In this guest edition of The Interview, Aras Ahmed Mhamad talks to Kurdish novelist Kae Bahar about his debut novel, “Letters From a Kurd.”
Nizar Qabbani, a Syrian poet, once said: “Love in the Arab world is like a prisoner, and I want to set it free. I want to free the Arab soul, sense and body with my poetry. The relationships between men and women in our society are not healthy.”
While sectarianism is weak in the Kurdistan region and freedom of religious expression is practiced, one of the most perennial social and cultural issues is gender discrimination and domestic violence. Street harassment, child marriage, a dowry system, forced marriages and superstitious beliefs have declined with comparison to the 1980s and 1990s. But even though Iraqi Kurdistan has experienced economic growth after the collapse of the Baath regime in 2003, violence against women, honor killings, sexual assault and suicides have increased. Victims of sexual violence face social and cultural opposition to being allowed to reintegrate into society, let alone getting a job or achieving economic independence.
Systematic discrimination by outside forces has fostered a narrative of victimhood that is unique to the Kurds. This narrative reproduces itself repeatedly around social issues, with those who are different and independent-minded often paying the price of this chauvinism. Kurdistan is recovering from the ramifications of its failed 2017 independence referendum, and the Kurdistan Regional Government is yet to address tribal and patriarchal mentality that is still widespread, as are primitive cultural restrictions, economic backwardness and social taboos.
Originally born in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Kurdish novelist Kae Bahar addresses the region’s complex social fabric in his debut novel, Letters From a Kurd. Bahar resorts to literature to criticize both Kurdish internal issues and external threats. Bahar studied in Europe and worked as a documentary filmmaker and actor. He produced several films for Channel 4, BBC and Al Jazeera, and is the author of several screenplays.
In this guest edition of The Interview, Aras Mhamad talks to Kae Bahar about the controversial nature of his first novel, the many taboos of Kurdish culture, and the past and the future of Kurdistan.
Aras Ahmed Mhamad: The protagonist of your novel, Marywan Rashaba, is a neuter (boygirl), and he is not circumcised. He asks his mother about virgins and wine. He has sex with his aunt while he is still a teenager and is sexually harassed by his religious teacher. He grows fond of Mullah Zao’din but later thinks of poisoning his food. He masturbates, but feels guilty. He feels responsible for his mother’s suffering because she has given birth to a sexless child. Why have you created such a controversial character?
Kae Bahar: Sex plays a very important part of our lives, and yet in most societies, including some who consider themselves advanced, talking about sex is still a taboo as if discussing something dirty and unhealthy. This is mostly due to the negative way sex is portrayed in religion, especially Islam, Christianity and Judaism, where sex is considered a sinful act. This is not our true nature, but a culture imposed on us so that we see sex as something bad instead of a beautiful gift offered to us humans.
I grew up with this way of thinking in Kurdistan, but thanks to the cinema, where I watched films from an early age, I freed myself from the barriers holding me back to discuss topics like sex openly. I believe our wrong approach to sex is the cause of many of the problems we face in the world — man-made problems — especially those commanded and caused by [men]. Therefore, I wanted to have a lead character who would allow me to explore and expose sex and sexual acts and their effects on us, as well as allowing to take readers along on a complex sexual journey.
Mhamad: The novel is packed with memorable characters. Marywan is beaten by his father, Darwesh Rashaba, regularly and brutally. He is a conservative dervish and is ashamed when Mullah Zao’din tells him Marywan is not circumcised. He feels proud when he sees Marywan inflicting pain on himself by head-butting the wall while the other dervishes recite a religious ritual. He avoids talking about politics and prohibits Marywan going to the cinema. What is it that you want to convey through these type of characters?
Bahar: I understand why you are asking this question. In many of the Kurdish stories and tales characters are usually flat — they are portrayed more like black and white, precisely because those writers were bound by cultural and traditional restrictions their societies imposed. Those writers usually did not feel free enough to go deep to explore and create characters that could overcome the taboos and be brave enough to discuss topics like sex and politics openly. Often their characters are either bad or good, cowardly or brave, basically two dimensional and not very interesting in the fictional world.
But I think we are much more than that. We are complex creatures with many intrigues, and at times it is hard to predict or explain how and why we act in some strange way. I did not want my characters to be flat, boring or framed specifically as one type or another. Even if writing in a fictional world, it was crucial for me to treat my characters as real people with all the real actions, feelings and emotions that affect our daily life and drive it forward. Our interaction with family members, friends and others in the society we live in and share also shapes our behavior, which means we are not always in command, but act accordingly. Some of us can manage the ups and downs and keep calm in difficult times when facing crises, whereas others could easily lose the plot under pressure and could change drastically and unexpectedly and behave like a beast. Darwesh Rashaba is one of those people.
Mhamad: Almost all the characters have a nickname. Hiwa is nicknamed “Rabbit”; Jwana, “Beautiful”; Ashti, “Peaceful”; Khorataw, “Sunshine”; Papula, “Butterfly.” Even Marywan disguises himself when going to the cinema. Whereas these are optimistic nicknames, almost everyone Marywan knows or has befriended will die. His sister, uncles, aunt, friends, teacher and even his lover die while they are still young. Is this a hopeless and dystopian or a realistic lookout for the future of Iraq and Kurdish question?
Bahar: The use of the nicknames has a different propose: The novel is written in English aimed at worldwide readers, and Kurdish names could be difficult for foreign readers to remember. The nicknames are much easier to familiarize with because they are words with universal meanings known to us all. Another reason for the nicknames is the importance I give to my characters’ names and how I wish the names to describe their personal characteristics clearly. For example, Peaceful — his nickname describes what kind of person he is and most likely helps the reader to like him and sympathize with him. But this is also true for the other characters that are not pleasant, like Zao’Adin — and yet his name means “The Light of Religion.”
Is the story hopeless reflecting my pessimistic view of the future for Iraq? Well, my story is set in Kurdistan, and like Marywan, I don’t see Kurdistan as Iraq. I have never believed that Iraq could survive and succeed as one country. The call for “one Iraq” is imposed by the superpowers, especially the UK and the US for their economic interests and benefits — keep the status quo, keep fuelling the war. We all know “Iraq” since its creation by the British Empire in 1921 has never had peace because it was never a country shared equally by Arabs and Kurds. This is why I believe the best solution forward for the Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic minorities in the region is to divide Iraq and recognize independence for Kurdistan, a hopeful step forward in the right direction toward a possible peace. The separation of those two countries will be the key to end the endless wars so that Kurdistan and Iraq could live side by side peacefully as two good neighbors.
Mhamad: The setting of the novel is Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic and disputed territory. While there is almost no mentioning of any Kurdish or Arab movies or movie stars, there are many references to Western films such as The Lion of the Desert, The Elephant Man, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and film stars such as Clint Eastwood, Julie Christie, John Hurt, Charles Chaplin, Joe Pesci and Mathew Modine. Can you explain why these references resonate throughout the novel?
Bahar: The setting is in Kirkuk, not because I grew up in the city but because, along with Jerusalem, Kirkuk is one of the most problematic cities in the Middle East, mainly caused by its vast oil reserves. And as you know, Kirkuk’s been the heart of the conflict between the Kurds and the Iraqi Arabs for more than 100 years now. In 1970, when Saddam [Hussein’s] government accepted a peace deal with the Kurds recognizing autonomy for the Kurdistan region for the first time, Kirkuk also benefited from the truce, and myself too. The five cinemas we had in the city started to screen films coming from all over the world, including the US, Italy, France, Britain, India and Egypt. I was in the cinema every opportunity that I could sneak away.
This is why throughout the novel I have mentioned characters from films produced in those countries and beyond. Of course some are mentioned more because I loved those films, the settings, the actors and the directors. But at the time there were no Kurdish films screening in the cinemas. Also, all along I wanted to tell the world about the Kurds through my novel and the references to cinema and film characters could help bring foreign readers much closer to Kurdistan.
Mhamad: Letters form a Kurd feels like an autobiographical narrative. It is a coming of age story of Marywan Rashaba experiencing the most inhuman treatment. What do you have to say about that, and what do you miss the most about living in Kirkuk?
Bahar: Often during the Q&A sessions in my presentations for Letters from a Kurd I am asked if this is autobiographical. The answer is no — it is a work of fiction. Like every writer, I also benefited from my personal experience to write the story. Marywan, the protagonist, and I have in common our deep love for films, long hair and are both rebellious patriots fighting for Kurdistan’s independence. Apart from this, all the characters are based on real people I have known, read or heard about. In the same way, the events, the geography and history are all accurate, based on thorough research — basically, the dramatization of a reality in a work of fiction to appeal to a wider readership and because of my love for storytelling.
My novel is not full fantasy like Harry Potter, but more like The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende. Marywan lives a tough life just like his people, the Kurds, live a very inhuman life because they are persecuted and are deprived of their freedom, their land and forced to become stateless. What I miss most about Kirkuk is sleeping on the flat rooftop during the spring and summer months from where I could look at the flames of the Babagurgur oilfields that kept our hopes high for a better life.
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