Choman Hardi was born in Iraqi Kurdistan just before the collapse of the Kurdish revolution and the flight of her family to Iran. She spent her early years in a small town near Tehran, then returned to her home following an Iraqi government amnesty for the Kurds; but in 1988, when she was 14, her family had to flee to Iran again after the gas attack on Halabja and the Anfal campaign. Choman came to England in 1993, where she did a degree in philosophy and psychology at Queen's College Oxford, an MA in philosophy at University College London and her PHD at the University of Kent at Canterbury. She is currently researching the lives and survival strategies of the Anfal widows.
Choman has published three collections of poetry in Kurdish. Life for Us is her first English collection. She has translated Sherko Bekes and Dilawer Karadaghi into English. From 2001 to 2003, she was chair of Exiled Writers Ink!, which supports refugee writers and provides a platform for their work. Her father, Ahmad Hard, is a well-known and much respected Kurdish poet: 'Poetry started with my father,' she says. 'His regular recital of poetry at moments of anger, sadness, and laughter has had the greatest effect on me.' Below, Choman writes about Bachtyar Ali's The City of White Musicians, published last year in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Choman Hardi on The City of White Musicians by Bachtyar Ali
Good novels may be those that, amongst other things, have the ability to expand our knowledge of humanity and to challenge our unexamined, everyday views. Conventional morality imposes certain pressures on us. Our obsession with the truth creates its own anxieties. We would like things to be black and white, true or false, good or bad, beautiful or ugly. The City of White Musicians is one of those novels that reminds us how complicated the truth can be, how conventional morality fails, how oppression does not make people beautiful, how the line between victims and victimizers can be so narrow. The novel tells us again how complicated it is to be human. In doing so, The City of White Musicians succeeds wonderfully. The characters are true even when they do the most fantastic things. The situations are realistic even when they are magical.
The story of Iraq's 1988 genocide campaign against the Kurds is told from a brothel in the south of Iraq. Fate brings together a Kurdish prostitute, an art-loving doctor, a repenting General and an Anfal survivor. Each of the characters is obsessed with something. The prostitute, Dalia Sirajadeen, is obsessed with rescuing her lover, Basim Al-Jazairee, from the underground world of torture dungeons. The doctor, Musa Babak, is obsessed with helping art and beauty go underground under the dictatorship. The General, Samir Al-Babilee, is obsessed with absolving himself from a past full of committing atrocities. The Anfal survivor, Jeladet the Dove is obsessed with truth and justice. Through the characters' dreams, nightmares and searches we discover a captivating world of oppression, regret, survival and perseverance.
Jeladet the Dove is captured during the Anfal campaign and is transported to the mass graves in the south of Iraq. He is saved by a brutal General who smells of oranges. When Samir Al-Babilee ruled in Kurdistan everything was silent - he shot at anything that moved. One night while patrolling the city he shot a brilliant violin player. The musician kept on walking and playing music. Eventually, Samir found him leaning on the wall in a tiny road. 'Samir Al-Babilee, you killed me,' he said. The General regrets his deed and tries to revive the musician but it is too late. The violin player tells him, 'It is not in your fate to save me.' He tells him that he is destined to save another musician who will play in the back of a lorry. The latter is Jeladet the Dove who plays his flute before being shot. Samir carries the bleeding Jeladet to safety. He takes him to a city that no longer exists on any map. It is the city of yellow dust, the city of sad prostitutes, where the military men go to rest away from the war and bloodshed. Samir takes Jeladet to Dalia Sirajadeen. With help from the exiled Kurdish doctor, Musa Babak, Dalia revives Jeladet. Before becoming a prostitute, Dalia was a student of English literature in the University of Baghdad where she fell in love with Basim Al-Jazairee. Later he is arrested by the government. She finds out that the best way to ascertain his whereabouts is to sleep with his torturers. Each General she sleeps with gives her a clue about where he has been. But they are unable to tell her where he is at any one moment. The system is so large every individual knows only about his own involvement, but does not know how everything else functions.
Among the most interesting parts of The City of White Musicians are the conversations that arise around justice, forgiveness, truth, beauty and morality. Dr Musa believes the best we can do for justice is to produce beautiful things and protect them from destruction. For 25 years the old doctor has been the guardian of beauty, collecting works of art and hiding them in his basement. Jeladet believes Samir Al-Babilee should be brought to justice. Samir Al-Babilee believes that his purification is only possible through telling the truth, facing up to what he has done and to his victims. While searching for the victims, Jeladet finds Haleem Shewaz. Half of Shewaz's face was blown off by Samir Al-Babilee and now he lives as a recluse. Shewaz accuses Jeladet of being stupid. He says:
Throughout history oppressors come and go and no one punishes them, you are following a mirage. Let's say we killed Samir Al-Babilee, would that change anything in the world? Would I be able to show my face once again? Would I?Shewaz believes that if he comes out of seclusion, people soon would forget what has happened to him and they will only see his ugliness:
In a few years who will remember that there was a bad government, it had terrible officers who arrested innocent people, mutilated their faces and released them... How would you explain this to the children? You idiot, how would you?During the trial Shewaz tells the others that killing Samir Al-Babilee will not bring peace to earth, it will not heal anyone's wounds or return the dead.
What you call justice is merely your thirst for revenge... the murderer has made you become like him... I want to tell him: look at me, Samir Al-Babilee, I forgive you so I am still beautiful. You could not kill the beauty inside me.Then he tells the court:
There is a bit of beauty left in us and in him, let's not kill that.On the other hand, Nasreen Ghafur who was raped by an army for a week and then had her hands cut off by Samir believes he should die. She believes one can forgive the loss of limbs but not that of honour:
I told him, 'Sir, kill me but don't disgrace me. Honour is valuable, sir! I am a woman sir, treat me like one, I am a hopeless woman, sir'. But he told his dogs to undress me. I told him, 'For God's sake sir! for the prophet's sake... till my death people would say: 'That is the woman who was ridden by so many Arab men she cannot close her legs anymore... I kiss your shoes sir! Now you dishonoured me at least leave me my hands... people live by two things, their hands and their honour. Leave me one of them sir... You took one, don't take the other'.In a place where honour is still tied to women's sexual chastity this novel does its best to defy conventional morality. It makes it possible to tell the story of Anfal through a prostitute, a General and an ex-musician in a brothel. Most of all, it captures how in a war-torn country everyone is a victim, even the victimizers. It captures the difficulties that societies have to face when dictatorships end. There are choices to be made about forgiveness, truth and reconciliation which will affect the future. As one of Samir Al-Babilee's victims says:
I have killed this man in my soul. I am scared that if you kill him he might become alive for me again.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]