On December 2nd 2009, the Trust held a cultural evening at Ustinov College , Durham University , at which well-known poets and musicians from the North East of England read and performed their work to an extremely appreciative audience of students and Durham citizens. Ustinov College is the university’s postgraduate college and is home to students from all over the world. It is an ideal setting for cultural events that build inter-cultural understanding.

The poets who came were Dr. Keith Armstrong, Katrina Porteous, Cynthia Fuller and Paul Summers. They read their own work selecting poems and themes that might resonate with those who had an interest in the Middle East . None of them addressed the situation in Palestine directly, but by speaking each in their own way of the past, of the importance of place in human identity, of peace and of war, they suggested an affinity between the experiences of Palestinians and our own. For example, images of the Roman Wall across Northumberland and of coastal fortresses like Dunstanburgh Castle in the poetry of Katrina Porteous may for many in the room have called to mind Israel ’s separation barrier that scars the landscape of the West Bank . Katrina was not, however, making a political point. As she explained afterwards, fearful that she may have offended some listeners: ‘My intention, as I tried to indicate in my introduction, was only to refer to situations in our own history and spiritual relationship to place which might have resonance with the Palestinian situation -- a longing for home, peace, and the justice upon which peace depends.’ Poetry in this vein is not itself political but enables us to think about politics in a new light. In this sense it is, to use Seamus Heaney’s phrase, ‘redressive’: it extends the reach of our language, our thoughts and feelings to allow us to think about the ways in which the world we know now and the lives people live might be different. The poets who came to Ustinov College had considered reading some Palestinian poetry in translation. As Katrina Porteous explained, however, they chose, for good reasons, not to do so: ‘It’s difficult for us to read poetry in translation and in such a different idiom from our own; but the sentiments are universal. It’s surely this universality which provides the greatest hope of overcoming differences’.

Fine-tuned satirical poems about contemporary politics by Keith Armstrong and Paul Summers enabled their listeners to wonder whether the solutions to the conflicts of the Middle East can be safely left in the hands of present-day politicians. The humour of their work was itself instructive: it points to the need, and they do it admirably, to step back from everyday, taken-for-granted assumptions and arguments, not just to ridicule them but to think beyond them and to imagine different possibilities for the future. Both these poets were able to make fun of the communities from which they came, not to devalue them but to reach beyond them and to acknowledge that other communities have different values from which we can all learn and that in doing so we become free of the entrapments that breed fear, hate and conflict.

In the poems read by Cynthia Fuller, the present elided powerfully into the past with vivid personal recollections of the pain of young men at war felt by those they leave behind. Her focus was the First World War, but the sense of futility and loss evoked in her example is universal and especially poignant with the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan in mind. Her poems encouraged listeners to hear in the tender, clear yet uncertain voices of ordinary folk dealing with sadness and loss, the absurdity and violence of the great moments of politics and history.

Musicians Gary Miller and Marie Little sang of the North East of England, of its communities and their struggles and their hopes. Music builds and sustains solidarities across cultures and through time. These songs were not about Palestine . They were for Palestine , gifts of cultural solidarity and sharing.

The evening came to a close with a short reading from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘A state of Siege’ about the siege of Ramallah by Israeli forces in 2002. From the suffocating and atrocious conditions of military siege and the Occupation, Darwish drew the future possibility of Palestinians and Israelis sharing common human lives on the basis of mutuality and respect. The redressive power of this poetry can surely not be bettered.

Those who experienced this evening of poetry and song in Ustinov College will surely look back on it as a moment when their world moved, even just a little, towards a better future where people across different cultures explore their differences creatively, dissolving away those that breed misunderstanding, bitterness and conflict. This, at least, is the hope that inspires the cultural work of Durham Palestine Educational Trust. For this reason Trust members are deeply grateful to the poets and musicians and the staff of Ustinov College for making this such a memorable event.


the jingling geordie

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whitley bay, tyne and wear, United Kingdom
poet and raconteur