Sarah Irving began the night with two riveting extracts from her biography of Leila Khaled (a Palestinian freedom fighter, who rose briefly to world prominence in 1969 when she hijacked a passenger jet). Sarah’s emphasis was not placed on politics or religion, but on the personal. Through interviews with Leila, she has constructed a vivid and sometimes harrowing account of how an individual can be drawn into violent uncertainty by geopolitical forces outwith one’s control.
This theme was carried over by the next two speakers, Tessa Ransford and Iyad Hayatleh, who have collaborated to create an extraordinary book: Rug of a Thousand Colours. This title seeks to forge a window of understanding between Christianity and Islam, by meditating on the ‘five pillars’ which both religions share: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Iyad’s readings, in particular, were intensely moving – reminding us that poetry, at its best, is not a Victorian parlour game and instead the cry of an impassioned human spirit, reaching out to be heard. Displaced from Palestine and Syria, but now building a life and audience in Glasgow, Iyad conveyed with great dignity the impact on families of war and division. We have heard Gaelic, Spanish, and German this year at the SWC, but Iyad’s Arabic demonstrated the rhythm and drama of this ancient tongue (which sports ninety words for love, compared to the paltry handful in English). Even atheists among the audience can’t have failed to sense that Tessa and Iyad share the same God, and that simple peace and reconciliation is the hope of ordinary people everywhere.
Laurence Northcote continued the international theme with an all-too-brief summary of her extraordinary life as the child of a diplomat (living in countless countries and mastering six languages). A theme for the evening was now emerging: of how the human rights which we take for granted in Scotland, such as liberty and freedom of expression, are still being dearly won across the globe. Mary Smith’s poetry, beginning in Scotland and reaching Afghanistan (where Mary worked intermittently for several years between the Soviet departure and the Taliban takeover), furthered this globalist message.
Mary McCabe brought us all back to the earth of Scotland with some very funny and sharply observed prose, from her novel about the lives of her recent ancestors. Colourful dialect was enjoyed, and it was heartening to see those for whom English is not a first language – never mind Scots – laughing and delighting in these universal human dramas which are common to all cultures. By the evening’s close, it could not be doubted that what unites us all dwarfs our petty differences.