Barzanji: When I was imprisoned in Iraq, my biggest concern was that I would be separated from my passion for writing, and all the resources to write.
Jalal Barzanji, Kurdish poet and journalist, will soon release The Man in the Blue Pyjamas: Prison Memoir in the Form of a Novel, his memoirs about the time he spent imprisoned under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The first draft of the book, completed in 2007, was written in Kurdish. After many rounds of revisions and translations, the novel will be available in April 2011 from University of Alberta Press.
‘It is a narrative about a part of my life which I (held) for years in my heart and memory,’ says the author.
The part of his life Barzanji speaks of is from 1986-1989, during which time he endured imprisonment and torture under Saddam Hussein’s regime because of his literary and journalistic achievements—writing that openly explores themes of peace, democracy, and freedom. For those three years, Barzanji wrote only on scrap paper, smuggled in to his cell in Iraq.
As an outspoken critic of the censorship under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Barzanji had been fully expecting to be either imprisoned or executed. ‘The regime was against freedom, and I was asking for freedom. I wasn’t a follower of the ideology and mentality of the regime. My pain was double – I was a modern writer and I was Kurdish…I was living in fear because I knew I was doing something dangerous, talking about peace, democracy, freedom,’ he said.
One evening in 1986, a group of military men forced their way into Barzanji’s home and took him away in his pyjamas, blindfolded and handcuffed. He cannot recall how long he was kept in solitude in a small cell. He was later moved to a larger space shared by about 15 others.
But imprisonment of the body is not the same as imprisonment of the mind, and for Barzanji, writing is his reason for being: ‘If I don’t write, I feel like I’ve lost something. Writing has become part of my life and spirituality.’
And so, with help from a prison guard who slipped him pieces of scrap paper and a pencil, Barzanji bravely defied his captors and continued to write—this time, letters to his wife, detailing his experiences and those of others in prison.
Barzanji was pardoned and released from prison after three years, as part of one of Saddam’s birthday celebrations. Although he continued to live in fear of his life, he maintained his dreams of freedom. He still wrote, but in secret, as he was still under investigation.
In 1991, after an uprising in Kurdistan that drove out Saddam’s forces, Barzanji was asked to be the chief editor of a Kurdish magazine. He knew it would be a challenge, because although Saddam’s military was now absent, a legacy of governmental control remained.
‘The media was controlled by a very strong and powerful central government. You can’t isolate free media from the rest of society. For writers who were asking for freedom of expression, the price was too high because everything was controlled by power and blood and fear,’ he said. Nevertheless, Barzanji maintained his patient resolve amid the circumstances, and adds that protesting against the conditions would have led to execution.
Saddam’s forces returned to Kurdistan in 1996 and Barzanji and his family fled to Turkey, approaching the United Nations to claim refugee status. After receiving government sponsorship, they headed to Canada in 1998 and settled in Edmonton.
In Edmonton he helped establish the Canadian-Kurdish Friendship Association and the Edmonton Immigrant Support Network Society.
In 2007 Barzanji was named Edmonton’s inaugural Writer-in-Exile—a writer-in-residency program created by the literary and human rights association PEN Canada to foster refugee writers who have fled persecution in their home countries. The one-year appointment provided him the time, space, and financial means to build his writing career in Canada and complete The Man in the Blue Pyjamas.
Said Barzanji of the writing of the novel: ‘It’s a little bit hard to go back into that memory because it is a bad memory. On the other hand, when I go back to this memory I want to put it into words. I would like to share with people what happened, and what’s happening to writers because they write about peace, beauty and human desire.’
Barzanji was born in a small village in 1953. The village was remote and didn’t have a school until Barzanji was seven years old. He described his village as ‘a peaceful place between beautiful mountains’ where he ‘learned about the beauty and simplicity of life’ and listened to stories the men told by the fire or on the rooftops and he dreamt of things he had never seen.
That vision of simplicity and beauty changed overnight when Barzanji was in first grade. Iraqi forces bombed the village and everyone was forced to flee. He and his family ended up in Hewlêr (Erbil) and saw cars for the first time.
Later at university he read the works of foreign writers and it inspired him to start writing. In 1979, he published his first collection of poetry under the title The Dawning of the Evening Snow (Jamour Publishing, Kurdistan). It was his second collection of poetry published in 1985 that landed him in prison.
Now, says Barzanji, ‘I want to tell my story, what’s happened to me, without judgment. Just the true story from my heart. Second, I want to show the power of words—how, when I was in jail, it gave me the power not to give up and to stand.’
His other works include: Unwarm (1985, Rashid Publishing, Baghdad); War (1996, Gew Books, Kurdistan); Holy Rain (2002, Kurdish Ministry of Culture); Memory of a Person Under the Wind (2006, Bedirxan Publishing, Kurdistan) and On going back to Birth place (2007, Mnara, Kurdistan).
Jalal Barzanji speaking of freedom of speech and his writing
Fong, Jennifer. 10 Edmontonians who lead the way into 2011. Edmonton Journal, 24 December 2010.
Karbani, Tasneem. Writer in Exile gets a new lease on life. University of Alberta Folio: Focus, 04 January 2008.
Poets Across Borders Project, Edmonton Poetry Festival 2007.
Salih, Sabah. Speaking to the World: the Poetry of Jalal Barzanji. Kurdish Academy of Language, 28 June 2010.
Goyette, Linda (Ed.). The Story That Brought Me Here: To Alberta From Everywhere. Brindle & Glass, 2009, pp. 9-14.