Last night every seat was full at the National Library of Scotland for an event some of us at Scottish PEN helped organise for Refugee Week. Iraqi exile Saadi Yousef (above), a major poet and translator of the Arab world who now lives in London, read musical words in English and Arabic. And Valerie Gillies in her final performance as Edinburgh's 'Makar' (poet Laureate) read from the work of four Iraqi poets in exile and then from her forthcoming poetry collection The Spring Teller - a book of landmark poems inspired by Scotland’s wells and springs to be published by Luath press. Introductions were made by Palestian poet Iyad Hayatleh who first heard Saadi read in Damascus in 1978. He now lives in Glasgow and gave a passionate reading of his own poem about the experience of exile, Trains, helping to make this a moving and lyrical evening.
Mostly a celebration of the riches of Iraqi writing, there was however a sombre reminder of the exodus of endangered writers and translators from Iraq following the war, a situation that PEN and its partners such as the International Cities of Refuge Network are working hard to address. Not only are many individual writers silenced, traumatised and removed from their audiences by such exile, but a cultural vacuum remains in the country which could take decades to foster again.