Ismail Hamalaw

We cannot be liberated without a new alternative culture

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This is part of a series of Interviews conducted by Scott Douglas Jacobsen for Culture Project with various Kurdish artists, feminists and writers.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you grow up? Was religion a big part of life? How did you come to find the non-religious community?

Scott Jacobsen


Ismail Hamaamin Religion was at the beginning an important part of my life, because my father sent me to Quran – school when I was five years old. Before that time, he taught me the simple version of the Quran through memorizing some verses, so I learnt some Arabic before I went to primary school.

I am Kurdish. For most Kurdish people, Arabic is the language of evil foreigners who came with their tanks and military bases into the middle of our cities. Of course, that was a general picture of who was representing an Arabic language in the Kurdish collective conscience.

I want you to remember that from the creation of Iraq after World War I in 1921 until now; Arabic language in the Kurdish collective memory is a language which represents not only Islam but also occupation and Arabization, and of course the language of genocide.

During my primary school time and even in the summer holiday, I learned the Quran, because my father wanted that. I saw all my friends playing in our ghetto, but I had to go to a special summer school for Quran and Arabic.  In the Summer of 1977, I was awarded a special Quran from the head of the “Big Mosque” in my city, Sulaymania. My father was proud of me. I remember he was so happy. He kept this Quran until his death.  From that time, I hated all religions, because the Mullahs who were teaching us Quran and Arabic, were brutal and harsh and they beat us because of a small mistake. Their method and communication skills were another side of barbarism.

As a child in primary school, I looked around me; I saw only killing and fear of those who speak Arabic, even when I was able to understand the verses of Quran in Arabic. I realized where all this violence came from. There are more than 68 verses that talk about killing, burning, cutting of bodies of the people who do not want to convert to Islam. Many verses which legitimises rape and slavery. Those verses were horrible for us as a child, so we learned not to love God but to be afraid of him. This fear for me was related with what happened on the ground because I saw what the God of Arabic language did to us. I saw one of our people, a man in 1975, naked and  he was bleeding from his entire body. His body was tied to the tank, so they were stalking his body and they dragged his body on the streets, so that all the people in our street could see it.  The Iraqi army was punishing our people publicly to show us what would happen if we joined a Kurdish revolution in 1975. The Arabic language was present in my life through cruel Mullahs and soldiers, so that was the general picture.

In my childhood and until my teenage years, I was angry with my father for sending me to Quran school, but after many years I thanked my father for sending me to Quran school to learn Arabic, because there was an Arabization around and the process of Arabization was going one more step.  But the positive point in my story is, I could read and translate the Arabic cartoon magazine for my school mates; nobody wanted to fight with me or come across me because they would lose their position in our reading group. There wasn’t any cartoon magazine in Kurdish for us at that time.  But after 1978, the Iraqi government repelled the Kurdish language from the teaching programme: geography, biology, and so on, in the 1980’s under the pressure of demonstration in all Kurdish cities, the Kurdish language returned to the school programme, but there were very bad translations.

Let me remind you that after the division of Kurdistan each part was forced to live with Iraq, Syria as a new state, and so on; these happened after World War I. All that happened after the Sykes–Picot Agreement in which we as Kurds were forced to be part of Iraq and Syria. Indeed, after the Sykes–Picot Agreement, which was officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement and was a secret 1916 agreement between the United Kingdom and France, our lives as Kurds were always forcible and bitter.

Of course, through Arabic translation, I discovered French and English literature. The cynical thing is that Arabic language also helped me to get out of Mosque and all religions. If you don’t understand Arabic, you cannot recognize every detail  in the Quran, so you will be blind like most non-Arabic speakers who cannot search for truth in Quran and in the history of Islam.  In 1980, I left Islam through the joint Marxist-Leninist Party of Kurdistan. Of course, it was difficult for my father in 1981 to hear from the parents of my friends that I am supporting the Marxist-Leninist groups. Some of them were in the mountains fighting against the Baathist regime of Saddam and the underground organization was there in all cities in Kurdistan. The 80s was the period of revolutionary dreamers and the entire world was divided into two parts, or two fronts: one follows the capitalism of the West and another who supported socialism. This wave grew from the 1968 revolution in Europe and had a deep influence on Middle East intellectualism in the 70s. It became a model and lifestyle of young people until the end of the 80s. I was one of those dreamers – a romantic, a middle-class revolutionary who dreamed of getting rid of mosques and churches and beginning a new life without god.

I remember I started to read Bertolt Brecht, Maxim Gorky, Lenin, Marx, Mao Tse Tung…etc. Of course, all those books were in Arabic but forbidden. If the Saddam regime’s secret police knew that you have such books, they put you in secret jail.  The house of God turned into the house of the enemy. Our community was accepting our Marxism-Leninism because we were defending Kurdistan against the Iraqi government. At that time, my father was sad because he noticed that I left the mosque.

Jacobsen: How do you view the world now? What seems best to explain the world in theory and practice? What ethic, for action in the world with others, seems to make the most sense to you?

Ismail Hamaamin: Ok, I am not quite certain I can give you a satisfactory answer, because I am working on issues like morality and ethics through the terms of In Der Welt Sein ( Being In The World).  Of course, from two points of view, I am trying to understand this world. Once from my entire 26-year life’s experiences under the dictatorship of Saddam regime in Iraq and another from my 25 years life’s experiences in Europe, and how I was subjected to different experiences, and faced different types of meaning of the world through experiencing two models of livelihood, the two different of modus vivendi.

Everything I wrote; novel, poems, essay, political articles, etc., are a kind of trying to understand myself as homo sapiens.  I use a word “homo sapiens” in terms of surviving a phase of my life, but also for another phase of developing myself from surviving homo sapiens to a cultivated creature, or a modern human being. I prefer the word “animalization” instead of the word “cultivation.”

The first thing about life is that I understand it under surviving; it is to keep safe as a physical creature, so everyone tries to keep their body and head safe. I remember our parents taught us that walls and trees have ears! That means, that you do not dare to speak freely what you think, because there is someone who will report you and put you and your family in a horrible prison. I grew up with this art of living as homo sapiens who always lives under threat.

War lets us understand the meaning of the world better than someone who didn’t experience it. For example, when I moved to Germany, it was quite unfathomable for me to see people on this earth that  don’t know even where Kurdistan or Iraq is? They don’t know what we are talking about? Or they have no idea about all those killings, wars, genocide, around the world. I started to think about the morality of the world, but not only through philosophical ideas and essays, but through literature.  To discuss this problem I wrote my novel, “Over The Frontiers, Flapping Through The Lunar Forests.” I wrote it in the first-person narrator voice because there wasn’t any chance to write in third person narrator for me. The story was about Kurdish intellectuals in Ukraine who tried to cross the border illegally to Europe.  The protagonist faced the collapse of morality where he left and there is another collapse where he lives, so he discovered that the question of morality of the world is like to be squeezing the homo sapiens between different cynical systems of world. The cynical reason is the question of morality behind all systems who rule this world. That is what my protagonist tried to understand. What are the differences between here and there?

 I tried to explain  morality through the term “surviving,” so I used the term homo sapiens instead of human being. We are still homo sapiens in terms of evolution like the ancients before us, so we try to survive; for this reason, we change our values according to our survival strategy. I reckon that morality is a cynical process that we need to legalise our unsuccessful development to be part of the environment. Because until today’s time, we didn’t even try to move to be a part of nature to begin animalizing ourselves.  What I am trying exactly to say is that, we failed to animalize ourselves in the full meaning of animals as part of nature and as part of the globe; although, we pretend to be globalists or to live in a global system, but our surviving art of life is against our globe.

I see the cynical reason of the world through the hypocrisy of the term ‘morality.’ The hypocrisy is like that, for example, we are as modern human beings think – that we are enlightened with self-confidence – but, we live in false enlightened self-confidence.  We are a product of the modern world consuming more than we need, occupying more territories than we need for our entire life. We think that we are a spark of the spectrum of enlightenment because we are living according to the Enlightenment’s modus vivendi, so we think that we are for humanity and solidarity and we love dogs and rabbits and trees, and we are fighting for a greener globe, but, we don’t care about our factories which are producing millions of weapons, barrels of chimerical powder.  We don’t care about our governments. We don’t care that they allowed arms manufacturers to sell the poison to a regime like the Saddam regime in the 80s. They tested it on the Kurdish population to see how it works. In terms of rationality, it was a successful weapon which killed in the year 1988   more then 5000 people in one night in only five minutes!

That was a good sell for everyone in the West! We are careless even about what happened to our neighbors, so we think that we are vegetarian, but we think like a carnivore.  To explain my view about the morality of the world and animalization, for example, look at the animals, bugs, birds, they are a part of nature and they don’t consume more than they need. They don’t occupy more terrarium that they don’t need, so they are a part of developing of world and ecosystem of the globe, but we are as homo sapiens as modern’s creature are a hindrance to keep this globe green and we are hindrance of surviving our globes in the cosmos.


Jacobsen: Regarding the Kurdish community, the continual onslaught of war, murder, and repression continue right into the present from internal oppressors and external state actors. How have these forces and influences affected you?

Hamaamin I grew up in an abnormal situation. For this reason, I avoid any kind of uniformed person subconsciously.  My unconscious makes me believe that those uniformed men and women are there to take me to somewhere and make me disappear like a magician. I know it is not real, but it is reflected in my behaviour, so I don’t argue with police in airports. I see some people do that. I will carry all my documents with me to avoid any kind of conflict.

For example, in 1994, the first three months when I arrived in Kiev, I rented a very nice flat. I had money and a visa for three months, and so there was nothing to worry about, especially since I was far away from the civil war in Kurdistan. After one month of hiding myself from police in Istanbul, because my visa was expired, I paid police a $300 bribe. I bribed them to let me go to my hotel until I got a new visa. If they deported me to the Iraqi border, I would be a thirty-year-old corpse somewhere without a grave now. At least, I made it to Ukraine with a legal visa.  When I arrived Kiev, I said to myself, “At last, all those years are behind me.” I started to enjoy a new period of my life. The crazy city after the Soviet Union collapsed and the new craziness was everywhere. Everyone was dreaming of a new life after the Soviet Union, but they didn’t know what kind of life. It was for me, as a novelist, like being in a Dionysian temple: vodka, dancing, sex, all that, even my physiognomy has extremely changed.  Regardless, I dreamt often that I was captured by Iraqi special forces and  they were about to shoot me. That was the beginning, for several years, of dreaming the same dream. However, I studied psychology. I knew this was trauma. I knew how I could deal with it. Some nights, I dreamt that I am lying somewhere. I was dying. You cannot imagine my happiness when I was awoken from that horrible dream! Even some time after all those years, when the dream was waking me, I started to get up from my bed, immediately and I looked around in my flat, only to be assured that I am in my flat in Germany.  I was happy to be alive, so I focused on the positive to get rid of my past in Iraq.

I am telling you that to give you a smooth picture of the influence of all these years of war. The killing of thousands of our people in Kurdistan. One time a friend of mine told me, “You are lucky because you can write about yourself, but I don’t know how I can get rid of my past.” Of course, we are lucky because we survived many wars and revolutions in Kurdistan.

We are in Europe. But what about the people in Kurdistan? They don’t have even time to look back at their past, because the present is worse than their past. During war you don’t think too much, you will be like homo sapiens who want to survive.

We are as Kurds have the feeling like what called “homo sacer” who were banned from Roman Empire.  “Homo sacer” may be killed by anybody without the killer being afraid to be judged! Your blood is enjoyable for everyone who enjoyed killing you, so the homo sacer fights for his bare life.

We are as a Kurd  until today this homo sacer and everyone, the world  watches  Turkey, Iran, and Iraq and how they kill our people. Nobody care about us; we are not this imaginary figure of Giorgio Agamben’s theory about homo sacer in ancient time. The fact is, we are here and real on the ground every single day!



Jacobsen: How was your life in Germany? Were there any major disappointments in your life?


Hamaamin: The strange thing about the experience of war is that you enjoy every second of your life – even the death is enjoyable. It will be a rest and peace from all those memories and ideas of the past. After 18 years in Germany, I left all that behind me and went back to Kurdistan.

I lost my children in Germany. I say I lost them because I couldn’t be a proper father and be with them every day and to give them a good night kiss. It was the time I divorced from my first wife. It was the hardest time of my life, even  hareder than  the time of Saddam Hussein’s regime of terror, when I was politically active against the dictatorship. My children were my last homeland in this life and I lost them.  At the same time, I lost my beloved mother. I lost what I built in 18 years. My world as a Kurdish writer in exile didn’t match with the way of life with what my first Kurdish wife wanted to have. I left Germany and I started to find a new job as director of a Kurdish magazine.

Jacobsen: How do you hope the Kurdish community comes together? How might Culture Project, as an incubator and repository of Kurdish values and productions, help with this movement of memorializing and rebuilding the culture of the Kurds?

Hamaamin: We thought about Culture Project as a way to break the usual image of Kurds as victims or as a fighter or worse – as political figures! Even the Kurdish publication in English is gathering around political issues, but we have very nice art, music, literature, feminism, activism. So, we decided to establish Culture Project in diaspora and in Kurdistan. Critical thinking, gender, and literature is a new way for new awareness out of the old clichés of the traditional politics of Kurdish political parties who until now belong to tribes’ or clans’ tradition and Islamic values, more than the value of gender equality and human rights.

We cannot be liberated without a new alternative culture, so we are trying to rebuild the culture according to the new values.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Hamaamin: I appreciate your time and your patience with me.