Two Women - Reflections on human rights and the poetry of Choman Hardi

by James Graham

One day last week I learned for the first time of an incident that took place some months ago in Northern Iraq. It was the 'honour killing' of a young woman. We all know that such crimes against women are not uncommon, but this one seemed even more cruel and perverted than most.

To know this story felt almost like having taken poison. But before telling it I should say that, browsing in my local library that same day, I was lucky enough to find a kind of antidote - in the poetry of Choman Hardi.

It was a death by stoning, and it took place on 7th April this year, in the town of Bashika in Iraqi Kurdistan; the victim, Du’a Khalil Aswad, was 17. Her family belongs to the Kurdish Yazidi religion, which is not Muslim. Like most religions it claims to represent absolute truth and regards other religions as false. Like most religions too it is obsessed with sexual relations, and wherever its sexual prohibitions are transgressed, it blames and punishes women.

Du'a had a Sunni Muslim boy friend, and sometime around the beginning of April was foolish enough to spend a night away from home. Whether or not she stayed at her boy friend's house is unclear, but it seems to have been assumed. Aware she was in danger, she had gone into hiding in the house of a tribal leader, but a hit squad of eight or nine men – including close male relatives – found her, dragged her out into the street, and killed her. Her death was not quick or ‘merciful’; it lasted about half an hour. Adding a modern touch which may become more and more a feature of these crimes, the whole of her suffering was filmed at close range by at least two of the gang, and subsequently put on the internet.

Where do we place the murder of Du’a Khalil Aswad in the scale of human wickedness? Some acts of cruelty that we would never commit ourselves can at least be encompassed by the imagination. But to imagine a man setting out at the head of a kind of posse, along with his sons and some of his male neighbours, to find and murder his own daughter, and allow her dying struggles and cries to be filmed? This killing seems to cancel all our notions of shared humanity and solidarity.

This 'honour killing' is one of the cases currently on the books of Amnesty International. Amnesty members throughout the world have written to the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, urging him to bring the perpetrators of this despicable crime to justice. As with many (though by no means all) Amnesty actions, it is a gesture with little hope of success – but it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

The poet Choman Hardi is also a Kurdish woman. When she was 14, Saddam Hussein carried out his chemical attacks against the Kurdish people, and her family fled to Iran. This was the second time they had been forced to leave Iraq because of persecution. Hardi has lived in England since 1993. In 2004 Bloodaxe published her first collection of poems in English, Life for Us.

By way of an overall critical assessment, I can do no better than quote George Szirtes, whose recommendation appears on the book's cover. Hardi's poems, he says, tell very directly of war, persecution and forced migration. But they are 'far more than simple summonings of facts...There is a kind of tranquillity and civilisation in the voice which heals as it weeps: the tears are not those of self-pity but those of ageless lamentations, caught freshly here, formed into fresh shapes.'

Many of the poems are indeed 'summonings of facts'. Dropping Gas: 16th March 1988 is a documentary, an eye-witness account in verse of Halabja in the immediate aftermath of the dropping of chemical agents that killed up to 5,000 people. There are the cries everywhere of people discovering the bodies of their loved ones; there is 'a man's back and the face of his baby under his arm'. There are

...some journalists taking photos,
some men robbing the dead bodies,
and a clear sky'.

The strength of the poem lies in what seems at first an extraordinary detachment in the voice. But with further reading this voice begins to take on a greater complexity: in some lines it seems the voice of a child; elsewhere it seems perhaps the voice of an adult whose senses are numbed and who is almost in denial. Perhaps my ear for the voice of 'ageless lamentations' is less acute than that of Szirtes, for in the closing lines of this poem I hear mainly the child. There's a certain timelessness, I suppose, in the simple language, and this may be what Szirtes means.

I stand here watching, crying and not crying.
I know that I don't know anything,
that I will never know anything
and I know that this ruin
is the only knowledge I will ever have.

Another item in the collection which I find very memorable are the companion poems entitled Two Pages. In each of the two poems - Delivering a message and Not delivering a message - a sheet of paper is given a life of its own and speaks in the first person. In the first,

I was asleep in the middle of a pad
when he started writing on the first page.

As we later discover, a man is writing to a woman. His pen presses down hard, so that the page in the middle can 'feel' the force of his emotion. He writes and discards one version after another until he reaches the page that is the poem's narrator; here, after making himself 'a calming tea', he writes his final version. We have pretty soon guessed that this is not a love letter, or any other good news, though this is perhaps what the recipient expects.

She received me early one morning
in a rush, leaving her flat.
She ripped the envelope. Then, gradually,
her steps slowed down,
her fingers tightened round me.

The device of animating the sheet of paper is like the kind of writing exercise teachers used to give their classes: A day in the life of a ten pence piece. Here again we have the voice of a child - an adult story told using a childhood narrative device. The same device is used to powerful effect in the second of the two poems.

In Not delivering a message, a sheet of paper begins by telling us:

All my life I waited for words -
a poem, a letter, a mathematical puzzle.

But this sheet along with thousands of others is loaded on to a plane. The narrator and all the other sheets are like excited children being taken on a trip. But when suddenly they are thrown out of the plane, scattered on the wind, they are utterly shocked and confused - not least by the fact that they are all blank. People on the ground pick them up, expecting a message, but there is none. The reality is that the blank pages are a terrible warning, one that nobody is able to understand until it is too late.

Two hours later they dropped the real thing.
We had been testing the wind direction.
Thousands of people were gassed that day.

In her poems Choman Hardi keeps faith with her people, and gives encouragement to all of us. They are an affirmation of that common humanity that seems submerged both in 'honour' killings and in the mass murder of innocent people with mustard gas and sarin. It's good that she has been writing in English as well as Kurdish, and I am glad I came across her book in such a timely way.

James Graham.

Some more of Choman Hardi's poems can be found on the Open Democracy website:

Amazon link:

Link to Du’a Khalil Aswad's case at the Amnesty International website: