Samarqand Al-Jabery, Muhsin Mohammed, Lucy Caldwell and Rachel Holmes in discussion at the Erbil Literature Festival. (Image credit: Charla Jones)
It was the exclamation mark that said it. In the days before I left for Erbil, my emails invariably included an exclamation mark, in parentheses, after the word Iraq. ‘I can’t next week because I’ll be in Iraq (!).’ ‘Let’s meet up when I’m back from Iraq (!).’ I’m pretty sure there was an exclamation mark in brackets when I spoke about the Erbil Literature Festival, too, translating as, ‘Can you believe it?’ and, ‘I know!’ and, ‘Aren’t I intrepid – or maybe foolish, haha!’ A sort of nervous laugh-cough, which I didn’t realise I’d been doing.
I noticed only this morning, reading an email from my publisher that ended with Iraq, bracket, exclamation mark, bracket. They’d emailed to double-check something, and, dashing off a holding email in a brief patch of wi-fi, I’d written, ‘I’ll get back to you at the end of the week when I’m back from Iraq.’ It was the first time, I suddenly thought, scrolling back up through the email chain, that I’d written it straight, as an uninflected place-name, no need to anticipate or acknowledge or defuse a reaction.
It was odd arriving in Erbil. The road signs show that it’s 87 km to Kirkuk and 81 to Mosul, an only slightly-more-reassuring 320 to Baghdad; placenames that have become synonymous with conflict, car-bombings, hijackings and all the rest of it. Notorious, freighted names; and the nearest of them less than an hour’s drive away. But on patches of wasteland at the sides of the road young boys played football; girls with plastic Disney backpacks giggled as they walked home from school; mothers pushed their toddlers on brightly-coloured swings in playgrounds.
Hoardings along the side of the road advertise new business centres and prospective developments, and our hotel rises sleek and shiny and new, like any hotel in any city in the world. It shouldn’t be surprising but it is, how ordinary life goes on, and just how ordinary, in many ways, much of that life is.
I thought, inevitably, of the Belfast of my childhood years, and the friends of my mother’s who refused to visit from England; our exasperation and amusement when penpals would refuse to believe that our life was as normal and boring as theirs. Kurdistan now isn’t Belfast then. It would be disingenuous to stretch the parallels too far, but it is what crossed my mind. In the few days we’ve been here, it’s easy to forget where we are, and striking how quickly unremarkable the fact of being here becomes; the exclamation mark in brackets redundant.
In a long session yesterday we discussed how, in times and places of conflict, all narratives become subsumed into the grand narrative; there isn’t room, or space, for other stories. One writer described the recent history of Iraq as a rock on his chest, crushing him, making it impossible for him to speak about anything else.
I recognised this: it was the feeling I had when writing my first novel, frustration that people thought they knew what I was going to write before I’d written it, resentment that I had to deal with or at least acknowledge my country’s past. I tried to get around it by writing the story from the point of view of a child, to have a fresh take on things: but I was too young to know (and nobody told me) that a writer has no duty to anything beyond themselves; no obligation to engage with anything they feel or are made to feel that they ought to or should.
It felt satisfying, and more than satisfying, important, to pass this on to the young Iraqi and Kurdish writers, eighteen and nineteen and twenty and twenty-one, who spoke often of the burden of feeling they should be writing about Saddam and the invasion of Iraq, or the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, when what they really wanted to write about was (a young woman) how her parents forbade her from going to have a milkshake in a cafe with a friend, or (another young woman) a comedy about a primary school teacher and her unruly pupils or (another young woman) about the pressures of having to study so hard, or (a young man) some sort of sci-fi epic set in a future world. It is important to tell the old stories, but it is just as important to create new stories, too; new mirrors and reflections and potential ways of being.
I was mobbed after my first session in Erbil by dozens of shy but excited young women who said they didn’t know many women who wrote, and who wrote about teens and sisters and mothers and daughters. They said they’d always wanted to write but didn’t know they could write about whatever they chose, that they could write their own stories, if they wanted; that they were allowed.
‘Allowed’ is a tricky word, I know, because it suggests authority or patronage: but it’s the word they used and it’s the word I wish I’d learned or understood when I was starting out. You think you have to write about The Troubles but really all you have to write about is what you need to, the stories that tug you, and they might be the big stories and if they are, then that’s fine, too, but often they’re the other stories, the stories that are no less small or unimportant for not being the grand historical or political narratives.
You write and speak Iraq (!) without even knowing you’re doing it, but it’s remarkable and heartening how quickly the exclamation mark in parentheses slips away, as the place becomes a hundred students and their myriad lives and their thousands of hopes and ambitions and dreams for the future, for their future, for their futures.