“Durham” the Saint in “Dun Holme”
In 2018, Durham Book Festival hosted the inaugural Durham-Jordan Creative Exchange: Alta’ir. Alta’ir means bird, and is the Arabic name for the brightest star in the constellation of Aquila. This cross-cultural exchange between Durham and Amman was established to help raise the profile of British writing in Jordan and of Arab writing and culture in the UK, in the hope that long-lasting connections between writers in the UK and the Arabic-speaking world are forged.
In September 2018 Durham Book Festival sent poet Linda France to undertake a residency at the British Institute in Amman, Jordan, giving her a unique space to write and share her work with Arab audiences. In October 2018, we welcomed Jordanian writer Mofleh Al Adwan to undertake a similar month-long residency at St Mary’s College, Durham. During the festival itself, our celebratory Jordan Exchange event brought the two writers together to share their experiences and to discuss their writing. Both writers prepared blogs recording their experience and the way it has shaped their work. Mofleh’s. Which dwells on the history that makes up the story of Durham and the bonds the city shares with his own home, is below.
Alta’ir is a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), St Mary’s College, Durham University, Dr. Fadia Faqir and the British Council.
Mefleh Al-Adwan, Jordan
Translated by: Ouissal Harize
A squirrel jumps right in front of me. It is the first thing I see on the morning after my arrival to the city of Durham. An ocean of towering trees surrounds my flat inside the campus of St. Mary’s College. I walk on a path of pebbles and grass between the trees, leading to a space of Bermuda Grass and then to the Main Hall where I meet up with college academics and students three times a day, in accordance with the daily meals.
The weather has not yet become cruelly cold, so I begin exploring the body of the city with the heat of yearning for discovery. Following geographical paths always leads to unravelling the secrets of history, and Durham is a city that is haunted by history and memory, despite its small size.
Each day I walk for twenty minutes from St Mary’s to the city centre. I do not walk quickly, because I thoroughly enjoy turning the pages of the book of Durham. While walking, I pass by a church with big tombstones at its front, perhaps revealing the different social standings of the deceased. Each tombstone reflects the status of the person lying beneath it, back in their own time, within their own society. The movement of students is remarkable: the city of history and memory is now a city of students who revive it for many months; when they leave, the city returns to narrating its memories to its own self. A white wooden gate opens to a rural path leading to a bridge that spans the River Wear. I see boats, rowing and a movement that oscillates between sports and spiritual rejuvenation. It feels like this movement is conversing with the river, with the flow of the boats next to the ducks and seagulls.
My daily riverside walks – and perhaps simply being close to water – softly swoops me to a state of unconsciousness. I miss the river in my city Amman, a city that had a river carrying its name, once upon a gone time. By the middle of the past century, the river had been replaced by the concrete roads and piazzas that are now the city’s centre.
A river, a cathedral and a castle… Durham cannot be envisaged without the holy trio that has shaped the nature of this space since it was founded, hundreds of years ago… I cross the bridge, and the river wants to narrate the story of Durham; but I yearn to weave the details as I want, as I know, as I feel. I shall get closer to the cathedral (The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham). Next to it is Durham Castle, which is now part of Durham University. I have taken many walks and explored this triangular city between the river, the castle, and the cathedral. When I had more free time than I envisaged, I learned and taught. During one break, on the balcony of the boat club that looks over the river, I started writing the diary of my visit while imagining the birth of Durham, in a legend that dates back to 955AD.
I close my eyes and I open my heart, then a third eye takes me back to the pathways of another time, the time of the legend of St. Cuthbert, in which he is carried on the shoulders of monks. Yet, his coffin stopped on the hill of Warden Law, altering the course of his burial. A vision of the Saint came to the monks after three days of fasting, ordering them to bury him in “Dun Holme” – the oldest name of Durham – which means Hill Island. Another problem arose, which was knowing what location the monks should move the Saint’s coffin, and that is when the next sign came. The monks followed a woman from the city, who had come near them while trying to find her cow. After following her, the monks succeeded in building a cathedral in which they buried the saint, there on the hill that is now enveloped by the city.
Durham was the starting point that led me to other places like Edinburgh and Newcastle, which both need writings of their own. Linda France, who lives near Hadrian’s Wall, spoke very excitedly about spatial memory and the history of the hill that has a fortress tied to the Wall. This is the same wall where Syrian soldiers took refuge when the Romans ruled, near Scotland and throughout the levant. While reimagining this umbilical cord, tying Hadrian’s Gate in North Jordan and Hadrian’s Wall in North England, I started drafting the first scene from my next play, entitled Hadrian’s Wall.