“Before heading off to the UK, I thought it could be the end of my career. I believed this trip would determine whether I should stop or continue. I feared that the English-speaking audience might even feel offended, as I sometimes felt I was messing with their language. I imagined my absurd play would conclude with poor interaction and possibly some sympathy for the effort of having flown all the way to England to perform. My biggest concern was whether my poems would make sense in English to people in the UK. But on the other hand, I personally believed that those poems were powerful because I saw them radiating with stark rays and the pain of people”

Alright Love Migration Matters Festival 20.6.

On June 20th, I arrived in Sheffield, the city of sanctuary, accompanied by my mentor, the poet Andy Willoughby. We walked out of the station, trying to find our hotel, which didn’t seem far from the railway station. The Nottingham experience had been unprecedented, placing a bigger responsibility on me because I already knew my poetry made sense. In Nottingham, I had thought that the people who came to listen to poetry at the Playhouse Theatre might not be a typical poetry audience. However, in Sheffield, the situation felt more intimidating, knowing that people would buy tickets specifically to listen to poetry, indicating that they were a genuine poetry audience!

Andy has a long-standing relationship with Sheffield, dating back three decades to when he attended the University of Sheffield for his master’s degree. For Andy, Sheffield is a city of new horizons. It was here that he met his first Finnish contact at the Leadmill, leading to a lasting friendship and numerous opportunities in Finland. Twenty years later, we met and began a long-term collaboration on my writings during my refugeehood, resulting in the publication of three poetry books in English. It felt surreal that I was going to perform at the same venue. Without the Leadmill, Andy wouldn’t have connected with Finland, and I wouldn’t have met him. Perhaps I wouldn’t have developed my career or gained the courage to write in English.

You might wonder why I want to write about this. First, I feel the need to highlight our collaboration, which began with friendship before career. This friendship established a common ground of trust, allowing our partnership to thrive and grow into multiple projects, exceeding our expectations and opening new opportunities.

As we headed off the station, we saw the Leadmill prominently standing, awaiting our return in the evening for our show. I would share the stage with Roger Robinson, a T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet, the highest poetry prize in the UK! I felt desperate to be perfect. With a huge audience, there was no room for mistakes, stress, or anxiety. Imagine being anxious about not being anxious and stressed about not making even a tiny mistake.

Once we entered the Leadmill, we were escorted backstage to a room to rehearse. After completing the sound-check, we headed to our room. I had about 15 minutes to perform. I went through my manuscript multiple times, with Andy listening and advising me to emphasise certain parts, not rush lines, repeat unclear lines, pause, be delicate with some words and stout with others. “You’re gonna smash it, Ahmed!” It felt like he was a football coach before a final. We all waited for the referee to declare the start!

The host from the BBC approached me and asked, “Is it okay for you to be the first one on the stage?”

In a Finnish way, I replied, “Yeah, yeah, of course, it is okay.” Everything was okay for me at that moment. I felt I drew strength from the successful Nottingham performance and from people’s encouraging words that almost made me cry. However, I believed the Sheffield event was more poetry-focused, gathering some of the best poets in the UK with their audience. In Nottingham, I was unsure if my poems would resonate with an English-speaking audience, but I drew a great reaction. Performing at the Leadmill with renowned UK poets was daunting.

The host introduced me beautifully, which also made me feel pressured. I thought, “Just wait, it won’t take long before I disappoint you and make you regret it!” Being the first to perform gave me confidence to apply what I had rehearsed. They didn’t expect much from me, as I am still the one who flew from Finland whose first language is Arabic.

I graced the stage while my coach whispered tips I couldn’t hear. Inner fear is often louder than anything whispered into the ears.

As I stood on stage, I looked into the audience’s eyes and saw beautiful faces of different colours and features. Together, they embodied the world, a group of people from different roots sharing space to listen to poetry.

I cast a few words and decided to merge with my poetry for the sake of time. My spirit turned into a sponge, absorbing only positivity and love. My soul extended to embrace everybody. My eyes met theirs, and we exchanged emotions because eyes are the windows to the heart. While reading, I heard vocal gestures of admiration for certain lines. Some people’s eyes were in tears. I drew from them what my poems wanted to convey.

After the first poem, I heard warm applause and shouts of “wow” in appreciation of the language and imagery. This elevated me, connecting me even more with myself and my art.

After every poem, the audience applauded until I interrupted to recite the next one. Knowing my time was limited, I utilised every second.

I saw Andy in tears among the audience, watching me on stage.

After the second poem, I invited Andy to join me on stage for a second voice in my poem “It’s None of My Business.” I felt this poem was crucial before the upcoming UK election. Then I shifted into Arabic to perform Andy’s poem about Alan, the child tragically found washed ashore while attempting to cross to Europe. Andy then recited his English version.

After the performance, the audience kept applauding and shouting. The torrent of applause didn’t stop. I bowed on stage multiple times. As I walked off, the applause continued. I raised my hand and bowed again. I walked to Andy, who hugged me warmly and gave me a drink.

To be honest, I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t have imagined it, even in my most optimistic fantasy. It was beyond my sweetest dreams. I felt charged, satisfied, and motivated.

During the break, I met many people who appreciated my poems and how beautifully Andy’s poem sounded in Arabic. I also saw Andy surrounded by people.

Then, the BBC host invited me for a panel discussion afterward. We took the stage for the discussion, and I gladly accepted.

We left the Leadmill satisfied, happy, full of gratitude and energy. We couldn’t go farther than our hotel because we were exhausted, but a drink at the hotel bar, which was closing, wasn’t a bad idea. Andy told me, “I told you, you’d smash it. Didn’t I? We just nailed it, Ahmed”

Ahmed Zaidan

Artist +358 40 685 7561

Bachelor of Arts in Translation (BA), University of Mosul

  • Poetry
  • Creative writing
  • Refugeehood