A novel of Kurdish resistance and the quandary of human rights in our time
The most compelling new novel I read in 2020 is Daughters of Smoke and Fire from debut Kurdish-Canadian novelist Ava Homa. This dynamic advocacy piece for Kurds and women’s rights in the Middle East was also the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada Writers in Exile Scholarship.
Much of the novel is set in the Kurdish region of Iran. The story’s fiery protagonist, Leila, is an aspiring filmmaker. Her journey is very much a coming of age tale, but one occurring amidst ongoing oppression and misogyny. Early on in the novel, we meet her vital friend Shiler, named after a flower that grows in abundance in the region. We are told the shiler flower knows no borders. It symbolizes the hope of a world one day that overcomes the mental borders of so many nation states, and the ethnic and racial discrimination faced by vulnerable minorities. In this novel, we see the incredible efforts to erase and discredit one particular minority, the Kurds of Iran. Kurds in other countries of the Middle East are also frequently on the minds of Leila and Shiler.
In a fascinating interview available online, Homa emphasizes her struggle to find a publisher for her manuscript. Apparently, the subject of Kurds – and particularly the role of Kurdish women standing up for their nation’s dignity and fundamental rights in Iran – was an exotic tale too difficult to market. Eventually she found a publisher in Overlook Press. A further skirmish ensued over the cover. In the end, Homa prevailed in her effort to picture the shiler. The story she tells of the arm wrestling nicely encapsulates the extraordinary efforts Homa has made over many years to identify and dramatize the Kurds. This large population remains stateless at this time and subject to widespread oppression in each of the Middle East countries where they reside.
The Kurds represent the largest national grouping in the world that has been denied its own nation-state.
This leads us to consider the rights (or the lack of rights) that adhere to those who are stateless. Hannah Arendt and others wrote in the mid-20th century of Jews, Roma and Spaniards (who, as supporters of the democratic Republic, were persona non grata after Franco’s assent to power) who were, or who became, stateless. In the postwar era, one can point to other national groups denied statehood. This would include Tibetans, Uyghurs, Palestinians under occupation, the Rohingya and the Kurds. The list is of course not an exclusive one.
Those of us who are “believers” in human rights and belong to various human rights organizations (like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and PEN Canada) necessarily must support the notion that all humans in some sense possess rights. We believe refugees – or those like the Kurds, Tibetans or Palestinians who have inexplicably been denied a state of their own – must surely possess rights that they, as well as others, acting in solidarity, can point to.
In Arendt’s 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism, she sets forth her case that those who are participants and members of a political community (most obviously, the nation-state) possess rights. The rights she reflects upon are those that the state guarantees or affirms and is in a position to enforce. Arendt’s central point is that there is a “right to have rights”. She concludes though that there is something hollow about abstract proclamations of human rights. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 appears to have done nothing, on her view of history, to protect those most in need of such safeguards in the growing tide of ultra-nationalism and fascism in the 1930s and 1940s (and beyond) in Europe and elsewhere. Rights can only be protected through government action or legal enforcement, within the sphere of a sovereign state.
Let’s return to the plight of the Kurds and the lives of Leila, her beleaguered parents, and her much-loved brother Chia. As a Canadian, it is a sobering experience to read this novel. It asks the reader to cross a very long bridge to an unfamiliar world. In contemporary Iran, there are no legislated protections, far less a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that Leila, her friends and family can lean on as they face discrimination daily. They are harshly punished for exercising their “right” to free speech and to associate in demonstrations to protest the unfair and degrading conditions they are expected to endure.
There are riveting scenes in the novel that will be of particular interest to law students and those interested in the ways law and an authoritarian “rule by law” (instead of rule of law) can operate to deny the most basic of freedoms and dignity. The Iranian legal system is shown to be an alien force and makes a mockery of a just legal trial. After one such trial, Leila is depicted impulsively punching a decorative glass scale (of justice) on a lawyer’s table.
Despite this massive adversity, the despised Leila still finds a way to promote her brother’s writings and his cause, as a wrongfully imprisoned political inmate in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. She suffers repeated setbacks but finds the resolve to pursue her dream to become a filmmaker. For her and other close companions, it is vital to tell the central stories of Kurds and deliver these to a world that has either not heard the news or has until now remained indifferent.
Homa leaves me wondering, however, which destination her courageous protagonist arrives at. Are a stateless people, and a vulnerable ethnic group like the Kurds in Iran, in a position to seek out an affirmation of their rights? In reality, do they possess human rights? The question is a troubling one and certainly yields no easy answers.
Arendt’s philosophical tour de force cannot be the final answer. It surely cannot be that some have the right to have rights and others do not.
We cannot have left a whole swath of humanity with no fundamental rights where they are stateless, and a distinct “other” within a nation state like Iran that seems to want little to do with them and treats them with much disdain. The point of the human rights movement, as represented by great organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and others in civil society, is that we can and must document human rights abuses. We must proclaim the need to take meaningful actions to protect the lives and wellbeing of those whom various governments around the globe are unwilling or unable to protect. Kurds, like the memorable characters in Daughters of Smoke and Fire, call out for a compassionate response.
In the Afterward, Homa recounts how Farzad Kamangar, a schoolteacher in rural Iran who became a human rights icon, was the foremost inspiration for her writing the novel. From his vantage point in an impoverished village in Kurdistan, Iran, the government accused him of the most improbable offences. Despite vehemently denying the charges, he was denied even the semblance of a fair trial and was tortured repeatedly before being sentenced to death. Amazingly, he was able to recount his ordeal but also his inner feelings, his love of the life that the prosecution and his torturers robbed him of. Certainly, Kurds opposed the trial and sentence. Further, groups such as Amnesty International compiled reports and denounced the violation of his basic rights. Amnesty International calls upon human rights activists to remain inspired by Kamangar’s tireless advocacy for Kurds and to act on behalf of other Kurdish activists at risk.
In a world where various governments deny that some people are entitled to rights, we must find a way to affirm these vulnerable persons do have rights. And we must never forget this.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then.
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