Destination was Palma de Mallorca, an island of Spain. I had been invited to participate at the 12th Mediterranean Poetry Festival which held from May 31 to June 3, 2010.
Traveller that I had been, I knew well enough that each trip etches its own map on the memory, sometimes with the colour of vengeance or a halo of tenderness. Also, I knew that imagination had to be a subjective judge of history, opting to remember, retain or forget things hurled at us by the reality of encounters. So let me start, abruptly.
At Schiphol in Amsterdam, the Customs boy wanted to know, again, if I had a return ticket, so I wouldn’t be tempted to stay put in Europe! I was amused, really amused.
But the real encounter happened in Mallorca (Majorca), or as the Arabs who occupied the place before called it, Medina Mayurqa, the brusque female officer searched my bag and searched. She first wondered how come I bought a ticket online in Spanish when I don’t speak the language! I told her that the trouble to secure the tickets was my hosts’. She wanted to know why I was carrying several clothes and three mobile phones to a week’s programme...and then, she wanted to know if I carried any hard drugs to complete my baggage! I burnt my cool, I asked for translation. She didn’t even catch my manicured anger early. Surprised still, I announced that I am a university professor, writer, artist, as if these are antonyms to drug baronage, gesticulating, scribbling in air, I told the unfazed fool. Of course, she knew I came in direct from Lagos, Nigeria. “You just telling me that!” She picked a pack of my poetry book, bandaged in nylon, and I thought finally, here’s a ready ID, at least my blurb picture is the proof now.
Are you this one, or is your brother?
“This is me, my name here, see.”
No, no, no, it is not you. Ok, your hotel, where you stay?
“I really don’t know. I am meeting others, please. They are waiting for me outside…”
What she did after confirmed to me that there is a universal region of the paramilitary mind that dies when reasoning matters: the wiry girl proceeded to flip, page by page, through Gather my blood rivers of song, not pretending to read the English word, but looking for Nigerian weed! You, you… have it? She brought two twisted fingers to her nose, her head bent, an ostrich fishing for earthworm in the air, she exaggerated the jerk of a sniffing addict, - …have it, drug…somewhere...? - she queried without remorse. My voice gathered serious pitch, “Madam, what do you mean? That statement is an embarrassment. I have come to Palma for business, I mean literary programme… This is embarrassing.” I looked around as if help would come from an indifferent lot.
The squint in the eye of this unsettling mosquito was hard enough to make me feel like taking the next flight out of the island. I had high dream of spending eight beautiful days to capture the breath of the Mediterranean space. Now, another officer, aloof until he was called upon, disappeared with my passport into a cubicle. A chauffeur and Annie, my translator, were outside, waiting. Stranded momentarily; I hated the reputation of a late African guest. So, I tried a higher pitch: “Look, look at my bag, look at my picture, I have the contact number of my host here, please call Biel, Biel Mesquida, please check with Biel…, or call the coordinator, Carlota Oliva! Why would you say a thing like this...?” Then the boss of the Balearic mosquito came close and waved, in utter amusement at what sounded as my strange bravado. He whispered a phrase, returned the green passport.
When she finally finished with my bag, she said, “bon dias”...It sounded like “burn your ass” in her mouth.
After that sting, all else was beautiful in Palma…
The following day, the translator recounted the experience to other writers in the group at a press conference. With a little embellishment, the little matter became further belittled. The moderator called it “Remi’s anecdote”. Photo shoots, walk around the city, lunch and retreat. Thereafter, poetry lived on many tongues.
Mallorca... That place was charged like a ring of fire for the inspired soul, its centre taken over by adventure-some tourists. The weather was benign, the marriage of a tropical breath and the temperate kiss under the sun. Sometimes, I too felt like a tourist with a difference.
There were fifteen of us on the bill: Saleh Abdalahi Hamudi, Nicole Brossard, Nevena Budimir, Antoni Canu, Jacques Dupin, Mustafa Koz, Josep Pedrals, Jaume C. Pons, Arnau Pons, Peru Saizprez, Remi Raji, Carles Santos, Christian Uetz, Jose Viale Moutinho and Blanca Llum Vidal. A united nations of poets from different cultures, making connections with different languages – Catalan, Spanish, French, Turkish, Portuguese, German, English, Serbian, and Yoruba.
We took the trip to the village called Buger, outside Palma and Inca, to the Fundacio ACA, which supports contemporary Catalan composers and writers. Here, you can see the rooftops of Palma to the left, and to the right, the serene skyline which stretches to the Mediterranean rooftop of Africa. Lunch of olive oil, rice, cheese and music. Biel was magisterial, kind, compassionate, poetry in motion, living in the human blood. As the host, Biel had time for every request, he had answer for every poetic desire and idiosyncrasy. It was months after I had weaned my palate from the indulgence of beef, white or red; I had let go of the flesh of any other mammal, venison like me. I am not vegetarian, neither am I the certified carnivore. I found an epicurean mid-way, and identified myself as pro-mammalian, finicky to a fault when it comes to the choice of food or drink. The chef at the Fundacio responded quickly, and I fed my desires… Afterwards, audio recordings and video interviews to end a long day’s trip.
There was also the journey to the convent in Valldemossa, and to Deia, the hills and valleys of flowers. While some found comfort swimming in the temperate waters of Deia, I sought solace in the many colours of the beautiful stones on the mountaintops. Some lines fermenting:
If I must drown in this temperate land,
let it be in the damm of the Estrella…
let it be in the embrace of the local brew…
Performance day. In company of other poets, there was time for sound check at the impressive Teatre Principa, a ten minutes’ walk from the hotel. There was little room for improvisation: a poem is primed to timing; the voice is tested on the mike; the science of delivery is cued to practice; the last line of the first presenter is stringed to the first line of the last presenter! The proscenium theatre was always a positive and challenging place to be. And when the longest night arrived, the performance went to the audience… After the curtain call, new friends were made, photos of memory, and gestures of other invitations. We would descend into the belly of night, literally, ending somewhere inside a restaurant carved into the earth, full of Catalan warmth, laughter and jokes.
The last activity was the most touching. We went to the island’s plenipotentiary, or as I put it, with a pinch of mischief, in an sms to my wife: I am going to (the) prison today…
It was the surprise, the hidden item on the programme. At least, I wasn’t aware until the night before, that six of us were listed for the special reading before an audience of the prisoners on the island. And, for me, it was a double bill. Here, you found a properly equipped stage for presentations. Here, you found a very appreciative and literate audience. I suspected that the enthusiasm of the inmates was contrived, but it wasn’t. Perhaps it might be that the inmates enjoyed a free day for a free show. But they got copies of our publications, paid for the books, and queued for autographs!
It was a silent movie
Reading poetry, making music in the plenipotent house...
After the reading, and while I waited for signings, two inmates walked up to me:
“Brother, good you’re here”
“Thank you. I like your poetry. I am … from Nigeria”
I greeted them warmly, cold in my tummy, wondering how these guys found their way to the ugly corner of this beautiful island.
The 12th Mediterranean Poetry Festival in Palma de Mallorca was a huge lesson in organization, and inspiration. A mosquito woman almost spoiled it for me.
© Remi Raji