Hamdi Khalif: William Shakespeare is probably the most renowned writer of all time. Even if you’ve never read or studied his work, I’m sure you’ve heard of his name. I think that this genius marketing is in part due to his excellence and partly due to British national pride. With English being the first language of the world, it’s no surprise that English writers benefit from the same prestige.
What I love about Shakespeare is that he placed raw emotion at the heart of his work, whether this was love or hate, jealousy or selflessness, greed or loss. What’s even lovelier is his verve for writing other cultures – and this is why so many of his plays and poems are set abroad. He has taught us that, regardless of our race, culture, language or class, we’ll still succumb to basic human desires and experiences.
Recently, I’ve been part of a collective called Bards Without Borders, and we’re writing a response to the 400th
anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, through a migrant – and often unapologetically honest – lens. For many of us, Shakespeare is great, but he’s only one of many. Every nation has its pride and glory, and while Britain gloats about Shakespeare, his likes can be found across the globe. As a Somali, where poetry is the fabric of our culture, we have a Shakespeare for every generation. And while Britain marks the 400th
anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, other cultures are embracing living talent wholeheartedly – and perhaps that’s something we can learn from. Perhaps, Shakespeare has cast a shadow too long for far too long.
The following poem was written for a Bards Without Borders performance and is titled ‘Shakespeare and me’. I explore how I first met Shakespeare at school in the UK.
Shakespeare and me
I found you
hiding between the pages
of my English paper
appear like scribbles on the pages
and I’m a toddler learning to speak for the first time
I roll you into a ball
and squash you into my already full mouth
dribbling with my new found knowledge
this is what you do
strip us to our basics
and we are new born babies
standing naked in front of gawping eyes
strangers who coo and exclaim
who touch and prod
you make us vulnerable
you punch holes into hearts which have never been whole
you poke wounds which have not yet healed
you are a cold mother teaching her children to be warm
despite the cruel circumstances
you are a harsh lesson to learn
you make us uncomfortable
Edin Suljic: Last year I visited my old homeland of former Yugoslavia for six weeks, which was the longest time I’d spent there since I left before the war in 1991.
My stay there coincided with the height of unprecedented mass migration of people through Europe. And the bulk of them passed through the territories of former Yugoslavia. Day after day there was news about thousands of people in a never ending human chain going through Macedonia then Serbia then Croatia and finally Slovenia, as their last exit gate before entering into the promised land of Affluent Europe. Various barriers started appearing on the borders of that promised land as well as various responses towards those people.
The absurdity of the whole situation affected me profoundly.
Only 20 years ago, the very same people of those newly formed countries of the former Yugoslavian republics were affected by war: it was people from Bosnia and Croatia who were on the run with their belongings bundled up in plastic bags or suitcases. And now they themselves were watching other unfortunate humans running away from the wars or just walking along with an aim to get a better life somewhere else (which is everybody’s right anyhow, in my opinion).
I didn’t experience the Yugoslavian war directly. I went away just in time. My closest family and friends remained. We, who are fortunate to live away from such disasters, can’t comprehend the experiences of those who are personally affected. Even the news we get is filtered, polished, manipulated, trickled to us, so it doesn’t disturb us too much as we go about our daily business. That’s how the news about the war in Yugoslavia came through to us 25 years ago, and that’s the way the news about any other war is presented now. But the relentless presence of misery, tragedy, suffering on one’s doorstep is a completely different experience.
On my return to London I began working with a group of poets with refugee and migrant origins. The project, called Bards Without Borders, marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. I work on the idea of portraying Shakespeare, who was able to write about any amount of gore and guts being spilled, murders committed and eyes gauged, as someone who has been broken by the real tragedies of our times. I relate to Shakespeare as My Mate, as someone whose work and legacy is inspiration for generations of writers, whose writing in turn helps to bring awareness about the consequences of one part of the world’s actions towards another – the relationship between the weak and the strong.
In ‘Tell Me’, I recognize that Shakespeare’s words show humanity’s frailties, weaknesses, and cruelty; the suffering we inflict on each other. His works are particularly relevant today and I lament that he is no longer here.
Tell me, oh, why, why did you have to die,
Now, when everyone wants to celebrate your life?
You coward. You were my mate.
Yes, I know, there were times when even I too forgot about you as joys and sorrows took over my life.
But, soon the smell of wild garlic will fill up our woodlands and St George’s name will be on everyone’s lips.
I guess you don’t care about wild garlic anymore.
You’ve been smelling it each spring for four hundred years. You’d care for mandrake, right?
There is no more mandrake since they stopped hanging. There are no more real men either.
You were looking the world square in the eye and getting responses, just as your words, played out on the stage, would have sounded as a waterfall, as church bells, as a battle cry, as a lover’s whisper…
But, I guess, no man is the master of his life, yet alone of his death.
So, when you arrive, give me a gentle tap on the shoulder. I might be dancing tango or putting on a new costume, but grab a pint of that ale and don’t get into any fights before I join you.
Follow Bards Without Borders on twitter using #BardsWithoutBorders and learn more about the group here.
On Saturday 23 April, Bards Without Borders present: Shakespeare’s dead, get over it! at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green. Tickets and more info here.