July 2010
every day
Al-Sindiyan, Syria

Group photo of all poets at the Festival

Stephen Watts writes about the warm and inclusive Al-Sindiyan Festival in Syria

Every day, and many times a day, a little girl with brown hair about her face would come up to me and ask ‘how are you ?’. I’d say ‘I’m fine’ and then ask her how she was and she’d say exactly the same back to me. She painted, took part in the dance workshops and at the end of the Festival, when everyone’s work was performed or displayed, she appeared in many of the photographs documenting the days of the festival.

That is what the Festival was like : generous, warm, inclusive, very solidly done.

We arrived not so much straight into the village as straight into a hillside garden: a house beside a house and outside the last house trestle tables put together that gradually filled with people and food. There were olive trees nearby, there were fig trees and there were trees with a particular sort of pear. And there was friendship and generosity in abundance.

We got to know each other that first day. We got to know those trees too.

I spent memorable days there, and in the village of B’melke: talking with Atef Abdel-Aziz & Golan Haji, talking with Jumana Mustafa and Reem Youssef, talking with Bahram Hajou and Abdullah Moulad and Wadih Saadeh and Moncef and Jean-Claude Villain many others. Being let into the culture of those towns and hills, letting the earth of the Festival pass through my sandals and into my body.

Poets cooling off in the river

Poets cooling off in the river

There were twelve poets at the Festival. and as many artists, and we got to know each other slowly by talking and listening, by looking at each other’s work and by eating and travelling together. It was a slow pace, though not too slow, and it wasn’t the sort of Festival where you came for a day, read your poems, missed a lot of people and then were rushed off elsewhere. We were there together for a week and we were all there with the poet Rasha Omran who, together with many people from the villages about, co-ordinated it and allowed it all to happen.

The Festival takes place each August in al-Malatya, the village where Rasha’s father, the poet Mohammed Omran, was born and where in 1996 he died after a life led in many places, both inside and outside of Syria.

When we read, six poets on both of the final nights, maybe five hundred people had gathered from the villages around and from farther afield. There were people up on the hills’ edges, silhouetted against the gathering dusk. There were people sat at a small distance by the roadside taking in the longer view.

When the Festival was ending we all drove back in the bus to Damascus and as we skirted the desert’s edge, the city of Homs glittered in the distance. Our last evening together was spent in a restaurant in the alleyways of the old city of Damascus : not that far from Bab Tuma, very close to generosity and open spirit.

Jhe Jordanian newspaper Addustour reported on the festival in its cultural supplement of 17 July.

Addustour Supplement for 17 July reporting on Stephen Watts at Festival