Under the Mulberry Tree

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Kurdish was a term I heard long before I had any real sense of the world, of where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are, or what cultural and religious intolerance mean. When I was about 7, a Kurdish girl called Hozan showed me how her people danced at weddings and at great moments of celebration, stamping, swirling and clicking her tongue. She was 15, and to me she was glamour personified, spinning in a field, her tiny denim shorts alarmingly far up her bottom, her head thrown back. This was in the mid-Seventies, in Oxfordshire, and Hozan’s family was encamped with some local Romany gypsies. At about the same time, in March 1975, the Shah of Iran signed a treaty with Saddam Hussein. The Kurds of Iraq thereby lost all their external support. And so they began to be exterminated.

The Kurds, scattered across much of the Middle East, are the largest population in the region without a homeland of their own, and their recent history is also the story of the changing political maps of the twentieth century. Hiner Saleem’s memoir of his childhood in Kurdistan, My Father’s Rifle, begins:

My grandfather had a good sense of humour. He used to say he was born a Kurd, in a free country. Then the Ottomans arrived and said to my grandfather, ‘You’re Ottoman,’ so he became an Ottoman. At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he became Turkish. The Turks left and he became a Kurd again in the kingdom of Mahmoud, King of the Kurds. Then the British arrived, so my grandfather became a subject of His Gracious Majesty and even learned a few words of English. The British invented Iraq, so my grandfather became Iraqi,
but this new word, Iraq, always remained an enigma to him, and to his dying breath he was never proud of being Iraqi; nor was his son, my father Shero Selim Malay.

The story of Saleem’s family is the story of a people who are Muslim but not Arab, whose land has been fought over, whose culture has been trampled.

Saleem h

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Kurdish was a term I heard long before I had any real sense of the world, of where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are, or what cultural and religious intolerance mean. When I was about 7, a Kurdish girl called Hozan showed me how her people danced at weddings and at great moments of celebration, stamping, swirling and clicking her tongue. She was 15, and to me she was glamour personified, spinning in a field, her tiny denim shorts alarmingly far up her bottom, her head thrown back. This was in the mid-Seventies, in Oxfordshire, and Hozan’s family was encamped with some local Romany gypsies. At about the same time, in March 1975, the Shah of Iran signed a treaty with Saddam Hussein. The Kurds of Iraq thereby lost all their external support. And so they began to be exterminated.

The Kurds, scattered across much of the Middle East, are the largest population in the region without a homeland of their own, and their recent history is also the story of the changing political maps of the twentieth century. Hiner Saleem’s memoir of his childhood in Kurdistan, My Father’s Rifle, begins:

My grandfather had a good sense of humour. He used to say he was born a Kurd, in a free country. Then the Ottomans arrived and said to my grandfather, ‘You’re Ottoman,’ so he became an Ottoman. At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he became Turkish. The Turks left and he became a Kurd again in the kingdom of Mahmoud, King of the Kurds. Then the British arrived, so my grandfather became a subject of His Gracious Majesty and even learned a few words of English. The British invented Iraq, so my grandfather became Iraqi,
but this new word, Iraq, always remained an enigma to him, and to his dying breath he was never proud of being Iraqi; nor was his son, my father Shero Selim Malay.

The story of Saleem’s family is the story of a people who are Muslim but not Arab, whose land has been fought over, whose culture has been trampled.

Saleem himself was born in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1954. His father, Shero, was the radio operator for General Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish patriots. This meant that he was also a freedom fighter, and the tool of his trade was a Brno, the Czech rifle of the title, a weapon long out of date by the time this story begins.

Saleem is now a film-maker based in Paris, and it is with his powerful visual sense that he draws us into the world of his boyhood. Early on in the book he leads us up a stepladder to the roof where his cousin Cheto keeps his stunt pigeons. And there he throws the birds up into the air, to watch them tumble back down out of the blue sky. In this way he draws us through the lushness of his life as a child in full Technicolor close-up. The rawness that follows, the persecution of his family and of his people, is stripped down to bare black and white. His spare use of language leaves the white page beyond the words heavy with the unwritten.

Seated under the mulberry tree in the garden of our beautiful old house, my mother was seeding pomegranates. I could see only the tip of her flowery scarf. The pulp from the seeds colored her hands and her face was stained with the red juice of the autumn fruit. Me, I was squatting on my heels stuffing myself.

Saleem was 11 and this was how he remembered the scene that began the end of his boyhood. This minute and careful rendering is immediately followed by the arrival of the pro-government militia in search of a cousin, thought to be a sympathizer of General Barzani, the same man for whom Saleem’s father had fought. Seven of the men of Saleem’s family are shot in the flight that follows the scene under the mulberry tree.

The traditional structure of their life ended that day. They fled, and they went on running from Saddam’s men, living in caves up in the mountains as planes flew over, bombing the villages of Kurdish resistance. Saleem’s father picked up his old rifle again to join the peshmergas, the Kurdish fighters. The word translates as ‘he who looks death straight in the face’, and they did, again and again. ‘But what could he do with a Czech rifle dating from the 1940s?’

The hopelessness of their dream for an independent Kurdistan becomes clear as the politicians on the world stage withdraw their support and Saddam’s power increases. So comes the signing of the treaty between the Shah and Saddam in 1975: ‘I saw peshmergas commit suicide in despair. Others wanted to hide in the mountains and resist, but the general understood that we were caught in an inescapable net: the choice was between accepting defeat or extermination. We took the road to exile.’

Saleem later returned to Iraq with those of his family who had survived, but the time of mulberry and pomegranate trees had gone. Their world was now controlled by the storm troopers and secret police of Sadaam’s Ba’ath party.

This was a world of constant fear: fear of being watched or heard, of being handed over to the authorities, imprisoned or shot – levels of fear that young Saleem realizes are becoming the status quo for his family, and his people. And so he decides to escape. Hiner Saleem ends his book with brief descriptions of what happened to each of the protagonists, both on the smaller stage of his life and the wider one of Iraqi politics. Each one is poignant and the few lines are shadowed with subtext. He closes the book with just three and a half stark lines about liberation after oppression: ‘On April 9, 2003, the coalition forces that had entered Iraq on March 19 conquered Baghdad, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled.’

As I finished reading, I wondered where Hozan and her family might be, and whether the women were still spinning, arms in the air, heads thrown back, tongues clicking, in a field in another corner of exile.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Justine Hardy 2006


About the contributor

Justine Hardy’s The Wonder House is a novel set in Kashmir, published in 2005.

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