(A copy of this review also appeared on rudaw, a Kurdish online newspaper.)
November 18, 2011
A new novel about the Kurds has hit the bookstores. Sophie Hardach is its author. She is German, but her book is in English. Because most diaspora Kurds live in Germany, because I like the way German mind works (just look at the way their cars work) and because Kurds could always learn something useful these days from the observation of others, I ordered my own copy, “The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages”. I have now finished reading it. It is critical of the Kurds — I liked it; I don’t like it when Kurds praise themselves to the skies with nothing to show for it. It speaks of the cold of exile from the experience of someone who has actually lived it — a good writer can do that; watch out for her other promising books in the near future. It tackles the themes of idealism and cynicism too, alas, I saw more of the latter than the former. And I was in for a surprise as well, Islamophobia, a subject that I had hardly associated with the Kurds and Kurdistan, until now, that is.
The protagonist of the novel is a Kurdish boy named Selim. The narrator, a spunky and feisty German woman, introduces him to us when he is swimming to the shores of Italy in Adriatic. For reasons that are entirely not clear, he and his companions have disembarked at a spot where raw sewage is dumped into the sea. Is it because the border police think no one could possibly stand the stench of the slime of Italians? In front of the Kurds beckon the shores of freedom and behind them the memories of loved ones who have been tortured, sometimes to death, in Turkish prisons. And no, the sea doesn’t part for these forsaken children of God. With nothing to lose but their miserable lives, they dash for the firm land and actually make it. But liberty’s wages have always been high and a Kurdish baby named Evin, meaning love in English, becomes lifeless in the passage. Her parents place the dead body in a shallow grave on the beach, cover it with sand, and move on. You can’t help but admire the Kurds for their stoicism. And the writer does.
Selim eventually makes it to Germany. He is placed in an asylum house not for the insane but the stateless among whose denizens are Nigerians who are claiming to be Liberians and Egyptians who pass as Palestinians. The Nigerians and the Egyptians are discovered and deported, but Selim, because he is a minor and indeed stateless, is allowed to stay till his case is adjudicated. In the meantime, the authorities think he should learn German. He is registered at the local high school. Not knowing the languge of Germans, he feels lost and sticks out like a sore thumb. Some Turkish hoodlums gang up on him and actually beat him. Five years later, his case is decided. When he is 18, he must be deported. While he is still 17, he is introduced to the narrator of the book, a politically sensitive German girl, for a possible marriage of convenience to thwart the government’s plan to deport him. She goes for it. Selim is happy, but somehow doesn’t think his happiness will hold.
Reading the story thus far, you cannot help but admire the German girl for her act of solidarity. You get curious about her character. She is not shy to supply the answer. At one point in her narration, she talks of a fellow German called Carl, who helps refugees like Selim, saying, “He actually puts up Kurdish refugees in his flat, after they have gone underground, so they won’t be deported. I mean how many people do that? Everyone’s always, like, oh, if I had lived under the Nazis I would have hidden all my Jewish neighbors and I would have been such a saint, but right now how many people actually go and offer food and shelter or really any kind of basic help to people who face deportation? Like, who does that? We don’t, right?” And at another, speaking of herself, she says, “Like many teenagers, I had long been into politics. Not party politics, which I wrote off as corrupt and boring, but the politics of values: justice, equality, freedom.”
Finally you say, or at least I did, here is an unblemished mind fully dedicated to doing her share to right the wrongs that have been piled on the Kurds. In addition to helping the sole Kurd, she becomes an anarchist and colors her hair green, to express solidarity with the Green movement? she doesn’t say, and takes part in demonstrations against the storage of radioactive waste on German soil. When confronted with the police, while blocking the railroad tracks that is, she has her fellow anarchist, Julian, say, “If you don’t respect our lives, we don’t respect your laws.” Imagine this motto becoming a slogan in the mouths of the Kurds in Turkey, the place that continues to torment Selim even when he is in Germany. But I am getting ahead of myself here. Going back to our narrator, unlike most Germans, she is not afraid of her country’s Nazi past and talks of it when the occasion calls for it.
In 1989, she writes, the authorities in her school decided to change the name of her high school from Gymnasium to Heinrich-Heine-Schule. Heinrich Heine, she tells her English readers, was a Jewish poet. And she doesn’t just stop there. She also points out that the ceremony for the name change overflowed with “heartfelt hypocrisy” and was 45 years too late. Heartfelt hypocrisy! I liked the phrase at first sight. I think it could be used for a tombstone of someone like the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Imagine reading, here lies a mortal who championed the rights of Palestinians to a state of their own but denied the same right to the Kurds under his care and died of heart attack due to utter hypocrisy. Again, forgive me for the digression; I just couldn’t help it. In Nazi years, the narrator goes on to add, the school was named after the fuhrer, Adolf-Hitler-Schule. But for the high school to get its prewar name, Heinrich-Heine-Schule, it had to endure not just a war, but also the prejudices of a generation that lingered around for the next 45 years.
I realize that I have so far spoken primarily of the narrator and things mainly German and would like to now tell you of Selim, the Kurdish character, who is psychoanalyzed as if he were on Freud’s famous couch. Initially, I thought it was too intrusive; eventually, I realized it was cathartic. Kurds should pay heed to the narrator of Sophie Hardach. She is critical, but not mean. She loses her idealism; Selim’s part in it is not inconsequential. Tennyson once wrote, “I am part of all that I have met.” The narrator, by the time she divorces Selim, has become a little bit like him and here is the harder question: has Selim become a little bit like her? At times, you want to say, yes. At other times, you are not sure. If the question were posed to the narrator, her answer would have been a categorical no. Selim’s answer would have been, probably, a maybe. What follows is how I see their interaction, as a Kurdish activist. Until you read the book, you are going to have to put up with my observation.
Although theirs is a make believe marriage, like its real counterpart, it has its taxing moments. Dr. Habicht, the attorney representing Selim, needs to be discreet, as do the partners of this fake union, the narrator and the Kurd. They have to have a real address and the immigration authorities have to be notified of their every move. After her graduation from high school, the narrator moves to France to attend a university in Paris. The French, she finds out, are not as intrusive as the Germans to her great relief. Her friends, when she tells them of Selim, find it exotic that she has a Kurdish connection. But Selim, inured to bad news, the narrator tells us, never thought the union, even on paper, would ever be consummated. Once married, he does his share to keep up appearances. But the German stickiness for rules almost brings down this house of cards. Selim moves to a new place, but forgets to notify the authorities. The narrator is asked about it when she is renewing her passport, but manages to make up for Selim’s carelessness. The fact that the narrator has to lie about her marital status year after year gets to her. In one angry outburst, she says, “There was the simple fact that my freedom, my not being arrested, entirely depended on a group of insiders keeping their word and being discreet. In particular, it depended on the competence and organization of someone I knew to be neither competent nor organized: Selim.”
As if Selim’s carelessness was not enough, 9/11 intervenes. The narrator is in Paris and receives a text message from Julian urging her to check the news. The news doesn’t need elaboration in these pages. What needs to be related though is Lucien’s reaction, at the time the boyfriend of the narrator, who says, “I can tell you one thing, all those movements, Chechnya, Basque Country, all the separatists, they’re finished. America and Europe will say you’re on your own now, and anything your government wants to do to you, we keep away, that’s all over.” History, alas, has proven him right. At the time, I had argued the opposite thinking that the smart Americans would equate their happiness with the greater freedoms in the world. Not just Bush, but Obama too have been the relentless purveyors of violence between the Turks and the Kurds. Although the narrator attests that the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, made it to the list of terrorist organizations after that fateful day, she is only half right. The United States had already blacklisted the organization; the European Union took some lobbying. The White House needed Turkey in its effort to crush the noxious regime in Afghanistan. Ankara demurred. Nothing salivates the Turkish rulers more than the blood of the Kurds. The European Union’s classification of the Kurdish group as a terrorist group followed suit.
There is also a reference to Selim’s love life. He and a German girl called Dynasty hit it off well and Selim thinks reading her Ehmede Xani, the Shakespeare of the Kurds, may ingratiate him to her. Dynasty can’t really follow Xani’s lines, she is not as much into poetry, but she enjoys Selim’s company and plays along as if she does. They get together again and often, but Selim is uneasy. Fortune has hardly been kind to him and he is not sure if this time it will be any different. Reflecting on it, the narrator thinks aloud for him, saying, “… to think that he would be happy not only today, but tomorrow too, and next month too … that was asking for trouble. That was upsetting the natural order of things, in which Selim was always the loser. Surely, it could not last.”
It doesn’t with Dynasty; they go their separate ways. And after seven years, Selim ends up getting his permanent residency in Germany and divorces the narrator to end their union. The narrator is single again but can never part from her experience of Selim. She too is thoughtful. At another part of the book, she speaks her mind, but one could easily replace “mind” with experience. She says, “As children we didn’t yet understand what was happening in the world; as adults, we no longer cared. As teenagers, we still thought we could change the weather.” It is a damning statement. The narrator has lost her spunkiness and feistiness. Like Selim, she has become inured to the bad news. It is not the parting thought that I wanted from the book, but it was its most poignant passage. Perhaps it says something about a Europe that has lost faith in itself. If so, its Islamophobia may be a reaction to it, a theme I never got a chance to explore, which I hope you will do yourself with the purchase of the book.