What is the state of youth today? Twelve writers from Coventry and Beirut paired up as part of the British Council’s Youthful Cities scheme to answer this question. The events over the past year culminated in the BBC’s Contains Strong Language festival in September, with an online event on November 11 and the Global Youth Summit in December.
The writers, all under the age of 25, found that the two cultures had much in common from the start. Theirs is a generation of migration: two of the participants, Nur Turkmani and Kelvin Adomako Ampong, realised they both grew up in Ghana and emigrated from the country at the age of 12: Turkmani to Lebanon and Adomako Ampong to Britain. And the writers say they have many of the same fears, from the climate catastrophe to economic and social struggles.
“I think the universal feeling of being young today is a sense of fleetingness,” Turkmani, who is from Beirut and worked with Adomako Ampong of University of Coventry, tells The National. “Kelvin, you put it brilliantly: this idea of things moving so quickly, especially in this age of information where you're so bombarded.
"We’re very aware of climate change and racial injustice, and how the pandemic has furthered inequalities among so many people. And, like so many people in progressive cultures, there’s also always this fear of a backlash online. We found we had a lot of shared anxieties.”
The writers met weekly in Zoom workshops from March until September. They strayed into new territories, experimenting with writing for performance or thinking through ideas around translation. One of the most important meeting points between the two cohorts was on the level of form: most of the Coventry poets came from a spoken word tradition, whereas those from Lebanon tended to write for the page.
“Hearing Lewis [Driver] and Kelvin and Chrissy [Christine Okorie] from the Coventry team perform their spoken word, I started to think a bit more about what these words would sound like when they're performed aloud: the Ts and the Ss and the Zs, and how they come together to convey a certain emotion,” says Turkmani.
The British Council programme was led by Coventry’s Be a Change Everywhere, founded by poet John Bernard, and Rusted Radishes, a literary and art journal run out of the American University of Beirut since 2012. The cohort comprised, from Beirut, Nour Annan, Yasmina Tabbal, Amina Hassan, Turkmani, JD Harlock and AJ Naddaff, and from Coventry: Adomako Ampong, Megan Waters, Theotima Ioannou, Driver, Alice Richmond, and Okorie.
Coventry and Beirut aren’t natural partners – particularly given the extreme state of Lebanon’s economy, which makes it hard to find any cultural comparison to that city at the moment – and the points of difference they encountered were unexpected. Religion, for example, became one: the Lebanese writers were more secular in their outlook, while some of the Coventry writers wanted to use their words to express their faith. And, more prosaically, location: the Lebanese writers were surprised to find that most of the University of Coventry students were not from Coventry.
A split also arose around the choice of theme for their project. The Lebanese writers were keen to look at the idea of the hospital as a metaphor for mental health and Lebanon's social breakdown, as many nurses died in the August port blast and many healthcare professionals are emigrating, especially to the Gulf.
However, those in Coventry felt protective about hospitals and their workers. This was in the midst of the pandemic, when the UK was rallying around its healthcare sector as emergency rooms filled up with Covid-19 patients.
The writers compromised and settled on the idea of a train.
“We thought about things within us that are either holding us back or taking us too quickly forward,” says Adomako Ampong. “The train came to symbolise the idea of stagnancy and constant motion. Here in Coventry, we feel a loss because we are always catching up – there's always a need for productivity, there's always something to do. On the other hand, on the Beirut team, they expressed the idea of stagnancy due to the political context.”
The pandemic also meant the final projects were delivered separately, with the Coventry writers giving a spoken word performance for the BBC Contains Strong Language festival and the Lebanese contingent producing the film Not Much Longer Now. The work is set in Lebanon, where abandoned train tracks, covered in grass and weeds, convey stasis – in contrast with a breathless news report about Beirut from the 1970s, delivered in a plummy British accent.
Despite challenges, the writers grew close over the course of the project and have plans to meet up, when Covid-19 restrictions allow.
“We need to dance to some Afrobeats!” says Turkmani.