Hazel McHaffie

hostile ewnvironments

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2021

Well, who’d have thought it?… the Edinburgh International Book Festival is being transmitted in a hybrid form – virtual alongside real appearances – because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant restrictions, yet again this year.

This time for the first time it’s based in the Edinburgh College of Art as part of a liaison with the University of Edinburgh. So odd to hear the familiar sounds from a solid building instead of under canvas! But I welcomed the chance to watch it live from the comfort and safety of my own study.

My first session was on Day 1, and so so different from anything I’ve attended before. The speaker was Hoda Barakat, a Lebanese author, speaking from Paris where she now lives. Both she and the chair, David Codling, British Council Co-Director Literature communicated in Arabic, French and English! Leaves one feeling wholly inadequate, doesn’t it? But happily for us lesser mortals, a young Irish translator rendered Barakat’s answers in English too. It made for a cumbersome hour but some salutary messages emerged.

The book under review was Voices of the Lost, a novel which tells the hidden story of immigration and the Arab Spring. Barakat herself feels despairing about her country and feels it must die before new life can emerge. Millions of people have been, and still are, on the move, going to extraordinary lengths to escape from the country they love, and the book explores the complexity of human nature, and the mechanism of violence. She tries to zoom in on the violence and ask: Where does it come from?  Even the most monstrous of characters, the torturers and murderers, have their soft spots, she says.

Surely a most timely book in a week that has seen the Taliban take over control of Afghanistan and yet another wave of desperate people seek to flee from their homeland. Who can fail to be moved by the horror faced by those living under brutal regimes, and the perils they face attempting to find asylum in foreign lands?

Another challenging session on a similar theme had three writers – Leah Cowan, Julian Fuks and Abbas Nazari – talking about hostile environments and refugees and exile and immigration, exploring the themes of inter-connectednes and the senselessness of borders. Nazari was a 7 year old Afghan refugee twenty years ago, who has made a name and life for himself in New Zealand, and he too very much brought alive the impact of what’s happening in his country today.

Heart-wrenching topics explored through writers who are prepared to dig deep into trauma and tragedy.

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