Our Winter 2021 series on Iraq’s diverse literary scene, in Iraq and in the diaspora, continues with a look at Hawra al-Nadawi’s Qismat, a novel that traces the journeys of Iraq’s Feyli Kurds:
By Hend Saeed
Hawra al-Nadawi’s Qismat is based on historical events. This novel, published in 2017, follows the journey of a family of Feyli Kurds starting in the 1950s and ending in 2009.
Feyli Kurds are an ethnic group that lived predominantly in areas near the border between Iraq and Iran. In the nineteenth century, they began settling in areas around Baghdad and other large cities. They speak a distinct dialect of Kurdish and, unlike the majority of Kurdish who are generally Sunni, the Feyli Kurds are Shi’a Muslims.
From the mid-1970s until 1980, the Feyli Kurds were attacked by the Saddam Hussein regime, which issued a declaration that deprived them from their Iraqi nationality, announcing that they were instead Iranians. Hussien then ordered the deportation of all Feyli Kurds. They were stripped from their nationality, taken from their homes in large buses, and left at the border with Iran. Some of the young people were jailed, and their homes and properties were confiscated.
In Qismat, the family at the heart of the novel originates in the province of Lorestan, located on the border between Iraq and Iran. When the modern borders were created, the area was divided in two: one side became part of Iraq, while the other became part of Iran. The central character Mulla Ghoulam’s grandfather was from Bisht Kowa in Lorestan, while Majid Ali’s father was also from Bisht Kowa—but Majeed Hussein was born in Mahran, which became part of Iran.
Mulla Ghoulam’s father had been born in Baghdad, two years after his father migrated there from Bisht Kowa, in 1873, before borders were drawn. When the novel opens, it’s 1950, and Mulla Ghoulam works at the khan and lives in the Dahana neighborhood in Baghdad with his wife Badryia and his children. He has two boys, Mosadaq and Moafaq, and five daughters: Qismat, Firsat, Perri, Mariam, and Suham, who is born later than the others. They also live with his divorced sister Queam, his brother Ridha, and his brother’s wife Shazi. They share one house, and each family has a room or two, while other rooms are rented out.
Qismat, the eldest daughter, is married off at a young age and already has two children and a third on the way. She is known, in the family, for her sudden laughing fits. Then one evening in 1950, she stood facing the river and, before anyone could understand what was happening, she threw first her children and then herself into the river.
But Qismat wasn’t gone. A few days later, she showed up in the house in a new form, and she remained part of the family for generations, appearing to different people in the family and saving children from danger. The family thought of her an angel of protection and hope—except for her aunt Queam, who thought that Qismat’s ghost was a sign of bad luck.
From 1950 until 1975, Mulla Ghoulam’s family continued to grow. Each of his daughters were married at a young age, and each had children Some moved out of the house, while others stayed in the same home.
Majid Ali, meanwhile, suffers the death of his father, Kakah Zada. His mother remarries, and he and his brothers are sent to Zurbadia, to live with their uncle. He has a very poor childhood at his uncle’s home and, at 16, he decides to travel to Baghdad to work, where his cousin Mamli lives. Mamli is married to Mulla Ghoulam.
He rents a room at Mulla Ghoulam’s house and finds work as a porter. He saves his money, becomes a trader in the Shorja market, and quickly becomes a very successful man with a number of businesses.
Then, between 1975 and 1980, the government starts the wave of deportations, expelling those whose origins were in Iran.
Majid’s family is deported and left at the border with Iran. Majid, who has lost everything, forbids his sons from speaking Arabic. Although he had been a family man, he now becomes angry, rude, and cruel with his sons. Meanwhile, the people around them consider them to be rich Arabs, and freeze the sons out of the community.
Three years after the deportation of Majid’s family, Mulla Ghoulam and part of his family are also deported.
This deportation left people with no citizenship. They weren’t considered Iraqis any longer, yet they had no documents to prove they were Iranians. Majid was able to find some of his family and, after paying a few bribes, he managed to get Iranian documents. Yet Mulla Ghoulam and his family were unable to do the same. Mulla Ghoulam’s sons left Iran, his daughter Siham got married to an Iranian, and he, his wife, and his sister lived without documents.
In 2004, after the fall of Saddam, Majid visits Baghdad in the hopes of getting back his properties. But, without giving away the ending, things do not go well.
In the translated excerpt below, it is 1994. Luay, Majid, and Maryam’s son have been able to get a false passport, and they have reached Europe with the help of a smuggler. Luay is in a refugee camp close to Stockholm.
In this section, Luay talks about the effects of the 1975-1980 deportations, and how these deportations affected three generations of the family: a huge loss of identity, names, language, home, country, and personal history.
By Hawara al-Nadawi
Translated by Hend Saeed
It was early one winter dawn in 1980, nine days after we’d been left at the border. We had gotten lost in the mountains and would have to shelter in crowded camps until a chance came for us to leave. I was headed back to our tent after relieving myself when I saw my auntie Qismat. It hadn’t been the first time, yet I would always remember it as the first. She had appeared to me a few times before, but I had convinced myself that had only been a trick of the darkness that made me see shadows, which had appeared and faded.
But this time, and under the crisp morning light, I saw her clear and true. She didn’t look like a djinni, nor was she transparent, like a ghost. I knew her the moment I saw her.
I had seen her before, at my grandfather Mulla Ghoulam’s home in Baghdad. I’d heard that she showed up to the people in the house every now and again, and that sometimes she disappeared for long months. Once, she had disappeared for more than a year, and even auntie Queam thought she would not come again. Auntie Queam was always anxious; she burned incense every day before evening prayers, and occasionally she would invite the neighborhood women for a Qur’an reading. Yet none of that seemed to keep my auntie Qismat’s suicide-ghost away.
The first time I saw her, I was seven years old. One afternoon at my grandfather’s house in the old Dahana alley, when everyone was taking their regular nap, I was bored. My feet took me to the large kitchen, and, from there, my curiosity took me into the dark storage room at the back of the kitchen, where grandmother Badriya kept her food supplies. I tugged on the heavy wooden door, hoping to discover what was inside the room, but it felt as though the door was being pulled back from the inside, as if someone didn’t want to let go. I insisted, pulling harder, and then I saw her face appear in front of me, while behind her was the dark storage room. Her face was clear and bright. All my life, I would never forget her features. Even though I was very short at the time, I remember her face as being right in front of me so that her eyes looked into mine. It was as if she was telling me to stop playing and leave that place. I ran toward my mother, waking her up from her nap. I shivered as I stuttered out a description of the young woman.
She smiled and hugged me: “That’s your auntie Qismat. Seems she wanted to say hi. There’s no reason to be afraid of her.”
The truth is that there was nothing scary about it, even though it was easy to create a scary story about the dead aunt’s ghost that visited the old house in Dahana. But we were used to welcoming her with open arms, especially auntie Perri and grandmother Badriya, who always referred to these visits as kind of mercy on us, even though auntie Queam’s face would shows resentment and disapproval.
Lots of stories were told about auntie Qismat’s ghost. People said that she helped us whenever blind fate came to nearly kill one of us. When my brother Muayyad fell from the upstairs hallway railing into the courtyard below, everyone thought that something bad would have happened to him, that his bones would be broken. But to everyone’s surprise, he had no injuries, and he stood up quickly, laughing as wildly as a monkey.
Everyone was sure that auntie Qismat had caught him before his body could touch the ground. We had witnessed many events like this when we visited our grandfather Mulla Ghoulam Ali’s home. Queam was remained quiet about these events until the day we were deported. Then I heard her wailing amid the chaos in the house, asking Qismat’s ghost to leave us for good! Then she said a few words that seemed meaningless to me:
“Qismat, are you happy now? Are you? They’re leaving us, and we’ve been separated and destroyed.”
That cold morning, I put on one of the military jackets that had been given to us to protect us from the winter cold. It was a winter unlike anything I had seen before, and as I walked back to the tent, I touched myself, as I’d had the urge to the last two days. My sweaty feet were squashed into thick wool socks, and a strong shiver ran through my body as I clearly saw her ghost.
I froze, watching her as she stood near the second tent, holding the rope in her fingers. She smiled at me, looking beautiful and younger than my mother in her red Kurdish-style dress, which showed off her small waist. Over the dress, she wore a black vest with golden stitches. On her head there was the sort of turban that I’d seen women wear at festivals—a heavy black with a touch of white embroidery.
As I walked toward her, I reminded myself that there was no reason to panic at the sight of her ghost—not after all the fear that we’d faced in the past few days. It wasn’t logical that I was shaking at the sight of my aunt’s peaceful ghost. I walked toward her, hesitantly, calling to her in a low voice: “Auntie.”
Her smile widened, and I spoke without thinking, “Please, I want to go back to Iraq. Please help me, help me. Help us all.”
She looked at me with sad eyes, and then glanced at the tent where my family was sleeping. I followed her gaze and, when I looked back, I didn’t find her. Why had she shown up? What show up to me and no one else? I told my brothers about her shade, but they were more concerned and unhappy about the situation in the camp, and they didn’t want to hear stories unbelievable-sounding stories about a dead aunt who we all thought we had left in Baghdad.
“Aqai Kaka Zada.”
The teacher’s voice was sharp and cold. It seemed he’d called me several times before the kid to my left elbowed me. I looked at the teacher as If I had been woken from a long sleep, pretending that I didn’t understand his question so that he would leave me alone. He lost patience and asked another student.
It had been two years since I’d gotten my new name, but I still wasn’t used to it. My brothers and I still called each other by our old names. Unfortunately, once again, we hadn’t been allowed to choose our new names. Suddenly, my name changed from Louay Majid Hussien al-Sa’agh to Omead Kahkah Zada. Wherever I went, people called me by my family name ,ignoring my first name, even though it was new and shiny and not overused.
Aqai Kaka Zada was like a dream from which I was unable to awaken; it was like the big prison into which we were thrown. They surrounded me with that name, which—overnight—had cancelled my identity, my past, and my childhood. My brothers’ Arabic names had changed to be more in line with the new environment and our new life. Sarmad became Farzeen, Muayyad was Dalshad, Laith was Farhad, and Akram was Kamran. My mother begged my father to let Akram keep his own name, since it was used by both cultures.
Nut my father shouted, “Akram here is a girl’s name! Do you want him to live among these people with a female name? Woman, I am doing this for you and your future.”
And even though my name—Omead—was a girl’s name in Arabic, ironically, in Kurdish, it meant Hope.
Years later, I came across an Iranian singer who was named Omead, and everyone called him by his first name—not his family name, as they did with me. I loved his beautiful voice, and I would get his tapes in secret, like smuggling drugs.
In later years, when the Islamic Republic allowed concerts as long as they were done in an Islamic way, I would’ve left the place and the love of music. What I didn’t know when I was still a teen who loved art—when I was thrown at the border and stripped of my past—was that the present was preparing me to surrender to a future that would gnash me, viciously, between its teeth. I also didn’t understand, back then, why my father was able to abandon the idea of going back to Iraq, and why he changed our names to real Iranian names that had deep nationalist meanings.
“There’s no going back, don’t put your hopes up,” he said. “Thank God they were generous and kept us alive.”
But what had we done, in the first place, to deserve having our lives stolen from us? My father’s cruel words destroyed our weak hopes, and our questions were left unanswered: Had there been a mistake? Would they come to regret it? Would they realize what they had done was wrong, and would they then ask us to come back?
I wondered how my father was able to forget and leave everything behind in Iraq in such a quick, simple way, as if he had never lived there.
We were Iraqi. We had a big house in one of the beautiful neighborhoods in Baghdad.
It was our home, Dad! The house that you’d worked so hard to buy and spent time and effort to make it tidy and elegant. A two-level house with a big front room and a kitchen—a kitchen that you’d brought in a special designer to make for my mother’s comfort. And we had a garden that faced the main road, which you oversaw, and you were so proud of the two palm trees that stood there. I remember how you held your head up proudly and said that you would plant more. You said that planting palm trees in the gardens gave the house a pure Iraqi look. I wonder why you surrendered without a fight, as if it was natural that you could build a great life and leave it so easily.
I was confused. I had questions and was unable to keep calm: Who was living in our house since we had left? Did my friends and schoolmates ask about me? Did they miss me, after I disappeared so suddenly from my desk? I was constantly questioning without having any mercy for myself.
Why was I sitting here, wearing this uniform, with these people whose language I hardly understood? Why had my father changed into such a cruel man, who told us off whenever he heard us calling each other by our old names, or whenever we spoke amongst ourselves in Arabic. And what was with his new weird accent? What happened to his nice Kurdish Baghdadi accent, which had merged a number of Arabic words? Where did it go? How could his tongue take on this heavy mountain accent, and where had he found this sudden flow of words—words that I had never heard before?
Hawra al-Nadawi was born in Baghdad to an Arab father and a Kurdish mother. Both her parents were political prisoners under Saddam Hussein, and she herself was imprisoned with her mother when she was six months old. The family left Iraq for Copenhagen in 1991. Her first novel, Under the Copenhagen Sky, was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2012.
Hend Saeed is an Arabic literature & cultural consultant, literary translator, reader, writer, and life coach, and also an editor-at-large for ArabLit. She also contributes to other publications and has published a collection of short stories.
This post was first published in ArabLit: ‘Born on the Wrong Side of the Border’