Nujeen, p.2Nujeen Mustafa
People don’t know much about Kurds – sometimes it seems to me we are completely unknown in the rest of the world. We are a proud people with our own language, food and culture and a long history going back 2,000 years when we were first recorded as Kurti. We are maybe 30 million people, but we have never had our own country. In fact we are the world’s biggest stateless tribe. We hoped we would get our own homeland when the British and French divided up the defeated Ottoman Empire after the First World War, just as the Arabs thought they would get their own independence as promised after the Arab Revolt. The Allied powers even signed an agreement called the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 which recognized an autonomous Kurdistan.
But the new Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk who had led his country to independence, would not accept it, and then oil was found in Mosul in what would have been Kurdistan and the treaty was never ratified. Actually two British and French diplomats called Mark Sykes and Georges Picot had already signed a secret pact to split the Levant between them and drawn their infamous line in the sand, from Kirkuk in Iraq to Haifa in Israel, to create the modern states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. So the Arabs were left under colonial rule, between borders which paid little heed to tribal and ethnic realities, and we Kurds were left divided between four countries, none of which likes us.
Today about half the Kurds live in Turkey, some in Iraq, some in Iran and about 2 million of us in Syria where we are the biggest minority, about 15 per cent. Even though our dialects are different I can always tell a Kurd from any other person in the world – first by the tongue, then by the look. Some of us live in cities like Istanbul, Tehran and Aleppo, but most live in the mountains and plateaus where Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran meet.
We are surrounded by enemies, so we have to remain strong. Our great Kurdish Shakespeare Ahmad-i Khani wrote in the seventeenth century that we are like ‘towers on four corners surrounding the Turks and Persians … both sides have made the Kurdish people targets for the arrows of their fate’. Yaba believes that one day there will be a Kurdistan, maybe in my lifetime. ‘He who has a history has a future,’ he always says.
The funny thing is many of the famous ‘Arab’ heroes are Kurds and no one admits it. Like Saladin, who fought off the Crusaders and kicked the Europeans out of Jerusalem, or Yusuf al-Azma, who led the Syrian forces fighting the French occupation in 1920 and died in battle. There is a huge painting of Saladin and his Arab armies in the reception hall of Assad’s palace and we have so many squares and statues named after Yusuf al-Azma, but no one says they are Kurds.
Instead the Syrian regime call us ajanib or foreigners, even though we have lived here since before the Crusades. Many Kurds in Syria don’t have ID cards, and without those orange cards you can’t buy property, get government jobs, vote in elections or send your kids to high school.
I guess Turkey is the hardest place to be a Kurd. Atatürk launched a campaign called Turkification, and Turkey doesn’t even recognize Kurds as a people but calls them mountain Turks. Our family live both sides of the border, and one of my aunts who lived in Turkey told us she couldn’t even give her son a Kurdish name but had to call him Orhan, which is Turkish. Nasrine went to stay with her once and told us they don’t speak Kurdish and turned off the radio when she played Kurdish music.
Here is another fact about Kurds. We have our own alphabet which Turkey does not recognize, and until not long ago you could be arrested there if you used the letters Q, W and X, which don’t exist in the Turkish language. Imagine going to jail for a consonant!
We have a saying, ‘Kurds have no friends but in the mountains.’ We love mountains and we believe we are descended from children hidden in the mountains to escape Zuhak, an evil giant with two serpents growing from his shoulders, each of which had to be fed the brains of a boy every day. Finally, a clever blacksmith called Kawa, fed up with losing his sons, started feeding the serpents with sheep brains instead and hiding the boys until he had a whole army of them to slay the giant.
Kurds together always tell stories. Our most famous story is a Kurdish Romeo and Juliet called Mem and Zin. It’s about an island ruled by a prince with two beautiful sisters he keeps locked up, one of whom he calls Zin. One day Zin and her sister escape to go to a festival disguised as men and meet two handsome musketeers, one of whom is Mem. The two pairs of sisters and musketeers fall in love and a lot of things happen, but basically Mem is imprisoned, then killed, and Zin dies of grief at her lover’s grave. Even after death they are kept apart when a thorn bush springs up between them. The story starts by saying, ‘If only there were harmony among us, if we were to obey a single one of us, he would reduce to vassalage Turks, Arabs and Persians, all of them,’ and many Kurds say it symbolizes our struggle for a homeland. Mem represents the Kurdish people and Zin the Kurdish country, separated by unfortunate circumstances. Some people believe it’s true and there is even a grave you can visit.
I grew up hearing this story but I don’t really like it. It’s quite long and I don’t think it’s realistic at all. Actually I preferred Beauty and the Beast, because that’s based on something good, loving someone from the inside, for their personality, not the outside.
Before he got old and tired and stopped working and spent all his time smoking and grumbling about his sons not going to mosque, my father Yaba was a sheep and goat trader. He had about 60 acres of land, where he kept sheep and goats like his father before him going right back to my seventh grandfather, who had camels and sheep.
My elder siblings tell me that when he started he would buy just one goat a week in the market on Saturday then sell it elsewhere the following week for a small profit, but over time he had a flock of about 200. I guess selling sheep didn’t make much money, as our house was just two rooms and a courtyard with a small kitchen which was a squash for so many people. But my eldest brother Shiar sent money, so we built another room where Ayee kept her sewing machine, which I played with when no one was looking. I slept there with her unless we had guests.
Shiar lives in Germany and is a film director who made a movie called Walking about a crazy old man who walks a lot in a Kurdish village in southern Turkey. The man makes friends with a poor boy who sells chewing gum, then their area gets taken over by the military. The film caused an outcry in Turkey because the old Kurdish man slaps a Turkish army officer, which some people protested shouldn’t be shown – as if they can’t tell the difference between a movie and real life.
I had never met Shiar as he left Syria in 1990 when he was seventeen, long before I was born, to avoid being conscripted and sent to fight in the Gulf War in Iraq – we were friends with the Americans in those days. Syria didn’t want us Kurds to go to its universities or have government jobs but it did want us to fight in their army and join its Ba’ath party. Every schoolchild was supposed to join, but Shiar refused and managed to escape when he and another boy were marched to the party office to be signed up. He had always dreamt of being a movie director, which is strange because when he was growing up our house in Manbij didn’t even have a TV, only a radio, as the religious people didn’t approve. When he was twelve he made his own radio series with some classmates, and he sneaked every opportunity to watch other people’s TVs. Somehow our family raised $4,500 for him to buy a fake Iraqi passport in Damascus, then he flew to Moscow to study. He didn’t stay long in Russia but went to Holland, where he got asylum. There are not many Kurdish film-makers, so he is famous in our community, but we weren’t supposed to mention him as the regime don’t like his films.
Our family tree only shows men, but it didn’t show Shiar in case anyone connected him with us and caused problems. I didn’t understand why it shouldn’t have women. Ayee was illiterate – she had got married to my dad when she was thirteen, which means that by my age today she had already been married four years and had a son. But she made all our clothes and she can tell you where any country in the world is on a map and always remember her way back from anywhere. Also she is good at adding things up, so
Each morning, I sat on the doorstep to watch them go, swinging their schoolbags and chatting with friends. The step was my favourite place to sit, playing with mud and watching people coming and going. Most of all I was waiting for someone in particular – the salep-man. If you haven’t tried it, salep is a kind of smoothie from milk thickened with powdered roots of mountain orchids and flavoured with rosewater or cinnamon, ladled into a cup from a small aluminium cart, and it is delicious. I always knew when the salep-man was coming as the boom-box on his cart broadcast verses from the Koran, not music like other street vendors.
It was lonely when they had all gone, just Yaba smoking and clacking his worry beads if he didn’t go to his sheep. To the right-hand side of the house, between us and our neighbours who were my uncle and cousins, was a tall cypress tree which was dark and scary. And on our roof were always stray cats and street dogs which made me shiver because if they came after me I couldn’t run away. I don’t like dogs, cats or anything that moves fast. There was a family of white cats with orange patches which spat and swore at anyone who came near and I hated them.
The only time I liked our roof was on hot summer nights when we slept up there, the darkness thick around us like a glove and a fresh breeze cooled by the emptiness of the desert. I loved lying on my back and staring up at the stars, so many and so far stretching into the beyond like a glittering walkway. That’s when I first dreamt about being an astronaut, because in space you can float so your legs don’t matter.
The funny thing is you can’t cry in space. Because of zero gravity, if you cry the way you do on earth the tears won’t fall but will gather in your eyes and form a liquid ball and spread into the rest of your face like a strange growth, so be careful.
The Walls of Aleppo
Aleppo, Syria, 2003–2008
People have always looked at me differently. My sisters are so pretty, particularly Nasrine with her long glossy mahogany hair and fair skin that freckles a little in sunshine. But me – well, I look more Arab, my front teeth are big and goofy, my eyes roll around and go cross-eyed and my glasses are always falling off my nose. And that’s not all.
Maybe because Ayee was a bit old when she had me, forty-four, I was born too soon – forty days which is the amount of time Christians say their prophet Jesus fasted in the wilderness before his crucifixion. My brain didn’t get enough oxygen and something happened that means the balance part doesn’t work and it doesn’t send proper signals to my legs, so they have a life of their own. They kick up when I am speaking, my ankles turn inwards, my toes point downwards, my heels point up and I can’t walk. It’s like I am forever stuck on tiptoes. Also my palms and fingers go convex instead of concave if I don’t concentrate. Basically my extremities are like those Chinese fortune fishes that curl up and then are impossible to straighten.
When I didn’t walk like other children, my parents took me to a doctor who said there was a missing connection in my brain that would form by the time I was five and then I would be able to walk, as long as they gave me plenty of protein and calcium. My mum made me eat lots of eggs and have vitamin injections, but my legs still didn’t work. We went to lots of doctors. My brother Shiar called from Germany and gave them the name of a specialist to take me to in Aleppo. He laid me in a machine that was like a plastic coffin for an MRI scan. Afterwards he said I had something called balance deficiency which is a kind of cerebral palsy. I didn’t understand these long words but I could see it was scary for Ayee and Yaba. The doctor said I would need surgery and physical therapy.
Also as Manbij was a dusty neglected place, and maybe because of the gangs of cats and dogs, I got asthma so badly that I often wheezed until I was blue in the face. So when I was four we moved to Aleppo where I could get medical help and where my sister Nahda and brother Bland could go to university. Nahda was so smart she came top of all the students in Manbij and was the first girl in our family to go to university. She was studying law and I thought maybe she would be a famous lawyer.
Aleppo is a very historic place – some say it is the oldest inhabited city in the world – and the biggest city in Syria. You could get everything there. We lived in a Kurdish neighbourhood in the north-west called Sheikh Maqsoud, which was high up and looked over the whole city with its pale stone buildings that shone almond-pink in the late-afternoon sun. In the middle was the walled fortress on a mound which had watched over Aleppo for perhaps a thousand years.
Our new home was a fifth-floor apartment at 19 George al-Aswad Street, named after a Christian who used to own the land – around 10 per cent of our population was Christian and the Christian cemetery was just near by. I liked it better than Manbij because there were no cats and dogs scratching and howling on the roof or scary dark tree from which I had to hide under the blanket, and it was bigger with four rooms, a bathroom and two balconies from which you could watch the world go by. My mum was happier having lots of Kurds around. And best of all, one of the rooms was a living room where we watched TV.
My brothers Shiar and Farhad were both living abroad and Mustafa stayed in Manbij running a company digging water wells, which was good business because we lived in times of drought. At the beginning all my sisters were with us in Aleppo, but Jamila, Nahda and Nahra got married one after another (I cried each time!). After Jamila’s wedding when people came to our house in Aleppo to congratulate the bride and groom, I sat on the sofa glaring at our cousin Mohammed who she was marrying. Jamila might have had a temper that came and went like a gust of wind, particularly if anyone tried to interfere with her housekeeping, but she had looked after all of us.
After that it was just me, Bland and Nasrine. Bland slept in the TV room along with me, Ayee and Mustafa when he was not away travelling. Nasrine had a tiny room of her own.
Our block had six floors, but the one above ours was condemned so we were the highest. All the other people in the building were Kurdish but came from different towns. The neighbours on our floor had children – four girls, Parwen, Nermin, Hemrin and Tallin, and one boy, Kawa, who was the youngest. I loved them, but whenever we played games I always felt like the weakest link and often they ran away from me, laughing as I tried to drag myself after them in my odd way like a rabbit. I looked like a rabbit with my teeth and I crawl-jumped like a rabbit. Another family two floors down had a pet tortoise which they would bring upstairs. I loved to have it on my lap and would sit and watch when they ran away. I was neither comfortable nor welcomed in the kids’ world.
My substitute for all that fun deficiency was TV. I watched everything, starting with cartoons and Disney DVDs. My family loved football, so we all watched that together. Then when I was eight and we got a satellite dish, I watched documentaries about history and science. And much later when we got a computer I discovered Google and began collecting every bit of information I could get. Thank you, Sergey Brin, I would like to meet you one day.
To start with I went to a physical-therapy centre called the Fraternity. It looked like a traditional Syrian house with a big courtyard with swings and a fountain. There was no lift so I had to use the guardrail to pull myself up the stairs. The therapists there smiled but then made me do complicated things like balance training using rubber balls. They also strapped me into a device with bands fixed round my waist and down to my legs to try and get me to stand straight.
I was supposed to go to the Fraternity to exercise twice a week, but I kept having asthma attacks and ended up in hospital so many times that the doctors there got to know me. The attacks always seemed to be in the middle of the night and sometimes the air became so squeezed from my wheezing lungs that Ayee thought I was going to die. Gentle Jamila always comforted me. After she left home to marry, Bland and Nasrine came with me instead. Anything seemed to set me off. Worst of all was smoking – just about all men in Syria smoke and some women. No one was supposed to smoke in our apartment, but I could smell it even from the ground floor. I always seemed to have attacks at holiday times – I spent four Eid festivals in hospital.
In my country there are almost no facilities for disabled people, and the asthma attacks happened so often that I couldn’t go to school. My third sister Nahra had not got good enough grades to go to university, so until she got married she was at home too. She was much more interested in beauty and make-up than my other sisters and we always had to wait while she dressed up, but she didn’t think my disability should be an excuse not to learn. Not only did she teach me the rules of football, but when I was six she taught me to read and write in Arabic, making me write the same sentence over and over again until it filled a sheet and I was driven crazy.
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