June 26, 2018
Maybe it’s not the place you begin that is most important, but where you become the best version of yourself
I WAS BORN IN AN INNOCENT VILLAGE OUTSIDE THE CITY OF ARBIL, KURDISTAN, Iraq, and almost since that very day the story of my life has revolved around journeys. They are not all exclusively literal, although many are. Most of them, however, are accompanied by journeys of the mind seeking improvement, revelation, consolation and peace—in other words, a home. A sovereign, democratic country, I believe, is the accumulation of millions of journeys undertaken by those inhabiting it. My story, to that extent, is as much a Canadian journey as any other. It is Canada’s acceptance that has given it more meaning. It is important to enlighten people about how difficult it can be to make these journeys of self-discovery without the freedom of a country such as Canada to support them. I want to show how Canada helped accept my journey, and how through this acceptance helped to reaffirm my identity as a writer, father, and human being.
The inherent meaning of journey is that of travel (a concept that has also played a great part in my life), but the deeper meaning of journey has to do with the changes in one’s life, or in my case surviving great distances of feelings and beliefs. Changes in geographical locations are significant, most of all in our souls. Our minds and our hearts journey from despair to joy, from freedom of belief to physically forced restraints against expressing one’s opinion. So, no matter what implications can be assumed, I will limit myself to what is so fascinating to me about the journeys I have taken. Our journeys may not be perfect, they may be filled with difficult moments and times when we may not wish to continue, but our ability to take these emotional journeys is in itself beautiful. They give us the opportunity to change, to expand, to see new things, and to consider new ideas. All of my journeys were unique, but all ended in one common factor—the person taking them changed.
My village, Ahkafsaqa, was a place without electricity; there I learned about and experienced the simplicity of life. Often, I would ask my mother which day I was born, and as a token of that simplicity, she would not answer with a date, but she would say “you were born when the grass was turning green, and the flowers were beginning to bloom.” This spring birthday, as were so many things, was taken away by the Iraqi government which gave me, and many other Kurdish people, July 1 as our official birthday. I was seven years old when they opened a school in my village. Attending this school became my first internal journey, one towards knowledge and self-improvement. Unfortunately, the beginning of this first journey was short-lived. The Iraqi regime sent two warplanes at the crack of dawn, when only the village’s shepherds were awake—two of them were the first victims of the fire bombing. The noise alerted the rest of the us, and we took cover and fled. The adults had heard about the regime’s tactics when destroying a village like ours; the war planes would be followed by a bombardment of distant missile strikes that would level the village, making it easy for the coming infantry to clear out the Kurdish fighters or capture those who stayed or were too injured to flee. Every family went in different directions. We never returned. That school, like my birthday, was taken away from me by a regime I had never provoked.
My home as a child was constantly crowded. It was the nature of Kurdish homes, and of mine in particular, to accommodate numerous siblings, married or single, under one roof, along with various other relatives. The school was my refuge, a place where even as a young child I was able to escape into reading and writing. The destruction of what was to me a sacred place would become a common theme in my life, in which the very pieces of my identity that I would time and time again attempt to cling to would be taken away from me.
Our village no longer inhabitable, my family and I were forced to travel to Arbil, one of Kurdistan’s biggest cities. When we arrived early one morning, the city was slowly waking up. There were so many cars on the road and the style of the houses was new to me; each one had light. I soon realized each home had it own lights. I had never seen this before.
Slowly, our life began again. My parents were nervous about our new life, but I wasn’t like my parents and gradually the city became home to me. This would be another journey, from a familiar life in a village where I knew all of my neighbours, developing an identity that was a reflection of every street corner and alley, to a city I knew nothing about. The transition was difficult not only for me, but for my whole family. I attempted to take refuge again at school, and developed an interest in literature. In high school, the home I inhabited grew even more crowded with the addition of new siblings. I had, at that point, one older brother, four younger brothers and two younger sisters under the same roof. It was quite obvious I would need to go to the library if I wanted to get any studying done.
The Hawler Public Library was a magnificent and peaceful building, and in its quiet shelves I could escape the crowdedness of reality. The library was built in 1940, before the Baath party came to power. You would enter the grey building through a small front garden that led you to a revolving glass door. This was the first of its kind in Kurdistan, and people would come simply for the amusement of walking through that revolving door. Once inside, you were greeted by the silence of the reading hall that featured the tallest ceiling of any building I had been inside. Every wall was covered with shelves of books. At the front of the reading hall, people would sit for hours at beautiful, thick oak desks, studying or reading or writing. When I did not feel like reading I would wander through the rows and rows of book shelves past the reading hall.
It was in this library in the early 1970s that I established and cultivated my love of literature and began perhaps the most defining journey of my life. At that time there was only one bookstore in the city so this library was the only resource for me to read literature. It was my most beloved place. There the reading of literature slowly turned into a love of writing poetry. I admit that it was partly initially motivated by a desire to attract women. When that failed, I decided to write for myself. Through poetry I explored the range and complexity of human emotions, the nature of the world around me and my own struggle, as a Kurd, for freedom of expression.
My writing and thirst for knowledge were denied by a brutal and fascistic regime that censored and dictated what was to be learned and what could be written. Like life under the Nazis, writers were never respected for their work if it did not amount to propaganda that could be used to push political policies. Publishing anything that did not support or was not liked by the regime could lead to time in prison. This proved to be a difficult life for a young writer striving to experience different feelings and ideas. Despite this intense pressure, I tried to continue my journey as a writer. My first book of poetry, Dancing in the Evening Snow, was rejected three times by the Iraqi censorship committee. It was published in 1979, but only after many changes. The censors removed many poems and altered not only many of my words but also my feelings.
In 1986, I returned to the Hawler Public Library in an unexpected way: I stepped through that revolving door as a prisoner of the regime’s secret police. My sanctuary inside that building, where I’d enjoyed beautiful books and expanded my world, was now a 35-centimetre-high crawl space where I was allowed to sleep between a routine of beatings and a life in handcuffs. I was being used as a reminder to those who would dare to think critically or optimistically about democracy, freedom of expression or another way of life. I was being used to tell them that their thoughts and imaginations were under persecution. The physical transformation of the library into a jail, not full of tables and carrels, but holding cells and torture chambers, was symbolic of the ever-growing influence of the Baath regime on all facets of our lives. I felt this deeply, being imprisoned in the place that was once my salvation from everyday worries. I had committed no crime by human standards, but attempting to continue on a journey that sought out freedom was crime enough for the Iraqi regime.
After two years in this prison, without a trial or lawyer, I was pardoned on Saddam Hussein’s birthday along with hundreds of others as a sign of his “humility.” The fear of this inhuman treatment never left me. I explored the idea of undertaking a new journey, one that would free me of the confines of the Iraqi dictatorship. I trusted smugglers to help me cross borders and find a safe refuge in a western country. Initially, after claiming refugee status through the United Nations, I was given sanctuary in the United States. I remembered my geography teacher telling me about a distant place called Canada, about forests that spanned unimaginably vast territories. I always wondered if someone lost in these forests could find their way out. I was compelled to experience this for myself and even after being told I would be forced to wait longer under awful conditions as a refugee in Turkey to get to Canada, I committed to it. After 11 difficult months in Turkey, I was sponsored by the Canadian government and able to come to Edmonton in 1998. Gradually, the new landscapes, huge forests and other elements appeared my writing. I realized that my geography teacher was right about Canada: there are more trees than people. In Canada, I was able to again fully pursue my literary journey, now in a country where there has always been and still is freedom of expression.
I tried to learn the English language, find a job, and publish newly written books. This allowed my mind to roam for new ideas. Not only did Canada let me expand as a writer, it also confirmed and comforted me as a father and husband in a new society. My new life as a Canadian-Kurdish writer gave me not only a free life but also the ability to express myself. I have been on my journey as a writer my whole life. In the early days, this path was filled with hazards and stop signs warning me not to explore what I longed to explore. It wasn’t until I came to Canada that these boundaries and borders were removed and I was able to publish my books. Not only was I given the ability to write what I wanted without constant censorship, I was also honoured for my ability to write In 2007, I was named PEN Canada’s first Writer in Exile, providing me with one year of exploring ideas with other writers, and a year to share in their journeys and to add to mine.
And my journey brought me full circle in important ways. I was given an office in the Edmonton Public Library. This library was noisier than the one I fell in love with in Hawler, but this time I went to the library as a free writer. It also seemed to have more life. Occasionally, it occurs to me that this may have had more to do with the difference in my circumstances than in the differences in the libraries. I went from being imprisoned for my ideas to being hired to write about them. This was a favourable change. During this time, I was paid by the University of Alberta Press to write and publish two books. One was a prison memoir, The Man in Blue Pajamas, about my life under Saddam Hussein. It was exciting for me to go to my office every day and smell coffee from the cafés on the ground floor. It smelled like freedom.
But it wasn’t always easy. It was challenging to reshape my books from the original language and cultural context into a new language and cultural context. I still had the scraps of papers which I had written on and had smuggled out of prison, and which I carried with me when I crossed borders. I kept these on my desk in the Edmonton Public Library, and when I looked at them I remembered the harsh, horrible, tragic period I had been through. On the other hand, creating art with words and emotion from my dark past was a blessing and a relief.
Another difficulty was that I have written poetry since 1970, poetry in which I used few words to create a blank canvas on which a reader can paint with his own mind. Now I was also writing non-fiction, which meant that every piece of a story had to be told in detail. And I faced challenges to find myself as a non-fiction writer. I found that when I wrote non-fiction my life didn’t go chronologically from birth to childhood to adulthood; nothing progressed in a straight line. I have been a refugee, always on the move. My life has been lived in pieces, and turning these pieces into a readable story for western readers was another challenge. As was finding a Kurdish translator!
Some days, I sat back and thought, I guess I should thank Saddam for putting me in prison and supplying me with the life experiences to write my prison memoir.
It is difficult to be a writer in a new country and not be able to fully express myself in the spoken language, but by having my story and poems translated into English, and published by University of Alberta Press, I have had the chance to introduce my work to a new audience. The same writing, the same voice, the same spirit that I was punished for in the country where I was born was now giving me the opportunity to continue my journey without restrictions in Canada. I held the stories I went on to write about in my books in my memory for so many years. I wrote them in my mind while in a library converted to a jail, and then I wrote them on paper in an office in a library in my new home. How can I describe the excitement of seeing them in print without fear of jail or censorship?
My story begins and ends with a home. What is home? Is it the place where you are born and form your first memories? Or, as Orhan Pamuk says, is it the place where your mother is? Might it be a combination of all of the above?
The definition of home continues to change as migration increases and cities expand. It has all led to a splintering in the definition of exactly what and where home is. Perhaps it’s about creating a combination of homes and cultures. When I first moved to Canada, I sorely missed the place I was born, the place of my mother—Kurdistan. Now, many years later, Canada has also become home. This has created an irreconcilable personal dilemma, because when I am in Canada I miss my home in Kurdistan, and when I am in Kurdistan I miss my home in Canada. Perhaps home is not necessarily the place you were born and created your first memories and began your life journey; perhaps it is the place that encourages you to be the best version of yourself. In the process of creating new homes, a person doesn’t need to abandon their roots, their childhood, their memories and their culture. Instead, we can and should carry our identity with us wherever we go, and share it with others in our new home. That is the Canada I know: a home away from home, a refuge, an opportunity to continue the journeys I once thought impossible. That is the Canada I wish to celebrate on its 150th birthday. A place to continue our spiritual journey. Home.
Home After Home by Jalal Barzanji originally ran in the Canada150 issue of Eighteen Bridges magazine, which was a special collection of essays commissioned for Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) High Level Lit project — a partnership between ECF, Eighteen Bridges, and LitFest. The published collection of these essays was awarded Best Editorial Package of the Year at the 2017 Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Awards and was instrumental in Eighteen Bridges being named Magazine of the Year at those same awards. The project was also nominated for two National Magazine Awards, including Omar Mouallem’s essay Homeland for the Holidays, which won gold in the Personal Journalism category. To mark Canada’s 151st anniversary of Confederation, ECF is making digital versions of these stories available to the public.