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March 22, 2007
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Perpetrators and Victims in Backtiar Ali’s Kurdish Novel “The City of White Musicians”

Kurdish Aspect - By Dr. Choman Hardi




















how surviving oppression does not make people beautiful, how the line between victims and victimizers can be so narrow. The novel tells us again how complicated it is to be human.

The story of Iraq's 1988 genocide campaign against the Kurds is told from a brothel in the south of Iraq. Fate brings together a Kurdish prostitute, an art-loving Kurdish doctor, a repenting Arab General and an Anfal survivor. Each of the characters is obsessed with something. The prostitute, Dalia Sirajadeen, is obsessed with rescuing her lover from the underground world of torture dungeons. The doctor, Musa Babak, is obsessed with helping art and beauty go underground during the dictatorship. The General, Samir Al-Babilee, is obsessed with absolving himself from a past full of committing atrocities. The Anfal survivor, Jeladet the Dove is obsessed with truth and justice. Through the characters' dreams, nightmares and searches we discover a captivating world of oppression, genocide, regret, survival and perseverance.

Jeladet the Dove is captured during the Anfal campaign and is transported to the mass graves in the south of Iraq. He is saved by a brutal General who hears him play the flute in the back of the military truck. Samir Al-Babilee takes the wounded musician to the only person he can trust- the prostitute Daila Sirajadeen. She, along with Dr Musa Babek bring back Jaladet from a near death by bleeding. At first Jeladet does not remember what has happened to him or to his friends. As he follows Dalia in her late night trances into the desert he sees the ghosts of the buried, the head scarves that swim on the sand, and the wounded phantoms that have lost their way. He listens to the smothered screams and the echoing gunshots. He keeps asking Dalia what is going on but she cannot tell him. No one knows what has happened to his friends who were captured with him in the mountains. Then one day Dalia secretly introduces him to Samir Al-Babilee. The General has taken part in an unsuccessful military coup against the dictator and is now on the run. Jeladet the Dove hides the General in his room and night after night he listens to the man’s confessions. Samir Al-Babilee tells Jeladet about his victims, how he tortured and killed them, how he gained a reputation for being brutal and how because of this he was promoted to the top. Jeladet the Dove cries for the victims, for his friends whom he would never see again, for all the wandering ghosts in the desert that would never find their way home. He also cries for Samir Al-Babilee who is haunted by his past. Samir Al-Babilee becomes Jeladet’s prisoner of his own accord. Together they head to the Kurdish north after the uprising of 1991 and share a room in a half destroyed hotel where the refugees settle.

The affinity that grows between Jeladet and Samir, the victim and the victimiser, is one of the most touching things in this novel. It is only conceivable for the two men to become friends because Samir Al-Babilee confesses and regrets. Telling the truth and recognising that he has wronged many makes Samir Al-Babilee an admirable and even likeable character. We come to see him as another kind of victim in a state ruled by violence. I read this novel while I was doing my field work in Kurdistan, interviewing the widows of Anfal. It confirmed to me once again how important it is for the survivors to have their pain acknowledged by the victimiser. The importance of knowing the truth was repeatedly confirmed in my research findings. Those who have survived want to know what has happened to their loved ones, where they are buried, and how they were killed. Most of all they want an apology, a recognition that what they endured was inhumane and unjustifiable. Samir Al-Babilee is reconciled with Jeladet the Dove, one of his victims, through the truth, but he is not forgiven.

Among the most interesting parts of The City of White Musicians are the conversations that arise around justice, forgiveness, truth, beauty and morality. Dr Musa believes the best we can do for justice in a world dominated by violence and ugliness is to produce beautiful things and protect them from destruction. Jeladet, on the other hand, believes that Samir Al-Babilee should be brought to justice even though he likes Samir and does not know how justice can be served. Samir Al-Babilee believes that his purification is only possible through telling the truth, facing up to what he has done and to his victims. While searching for the victims, Jeladet finds Haleem Shewaz. Half of Shewaz's face was blown off by Samir Al-Babilee and now he lives as a recluse. Shewaz accuses Jeladet of being stupid. He says:

Throughout history oppressors come and go and no one punishes them, you are following a mirage. Let's say we killed Samir Al-Babilee, would that change anything in the world? Would I be able to show my face once again? Would I?

Shewaz believes that if he comes out of seclusion, people would soon forget what has happened to him and they will only see his ugliness:

In a few years who will remember that there was a bad government, it had terrible officers who arrested innocent people, mutilated their faces and released them... How would you explain this to the children? You idiot, how would you?

During the trial he tells the others that killing Samir Al-Babilee will not bring peace to earth, it will not heal anyone's wounds or return the dead:

What you call justice is merely your thirst for revenge... the murderer has made you become like him... I want to tell him: look at me, Samir Al-Babilee, I forgive you so I am still beautiful. You could not kill the beauty inside me.

Shewaz then faces the other victims and tells the court:

There is a bit of beauty left in us and in him, let's not kill that.

This addresses an important issue: the ability of victims to become victimisers. The anger felt by victims, the search for justice and for putting things right can sometimes lead to committing more violence. Nasreen Ghafur who was raped by an army for a week and then had her hands cut off by Samir Al-Babilee believes he should die. She believes one can forgive the loss of limbs but not that of honour:

I told him, 'Sir, kill me but don't disgrace me. Honour is valuable, sir! I am a woman sir, treat me like one, I am a hopeless woman, sir'. But he told his dogs to undress me. I told him, 'For God's sake sir! For the Prophet's sake... till my death people would say: 'That is the woman who was ridden by so many Arab men she cannot close her legs anymore... I kiss your shoes sir! Now you dishonoured me at least leave me my hands... people live by two things, their hands and their honour. Leave me one of them sir... You took one, don't take the other'.

Both Shewaz, who talks about people’s response to his distorted looks, and Nasrin, who worries about what people would say about her being raped, point to an important consequence of state violence in communities. The victims of violence can once again be victimised in their communities. Those who were victims of rape during Anfal may be stigmatised in the community. Some are even killed. The blame is shifted onto the victims who endured the injustices and had no power to evade them. A woman who was kept in solitary confinement in one of the camps, and was assumed to be raped, lost her two daughters on her release. Her in-laws believed she was not a good mother and took her children away from her. She had no one to turn to, no legal help or community support was available to her and for over ten years she was unable to see her children. There is also another kind of abuse which amounts in taking advantage of those whose lives were broken by Anfal. Most of the Anfal widows I interviewed were silent about abuse in the community. The village women who survived were mostly illiterate, without transferable job skills. They became the sole breadwinners in their families and were left to fend for themselves in the cities. They worked as servants, farmers, and labourers for other people and inevitably some of them were exploited and abused. But as Veena Das (1997:84) points out there is a ‘zone of silence’ around issues of rape and abuse. For those who have survived such atrocities silence is a survival strategy to avoid further stigmatisation.

In some ways Samir Al-Babilee’s trail resonates with Saddam Hussein’s trial for Anfal which commenced in August 21st 2006. At the end the survivors remain divided over what to do with Samir Al-Babilee who sits in their presence full of shame and grief. He is not scared of death and he knows that he can only live on as a human being if they forgive him. This is a man who has faced his demons and is willing to accept the consequences of his grave mistakes. At the end those who cannot find peace are his victims. Some of them know that nothing can repair what has been committed. They know that torturing or killing Samir Al-Bailee will not make them feel safe again. The dilemmas that survivors face are skilfully portrayed here. Even when the perpetrator comes forward of his own accord, which is not the case with Saddam Hussein, it is difficult to know what to do with him. Some people will never be able to forgive and they carry the burden of this injustice for the rest of their lives. Others want revenge but this too won’t make them feel any better. Even those who can forgive, like Haleem Shewaz, are scarred forever. Their lives are disrupted by violence and nothing can make them feel whole again. Some of the women I interviewed asked for compensation, for Saddam Hussein to be hanged, for a formal apology from the new Iraqi government. But as one of them told me while touching her heart: ‘Nothing can make this feel better, nothing.’

In a place where honour is still tied to women's sexual chastity this novel does its best to defy conventional morality. It makes it possible to tell the story of Anfal through a prostitute, a General and an ex-musician in a brothel. Most of all, it captures how in a war-torn country everyone is a victim, even the victimizers. It captures the difficulties that societies have to face when dictatorships end. There are choices to be made about forgiveness, truth and reconciliation which will affect the future of the community. As one of Samir Al-Babilee's victims says:

I have killed this man in my soul. I am scared that if you kill him he might become alive for me again.
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Choman Hardi was born in Iraqi Kurdistan and moved between Iraq and Iran until she was 18 years old. She sought refuge in the UK in 1993 where she was educated in Queen’s College Oxford, University College London and University of Kent in Canterbury. Currently she is researching about the widows of Anfal and is associated with Uppsala University in Sweden. Also a poet she has published three collections in Kurdish and her first English collection, Life for Us, was published by Bloodaxe in 2004.


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It is difficult to describe what a novel is about. Most novels are open ended texts that address particular issues and events alongside universal and abstract concepts. Good novels may be those that, amongst other things, have the ability to expand our knowledge of humanity and to challenge our unexamined, everyday views. Conventional morality imposes certain pressures on us. Our obsession with the truth creates its own anxieties. We would like things to be black or white, true or false, good or bad, beautiful or ugly. The City of White Musicians is one of those novels that reminds us how complicated the truth can be, how conventional morality fails,