Slam poet speaks for refugees at music festival in Hungary
It’s not every day that fans at a music festival go wild for a poet, but Hungary’s Sziget Festival cheered on Monday when world champion slam poet Emi Mahmoud belted out a message of solidarity with refugees.
Emi, 25, is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. She came on stage wearing a white dress and a blue turban before launching into one of her poems: “2 a.m”.
“Wow, strong words, I got goosebumps,” said Alex, 24, a marketing student from Germany, after her performance on the main stage at the festival on a night when UK acts Catfish and the Bottlemen and Florence and the Machine also played.
“We could use more like her all round,” said Tamas, 32, a project coordinator from Hungary.
Born in Sudan, Emi was once a refugee herself. Her family fled to Yemen when she was an infant and later won the immigration lottery to the United States, where she grew up.
She graduated from Yale University and it was there she took up slam poetry. She won the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2015. The following year she took joint first place in the Women of the World festival, which celebrates achievements by women and girls.
Emi’s performance was all the more poignant because Hungary has tough policies on migration and asylum.
The government is proud to call itself “illiberal” and its policies have favoured security over inclusion. Beside a fence that went up in 2015 to keep migrants out, there is now a complex of containers where asylum-seekers, including children, are detained pending the outcome of their applications.
“Peoples’ reputations and the state’s reputation are two different things,” Emi said.
“The festival attracts a young, open-minded and tolerant audience."
The week-long festival is held on an island in the Danube River and attracts 700,000 people from 95 countries. It’s a magnet for liberal youth and half of its visitors come from abroad. Emi was performing to an audience receptive to her message.
UNHCR’s spokesperson in Hungary, Ernő Simon, said: “The festival attracts a young, open-minded and tolerant audience while the country as a whole is more conservative.”
Dora, 24, who is a graduate from Hungary, said: “When the crisis blew up, I asked myself what it would be like if there was war here in Hungary and we had to flee. I was shocked when the fence went up. I do not think that is the solution.”
UNHCR welcomed visitors to its “Tent without Borders”, showing an exhibition of paintings by Mursal Faqirzada, an Afghan asylum-seeker currently held in the “transit zone” on Hungary’s border with Serbia.
Emi, who has been a Goodwill Ambassador since last year, said she had never performed for such a large crowd. “When you can’t knock down walls physically, you have to do it emotionally,” she said. “I hope people will go away feeling softened.”