Before I travelled to Jordan I became slightly obsessed with Lee Miller’s Portrait of Space, taken when she was in Egypt in 1937. I pinned a copy on my kitchen wall and later, after visiting her exhibition at the Hepworth, propped a postcard on my mantelpiece. It was thrilling to discover my very own version in the bathroom of my flat at the CBRL – the same torn fly screen and sense of an unknowable beyond (literally in my case, with the opaque glass and shadowy Islamic curves) – uncanny as well as affirming to find this significant view had travelled east with me. I took it as a good sign.
One of the events I participated in in Amman was a session with English Literature students from Jordan University – all wonderfully well-read, enthusiastic and attentive young people. In the Q & A after my reading, one of them enquired about my position as observer in my poems – always looking rather than doing. We’d already discussed Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ and Keats’s ‘negative capability’ so I was sorry that I perhaps hadn’t expressed clearly enough how active I believe looking and listening are, how much they demand of us – often far harder than talking or doing.
It was a reminder of the risk that looking and listening, both happening in silence, won’t be seen, acknowledged or valued in our hectic, cacophonous world. What is slow and reflective must be as important and transformative as more visible engaged energy. Don’t we need both – as individuals and collectively?
Spending time in Jordan gave me plenty of opportunities for observation – spiced with the exciting freshness of surprise – but also to connect, communicate and play. Moving between being alone and with others, I was able yet again to interrogate my ideas about folk (of all tribes) who appear different from me – how we might occupy the space together. It also took me to a place where I could re-acquaint myself with all the ‘others’ I carry inside me, my own warring factions and scapegoats. There is never simply looking or listening: alone or all-one, we are always thoroughly implicated – and knowing that, changes the quality of our various modes of perception. This is the space a writer (or an artist, like Lee Miller) must climb through and create from, making something invisible visible.
So that is my task now – assimilating and tentatively transforming my experience, notes, reading and images into some new writing, mindful of 19thcentury traveller to the Levant, Isabella Romer’s warning that trying to find anything new to say is ‘like squeezing a squeezed lemon’ (1846). I think maybe she was guarding her own threshold too jealously. Better to keep in mind the TLS’s review of Gertrude Bell’s The Desert and the Sown, her compelling (though not unproblematic) account of a journey through Syria, published in 1907:
Women perhaps make the best travellers, for when they have the true wanderer’s spirit they are more enduring and, strange to say, more indifferent to hardship and discomfort than men. They are unquestionably more observant of details and quicker to receive impressions. Their sympathies are more alert, and they get into touch with strangers more readily.
I stayed in Amman during September as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), St Mary’s College, Durham University, Dr Fadia Faqir and the British Council.
You can read an earlier post from Amman on the Durham Book Festival blog. There will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with my Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan chaired by Fadia Faqir on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm. All are very welcome.