The unbearable weight of being Kurdish

Ava Homa’s powerful debut novel “Daughters of Smoke and Fire” tells the story of Leila Saman, growing up in Mariwan, Iran, a mainly Kurdish city of 90,000 people about 15 km from the Iraqi border.

The book opens on the day five-year-old Leila’s brother Chia is born, which happens to be March 16, 1988 - the day Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched a chemical attack on Halabja, killing thousands of people, mostly Kurds, and injuring thousands more with nerve agents and mustard gas in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war.

Halabja happens to be the hometown of Leila’s father, who ends up weeping on the day his only son is born. Immediately the reader gets the sense that few moments of joy in this world will go unsullied by darkness.

“One of the things you learn as a Kurd is that even when you have a little bit of joyful time, happy time, some freedom, it is going to crash,” Homa told Ahval in a podcast.

Since its publication in May, Homa’s novel has received mostly rave reviews. The Independent described it as “blisteringly powerful” and named it one of the best books of May, while former U.S. ambassador Peter Galbraith called it “one of the best books to come out of the Near East in a long time”.

Grief and suffering are as regular as the sunrise in Homa’s Kurdistan. Leila’s grandfather watches Iraqi authorities wipe out his family. Then Leila’s father sees friends and relatives hung in prison, before finally Leila herself sees the person she’s closest to executed.

Homa, who fled Iran at age 24, has written that growing up Kurdish in Iran she learned at a young age that being alive was an act of subversion, that her life meant next to nothing to the state or the police - the very people whose responsibility it was to protect her.

“It’s a question that you deal with from the moment you learn your name, you know that you belong to this group that has been targeted for annihilation,” she said. “You are wondering, ‘Why? How can I make meaning out of it? Why am I so hated? How can I be strong?’”

Homa’s novel examines how the four members of the Saman family - Leila, her brother Chia, her father Alan and her mother Hana - grapple with being a Kurd in Kurdistan in different ways, and how their reactions to their world ripple out to affect others.

“Daughters of Smoke and Fire” is one of the first novels written in English by a Kurdish woman, and as the book opens five-year-old Leila recalls her father explaining to her that women are worth half as much as men under Iranian law. Years later, after a desperate teenage Leila throws herself in front of a speeding car, her mother’s main concern when she visits her in the hospital is not her daughter’s physical and mental well-being - both of which are seriously compromised - but whether her virginity is intact.

The generation of Kurdish women born in the 1950s and 1960s sometimes accidentally served as agents of the patriarchy, believing they were protecting their daughters even as they kept them from living. When not writing, Homa helps organise and run suicide prevention workshops for Iranian women, and she’s found they are often driven by their parents to seriously consider the most drastic measure possible.

“The people who are supposed to shelter and protect you become in a way agents of the state by bringing that oppression inside the home,” said Homa. “You cannot be a hypocrite. If you want justice and freedom, then you want to bring justice and freedom to your own house first.”

Shiler, one of the novel’s most compelling characters, finds her own sort of freedom. Born in prison, she rebels all through childhood and ends up going to the Qandil mountains to join the Peshmerga. She represents the sort of 21st century Kurdish woman who might lead a battalion of militants into battle against the Islamic State or oversee Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Yet even these women face issues of identity and empowerment.

“On the one hand, yes you are fighting side by side with your man to protect Kurdistan,” she said. “On the other hand you are fighting something within yourself - the voice that told you from the moment you are born there is a ceiling to how much you can achieve.”

This type of Kurdish woman was crucial to the creation of Rojava, the autonomous region of northeast Syria founded in late 2013 amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, which Homa sees as a sort of beacon.

“Everything we dreamed for and fought for was finally possible,” she said, pointing to the region’s famed gender equality and bottom-up power structure, its prohibition on under-age marriage, forced marriage and polygamy. “It wasn’t perfect, wasn’t beyond criticism, but it was really the best thing to happen to Kurds.”

The existence of Rojava has brought Kurds closer together, underscoring the potential of their struggle and the fact that Kurdish solidarity stretches beyond borders.

“The happiness and achievement of Rojava was for all of us, the same way the Dersim massacre or Halabja massacre was everyone’s pain, regardless of borders,” said Homa.

In Dersim, or Turkey’s Tunceli province, Turkish authorities killed tens of thousands of Kurdish people in 1937-38, an event that made it crystal clear Kurds were unlikely to ever feel comfortable in any of the four states Western powers placed them in the wake of the First World War, setting them on the path to violent rebellion.

That it happened in Turkey may help explain why Turkish Kurds have in many ways led the fight against Kurds’ oppressors. The fact that Turkey is home to the world’s largest Kurdish population - an estimated 17 million Kurds, compared to some 10 million in Iran, 7 million in Iraq, and 3 million in Syria - likely also played a role.

Homa’s novel at one point mentions the Kurds in "Bakur”, the “north” in Kurdish, whose villages were burned and whose women were raped by the Turkish army. This is a clear reference to the state’s response to the insurgency launched by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the early 1980’s, and which continues today. Earlier, Leila’s father describes Kurds in Turkey as hopeless.

“We look up to them,” said Homa. “We are amazed by how much they have been able to accomplish not only by standing up to state oppression but also by changing their society.”

She pointed to the women co-leaders of the HDP, the influence of jailed former HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş and the way Kurdish leaders in Turkey stand up not just for Kurdish rights, but for human rights, for diversity and democratic plurality. 

“Their ability to move beyond nationalism, their ability to organise themselves, even in the diaspora there is a sense of deep admiration and respect for Kurds from Bakur,” she said. “There is a real sense of aspiring to them, not just today but even in history, they have always been more advanced in women’s rights and they have been braver in standing up for their own rights.”

Thanks to their brutally painful and difficult history, Homa believes Kurds have become masters of rising from the ashes - a sentiment that nicely sums up Leila’s story. Despite the Turkish incursion launched last year, Rojava still exists today.

Despite Turkey’s recent military offensive, the Peshmerga and the PKK remain headquartered in the Qandil mountains.

And despite the vast and continuing crackdown by the Turkish government, the HDP continues to fight for the rights of Kurds and all oppressed people in Turkey.

The lesson might be that Kurdish oppressors tend to use similar methods and tend to fail in silencing their foes.

“When you look at Machiavelli’s instructions, they are the same things the Iranian government or the Turkish government are applying today,” said Homa. “In this sense they are not original. We are capable of rising above these things if we believe we don’t deserve the way we are treated.”