Week Before The Festival: Littfest in Sweden

A Practice in Translation Beyond Translation

/ by Kholod Saghir

Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance” – Mahmoud Darwish

Mona Saffar and Ida Börjel reading at the Bahraini and Saudiarabian Festival “Dreams are not negotiable” 2016. Photo: Kholod Saghir
Thanks to the access to the platform and experience of Bagdad Café’s International Poetry Festival in Stockholm, dealing with translation workshops of foreign poetry, me and my project partner, Hanna Nordenhök, writer and literary critic, were inspired to create and develop the idea of an exchange project between female poets born after 1970, in the Middle East and in Sweden.

Hanna Nordenhök and I shared the mutual interest in literature, social movements and feminism, and we started to create a platform to carry out our idea. The idea had actually arisen already, when I was working with democracy development in Palestine in 2008. It was the time before the Arab Spring. Through my experience of political work in the West Bank, I could not even glimpse the presence of younger women in power positions, even though it happened that I, by accident, met bright young Palestinian women. Unfortunately, it occurred during busy days; often short moments, in small smoky cafés either in Bethlehem or Ramallah. I was now convinced that if I wanted to meet the intellectual young women of Palestine, I had to look elsewhere, beyond politics...

Then, in the uprisings during the Arab Spring, Hanna Nordenhök and I witnessed how women played a prominent role as activists and intellectuals all over the Arab World. As feminists in Sweden, the commitment of intellectual women in the Middle East became a driving force for us to contribute to.

The project started as part of the Bagdad Café International Poetry Festival, and was later also conducted in cooperation with the International Poetry Festival in Gothenburg, and supported by the Swedish Institute.

The core of the project is the creation of a literary and personal exchange and network between Swedish female poets and female poets from different countries/areas in the Middle East. The center of attention in this is contemporary poetry written by women. What role does poetry (in many Middle Eastern countries traditionally valued as a political and social tool) play in these countries? And what does it mean to be a female writer today?

The purpose of this platform is also to destabilize patriarchal structures, both in the receiving countries and in Sweden.

Every year the project consists of four parts:

- Preparation, readings of the chosen country’s female poetry, selection of poets from the Middle Eastern country, and poets from Sweden.

- The Swedish poets travel to country X, meet the local poets and start to work in translation workshops, have discussions, attend seminars, and do common poetry readings in cooperation with local cultural actors and institutions.

- Back in Sweden, the Swedish delegation work on an issue of the Swedish and Nordic literary magazine, Kritiker, on the theme of each country’s female poetry and art, involving also the poets from the chosen country. Beside the poets themselves, established translators in Sweden are also involved in the translation work. It is a very collective work beyond borders through Skype, Viber and Messenger, over the course of many months.

- The opening of the poetry festival in Sweden is always at the Swedish Writers’ Union, where we celebrate the arrival of the poets to Sweden, the gathering of nowadays dear friends and the release of the issue of Kritiker.

So what have we achieved? We planned to organize three festivals, but ended up with four and a publication of a whole book translated from Arabic to Swedish:

- 2012 – Palestinian Poetry Festival “Lonely bodies cannot write”

- 2013 – Iranian Poetry Festival “A resistance movement on my desk”

- 2014 – Iraqi Poetry Festival “A limited destiny and another reckless”

- 2015 – Collective translation workshop on the Iraqi poet, Rasha Al Qaseem’s, first collection of poems I fed the war with the people I loved, later published by 10-tal Bok. The translation was made by me and the Swedish writers and poets Sara Mannheimer and Elisabeth Hjort, all participants in the Iraqi exchange.

- 2016 – Bahraini and Saudi Arabian Festival “Dreams are not negotiable.”

The artistic meetings between the female poets created a new platform in Sweden for Middle Eastern female poetry to be read and published, and enabled a freer debate, since most of the poetry presented had an oppositional agenda towards the ruling system. By focusing on women’s writing from a newer generation of poets, new voices were now heard in Sweden. This platform shortened the literary distance between Sweden and the Middle East. A good example is that the Iraqi poet Rasha Alqaseem’s first poetry collection will be published in Swedish this spring, even before it’s arrival in Arabic.

In the case of Sweden, this also had consequences beyond the Swedish poets involved, also for the Iranian, Palestinian and Iraqi minorities of exiled migrants, and the project, in accordance with this, also worked for the visibility of the effect of migration and exile, highlighting the question of belonging for migrants in a Swedish context.

Swedish public spheres and audiences who showed interest came to broaden their knowledge on poetry written by women, as well as intellectual life and activism in the Middle East.

It is my conviction that the creative and personal meetings between professional female poets, and the long term work in four steps, is a good way to achieve a mutual and deeper knowledge of the conditions of contemporary female poetry and of intellectual women’s situations.

I would like to finish with the words of the Bahraini poet, Ranwa Al-Amassy, expressing her point of view of the impact the exchange had on her:

“It is to simplify, to call it a translation project. It includes discovering what is beyond the poetry, the poet herself, her environment and questioning why she wrote this, not what she wrote. For the Swedish poet in my case, Sara Hallström, I think she got the chance to create her own picture of my poetry. As for me, an Arab poet, I only write what concerns me, my everyday life. After the meeting with the Swedish audience, I got the chance to know them. Only knowing that someone will read my poetry in another language made me think differently. Probably my language is also changing towards a more universal one.”

Kholod Saghir

was born in 1977. She has studied Political science with specialization on democracy, as well as Literature and French, at Sorbonne and other universities. Saghir works as a project manager and business developer, but is also a translator, moderator and debater. She has participated in the notable writing course “Witch School” at the Academy of Valand in Gothenburg.