Tuesday, April 22, 2014

In Conversation with Laurie Fraser, Author of The Word Not Spoken

Laurie Fraser is a Canadian writer and teacher who fell in love with a Kurdish man in Turkey while she was backpacking around Europe and Middle East. Only after marrying him, she realized he was a member of PKK. Although completely opposed to violence, Laurie stayed within that marriage and observed first-hand why and how a group of people could be left with no option but violence to fight oppression. She has witnessed firsthand the beauty and the damage of the Kurdish nation. 

After returning to Canada, Laurie spent years writing and rewriting and beautifully crafting a novel called The Word Not Spoken that recounts the story of the Kurds. In an interview special to Bas, she tells us about her life, her book and her perspective on Kurdish cause.

Ava Homa: Laurie, what about the Kurdish man charmed you so much that you decided to marry him?

Laurie Fraser: My husband was very much like the character Ahmet in The Word Not Spoken. He was impulsive, reckless and joyful. Every day was a celebration for him. He’d give away our last lira cheerfully with absolute faith that God always provides.

He was courageous in crazy ways, like, one day, yelling at 2 Istanbul policemen who were hitting a Kurdish man on the street for money. We had just been walking by but my husband strode over demanding explanations and threatening to report them. He got that guy away from them. This is one of the reasons I love him- his answer to my worry was: ’Look around. Do you see someone can help? No. Next they will arrest this man because he doesn’t have money to give. I must do something. Just I act important. You see? This is why it is important always wear a suit in Istanbul.’

For a Canadian girl, it was pretty heady stuff. As a child I loved the character of Robin Hood.I admired his band of merry men, his life in the forest, and his conviction that stealing from the rich to give to the poor was the right thing to do. And so, my Kurdish love fascinated me- a real life Robin Hood who put the disadvantaged first, who protected the vulnerable.

He was the opposite of what I knew. He was passion and conviction and purpose. He woke me up. And he was very handsome, very smooth...charismatic, intelligent. His joy was as intense and sudden as his anger. For a Western woman who had led a sheltered (even a boring and predictable) life, the daily excitement of life with this man was irresistible. He could spontaneously burst into song or dance at any moment. He told me stories and he listened to mine. He took me to the most dangerous places and I felt safer than I had ever felt in my life.

AH: The character, Ahmet, is truly one of the most spontaneous fictional characters I have recently come across. Our readers can understand the source of your fascination with him. Will you tell us what inspired you to take on an extensive book project?

LF: In March 1996 I met a group of Kurds whose village had been burned by the Turkish Army. They were 54 people, mostly related. After they lost their village, they moved to a a town but the men didn’t find work and their money ran out. They were forced to move into four floorless tents on a grassy plain near the border of Iran...it was the middle of nowhere, really.

We were out for a drive though it was pouring rain and we hadn’t even seen houses for many kilometres. I was shocked to come upon this miserable group.

In the cold tents were screaming babies, piles of wet belongings, one twig fire and some cookware. My Western brain had trouble comprehending how they could be so destitute, so far from help. In fact, we were in Turkey, it was 1996, and there was zero help near or afar.

I saw what was not there: shoes on feet, clean water, wood, food. It was a catastrophic emergency but I didn’t think that people who could help even knew about it.

My husband always said violence drew the world’s attention to these miseries, but I thought that writing a book would tell more people. And that people would learn about it en masse in a way that wasn’t 6:00 news. It would be a positive story that readers would love, share, talk about.

AH: That’s exactly what Westerns need to see to stop making assumptions about Kurds and open their hearts to this destitute yet resilient and amiable nation. Kurds admire you, Laurie, for helping their cause. Pen can be mightier than weapons. What aspect of the Kurdish culture did you like the most?

LF: I love the attention that people pay to each other. They sincerely enjoy each other’s company, it seems to me. They laugh quickly, support each other easily, take real pleasure in family. I’d never felt community like that before.

The interpersonal relationships play out for me in a cultural way. Maybe partly because of the simple things they choose to do together- have a picnic, or a barbeque, or a party, or just the neighbours drop by to drink tea. But those things are all about the people and no money is required, really. No effort is required. Yet, somehow, it is also tremendously generous. No planning. It happens like water flows. I think it’s actually love flowing.

AH: You are a true poet! I haven’t heard anyone else that beautifully explain the Kurdish culture. What aspect(s) of Kurdish culture did you find the most shocking?

I suppose the concept of revenge was shocking in its fervor. Honour too was a concept quite different from my culture.

AH: I see. So with knowing and witnessing everything that you did, how do you describe Kurds to your Canadian friends when they ask you?

Kurds are a tribal people who did not have influence in the political world when it mattered most to them- at the end of World War I when boundaries were drawn. They’ve been carved up and abused by foreign powers, over the many years, in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Now they’re spread all over the world, mostly as refugees. They never forget- Kurds absolutely never forget who’s been left behind- and what’s happened in the past. Many continue their commitment to their ethnic roots: working, struggling, reporting, donating.

So I tell Canadians the basic facts of who the Kurds are and how they came to be oppressed in 4 countries. But I also talk of their spirit, pride and beauty; their joy in spite of misery; their distrust in spite of concessions; their courage in spite of danger.

AH: How do you see situation of the Kurds now, compared to when you were in Northern Kurdistan?

I haven’t been there in 14 years but I always pray for continued improvements. The ceasefire and peace talks in Turkey, although marred and motivated for lots of wrong reasons, is a positive sign for me...because for me it’s all about the sons, husbands, fathers who are not at home, who will never come home or who will come home so deeply damaged that the family never recovers. For me, as unsatisfactory and complicated as the peace process is, at least they are not in combat right now.

AH: How do you see the future of the Kurds? How do you think Kurds can help themselves and improve their situation?

Kurdish blood is thick stuff. It has much to carry: the collective history of persecution, oppression, humiliation; the family history of loss, separation.

Kurds are courageous hard-working people who have been threatened at their core with genocide. As a group they will survive, continue to fight in many ways, and find ways to work more effectively together. There is no doubt for me about the continued (albeit slow) political progress.

One pressing issue for the Kurds is recovery from many decades of deep wounds. In some ways the Kurds remind me of Canadian Natives. They must be strong and united for their continued physical and political survival, but attention must also be directed inward. It has caused great damage to orphan and starve children, to separate families, to strip entire villages of their belongings, to torture bodies and souls, to live in constant fear...It is time to start the healing of generations.

Kurds are intelligent and creative. They are coming up with tremendous works of art and charity and beauty. They will heal individually and together...and I’m excited to see the world they are creating for themselves.

Proud poets, yes they are, politically savvy, yes more and more, but truly: all Kurds are wild in the heart, yearning for the mountains and freedom for all. I hope they never lose that.

AH: The Word not Spoken is very well-written for a debut novel. How did you learn to write?

Interesting, I haven’t thought much about it. I’ve always been a poet- I love to play with words like a puzzle. But no, I never studied creative writing.
I think we are born with some talents that are meant to serve us in this lifetime. I wrote stories on the floor as a child; I always knew I’d write a book with chapters. I truly believe I was destined to meet my husband, to know the Kurds and to help in my own way.
One reason it’s so polished is that I had trouble giving it up. So it’s been re-worked for years and years...out of love.

AH: Thank you very much Laurie for agreeing to talk to me!

Laurie Fraser is invited by the Kurdish House in Vancouver, Canada, to read from her book and talk about her experience in May 18, 2014 at Douglas College, room 2201; 700 Royal Avenue, New Westminster, BC; (Access on 7th Avenue).

To learn more about Laurie Fraser and see her haunting book go to http://www.lauriefraser.com/

 Ava Homa is a Kurdish- Canadian writer based in Toronto. 
The article was originally published at: http://www.basnews.com/en/News/Details/In-Conversation-with-Laurie-Fraser--author-of-The-Word-Not-Spoken/18353

Friday, April 18, 2014

Giving Democracy as a Present to the Middle East


Can you wrap democracy as a present and give it to a country that has been run by a dictator for decades?
Canada recently hauled down its flag at NATO headquarters in Kabul, formally ending 12 years of military involvement in Afghanistan that cost 158 military lives, a journalist, a diplomat, and two Canadian civil workers. 
Canadian politicians believe the operation in Afghanistan was worth the lives lost and the dollars spent. 
"From the first arrival of our ships in the Persian Gulf, to our combat and leadership roles in Kandahar Province, to our most recent training operation in Kabul, the contribution of the CAF will be honored by Canadians as we express our heartfelt thanks for the strength of this commitment," said Minister of National Defense Rob Nicholson in a statement that marked the occasion.
However, after more than a decade of Western interventions, Afghanistan is still a war-torn land, a country covered with checkpoints, barbed wires, concrete blast walls and daily explosions.
The United Nation reports a 24 percent increase in violence in Afghanistan over the last three months and the BBC reports on negative economic growth. 
More than 20,000 cases of violence in Afghanistan in 2013 alone have been noted by the United Nations. Armed violence has increased by 51 percent compared to 2012. Over 3,000 civilians have died and more than 5,000 have been injured. Insurgents target the military, the government and civilians almost daily.
The Western countries who went to Afghanistan speak proudly of the impact they have had, of a new Afghanistan and of the well-trained national army they are going to leave behind. But thirteen years on, this country that has a long history of war and conflict is nowhere close to real peace.
The story in Iraq isn’t any different. It took US troops only three weeks to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, but it took them eight years of daily battles with insurgent groups to stabilize the country. Meanwhile Shiite and Sunni militias were at each other’s throats, killing, bombing and kidnapping tens of thousands of civilians. Violence became part of the everyday life.
It certainly isn’t entirely the fault of the Americans. In Afghanistan and in Iraq, the violence stems from unresolved feuds that sometimes, as in the case of Iraq, are suppressed by a dictator’s iron fist.  
If Iraq and Afghanistan had good institutions and solid education systems, they would have been able to stand on their feet and use the devastating wars as a new chapter in their lives. But with a history of repression, removing a dictator or a regime would only make matters worse.
Bringing peace and democracy requires education, patience and a lot of sacrifice. The Western countries can contribute to this with expertise not with weapons. It doesn’t help to overthrow a regime, leave a big mess behind and say, “Now you build your own future.” An oppressed people cannot do that overnight just as you can’t give them democracy as a birthday present.

It was originally published at: http://rudaw.net/english/opinion/18042014#sthash.nk3cgAyu.dpuf

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Invisible Killer Lurks in Iran’s Kurdish Cities

Almost 270 Iranians reportedly die each day from pollution-related illnesses. Photo: AFP
Almost 270 Iranians reportedly die each day from pollution-related illnesses. Photo: AFP
TORONTO, Canada – An invisible killer is claiming lives in Iranian Kurdistan, where the cities of Sanandaj and Kermanshah figure in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top 10 worst cities in the world for air pollution.
Sanandaj (Sina) and Kermanshah, where traffic jams and car fumes are a daily nuisance, had to issue warnings and even close schools throughout the winter to protect children’s health. The pollution has created grave health problems, for a population living in some of Iran’s poorest and most deprived regions.
Unlike other polluted cities of the world, where the air is dirtied by factories and industries, Sanandaj and Kermanshah do not have major factories or coal mines, which are seen to be typical sources of air pollution.
Almost 270 Iranians reportedly die each day from pollution-related illnesses. 
After years of evading the main cause of air pollution, Iranian authorities finally officially admitted what many Iranians had suspected all along: Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh blamed sub-standard gasoline as the root of the problem.
But earlier this year authorities denied the allegation, as air pollution has become a sensitive political issue in Iran.
In 2010, after the United States tightened sanctions on Iran in response to its suspected nuclear weapons program, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proudly announced the launch of a “resistance economy,” declaring that Iran was refining its own gasoline.
But authorities finally confessed that the supplies were in fact low-grade gasoline, which experts blame for some 88 percent of the air pollution.
The WHO 2013 Index also lists the Iranian cities of Ahvaz and Yasouj among its top 10 most polluted. The air pollution in the Iranian cities is estimated to be three times worse than Beijing, which is often touted for its heavy smog.
Even though they live in some of the world’s most polluted cities, most Kurds are unaware of the fact, and automatically think of the capital, Tehran, when the subject of air pollution is raised.
“I have never heard of pollution problems in Sanandaj,” says Roya, who has lived in the city for 44 years.

Originally published at: http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/080420141#sthash.Oa8r7vtP.dpuf

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Laying Kalashnikov to Rest, Amineh Kakabaveh Fights On

Amineh Kakabaveh: ‘In order for the Kurdish community to grow we need solidarity.
TORONTO, Canada – Amineh Kakabaveh was 13 when she joined Komalah, learned Marxist theories and practiced using a gun. She is now an MP in the Swedish Left Party. 
In parliament, she is known for her activism, outspokenness and for giving a large portion of her salary to her party. “I didn’t become a politician for power or for wealth. This is my way of continuing my fight against injustice,” she said. 
As a feminist, Kakabaveh is particularly focused on improving the lives of minority women who arrive in Sweden. 
“Some Swedish residents in their 50s marry a woman in her 20s from their home countries and bring her here. In order to escape the suffocation, these young women agree to marry someone their father’s age. But when they arrive in Sweden and integrate in the culture they realize choosing a partner twice their age was a mistake.”
The Swedish government, however, refuses to grant residency unless a prospective immigrant has lived with a partner for at least two years. During that time, these young women have to tolerate a lot of abuse. 
“I have been fighting for years in the parliament to convince lawmakers to support such women,” Kakabaveh says.  
When at age 19 she arrived in Sweden, she was classified as illiterate. She worked as a cleaner during the day, attended school in the evenings, and sent money to her family in Iranian Kurdistan.
She did not stop until completing a master’s degree in philosophy and social work. But she believes that her real education was gained in the mountains of Kurdistan. She did not have a chance to attend school, was malnourished and sometimes had to live without a shower for a long time. But she was happier there than in the life under Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary patriarch who ruled Iran with an iron hand.
“I was born into a politically active family who suffered persecution and poverty,” Kakabaveh says. At age 13, when she had to choose between marriage and execution, she opted for a third way: Becoming a Peshmarga. 
“To many, a 13-year-old is just a child. But when you are given responsibilities from a very young age, when you witness execution, imprisonment and torture of your loved one, when you have to deal with poverty from childhood, you become very mature. By the time my training in the camp was over I was 14, but I felt like a 20-year-old.”
Kakabaveh sees herself as a Feminist Marxist and says the reason she joined Komalah was not just because her family was involved, or because of their ideas of equality. She joined because of the dignity that women received in the group.
Even though only 20 percent of Komalah members are female, Kakabaveh says there was a strict policy against sexual harassment, which made her feel safe. Once, her imprisoned Iranian soldiers said they were impressed that they had been captured by girls.
“Kurdish women are fighters, they have always been fighters, but cultural restrictions limit their abilities. Women cannot easily fight for freedom the way a man can choose his path.”  
She lost many comrades during those years, and suffered much inconvenience. But she still maintains those were the best years of her life.
Now that she has a seat in parliament and her voice is heard, she tries her best to help as many women as she can, but her abilities are still limited. It takes an emotional toll on her to witness injustice everywhere, to see capitalism and patriarchy dominating societies, to see women in the suburbs still suffering from forced marriage, child marriage, racism and other forms of oppression.
“People think that because I am part of the Swedish government I can solve all the problems. They can’t know how hard, how painful it is to see them suffer and to not be able to help as much as I wish. It is true that I am seen as one of the most active members of parliament, but I want to do so much more, and I suffer that I can’t.” 
Kakabaveh, who sees herself as a fighter, believes there is much that young Kurds can do to help the Kurdish cause. “I understand that some of the offspring of Peshmarga, who have been exposed to hardships from a young age without much choice, may feel tired of fighting. But the community needs their help and they can do much.
“Young Kurds can decide, based on their lifestyle, how much time they want to devote to improving the lives of Kurds. It can be only a day per week or 17 hours per day, but they can do a lot to create constructive dialogues, invite influential speakers, raise awareness, fight racism, reach for gender equality and do much more,” she says. 
“In order for the Kurdish community to grow we need solidarity, and to achieve that we need confidence, gender-equality and understanding of our past. Decades of living under all kinds of prosecution and dictatorship, as well as the patriarchal interpretations of religion, have caused us to be who we are today. Rather than dismissing the whole cause because of our flaws, we need to understand the roots of problems and maintain faith in the Kurds.” 
Kakabaveh, whose life can be a role model for young Kurds, has faith in the young generation. She believes they can do much to help empower their nation.