In this guest edition of The Interview, Aras Ahmed Mhamad speaks to Kurdish novelist Nabard Fuad about his debut novel, Tuti.
“Kurds did not write their own stories.” “Kurds do not have a unified lexicon.” “Kurds are scattered and are continuously oppressed.” “Kurds are tribal and uneducated.” “Kurds deserve their own independent country.” These are some of the most frequently-used words in political discourse to describe Kurdish history and struggle, allocating little room if any for their art, music, culture and, more importantly, literature.
Kurdish literature entered a new phase, seeing the publication of hundreds of novels since the establishment of the first Kurdish parliament in 1992 and the proliferation of the press, particularly after the US-led intervention in Iraq in 2003 and the consequent development of Kurdish economy and political sphere. This new phase coincided with the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 and its brutal attacks on the Kurdish town of Shangal, the enslavement of more than 5,000 Kurdish Yazidi girls and the killing of the Yazidi men after attempts to convert them.
The mass enslavement and rape of Kurdish women and justifying the act through religion is nothing new to the Kurds. Through the 1980s, under Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed or imprisoned during the Anfal campaign. Yet very little is known about the rape of the Kurdish women because of tradition and lack of media coverage. After the 1991 Kurdish uprising, 20,000 girls have been killed for honor in the Kurdistan region but due to society’s close-minded approach to women’s issues. These horrendous crimes remain hidden and unsolved, and the beatings and the killings continue.
Kurdish novelist, Nabard Fouad, combines the tragedy of Shangal and Anfal in his debut novel Tuti, which translates as parrot. Fuad, like many typical Yazidi Kurds in Shangal, lost family members during the Anfal campaign. Tuti is the first Kurdish novel on the Shangal genocide.
In this guest edition of The Interview, Aras Ahmed Mhamad speaks to Fuad about the importance of literature in conveying the miseries and calamities faced by the Kurds.
Aras Ahmed Mhamad: What inspired you to write Tuti? Kurds have historically faced oppression and subjugation, so why Shangal and Anfal?
Nabard Fuad: The main inspiration that urged my writing of this novel is that there is a strong relation between true writing and pain in storytelling. Writing will become a cloud to cover every angle of life during destructions. Moreover, I believe pain will only be conveyed honestly through literature. The victim or the witness will have enough freedom to narrate their stories. Tuti wants to send the message that novelists can write history better than historians. In the future, people may talk about the liberation of Mosul and forget all the calamities that the fighters brought upon the civilians, especially women. True literature should continuously show our wounds in order to heal them.
The Yazidi plight is no less than any other slaughter and oppression that other nations face. I thought Shangal and Anfal would serve some central purposes. First, it is to let people know our miseries and be informed about Yazidi history and religion as one of the oldest religions and people of the Middle East. Yazidis have been living with Christians and Muslims for centuries, but little is known about their belief and history. This shows that they were religiously oppressed, targeted and massacred.
Second, it is to tell the world about yet another genocide of the Yazidis and tell the superpowers to stop selling weapons and arming one party to kill the other. It is true that through selling the weapons they will gain a huge amount of money, but they should also realize that with those weapons, people are forced to become sex slaves, and innocents are killed for no reason.
Mhamad: Why did you call it Tuti? What is the relationship between tuti the bird and the content of the novel?
Fuad: A parrot is a bird that does not migrate. Yazidi girls, especially those who are [expelled] from their lands, have been sex victims and slaves and could not migrate. Like parrots, they were trying to go back to their nests. Parrots love to nest on top of trees. Kurds, particularly Yazidis, love the unreachable mountain peaks. During the enemy’s attacks, just like parrots the Yazidis flew from one peak of the mountain to another. Parrots never betray. When a male parrot dies, the female never marries again, and vice versa.
Yazidis live mostly in the Middle East and in that particular part of the world, there is something called honor and virginity, which are more precious than the soul of a human being. When they were attacked and became sex slaves, they were raped. But when some of the Yazidi girls [escaped] from the hands of the beasts, their male lovers received them very dearly and with more love and care than before. This is how the Yazidis hold the beautiful characteristics of parrots. Yazidis love each other so much, just like parrots.
There is another thing about parrots: They don’t say words randomly—they say what they have been taught. Yazidi girls say what they have seen and happened to them; they never stop speaking to think. This is the reason that one of the characters of the novel name is also called Parrot.
Mhamad: “This pain is hurting me severely; uncle I am dying. For God’s sake, have mercy.” Can you explain as to why these words resonate throughout the novel?
Fuad: When a killing or rape happens, only the victim and the killer know the last words between them. Repeating these sentences in the novel is to emphasize the last pain ordeal of a young 13-year-old girl at the hands of dogma and [cruelty].
In any literary text, repeating a word or sentence means this statement was said in a particular time. On the other hand, I want to tell the world what kind of belief allows you to rape a 13-year-old girl while she asks for mercy, let alone rape her. The rapist doesn’t care about any humanistic values or behavioral criteria. Does ideology make humans kill each other?
Always men have fought, while women and children suffered. How long will all those who rule countries not listen to the Middle East children’s cries? If a child of United Nations delegate cries for help while in the hands of a rapist, what would the world feel and how would they react? We are a nation who gives our treasure to those countries in return to live in peace. “This pain is intolerable” is not just a word of a little girl. This is the cries of all Kurdish nations in the history. We have been attacked millions of times, genocide conducted against us numerous times. So all of us can say that pain of being a Kurd and a human is really intolerable.
Structurally, the sentence is for the little girl. But, metaphorically, this sentence is for all Kurdish nations, for all humanity, for Holocaust girls and for the Armenian girls who were crying “This pain is really intolerable.”
Mhamad: Revenge, hate, fear and nostalgia overwhelmingly dominate the characters’ lives and drive the plot. What is it that you want to convey through creating compelling sentiments, ruthless events and shattered characters?
Fuad: In the early days of the 20th century war started between Russia and Japan, after nine years World War I started. Then the Russian Civil War began; Italy and Ethiopia fought each other ‘till 1939. After that, World War II happened.
I am the 21st-century generation. Those who lived in the beginning of the 21st century have lost happiness. People who lived in the last and at the beginning of this century are the unhappiest creatures on earth. What’s worse, the world witnessed September 11, 2001 attacks, war between America and Afghanistan, the Iraq war, the Arab Spring, and now war on terror and ISIS. Aren’t we humans living in fear, nostalgia and revenge? Politics have put all of us in a bad condition.
Characters in the novel are all people from 20th and 21st centuries and the vents reflect what has happened in these two centuries. Humans live in a confusing psychological status. We grew up in fear, hate and revenge. Our religion is full of fear. From the first grade of school we have been taught that God will burn us, reptiles will eat us in our grave. We have been told if somebody hurts you, you either forgive or revenge. Aren’t all these factors driving us to live in fear, hate and revenge?
Mhamad: Hadi Khalaf continuously and secretly watches his parents having sex. He kills his father and joins the Baath party. He brings young girls for his Baath party leaders to have sex with them who then becomes an Islamic State fighter and rapes Yazidi girls. What is it that you want to convey through Hadi?
Fuad: The novel starts by introducing and describing Hadi, the terrorist. Similarly, when a TV presenter happily talks about the death of a terrorist we all give a smile with gratitude to the killer of the terrorist. Terrorists kill humans and later security forces kill the terrorists. Are not terrorists human? After all, a human holding any ideology is a human. Why shouldn’t we know the reason of turning them from a normal human into a beast who in the name of religion kills women and children and beheads their fathers and husbands?
Our sisters and mothers have been raped and enslaved in Anfal operations. But none of them had that bravery to describe what happened to them. In Nugra Salman camp our sisters got raped, then buried alive. Those who miraculously survived secretly admitted that they were raped.
Hadi has a confusing and wicked character. He runs away from his house and later gets a stepmother who married his father after meeting in a brothel. Hadi kills his fathers and becomes a beast. Who knows, maybe if he was from a healthy family he could become a good and fruitful person. I want to tell the reader that Hadi is a victim and all terrorists are victims of a certain ideology. Sometimes people do not want to become terrorists, but their lives go on a wrong direction and they become terrorists whom we wish to die fast.
Mhamad: Number eight is repeated throughout the novel and even the novel is eight chapters? Why eight not nine or ten or any other number?
Fuad: Although numbers get along with what happens, number eight is very common. Number eight physiologically, chemically, astronomically, geologically and biologically is a symbol in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism.
Yazidi girls, for instance, were raped in August, and heaven has eight doors. A spider also has eight legs that catch pray. The Yazidi girls were eaten like this. Iraq-Iran war lasted eight years. In 1988, Iraqi regime conducted the process of genocide against the Kurdish nation and in the same year killed 5,000 Kurdish people with chemical weapons. The process of genocide took place in eight stages and after eight years the civil war between two major Kurdish forces the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] started.
In August 1996, the KDP brought Iraqi forces to the Kurdish Parliament. Coincidently, nearly after eight years, Saddam Hussein was executed. Eight years after Saddam’s execution, the Arab Spring took place. Sometimes some of us may have a special number in their lives but I think number eight is the worst number for Kurdish people, not thirteen.
Mhamad: How would you describe your journalistic experience and your visit with the Yazidis after the attacks? Did you find any similar stories between the Yazidis and your family members?
Fuad: After the Yazidi plight and due to journalism work I was able to reach those who were saved from ISIS. The girls who were captured but then ran away, I could see bravery in their eyes. Very courageously they were describing the incidents for me. When they reached in their narrations the part that they were raped, they started crying.
When the novel was published, none of my sisters read it. I have got many messages that were threatening me.
Kurds have been attacked so many times. Our sisters and mothers have been raped and enslaved in Anfal operations. But none of them had that bravery to describe what happened to them. In Nugra Salman camp our sisters got raped, then buried alive. Those who miraculously survived secretly admitted that they were raped. Because of our rigid and closed society it was almost impossible for a girl to confess publically that she was raped repeatedly. The experience of journalism and visiting them is very different from what we write. The victims’ faces, emotions and movements can never be depicted via writing as there are countless women raped in Vietnam, Rwanda, the Holocaust, Dersim and elsewhere.
Mhamad: Why does the narrator feel so hopeless and pessimistic?
Fuad: “You fear death, I fear breathing.” This is a quote from the novel. When we see all these slaughtering and devastated houses, how can we be happy? We should divide those things that bring happiness. A human must not be happy when he sees a child’s house is destroyed and one of his/her legs is cut off and cries when they see the leg severed.
What could be happiness? A mother is killed by a dictator’s bullet. Another mother bleeds and her baby sucks her dead body’s breasts for milk. How can we prevent people from committing suicide? What beginning is there for us to start a nice life? Making atomic weapons to destroy each other kills happiness. Using gunpowder, preventing people from having clean water and putting freedom fighters in jail, there are thousands of reasons to force people to resort to suicide and I want to bring people’s attentions to these evil deeds in order to heal the wounds before they become unhealed.
Mhamad: A peshmerga, who is a taxi driver in the novel, tells the narrator: “Throughout history, we were the reason behind the success of our enemies’ plans.” Also, several times the narrator criticizes the Kurdish political leadership and their policies in Shangal and elsewhere. How would you comment on that?
Fuad: In Kurdish history, there have been many peshmerga and people who fought for Kurdish rights. If we look at some dangerous periods, we see many perilous false steps. Kurds have a problem: They don’t have a true leader that all the people trust and follow. In the Kurdistan region, so many people joined the armed struggle for getting their rights, putting so much pressure on their families. Among Kurds fortunately everyone feels that we have been deprived from our right and that we are ready to fight for them.
But it is known that our forces don’t have enough military preparations and knowledge. We fought as partisan groups against those who have cleansed us. I can argue that if we look at Kurdish history we find many big mistakes due to lack of a true leader. I will give only one example to this. In Shangal, the KDP security forces left the area. They did not allow the inhabitants to leave their houses, nor did they protect them.
Mhamad: Have you faced any backlash or been blamed within your family circles, relatives and friends for so explicitly talking about sex and rape in the novel, taking into consideration that sex is a taboo topic in our society?
Fuad: I live in the area where the Anfal campaign took place and many women were raped but, due to their family’s honor, they kept it as a secret. Correspondingly, few years ago, there was a girl whose menstruation cycle was delayed and her belly was a bit bigger than normal, where they doubted whether she’d had sex before marriage. They killed her in a graveyard in the moonlight. Then the judiciary doctor and the forensic staff checked and stated that she was virgin and that she only had ovary inflammation.
Writing a novel that talks about sex explicitly in such a place will undoubtedly create problems. In Middle Eastern societies killing, stealing and bribery is not a shame. But talking about sex, or if you kiss someone outside marriage, is a big problem for your family, especially for the girls and women.
When the novel was published, none of my sisters read it. I have got many messages that were threatening me. Here, when somebody wants to be different and break the norms, they have to pay for it individually, socially, politically and economically.
Many have told me what you have done is not groundbreaking, rather bringing scandal on your family. One of my relatives told me that if I write one more like this, nobody will ever marry me.
Always somebody becomes the victim first, then the next generation benefits. Those who want to be different must not fear anything, because breaking taboos needs sacrifice. Kurds have all types of writers but we need someone to break the established norms and tell society about their hidden wounds and then we can move forward. Any society who does not know its psychological and sexology problems can’t understand problems outside their bodies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Kurdishstruggle