When my mother wanted to name me after her own mother, Saniha (Arabic for opportune), my grandmother objected; she wanted me to have what she always yearned for herself: a Kurdish name. Born in Istanbul in 1921, under the Ottoman Empire, she had a scholarly father, who wrote books on the history of Kurds and Kurdistan. My great grandfather, Mohamed Amin Zaki, snuck himself and his family, from a collapsing Empire, homeward bound to Sulaymaniyah.
Actually, that’s not true. I believed this until my mother corrected me recently. Instead, he was invited in 1930, like many Ottomans of ‘Iraqi’ origin, to join the newly establish Iraq government in Baghdad.
In any case, my great grandmother hung washing outside and prepared supper, so as not to arouse any suspicion from the neighbours, and my great grandfather insisted they take no more than what little they can carry. He was officially an Ottoman Commander and an accomplished cartographer, and above all, he was a proud Kurd who, according to my grandmother, destroyed his Ottoman medals of honour in anger and frustration; he wanted a Kurdish autonomous state, not to be an Ottoman subject.
My grandmother’s first language was Turkish, having grown up in Istanbul up until the age of 11 years, then Arabic at school in Baghdad. Although she taught herself Sorani Kurdish as a teen, her accent and simplicity of expression did not improve with age, as she hardly spoke the language with her Arab husband living in Baghdad, London then Beirut. To her, more reason to continuously declare her Kurdish-ness to all who cared to listen, reminding me to carry my name with pride, and enjoying my attempts to sing a somewhat patriotic Kurdish anthem her cousin composed as a teenager. With her background though, she was also somewhat confused: feeling more at ease speaking Turkish at home to her daughter, listening to Turkish maqam music and brandishing all Turks as a ‘cruel ruling people’ who continuously found ways to repress those under their power. A thin veil between love and hate.
The repression the Kurds have experienced is not exclusive to Turkey, which sadly continues today, but also from fellow country folk at home in Iraq. I was a child in Baghdad, when Halabja happened. I’m not sure how else to name that — incident? Tragedy? Genocide. These are words, incapable of carrying the horror experienced. Those who woke up, on Friday 16th March 1988, did not expect to be attacked outside their homes, on their way to school, holding their babies in arm… images that haunted me as an adult, when I came to see them in the distance and safety of London.
I have since questioned my mother, who was teaching in Baghdad at the time; how did she allow herself to remain in Ba’thist ruled Iraq after this? She always looks a little dazed, saying: ‘We didn’t really know the extent of what happened, it was underplayed, we just got on with our lives as best we could in those days. I was legally bound to stay in my job, and travel was forbidden. What could I do but simply avoid thinking and feeling, as many had grown accustomed to doing then?’
It’s easy for me to fantasize about what I would have done in her place. Maybe repeated history to escape out of Iraq, to seek refuge elsewhere and start afresh. In reality, I sit here, on a gloomy Sunday evening in London, feeling grateful to have the luxury to blend recollection, reflection and imaginings. Who did what, and which gases were used in Halabja seem another set of details to preoccupy the mind, and keep emotions switched off. Though today, I do not want to forget. I am switched on to contemplate those who were taken away too soon- Halabja and by extension, all over in Iraq before and since- and to acknowledge the (somewhat renowned) Kurdish pride that forms part of a legacy I have been passed down in bits.
Today, when I think of the Kurds, Halabja continues to feature high on my top 5 list of identifiers. This genocide sits alongside colourful traditional costumes, paper-thin bread used to neatly pick-up rice, green and mountainous images of Kurdish landscapes I browse on Instagram, as well as clips of singing and music-making all over Youtube. I feel proud of the courageous fighting Kurdish women and men against Da’esh, and am reminded of my childhood fantasy of marrying a peshmerga! These are a people who have historically tasted the edge of existence, and who choose to grab life and dance with it as if tomorrow does not exist. A grand generalization, a fantasy perhaps, though something to keep my roots alive. The reality is, Kurds, like their neighbouring Arabs, are both victims and survivors of generations of violence.
My grandmother chose three potential Kurdish names for me: Peri (angel), Joanne (beautiful) and Tara (a bride’s face veil). These were written on three separate pieces of paper, folded and placed in a hat. My brother, a toddler at the time, was asked to pick one piece, and here I am, a recent bride who ironically refused the stereotypical dress and veil at my own wedding. I always wished my name had more substance, like Azad (liberty) or Ariya (from fire), or possibly Sheelan, after a beautiful classmate at school, though the metaphor of a thin veil dividing (and connecting) time and space remains with me.
Working with Iraq Body Count on Iraq Digital Memorial, with the aim of recording lives lost from 2003 until today, I have witnessed much of the aftermath of death. I sat with a mother who lost a son, a daughter her mother, sisters their brother, and all do not see the event, the date, ethnicity or religion, but the loss of their loved one. I sit with the veil that can symbolize a lot, including a threshold between the present and the past, memories and fantasies, death and the resilience of life. How can we commemorate? How to reflect with respect and compassion? How to draw lessons from the past, whilst moving forward towards something more?
The Attack on Halabja
Halabja is a city located in Iraqi Kurdistan, 240 km north-east of Baghdad, close to the Iranian border.
On March 16, 1988, more than 5,000 people were killed, and 10,000 wounded as a result of a chemical weapons attack carried out by the Saddam Hussein regime.
In March 2006, residents of Halabja destroyed during a protest against poor services delivered by the Kurdish Regional Government and the continued exploitation of the massacre by Kurdish politicians.
My grandmother, a year or so before she died in 2009, declared: I am Iraqi first, Kurdish second. A statement that says more about her frustration at the disunity of Iraqis today, than a faltering Kurdish identity. When a fellow member of the Iraqi Transnational Collective, a group of Iraqis coming together in the diaspora to discuss Iraq, suggested someone write a piece to commemorate 28 years since Halabja, I felt the confused, yet eager pangs of my ancestry call. I don’t have answers to the questions I posed, except to take the chance to pause, reflect, talk, write, share, all in the hope that we remember, lest we forget.