Stateless but Not Powerless.

AuthorNormey, Rob
PositionLAW & LITERATURE / Stateless but Not Powerless

A novel of Kurdish resistance and the quandary of human rights in our time

The most compelling new novel I read in 2020 is Daughters of Smoke and Fire from debut Kurdish-Canadian novelist Ava Homa. This dynamic advocacy piece for Kurds and women's rights in the Middle East was also the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada Writers in Exile Scholarship.

Much of the novel is set in the Kurdish region of Iran. The story's fiery protagonist, Leila, is an aspiring filmmaker. Her journey is very much a coming of age tale, but one occurring amidst ongoing oppression and misogyny. Early on in the novel, we meet her vital friend Shiler, named after a flower that grows in abundance in the region. We are told the shiler flower knows no borders. It symbolizes the hope of a world one day that overcomes the mental borders of so many nation states, and the ethnic and racial discrimination faced by vulnerable minorities. In this novel, we see the incredible efforts to erase and discredit one particular minority, the Kurds of Iran. Kurds in other countries of the Middle East are also frequently on the minds of Leila and Shiler.

In a fascinating interview available online, Homa emphasizes her struggle to find a publisher for her manuscript. Apparently, the subject of Kurds--and particularly the role of Kurdish women standing up for their nation's dignity and fundamental rights in Iran--was an exotic tale too difficult to market. Eventually she found a publisher in Overlook Press. A further skirmish ensued over the cover. In the end, Homa prevailed in her effort to picture the shiler. The story she tells of the arm wrestling nicely encapsulates the extraordinary efforts Homa has made over many years to identify and dramatize the Kurds. This large population remains stateless at this time and subject to widespread oppression in each of the Middle East countries where they reside.

The Kurds represent the largest national grouping in the world that has been denied its own nation-state.

This leads us to consider the rights (or the lack of rights) that adhere to those who are stateless. Hannah Arendt and others wrote in the mid-20th century of Jews, Roma and Spaniards (who, as supporters of the democratic Republic, were persona non grata after Franco's assent to power) who were, or who became, stateless. In the postwar era, one can point to other national groups denied statehood. This would include Tibetans, Uyghurs, Palestinians under occupation, the Rohingya and...

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