Monday, October 31, 2011

Kurdistan’s Future and the First World Kurdish Congress

By Ava Homa:
Leyla Zana (left) and Ava Homa
Leyla Zana (left) and Ava Homa
“It’s true that Kurds have a painful history,” said the Honourable Leyla Zana, “But I do believe it is much better to have a difficult yet dignified past rather than a violent and oppressive one. We won’t bring shame to our predecessors. Our enemies will.” That was a moment when the participants started their enthusiastic applause, making it hard to hear Ms. Zana’s final words. Of course, this brave woman who spent ten years in prison for having spoken the Kurdish language, presented her speech in Kurmanji and an interpreter translated her words into English.
Among many distinguished speakers and patrons, Leyla Zana seemed to be one of the most popular figures, impressing the majority by her very inspiring speech, humbleness, friendliness and her calm energy. Despite a difficult past, she was capable of hiding her suffering and generously offering smiles to everyone.
Such was the exciting and promising opening to the first World Kurdish Congress which was successfully held in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, October 6-9, 2011. This conference was unique and productive in bringing together some of the Kurdish scholars and intellectuals from around the world and asking them to focus on the issue of Kurdistan and offer their proposals and suggestions. The setting, in addition, provided a great opportunity for the speakers and attendants to get to know each other in order to be able to further cooperate in building a strong nation: Kurdistan.
Another exceptional aspect of the conference was its interdisciplinary nature. The speeches concentrated on various aspects of Kurdistan: culture, psychology, politics, medicine, business, economy and so on. The speakers presented their researches, results and their suggestion as to how to improve different aspects of life in Kurdistan. The speakers had travelled from different continents: Canada and States, Asia, Sweden, Germany and various European cities, as well as Southern and Northern Kurdistan. Some courteous Kurdish students in the Netherlands acted as volunteers to help organize the event.
Despite the hardships of long distance and cross-continental travelling, a majority of the speakers were present. Students and general public attended the conference to listen to these speakers. Xoshink, a student of engineering from Sweden, live-streamed the conference online. It is noteworthy to mention that, given the considerable population of Kurdish Diaspora in Europe and in the Netherlands particularly, the turn out could have been much greater.
Many interesting ideas were brought up and discussed during the two-day conference and it is impossible to mention them all here. Amongst the richest ideas was the speech by Ms. Deborah Morgan-Jones. She was the one who introduced the idea of nation as a brand and emphasised the Kurdistan’s role in the world. Deborah mentioned that in addition to strengthening Kurdistan in terms of domestic affairs, it is important to be aware of its international role and develop it. Then she continued to elaborate on the analogy of nation as a brand by explaining how some brands are worth millions of dollars in the market. She stated that Kurdistan needs to realize how much it costs in the market, what the target market is and how to market itself better in the world. Ms. Deborah added that it is very important that Kurdistan be aware of the messages she sends out to the world and, in order to achieve a common goal, Kurds need to work together and have a powerful and unified voice.
Carol Prunhuber, one of the organizers of the conference, emphasised the same idea that Kurds need to find friends “other than the mountains” and have a unified voice. Ms. Prunhuber, who has published the biography of Dr. Ghassemlou, emphasised that most great Kurdish leaders including Ghassemlou would have been very happy to see the conference.
Achieving a unified voice is not easy however. On one hand, team work requires a culture that is not promoted and practiced in many developing countries including Kurdistan. This is ironical because our culture is collective as opposed to the West’s individualistic culture. Nonetheless, we do not find it easy to be flexible and sacrifice “my” interests for “our” interest. This is not hard to achieve, however, given that Kurds have had thousands of Peshmarga i.e. people who were ready to face death. Our history proves our unique ability to put a greater value on the interests of Kurdistan above our temporary benefits.
Certain types of arguments will continue to exist however, which won’t necessarily affect us negatively. As much as it is important to have a unified voice and send a powerful message to the outside world, it is important not to deny or hide our problems. For example, liberals will continue to criticize the situation and ask for improvements. Feminists believe that women’s situation in Kurdistan needs a lot more enhancement while the nationalists like to say that Kurdistan is progressive and women enjoy a lot of freedom. A similar argument occurred between the speakers. Leyla Zana, however, cleverly pointed out that “you are both right.” On one hand women’s rights are significantly improving in Kurdistan. Female genitalia mutilation and honour killings are criminalized in Kurdistan now and this news proves a significant progress. Having a police for women and building women’s shelters where women are taught different handicrafts are unique not just in Kurdistan and Iraq, but also in the entire Middle East. This does not mean, however, that feminists should not continue to ask for further developments. Nationalists need to make sure they do not suppress and silence the feminists and other liberals. Instead constructive critics should be cherished because such people ensure progress and their voice is a sign of a healthy and progressive country.
In sum, the WKC (World Kurdish Congress) was a successful and fresh experience. Since there is always room for improvement, the congress will continue to reform and develop itself. It is our duty as Kurds to appreciate and assist such events in order to empower ourselves. For further information please visit

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ava Homa Interviews the Women of Peshmarga

The women of the Peshmarga: Fighting for a Kurdish homeland

| October 6, 2011
Nahid Hoseini and Golaleh Kamangar, two exiled Kurdish women fighting for their homeland. Photo: Ava Homa
The Peshmarga (those who face death) is a large group of Kurdish guerrillas who live in the mountains of Kurdistan, fighting the occupiers. Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland, are mainly divided between four countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria and have faced genocide. In an ethnic cleansing attempt, Halabja was gassed in 1988 when 5,000 Kurds were killed and 2,000 more a few days later. Kurds in Turkey are denied their very identity, including the right to speak their mother tongue in their own homes. In Iran, thousands of Kurds have been assassinated and executed for their beliefs.
A Peshmarga is a nationalist who has sunburned skin and has travelled on mules, starved, fought and lost loved ones. The Peshmarga in Iraq are referred to as "freedom fighters" while those in Turkey are labelled "terrorists." Since August 2011, Iran and Turkey have been attacking the Kurds in Qandil, located in northern Kurdistan. Seven civilians have died in these attacks and the mainstream media has turned a blind eye to this violation of human rights.
Kurdish-Canadian writer Ava Homa travelled to the region earlier this year to conduct interviews with those impacted by these conditions:
Nahid Hoseini, 43, is a mother from Kurdistan, Iran, and a chair of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). In an interview, she described how her life changed forever.
"Listen, I either have to escape right now or I'll be detained in the morning." Nahid broke the news to her sleepy husband one night. He panicked; he has been unaware of his wife's political activities and was not sure how to take care of the children on his own. Nonetheless, he knew well enough what prison in Iran meant for a female political activist: torture, execution and rape. Thus, he supported his wife, and at the dawn Nahid kissed her five-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son goodbye and ran away to Kurdistan, Iraq, to join her friends in a camp.
Hoseini is a poet and daughter of a highly respected judge. She was brought up by an educated, open-minded father who encouraged and admired his daughter's strong sense of curiosity. Every time she asked her father a question, rather than giving her a direct answer, he referred her to a certain book or chapter in his library. Hoseini has read a lot of literature, history and politics. She was allowed to choose her husband, unlike many women of her generation, and was happily married. The husband was a kind and caring father and a successful businessman. He, nonetheless, preferred stability and had no passion for politics
Hoseini became interested in her Kurdish cultural heritage at a young age, an interest the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is determined to suppress. In order to protect the culture from Fars chauvinism, she voluntarily taught herself first and then other Kurds how to read and write in their mother tongue. At the same time, she became familiar with the principles of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan Iran (KDPI), which fights for a democracy for Iran, autonomy for Kurdistan, the equality of men and women in society and within family, as well as the separation of religion and state. The main leader of this party, Dr. Abdulrahman Ghassemlou, was a charismatic leader who spoke nine languages, had a PhD in economics, and was assassinated in 1989 by IRI agents while negotiating for Kurdistan.

In fighting the Kurds, Iran has been much slyer than Turkey and Iraq. IRI gassed Sardasht, killed many civilians and executed social and political activists. They have also devoiced Kurds. Irani Kurds are not allowed to learn their language and literature in school. Drugs are a lot cheaper in Kurdistan than other provinces. No Kurd is allowed to be the head of a governmental organization. Rather, highly educated Kurds are rendered unqualified by the government, while state-appointed non-Kurds with high school education are brought to Kurdistan to receive an honorary degree in management and run Kurdistan organizations.
Hoseini joined KDPI and met people with whom she had a lot in common. "We all ached for Kurds and Kurdistan." Nahid never talked openly about politics to anyone, even her children or her husband, but she would raise awareness about Kurdish history and literature and freedom fighting by telling tales, reciting poetry, passing on books and talking about identity. Her cultural activities, however, were enough to put her life at risk.
"The first time I was called by the Iranian secret police was to be warned that the poem I had written the week before should be immediately destroyed, never to be published or read publically." This left Hoseini in a state of shock since she had only written one draft of the ideological poem and had not read it to anyone yet. That was the first of many interrogations and threats to come. She had to flee.
"A wealthy woman leaving her children to be a Peshmarga?" people she had devoted her life to said behind her back. "She is either a psycho or a cheater!"
"You selfishly sacrificed our lives because of your naive dreams," her son blamed her. "Kurdistan will never be free. We should be glad they have not killed us yet. They hate us. They just hate every Kurd."
But Hoseini stoically did not say anything to these accusations. Her daughter lived with her in the camp but her son stayed with his father in Iran. In two years, however, the IRI arrested Hoseini's son and husband and tortured them before each other's eyes, forcing each of them to watch the other's pain. That was when her family finally became sympathetic towards the Kurdish cause. "I'll never forget that torturer's face. Never! The way he hit father before my eyes!" Hoseini's son said to his mother, she recounted. They joined her. By then, Hoseini was appointed the chairwoman of the party and wanted to stay in the camp. Her husband and son live and work in the city of Suleimaniyah, in northern Kurdistan.
"My son and husband are geographically and mentally closer to me but I only get to see them once every three or four months." Trying to stop her tears, Hoseini tells me, "I wrote my son a happy birthday on his Facebook wall this morning. I wrote 'Rola gian, Dearest son, this year like the last two years, I wasn't able to be with you on your birthday. Have a wonderful one and please, please forgive me.'"
KDPI provides a shelter for the members and pays them a minimum amount monthly that covers their basic expenses. They have a doctor, a clinic and a school in the camp, Koya, which is more than an hour away from Hewler. I ask how many Peshmarga are living in the camp and what the percentage are female members but that information, I am told, is classified.
In addition to Hoseini, I interview the best-educated woman of the camp. Golaleh Kamangar, 30, holds a Master's degree in Farsi Language and Literature. Her MA thesis was on mythology and currently she writes and translates articles for the party's website. She says she also writes stream of consciousness, philosophical short stories that she has not published. She joined the party in October 2010 and she was offered one of the best accommodations of the camp. She shares a two-bedroom house with another girl and seems happy with her choice. We chat for a while and she seems open to any question except she has been asked not to share. I ask if she could have become a teacher and/or a journalist in Hewler. This way, she would have a much more luxurious life and would be an independent activist. Instead, she was living in difficult conditions, with tons of flies nesting in the house, a broken shower, an out-of-order fridge, and a bathroom without lighting in the front yard that she had to use in cold and hot weather. "Compared to the previous generation of the fighters who lived in the mountains without hydro and water, I live in a palace." She replies. "Also, it's true that I do not need KDPI but I believe they need more female voices to represent the party."
In respond to my question, Kamangar says she hated guns. She would never shoot one unless she seriously needed to save a friend's life, or hers. "In a less brutal world, I would have never touched a gun. I would be a producer of ideas, rather than a distributor, rather than a fighter. But, with these much oppression, when my people's very existence is denied, when my people are striving for their most basic human rights, I have no option but to fight and my enemy is not civilized, they are armed to teeth cannibals."A distributor of knowledge, in her opinion, is a second-hand thinker, a person who does not have the chance to come up with new ideas. "What I and people like me do is to read Western thinkers' ideas and tailor them to fit our people."
Children are playing in the dirt ally. "Were they born in the camp?" I ask.
"I think their parents have betrayed them. People should have the right to pick their favourite party and that's only if they are willing to become a Peshmarga, if they have what it takes to become one." I ask if every Peshmarga in this very camp has it in them to face death in order to save an ethnic group. "I have to say there are adults in this camp who are not real Peshmarga, especially between women. We have runaways who think camp is a better option that sleeping on the street."
In the middle of our conversation, Kamangar's roommate, Sharmin bursts into the house with red eyes, sobbing. She says her mother has been detained by the Iranian secret police and was under a lot of pressure to make Sharmin return to Iran. Sharmin is only 20 and she has been in the camp since she was 18. "I am here to fight for Kurdish rights." Sharmin seems simplistic in her political opinions. She says, however, she does not want to return home.
"We don't fight only for Kurdish people, for all the ethnicities in Iran," Kamangar tells me. "We should live in a federal state where every ethnic group would have its rights." I ask her if she thinks Iran is ready for such a fundamental change. "The worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship," she replies, quoting Dr. Ghassemlou.
Ava Homa is author of Echoes from the Other Land which was nominated for 2011 Frank O'Conner International Short Story Award. She is also a professor, a scholar and translator. For more information visit her website here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Echoes from the Other Land was Placed 6th in CBC's Reader's Choice Contest

Congrats to everyone on the list and thanks to all those who voted

1. Extensions by Myrna Dey (6.9 per cent of total eligible nominations)
2. The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou (5.6 per cent )
3. Everything Was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran (5.5 per cent)
4. Copernicus Avenue by Andrew Borkowski (3.6 per cent)
5. Hope Burned by Brent LaPorte (3.5 per cent)
6. Echoes from the Other Land by Ava Homa (3 per cent )
7. Man & Other Natural Disasters by Nerys Parry (2.6 per cent) *
8. Don't Be Afraid by Steven Hayward (2.6 per cent) *
9. Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul by David Adams Richards (2.3 per cent)
10. The Meaning of Children by Beverly Akerman (2.2 per cent)

Monday, October 3, 2011

"The pen is mightier than the pill"

Ava Homa

Ava Homa is author of Echoes from the Other Land which was just nominated for the world's largest short story award: 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Ava is a Kurdish-Canadian, writer-in-exile, with two Masters’ degrees one in English and Creative Writing, another in English Language and Literature. Echoes from the Other Land has a running theme of resistance by modern Iranian women under an oppressive regime. The stories are told on a universal scale, depicting human endurance, desire and passion. Ava’s writings have appeared in English, Kurdish and Farsi journals, as well as the Windsor Review and the Toronto Star newspaper. She was a writer in Iran, and university faculty member. In Toronto, Ava writes and teaches Creative Writing and English at George Brown College.

Recovery through Creative Expression in Kurdistan
The pen is mightier than the pill,” (Bower, 1999)
Alfred Lange, a clinical psychologist in Amsterdam has published studies of working with people who had used structured writing to overcome trauma and symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (Lange 1994, 1996). Painting, music and handicrafts have proven to help reduce anxiety and promote positive psychological emotions. By stimulating mind, creative expression creates pleasure and satisfaction in the patrons. These effects can help individual with what Antonovsky names Sense of Coherence (SOC). Individuals with higher SOC will come up with the best coping strategies to deal with stressful situation (Dilani 2011). After years of being exposed to violence: unearthing mass graves, witnessing loved ones die in a chemical attack or being abducted by government soldiers, the surviving but traumatized Kurds need creative expressions in form of literature and art to help youth and adult equally to recover stressful experiences. The freedom and release individuals can finds in creative expression is an affective form of therapy. Mental health care professionals agree that one of the most helpful ways to work through mourning is to express grief in a creative form to represent inner experience, develop awareness and support personal change. Adding creative expression workshops to Kurdistan schools, libraries and community centers help transform lives, instill happiness and above and beyond that enrich Kurdish art and culture.
Keywords: Creative Expression, Trauma, Sense of Coherence, Art Therapy, Writing Therapy