2 March 09 – Exeter
The Kurds and Kurdistan: History, Politics and Culture
I am most impressed by the young Kurdish researchers, in particular Welat Zeydanlioglu, Ramazan Aras, and Deniz Ekici. It is good to see so many young Kurds doing MAs and PHDs in Exeter and elsewhere, some serious scholarly work on Kurdish issues, makes me hopeful about the future.
15 March 09 – London
Runaki- Festival of Kurdish Art and Culture
An evening of Kurdish poetry in the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation as part of the three day festival (organised by Della Murad). I read some of my own poems alongside Kajal Ahmad’s (co-translated with Mimi Khalvati). Stephen Watts read a long poem by Dlawar Karadaghi, Parwez Zabihi read a very good selection of poems by different Kurdish poets and Halmat Farrel read some of his own. It was a really good night which marked the last event of the festival. The festival started on the 13th with a beautiful fashion show (Della’s innovative work), dinner and a concert. The event showcased Kurdish clothes, art, music, dance, film and literature- full of vibrant people and ideas.
Hello community! You are not bad at all when you try.
14 March 09 – Norwich
I had a reading in Beccles tonight and now camping out in Norwich till tomorrow. My friend, Dean Parkin, picked me up from Norwich station (after a long journey with two trains and a bus replacement service) and we went together to Beccles where he chaired the reading. I first met Dean in the Jerwood-Arvon Young Poets scheme a few years ago where nine ‘young’ poets were selected for a mentorship program (starting with a wonderful week in the Hurst). From the various titles given to me ‘refugee poet’, ‘exiled poet’, ‘Muslim woman poet’, etc. I prefer Dean’s frank and funny description: ‘party pooper poet.’ Sometimes the best thing we can do is laugh at ourselves.
The event was organised by the Suffolk Poetry Society. Fred Ellis extended an invitation to me a while back. It was good to finally come and read in the lovely space of the Methodist church- a small and good audience, not bad at all for a Saturday night. It is always good to read poetry, keep them coming.
11 March 09 – Paris
How do problematic questions open up in our lives? What is it that makes us suddenly realise that there is a problem? Can a problem arise suddenly or do we just ignore its indicators for as long as we can? I carry these thoughts in my head; still trying to recover from travelling the bumpy and windy roads of Kurdistan. It feels that not just my bones but all of my existence has been shaken up. Sometimes I just want to let my homeland go, I just want to say goodbye, go on holiday and switch those thoughts off... Am I coming up to another crossroad?
5 March 09 – Erbil
We have spent the last four weeks searching the sand dunes of germian and the mountains of Bahdinan and Jaffati valley for Anfal witnesses. After a last visit to Kulajo in the first week we headed to Dohok. Every day we went out to the villages nearby, following a new lead, a new story which would shed light on another kind of experience during the Anfal campaign.
We visited survivors of the Kureme shooting (in Mangeshk and Chelke), then went to Wermille, Geeze and finally the Yezidi village of Khanke and the Assyrian village of Dirgini (the Yezidis and Assyrians were excluded from the September amnesty and therefore all those who surrendered were massacred).
In the last week we visited the Jaffati valley on the border of Iran. The mountains of this region always amaze me. How harsh! How beautiful! When you see the mountains then you realise that the Iraqi government could not have captured these mountains without the use of gas weapons, they are impossible and beautiful. I revisited Haladin and Chalawa and discovered Homar Qawm and Sekanian.
Going back to London tomorrow to attend Parv’s wedding on the 7th and then off to Paris once again for a rest, before everything restarts, days rushing past, full of noise and work.
18 January 09 – Valencia, LA
I came to attend CalArts’ ‘Arts in the one world’ conference (14 - 18 January). It has been a fascinating conference about how the Arts can help communities recover from violent conflict. The first two days were dedicated to Rwanda where Erik Ehn (the dean of theatre) and his students have been working with survivors for the past four summers (interesting, informative and heart breaking but I always like to hear from the perpetrator group as well, I want to know what they think and feel in the aftermath); then a panel on Palestine on the 16th followed by one on Kurdistan on the 17th (Anfal and artistic responses to it- visual arts and poetry). In the afternoons there were various parallel panels about different models of engagement, writing, performing and singing workshops, etc.
I first met Erik in July 2007 when we were both participating in a genocide conference in Sarajevo. He was there with his students who talked about their experiences of working in Rwanda. It was a fascinating panel and I immediately urged them to come and do similar things in Kurdistan. Violence has the capacity to kill imagination. Much of the artwork produced in response to Anfal- paintings, plays, poems, etc., is realistic and non-imaginative, full of reproducing the violence that has been. We need to construct a different kind of narrative, other than the dominant one, through the Arts. We need to unlock the closed doors of our imagination and maybe we need a bit of help to achieve that.
During the last few days Erik reminded us how violence destroys the safe space to talk and share and how the Arts can provide that missing space for survivors to express themselves. In fact on the first day he said something that really spoke to me. He said: ‘If you are responding to communities that have experienced violence it is most likely because there is a ruin inside you that needs tending to. You are never in the complete donor situation.’ This really resonates with my experience. I kept asking myself over the last year: Why did I do this research? Why did I become involved in this problem? It took me a while to realise that this problem was my problem, I was not separate from it. I had barged through my life, rushing from one language to the next, from one degree to the next, from one project to the next, not once stopping to rest or appreciate how hard it has been for me to keep running, to keep trying to catch up with life despite the traumas of the nation in the back of my head. It took time to realise that while dealing with the wounds of my community I was in fact addressing my own wounds. I realised that I was not apart from those problems, they are a part of what makes me who I am. And once I started the project there was no way back because:
Shantal Kalisa quoted a Rwandan woman writer who had said, ‘I am not scared of dying, I am scared of not telling the truth.’ Another person quoted Arundhati Roy who said, ‘The trouble is that once you see [the problem], you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable.’ We are accountable indeed, there is no way back from that.
11 January 09 – Paris
Over the last months I have kept thinking that 2008 was not a good year. After two years of research Anfal eventually caught up with me. It disrupted my peaceful life and clear vision, it took me back to issues that I thought I had resolved long ago. I questioned my values, my relationship with my homeland, with my family and friends. For a while I stopped enjoying all things British (Christmas, the under stated way people say and do things, the picnics and parties that get going because of alcohol, splitting restaurant bills to the last penny between friends (I have never liked that)). I stopped writing in English and started writing in my mother tongue once again, fell in love with homeland, felt desperate about how bad things were and felt responsible.
In 2008 I escaped into the abyss of Kurdishness- the dead-end political arguments, the commiserations about bad Kurdish leadership, the loud parties full of (bad) singing and dancing, the jokes about sex, the friendships that are passionately close but most of the time they end in silence. I took refuge in the warmth of Kurdishness and felt supported by it. Still I could not escape the large questions that had opened up in my life- what do I really want to do in this world, what can I do for my homeland, how can I be happy when there is so much misery in the world, when I am so torn between two such different worlds, how I can I expect my husband to relate to all of this?
2008 was a testing year. I lost two friends (some form of death, you may call it). And it all ended with losing my laptop on the 16th December, on my way back from Oslo to Paris. I lost, in the laptop, hundreds of pages of un-backed up work. Hundreds of pages of Anfal transcripts, the latest versions of my novel, the Anfal book, my new poems, short stories, unfinished articles... but worst of all some of my best interviews so far recorded. I had interviewed some women political activists in Qendil mountain- some courageous and brilliant women who openly spoke to me about their lives and views. I have been jumping out of sleep over the past few weeks, each time thinking of another file that was lost. And some people say that things happen for a reason, what kind of rationale could there be behind such a loss?
Despite all the problems of the past year I have been thinking that some good things happened too. I learnt to swim (just about) which was a big milestone, finished my novel (at least the first draft), learnt how to heal, found new friends, and became strong enough to walk for an hour a day on the beautiful streets of Paris. I have become a bit more cynical about people though. I feel that when we are born we are like a clean blank page and as time goes on more and more people scribble on us and we will never again be the clean page that we once were.
I think as writers and individuals we keep thinking and re-thinking our position and responsibilities in this world. I have decided to accept my roles, however difficult they may be. I find it difficult to be happy in my personal life (despite having every reason to be) while I am surrounded by injustice and misfortune. I keep thinking of the different kinds of victims in my country- the girls who are victims of genital mutilation, the victims of ‘honour’ killing, the young people who have no opportunities and no means of expressing themselves but through anger, the women, the poor, the traumatised survivors of violence. Recovering from violence is a lengthy process. I can’t just retreat into my comfortable life but I also need to protect myself enough to be able to carry on. Learning to balance all of this takes time, it may even take me years.
14 December 08 – Bergen
It is beautiful here- the snow topped mountains, the icicled trees, the frozen lakes... and a young and energetic Kurdish woman who is fighting discrimination (both in her home culture and in the new one). People are so scared of stigmatisation and Islamophobia that they don’t dare to openly discuss the social and political problems of their communities anymore. It is time we face up to how things are, stop trying to cover things up or make excuses for them.
Shilan Shorsh became a member of the Bergen City Council in her late twenties. She is a woman who is not scared of saying it as it is. Now she is organising a series of seminars, an exchange between Kurds and Norwegians, centred around gender issues. Tina Asgard spoke about gender and biology and I spoke about gender and migration- the burdens of living between sexism and racism. There were four non-Kurds in the audience- a start you may think- and a total of about 40 people which is something for a migrant community in a small town.
Seeing people like Shilan working so hard makes me feel hopeful. There are, it seems to me, a few people who are working to change things in my community but the majority of the Kurds are asleep. If only those who are trying to change things were more organised! If only we could carry on talking to each other and try to coordinate our efforts. On certain days I feel so lonely and exhausted that I can’t face thinking about the problems back home, so many of them. It seems to me that whatever you do and wherever you start it is never quite enough, it does not feel as if things are getting better.
We need a change in consciousness to tackle problems such as ‘Honour’-killing, female genital mutilation, polygamy, women’s low social status in society, the inequality of inheritance, women’s financial dependency, etc. etc. About homosexuality we have not even started a conversation. And of course everything is being postponed because our political status in Iraq and the whole of the Middle East remains uncertain. According to our leaders there are more urgent problems to do with survival- oil, federalism, tackling Arabisation of Kurdish regions, negotiating with Turkey and Iran... Some days I just have to work without thinking about the numerous problems. Some days I just feel paralyzed.
09 November 08 – Erbil
I arrived at 16.30, in the mild air and golden sunlight. After the cold showers in London and Paris the gentle sun is blissful. All around the city is autumnal and I smile looking out of the car windows… I had an optimistic sense of diversity and tolerance when two hours after my arrival I got a haircut from a nice Turkish hairdresser. Somehow, every small good thing in my homeland is so precious. In reality these really are all precious moments, this land was torn apart by brutality and deprivation so every little step forward makes me very happy. Tomorrow I am back in the field again. In fact I have missed everyone in the group, even our drivers. As long as we keep working and we don’t wait around too much, I am happy.
03 November 08 – Eurostar to Paris
The train takes me through misty France- green fields brimming with beauty and promise. I love the murky effect of the mist, how it softens everything. Around me three French girls speak in whispers. I can’t wait to get to Gare du Nord where Robbie is waiting for me. After four weeks apart we will have lunch in town (he always treats me to lovely lunches) then we will go home for a rest. Sometimes, while he sleeps next to me, I am scared that something may happen to him. Listening to widows talk about their lost husbands makes me worry about losing my own. I just keep hoping that I will die first even thought this may be selfish.
During my time away from the field I will listen to my latest Anfal interviews and write up a synopsis for each. Somehow I have found this fieldtrip much less stressful than my intensive work throughout 2005-2007. Maybe because I am better prepared now and I know what to expect. Maybe because I was not on my own this time. Being part of a team means that you have a laugh in between the intense interviews, you make sense of things while talking to each other. Maybe I have learnt to better protect myself. Maybe I have acquired some distance. Maybe, like the survivors themselves, I have learnt that life must go on. I am not bulletproof, as my therapist reminded me, but maybe now I am better equipped for the bullets. There are still too many desperate stories to collect, too many hidden voices to listen to but as long as I try to do what I can while not losing sight of the good things, I will be okay. And the good things? Well, you know what I mean: love, poetry, sunlight and the hard work of all the good people who are trying to make this world a better place, mustn’t lose sight of them.
29 October 08 – London
This was probably the longest journey I have made in my life. I started off from Kalar at 6 in the morning. 5 hours later I was in Erbil. After meeting a couple of people there I took the 16.50 flight from Erbil to Vienna. Then an hour’s transit before the flight to London.
It was exactly two years ago when my father passed away on a rainy autumn day. I was living in Uppsala at the time because of my association with the university for my research about Anfal women. It was Sunday morning at 11.15 when my sister Rezan called me. She was hysterical but I could not believe her. I had to phone my mother and brother before the news sunk in. Sometimes I still can’t believe that he is dead. I still imagine him bending over a book in his room.
A few weeks ago I was cleaning my mother’s flat when I stumbled across my father’s glasses. I had to stop for a second and hold them in my hand. It was shocking. Suddenly I started crying before realising why. Somewhere in my mind it suddenly clicked that he was dead, that he could not be reading in his room anymore as he did not have his glasses with him. Grief is such a strange thing, it comes at you in waves, slow waves that would take years to pass… I guess his loss will have to be affirmed on many other occasions before I can understand and accept it. I have managed to hide away from this realisation, but for a long time I didn’t even understand that I was doing this.
27 October 08 – Germian
After a day’s break we got back, accompanied by the camera people. I have two days left before I go back to Europe so we start by interviewing the women. I am the only woman in the group. I get disapproving looks from the security guards who believe that it is indecent for a lone woman to be amongst all these men. In every tea house we go to, every restaurant, I get stared at with fascination and disapproval. Sometimes I enjoy surprising and confusing people here but at times I feel exhausted by all of this.
25 October 08 – Suleimanya
I left the germian region in the afternoon so I did not make it back to Joost Hiltermann’s book launch in Halabja (A poisonous affair: America, Iraq and the gassing of Halabja). In the morning I woke up to the sound of thunder in Kalar. Ikrama khan stayed the night with me (for a woman to stay alone in a hotel is still frowned upon in this part of Kurdistan). As we were having breakfast it started pouring violently. The rain smelt wonderful after two days of sand storm.
I interviewed three sisters who have returned from Nugra Salman prison camp. I am always amazed by family stories, how people who were in the same place at the same time have different experiences and recollections. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece filled in by one sister.
I arrived at Suleimanya in the rain. Rain on us, rain on us, rain.
23 October 80 – Kalar
Once again we left Suleimanya at 7 and stopped off in Derbendi Khan for breakfast (where the tea house owner told us that he’s returned home after three awful years in the UK). Then we went to Serqala and visited Ikrama Ghaib Star’s centre for women. Ikrama is a wonderful woman who has saved many women’s lives in Germian. She’s solved many social problems involving families and tribes, provided computer and sewing courses for women so that they can find work, and has collaborated with NPA, World Health Organisation and other international NGOs to help the women in the region… It is people like Ikrama who make this place beautiful.
More visits to the villages, more heartbreaking stories and a sand storm. The sheep are too weak and thirsty to move, they lie down by the side of the road. There is no greenery for them to eat (Will things ever get better in this place?) Staying in a hotel in Kalar tonight, rather amazed to find a clean spacious room with internet connection in this part of Kurdistan, a real pleasant surprise.
22 October 08 – Suleimanya
We started our journey from Suleimanya at 7 in the morning and arrived at Kalar by 9.20. Then we took the dirt road to Kulajo Hama Jan, Qella Qocheli and Drozne villages. I am back in germian (the warm country), where Anfal claimed the largest number of lives. This is my first day back in the field after a year of recuperating.
With Kak Ayub Nuri and Kak Ari (our driver) we first visited Kulajo- Taymour’s village (the man who is 32 years old now but in our imagination he remains the wounded 12 year old who escaped a mass grave in 1988 where his mother, sisters, aunts and cousins are still buried). Taymour does not live in the village anymore so we visited his uncle’s family instead; they were not pleased to see us. Over the last twenty years they have been interviewed by dozens of journalists, governmental officials, researchers and activists. Their identity is forever marked by Anfal and by Taymour’s miraculous survival, yet their village remains bleak, with minimal services. They complained that no matter how many times they talk and to whoever they talk, nothing improves in their daily lives. They need practical help with daily services like water, electricity, roads, schools.
Today we just introduced ourselves to the villagers and we listened to their complaints. We told them that we didn’t want to ‘pick their scabs’ but we would be grateful if anyone would be willing to talk to us. They were relieved that we were not another group who drops in on them for one hour to extract information and then disappear forever. They will be seeing more of us over the next few months. This promises to be a good relationship.
21 October 08 – Suleimanya
Finally, at dusk, I arrive at The City (Suleimanya’s other name after Hussen Arif’s novel). Here, my father’s ancestors founded the Baban emirate in 1784. I feel a strong connection to this place despite its pitfalls.
As you approach, you can see the mountains on the horizon, all hazy in the dust and smog. ‘What brings me back here?’- I keep thinking as the car drives through mad traffic. What is it about this place that draws me back to the bumpy roads and dusty trees? This place is like a building site. A new road is built only for an old one to disappear. Things keep collapsing- electricity generators, new buildings, bridges.
Here books are sold on the streets and pavements and young people keep rebelling against the old ways. It is probably the most liberal city in Southern Kurdistan and it used to be the most beautiful. It has been the cultural capital of this region. On the other hand, the history of this place, how rebellious and vibrant it has been, has made the people arrogant and complacent. They are a funny lot, the people of Suleimanya, humorous and witty but also boastful and sometimes lazy.
20 October 08 – Erbil
This morning I joined Khatuzeen’s staff and a couple of other women's organizations to support the Kurdish Parliament’s Women’s Committee (led by Pakhshan Zangana). The committee is aiming to change articles of the Civil Status Law that discriminate against women. For two years, the women’s organizations have been campaigning to amend the articles concerning polygamy, inheritance, Nshooz (forcing a woman to return to her husband’s house against her will), and women’s witness-status in court. Finally, voting on the bill was proposed because ‘these issues are sensitive and complicated’.
The religious leaders have been campaigning against the abolishment of polygamy so we went to support the bill. We were allowed to sit and observe while the issue was being discussed in the parliament. The Legal Committee, pressurised by the religious and conservative members of parliament, requested more time to consider all aspects of the bill. I was impressed by Pakhshan Zangana’s defence, by Kwestan Muhammad, Khaman Zrar, Sozan Shahab and was disappointed by most of the men. Are these men our brothers? Are they the ones we supported throughout years or revolution and struggle? Now look at them, look at how they fight to preserve their advantages. It is shameful. The discussion was postponed till next Monday. I hope we won’t be disappointed once again.
19 October 08 – Erbil
This evening I talked to a group of young people in Shaqlawa (for the youth leadership program, organised by Ministry of Sports and Youth) about the social inequalities in Kurdistan, concentrating on gender and ethnicity. It was a good group but I am always shocked by what some of the young men think here. One of them argued that women should cover up because otherwise men get excited, that the gender equality I advocate amounts to sexual freedom and the birth of fatherless children, that there is nothing wrong with women doing all the housework and nurturing because this has been decided by nature. I was harsh with him but I could not help it.
There were quite a few good people too. Some of the girls were real fireballs. Some of the boys were just ignorant and could not see how their families discriminated between them and their sisters but they were willing to listen. I find working with young people satisfying because of their flexibility and openness. You can see them thinking through things and you just hope that they will hold on to those thoughts and ideas.
18 October 08 – Erbil
Back in dusty homeland where the clouds threaten to rain but never quite manage it. This place breaks your heart. Everyone watches you, no one smiles. At least there is plenty of glorious sunshine and many cool hours in the evenings.
I came home to take part in a conference, which, for the first time, would include all the Kurdish parties from all over Kurdistan, and to do some work on Anfal. My conference was cancelled just before I came but the email never reached me in time. So here I am, waiting to start another round of Anfal interviews.
14 October 08 – Vienna
I missed my connecting flight to Erbil (Kurdistan) so I am stuck in Vienna till tomorrow morning (apparently hundreds of people missed their connections because of the fog!!) It took me more than five hours to rebook my ticket, get booked into a hotel and get my luggage back. This happened to me once before when I was travelling back to Kurdistan from Munich about a year ago. Turkey decided to not let the plane go over its territory and I was stranded in Germany for one week (the charter airline would not refund me and there was no flight till the next week). Homeland! No matter how many obstacles we face, no matter how much you disappoint us we keep coming back, we are still hopeful, still attached.
12 October 08 – Ilkley
Ilkley Literature Festival
A rather long journey from King 's Cross up to Ilkley for another World Poets event. An hour’s reading and then rushing back to London with Lavinia Greenlaw (a real poetic presence who has translated Noshi Gillani). Back in London just before mid-night, I feel a bit mad at the moment, too tired to think straight.
8 October 08 – Cardiff
I took the morning train up and read on behalf of Kajal Ahmad in Cardiff Library. 8 Kurdish men turned up for the reading and a Somali couple (rather nice and surprising). I joined the men for a quick bite afterwards (I felt that I had known them for a long time just because they are Kurds), rushed back and checked into the hotel before the evening event. Organised by Academi, three of the World Poets took part in the BayLit festival in Cardiff: Maxamed X D Gurryie, Ferzaneh Khojandi, and Kajal Ahmad (whose work I read). The event was beautifully hosted by Charles Beckett (you know how some hosts just take over the event and overshadow the writers? Well, this one was just the opposite, Charles’s calming presence and gentleness put everyone at ease). A warm audience too, though small compared to what you get in Somalia, Tajikistan and Kurdistan where hundreds come to listen to poetry for hours.
p.s. I owe a lot to everyone in Academi, who, over the years, have supported my work and that of many other writers. The organisation consists of a small team of people who are doing a lot of good work. Keep it up friends! I think you are doing great stuff.
6 October 08 – London
The October gallery
The launch of ten chapbooks by ten poets; all translated by the Poetry Translation Centre and published by Enitharmon Press. This was to mark the beginning of the Poetry Translation Centre’s second World Poets’ tour. Unfortunately our Kurdish poet, Kajal Ahmad, was not able to make it so as we say in Kurdish ‘her place was empty’. The party was great too; many of the poetry lovers were there to celebrate. Check the poets out on www.poetrytranslation.org You will like what you will find.
25 September 08 – Paris
I first met Ellen Hinsey in June when she read a fantastic short story by Grace Paley (see below). Since then we have been meaning to meet up and missing each other (the joys of modern life with all the travelling and complications). Finally we met outside Bastille and after changing seats a couple of times (too much noise, too much smoke) we settled down in the back of a small bar nearby. This is the first time that I meet a poet who is also interested in and working on mass violence. So as you can imagine the talk went from poetry, to roots, to violence, to our responsibilities in the world and the burdens we carry. No wonder we laughed from our hearts too- I think that only when you know real pain you can laugh like that. I have a feeling that this is the beginning of a long friendship (I am always excited about such beginnings). When you spend a few years reading about the horrible things human beings do to each other you end up having a skewed view of this world so it is always great to meet those who fight this darkness. There is still hope, I guess, there is hope and we must remind each other of that.
16 September 08 – London
I got back to London in time for dinner with the memory group. There is finally a plan to document the atrocities that were committed against the Kurds in Iraq and Anfal takes centre stage. When I was first asked to take part in this project, over a year ago, I was very enthusiastic. Soon afterwards, however, I started feeling the effects of my own research with Anfal women. I became really depressed and took some time off to heal (helped by therapist, masseur, swimming instructor, nutrition specialist, friends, and family). I used the time to do my novel. Over the last few months I have felt stronger and after a few intense exchanges with various people I decided to join the team and take part in collecting the testimonies. The dinner was my first introduction to the group and we will have a more official meeting tomorrow. Fingers crossed for the project and for my health.
4 September 08 – Paris
Back to beautiful Paris, where walking and looking up at buildings has gradually healed me over the last months. French has not happened to me yet but it may be just playing hard to get.
3 September 08 – London
I finished the first draft of my novel in Starbucks (hooray) and then went for my swimming lesson (my 17th) and just like that I lifted my feet up from the bottom of the pool and swam. Can you believe that two wonderful things could happen in one short day? This has taken me a long time. As usual it takes me much longer to master any physical skill than most people. I am grateful to the patience of my swimming instructor who didn’t give up on me. It was also amazing that this only happened when I had just finished writing the last sentence of my novel, as if some darkness had been lifted or that my brain had switched on to the sense of possibility and adventure that I usually lack when it comes to practical skills. A big day for me, a real big day.
1 September 08 – London
Displaced exhibition by Osman Ahmad, Imperial War Museum
I went with Osman Ahmad (my art teacher when I lived in Seqiz, Iranian Kurdistan) to his exhibition in the Imperial War Museum. It was the last week of the exhibition and my last opportunity to see it. The exhibition was brilliant. My favourite drawing was the one casually drawn on the back of some catalogue on his way to college. It started with one line (outlining a mountainous landscape) which turned into human figures, the figures carrying the landscape along with them as they fled. The unbroken line went down the eight squares and followed the figures’ journey all the way down till they became a large mass of small unrecognisable, shadowy beings. And then there was the Anfal series, people gathering closer to each other in every picture until they become one dark shape (in the last drawing), a black hole in our history, just darkness in our memory. Check out his website, to which mine is connected. He is brilliant.
31 August 08 - London
In commemoration of Azad Hawrami, SOAS
Azad Hawrami was killed on the 31st August 1988, during the last stages of Iraq’s Anfal campaign. He had been a brilliant peshmarga-commander, a musician, a thinker and most of all a very truthful young man. Many people think that if he had survived, he would have been the kind of leader that Iraqi Kurdistan desperately needs right now. I am a little superstitious about brilliant people; it is as if they are too good to live. In every photo of the exhibition, that paid tribute to his short life, he had a beautiful smile on his face (shaving on a stream, crossing a surging river on a tire, standing with friends, with village children, etc). The smile was that of an optimist- one who has faith and clarity of mind. He had been married for a year (or less) when he was killed but even after 20 years his wife remembers him fondly. Shna’s speech, about their short life together, made many people cry. Her reconstruction of him was touching and humane. In the documentary, to which more than a dozen people contributed, and the booklet, where many people who had known him in various capacities talked about him, he comes across as the man whom everyone loved and respected, even those who were members of opposing political parties.
p.s. Thanks to Haval Kwestani, who conceptualised the idea over a year ago, and the good work of a large group, in particular London’s hard-working and fun-loving Atta Mufty.
2 August 08 - Stockholm
Gender and Power in the Kurdish society, Komalgay geli Kurdistan
Using feminist thinkers such as Bonnie Burstow, L. Weber, V. Swan, Olivia Espin and others I talked about Kurdish patriarchy’s use of religion, law, culture, education and socialisation to create the two unequal groups of men and women, one of them in the service of the other. One of the subjects that I have become increasingly interested in is that of Kurdish stories- children’s stories as well as the stories that patriarchy produces to justify the social inequality between men and women. The story of Gurnatalla, the boy who disobeys his parents and goes on to fool a monster as opposed to that of Rezan Khatoon, the girl who disobeys her parents and goes on to be enslaved by a monster. Also patriarchy’s interpretations and excuses ranging from religious ones, ‘Women are lacking in brain and religion’ to modern and secular ones ‘Women are by nature better and kinder than men and therefore they can do all the hard work.’
A big turn out, thanks to kak Shamal’s tireless marketing. Kurds make a funny audience; they are always critical, sometimes just for the sake of it- If you paint an apple they will ask you why haven’t you painted an orange? And even worse, some of them expect you to say what they want to say. I ended up telling a couple of people (who argued that I had not criticised religion enough) to hold their own seminars on Gender and Religion, certainly that was not my focus. And, of course, there is always resistance to what you say: the man who gives you a lecture about how to ‘improve your understanding and go deeper into the subject’ because apparently he has learnt nothing new from you. I ended up being rude to an older man (who gave me the same patronising lecture three times). I told him that he should leave me alone as he had done my head in. I was actually shocked at what I told him, but later when I was told about the kind of person he is, I felt my rudeness was justified. I am learning to be harsher, which does not come naturally, but at times it becomes necessary. It is just that when you are a woman (short and young-ish) many of these men (and women) do not take you seriously.
16 July 08 – London, South Bank
Refugee Encounters, London Literature Festival
As you can tell from the title it was the refugee thing again. Once a year, in June and to celebrate Refugee Week, literature organizations include in their programs writers who have come to the UK as refugees. I am personally fed up with the category. I think it is a rather unimaginative and lazy exercise to tick the cultural diversity box. I am a writer and I should be invited to events for the quality of my work. I don’t like being packaged as ‘the refugee writer’ all my life and reading with the same pool of writers and poets. It is true that these events bring in their own audiences (the event was sold out) but sometimes I would rather just have the standard audience that likes literature, full stop. My friends tell me that I should be grateful, take the money and the publicity and not complain but I don’t want to be labeled for good, it is quite boring.
Despite all of that I really enjoyed the event. The great thing about this event was that I ended up with two women writers whom I have never worked with before and they were both fantastic. Vesna Maric is a British/Bosnian writer and her memoir will be coming out soon. She is witty, fun, clever and strangely enough she is best friends with one of my friends from University (all those connections again). Xiaolu Guo is a brilliant Chinese novelist (displaced by choice) and I had been meaning to read her Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. The event was chaired by Patrick Neat, also a great novelist, whom I had initially met in Totleigh Barton. It all went really quickly (always a good sign) and it ended with Abdullah Chhadeh’s brilliant qanun playing. I am grateful to the South Bank for a few really good projects, not least for including me in the international festival in 2002 which lead to the publication of Life for Us two years later (a long story, maybe I will tell that another time).
p.s. I thought since I am the refugee again, I might as well go Full Monty and I dressed in Kurdish clothes. It felt a little strange when I got there though. Wearing traditional clothes seems like making a statement, although it should not be. I love my Kurdish clothes (the colours, the layers) but they just feel too dressy to wear for most places, as if you are trying to show off or something.
7th- 12th July 08 - Scotland
Advanced Poetry Workshop with John Glenday, Moniack Mhor Writers Centre
You know what it feels like to be a small, young(ish), foreign woman poet who is collaborating with an older, more experienced, native, brilliant male poet? It means you can look slight, you can look like a cheat. Well, this week was not like that. John did not try to show me up, there was no competition and I felt very much that we were a team. I had never met him before but I loved working with him. I attended all his workshops of course, would never miss such an opportunity, and wrote a few poems that I will keep. We had a rather international and broad mix of students from the USA, Greece, Dubai, England and Scotland; some brilliant writers here, lots of humour and good will. It is always great to be back in Moniack Mhor. I did my first residency here in the winter of 2004. I lived in the cottage for five months and since then I have been back a few times. I feel at home here. It is so beautiful and there is still a sense of community, people have time to stop and say hello. The guest poet was the brilliant Ann McLeod who is a doctor, novelist, poet and proud mother of four children. How do some women do it?
26 June 08 - Manchester
Manchester Library Reading
To celebrate Refugee Week I read with Soleiman Adel Guemar, a great Algerian poet I had not met before. He writes in French and has been translated by two good men I know from my first ever poetry conference in Swansea, Tom Cheesman and John Goodby. It was good to see their names again and to read the poems on the train after hearing Soleiman’s voice. The room was jam packed. The library seems to have a dedicated group of fans. It was good to be back in Manchester once more and to see John Siddique, and my two good friends Danny Solle (who was in Manchester for work and managed to sneak in) and Cath Mafia. Thanks to Fran Devine who organized the event and introduced me to another good poet.
21st and 28th June 08 - London
Memories and myths, Spread the Word poetry workshop
Two Sundays in a row, working with a small group of poets to explore childhood memories, family, homeland, etc. We looked at poems by Jacob Polly, Grace Palely, Muian Al-Fakeer, Dlawar Karadaghi, Carolyn Forche, etc. There was some laughter and plenty of tearful moments. Sometimes I think we are all displaced in some way or another, even those who live in the house they were born in, no one is immune from this internal displacement.
20 June 08 – Contact Theatre, Manchester
Community Arts Northwest launched the next phase of Exodus Greater Manchester Refugee Arts Program. I was there when Exodus was first launched in 2005 and it was great to see how it has grown and how it has become a platform for so many refugee artists from all the different communities. I am continuously finding out good things about Manchester. Only a few months ago my husband made me watch the brilliant ‘24 Hour Party People’ (I am always grateful to him for introducing me to so many good things. Being a refugee is all about discovering things so late and being so amazed by them). Only a few months before that, near the end of 2007 (I think), I had discovered Joy Division through ‘Control’. The two films together made me look up Joy Division, Sex Pistols and Happy Mondays. What a scene Manchester has been! I would have never thought. How amazing places are, all that history, the creativity and how you can be so ignorant of all of that when you are not from that place. And of course all the great poets who live there now! Hello! Is anyone out there? If you can give me a job I will move to Manchester tomorrow.
9 June 08 - Norwich
Norwich City of Refuge, Café Writers
A reading to celebrate refugee week with Jules Kabombo and Martin Figura organized by Café Writers and New Writing Partnerships. I love going to Norfolk, the place where so many great writers live (George Szirtes, Helen Ivory, Martine Figura, Dean Parkin, Amanda Hopkinson, etc.), where the UEA provides one of the best MA programs in creative writing, where the Rialto is put together and where the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival takes place. I can feel the buzz every time I go. Places are about people for me, what people have done and what they have created. And sometimes despite all the difficulties home is just the place where we can pick up the phone and meet a friend for coffee. I think Norfolk has the potential to become home for me.
5 June 08 - Paris
Homage to Grace Paley
I didn’t know anything about Grace Paley before I went to this event- a Jewish-American poet, short-story writer, and essayist. The simplicity, intelligence, and humour of these poems and stories make us weep and laugh at the same time; they area beautiful, touching and so utterly, hopelessly human. I am so glad for having discovered her and I am grateful to Beverley Brahic who encouraged me to join her and go along to the event (grateful also to George Szirtes who introduced me to Beverley). A number of writers read from Paley’s work including C. K. Williams, Ellen Hinsey and Denis Hirson. I am finding the English speaking writers in Paris. Knowing writers who live in the same place always makes me feel at home there so here, Paris is becoming home, very slowly, very gently.
31 May 08 - Paris
Anfal women between speaking and silence, The Kurdish Institute
The seminar was well attended and since my move to Paris six months ago it was an opportunity to meet Kurds and find some old friends and acquaintances. I talked about women’s silences regarding some of their experiences during and after Anfal. Generally speaking, women look to the dominant Anfal narrative for guidance about what to talk or not talk about. This narrative is a nationalist black and white story that focuses on death and destruction and ignores women’s experiences. I found that most women did not speak about their gendered experiences because they thought it was irrelevant to the Anfal story. But there was a more intentional silence when it came to issues about rape, sexual abuse, theft, prostitution and generally all that is usually considered ‘morally wrong’. These silences are intentional strategies to protect themselves from further stigmatization and pain. But what does it mean to live with the burden of silence? How do survivors cope with their past?
19-23 May 08 - Cardiff
Mother Tongues poetry workshop
I went back to Cardiff for the second year in a raw (third trip) to facilitate poetry workshops in three primary schools which have Arabic, Somali and Bangoli speaking children (amongst many other languages). Initially the project was funded by Children in Need and now by the BBC. I worked with the children on Arabic poetry, using poems by Mourid Barghouti, Venus Khourty Ghatta, Muniam Alfaker, Mahmood Darwish, Saadi Yusif, Dunya Mikhael, etc. Usually I try to introduce the poet’s country, give a bit of background information and then talk about the poet, read the work in the original language followed by the translation. We then spend some time discussing the poems before we get to write something. I always enjoy getting the children excited about words and images and sometimes I am utterly surprised by the kind of work they produce, all fresh and open, un-spoilt imagination.
30 April 08- London
Poetry Translation Centre workshop, SOAS
The Poetry Translation Centre is doing its second world poets tour (in October 2008) and this time a Kurdish poet will be amongst the group. When Sarah Maguire asked me to help select a Kurdish poet for the tour, I was over the moon about it. What a fantastic thing to be able to do: to help translate a Kurdish poet who would tour the country and have a bi-lingual chapbook at the end of the process (through Enitharmon). After some discussion we decided on Kajal Ahmad, who I think one of the best women poets in Kurdish. The final translations were in collaboration with Mimi Khalvati (a poet whom I have loved from my earliest encounters with English poetry so it was an honour to work with her). In the workshop I provided some background information about Kurdish poetry and Kajal’s position there and then we discussed the process of translation and compared some of the literal translations with the final version. Arguing about a word is always so exciting, the precision of English makes it such a powerful language but at times I also feel that it is too logical and there are many things that you can say in Kurdish which don’t sound right in English. I guess translation is about these things, the exciting moments and the frustrations.
17 April 08 - Berlin
Violence, Memory and Dealing with the past in Iraq: The survivors’ perspective
Organised by Haukari and the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, this was a brilliant one day seminar which for the first time, as far as I am aware, focused on the Anfal survivors’ perspective. The keynote speech was provided by Dr. David Bloomfield (Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, Ireland) who spoke most eloquently about peace and reconciliation based on his own experience in Ireland and his six months post in Baghdad. He pointed out that reconciliation cannot be imposed on victims, it is something that they have to reach themselves; that although survivors seem like heroes, in fact they are not, they are just ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’; that the legacy of violence does not go away and victims carry the burden of the injustices for a very long time, they also pass it on to their children and their community and these issues need to be addressed; that victims should not be pressured to forgive and that they, not the perpetrators should be at the heart of reconciliation and should control the process; and that the victims’ biggest outcry is for justice, they want an apology, acknowledgement, that is why it is important to help victims find what they want.
Following on from David’s brilliant speech Shazada Hussein Muhammad, an eloquent survivor who lives in Smud housing complex, talked about her experiences. She is a survivor from the Germian region which suffered the largest blow during the Anfal campaign. The majority of the women and children who were killed during Anfal were from this region. Shazada was married for two years when Anfal came to her region. Her only daughter was ten months old. She lost her husband and brothers to Anfal and was detained in Nugra Salman camp on the border of Saudi Arabia. After the September General Amnesty she spent many years waiting for her husband, hoping that he will return. It was only in 2003, after the collapse of Saddam’s government, when all the prisoners were released, did she realize he was not coming back. She worked to provide for herself and her young daughter. Later she joined a women’s organization and started supporting other Anfal widows, sometimes mediating between them and the authorities. She went to the Anfal trial as a witness but unfortunately the perpetrators (Saddam Hussein, Ali Hassan Majeed, etc.) walked out of the courtroom before she was due to speak. She had been wanting to talk about what happened to her and her family and to question the perpetrators directly bus she was denied the opportunity.
My presentation followed Shazada’s moving testimony. In my paper I tried to draw on women’s experiences, some of which were similar to Shazada’s. How when focusing on death, annihilation and genocide women’s experiences are sidelined as irrelevant and how this influences what will or will not be remembered by women. Some of the common themes in the women’s testimonies were: detailed recounting of the separation from their husbands (the men were taken for immediate execution), death of children in the camps (through starvation and illness), feeling guilty for having survived (when many others didn’t), anger at the Iraqi government, on the one hand, for doing this to them, ‘We are just farmers,’ as Shazada kept saying, and at the Kurdish authorities and Kurdish media, on the other, for taking advantage of women’s stories without helping them with their basic daily needs, and want of information about the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Then Gulnaz Aziz Qadir, a member of Kurdish parliament, talked about the government’s attempts at compensation and support, and the limitations of their work and the hurdles they faced. This was followed by Karin Mlodoch and Andrea Fischer-Tahir talking about their extensive work with Anfal women when they lived in Kurdistan. Both of these brilliant women have lived in Kurdistan, they speak fluent Kurdish, and have spent many years of their lives trying to help the widows.
11 April 08 - Belgium
A round table debate about Anfal, Roj TV
A live debate about Anfal, responsibility (Iraqi state, Kurds, international community), voice (which narrative, whose story?), representation and trauma. Najeeba xan presented the program (one of the best interviewers) and kak Shorsh Haji, Aso Byareyee and myself were the guests. There were too many issues to talk about therefore no telephone questions were taken. Kak Shorsh looks at Anfal more from a historical and political point of view. Kak Aso has a more sociological approach and I myself am concerned with gender, particularly about women’s sidelined experiences and comparing women’s narratives with the dominant Kurdish narrative.
6 April 08 - Derby
The Second Kurdish Art Showcase
Months ago I was contacted by Gashbir Ahmed, a Kurdish student from Derby, who invited me to take part in the second festival of Kurdish culture in the Midlands. He informed me that there are a few Kurdish writers in the region and together they have formed a poetry group called The lanterns of exile. The invited guests included Nazand Begikhani (poet) and Tara Jaff (harpist and singer) both of whom I have shared the platform with on many other occasions (the usual suspects). When I arrived at Derby train station that noon I had little expectation. In line with my past experiences with community events I expected that the festival would be terribly organized, it would start two hours late, few people would attend and I would starve to death and suffocate from thirst, let alone not be paid a penny. To my surprise a nice Kurdish man was waiting for me at the train station. He drove me to the venue, The Spot, where Tara was already set up. Outside the venue a few affectionate young men where dressed in their suits and welcoming people, I was already full of nostalgia looking at them. The venue was large, in fact so large that I worried we will be reading to hundreds of empty chairs. Food was brought from the local Kurdish restaurant and I had a qozi which was very satisfying.
The event was supposed to start at 2 o’clock and it started at 2 o’clock with an exhibition by Kurdish artists in the region. Then people were invited to enter the hall and the reading started on time (to my utter surprise). The venue was nearly full as Kurds from all over the region (Nottingham, Birmingham, Derby and even from Manchester and London) had come dressed in their best (some of the women wore their bright Kurdish clothes). A few non-Kurdish guests were also present including the Mayor of Derby and her husband (who was on crutches). After the opening speech and a few other housekeeping remarks the readings started. I was particularly impressed by Hardi whose poems were delicate and full of fun images like ‘an apple hanged herself from sorrow’ and autumn ‘divorced the last pomegranate.’ Most of the readings, however, were in Kurdish and Gashbir asked me to read in English for the benefit of the non-Kurdish guests. Nazand’s contribution was also in English (she was not present unfortunately so I read the poems on her behalf). Initially I felt sorry for the non-Kurds whom I was sure had better things to do on a Sunday afternoon than to listen to poetry in a language they did not understand. When the music started, however, I realised it must be worth their time. Tara sang and played her harp beautifully. She had kindly set one of my poems to music and sang it for the first time. Then the Kurdish band came, six men in their traditional Kurdish clothes, each living in a different city in the UK, each from a different city in Kurdistan. They played many of the old time favourties and they sang passionately. I was so touched I could cry. The event ended with three short films and I got a lift from Tara while her harp occupied the back seats. It was good to be reminded that our community is not all conflict, civil war and statelessness, it has all these vibrant things too which we sometimes forget.
16 March 08 – London
The International Legal Recognition of Crimes of Genocide Committed Against the Kurds
After much hesitation (I was invited three days before the conference) I went along to present some of my research findings about Anfal women. Throughout the last few years I have repeatedly asked myself (and other people) how it is possible for Kurds to organize so many conferences about Anfal without talking about the women victims and survivors? There is little research, it is true, but I have personally spent the last three years collecting Anfal women’s testimonies. A number of times I have put myself forward and suggested that I talk about the women in the yearly Anfal seminars. Each time the organizers had a different excuse not to invite me: ‘Sorry we forgot,’ ‘We could not get hold of your contact details in time,’ ‘We have a different focus this year’ etc. This is unforgivable. It indirectly implies that the experiences and suffering of Anfal women are irrelevant. It leads to the marginalization of these women’s voices in the dominant national narrative about Anfal. At times I think that lack of interest in my research may partly be due to who I am. I belong to no political party and my brothers are outspoken critics of the Kurdish government. I therefore lack the contacts and networks that get people invited to some such gatherings. I end up being invited by European academic centers instead, which is no bad thing.
In any case I went along to this year’s seminar despite resistance and dismissal on behalf of certain individuals. Later we all had dinner together like a large, happy family. It was good to see Greg Stanton (US), Mariwan Kanie (Holland) and Shakhawan Shorish (Denmark) once again and of course the London group. There were presentations also about the recent massacres of Yazidi Kurds and the deportation of Faili Kurds throughout the 1970s. It is incorrect to use the term genocide to refer to any of these cases (even the gassing of Halabja does not fit the genocide definition). Unfortunately people seem to think that unless they call a massacre genocide, it is not important. I hope more attention will be paid to the use of this word in the future.
8 March 08 - Vienna
International women’s day
I am continuously amazed by how fast the Kurdish diaspora is growing. I was on a two week residency in Moniack Mhor (Arvon centre, Scotland) when my phone rang: a European number that I did not recognize. A young woman introduced herself as Ares Hafid, a member of the Kurdish women’s group in Vienna. She wondered if I would go and celebrate International Women’s Day with them by giving a talk. If you are a writer who works from home, who has no contact with people for most of the time, who gets little feedback about what they do, you would understand that such offers could not be refused. Even if that means a rushed trip to a beautiful city which you won’t have time to explore and at the end of which you will feel exhausted and distracted. I went along and I was picked up from the airport by Ares and Shoxan late in the evening. By the time we got to Ares’s place I was dead tired but we still sat around and got to know each other a bit more. Soon I found out that Ares and myself had lived in Seqiz, a small town in Iranian Kurdistan, at the same time. In fact our families knew each other (someone once told me all Kurds are either related or enemies). The two young women with their colleague Shireen (A Syrian Kurd) had gone into great trouble organizing the day. We still had a small gathering of people, about 25, but a good and alert group (except from the ambassador who nodded off a few times). I talked about gender construction in the Kurdish society, the role of socialization, religion, culture and law. Later more people joined us and we ate at an Iranian restaurant where a belly dancer cheered us up (was she Austrian?)
27 February 08 - Nottingham Trent University
Lunch time reading
I was invited by Anna Ball who is a keen supporter of Exiled Writers’ Ink. The reading was part of a series of talks and seminars organized by members of the English Department for the staff and graduate students. When the reading was over one of the Asian-looking graduate students approached me and it turned out he was Kurdish (you meet them in the least expected places, like when I met a nice Kurdish architect in the Taipai Poetry Festival, I am always pleasantly surprised). Not only that, it turned out that he is a poet. Hemin Sh. Aumer has written the lyrics for one of my favourite contemporary Kurdish songs (Renj Sengawi- Asghm mn, you can listen to it on Youtube). After lunch he gave me a lift to the East Midlands airport and we had a coffee together talking about poetry, Kurdishness, exile and what we like about the UK. I got back in time for dinner to welcome my parents in law to Paris. It is amazing what can be achieved in one day.