Passeports for sale, Kurdistan Iraq
Afghan Refugees, Iran
Ibrahim Ahmed does not know exactly in which month of the spring of 1914 he was born but irrespectively of his age, he is gaining new respect for his previously little-known work as a writer. Already well-known by Middle Eastern scholars and journalists, Ibrahim Ahmed had been active in Iraqi and Kurdish politics since the late 1930s. Secretary-general of general Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) while the general was in exile in the Soviet Union from 1947-1958, he broke with Barzani soon after the beginning of the Kurdish war, in 1964. Soon after, with his son-in-law Jelal Talabani, he led a group of Kurdish dissidents who fought on the Iraqi government’s side. After the 11 March 1970 agreement between then vice-president Saddam Hussain and general Barzani, Ibrahim Ahmed lived for a while in Iraqi Kurdistan, before retiring to London.
Unlike many Kurdish leaders, Ibrahim Ahmed was never a warlord. Born in Suleimania, the intellectual capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and educated as a lawyer, for ten years he ran the litterary review “Galawej” (Pleiads) in which he published his translations of Maupassant’s short stories and other works by western writers. Shortly afterwards he began writing his own novels. “Jan-i-Gal” (The agony of a people) was written while Ibrahim Ahmed was living underground in Kirkuk in 1954-1955. After losing the manuscript, along with many other examples of his work, he rewrote it from memory in 1956. Then he found his first manuscript, made a synthesis of both texts and had to wait until 1972 before he could publish it, in the original Kurdish version, in Suleimania.
Referring to the brief “honeymoon” in the 1970s between the Kurds and the Iraqi Arabs, Ibrahim Ahmed says: “There was no opportunity for a Kurd to speak about the struggle of his nation, it was totally forbidden”. His book was never translated into Arabic or English and was virtually forgotten until it was rediscovered by a French publisher (L’Harmattan,7 rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique 75005 Paris France) and published in 1994 40 years after it was written.
The author’s long wait until his book came to fruition seems fitting for a novel called “Jan-i-Gal”. When selecting this title, Ibrahim Ahmed was playing on the double meaning of the Kurdish phrase which can mean the agony of giving birth to a child as well as the agony of giving birth to a people or a nation.
“Jan-i-Gal” begins with a scene describing the disarray of a Kurdish man, Jwamer, who cannot bear to witness the pain of his wife, Kaleh, who is about to give birth to a child. Jwamer decides to go and look for the midwife. By chance, or by ill luck, he runs into a demonstration; he is seriously wounded and arrested as a ringleader. After a rigged trial, Jwamer is sentenced to ten years in jail. His story really begins after he has served his sentence and is being driven back home in a bus, escorted by a policeman. As he travels towards home he remembers yet again the fatal minutes that changed his destiny. As soon as he is set free, Jwamer goes in search of his wife and child. It is only on the final page of the book that the reader and Jwamer realise that neither his wife Kaleh nor their child survived the traumatic delivery.
Sheltered by a cousin who dares not tell Jwamer the truth of their death but pretends they are alive and living as refugees, Jwamer goes through the agony of a man who returns to a place which used to be his city, but is not any more the home he remembers. People have changed, for better or for worse. Nothing is left of his former home, which has been completely demolished by the authorities. Jwamer meets relatives and old friends. He tells them the truth, that he played no part in the demonstration which led to his arrest and that in no way whatsoever was he the big hero that so many people, even his friends, believed he was. He reveals how he was wounded and arrested, interrogated, beaten, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment all by mistake; and he tells what life was like in an Iraqi jail.
The author knows the Iraqi jails inside out. Arrested in 1949, he spent two months in the infamous jail of Abu Ghraib, before being sent for two years to the central jail of Bagdad. Ibrahim Ahmed contains two personalities: a militant who was once close to the Communist Party of Iraq, and could be quite dogmatic; and a writer with a real talent who never loses track of his sense of humour. When Ibrahim Ahmed describes what had become of Jwamer’s friends after his imprisonment, we see that some of them are with the Kurdish national liberation army, others work for the government, others just make money. Ibrahim Ahmed paints them all with a rare humanity. His characters are not making empty political speeches, they are real human beings, fighting, suffering, and profiting, as so many people are still doing today in Iraqi Kurdistan and throughout the Middle East.
During his long search for his wife Khaleh and his child, Jwamer meets a woman living in an almost completely destroyed village with her children. This man who is obsessed by the image of his wife cannot help feeling some warmth towards this pretty young woman. But then planes fly over the village and the woman, suspecting an air attack, runs back to her house to take a few banknotes she fears will be lost in the air raid; she is killed, dying for a few dinars.
It is this all-pervasive feeling of the absurdity of the human condition that gives Ibrahim Ahmed’s book its very special flavour. His characters are not portrayed in black and white, either as heroes or bad guys. They all suffer, victims of their individual ill-fated destiny.
Amazingly fit for a man of 82, Ibrahim Ahmed regards his renewed celebrity with a wide smile. Sitting on a sofa besides one of his grand daughters called Khaleh, after the Khaleh of “Jan-i-Gal”, in the Paris appartment he shares with his daughter Hataw, born in Kirkuk in 1955, when he was writing the book, Ibrahim Ahmed confesses he does not know exactly how many books he has written: “What’s the point in counting”?, he asks with a smile, “since they are all lost!”.
(The Middle East magazine, November 1996)
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Hassan al Bakr
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002