Celebration of Other Voices

This year's Sha'ar International Poetry Festival brought together poets who are, in a way, strangers in their own lands.

Ayelet Dekel
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Ayelet Dekel

"My poem is in classic Arabic. I hope someone will understand it," said Wael Ahmad Ammoorah, a Lebanese-Jordanian poet visiting Israel for the first time as part of the three-day Sha'ar International Poetry Festival, which was held last month and organized by Helicon - the Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel.

Icelandic, Chinese and Dutch were among the languages heard in quick succession as the festival opened with a "world tour" of 14 poets reading in 12 different languages. The auditorium was filled with an audience eager for dialogue, attentive to the music and emotion of the poets' voices. In the outside courtyard of Tel Aviv's Inbal Ethnic Theater stood a poetry "tree," with poems hanging from its branches, swaying in the nighttime breeze, beckoning passersby to linger a little and read.

This year's theme, "The Other Voice," brought together poets who are, in a way, strangers in their own lands. The invitees included Li Li, a Chinese poet who has been living and writing in Sweden for 20 years; Rikardo Arregi, a Basque poet; and Rivka Basman Ben-Haim, who was born in Lithuania, lives in Israel and writes poetry in Yiddish.

Amir Or, Helicon's artistic director and co-founder, not only seeks to promote poetry, but also to create a dialogue among people who otherwise might never meet. This year's festival took poetry outdoors, with "Hyde Park-style" reading sessions in the courtyard. This format both created an opportunity for the many poets who responded to the call for submissions, but also for those roaming through the neighborhood of Neveh Tzedek, who found themselves in the midst of a poetry reading.

One of the festival's strengths is its ability to take poetry out of its dusty corner in the attic and to introduce it into different venues using a plethora of means, including video art, theater, music and dance. Actor Yonatan Scwarz performed a poem by young poet Eli Eliyahu called "Perhaps I should begin to clean up my life," climbing down from the stage to offer a flower to Colombian poet Bella Clara Ventura, whose spontaneous response was to complete the poem in her native Spanish, with the word amor. When Aliza Aviv sang the poems of Greek Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis, Greek poet Anastassis Vistonitis sang along enthusiastically from his seat.

The poems' Hebrew translations were projected onto a screen (there was simultaneous translation into English via headphones for the visiting poets), yet the unfamiliar words and melodic intonations of the many languages called for a different kind of listening: concentrated yet patient, open, alert to the timbre of a voice, the movement of a hand. Inviting the audience to listen to those voices "coming out of the silence and darkness," presenter Roi Horowitz introduced the deaf-blind performers of the Na Laga'at (Please Touch) Theater. Voicing the group's fierce desire for communication, poet Itzik Hanuna recited words he could not hear: "When someone touches my hand I feel the loneliness disappear."

One could hear and see almost anything at the festival. Brazilian voice artist Nilson Muniz, whose performance combined movement, sound and texts, put a potted plant on his head and showered himself with pebbles, smiling at the audience and saying: "You don't understand me." Stepping onto the stage still strewn with pebbles, Karen Alkalay-Gut casually picked one up, imbuing it with a new meaning as she read: "Where do all the stones come from - the pebbles mourners pile on graves as they file out of the cemetery?"

Draped in musician Daniel Solomon's jacket to ward off the late night's cold air, Raquel Halfi closed the session with a reading that mesmerized the audience with the passion of a quiet moment.

The third night of the festival took place in Arara village, in an evening co-produced with the Diwan El Lajun Theater, located in an enormous structure next to a gas station. From a distance it was not clear if this was the remains of a building that was destroyed or something still in the process of being built. Entering the building, one moved past empty frames to cement walls with openings for windows and exposed wires, to brightly lit corridors, ultimately reaching the theater, where handcrafted puppets adorn the walls.

Juxtaposing Bella Clara Ventura's poem "I am a Jew" with classical Arab music, the evening brought together not only different languages and traditions, but people themselves. Poet Mruan Makhoul read a new poem that has not yet been translated, in memory of the poet Mahmoud Darwish. His voice rough with emotion, hands tracing arabesques in the air, he paused at one point to ask the oud player to accompany him as he continued to recite, eyes closed, his voice hushed to a reverent whisper. Actor Gassan Abbas, Diwan El Lajun's founder and the evening's host, said of Makhoul's reading, "Sometimes you don't need to understand [the words] - you need to feel."

Makhoul is a graduate of Helicon's Arab-Jewish Poetry workshop, where he received a scholarship that covered a year of training in writing, translating and editing. "Helicon," he says, "was the only window of opportunity open to me, and I agreed to go there because it is politically neutral." The unique workshop, which requires a double number of teaching staff to conduct classes in two languages, has not been able to continue its activities for the past two years due to a lack of funds.

Despite the festival's warm atmosphere and open dialogue, most of the poets reflected the attitude expressed by Vistonitis - that "We're not the ones who will change the world." The festival is "a good idea, but a little romantic," admitted Makhoul, later adding, "these encounters are a little romantic, but they do bring people closer together."

Each year the Helicon festival provides an opportunity for the start of a dialogue that will only be sustained by continued effort. As Arregi, who came to Israel for the festival despite the pervading anti-Israeli sentiments among his Basque peers, said: "After the festival, your work must begin at home, to find these people, their poems. It's not enough to know the person one day." Perhaps the spirit of the festival was best expressed in the words of Shirley Kaufman, who read on the final night in Jerusalem, "I want to step forward into the impossible."

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