Two months ago, when I joined the office, my director told me, “Sarwar, we are the founding office members: however you do a task suddenly becomes the way it is done!” This sentence reverberated in my head, becoming my guiding philosophy for my work ethic, especially as the quarantine set in. I realized that in our new office, we are cultural entrepreneurs.

No job can be too small for any member of the office; each of us must be ready to pitch in where needed. Thinking toward our first major metric, the quadrennial report, I started reading the reports other cities submitted to UNESCO to see how our peers functioned, particularly in their first four years. I met cities virtually, one-on-one, and asked them to reflect on their recent experiences. Hats off to Lviv, Heidelberg, Ljubljana and Nottingham for their valuable advice, support and sisterhood!…Not only is everything I do in the office unprecedented for us in Slemani, but the unfolding pandemic is unprecedented in recent human history. Just as I was preparing to tour the city, introducing our staff to literary institutions and stakeholders, the city imposed quarantine. I joined the office loving the idea that together we would make literature and the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as relevant as possible for our fellow citizens. In the absence of being able to conduct these townhall meetings we had planned, I proposed we find a way to ameliorate the harrowing dystopia the virus brought with all the new literature coming out of quarantine. So, our COVID initiative was born.

While we can no longer go into the office, the support structure remains. We conduct our energizing watercooler chats via Zoom. The network email thread constantly renews with opportunities and well-wishes. Though confined at home, we can reach out to one another. I called Pshtewan Kamal, a writer, filmmaker and archivist from Slemani who just moved to Iowa City and is now translating Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy as well as uploading his extensive collection of Kurdish films, and recorded plays and concerts.

With the same urgency as we attend to feeding our families, we cook up literature for the local and international public.

We agreed that so many writers, translators, and artists are transforming the mandatory lockdown from confinement to a wide-open time to work. He shared a poem contemplating hands and human connection written during these last weeks by Slemani’s Dlawar Qaradaghi, a poet also using this time to translate Friedrich Hölderlin’s complete works into Kurdish for the first time. Hiwa Qadir, another Slemani author and translator, has developed a routine, translating over seven hours a day. In my conversations with our mayor and our director, I have seen them both draw on their profound literary backgrounds to innovate with the city and its writers, to integrate creativity with their administrative positions. In a time when fear and exhaustion could overwhelm, I have witnessed our city and its artistic leaders be tireless, relentless.

As readers and writers, all of us in Slemani care how the city’s people sustain themselves in times of trouble as well as times of peace. With the same urgency as we attend to feeding our families, we cook up literature for the local and international public. As cultural promoters, all of us at the Slemani City of Literature work to incorporate our longing for originality into the city’s administrative mentality and function, putting connection first in all our projects.

READ MORE about how Literature and Arts help Slemani cope with COVID-19.