Hawra Al-Nadawi: “Tuesday and the Green Movement”

15 June, 2022,
Ali Ban­isadr (b. 1976 Iran),  “The Char­la­tans,” oil on linen, 137.2 x 182.9 cm, 2009 (cour­tesy Thad­daeus Ropac Gallery).

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Tues­day and the Green Move­ment” is an excerpt from Hawra al-Nadawi’s 2017 Ara­bic nov­el, Qis­met, which fol­lows a fam­i­ly of Feyli Kurds from the 1950s until a few years ago. The Feyli Kur­dish eth­nic group is most­ly found near the bor­der between Iraq and Iran. They speak a dis­tinct dialect of Kur­dish and, unlike the major­i­ty of Kur­dish who are Sun­ni, are Shi­ite Mus­lims. In this excerpt, we join Akram, one of the pro­tag­o­nists of this poly­phon­ic nov­el, for the begin­ning of his day in Tehran. Set­ting out for a protest march, he reflects on his lover and his upbringing.

Hawra al-Nadawi

 

Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Alice Guthrie

 

It was Tues­day the ninth of Tir 1388, or rather, in most of the world, Tues­day the thir­ti­eth of June, 2009. I woke up that morn­ing exhaust­ed by one of those nights. I almost for­got the details of what had been hap­pen­ing just before I fell into the deep sleep from which I was now try­ing, with extreme dif­fi­cul­ty, to extri­cate myself. I was naked and sweaty. Var­i­ous fer­ment­ing body odors were waft­ing from me and from the bed on which I lay: the com­bined putrid smell of all the bod­i­ly flu­ids that had soaked the bed so through­ly that the sheets were now stick­ing to my bare skin. Then there was the medi­um-pret­ty woman sleep­ing beside me as if boast­ing of her neu­tral sleep to the world after a rau­cous night. There was some­thing about the scent of her that was rem­i­nis­cent of olives blend­ed with cin­na­mon. It seemed this pun­gent primeval fra­grance was an attempt on her part to seduce and arouse — although the real­i­ty was that her per­fume would become bor­ing imme­di­ate­ly one was done with her.

 

I picked up my phone to check the time, hop­ing that it was still ear­ly enough for me to go back to sleep, but it was already a few min­utes past ten, so I jumped straight out of bed. If I didn’t want to miss the demon­stra­tion set­ting out right now from Haft-e-Tir square towards Valiasar Square, I would have to sac­ri­fice my usu­al fif­teen-minute bath, for a start. I did my best to get clean in two min­utes flat and hur­ried­ly got my clothes on.

 

Yes­ter­day Bano had expressed a desire to join me on the march today. But not a strong desire. So I left her sleep­ing, didn’t say good­bye, just let myself out of the flat, care­ful not to get spot­ted by any of the neigh­bors. The flat belonged to Bano’s fam­i­ly, who lived abroad, and in a rather weird coin­ci­dence it was in Koocheh Nad­er, here in the cap­i­tal, Tehran — so it was right by the Dr Ali Shariati Muse­um. Bano’s love for Dr Shariati’s ideas and his writ­ing was an osten­ta­tious love she wore like cul­tur­al bling. She showed off about it. But her attempts to brush her one-dimen­sion­al per­son­al­i­ty with even a light dust­ing of intel­lec­tu­al­ism were inap­pro­pri­ate and out of place, espe­cial­ly giv­en the body into which this per­son­al­i­ty of her was squeezed. It was a body daubed in loud col­ors, from the radi­ant yel­low of her blind­ing­ly blonde hair — exact­ly half of which she would expose from under her gar­ish scarves — right down to the lit­tle fin­ish­ing touch­es of her col­ored lens­es or the bright orange var­nish on her long nails (clash­ing with her straw-col­ored skin).

My intu­ition about what her appear­ance indi­cat­ed was not wrong, despite her attempts to appear the oppo­site of her nature by cram­ming hack­neyed Simin Behba­hani and For­ough Far­rokhzad vers­es into her lack­lus­ter and con­tra­dic­to­ry argu­ments. I had quick­ly guessed that these cul­tur­al claims of hers mere­ly reflect­ed her urge to get close to me. This was not because my phys­i­cal form inspired her, but because faux intel­lec­tu­al­ism was in fash­ion: a new acces­so­ry for super­fi­cial young women of her gen­er­a­tion in Tehran. And in fact, the truth is that every­thing got mud­dled up. We began find­ing it hard to spot the young women of that gen­er­a­tion who were seri­ous in their intel­lec­tu­al endeav­ors, whose cul­tur­al con­scious­ness stim­u­lat­ed and expand­ed in an excit­ing way, who had read lit­er­a­ture, pol­i­tics and his­to­ry, using the inter­net to do so — hav­ing learnt to crack its code and pass eas­i­ly into its for­bid­den worlds, over­com­ing the strict gov­ern­men­tal cen­sor­ship imposed on web­sites. All of this activ­i­ty was born of the girls’ fran­tic desire to under­stand the pre­car­i­ous and crit­i­cal present moment in the puri­tan­i­cal coun­try where they had grown up. Their gen­er­a­tion had not expe­ri­enced any­thing oth­er than a post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Iran, try­ing to lib­er­ate itself as much as pos­si­ble from the strict rules of that revolution.

But Bano, as had been clear to me from the very begin­ning, was not one of those young women. She had been eager to aban­don the role she was play­ing when she took off her first piece of cloth­ing, and had then freed her­self com­plete­ly from the pre­tense of being cul­tured after our first intense sex session.

 

The flat in which Bano and I grew accus­tomed to meet­ing had belonged to her upper class fam­i­ly since before the rev­o­lu­tion. The own­ers of the res­i­den­tial flats in this area were main­ly old­er folk. Some of them, like her rela­tions, had even lived there for four or five decades. Bano’s grand­fa­ther, the head of her fam­i­ly, had migrat­ed to Ger­many direct­ly after the rev­o­lu­tion. He had left his flat to those of his chil­dren who remained in the coun­try, who had passed it on down to his grand­chil­dren, until even­tu­al­ly I arrived to sleep there with his horny granddaughter.

 

Giv­en that I was late, I thought that instead of join­ing the demon­stra­tors in Haft-e-Tir Square, I would catch up with them where the march was head­ing, in Valiasr Square. So I set off down Dr Fate­mi Street, along the side of Laleh Park, hop­ing to find a short­cut. I was demon­strat­ing on my own as I walked through the streets of Tehran, a green cloth tied around my head and anoth­er around my wrist. Ever since the start of the elec­tions and the fevered events that fol­lowed, peo­ple had been divid­ed into either sebz — green — or any oth­er col­or or thing that wasn’t green. Thus as I walked along the street I would hear the two sides of this divi­sion both shout­ing at me. One side was express­ing their indig­na­tion, mak­ing very clear their opin­ion that peo­ple like us were intent on ruin­ing the coun­try. Some of them would even freestyle on this idea in a quick speech. This would invari­ably empha­size our hav­ing ruined the rep­u­ta­tion of the great two-thou­sand-year-old empire, and would be ver­bal­ly and visu­al­ly full of a weird mix­ture of eth­nic fanati­cism and poli­tio-reli­gious affil­i­a­tion. The oth­er side glo­ri­fied our desire for change and reform and free­dom, and sup­port­ed us for it. None of my sib­lings had encour­aged my involve­ment in mobi­liz­ing for change, either before the elec­tions or in the sub­se­quent events and demon­stra­tions. They had all expressed their anx­i­ety about me, and their rel­a­tive indif­fer­ence to the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in this coun­try com­pared to their con­cern for my safe­ty. On the phone Louay said to me, in the Ara­bic he had kept up so well in exile:

 

— What’s this you’ve you got your­self mixed up in? It’s not like it’s our own coun­try, for you to be try­ing to sort it out or change it. What’s it even got to do with you?

 

I answered him in Kurdish:

 

— And is the place that boot­ed you out when you were off your guard still your coun­try, then?

 

But Louay was insistent:

 

— Nei­ther Iraqis nor Ira­ni­ans respect human­i­ty. If you don’t like the sit­u­a­tion there then work out a way to get out, and come join me over here.

 

This was not the first time that Louay had tried to per­suade me to leave this coun­try, and every­one in it, behind. He had been total­ly con­vinced about migrat­ing from the place I had arrived in at the age of four, deport­ed from Iraq when our fam­i­ly was ban­ished on the pre­text of our hav­ing Iran­ian her­itage. I was born in Bagh­dad in 1354, I mean 1976, the youngest of five boys. My real name was Akram. When I told Bano this she smiled, look­ing lust­ful­ly at me. With­out mar­vel­ling at the rest of my grip­ping sto­ry at all she sim­ply said, in her calm tone, her voice hum­ming with its usu­al white-noise resonance:

 

Ey vaaay … But if only you’d kept your name. You would’ve been much sex­i­er with a woman’s name.

 

I was not respon­si­ble for choos­ing my new name at the age of four. Whether I kept my orig­i­nal name or changed it was no longer impor­tant once each of the two names had acquired a share of me — espe­cial­ly giv­en that I did not have a pref­er­ence for either. Also, manip­u­lat­ing our names in this way was some­thing my father did, for which I for­gave him — just one more of the many mis­steps he took as a father and that I got over, unlike my broth­ers, who nur­tured bit­ter grudges towards him. I grew up with­out a true sense of that sud­den huge change that had occurred in our life, on account of how young I was when it hap­pened. I grew up with two names, and two lan­guages, and two cul­tures, and I even bore the ani­mos­i­ty between the two coun­tries in my heart in a hybrid way. I made excus­es for both coun­tries togeth­er, I got angry with both of them togeth­er, and then in the end I for­sook them both, when I final­ly worked out that resent­ment would not bring me any­thing oth­er than dis­ap­point­ments and pain.

 

Between my broth­ers and my moth­er, who all spoke the Bagh­da­di Ara­bic dialect, and my father, who delib­er­ate­ly main­tained his Kur­dish moun­tain accent, I grew up speak­ing Ara­bic and Kur­dish at the same time, plus of course Far­si. Per­haps there was a trace of a Kur­dish accent in my Ara­bic pro­nun­ci­a­tion. But I cer­tain­ly was steeped in the authen­tic fla­vors of the Iraqi ver­nac­u­lar and all it car­ried with it — from sar­don­ic humor to the nuances of obscure slang terms, all sneaked into this coun­try by my broth­ers, hid­den away inside their chests like caged birds with no inten­tion of escap­ing. Among us all I was the most accept­ing of our real­i­ty, a real­i­ty that caused the rest of them to suf­fer greatly.

 

BaghdadFeyli KurdsIran-Iraq warIranianIraqIraqiKurdish cultureTehran

Hawra Al-Nadawi (b. Baghdad 1984) immigrated with her family to Denmark in 1992 where she grew up. She published her first novel in Arabic, Under the Copenhagen Sky, in 2010, which was longlisted for IPAF and in 2012 was a contender for the Arabic Booker Prize.  She followed that with her second novel Qismet, in 2017. Both novels deal with matters of identity and alienation, which are major themes in her works. Critics have pointed out that her works combine a poetic Arabic language, with a Western structure in the novelistic framework, conceivably because of her mixed upbringing and culture. Different mixed cultures were essential in her upbringing and education, as she was homeschooled in Arabic by her Arabic and Kurdish parents, alongside her education in the Danish schools. She studied linguistics and English literature and is fluent in four languages, in addition to three other languages with intermediate proficiency; yet she’s particularly interested in the oriental languages and their literature.

Alice Guthrie is an independent translator, editor, and curator specializing in contemporary Arabic writing. Widely published since 2008, her work has often focused on subaltern voices, activist art and queerness / queering (winning her the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize 2019). Her bilingual editorial and research is part of the growing movement to decolonize Arabic-English literary translation, its evaluation and publication. As a commissioning editor she is currently compiling Sabah el Meem, the first ever anthology of LGBTQIA+ Arab(ic) literature, set to appear in parallel Arabic and English editions. Blood Feast,  her translation of the complete short stories of the maverick Moroccan gender activist and literary genius Malika Moustadraf, was published by Feminist Press NYC and Saqi London in February 2022. Alice has programmed the literary strand of London’s biennale "Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture" since 2015, and has curated queer Arab arts events for Edinburgh International Book Festival, Outburst International Queer Arts Festival and Arts Canteen. She occasionally teaches undergraduate and postgraduate Arabic-English translation at various universities including the University of Birmingham and the University of Exeter.

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