Monday, May 23, 2011

A Dream is Born

Dear: Most loyal blog readers on the WWW!!

"When I was a child my father would sit me on his lap and tell me, 'You will fly like a bird, to all countries and palces, you will become familair with the most amazing experiences. You will fly to have fun, to learn, to discover, to be adventurous and to find yourself, but in the end you will always go back to your nest.' By the nest he was clearly refering to Kurdistan. Years later, when I spread my wings and began to fly, fall, and fly again, I realize Dad's words were correct-- every single word."

This, my dear reader, is the little paragraph at the back of my book: "My Nest in Kurdistan".

May 16, 2011. The birth of one of the biggest achievements in my 21 year old life so far. It was a simple phone call. In fact a 30 second phone call, I can't remember much (fish memory!) but Kak Publisher asked me to visit when ever I had time. And of course I leave everything and rush out (what could be more important at that second?!).

Since then, what a week it has been! My book, "My Nest in Kurdistan" came to live.
My first look at the stack of books...
I get my share.
 I only have three pictures of my childhood years, and one in particular stands out to me (I just took a picture of it with my phone-- shows you how friendly I am with techonology. I could have easily scanned it!) I am lying on my tummy on a mountain top --surprise surprise-- with dad next to me, and there is a pen in my hand, and if its clear enough you can tell there is a paper also. Even when I was a child I seemed to be ahead of my years...

I was just telling my father how this exact scene in the picture above is repeated almost every single day in my life even now. I write in a little notepad or on the laptop, and dad is there with his chay ... we grow up, but somethings just never change!

When I look at those pictures of my childhood, they don't bring back memories. Nothing comes to mind except one occasion. Only one event from my childhood. I remember it clearly. A summer evening, before it was completely dark. Grandma was at our place, there was a knock at the door and within minutes we heard gunshots. I don't recall what happened in between, but I clearly see my mother grab my baby brother and we went under the stairs. We hid, holding each other tightly. My mother was crying. And the gunshots continued. Dad, we thought, was gone; we'd lost him. Four men had come on a mission to kill.

Not long ago, before the book was published, I went to see the bullet holes still on the walls of the house where we once lived. The house where I hid under the stairs, in the arms of my mother, listening to gunshots and thinking "dad is gone." After the silence outside, mom lost consciousness and I was on her chest, crying. Moments later, I saw my father with a large Kalashnikov over his shoulder, and then I fell into his arms. This is all I remember from my childhood.

  The second I saw my book, My Nest in Kurdistan, at the publishing house, dozens of them stacked on top of each other, that's what I remembered. Could it be, that same girl, who sat in fear under the stairs? That same girl refers to the same place as a Nest? Today, I feel as though my pen is a bullet. A soft bullet. A bullet of hope.

What was the most amazing part of this experience is that when I came home with about 75 of my personal copies of the book, on the way home I began to brainstorm all the people who I had to give a copy to. Back home on the kitchen table I wrote a list, and had to give priority of who are the individuals who I was going to dedicated a copy to.

Only on the kitchen table did I realize how lucky I am. I realized the number of people who have influenced my life. All those names who have inspired me, all those names who have touched my life in the simplest ways, but they have made the greatest difference. All those individuals who have inspired me-- from my little cousins Lava and Haval to Pura Gulizard at the Erbil Retirement Home. From my parents, to some of my Twitter friends. From my cousins, to well known Kurdish personalities. From my next door neighbours to decision makers at the state level.

(I did try to rotate this picture... [don't laugh] but I just couldn't figure out how to)

I wished to dedicate copies of the book to so many people, the elderly friends in the Retirement home, the men in the Erbil Retirement Garden, the man who looks after insane individuals in the back room of his Chaykhana, the gardener, the many women who I have met in the villages and on Kurdish mountains. The problem is that all these people can't read in English. These people, the simplest in the world, are those who have inspired me the most.

It is funny, the amount of books I have signed and dedicated to "my second parents" and "my sister..." many of the people who are close to me have adopted me as their daughter, and many others have become sisters over the years.

It was true. This book, an achievement of mine, could not have been possible without these individuals to believe in me, to encourage me with their words, and more importantly to inspire me! I don't think many of them realized how important they were in my life, in fact until I sat on the kitchen table I didn't realize there were this many of them.

Just before I finish off, thank you for all of you, my blog readers* for reading these entries! (By the way, now that the book is published, it doesn't mean you stop following the blog!)
When you're a Kurd, expect the unexpected.

* Zor Supas!!

(this is part of this week's "Memoirs" column in the Globe. It was written on two seperate days)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Village Life - Memoirs!

To my dearest, most loyal, and greatest readerS*

Let me introduce you to village life in Kurdistan

If I described the atmosphere to you right now as I am writing, you would envy me. It is dark, pitch black, but somehow you can just see the outline of a giant mountain in front of you in front of the dark sky. There's a gentle breeze, a little cold, but you can smell nature, and the earth after it has rained. Every now and then there is the mooing of the cows from our neighbor's place. The breeze and the sound of trees take me away. There's not a single star in the sky.

Above is a picture of me taken by M. M. as I was writing this, (on word, obviously there was no internet access)

Beside me is a fire, which we started with a few of the stack of wood on my left. Unlike any fire before, this burns rapidly -- must be the fresh bark -- and on it sits the tea pot, now charred black.
Dad, like any typical Kurdish father, eagerly waits for the tea.

I wonder what the neighbors are doing right now.

This evening there is no television, there is no Internet and no phone calls or "beep, beep" sound of one text following the other: "Don't forget this, do that, bring this, fill that," and so on. This is exactly what I have purposely left behind. I have escaped the city life in Erbil and gone to heaven. Heaven, in my dictionary is nowhere else but in Kurdistan's own mountains, in one of its exquisite villages.
And look who welcomed me first...
As we arrived earlier today, I took a walk around this small village, I have already made many friends. In fact, you would, too. Almost everyone you say "hello" to insists you visit their homes. This is not one of those semi-developed villages. No, this is a real village, where people live in mud houses, there is a barrel outside with a tap attached for a sink and the toilet is outside -- you are lucky if there is a tin door (which by the way, never closes entirely), but usually a cloth covering acts as a door.

Through the walk, I began to wonder, and now, by the wood fire outside, I am beginning to think: Does life have to be that difficult? It does not. Here I am, at my happiest, with only the basic necessities.

Somewhere above the mountains of Kurdistan lays the village of Haladen-- Just by looking at it I remember the fresh oxygen I breathed in over there.
The people are lovely. They are polite. The people here are family you have never met. They are simple. The simplest you could ever imagine. What are these people, I wonder. Angels? Two minutes after meeting you, they would give you're their lives if you asked for it. These are the real Kurds that I know. Of course when you are a guest you can't by shy and must take everything you are offered (if you're thin--a little too thin-- like myself, then expect to be fed food enough for an entire month in one evening. "You need to eat my daughter, Alhamdulila har xwardn zora!" I remember one of the elderly man and his wife told me when I accepted to have only chay in their little house. (I must mention here, chay turned into mastaw, fruits, rewas, chay; rice, chicken; chay etc...)
Poora and Maama, they are my new aunt and uncle. As a total stranger they invited me inside their house, just as they saw me walking around the village
Earlier, for lunch, onions and celery, picked only steps away from where I am sitting. Today, I ate all sorts of wild things that you can only find in nature -- unwashed. Yogurt and milk come from the animals here -- not sure about the health issues though -- I could bid that the Poora and Mama I had dinner/ afternoon tea with (probably 75 to 80 year old) are stronger and healthier than I am.
The fresh mastaw

The Chay, rosary, Kurdish clothing...
When you are in a village in Kurdistan, you almost feel ashamed that you have too much, you realize that there is no need for everything that you have. If you are still wondering if you should get that Dior handbag or you don't have the new iPhone yet, then I remind you here, simplicity is everything. Good health is a priority.

Another Poora, pouring the third pyala of chay from the Samawar
As I am writing, little drops of rain are falling onto the keyboard, just in time, as I am finishing for today. Tonight I am not sleeping on my queen size bed, I am not watching BBC before bed nor am I putting a facial mask on looking like an alien from out of space** for 20 minutes. 


Tonight, as soon as I put my head on the pillow I will be asleep before I know it. No tossing and turning worrying about the stresses of tomorrow and brainstorming a check list in my head of what needs to be done. Here, on top of the mountains of Kurdistan, hidden in a small village surrounded by nature, I know tonight before reaching to count three sheep I will be fast asleep.

On that note, the cows seem to have fallen asleep. Nature says its bedtime. And you, still in the city, you're probably just about to open Facebook right now.

When Kurds say: Sar Sar o Sar Chaw, this is what they mean!!
So, you are welcome, sar sar o sar chaw this time next week to read another entry on my journey through the village that is above the clouds and over the mountains of Kurdistan. You don't believe me?

for a writer, this is heaven

*(S.I, H.S, L, K, B.A, A.S, .... sadly mum is no longer a fan!).  I wrote this last weekend, in a little trip I took to the village with my family. It was this weeks column in the Globe, but I thought I would share it with you here anyway, with some pictures as well.
All pictures, but one, were taken by me for this blog only :) somehow I am always thinking of you--even when I am in the village for vacation 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"No one dare touch my daughter"

To the greatest reader*
When I go missing for a while, you would probably realize by now that I get up to something.
Bale! Bale! Bale!
"I was a victim, but no one dare touch my daughter!"
One of the female participants in the awareness sessions, with her daughter. Observe the facial expressions closely....

And that's what I have been reading for the past few days now.
Paper after paper yelling out silent tears of "Bale" (Yes!) that is: Bale, I am circumcised.
Welcome to the miserable world of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)--something that I have been working with closely in the recent weeks.
Aside from a health awareness campaign that we are currently undertaking for women in the Choman district in Erbil I have also been working on a survey we did at the Salahaddin girl's school. Basically on a piece of paper the girls wrote the occupation of their parents (not suprising almost every mother in that area was a housewife) and whether or not they had undergone the FGM process.  
As I was reading what they'd written my eyes filled with tears, a large number of the girls said they were circumcised. It’s either that I have a tenth senses or it was clear. I felt as though the words on the paper were silent screams, silent tears. For some reason I felt as though the handwriting of the girls
were telling a story. Could hand writing be emotional? (or am I just over emotional myself?!)

One of the papers received from the girls-- the last word reads: Bale
Whether we like it or not, FGM exists in some parts of the region. It's not smart to turn a blind eye on a phenomenon that is life shattering for many young girls. Which is why I am so proud of this project, especially because we managed to reach out to the village areas, reach out to women who don't even know the etiquette of talking in a group. Women and girls who had never attended a talk in their lives. Women who have not been given the chance to be educated--to gain awareness and knowledge. It's unfortunate that they are so negleted, because in other parts of the region it is not like that. But in the areas we are working in--borderline--there is neglect. Which is why it is worth the dedication that our team has put in- waking up 5 in the morning, and staying in the office till late evening hours to plan for the next day, to travel for over two hours for every session.

One of our members at the organization has an entire long list in their phone of Mulla A, Mulla X, Mulla Y etc... that is how it is. But it is all worth it. The six week campaign is almost ending, but I have this feeling that even the unmade  fetuses and unborn baby girls are smiling, and that, my dear reader makes it all worth more than you can ever imagine 
In one of our sessions where a doctor spoke to women in a village about FGM and after they watched a video we had a few of the women crying. I started to shiver. Despite all my sadness I managed to smile, I knew right then and there that we were changing lives.  Here is what we managed to understand from the sniffing, crying, women**:
Khadija (over 45 years old): [Sniffing] "My daughter keeps reminding me of the time I held her hand to the lady with the razor"
Gulabakh (in her 30s): [wiping a tear] "When we were circumcised, my friend, who was our neighbor was with me. She bled too much and then died!" (If you know Sazan well, at this point of listening to the story she is no sobbing—but I didn't.)
I have a question
So many women have been victims of breast cancer because by the time they detect something is definitely wrong it is too late. So the session on self examination has also been beneficial. Most of the participants spend a lot of time sharing stories of women they knew in their villages who died because of it. They are interested to learn, and that is a great help for us to be able to send the message through.
It's not all sweet. Due to the degree of sensitivity of the matter we are dealing with we have had our share of confrontations and negotiations. But the result that we get is amazing. We have been working in the village more than district itself. In one of them for example some of the women had never ever seen a gynecologist before--in fact 90% hadn't. We were listening to stories from the participants in our sessions that few months back a women died while giving birth. She could have easily lived, but how could she? No doctor, no trained midwife (and for god sakes in good old Kurdish there wasn't even the Mu'awen tubi—who basically works as a doctor!).
NOTE: I have to point out here that you shouldn't feel sad for a single second. We promise these women will have a gynecologist visiting them once a month free of charge to answer all their medical questions and do examinations (and we are trying to see if we can link up with a pharmacy so we can take medication too for those who need it).  
So! Back to why I am writing this entry today (back to the argument, can't go off topic). A large portion of the stack of surveys say 'bale'. But the surprise and amazement we witness on the expressions of the females is beyond what words can ever describe.

A pile of the girls' surveys on my desk. All giving the same information, whether or not they have gone through the FGM process. I learned that a large portion of my girls who I did the training were actually circumcized. By observing the surveys in the village surrouding Choman the numbers are.... well, very high, sadly
They don't do it because they are cruel. No! These women choose for their girls to undertake the process because they think that it is the right decision. The number of times we have heard mothers say: "If only you told me earlier, I wouldn’t have done it on my daughters" are infinite.  
When there are high school girls sitting and listening to the words of a doctor, a religious man and watching a video… you can just feel that you are changing lives right then and there. All the female fetuses in the wombs of their mothers don't need to fear going under the 'razor' for any reason.  
The women learn the science behind what is happening to the body and its consequences when that process is undertaken on a young girl. Just imagine, she is free but in chains at the same time. When they learn that no, it's not religion and no it doesn’t mean that the girl's food is haram to eat they won't do it on their daughters.

Education and knowledge is power.
Most, if not all of them, share the same silent pain. But through this awareness and knowledge, I can say with complete confidence their daughters are going to be FGM free. With complete confidence I write that of the 1200 women who we have held sessions for, will not allow for any of their daughters, sisters, grandchildren, nieces or even the neighbor's baby girl to undertake the procedure. Those days are over. That is accomplishment!  
If this entry put you in a 'blue' mood then wait for Saturday's entry! I promise it's going to be full of smiles. Tune in. By the way, I am still on with my project for my girls at the high schools.

*How do I know that you're great? Because you have chosen to take few minutes of your precious time to read this blog!
**Names changed
All pictures are taken by and belong to START Social Development Organization