In Tromso/ Norway: Crossing Borders with Culture

“In the free travel between cultures / researchers might find about the human essence / sufficient seats for all. Here a margin advances. Or a centre retreats/ the east is not totally east / nor the west is totally west/ as identity is open to multiple ownership / No castles nor trenches.”

Mahmoud Darwish


Tromso’s yearly International Literature Festival: (Ordkalotten), which is organized in northern Norway, concentrates on the tensions in the north, and reveals the contradictions between the north and south. It is concerned about opening up to the voices of the indigenous people of the country, highlighting the  status of contemporary literature, and the relationship between local and international literature; the matter that reflects its international scope.  


The festival discusses a specific literary subject every year since the year 2000. In this year (1-5 October 2008), poets, writers, musicians, and theatrical personnel, from various continents and countries; met to discuss the subject: “Breaking the borders and boundaries, ethically, aesthetically, and physically.”


They met to learn about the world’s cultural production of poetry, music, theatre and visual arts, to discuss diverse cultural experiences, and to enjoy the audio and visual arts: visual arts museums, photography, film, new books, lectures, conversational symposiums, in addition to listening to poetry in the poets’ own voices, with some poetry translation to Norwegian and English.


The festival was marked by its celebration with multi-cultural colours and unconventional means. Poetry was combined with singing at times and with music and documentary films at other times. Practical cultural projects were also part of the festival’s program, whereby university students studying creative writing participate, in the festival’s activities, at the time they were discussing their projects and productions, they interact and produce at the same time. Projects of cooperation and partnership were also discussed between two cultures or more within a broad vision to break the barriers and boarders, and to bring together and closer the cultures of the peoples.


The late poet Mahmoud Darwish looked upon the gathered writers in the festival’s opening. He greeted them with his poem that was read in Arabic and Norwegian: “I look over, like a house’s balcony  what I want,” He looked over his friends, “As they were carrying the sky’s mail: wine and bread, a few novels and records..” He promised them with more, after four days, in response to the calls of his German poets and writers, which called for dedicating the 5th of October as an international day to read his poems.


On the 5th of October , the poet glimpsed again on the poetry’s audience, through Arab and Norwegian poets, presenting numerous poems recited in Arabic, Norwegian, and English. From the Book: “Why have you left the horse alone?” poems were recited in both Arabic and Norwegian, and from the book: “In the Presence of Absence” poems were recited in Arabic. In addition, a group of old and new poems from a collection of books were recited: “Mahmoud Darwish’s Poetry Book,” “Like the Almond flower or beyond,” “The Butterfly Effect,” in both Arabic and English.


The American/ Indian poet: Tomas LaBlanc or Tatanka Ohitika, commented after hearing Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry: “I felt the presence of the poet’s pulse.” The scene was totally expressive: A red chair on the stage, Arab and Norwegian poets reading the poems while standing, and Mahmoud Darwish sitting on the chair, in the middle of the stage, and in the heart of the international poetic scene.


“We have one dream: For the air to pass

As a friend, and spreads the scent of  Arabic coffee

On top of the mountains surrounding  summer and  strangers..”



Writers, poets and producers of culture travelled across geographic borders, to break the barriers between them, and to exchange experiences, through free open discussion, and through the exchange of knowledge of cultural production. Have they done that?

There is no doubt that we, the Arab writers, have interacted with numerous writers, artists, and cultured people, through our participation in the festival. Language, however, remained a barrier that prohibited our profound interaction. Our participation remained restricted to activities with English translation, and to activities that did not require translation like poetry, music, and visual arts. We couldn’t participate in the conversational activities that were organized in the Norwegian language; the matter that made us present our recommendation to the festival, of the necessity to include translations to other languages, in order to increase interaction in the upcoming festivals. 


We need to open the windows of knowledge wide, and to look upon everything that is culturally new. We need to take a critical visionary glimpse. We need to learn about the people’s culture as much as the people need to learn about ours.