TORONTO, Canada – Canada-based author, Sozan Jamil, is an award-winning storyteller who is receiving her latest prize this week from the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The life of this Kurdish woman, whose command of Arabic is so complete that she writes better than many Arab authors, is a story itself.
As a child, because of her blond hair and blue eyes, the girl immediately stood out as “The Kurd” among the other Arab kids. Despite the brutal treatment of the Kurds in Iraq, people were kind to her. Except for a few extreme cases, she did not face discrimination.
When she was in high school, without her knowledge her Arabic teacher entered one of her stories in a writing competition.
One day, she heard her name called as the second-prize winner in a short story competition she did not even know she had entered.
She counts that moment as one of the climactic events of her life. From that year on, she regularly wrote in to the competition, collecting more prizes with her stories and poems.
With her rich imagination, her profound love of literature, her persistence and her mastery over the Arabic language, Jamil has created many works that have been highly praised in the Arab world.
“They admire the fact that Arabic is my second language yet I write in it better than many Arabs,” she says.
On Friday, Jamil receives third prize at the “Nazik Almalaika Short Story” competition, awarded in Baghdad by the Ministry of Education. She is also part of the literary festival being held at the same time.
Kurds praise Jamil’s work but also want her to write in Kurdish. Although born in Zahkho in 1968, Jamil moved out of Kurdistan when she was only two years old. Her father, one of her major supporters, had to leave his homeland to find employment. Jamil was raised in Baghdad and Mosul.
“I am teaching myself Kurdish but the mastery in Arabic was earned through decades, and I don’t know when I will be able to compose in the Kurdish language the way I manipulate Arabic,” she confesses.
When Jamil’s father saw her writing, she was only nine. His first reaction was disbelief. He later became the one who constantly encouraged her to “read more and write more.”
From 1991 to 1998, after earning a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from Mosul University, Jamil taught physics, chemistry and math in Zakho.
Soon after Jamil, now a mother of three, landed in Canada as an immigrant and has been working as a freelance interpreter and translator.
She recently released her first book in English. In the Shade is a poetry collection, published by the self-publishing US company Xlibris and launched in Hamilton, Ontario.
The public library there adopted the book, organized a launch, and many Kurds and other Canadians attended the event.
Jamil has published two collections of poetry in Arabic: Swirls of the Rainy Honey in 2011, and Two Hymns of One Exile the year after. Groans is the title of a Kurdish novel Jamil translated into Arabic for the National Translation Center in Cairo and published that same year.
Unfair treatment of women and children is the running theme of her writing, a subject that tends to appear in most of her poems and stories. She is critical of how Kurds perceive women and children, even after living in Western countries for years.
She believes that Kurdish communities should be aware of the problems and deal with them, rather than hiding them. They react to her writing first usually by denial and anger, but acceptance and reflection later. Her portrayal of war, destruction and injustice holds a mirror to a society that is not always ready to accept the truth.
The Devil’s Wedding, a short story she wrote about children of war, won the third prize in a literary festival in Baghdad in 2010. In 2011, Egypt chose Jamil as the best Iraqi poet and short story writer of the year.
Residing in Canada did not limit Jamil’s writing. In 2010, she founded the “Dijlah Writers Association” and organized an Arabic literature festival in October of the same year. She is also a member of the “Hate Crimes Prevention Program and Victim Advocacy Network” in Hamilton.
Her latest challenge is to try and express herself as eloquently in English as well, to be a voice of the Middle East.
“I feel Westerners don’t know Middle Easterners beyond stereotypes,” Jamil Says. “The Middle East needs more authentic voices that can tell the world how we feel, how we live.”\