In 1990 I took a one way flight to Istanbul with three friends. We were going to return to England by train. This was just after the fall of communism and was my first experience of crossing borders in Eastern Europe, and is something I reflect on regularly but of course with recent events, the memories surface once again. As British citizens, the only time we had trouble at a border was arriving in Istanbul with no return ticket. The immigration officials were perplexed; they had little experience of people coming to Turkey without a return, and we confused them further when saying we were leaving to travel through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (as it was still then).
The most notable event of our trip by far was Romania. We reached the border at midnight. When the train stopped, two men entered our carriage and sat down. They turned out to be Iraqi Kurds. Two Romanian guards came in soon after to check our passports. They had only a cursory interest in us as their appetite was for grilling the two men. The four of them looked at each other in silence for a moment, then one guard looked at their passports. He looked up and simply said, “Saddam Hussein,” then laughed at them. The Kurds took it on the chin, and one of them jabbed back, “Ceausescu,” and laughed himself. We were beyond nervous. The four men went silent again, until the guard handed back their passports, said “Saddam Hussein,” once more then left. There is no surprise that the two tyrants met a number of times, and apparently Ceausescu’s Romania supplied uniforms to the Iraqi army in a deal brokered by the Americans.
Choman Hardi’s classic poem, At the Border, 1979 reflects her personal experience as a five year old girl, crossing a border with her family into their ‘homeland’ of Kurdistan; ‘It is your last check-in point in this country!’/We grabbed a drink -/soon everything would taste different.’ But she shows us how borders are a construct, lines drawn by colonists and dictators. So there is irony in this ‘everything would taste different’. “The autumn soil continued on the other side/with the same colour, the same texture./It rained on both sides of the chain.” The persecution of Kurds continued in Iraq and eventually Choman’s family had to move once again fourteen years later, this time to the UK. I really like the fact that for all of the history of conflict and migration she experienced, Choman says that she first started writing poetry when she fell in love; “her early poems are much more ‘flowery’ because she ‘belonged to the Kurdish tradition and engaged with [her] poems in an intensely emotional way.’ Learning to write poems in English, she says, has given her a measure of detachment “which is essential when writing about painful, personal and sensitive subjects.”
The Kurdish people, spread across a number of countries, continue to be shunned by powers in the region; they are one of the most poignant examples of how borders separate people, of how lines on paper divide lives on the ground. We see it also with the Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, and imprisoned in their own ‘designated’ areas within Israeli borders. All of this lies at the heart of what we see today with the refugee crisis; a crisis made explicit to us by the European situation but is far worse in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Born in Kurdistan in 1974 and raised in Iraq and Iran, Choman Hardi came to the UK in 1993 and studied at Queen’s College Oxford, University College London and the University of Kent in Canterbury. A poet, writer and academic researcher, she has published three collections of poetry in Kurdish and her first English collection, Life for Us, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004. Her eagerly awaited new collection by Bloodaxe, Considering the Women, is published on October 22nd, and Choman will be appearing at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November, where there will be a series of readings on Poetry and Freedom.
At the Border, 1979*
‘It is your last check-in point in this country!’
We grabbed a drink –
soon everything would taste different.
The land under our feet continued
divided by a thick iron chain.
My sister put her leg across it.
‘Look over here,’ she said to us,
‘my right leg is in this country
and my left leg in the other.’
The border guards told her off.
My mother informed me: We are going home.
She said that the roads are much cleaner
the landscape is more beautiful
and people are much kinder.
Dozens of families waited in the rain.
‘I can inhale home,’ somebody said.
Now our mothers were crying. I was five years old
standing by the check-in point
comparing both sides of the border.
The autumn soil continued on the other side
with the same colour, the same texture.
It rained on both sides of the chain.
We waited while our papers were checked,
our faces thoroughly inspected.
Then the chain was removed to let us through.
A man bent down and kissed his muddy homeland.
The same chain of mountains encompassed all of us.
*Published by kind permission of Bloodaxe Books