What Being Kurdish Means to Me

Photo courtesy of @michael.bayazidi

I wrote this piece back in 2018 and I feel the sentiment has not wavered. I’m debating the question of “where are you from?” in my personal and professional life and I remembered writing this, so I dug into the archives of my external hard drive, resurfaced and posted this piece as was initially written. My relationship with the quintessential question of “where are you from?” is still very complicated, in my next blog post I will challenge the question and debate it from a 2021 (almost 2022) lens. Until then, here is What Being Kurdish Means to Me

My story is that of many Kurds’. It has a lot to do with the Kurdish Diaspora and a sense of identity loss. My childhood was based on a series of movements, both that in the literal sense and that of the metaphorical sense. I spent the first 8 years of my life in between three countries, Canada, Iraq and Jordan. I learned the hard way to say goodbye at a very young age. I also learned the hard way that I was different, that whilst most people had grandparents and cousins living in the same country, same city even, as themselves, I had the unfortunate reality of distance. And that has always left an empty void in my heart that may never be filled. 

I think the heartbreaking reality of being a Kurd is our disbandment, because wherever we are, we will never truly fit in to our society, there will always be a part of us that is different, there will always be a societal disconnect. I don’t recall my earliest memory as a Kurd. I don’t remember a genuine moment of realization where I thought to myself, I’m Kurdish. It sort of just was. I always knew. I also knew I was different, I was different from the Kurds living in Kurdistan, because I had a western upbringing with a Jordanian influence. I was different from the Kurds living in Canada, because I wasn’t completely born and raised in Canada. I was being pushed and pulled between various cultures, and I lost my identity in the process. I spent the majority of my early childhood and teenage years avoiding who I was, I always felt ashamed of my background because in a Jordanian society, I didn’t belong, in a Canadian society, I didn’t belong, and in an Iraqi society, I didn’t belong. And when I went back to Kurdistan, I still felt lost, because I still didn’t completely belong in a Kurdish society, despite how desperately I wanted to. 

I was in Jordan, when my friend’s mom asked me where my parents were from on the car ride home, “My dad is from Hawler/Erbil, and my mom is from Halabja” I exclaimed. She almost had a fit, “It’s not pronounced Halabja, it’s Halabja,” she emphasized on the hard “H” (ح), “Say it like a true Arab” she added. I remember knowing she was wrong, but retreating to the back of my seat and staying quiet, I didn’t want to be different, so in that moment she was right, and I stayed quiet. I had a Jordanian Arab tell me who I was, and where my parents are from. I was never more ashamed. 

I was in Canada, at the CNE by a Turkish booth, when the guy working there started a conversation with me, only to change his demeanour when he found out I was Kurdish, all of a sudden I was inhumane, a terrorist. And that’s exactly what he called me in front of my two friends, simply for being a Kurd.

I will never forget the day at the Oncologist’s office, when we had asked her to write a letter of invitation for my aunt, my mom’s sister. My mom was just recently diagnosed with cancer and we wanted her to be around family. It was in that moment that I knew my heart was capable of harbouring detestation, because the Oncologist said no. “You have your daughter, you don’t need more family” she exclaimed while looking at me. I was shocked by her remark to the point where I was taken aback. I just wanted to scream in that moment, but I knew I wouldn’t. If I could go back and tell her what I thought in that very moment, this would be it:

Dear Privileged White Canadian Doctor, 
My mother was not given a choice whether she wanted cancer or not. She also was not given a choice when she moved to Canada, leaving her family behind for a better future for her children. She did not choose to witness nor be a part of a war she didn’t choose to start, she also did not have a choice when the Sykes-Picot agreement occurred, and she did not choose to be stateless. While you may go back home at the end of the day to your family, and get together with your relatives on thanksgiving and the holidays, we have to work out the time difference and whether or not there is electricity so that we can call our family. While you may not understand the struggles of being stateless, we do. I do. Would it have killed you to bring two sisters together in the midst of a tragedy? If Kurdistan was a state, we would have never moved here, no one would have moved, and we would have never asked you this one request. But this is our reality, we are here and we are real, are you really denying us family?

We didn’t choose this life, this diaspora, we didn’t choose to be away from our homeland, from our families, it happened to us. I was always jealous of my friends in Amman, every Friday they would have their family dinners at their grandparents with all their cousins. I had a grandmother too, only she was miles away, I had cousins too, only they weren’t here. I would get so excited when my grandmother and aunt would visit, it was only for two weeks, but it was always the best two weeks of my life, because for two weeks, I had a family. And when my grandmother passed away, I felt an overwhelming sense of unfairness and guilt, why wasn’t I there? It was really difficult for all of us, being so far away and distant from it all. It’s almost harder than being there, because you are left helpless and alone with your thoughts, no family to surround yourself with, no one to mourn with, we all grieved silently and alone. I think this is where I harbour most of my sorrow, I’m angry at the world, forget the oil, the money and the politics, I just wanted to be in the same city, country even, as my grandmother so that I could be there in the end, not far away from her. 

I shared a YouTube video with my family on a warm summer evening when it hit me. We were gathered by the TV, all of us captivated by the faces of these young and beautiful women fighting for a land that has been denied them, for a country, where the people have betrayed them, fighting for basic human rights when the odds are against them. Immersed in these faces, entranced by the song, I don’t notice my family, my parents, but I do hear my sister say, “Please don’t cry.” I turn around to look at my parents, who too are captivated by the beauty and strength of these women, and see their tears rolling down their red eyes. It was one of those moments where I paused and realized I’ve never seen my parents cry like this, they usually try to mask such pain away from me, but in this one instance, I see the pain of a thousand years of conflict, struggle and dysphoria that they couldn’t keep hidden anymore. These women were Kurdish female fighters of Kobanê. 

Canada shaped me into the patriotic Kurd that I am today, miles away from the homeland. As mentioned earlier, I always knew I was Kurdish, but it wasn’t until the second year of my undergrad that I truly understood the meaning of being Kurdish. I felt a longing to help my people in the midst of the events of 2014. My friend shared her dream with me, and I wanted to be a part of it, we helped set up a clothing drive to be sent back to the refugees and IDP’s of Kobanê. I finally felt such a deep sense of belonging, I was doing exactly what I was meant to do and in that moment I knew, the void that I had in my heart, will only be filled if I gave back to my people, my homeland. 

Being told that Kurds have always lived peacefully amongst arabs without hate, and that there is no need to ask for a referendum angers me. Yes, Kurds are able to coexist with Arabs, with Muslims, Christians, Jews, Turks, Turkmens, Caucus, Yazidi’s, Assyrians and many more races, religions, and ethnicities, because they understand oppression, and they wouldn’t do what was done to them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will continue to be second class citizens in countries that throw chemical attacks at children, mothers, fathers, innocents, in countries that kidnap and rape their women, in countries that jail Kurds for speaking Kurdish, in countries that execute Kurds on the basis of being a Kurd. It doesn’t dismiss the dozens of mass graves inhabiting the soil, and it surely doesn’t disregard the pain, suffering, and blood loss of hundreds of thousands.

The Kurdish struggle exists, it exists in our homes, during breakfast and at our dinner table. It exists when we are asked, “Where are you from?” It exists when we speak Kurdish, it exists when we turn on the news, it exists at social gatherings and during Newroz. I’ve always noticed when two Kurds meet, the conversation always stirs towards stitches that have left wounded Peshmergas, widowed husband and wives, images of blood and bodies, and recollections of death and friends lost as a result of the war. There is not a Kurd today who can say they have not suffered as a direct consequence of the Kurdish struggle.

I feel lost and trapped in a world that is not my own, because the reality of my situation, of my people’s situation, is that we do not have a home, a place were we can take refuge in and feel safe, we have a contingency plan, but even our contingency plan is failing us. So I say no more, no more passiveness, no more silence, and a lot more action. It is time for the Kurds to be heard all over the world, and it’s not just our voices we’re demanding to be heard, it’s our right to determine a state for ourselves with the subsistence of basic human rights, equality and a chance at life. 

This is what being Kurdish means to me. 

an open letter to the PM

Dear Mr. Prime Minister Trudeau,

I invite you to come have dinner with me. Come to my home away from home. Welcome, as you walk into the foyer and see a Persian rug hanging, look closely, it tells a story. I’ll share her secrets with you, her journey through Persia to Iraq to Jordan and then finally to Canada. You’ll see the house filled with blue eyes that protect from the hidden evil of hearts unknown. Hey, you don’t have to take your shoes off, but I will take your coat, the weather is changing isn’t it, fall is soon arriving. Here, have a seat. Yes, these are rocks, two of which I packed back with me from Iceland, that was an interesting trip I took out of the blue, I’ll tell you more about it, but first, would you like coffee or tea? My mom makes a mean steeped tea. Oh, these, these are rocks from Kurdistan, you see there is this artist named Ismael Khayat, he draws on rocks and my aunt asked him to make those for us. Here have some chocolate covered almonds while I pour the tea. 

You see, Mr. Prime Minister, I didn’t ask you here to talk about rocks and Persian rugs, I invited you here to talk about what it’s like to be me, a young female Canadian Kurd. Although my story may be unique, sugar? No? Okay. Although my story may be unique, it is uniquely similar to thousands of other Kurds in Canada, in the USA, in Europe, in the diaspora and within Kurdish cities itself. And although Canada is not Kurdish, it has a history of fighting for what is right. Here try this, we call this “kleecha,” my favorite is this one right here, filled with walnuts. You see, standing up against dictators, is something Canada has not shied away from, which is why I am confused at your silence. Mr. Prime Minister, you ask me to vote for you, but how can I vote for you if you won’t hear my voice, I’m screaming, and shouting, at the top of my lungs and from the bottom of my heart, but do you hear me? Can you hear me? Can you hear us?

Justin, can I call you that? It’s just us here, no please and thank you, Sir or Madam, my people are dying. Oh, what wonderful people we are, but we are dying. The air is thick and opaque, the people are being led by fear across the red sea of bodies, the governments and the humanitarians have failed us. It’s a mass exodus. And yet, the wonders of our world, our reality, Justin, is that we are privileged, safe, protected. Let’s speak honestly, it’s just you and me, I don’t know what it feels like to be afraid of airstrikes, of losing my limbs or worse be forced into a cult of terrorists. I don’t know what it means to wake up and find out over twitter, that my family and I have to flee to neighboring cities, because a NATO ally is coming to cleanse us of our Kurdishness, of our identity, our language our existence. Do you know what it means? What does it mean to be a target of genocide for years? Does your wife? Do your children? 

The food is ready, this is yapraxi galawmew, its stuffed grapevine leaves, my favorite dish in the world. Here, let me show you how to eat it, take one and take a small piece of meat and make a sandwich. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 23 years. You know, I cannot sleep, can you? I cannot sleep knowing that Canada is a land people take refuge in, immigrate to for a better life, and yet at the core of your neighbors’ decision is a human rights crisis that you chose to ignore. I’ll tell you what I think, I think this is happening too close to election time, and that is a price the Kurds will have to pay. 

Oh, you don’t have to do that, I’ll take your plate. Mr. Prime Minister Trudeau, there is no dessert today, I think there is no sweetness to life today or any other day for that matter, not until the world cries with us, not until we speak up against the atrocities of fascist states, not until we stand up to hate, to genocide, ethnocide, to the oppressor, for the oppressed. No sweets today.

I beg you to reconsider your stance, on your drive home, really think about the fact that you’re not being forced out, afraid of airstrikes overhead. I beg you to reconsider. I beg you to stand, I beg you to be an ally, I beg you to be a voice.

Sincerely, 
Mardin Hener