Empathy Project (I): the tragic stories of a Yazidi and Muslim woman

A diverse group of storytellers, mostly from the old world and the global south, came together for the Empathy Project to demonstrate that through their stories, they could feel the pain experienced around the world. This collection of works of fiction is their attempt at understanding the other and explaining themselves, at empathy.

The stories Ahval has picked from among many all have some connection to Turkey, or one of its diverse cultures.

In the first story, journalist Arzu Yıldız walks through the immense tragedy that befell the Yazidis, an autochthonous people of Iraq whose religion has been demonised by the region’s powers that be.

In my homeland, the day starts with the sounds of bombs or the screams of people. Women in long colourful dresses fill the streets with their wailing. Flowers do not bloom in its mountains, and brides cry when getting married. Women fear childbirth. Death is the destiny of these lands.

Infant boys die at birth. Children grow up as orphans. Every person you touch has a wound. Most of the time, to be happy is to have survived. Being alive is a great success - amidst all the graves.

My name is Firdaws. It means ‘paradise’.  My father named me so, but I do not know whether it was to seek heaven in the middle of hell, or just because it was also his mother’s name.

This name is all I have left of my father. I am an orphan. I was orphaned when American soldiers came to bring democracy, and they took my father’s life.

They didn’t mean to. They said it had been an accident. They were trying to rescue him from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, see.

I am the daughter of a people whose lands and mountains have always been testing grounds for new ways to make war.

On my face I have traces of a Shiite from Karbala, where Hasan and Hussain were killed. Of a Kurd in Hewler and Halabja, a Turkmen in Kirkuk, an Arab in Baghdad, a Yazidi in ezile. A Syriac in suffering. I carry traces from them all. Like my country.

‘Firdaws’ you have heard from the Firdaws Square, where Saddam’s statue was torn down and destroyed. I’ve heard the bombs you have dropped, actually. Some of you came here to kill Kurds, others in black vestments to teach your religion, others yet in fatigues to bring democracy.

Our land is red with centuries of bloodshed. In the foothills of the Zagros Mountains or in the Freedom Square run rivers of blood and tears of those who were crushed under the boot of the soldiers, militia, and black-veiled ISIS militants. The rivers rival the Tigris and the Euphrates.

We are the unidentified, undesirable and banned people, defined as such by those who came to bring democracy but took our oil instead and left.

Yes, we have our open wounds, cries, and laments, but we have also our ululation, our folk dances, and our everlasting dreams. And all of the Syriac, Chaldean, Arab, Kurd and Turkmen people dream of the same thing: Justice!

Because although it seems like we have laws, we grew up with orders and sermons instead. Not with justice.

History would say that the merchants of Baghdad were so honest that they never would commit or allow fraud, but Baghdad has seen all kinds of fraud.

There was a time when we had partridges, nightingales and storks. They would nest on the lakeside surrounded by firdaws flowers! The sky isn’t blue anymore, neither are the lakes green. The scent of gunpowder permeated everywhere, who knows where the long-gone birds went. Neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars shine their light in the skies where warplanes fly. It is pitch black. You cannot see.

I am Firdaws, my mother died from poverty and my father by the bullets of those who brought democracy. I was forced into a marriage at the age of 15, and met the man I was married to on the night of my wedding. I feel like Iraq herself, a little dead and a little alive at the same time.

Only my clothes are colourful, and my henna-dyed hair. Everything else is dark. Neither the moon nor the sun shines anymore.

Can you describe me the democracy you exchanged for oil? The heaven for which you cut our throats? How would it be if families huddled together, not over the sound of bombs falling, but of thunder, of bountiful rain? How would it feel to not die and be able to return home, to water the garden, and to fall in love?

What is love? Can you explain it to me, who has to live with her heart in her boots?

The birds that have left our skies and mountains, those partridges with the beautiful song…

Can you please tell them to come back?

In the second story, Reyhan Balıkçı talks about the veil that plays such a central role in the lives of Muslim women whether they want to wear it or not.

Balıkçı studied English literature, art history and urban studies in Canada, where at the young age of 17 she chose to don the hijab as an act of taking control over her own body and narrative. Her story explores others who could not do so.

Trigger warning: The following content includes references to sexual assault and abuse towards children and suicide.

This world was not kind to me, mama. Men were not kind. They took from me. They took all that I had, all that I could have had. They took my childhood, my identity, my future. I have nothing left to give to them, mama.

I have nothing left to want. I know Allah will be angry with me, too. Just like baba. Maybe he will strike me too, mama. You won’t protect me this time, either. Just like you didn’t when baba beat me for answering the door without my veil.

I couldn’t have known the water boy was at the door. I thought it was grandmama. I was excited to see her. I was six, mama. I was only six when he kicked my chest and broke my rib. I was six when he cut off all my beautiful hair – as punishment for flaunting it to the water boy.

I was six, mama, when he threatened to choke me with my veil if he ever saw me without it. He said men would look at me, so I must cover my hair. Men can’t control their urges, so I must cover my hair. Men said so, so I must cover my hair.

Why did men hate my hair so much, mama?

I asked you once why I had to cover up. Why did the rulers of Iran care if I showed my hair? You slapped my mouth and told me never to disobey the rules of Allah. But it wasn’t Allah I was forced to obey.

I asked you again: But why mama? You said that I must cover up, be modest, and not attract attention. That I must preserve myself for my husband. That my hair will make men want me, my body. I was six, mama. I didn’t understand my body. I didn’t know I had anything men would want.

I was 13 when I found out what you meant, mama. I was so very sad that I couldn’t preserve myself for my marriage. That was all I could think about when baba’s friend raped me. I was wearing my veil mama, I swear. He didn’t touch my veil. He touched me, but left the purity veil alone.

You lied, mama. My veil didn’t protect me. It didn’t prevent men from wanting my body. I knew it wouldn’t.

Do you remember that day, mama? When I came home, blood between my legs. I hadn’t gotten my period yet, so you knew it wasn’t that. You knew. Baba beat me until I told him what happened. Then he beat me some more. The next day, he married me off to his rapist friend. He said my purity must be protected. You did nothing, mama. You saw all of my bruises, my cuts, my wounds. You watched me cry, beg, and plea for my life. You just watched.

I was 13-years-old when I was forced to marry the man who raped me.

Men took from me, mama. Not just baba’s friend. The creepy men who looked at me when I walked to school. The man who touched between my legs on the bus. The man who called me a whore when my bangs escaped my veil as I ran to catch the train. The man who stopped me in the middle of the road, condemning me to hell for dressing in such bright colours.

Baba’s friend was no different than baba. He beat me when I burnt the rice. He beat me for not greeting him with a smile. He raped me as he beat me, beat me as he raped me. Some days he ate all of the food I had prepared. He said I was small and didn’t need to eat so much. I could survive. He was a big, strong man who needed energy. He needed the energy to beat me, I think.

I was 14 when I got my period. When baba’s friend found out, he raped me almost every day. He wanted an honourable son to follow in his footsteps. He wanted a son to carry on his name, his lineage. Then one day, my period stopped. I knew his plan worked.

I was never allowed to choose, mama. I was never allowed to live. Just like the 16,381 girls my age who were married off to rapists and ogre-like men last year, I was forced under the man who raped me, in the name of religion. But I couldn’t bear to be the 365th child-mother. I could not bring another rapist into this domineering country. Maybe those girls will find a way to escape their oppressors, if not physically, at least emotionally. I could not.

Instead, I choose to end my suffering.

I am scared, mama. I am scared to have a son, who will rape and hurt girls, like his father. I am scared to have a daughter who will only grow up to be raped, beaten and forgotten, like her mother.

I can’t bring a child into this world, knowing what awaits them. I am a child, mama. I am broken. I am lost and forgotten.

You lied, mama. My veil did not protect me. My veil did not keep me safe. It did not make me more loved, and it definitely did not make me love more.

I didn’t choose to wear it, mama. I was given a choice by Allah, but men took my choice away. Men took the choice that Allah gave me, then went on to worship Allah as if they weren’t pretending to be more powerful than Him. As if they weren’t committing shirk, the worst sin in Islam, by stripping away the choice that Allah gave me. This veil already ended my life, even before I chose to end it.

I choose to end my life using this veil, not on my head but around it.

I was never allowed to decide for myself. I was never allowed to decide who I could love, what I could achieve, how I could dress. Men took it all from me. I get to decide now. And I decide to let my body cease to exist in your world.

Maybe in another life, I could have been born free. I could have grown up not knowing the pain of a father’s blow or an old man slashing through my childlike body. I could have studied to become a veterinarian or an engineer. I could have travelled the world, alone. I could have attended soccer games and cheered for my team. I could have fallen in love. I could have gotten married and had children because I wanted to. I could have chosen to cover my body and my hair, not because I was oppressed into it, but because I chose what I wanted to do with my body. I could have made choices and mistakes.

Don't force a tear, mama. I know my death will bring more shame than tears to you and baba. Just like Sahar Khodayari, Zeinab, Behnaz G., Elaheh Amiri, Mina Shahidi, Parisa Nazari, Leila Ramezani, and Zahra Rahmati, my name will pass through the lips of some as a tragic loss. An unfortunate and preventable waste of a young girl, a lost soul.

You may or may not read about me on the news. But if my story does echo loud enough for the oppressors to hear, then hear this: I am not a lost soul. I am not weak and I am not your property brought into this world solely to be shaken, beaten, raped senseless under your rules.

I will seek my revenge in the afterlife that you supposedly believe in, but never remember. Maybe my death will spark enough outrage in the women of Iran that they will burn down the patriarchy, instead of themselves. To you, our lives were not important, but our death will not be in vain.


The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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