Monday 25 November 2013


I’m known as Latifa—‘the gentle one’—now, although that’s not the name my parents gave me. But dangers that came to surround me forced me to take on a new identity. Fear, threats and suffering—they are nothing new to me or my people, the Kurds, who for centuries have struggled to keep out invaders and have their independence recognised. In the decades before I came into the world—and before Saddam Hussein began his own brutal oppression in the 1980s—the Kurdish people, who make up about 20 per cent of Iraq’s 20 million population, had suffered persecution under Iraq’s former leader, President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr. By the time Saddam Hussein placed al-Bakr under house arrest and declared himself president in 1979, my father was a fierce and respected member of that honoured group of Kurdish freedom fighters, the Peshmerga.

And how he was needed. There had been fierce clashes between the Iraqi army and the guerrillas in 1977, but in the following two years hundreds of Kurdish villages were razed to the ground and more than 200,000 Kurds were deported to other parts of the country. I never found out how many soldiers my father killed up there in the mountains—I’ve seen him shoot and I know how good he is—and I know he would have been a one-man force to be reckoned with. 

But now he was even more of a man among his peers. He was a father. And his bride, his wife, my mother, was among the most beautiful women in Iraq; blonde, green eyed and shapely, men would have killed for her hand but my father’s family claimed her for him when she was just 15. Baian was born in Dohuk, the name of which means ‘small village’, but with a population today of half a million it is anything but small. With the mountains and the Tigris River nearby, it is an attractive city and its university is recognised as one of the best in the region. But my mother’s loveliness denied her any university education—in fact, her family were so
concerned that she might be molested or raped by government agents who search towns and villages for attractive girls and women—that was the life—that they even kept her home from school. She became a prisoner of her beauty.

It was her father who gave Baian her education because he was a teacher and she had the added advantage of learning from her three brothers and four sisters when they came home from school. But while her early teenage years put her ahead of her peers as a scholar, she was never allowed to mix with girls of her own age.

My mother’s and my father’s families were distantly related through my great-great-grandmother, which was agreeable to everyone for it meant that when Baian and Khalid married the ‘good genes’ were passed on. The wedding, like all Kurdish ceremonies, was a grand affair, with singing and dancing and much merriment and then the couple retired to their room.

This was where the bride would give herself to her husband and heaven forbid any woman who was found not to be a virgin. Just as in other households, his mother and his oldest brother waited outside Baian’ and Khalid’s bedroom door for the moment when Khalid emerged. Then they went in and, taking no notice of the bride, inspected the bed. They were looking for ‘the blood on the cloth’. Yes, she was a true virgin
and Khalid, well, he was now a man among men. Music was played, baklava was served. There was great rejoicing. My father was to tell me years later, when I was old enough to understand, that he came to truly love my mother, although to this day I believe this is all the wrong way around and that love must come first. However, this was the Kurdish region of northern Iraq and that was the way things were.

Like his young bride, Khalid was well educated. He was born in Mosul, the regional capital, Iraq’s fourth largest city and some 40 miles to the south of my mother’s city of Dohuk, and shortly after leaving high school he worked hard at setting up his own welding business. All his employees were family members and the business flourished, so his bride and the family they would raise were guaranteed a good start to life.
As is the way, Khalid and Baian’s marital home was his family’s house, a three-storey building in the middle of the city. It was crowded, because they shared it with Khalid’s parents, his seven sisters and a brother. And it was expected of the new bride that she would be a slave to the whole family, doing the cooking, washing and cleaning. She had moved from one domestic prison before her marriage to another as a new bride. 

After three months Baian found herself pregnant with me. Again, it was a victory for Khalid. Now he was free to return to the mountains with the Peshmerga, for whom he had been fighting before his marriage, leaving his relatives to run the welding business. His wife was pregnant and while she coped with that he could fight for Kurdish independence until the time came when his baby was born. During those summer
months he dressed himself in the traditional Peshmerga clothing of baggy harem pants and a khaftan top, while around his waist was a wide black belt in which he carried his ammunition and his dagger.

I learned from my mother how I was raised in my first few months. Like all children I was strapped very tightly into a cot so I wouldn’t fall out as they rocked it back and forth. I’ve looked at family photos of my mother holding me and seen the smile on my father’s face as he gazed at me. But there is one photo that I’ll never forget. It shows me, still a baby, giggling at the camera my father is aiming at me but my mother, who is holding me in her arms, is glaring at me. I’ve studied it so many times over the years and wondered whether,
from those very early months of my life, Baian had seen me as a burden. I’ve tried to pass it off as a trick of the camera, one of those unguarded moments where an expression is not a true reflection of feelings, but I’m convinced now that the photo caught the truth.

There is no doubt that my mother suffered among her husband’s sisters. Her beauty was outstanding and there would have been intense jealousy among her sisters-in-law. She put up with the ill-feeling, although she rebelled when the demands on her became too much.

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