Choman Hardi TALKS TO PENELOPE MACLACHLAN

Choman Hardi 

Choman Hardi  TALKS TO PENELOPE MACLACHLAN  Kurdishaspec.com March 17, 2006

‘I am Kurdish, and female, and these imbue my writing. I grew up in the Middle East in the 1980s with all the restrictions imposed on girls in a patriarchal society. Our gender limited our opportunities: I never learned to swim; our movements, clothes and behaviour were censured, we were taught to clean after our brothers, to obey and be quiet, and the men had a bigger share of the good things like ‘the weekly chicken’.

Choman Hardi is a poet, artist and academic. Life for Us [1] , her first English collection of poems, published in 2004, sings of the struggles of a stateless people, and of exile. Throughout her childhood she and her family were surrounded by danger and forced to flee for their lives. When you meet her for the first time, though, she does not seem weighed down with sadness, but sparkles with zest for art, nature and life in general.

‘Life for Us records my personal journey. The ‘us’ in the title refers to my family, the Kurds and women in that part of the world. The book starts with a poem about exile, goes on to include poems about family history and national history. It ends with more personal poems about love and loss- mixed marriage and the thought of future children.’

She lives in central London with her husband, and came to talk to me in Hanwell. Taking up the story of what it was like to be the youngest in the family, and a girl at that, she says,

‘Part of our knowledge about how to behave in the world comes from the stories we are told. My childhood stories were mostly about men who were active decision-makers whereas women were generally passive or at least desired to be so. Even now and in this country some children’s stories and films convey to girls that happiness is to be found in being calm, patient and good,  and in uniting with their prince. Snow White and Cinderella, when their heroes marry them, symbolise feminine bliss.

‘I don’t consciously write about particular themes; they come naturally. Being Kurdish permeates my writing. I am one of 30 to 40 million people who have no state and therefore no voice. The rest of the world denies our existence, or is unaware of it. I am in a position to assert myself and my fellows and I became aware of my responsibility to do so when I came to the UK.

‘The atrocities that befell the Kurds have regularly been ignored by the media. For example, the Kurdish riots that broke out in Syria in 2004 and led the murder and arrest of dozens of people did not get any coverage in the UK, there is a wall of silence. There are Kurdish websites which keep us in touch with what happens in the different parts of Kurdistan, but they are viewed mostly by the Kurds themselves.  ‘In Life for Us I have tried to address statelessness and its embodiments. I am grateful to Bernard O’Donoghue (in the Poetry London review) who says that I have answered the question which is raised in one of the poems better than maps and political analysis: ‘ “Could you show me where that [*]  is on the map? I don’t remember having heard of it.” ‘ [*]  Kurdistan   (To Kurdistan, Life for Us).

‘When I go to Middle Eastern shops in England, people want to know where I come from. As soon as I say “Kurdistan” they reply “Where is that?” They are pretending not to know. The Iranian map is the only one in the Middle East which has Kurdistan on it (although reduced to a tiny province). A friend of mine who was born in Iranian Kurdistan travelled to Turkey, but the immigration authorities refused to allow her in because on her British passport the place of birth was stated to be Kurdistan, Iran; “This place doesn’t exist,” they said aggressively.

‘Living in London I’m constantly reminded how our existence, our contribution to the world culture and history are ignored . In March 2005 I went to the Royal Academy in London, to the ‘The Turks’ exhibition [2]. It attributes some works of art to the Turks which are Kurdish. Our heritage is claimed by others. The British collude in this omission, perhaps bearing in mind that Turkey is about to join the European Union. How could such awareness of injustice not affect my writing? I belong to a people who have never been high on any agenda. Even the best papers have their blind spots. They sometimes talk about the Kurds in Iraq, but ignore the Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria.

‘In 1974 the Iraqi government crushed the Kurdish revolution, which my father supported. As a result we, along with many others, fled to Iran. We returned in 1979 after the Iraqi government issued an amnesty for the Kurds.’

Choman’s poem, At the border, 1979, (Life for Us) conjures up the image of frightened adults and curious children, too young to understand their plight. As a little girl between two countries, she describes herself   standing by the check-in point comparing both sides of the border.

‘Farsi was the official language of Iran. There was no written material in Kurdish. When I went to school in Iran I studied Persian history and in Iraq I studied Arabic history. We were denied the right to study our own history in both countries. Throughout the 1980s the Iraqi government was massacring Kurdish people. In Qleeshayawa  (Life for Us) she describes her compatriots  forced … to witness the execution of a friend, to clap and shout, Long Live justice!

Saddam Hussein launched the anti-Kurdish Anfal campaign in 1988, with the aim of exterminating all the village dwellers of Iraqi Kurdistan. This was mainly because the Kurdish revolution was functioning from the mountains and these villages were treated as traitors for living in the same area. Very few survived the execution squads. Her poem The Penelopes of my homeland, (Life for Us), dedicated to ‘the 50,000 widows of Anfal’, is an interpretation of the Greek legend in the light of her own experience. She describes the women weaving  their own and their children’s shrouds … Their Odysseus never comes home, and they pass to their children the tragic heritage of waiting in vain.

 ‘In 1988 there were 40 chemical attacks on the Kurdish villages. Halabja was also bombarded around the same time. Five thousand people were gassed in Halabja alone and ten thousand were injured. The gas not only killed the people but polluted the land and air, and affected the gene pool. Ten years later professor Christine Golsden discovered that the number of Kurds with cancer in the chemically polluted regions was five times higher than non-affected areas.’

In Iran and Iraq Choman’s family was free to celebrate Newroz (Kurdish for ‘new day’, by which the Kurds mean the first day of spring), a festival which the Turkish government forbade until three years ago. It takes place on 21 March, which is also the first day of the Kurdish new year. Newroz dates back to the myth of Kawa, the blacksmith. On 21 March 612 BC Kawa killed the Assyrian tyrant Dehak, an evil king whom some compare to Saddam Hussein, and liberated the Kurds. Kawa lighted a fire on the mountaintops to send a message to thank God for helping him defeat Dehak, and also to tell the people that they were free. Today Newroz is a day of protest against oppression inflicted not only on the Kurds, but on people everywhere who suffer injustice.

Choman and her family were on the run between Iraq, Iran and Turkey between 1988 and 1993.    ‘In 1991, after the first gulf war, American planes dropped leaflets encouraging the Kurds and Shi’ite to rise against the Iraqi government but when the Iraqi government gathered its forces, crushed the Shi’ite uprising and headed towards the Kurdish region, the Americans did nothing. The Americans banned Iraqi aeroplanes but not Iraqi helicopters; which had been used to drop chemical weapons in the past. This panicked the population and more than two million Kurds fled as a result.

‘We went to Turkey in 1991. I was left in Istanbul where I met other Kurds, and realised we were better off than they were.’  No English newspaper has covered the finding of a mass grave in the city of Diyarbakir in Turkey. A journalist read about it in a Kurdish paper, and translated the report into English. The Turkish army, not Saddam Hussein, was responsible for the slaughter. In 1993 Turkish soldiers, running an operation to burn villages and force the residents out, captured eleven villagers from Alacakoy and took them to Keper, an arable field nearby.  They remained there for ten days, during which the soldiers allowed the relatives to bring food. On the eleventh day they withdrew this concession. Next, the soldiers burned the village, forcing the residents out. Until 2001 the Turkish government pronounced Alacakoy a military zone, with entry forbidden to unauthorised persons. Then the villagers appealed to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. As a result, a delegation investigated, and found in Kulp, an arable field in the province of Diyarbakir, the dead bodies of the captives in a mass grave. Although the Court examined the case and found Turkey guilty, exactly how its army killed the Kurdish villagers is still a mystery.

‘My success in writing in English started only five or six years ago. Before that nobody knew me. I owe a great deal to Jennifer Langer, who set up Exiled Writers Ink! [3] . Audiences at our monthly meetings at the Poetry Café, Covent Garden, London, have grown and are still growing. At first people who worked with refugees came to look and listen; then literature enthusiasts joined them.

‘For two or three years I was making my name by reading my poetry, mostly free of charge. The South Bank / Apples & Snakes project and the Jerwood-Arvon mentoring scheme gave me the opportunity to work with Moniza Alvi and George Szirtes respectively. I sent my manuscript to Bloodaxe after performing in a Poetry International event in 2002 and two years later the book was published.

‘Return with no memory, my first collection, in Kurdish, published in Denmark in 1996, is mostly love poems. For Light of the shadows  (Sweden, 1998) I wrote the poems by hand, illustrated them, and designed the cover.  Selected Poems (Iraqi Kurdistan, 2003) includes poems from the first and second books, as well as new works.

‘Generations of authors have decided to write in Kurdish because their language and culture are threatened. Recently the younger generation has started writing in other languages, we need to reach out. Nobody knows our history, but this will change. Last year a Kurdish writer published a very well received book, My Father’s Rifle [4]. It was translated into twenty languages. Also Behman Qubadi, a prize-winning Kurdish director has been gaining recognition in the West. Kurdish voices are starting to speak.’

After just two years at her school in England, her teachers suggested to her that she should apply to Oxford. ‘Although I had some difficulties with English, I was good at subjects needing a practical flair, and took A level maths, physics and art. Peter McLeod, the  psychology tutor, interviewed me at Queen’s College Oxford. He was wonderful. Despite my limited English, he gave me the opportunity to read philosophy and psychology in Queen’s.

‘I was still feeling the culture shock when I went to Oxford. Drinking and having one night stands seemed strange and distasteful to me. In every college there’s a group of “perfect people”, always the centre of attention. But there were also students, like me, who came from overseas – Germany and Malaysia, for example – and we made friends. We were outsiders who all spoke at least one language besides English and knew at least one other culture. Soon I was enjoying the best time I’d had since arriving in the UK. Some of the lecturers were inspiring. When I realised that there were other poets and artists in the college, I organised two art festivals to perform and exhibit our work. In the second festival, David Constantine, one of our lecturers, also took part.

‘I learned a lot, made wonderful friends, and appreciated studying in fine old buildings. Philosophy was my main subject. The focus was on analytical philosophy and I regret not having read Heidegger and Neitsche. They taught psychology with the emphasis on science; I was more interested in mental health and animal behaviour.’

After graduating from Oxford, Choman did an MA in philosophy in UCL and then carried out doctorate research at the University of Kent on the mental health of Kurdish women surviving migration to the UK.

‘I’ve had periods of depression while struggling to cope with change: I came from a communal to an individualist society. Kurdish children honour their parents; I heard some of the other students say awful things about theirs. Their outlook seemed to me selfish and sex-obsessed. On the other hand the Kurdish community is restrictive. My mother was concerned about my going out, and my family wanted me to stay as I was rather than adapt to change. 

‘These conflicts and the feelings they arouse made me fascinated by other people’s stories; I thought it would be wonderful to hear how other migrant women fared. I interviewed twenty Kurdish women from Iraq and Iran. They told me about applying for asylum, what went wrong, and how it affected their mental health and wellbeing. Enduring the delays and frustrations during asylum application, when the applicant feels she has no control over how officials treat her or whether the decisions are prompt or delayed, just or unjust, may make her ill.

‘I asked what services they needed. How had they changed? I wanted to know; what did they find most difficult, and what had they gained? Exile can be full of opportunities. Strong, resilient people make the best of both worlds.

‘As a child I wanted to be an artist, but I haven’t painted for four years. To launch my second book of poems in Kurdish I took an exhibition of women artists’ work with me on a European tour. When I finished my MA in philosophy I applied to study fine art. At the same time I applied for a scholarship to do a PhD. I got the scholarship to do the PhD. I often ask myself, ‘ “ What if I’d done the fine art MA?” ‘I love colour. I enjoy the human form, and like to paint overlapping faces and bodies, loads of fish, leaves, goats and horses. Art is something that I always hope to return to.

‘I started work as an interpreter in 2000 and I met my husband through my work. I still interpret one or two days a week. I want to keep a foot in the real world, as well as earn a regular income.’ Some of Choman’s poems in Life for Us express her feelings about mixed marriage: her father remains silent, but her sisters lament: You are melting into other cultures. (Mixed Marriage, Life for Us)  Her mother pleads with her to wear something blue to protect herself from the evil eye. She recalls with humour the practical difficulties of setting up home, the difference between her husband’s upbringing and her own, and, in The Middle Way and My Children, (Life for Us), their plans for the future. These poems are lively with hope.

‘I’m about to start two years’ post doctorate research, which the Leverhume Trust is funding. I’ll spend a few months in Uppsala University, department of genocide and holocaust studies. I’ll be travelling Kurdistan to interview women survivors of Anfal.

‘One of my ambitions has been to translate works of Kurdish literature to English; there are as yet hardly any such translations. Desmond O’Grady, the Irish poet, has done some, and I want to complement his work. I have just translated Sherko Bekes’s book length poem Butterfly Valley. Some twenty four pages of the translation appeared in the last issue of the Modern Poetry in Translation. I have also translated some poems by Dilawer Karadaghi. One of the longer poems was published in the last issue of Poetry Review. ‘I hope to finish the novel I am working on.’ We are lucky to have Choman’s poetry available to us now. I eagerly await more of her poems, and her novels.

Afterword – Some Facts about the Kurds and Kurdistan The Kurds are the world’s largest nation without a state of their own. Their traditional territory is divided among the modern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Between 20 and 25 percent of these Kurds live in Iraq. In 1920, through the Treaty of Sèvres, the Kurds were promised their own country, Kurdistan. The British and French, though, through the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, reneged on Kurdish independence and divided the Kurds among Turkey, Iraq and Syria. (See Choman’s poem, Lausanne, 1923, Life for Us).      

Saddam Hussein rose to power in Iraq in 1968, becoming president in 1979.  In 1974 Saddam’s  Ba’ath party seized oil-producing areas in Kurdistan. War followed in 1975, forcing Kurdish men, women and children to flee to Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war, 1980, Iraqi troops captured 8,000 Kurds, who disappeared; possibly they became guinea pigs to test the effects of chemical weapons.  In 1988 the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein launched the Anfal campaign  against the Kurds. Its aim was to exterminate all adult males of military service age captured in rural Iraqi Kurdistan.  In 1991, after the 1990 Gulf War, Kurds in Iraq rose against the regime. When the Iraqis counterattacked, Kurds fled to Turkey and Iran. In 2003 the US overthrew Saddam Hussein.

[1] Life for Us, ISBN 1 85224 644 8, is available from: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Highgreen, Tarset, Northumberland NE48 1RP  website:  www.bloodaxebooks.com  [2] The Royal Academy of Arts, Turks: A journey of 1,000 years, 600 – 1600 AD, until 12 April 2005.  www.royalacademy.org.uk [3] Exiled Writers Ink! 31 Hallswelle Road, London NW11 ODH.  Telephone 020 8458 1910  email  Jennifer@exiledwriters.fsnet.co.uk  Director: Jennifer Langer.  Patrons include Timberlake Wertenbaker Membership application form can be downloaded from  http://www.exiledwriters.co.uk  [4] My Father’s Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan  by Hiner Saleem. Translated into English by Catherine  Temerson. Available through  http://www.amazon.com  ENDS     

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