Poetry’s power to speak the unspeakable: the Kurdish story
Choman Hardi is a Co-Director of the UKRI GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub, and Assistant Professor at The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. This article originally appeared in the Italian magazine Micro Mega and on the LSE's Women, Peace and Security Hub.
The Kurdish story
The Kurds are an indigenous people of the Middle East who found themselves living on a fault line between the warring Ottoman (Sunni) and Persian (Shia) empires. The majority enjoyed a degree of self-governance under Ottoman rule but were fiercely subdued when the Ottomans settled their dispute with the Persians in the 19th century. Later, in the aftermath of World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the possibility of establishing a Kurdish state was left open in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). Three years later, this was undone by the Treaty of Lausanne, which divided the Kurds and turned them into oppressed ethnic minorities in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Since then, various Kurdish revolts have been brutally suppressed by these governments.
The communities suffered different kinds and levels of oppression. In Turkey, Kurdish culture and language were criminalised until 1991; Kurds were forcibly deported to Turkish areas in an attempt to assimilate them; and their resistance was repressed. Syria built an Arabic belt stretching across the Turkish border, and Kurds were expelled from this oil rich and fertile area and replaced with Arab families. At the same time, more than 100,000 people were denied citizenship and became stateless. Iran hunted down Kurdish opposition leaders and killed them even when they were living in exile. The Iranian military crushed the Mahabad Republic (the short-lived Kurdish state which came into being during World War II) and hanged its leader. Even though Iraq granted the Kurds some administrative and cultural rights, successive Iraqi governments became increasingly repressive. The nationalist Ba’ath government imposed Arabisation of oil rich areas, deportation of village populations, gassing, and eventually genocide.
It became clear that despite disputes among the four ruling states, they would all collaborate to ensure that there would never be a Kurdish state. At times, a government would support Kurds in a neighbouring country to force the other’s hand and get what they wanted. A good example of this is the 1960s Kurdish rebellion in Iraq, which was supported by Iran. The support lasted until the 1975 Algiers Agreement was signed and the border dispute was settled to Iran’s advantage. In 1980, taking advantage of the change of regime in Iran, Iraq reneged on the agreement and attacked Iran, starting a futile 8-year war which left one million dead.
The Kurdish struggle went on quietly, largely ignored by the rest of the world. But the last 30 years have been full of upheaval and transformation for us. The 1988 gassing of Halabja was well documented by the Iranians, who were at war with Iraq. Images of the gassed victims, twisted, blistered, and blue lipped, shocked viewers. While the tragedy of Halabja received some international attention, another campaign which was going on at the same time remained completely hidden. This was the Anfal genocide, which lasted for seven months. Two hundred and eighty-one locations were gassed during this campaign, 2,000 villages were destroyed, and over 100,000 civilians were shot and left in mass graves.
The fear of being gassed terrorised Iraqi Kurds. This was the main reason that, when the Kurdish and Shiite popular uprisings were crushed by the Iraqi army (after the first Gulf War in 1991), the Kurds fled to neighbouring Iran and Turkey. The mass exodus was another moment which turned the world’s attention towards our plight. Images of 1.5 million civilians crossing through mountains in the rain and hail, stuck in mud and struggling with hunger and thirst, generated a lot of sympathy. This led to the establishment of the No-Fly Zone to protect the people and eventually to the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 1992.
More recently, the 2011 uprising in Syria opened an opportunity for the Kurds to fight the repressive Syrian government and seize control of their region. Their courageous war against the Islamic State (IS) involved many women fighters, who became icons of resistance and empowerment. The alternative model of governance in Rojava (north-east Syria) integrated direct democracy with cultural and religious freedoms, women’s rights, and eco-socialism. In a very short time, the Kurds built an impressive autonomous region with its own constitution and accompanying institutions. Most of this was undone as a result of the Turkish attacks of October 2019. Soon Kurds were fleeing persecution once again, this time to Başur (northern Iraq).
Hapsa Khan (1892-1953) was an early Kurdish feminist. She founded the Kurdish Women’s Association and established the first women’s school in Iraq. She supported and funded a revolt against British occupation in 1920 and supported the establishment of a Kurdish state. She died in Sulaymaniyah. ‘The symbol of the changes in society.’ It may be difficult for others to understand what it feels like to be forcibly deported, to see your homes givens to “settlers,” to witness the renaming of your neighbourhoods and towns. It may be difficult to imagine what it is like not to be allowed to speak your mother tongue, to witness public assassination of your people, to grow up with images of mass graves, gassed victims, hanged leaders. It is even more difficult to describe what it is like to see history repeat itself when you witness your defeat again.
On bad days, for example, when what was built in Rojava over five years was destroyed by Turkey in a few days, I feel that we are the Sisyphus of the Middle East. We struggle to build a homeland where we are not persecuted, but as soon as we build it, it is all undone and our boulder rolls back down from the top of the mountain. It feels as if we are destined to do this forever. On good days, when I think about how we have survived despite the odds, how by all standards we should have gone extinct, but have not, then I think that we are the Phoenix. We arise from our ashes and are reborn each time we get killed.
We defy the colonisation and destruction of our land and culture with all our might. We fight, laugh, dance, sing, and picnic alongside the traumas we carry. We reclaim our divided land and rename it. What they call “south-east Turkey” is our Bakur (the north of Kurdistan), “northern Iraq” is Başur (the south), “western Iran” is Rojhelat (the east), and “north-east Syria” is Rojava (the west). We insist that Kurdistan exists, no matter how much denial we face.
In my first English poetry collection (Life for Us, 2004) I counter the view that only those places that exist on a political map are real. I weave Kurdistan through the poems, reconstructing its landscape and culture, its hard times, its romance stories. In my poem, My Country, I say that I carry my country in “my handbag”, in “books about genocide,” in “pictures of mass graves,” but more importantly “I sing my country for the silence that surrounds it./ I remember a country forgotten/ by everyone else.”
In 2017, when the Kurdish MP and human rights activist Osman Baydemir was asked sarcastically by the Deputy Speaker of Turkish Parliament where Kurdistan was, he got up, touched his heart and said: “It is here, Mrs. Speaker: Kurdistan is here.” Even if there will never be an independent and united Kurdistan, it lives in our hearts, in our imagination, in our poetry and songs. It is this “imagined” homeland which unites us, this sense of belonging to a defiant community, this shared experience of oppression and resistance.
Historically speaking, the Kurds have sought independence. This is still the case in some parts of Kurdistan. The September 2018 referendum in Başur, where over 90% of the population voted for independence, was met with retaliation and punishment by the Iraqi state. The Iraqi military was once again used to terrorise Kurdish populations and force them to flee, the Kurdish airports were shut down for several months, and the disputed territories, which had been Arabised since the 1970s, were retaken. In Rojava and Bakur, the concept of “nation state” is no longer seen as the solution, but rather as the root cause of the problem. Here, “nation state” is seen as the backbone of capitalism and patriarchy. Instead, Democratic Confederalism is seen as the solution to the Kurdish struggle. Abdullah Ocalan, the leftist theoretician and the founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), defines Democratic Confederalism to be “democracy without a state,” which combines grassroots democracy, women’s liberation, and ecological principles. In this form of grassroots democracy, people organise themselves and make decisions collectively, without state control or administration.
It may be difficult to imagine what it is like not to be allowed to speak your mother tongue, to witness public assassination of your people, to grow up with images of mass graves, gassed victims, hanged leaders. It is even more difficult to describe what it is like to see history repeat itself when you witness your defeat again
To date, Rojava is the only place in the modern world where this concept has been put into practice. There is large-scale involvement of women in decision making and the communes, councils, and cooperatives facilitate people’s participation in social, political, and economic decision making. Unfortunately, the war against IS, the military presence of Syria, and the Turkish attacks on Rojava have meant that the military and the political parties have played a larger role in political decision making than the people at large. It leaves us to wonder what would have happened if Rojava had been allowed to continue and follow its impressive beginning in the absence of war and persecution.
Most of us knew that it was a matter of time before Rojava would get attacked. Our history is full of crushed aspirations by oppressive Middle Eastern regimes, betrayal by those who were counted as friends, and silence from the rest of the world. This time, however, the attack on Rojava did not proceed in silence. From every corner of the world messages of support and solidarity were sent, thousands of articles were written, Turkey was seriously reprimanded for the first time in decades. None of this managed to save Rojava, however, because no state wants this experiment to succeed. This form of non-state democracy would be too big a threat to state democracy, capitalism, and patriarchy, and those who have vested interests in these systems prefer that Rojava fails.
Currently, it is difficult to foresee what will happen in this region, but one thing is clear: the Kurdish question will not go away. No amount of forced assimilation, intimidation, torture, and genocide can end this conflict. It is in the interest of the four states as well as the larger international community to find a different solution to this long-standing issue. Einstein said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Repression and violence will always lead to the same results: resistance and rebellion.
It is true that being targeted and oppressed have been important in creating a sense of unity amongst the Kurds who are otherwise divided by borders, dialects, tribes, and religions, but we are not just victims: we are also survivors. This sense of surviving one hundred years of racism, discrimination, and violence provides a sense of pride. Our ‘enemies’ may laugh at our ‘obstinacy,’ which maybe a consequence of oppression, but this stubbornness has been essential for our survival. But even this, on its own, does not define who we are. The Kurdish situation is one of paradoxes and contradictions. Just as we are both victims and survivors, we are both stubborn and flexible.
We defy the colonisation and destruction of our land and culture with all our might. We fight, laugh, dance, sing, and picnic alongside the traumas we carry. We reclaim our divided land and rename it
The power of poetry
This is where poetry can play an important role. Poetry has the ability to elicit contradictory feelings in us and integrate our senses. It can both make us enjoy words, images, and rhythm and, at the same time, it can make us feel the pain and heartbreak from which we regularly shy away. A few months ago, I gave a poetry reading in Sulaimani, which was accompanied by music and very well attended. I chose to read some of my toughest poems that night because I rarely get the chance to read poetry since I have moved back home. As the evening proceeded, the atmosphere became sombre and many people in the audience, including some of the tough men, started crying. A couple of men complained later that they had come for a romantic evening of poetry and that I had ruined it for them. As a poet, I believe it is my duty to ruin the façade of normality and fairness that prevails. The status quo is full of injustice and inequality, full of voices that are shut out because we want to move on from the past and we no longer want to hear its stories. It is full of injustice towards women who are regularly killed, silenced, and disrespected. We need to problematise normality and bring to the centre what is usually relegated to the margin.
At times, I am disheartened to see members of my community turning the most awful things into jokes, failing to act appropriately at desperate times, no longer capable of feeling shock, sadness, or outrage when injustices take place. Feeling numb may be necessary when you need to survive successive traumas, but when it becomes a long-term trait, it is tragic. My poem, Homeland, what shall I do with you? (Considering the Women, 2015) addresses this public numbness when male bystanders record the recovery of two sisters’ bodies from a pond as the police drag them out with rope, destroying evidence. In the poem I wonder if this apathy might be: “the heritage of violence,/ which has turned us into a people/ who know no mercy, feel no guilt,/ and are never shocked?” In a more recent unpublished poem, Watching Rojava, I embrace my pain and outrage because I know “for as long as you feel/ this pain, you’re human, you’re alive/ you will resist.”
The Kurdish historian and poet, Mastoureh Ardalan’ (1805-1848) Poetry can facilitate empathy and understanding, rebuild the connections which are severed during conflict, and build consensus. Poetry has the power to speak the unspeakable. Survivors of mass violence and genocide regularly state that what they endured cannot be spoken: they say that language fails them. The brilliant Kurdish poet, Sherko Bekas, demonstrates the failure of language in relation to tragedy in his book length poem Butterfly Valley, which I translated into English. He says that his “dictionary is limited/ under the weight of pain and torture.” He speaks of the gassing of Halabja where our expectations of normality and continuity are destroyed (muffled explosions of gas weapons deceiving people into thinking they had survived, people jerking at the knees and laughing into their deaths, the oozing of yellow liquid out of the victims’ eyes and skin, instead of blood). In this part of the poem everything turns into its opposite until it threatens coherence and understanding. He asks Halabja, “What did you see?” and the response is: “Ogre spring,/ cruel flowers,/ blind sun,/ black snow,/ suffocated wind,/ rough river,/ dry, hard rain,/ cold flames, yellow blood,/ deaf waves,/ dumb explosion.”
Through challenging and undermining the status quo and questioning normality, poetry can also make new realities possible. In my poem, One Moment for Halabja (Considering the Women, 2015), I go against the yearly commemorations of the gassing of Halabja where the mutilated bodies of victims are aired every time. The repetitive use of these images has led to compassion fatigue and loss of significance. It has also destroyed individuality of the people who were killed, and it reduces their value to their victimhood. I thus wanted to remember and honour the victims not by one moment of silence to think of their “entangled,/ twisted bodies,” not by standing “in front of the pictures which turned to stone/your shattering.” but through “one moment of applause.” I wanted to remember the victims as individual human beings whose dreams were “colourful as finches” and “who used to walk the streets,/ remembering yesterday,/ and thinking of tomorrow.”
As a poet, I believe it is my duty to ruin the façade of normality and fairness that prevails. The status quo is full of injustice and inequality, full of voices that are shut out because we want to move on from the past and we no longer want to hear its stories. It is full of injustice towards women who are regularly killed, silenced, and disrespected. We need to problematise normality and bring to the centre what is usually relegated to the margin
Poetry can also be mischievous, undermining the authority of those who take themselves seriously and think too much of themselves. In my poem, A Man’s Honour (Considering the Women, 2015), the association of men’s honour with women’s vaginas is mocked. A chubby, covered woman trails behind a small man, who sticks his chest out. No matter how much she hides “that part of her body where it all happens,” she is still “larger than life/ larger than him and his tribe.”
In another poem, I reclaim the concept of a “bad woman” and embrace it. Traditionally, young girls who are pretty or cheeky or clever are told that they will marry “seven times.” This is supposed to be a curse, that no one will put up with the grown woman and she would have to find new husbands all the time. I wanted to reclaim this idea of seven husbands and portray it not as a failure, but as a success. Surely, leaving a marriage, if the current one does not meet our needs, and remarrying is a sign of empowerment and choice, of not being trapped in bad and unhappy marriages, as many women are in this region. In The Seventh Wedding Invitation (Considering the Women, 2015) I promise friends and family that “this will be my last wedding/ if it doesn’t work out, I will just live with/ another man, no more pledges.” I ask them not to bring more presents because those from the last wedding have not been utilised yet. And “the naughty/ lingerie will be worn for this man,” I tell them, as my ex-husband was “orthodox, so he did not last long.” I try to persuade them to come because “I have told my new man so much about you/ and it may be your only chance to meet him.”
I believe that poetry is the perfect medium to tell difficult and marginalised stories. It is perfect not only because it can challenge the dominant narratives and accepted realities, but also because it rescues us from apathy, reconnects us to our feelings, and helps us to continue resisting! It brings our rational side together with our emotions and makes us whole once again, ready to resist and defy. For us, poetry has been the means to challenge a history which is usually written by others, and sometimes by ‘hostile’ others. We have turned to poetry in the face of oppression, violence, and erasure. We have reclaimed our denied homeland and language through poetry. We have ‘survived’ through poetry. For people like us, poetry can be as essential as food and shelter because the survival of a people does not just mean their physical survival but also the survival of their language, history, and culture.
From the author
In the mid 2000s, when I was working on my post-doctoral research about women survivors of the Anfal genocide, I visited many towns and villages where survivors lived. While conducting fieldwork, I provided a number of workshops about gender and power, about the Anfal surviving women, and about poetry. It soon became clear to me that even within the space of a few hours of discussion, it was possible to lead people to rethink some of their long-held views. People think the way they do because they have not been given an alternative discourse. I wanted to get involved in constructing this alternative discourse. I wanted to get home and, specifically, to work in the education sector. The opportunity finally arose in 2014, when I came back to my native city of Sulaimani to teach at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS).
In a way, I am living my dream. I founded the Center for Gender and Development Studies at AUIS, integrating education, research, and community capacity building to achieve gender equality. I have built a team, developed and taught feminist courses, fundraised, conducted research, provided training to meet community needs, and led our efforts in initiating the first gender studies minor in Iraq. But moving back to a conflict-ridden homeland after years of living in the West, is not without its own struggles. There are plenty of people who resist change, specifically when it comes to women’s rights. Those of us who work for gender equality regularly face criticism, social media attacks, and backlash.
Looking back, my life has not been a picnic. There have been forced displacements, moving back and forth, adjusting and readjusting, interrupted studies, and studying in three languages. Still, for someone like me to have the opportunity to move back home and work on issues that I care about is a once in a lifetime opportunity. On bad days I try to remember how lucky I am to be able to do this, to be here, to teach, train, discuss, and argue. These difficult conversations are an important means to reaching consensus and making change.