Whispering Walls and the inherited complexities of Kurdish life

Summary: Whispering Walls is a timely and important debut novel from the British-Kurdish author Choman Hardi, a well-known feminist who has long fought for gender equality in Kurdish society.

We thank Sirwan Kajjo for today’s newsletter, a review of Choman Hardi’s Whispering Walls published by Afsana Press. Sirwan is a Washington-based journalist and author. He works at Voice of America, where he focuses on Islamic militancy, Kurdish affairs, and conflict in the Middle East. His debut novel, Nothing But Soot, was published in 2015. Sirwan is a regular contributor to the Arab Digest podcast. You can find his latest podcast here.

Whispering Walls recounts episodes from the lives of three siblings, the main characters of Choman Hardi’s novel, along with other members of their families who make up an essential part of the plot. Set in the UK and Iraqi Kurdistan, the novel takes readers back and forth between the two in a beautiful harmony as if geography is of no significance. But Hardi makes a point of sharing charming and meticulous details from the UK, the adopted homeland of two of the siblings Lana and Hiwa, as well as vivid features of their hometown where Gara, the third sibling, still lives.

Gara, however, is not the only link between the two places. There are also their deceased parents as well as their martyred brother, Kawa, and their sister Tara who died by suicide. It is the nostalgic tone that Hardi uses at times that makes the novel a tribute to a bygone era while successfully managing to preserve the intensity and liveliness of the present.

The backdrop of the story is the 2003 Iraq war, or more accurately, the weeks leading up to the war. Hardi turns this into a perfect timeline for portraying mixed emotions about the concept of war, the state of Kurds living under a brutal dictatorship and the philosophical dilemmas that her characters have no choice but to deal with.

Hardi’s sometimes raw style is a clear defiance not only vis-à-vis the regimes that suppressed the Kurds but also her own people, a people mired by societal and political contradictions. And the feminist voice in Hardi keeps pushing unapologetically to broach topics long deemed taboo such as interracial love relationships, sex, and patriarchy. It transcends stereotypical narratives and pulls apart conventional norms.

Throughout the novel, it is clear that the author attempts to evoke certain reactions. She does so by relying on her powerful feminist and poetic drives. And the outcome is a sequence of truthful narratives that depict intensely intricate lives.

Whispering Walls has no flawless protagonists. Its characters are ordinary yet complex and highly educated. They are sophisticated through a set of unique dynamics; a testament to a Kurdish psyche that has been traumatized by decades of war, oppression and racial subjugation.

Resilience is a common thread among Hardi’s characters throughout the novel. It’s present in Lana’s poetic side and in her thoughtful dialogues with Amer, her easygoing Arab boyfriend. It’s the precision of those conversations that makes the book a solid text. But it’s also seen through Hiwa’s character, a gentle soul who doesn’t hide his vulnerabilities. He is a man who, despite these very weaknesses, possesses a distinct strength that helps him navigate his familial life and cope with his unresolved trauma.

But perhaps it’s Gara, the brother living  in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, who mostly represents contradictory elements in Kurdish society. He is a passionate journalist who has high hopes for his people to be liberated from tyranny and oppression. Yet Gara is surrounded by people who have a lot of baggage. He is married to a woman who used to be the wife of his handsome, revolutionary brother Kawa, killed during the resistance war against the regime of Saddam Hussein. The complicated – and at times awkward – relationship with his spouse, the presence of a rheumatoid-ridden, widowed, yet sweet aunt and the blissful existence of a son, all define Gara’s perspective on life.

For me as a Kurd, the short Kurdish phrases that Hardi throws into the novel, when circumstances allow, makes her work even more authentic. This is not just a cosmetic rendition that authors sometimes bring to their texts. It’s a rather successful attempt at textualizing emotions.

Whispering Walls is a novel that also talks about small successes that make up the very being of its characters, small successes that matter in the most important moments of life. It is a book about the paradoxes that have shaped Hardi’s own society. It is a glimpse into a Kurdish world that outsiders know little about – independent from its caricature-like representation in the mainstream media, especially in the West.

Choman Hardi has written a book that is not only painfully relatable to many Kurds, but is also resonant for many other communities, especially those who live in the diaspora. Her work brings a much-needed voice that is both original and creative in its own right. Whispering Walls is an utterly important contribution to the global literary scene.

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