Arsalan Chalabi

The Words Grew with the Bullets

My grandmother always told me that the night I was born there was a curfew. At the midnight of the last month of the winter, in 1986, at Bukan in Iranian Kurdistan. The first seconds of my life began with crisis and fear. My grandmother used to narrate:

“A military detachment with four cars was idling in the alley and at the end of the street, thinking that the house whose lights were on at midnight because of my daughter’s childbirth must have accommodated a series of Kurdish partisans, and that there must be something going on!”

The concept of time makes sense to me among words. I grew up among words. The words that were smuggled in. Their presence brought fear, horror, but beauty at the same time. We kept this language in our hearts for a long time. Every day, some of its words were published in newspapers or books in other countries in poems or stories and other texts, and after being smuggled on horseback, they cross the borders into Kurdistan from the mountains. After hundreds of years, this language was secretly updated in the mountains and basements of Kurdistan in books, pamphlets, and newspapers and found its way to the cities. Words passed from town to town and village to village, along with the sound of gunshots fired from all directions, mountains, deserts, plains, and forests. The words grew with the bullets. 

The words came down from the mountains along with bullets. They saw the trees. They were seen in the streets, on the wall of the municipality, school, and police station—words and bullets in the bathrooms of mosques, parks, chairs, and bus stations. Words and bullets in the chest, brain, suit pocket, even our breasts, they were everywhere but secret, invisible!

Well, dear reader, I was wondering how to start my story? I mean, from which event and which location should I start? However, now, let me start from prison. I think it is tangible to start a story in the middle of prison; it is perfectly normal. The day I soaked my notebook in the prison library with tea is a good start.

I was drying the pages in my notebook. I had a black hairdryer with an on/off button. It produced a weak warmth which was better for my pages. My Kurdish words were about to drown. If it were not for that hairdryer, hundreds of words would have lost their lives.

It was full of books all around, all in Persian and Arabic. We read the Quran and Hadith ten hours a week. A mullah would come and talk for us 10 hours a week about heaven, hell, God, Satan, religion, Christianity, the United Nations, and America. He talked about everything. I had not spoken to anyone for almost three months. Except in critical situations! Arabic and Persian words had thrown the dust of oblivion on my mother’s language words. Having a Kurdish book, a cassette, and a tape recorder was my only wish when I was sent there for correction.

I slept at night in a large hall among fifty-nine boys from ten to seventeen years old. Everyone spoke Persian. I was mainly in the library, with the notebook and pen I had brought with me on the first day of prison. I was mostly writing. I spent almost three months without my blue words and cassettes, far from the city and my family; it was scratching my soul every day. My mind was filled with Persian and Arabic words. I would kill time in any way I could to get rid of that hell. It was early spring. I had a week left until freedom.

I took out my notebook and edited my poems, a collection of thirty short poems that I intended to publish. All I could think about was writing. I spent every day practicing writing in Kurdish. I was going to war with Persian and Arabic words with Kurdish words. During the days, I returned defeated and tired of war, and at night I would plunder whatever there was with Kurdish words. I was victorious.

The curfew was ordered from 9 o’clock on the night I was born. My grandmother narrated:

“No house had the right to have its lights on. No one had the right to commute in the city. Several partisan teams had entered Iran from the borders of Iraq Kurdistan. At noon of that day, a quarrel broke out between Kurdish partisan forces and the Iranian army in the gardens of Amirabad Bukan. From that evening on, the whole city was fenced. When darkness covered the city with its wings, the radio was on next to your mother at midnight. It was playing an old Kurdish folk song. We turned on the lights when your mother was in much pain. Your father soon hid the radio. I had not yet cut the umbilical cord when two soldiers were standing over you, your mother and I, staring at us. After the soldiers left the house, your father was happy, and to the delight of the newborn son, he put out the radio and turned it on again. An old Kurdish singer sang alongside a government parasite on a radio station in Europe: Kurds! OH, breathless Kurds! Oh, oh soulless Kurds! Oh, oh soilless Kurds! Homeless and oppressed Kurds! Suffering for thousands of years! Kurds! Sisyphus! Sisyphus Kurds!”

Arsalan Chalabi was Born in 1986 in Bukan – Iranian Kurdistan. He has published 13 collections of poems and fiction in Kurdish and Persian. In 2015, he was arrested by Iranian intelligence agency forces and accused of organizing and participating in demonstrations supporting Kobani and the Kurdish people and fled to Iraq after his temporary discharge. He made his journey to Denmark in 2016, where he sought political asylum, and lives there. His other work can be found in Flemmes Vives Anthology, Recours au Poems No. 159, The Curlew, HVEDEKORNE Magazine, Udkant Magazine, and Politiken Newspaper.