcome and response.
Later, in the van, while our driver again bravely negotiated the narrow streets and the residents standing on the side to wave goodbye, Ibrahim and I talked about how special this moment was for us, about how poetry can touch people and connect experiences that may seem so far apart. We talked about how poetry can become a shared space of art and human encounter, a shared moment, about how listening to a poem in a language you don’t know makes you focus on its physicality, on its pure sounds and rhythms and the emotions they propose.
And this is the second thing I would like to say about the Tanta festival: the fact that the programme allowed us poets to spend time together, to get to know each other, to talk about the art of poetry, about what it means to us and what it can mean to those who experience it. Because we are both producers and consumers of poetry – perhaps consumers more than anything else. 40 poets from Egypt and other countries came together for this year’s edition: I can’t say that I managed to get to know each and every one of them, but I can say that the structure of the programme, with three simultaneous readings every day at 11.00am and another three at 8.00pm allowed us to meet and talk and to listen to each other.
The third aspect of this festival which I found very important was the fact that the members of the organizing team, all volunteers and focused totally on the organization even though they are all poets themselves, spent a great deal of time with us. So did the 13 University students who joined the team, Sometimes, the fact that my knowledge of Arabic is so elementary was a handicap, but this never stopped us from connecting. Because connecting is not only about using words. And the constant need for translation meant that we negotiated the intricacies of language like our driver in the narrow streets around the Ekhnawai Youth Centre.
I’d like to thank the festival director, Mahmoud Sharaf, and all the organizing team and volunteers for a great week of poetry and friendship, and I wish them all the very best. We have all learnt a great deal from them, and felt inspired.
On a personal note, special thanks to Yasser Abdel-latif for recommending me to the organizers, to Walid Nabhan who translated my poetry into Arabic so beautifully, and to Mohamed El-Baaly of Sefsafa for publishing Masafat.