A Reflection on the Book, Runaway to Nowhere
March 1, 2011
“I thank God that I was born a Greek and not a Barbarian, that I came to this world as a free person and not a slave, and that I was born a man and not a woman.”
Last summer I was reading My People, The Story of the Jews by Abba Eban. I wanted to see what the Israeli statesman would say about his people’s journey into statehood. The fact that Henry Kissinger had spoken highly of him, saying that, of all his interlocutors, only Eban had reminded the American Secretary of State that English was not his mother tongue, had predisposed me to expect not just an instructive tale, but also an entertaining one. Call me a snob if you will, but I like my meals not just for their nutritional value, but also for their taste. Abba Eban, as Dr. Kissinger had observed, delivered on both counts.
But he also had a surprise for me: In a chapter titled “The Jewish World Today,” he describes the Israeli version of E Pluribus Unum and states that, in modern Israel of 1960s (his book was published in 1968), one could easily run into “a Yemenite coppersmith, a Johannesburg doctor, a Polish professor, a Moroccan shopkeeper, an Argentinean student, a Kurdish porter, …” A Kurdish porter! I could not believe my eyes. I guess I should have counted my blessings that I was not reading Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Imagine running into a sentence that said: the lowest ring of Hell is reserved for the Kurds! Just like on our earth!!
Right around that time, as if I needed a jolt to rouse me from my melancholic state, I got an email from someone with a Kurdish sounding name asking me to review her book for the English speaking Kurds and their friends. A Kurdish writer. … It definitely sounded better than a Kurdish porter. I wrote her back and requested a copy. I left her with the impression that I would do my best to be a Kurdish reviewer … of her book. I am sorry that it has taken me this long to get to it. Far from making excuses, I am only going to tell you of a charming Jewish saying: “Man makes plans, God laughs!”
I have, it is official now, put a stop to God’s laughter at my expense for the time being. I have finished Qasham Ali Balata’s book, Runaway To Nowhere. It is, as far as I know, the first of its kind: a Kurdish novel in the language of Charles Dickens. It is about love. It is about war. It is about the haplessness of the Kurdish woman. It is about the cruelty of the Kurdish man. It is about the brutality of Arabs. It is about the fickleness of “Great Powers.” It is about the dearth of virtue. It is about the absence of honor. And yes, it is also about the transience of freedom.
These are hefty subjects. You are probably reading this on the run and I should, lest I lose you, start off with some levity perhaps. Here are a few nuggets that should bring smiles to your face as they did to mine! I bet you had no idea that Kurdish mothers pick daughters for their sons at funeral wakes! I didn’t and I spent close to twenty years of my life in Kurdistan. They do so, one character tells us in the book, to avoid an ugly bride, for in Kurdish weddings, the Kurdish maidens put on a lot of make up.
Here is another tidbit that should bring a grin to the face of every American woman who may be reading this review. If you date a Kurdish man, he will never let you pay for your meals! Full disclosure: I did so for at least five years when I embraced the cold of exile in Canada. But don’t turn my lapse into a characteristic of the Kurds; the book is a better authority on the topic. If you are a western woman suffering from the effects of the distressed economy but would love to indulge yourself, don’t wait for the proverbial prince on a white horse: say yes to your Kurdish colleague who has been asking you out. And here, you can take my word for it, in Kurdish, we don’t have the words for “date rape.” It is a habit we can do without to feel “up to date!”
While that thought may be reassuring to the womenfolk, please don’t jump to the conclusion that you should envy the lot of the Kurdish woman. God forbid, if a Kurdish husband ever becomes rich! Here is an observation from a character in the novel: “When a Kurd gets rich, he either kills somebody or gets a second wife.” This is no idle talk. It makes you want to pray for the Kurds that they will never become rich lest they become criminals or polygamists. But it looks like your prayers are not necessary. The Arabs, the Turks and the Persians are in charge of the Kurdish economy. The Middle East is enjoying its peace.
I have so far dangled some baubles before your eyes, and would like to, now, tell you about the novel itself. It is a war drama. It starts off in a place called Mosul. For those of you who don’t know of the place, it is a dusty city on the banks of Tigris. But for the narrator, a Kurdish woman, who attends its university, it comes close to being idyllic. Initially, you are thrown off by the incongruence of the comparison, but soon you realize that even Nome, Alaska would have qualified for the same description. The reason: it is away from home. Dear reader: if you are a Kurdish father or mother, please consider doing me a favor. Send your offspring to Siberia for college. If my request means nothing to you, remember the old saying, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder, and familiarity breeds contempt.”
At the university itself, five female students share a room. Four are Kurds; one is an Arab. The Kurds are from Dohuk and the Arab is from Basra. They cook for each other and care for one another. Yes, they do talk about the boys, but no, they never get drunk or face sexile to accommodate frat boys. Handholding is the extent of their intimacy. Daydreaming or night dreaming does the rest for them. Although a war is looming in the horizon, don’t expect any talk about sports from these young women. I also didn’t see any references to professors that rock their world. Even their imagination, you can’t help but notice, is stunted.
The war does come. The students disperse to their respective cities. Saddam Hussein is dislodged from Kuwait in less than 100 hours. President Bush feels invincible. Thinking that his nod is enough to topple a dictator, he urges the peoples of Iraq to show a pink slip to the Butcher of Baghdad. The Shiites in the South and the Kurds in the North do exactly that — mistaking the American president’s statement as a form of support. They pay sorely for it. The Shiites are slaughtered. The Kurds take to their only “friends,” the mountains. Nareen, the narrator, becomes the reluctant chronicler of this mass exodus. In wars, Macaulay once observed, people live fast lives. Nareen’s account bears witness to it.
Unlike the Red Sea that parts to accommodate another emergency for another people, the Kurdish mountains remain impervious to the larger drama of its children. In the words of one character, they devour especially “children under three years old and [the] elderly.” Cold wears the robes of the angel of death. Hunger and thirst aid and abet and thousands are lowered into shallow makeshift graves. You can’t help but remember your Thomas Hobbes from college. Life, as the English philosopher once so memorably put it, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” in the spring of 1991 in what is today known as Iraqi Kurdistan.
Do you want examples? Omed, a little boy of three or four years old, is abandoned by his parents. If you are a parent, you want to say NO, no such thing could ever happen to my relatives, much less to my own child. Count your blessings. Pray to God that war has not knocked on your door for a visit. There is also an irony in the story: the boy’s name means “hope” in Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic and Persian. Although forsaken by God, Omed survives — miraculously one should add — and reunites with his family. It is not something that you expect given the circumstances. If he were real and I were him, I would have changed my name to Omed X. Nothing less would have expressed my anger.
In the novel, Nareen makes a reference to Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Since I have not read the novel, I couldn’t place it in the context of the unfolding Kurdish drama. Is it that love conquers it all? The most moving part of the Kurdish novel comes, not when Karwan, Nareen’s boyfriend, writes her love letters, but when the Kurdish Peshmerga forces liberate Kurdistan, if only for a short while. Can it be that liberation and love are one and the same? It reminded me of a passage in Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography, Hitch – 22: “I am sorry for those who have never had the experience of seeing the victory of a national liberation movement, and I feel cold contempt for those who jeer at it.”
Since I have told you of the most moving part of the book, I should also tell you of its most revolting passage. It belongs to two Kurdish girls, Meyan and Berivan, who are exchanged to marry each other’s fathers. Both are in their teens. Neither one is consulted. Meyan marries Berivan’s father, who has six kids. Berivan marries Meyan’s father, who has seven. If you don’t think this is gross, Meyan is in love with Ari, a friend and a relative. She tells Nareen, “Any time [my husband] touches me … I get sick and throw up.”
Considering that I want you to be a potential reader of this book, (yes, think of yourself as “an American reader” … if you will), honesty compels me to share with you a few other morsels about it. If you have ever wanted to know how to make Dolmas, one of the most popular dishes of the Kurdish cuisine, you are in luck — Nareen tells you how to do it.
Remember, I told you how President Bush had urged the Kurds to put the Butcher of Baghdad out of work and then gone AWOL. I was expecting Nareen to pull off a Malcolm X when she encountered her first American in flesh and blood. Nothing of the sort happens. If there were a Richter scale for anger, there were no tremors. Even in fiction, the Kurdish woman is incapable of rage. Is this normal? Has fear erased anger from the psychology of the Kurds? I think it behooves us Kurds to look into this.
I will end with a wish from Nareen. It is part of her conversation with Emily, her sole American friend, a photojournalist who has joined her ranks to chronicle the story of the Kurds. I wish, she says, that we had “a united Kurdish state — a wish that will continue to live in my heart and the hearts of millions of Kurds across the globe. And personally, I wish to find Karwan soon and get married and have four children.”
There isn’t anything anyone could do for the second part of Nareen’s wish, for her Karwan becomes a martyr in the cause of Kurdistan. But we could perhaps help Nareen with the purchase of this book since she glorifies the emancipation of the Kurds. Oh, one last thing: I have nothing against the porters. Work is sacred so long as it serves a useful purpose. What I am against is the expectation or classification that all Kurds should accept life as such. Nareen doesn’t think so; we shouldn’t either.