By Genesee Keevil
Since my beginning
I have been locked inside
A fence with door shut behind me
Since my beginning, I have been embraced
In the convexity of the ceasefire
Since my beginning I have been like a vanquished army
Sitting idly behind walls
Like an answering device
For another war combat.
From a translation of Jalal Barzanji’s poem War, written in Kurdish in 1993.
Jalal Barzanji knows words are powerful—they’re why he was tortured.
“I was beaten with a cable very badly,” said the Kurdish poet, who’s taken up residence at Dawson City’s Berton House.
“They hung me, like a fan, by my feet.
“I never committed any crime—I’m just a writer.”
For three years, Barzanji was held in a Kurdistan jail, in a dark windowless cell with a single light bulb.
“I didn’t know if it was day or night because the light was always on,” he said, speaking in a thick accent.
“I thought I was going to die there.
“I built a world for myself of words.
“The power I got from my writing gave me the power to be patient and to dream—until I died.”
But Barzanji wasn’t killed.
Saddam Hussein pardoned the poet.
Every three to four years, Hussein released about 1,000 prisoners, he said.
But the Iraqi army, responsible for Barzanji’s arrest in 1986, still wouldn’t let anyone leave the country.
“It was surrounded by military,” said Barzanji.
They governed with “power and blood,” he said.
“There was no space to breathe freely.”
It wasn’t always like this.
Barzanji grew up in a tiny peaceful village, where his family farmed.
“Sometimes there was poverty, but we had enough food and shelter,” he said.
When he was seven, the village burned.
“It was bombed by the Iraqi air force in 1961,” said Barzanji, who remembers watching people die.
His family fled to the city and Barzanji attended school.
“School was not controlled or censored,” he said.
In 1972, the school’s magazine club published Barzanji’s first poem during a four-year ceasefire with Iraq.
“We had four years of freedom of expression,” he said. The ceasefire ended in 1974.
Twelve years later, when Barzanji was thrown in jail, his wife was pregnant with his second daughter.
She went into hiding, he said.
“When I was released, my second daughter was one-and-a-half, and didn’t recognize me—it was very sad.”
Just three years after his release, Hussein invaded Kuwait; the international community declared war on Iraq and its army left Kurdistan.
Barzanji was recognized, honoured and became chief editor of the Union of Kurdish Writers.
But the freedom didn’t last.
In 1996 Hussein returned, and Barzanji fled to the Ukraine, using a fake passport.
When the Ukraine tried to deport Barzanji and send him back to Kurdistan, he made his way to Turkey as a refugee.
His wife and family met him there four months later.
Although he no longer feared for his life, Barzanji found Turkey “very religious.”
Sent to the Turkish city of Saves with his young family, Barzanji and his wife couldn’t find a place to rent.
“All the women there wore hijabs,” he said.
“And no one would rent to us.” A lady told Barzanji it was because of his wife’s bare head.
“So we went to a store, she bought a hijab and we rented a house,” he said with a laugh.
The family immigrated to Canada 10 years ago. “I followed my destiny to Edmonton,” he said.
But Barzanji, who works at a multi-cultural health centre and a Mennonite centre for newcomers, has found it hard to balance writing and work.
“My dream is to have time to devote to my writing,” he said.
Last year, after receiving a grant as Edmonton’s writer in exile, Barzanji found his muse.
He wrote a 370-page memoir in Kurdish.
When the memoir is published this spring, it will destroy any chance Barzanji had of visiting his homeland. He hasn’t been back since he fled in ‘96.
“After it’s published, maybe I’ll be in trouble” he said.
“I miss my mom and friends, and some of the childhood things I did—but space, it doesn’t stay the same.”
Although Iraq forces no longer occupy Kurdistan, peace is a long way off.
“The reason for conflict now is the Shiite and Sunni—it started when Prophet Mohammed died 1,500 years ago, and it started again with Saddam gone,” said Barzanji.
The war in Iraq is also having an impact on the region.
“I supported removing Saddam 100 per cent,” he said.
“He was a dictator, like Hitler or Mussolini, and when he was in power he killed thousands and thousands of people.”
But the war continued after Hussein was killed, “and now it’s a different issue,” said Barzanji.
“As a poet, I’m against war.”
Barzanji writes “to bring beauty into people’s lives and make the world more peaceful.
“Writers are not politicians. We can’t bring social justice. It’s not our job.
“Our power is our words.”
At Berton House, Barzanji is planning to tackle his first novel.
Scribbling notes since he left Edmonton in the morning, Barzanji already had some ideas.
“I’ll see if I can create the characters,” he said.
“It’s hard because it’s literature, not math.”
Even if the novel doesn’t come about, Barzanji is thrilled to be the first international writer at the Berton House.
“I’m here to have a new experience,” he said.
“I’m alive, I’m still writing, and I have hope.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at email@example.com