by Ismail Hamalaw
Telling stories from my childhood, or even from the moment of my birth, may seem to be a very classical way of beginning writing about myself. However, the story of my birth has several versions. In fact, storytellers have given different accounts of my birth. I myself was an infant and did not yet recognize the world through language! In other words, I had no linguistic memory at that time.
I grew up in times of turmoil. Many events occurred that were so atrocious that I sometimes think they could not have been real, or perhaps I no longer know if they were real or imaginary. I can honestly say out loud that I don’t believe in anything such as the real world! From my point of view, the world itself is a kind of narrative imagining that makes me think I was born in unwritten history. My existence is not in this world. Rather, it is in the narrative imagination.
My narrative imaginings, my essays, my poems, and the protagonists in my novels come from one source, which I call the “narrator’s ego.” I can only recognize the world through ingenuity. Therefore, I don’t really know who I am. I can honestly say that this is the first time I am trying to write about myself. I think this kind of writing is a way of collecting the pieces of my lost ego or perhaps it’s a process of revealing myself through narrative language. The story I am telling comes from my own experience and from others who lived with me.
I was born in 1967 in a city called Sulaymaniah in northern Iraq, also known as South Kurdistan. The house where I was born, called the “Big Court,” was located a few meters away from a bridge. For this reason, our whole street and the bazaar were called the “Underbridge” area. At the time, my family didn’t have their own house. A year later, we moved to our own large house in another part of the city.
The house where I was born was rented out by its owner to two families. Each family had its own two rooms. The house, which had a small courtyard next to the entrance door, was surrounded by many different grocery shops such as the butcher’s, the yogurt seller’s, the bird seller’s, and many Kurdish dressmakers’ shops. Not far away was the bazaar of the traditional blacksmiths with their small iron ovens. Another row of shops belonged to Jewish craftsmen – the dyers who added colour to textiles. The dyers prepared their colours in big barrels and added colour to different kinds of textiles like clothes and other materials.
This area where I was born was a noisy area, with everyone shouting to sell their products or to offer women the chance to carry home their heavy purchases. These carriers were called “basket carriers.” There also were younger carriers who wore on their backs something like a large donkey saddle and who held a small hook in one hand to help them hold big sacks on their backs. Those carriers were called “saddle carriers.” Our house was in an overcrowded area – crowds were everywhere, with everyone shouting. You could even hear the mules and donkeys braying all the time.
Our neighbourhood also had a rice mill. Next to it were the saddle makers’ shops and the shops of those who made shoes for the hooves of donkeys and mules. They were opposite my father’s grocery food store. I remember going to my father’s grocery when I was six years old and watching those hoof-shoe makers and how the donkeys stood quietly while the hoof-shoe makers held their hooves, took off the old iron hoof-shoes, and replaced them with the new ones. Those donkeys seemed to be happy. I thought that all this pushing and cutting of hooves would be painful, but my father, Haji Amin, told me, “The donkeys and mules are happy because they know they are getting new shoes!” During the summer holidays, I was always in my father’s grocery. My favourite job was watching the hoof-shoe makers and the saddle makers.
I was fascinated by the villagers who came from distances far away from our street. They were like mythical creatures coming from paradise. These villagers had very quiet and kindly faces and were child-friendly people. Every time they saw me, they would take their small packs out of their Kurdish belts and give me fruit sweets. Those men’s faces differed from those of the men who lived in our city. I could say that they were happier, but after 1977 when Saddam’s regime destroyed most Kurdish villages and began forced displacements, I saw the same faces. Unfortunately, those faces had turned into sad and angry faces. They were no longer the same as they had been before 1977. The happiest faces from the time before the forced displacement program had vanished forever!
I remember that I had some kind of fantasy about the villages and mountains that I had seen in our Kurdish-language course book called Kurdish Alpha Bet that was written by Amin Baldar. The name “Baldar” means “with wings.” The Kurdish language for me at that time was a language created by a magician with wings: Amin “With Wings.” Another source of my imagination was all those pictures of ideal villages where all the people were happy in the Kurdish course book. Not only that, but one child in particular in that book fascinated me: Dara with his cute dog. For myself, and I think for all my generation at the time, the villages and villagers represented the places and creatures who were coming from outside – of course, from outside of our horrible lives in the city – or perhaps to put it more accurately, they came from another world in which all of us hoped to go to live.
One of those pictures that fascinated us as primary-school children was the picture of the river that crossed a small village. We dreamt of swimming in this river because the only place we swam in was the small dirty pond made for saving water when official water shortages would begin for unknown lengths of time. We called this water “government water.” Even now, if you want to know how the public sector in Iraq or in all the Middle East works, you need only to turn on the water tap. This tells you more about the public sector than any government speaker could.
Those water basins or ponds were built near construction sites to save water for building purposes. Those basins were full of worms, pieces of wood, and sometimes carcasses of birds or rusty tin cans. Those basins or dug-outs also were full of the pee of building workers and of cats’ cadavers! To be honest, we didn’t care about all that, especially during the summer holidays and heat waves. At those times, we were always searching for those ponds, and when we found an empty construction site without workers, we called our friends and went swimming there. Those moments were the most enjoyable times in our lives.
When I remember those times and how they compare with the health conditions in all European countries, I can say that based on such a comparison, we should have died or even suffered from cancer or other bad illnesses. However, I can assure you, my dear readers, that not only I but all my childhood friends never visited a hospital for treatment – only perhaps to visit someone!
As I mentioned above, I was fascinated by the small dog that belonged to the boy named Dara in our Kurdish course book. In the book of Amin-with-Wings, the dog was the best friend of the human being – a nice playmate who escorted Dara’s family members everywhere. The dogs in our real lives were stray dogs and appeared only at midnight in herds, barking and fighting until early morning. In the daytime, they hid themselves from people because everyone wanted to harm them. Dogs have been cursed in Islam, and our ghetto was in a suburb of the city where all the people were Muslim. Not far away from our city centre was the Christian part with the famous old Chaldean Catholic church, but even there, you couldn’t see any dogs on the street in the daytime.
I think the dogs had a secret life. They hid themselves, from people in abandoned construction sites or were far away from our suburb, spending their daytimes among the small hills. I remember one time when a herd of stray dogs saw me on a hill and began barking at me. They slowly followed my steps. I remember beginning to run so fast, like a mythical Olympian athlete in the Greek arena. I could hear their aggressive barking behind me and their paws crashing against small tins, plastic bottles, and black shopping bags. I ran until I reached my friends. When they saw the dogs behind me, they picked up stones and pieces of wood in their hands from the ground and ran toward me, throwing stones over my head at the stray dogs behind me. The dogs turned back, terrified, and we began to follow them to the small hill.
The nice dog in the book by Amin-with-Wings existed only in another world, the world of words and imagination and pictures. That Amin-with-Wings dog was my best friend. It escorted me all the time and encouraged me to learn Kurdish from the book of our master, Amin-with-Wings. Until now, I have the feeling that when I write something in German or Arabic, I have left my sweet dog behind, very sad and lonely. I think that the only wings I have are the wings of master Amin. As a writer, I know that writing in German or in English, or maybe in the Arabic language, offers me good publishing opportunities. However, I don’t want to leave behind my wings and my dear invisible dog.
Looking back to my past, my childhood life in the city was associated with violence in many forms: dogs fighting, fighting in the ghetto, men’s knife fights, and the nightly gunfire between the Iraqi army and the revolutionary partisans (the Peshmerga) in 1974. Besides this, the childhood fights between our ghetto and other ghettos in the city were our daily enjoyment. I still have some signs on my body from that time, and when I look at them, I remember those days of my childhood.
In my father’s grocery, exactly in the left corner of the ceiling, was the nest of a pair of cliff swallows. I remember they came every year between April and May and laid their eggs. After two weeks, there were newly hatched young swallows. They were fed by both adult parents who would catch insects on the wing and collect them in their throats before returning to the nest. Once fledged, the youngsters receive in-flight food from their parents. The traffic of all those cliff swallows didn’t bother my father. When I asked him, he said, “They are the messengers of God’s mercy. They know they can find peace and respect, and I am happy for that.”
My brother, two of my uncles, and one of my cousins (who unfortunately was killed in 1988) were revolutionaries against the Pan-Arabic Ba’ath Party government. My father was under observation by the security forces of Saddam’s regime. They knew that my father spent his life between his grocery store and the mosque and that he didn’t like any kind of violence, but they gave my father two choices: either to ask my brother and uncles to give up or to face losing his license and having his funds confiscated. In 1986 they took away all the business licenses my father had received during the British colonial period in 1956. I think that my father was Member Number 44 in the all-Iraq business union called the “Business Room.” The only issue that bothered him was the fate of the swallows. He once told me, “What troubles me is that the swallows will return this April but they will not find their old home.”
The mosque at Underbridge Street had two main doors, one of them located by the dyers’ shops and the other located by the iron smiths’ shops. The old “Naqib Emporium,” built during the Ottoman era in 1900 and was a big market like a labyrinth, filled with the smell of traditional spice shops. These were the places around which I used to wander and which formed an important source for my imagination and daydreams.
The dyers’ shops were not very far from my father’s grocery, across a small main street. They were not easy to miss because the first shop, situated on the corner, was a colourful, rainbow-painted shop. Not only were the shops painted but so were the faces of the men who worked there painted in different colours. The craftsmen added colour to the textiles as that was their job. In that colourless world of our city, this was like a dream in the real wold – a colourful real world.
I was fascinated when I stood watching those shops because I thought there were no barriers between my colourful childhood dreams and the colourful shops that were real with their colours. In this corner were about six or seven shops full of colours – blue, yellow, green, pink, and black – and even the asphalt all around them was colourful. The walls and the fronts of the shops were the colours of the rainbow. These were the most amazing moments of my life. I could see the men in the shops standing in front of their big bowls of hot liquid colour. Under the big bowls of hot colour were fires that brought the mixtures to a boil and the men pushed the textiles into the bowls with long wooden sticks.
Those craftsmen were almost all Jewish, and the work of dyers was a very important handiwork at that time. By 1954 after their forced migration to Israel, however, no Jewish people were left in our city of Sulaymaniah. The Kurdish Jews left their homeland of Kurdistan for Israel, so they left their craft to Kurdish Muslim craftsmen. I think the job of dying textiles was one of the beautiful symbols of the rainbow life among all Christian, Muslim, Kakaee, and Jewish people in our city of Sulaymaniah.
I remember the most favourite place of my childhood, which was the bird- and animal-sellers’ bazaar under the old bridge near my birth house. There, they sold all different strange sorts of birds and animals, like falcons, eagles, foxes, baby wolves, dogs, jackals, and sometimes monkeys or urchins, small wild pigs, and deer from the Hot Hill of Kurdistan. I remember how much time I spent watching this small everyday zoo.
I don’t want to move away from my birthplace because it is tied to many stories that have had a big influence on my novels and poems. Precisely, I was born in February 1967, the last child in a series of nine children. Three of my siblings – one brother and two sisters – had died, and I was the last male child born after my big brother and my four sisters. According to the Iraqi registration office, I was born on the 20th of February 1967. According to another story, I was born on the 22nd of February. The surest thing is that an assassination incident occurred between the 20th and the 22nd of February 1967.
The story goes like this: There was a man called “No Nose” whom our revolutionary fighters had punished because of his collaboration with the Iraqi regime. The first time they captured him, they didn’t kill him, but they cut off a part of his nose as punishment for his terrible crime. According to the storyteller in my family – I believe it was my elder sister – the man turned to a stray dog on our street and killed and tortured to death many innocent people. About the time I was born, the revolutionary fighters shot this man dead in broad daylight not far from our house. The Iraqi government declared a one-week curfew. I was born at that time, just before or after the curfew of February 1967.
I was born amid the chaos of this assassination, curfew, and military incursions. I chose to be a quiet baby, and I didn’t cry at all for two years. My father had a very sad experience with soundlessness. The first baby born into our household had been a boy named Yaseen, and he was as quiet as I. My father told me, “One early morning before going out to morning prayers, I went to your brother’s cot and I saw that he was dead. I didn’t wake your mother up. I went to my mosque to pray. After morning prayers, I returned home and woke up your mother and said, ‘Dear, God has taken our Yaseen to His Paradise.’” My calmness during those two years was like a psychological therapy for my father.
After many years, when I was a university student studying psychology, I learned that this process was called a defence mechanism because my silence didn’t cause any unpleasant experience. This made me the wonder child who took my father’s sadness away from his heart.
One year and five months after my birth, the Ba’ath Party took power in a very simple military coup. Saddam Hussein and General Ahmed Hasan Baker headed this military coup on the 17th of July 1968. They took power from General Abdulrahman Arif, but they didn’t kill him because he was drunk all the time. They sent him and his family on a special aeroplane to Turkey, of course to his exile, with a bag full of money. The storytellers in Iraq said that the dear General invested his money in buying night clubs, brothels, and gambling salons. He covered his living expenses from his investment, and afterwards even returned to Iraq in the 1980s. Having earned a good retirement from Saddam Hussein, he died quietly in Jordan in 2007.
I grew up in the darkest and most dreadful period of all time, an era when I didn’t know what life could mean without war or killing on the street. That was the Saddam Era. I remember that when I left the country in 1994 and received my first flight tickets to the Ukraine, I laughed out loud. When the man in the travel agency asked me why I was laughing, I answered, “Because I have only seen aeroplanes bombing us and not serving us!”
I do not intend to present a picture of vulnerable people. No, like all other Kurdish men and women, we rejected the Pan-Arabic Islamic government and we fought for our freedom. We protected our language against Arabisation and our struggle led us to liberate our cities in 1991. I believe that one of our struggles was to keep writing in Kurdish. Another struggle was to continue producing literature such as handwritten books or magazines and to publish them among limited groups of people. Our struggle was amazing because all those dark powers didn’t succeed at forcing us to forget our novels, poems, theatre, or critical thinking.
I think that what has kept me from becoming a vulnerable person or depressed or pessimistic has been literature. For this reason, I don’t believe in the real world until it is written. For me, writing is some kind of wing with which I can fly over all the horrible events in my life. If I want to be honest, I can say that writing has kept me from madness. In all my crazy life from the moment of my birth until my exile in the Ukraine, White Russia, Germany, and the UK, writing has been my best friend and partner, protecting me from madness.
I am happy with my life when I think that after all those wars and revolutions, I am still alive! I can write and I am able to enjoy my life in my way.
Sometimes I think I am the son of invisible gods. For this reason, when I go to any city located on the sea, I take some time to be alone to talk with the gods on the beach, especially at sunset. I can assure you that there have been long discussions between us.
Sometimes I think that someday, I shall return to another world, the world of my imagination of when I was a small child watching the dyers adding colour to the uncoloured world. But until that time, I am trying to create my own colours.
* Ismail Hamaamin Hamalaw, is a London-based Kurdish novelist, poet, and essayist.