Why Resistance Is Foundational to Kurdish Literature

15 September, 2021
“The Peace Dance” by Kur­dish artist Delaw­er Omer.

Ava Homa

how state­less­ness, trau­ma and polit­i­cal exile shaped her nov­el Daugh­ters of Smoke and Fire


Com­ing of age as a Kur­dish girl in Iran, I learned ear­ly on that my being alive was an act of sub­ver­sion. I belong to a peo­ple who have been sub­ject to repeat­ed geno­cides. Ever since the Allies redrew the map of the Mid­dle East after World War I, we have been under attack by four atro­cious states that have per­ceived us as threats to be anni­hi­lat­ed, nev­er humans. From the 1937–1938 Der­sim Mas­sacre at the hands of the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, Sad­dam Hussein’s 1986–1988 Anfal Geno­cide in Iraq, and the ongo­ing exe­cu­tions in Iran, to today’s eth­nic mas­sacre in Syr­ia, Kurds are a nation that has been denied a state of its own and, con­se­quent­ly, we have been denied the right to exist and live in peace.

I was raised with hushed sto­ries of mas­sacres and how we sur­vived them. How state sol­diers, even vol­un­teer mili­tia, came to our cities and vil­lages to kill us, to more than kill us. They gassed us, torched our vil­lages, raped our women, shot fathers before the wide eyes of their children…

Those of us who sur­vived the phys­i­cal era­sure of our lives faced cul­tur­al destruc­tion. The states that ruled over us told us we didn’t exist, or if we did, we were mere­ly what they named us; Turkey called Kurds moun­tain Turks. Iran called Kurds mof­sid filarz: cor­rup­tors on earth. Those who fought back against state aggres­sion were labeled ter­ror­ists.

As Kur­dish par­ents tried to pro­tect their off­spring under the anni­hi­late-or-assim­i­late poli­cies, we grad­u­al­ly lost parts of our her­itage and devel­oped a cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance between gen­er­a­tions who had dif­fi­cul­ty com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Our lan­guage and his­to­ry were banned, our pain was ridiculed and used against us — we were denied and defined by our oppres­sors, reduced to sub­hu­mans, in ways that shat­tered our pride and dignity.

Daugh­ters of Smoke and Fire is avail­able from Overlook/Abrams.

In spite of — or per­haps because of — all of that, Kurds have become mas­ters of ris­ing from the ash­es. Our state­less­ness killed us but also taught us to res­ur­rect. It’s no won­der that our most com­mon mantra, espe­cial­ly in Roja­va, has been Barx­o­dan Jiana: Resis­tance is life.

To resist/exist, I have relied on the arts. Lit­er­a­ture has been my refuge and shel­ter, my life sup­port, but my search to find myself in it proved futile. Grow­ing up illit­er­ate in, and there­fore alien­at­ed from, the Kur­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture, I searched for my reflec­tion in Per­sian and world lit­er­a­ture in Eng­lish. But I nev­er found any­one remote­ly sim­i­lar to me. No one had writ­ten Kur­dish women into lit­er­a­ture. We had to do it our­selves. I won a schol­ar­ship to earn my Master’s Degree in Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing at Wind­sor Uni­ver­si­ty in Canada.

Thus, my years of writ­ing in exile began. I put blood and sweat into craft­ing short sto­ries of mod­ern Iran­ian women and pub­lished Echoes from the Oth­er Land which went on to be nom­i­nat­ed for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Sto­ry Prize. And I spent the next nine years writ­ing my debut nov­el Daugh­ters of Smoke and Fire, which was pub­lished by The Over­look Press in the Unit­ed States and Harper­Collins in Cana­da at the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic. (The paper­back was released ear­li­er this year.)

Like many oth­er dias­poric Kurds, I taught myself to read and write in my moth­er tongue and learned my his­to­ry and pol­i­tics. I searched for the sto­ries of Kur­dish women who had simul­ta­ne­ous­ly fought gen­der and eth­nic oppres­sion and had a voice: Women like Ley­la Zana and oth­er par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, may­ors, and lead­ers who were elect­ed yet jailed, who endured the most sadis­tic sex­u­al tor­ture and still sent out mes­sages of courage and deter­mi­na­tion from behind bars. In Kur­dish lit­er­a­ture and in real life, pow­er­ful Kur­dish women—and men, like the exe­cut­ed teacher Farzad Kaman­gar, whose life was the inspi­ra­tion for my nov­el; like the impris­oned Selaht­tin Demir­tas who has been called the Kur­dish Oba­ma—lived com­plex, resilient lives.

Kurds have been able to gov­ern their own area since Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad’s iron fist was lift­ed from their sup­pressed region in 2012, as he turned atten­tion to crush­ing an upris­ing in the south. Some 11,000 lives were lost in the effort to defeat the Islam­ic State, and wide­spread images of Kur­dish female fight­ers went viral on inter­na­tion­al media. When Roja­va came to exist as of 2012, it became my par­adise regained. What gave my writ­ing hope and courage was the type of soci­ety Kurds cre­at­ed: a bot­tom-top, demo­c­ra­t­ic, fem­i­nist, eth­ni­cal­ly-inclu­sive, and eco­log­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able enclave. They banned child mar­riage, forced mar­riage, and polygamy, and they cre­at­ed com­munes where women had veto power.

Roja­va, this oasis in a volatile region, though imper­fect, was anoth­er major rea­son I believed I could cre­ate char­ac­ters who’d find and employ agency against hor­rors of geno­cides, exe­cu­tions, and betray­als. The exis­tence, in Roja­va, of women’s lib­er­a­tion, demo­c­ra­t­ic con­fed­er­al­ism and environmentalism—a mod­el that not only the Kurds but the world needs—has been the most inspir­ing Kur­dish real­i­ty. The char­ac­ters that I had cre­at­ed in my nov­el jumped out of the page and lived in Roja­va. Daugh­ters of Smoke and Fire, which is inter­wo­ven with 50 years of mod­ern Kur­dish his­to­ry, tells the sto­ry of three Kur­dish chil­dren grow­ing up togeth­er, Leila, Chia, and Shiler, but find­ing dif­fer­ent means to defy nonex­is­tence: a pen, a cam­era, a gun.

Read an excerpt from Ava Homa’s Daugh­ters of Smoke and Fire

But then, the inva­sion hap­pened in Octo­ber. As 400,000 were dis­placed, burned, killed and trau­ma­tized, hope­less­ness took over me. I watched all that’s good, right, and pos­si­ble being destroyed or used as a bar­gain­ing chip between politicians.

Among the hor­rif­ic videos and oth­er evi­dence of Turkey’s war crimes that have emerged since the country’s inva­sion of Syr­ia, one, in par­tic­u­lar, shat­tered me inside.

A 35-year-old Kur­dish female politi­cian, Hevrin Kha­laf, who had been work­ing to fos­ter Kurdish–Arab coop­er­a­tion in post­war Syr­ia, is pulled out of her car and vio­lent­ly beat­en with met­al objects. Footage shows Turk­ish-backed mili­ti­a­men shout­ing insults as they assas­si­nate her. They drag her by the hair until her skin is peeled off her scalp. Turkey’s main­stream media proud­ly broad­cast­ed the mur­der as a “suc­cess­ful oper­a­tion of neu­tral­iz­ing” a “ter­ror­ist.”

For a Kur­dish writer-in-exile like me, this wasn’t sim­ply anoth­er gory and inhu­mane video on social media. It opened up my his­toric pain and inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma and swal­lowed me alive. I felt par­a­lyzed for sev­er­al days and nights.

Still, being a Kur­dish writer is about rebirth and resistance.The pre­car­i­ous life of Kurds has trav­eled through his­to­ry and will con­tin­ue to do so. If I do what I know how to do, at the very least, I can show that even in the age of nation-states, state­less Kurds mat­ter and we are as com­pli­cat­ed, impor­tant, imper­fect, fun­ny, and fas­ci­nat­ing as any oth­er group of humans. Per­haps if we are remind­ed of our human­i­ty — of Kurds, of every­one — we can cre­ate glob­al poli­cies that reflect that.

IranIraqKurdish identitySyriaTurkey

Critically-acclaimed author of Daughters of Smoke and Fire, Ava Homa is also an activist and a journalist. She holds an MA in English and creative writing from the University of Windsor. Her collection of short stories, Echoes from the Other Land, was nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Prize, and she is the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-In-Exile Scholarship.