Roxana Vilk is producer of the POETS IN PROTEST series made by SDI Productions for Al Jazeera English. She's also the director of the episode on Manal al Sheikh: Fire Won't Eat Me Up.
I was really keen that we have an Iraqi poet in the Poets in Protest series. When I was reading Manal al Sheikh’s fiery work, I was immediately captivated, as she seemed to truly encapsulate the essence of a poet and activist combined.
As Manal herself says, “when you are a person from a country like Iraq you automatically have some anger inside you – and this anger, if you are a poet or a writer, you can transfer it as an explosion in your text.”
Manal al Sheikh is originally from Nineveh in northern Iraq, one of the oldest and greatest cities in antiquity and a place renown for its multi-cultural society.
Since the 2003 Iraqi invasion, Nineveh has been the scene of some of the bloodiest and most violent fighting. ”I witnessed everything, the bombing, the struggle between the parties, all these make you angry, so I protest with my text.”
However, Manal’s work as an outspoken poet and journalist in Iraq was fraught with danger and her life was constantly under threat. In 2009 she had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave her country and her family, and seek refuge with her two young children in Norway.
“For me as a female writer in Iraq, just being female was of course a challenge, just to live there in a normal way with my thoughts and my ambitions for a future. But really, I can say the main change in my life was becoming a single mother in that society. Suddenly I found myself a widow, a very young widow.”
I travelled with Ian Dodds (the director of photography) to Stavanger in Norway in January 2012, in the depths of Norwegian winter, as temperatures were plummeting to an unforgiving minus 20 degrees Celcius. We were lucky enough to be working with a brilliant local fixer, Gunhild Oddsen, who had sorted out all the logistics for the shoot. Filming the stark contrast of the snowy cold white landscapes against Manal’s stories of Iraq made her struggle to have her voice heard all the more poignant.
At a time when it is dangerous to speak out in Iraq, especially as a woman, Manal had to travel half-way around the world to keep her protest alive. Our film follows Manal closely as she is crafting a new poem before presenting to a public audience. Manal is a truly extraordinary poet, brave and defiant, in a time when Iraqi female voices are increasingly being silenced.
This episode of POETS OF PROTEST can be seen on Al Jazeera English from Friday 21 September at the following times GMT: Friday 19:30; Saturday 14:30; Sunday 04:30; Monday: 08:30. British Summer Time is GMT+1h.