Kurdistan by Alex Poppe

Kurdistan by Alex Poppe

Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013

I am fifteen years old. My parents are dead. I have a blue bird puppet named Annie made out of that fake fur they use on fuzzy pencils in my carry-on, and a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in my lap. The heavyset woman next to me keeps offering me Oreo cookies from the big pointy black purse balanced on her belly. There is chocolate dust around the corners of her mouth but I don’t have the nerve to tell her. Instead, I look out the window of the plane and see a faceless girl staring back at me.

I am moving to Kurdistan. Most Americans think Kurdistan is Kyrgyzstan unless they are from Nashville or San Diego where a lot of Kurdish people live. Those people know Kurdistan is in Northern Iraq. They know it has mountains. And green parts. And oil.

Aunt Maya is waiting for me outside the security checkpoint. Her blue headscarf is bedazzled. I see red hair peeking out from the sides. She hugs me the same way Mom used to—hands on both sides of your face—and asks if I remember her. Through squeezed cheeks I pucker yes and breathe in Shalimar. I want to take Annie out of my carry-on, but I know I am too old to play with her in public.

This part of Kurdistan doesn’t look green. It’s brown and dusty. Aunt Maya leads me to a gleaming white land cruiser. I wonder how she keeps the dust off. Her driver takes my bags. He wears mirrored sunglasses and a dark suit and a dark tie. Aunt Maya and I sit in the back. The car smells like Shalimar and new plastic. There is an odd-looking rifle poking up from the floor of the front seat.

The highway leading from the airport is dotted with parked cars. Whole families with mothers and fathers and daughters picnic at the side of the road. Women in long, colorful dresses sit on brown grass around open fires. The men wear what look like brown onesies belted with a wide sash. They remind me of footed pajamas. As we drive, a fiery sun sinks down and divides the sky into a band of blue melting into a band of orange squashing the horizon. We pass clusters of identical new homes that look like they have been cut from raw cookie dough. There are malls with amusement park rides. A roller coaster towers behind a sign announcing “Family Land.”

Aunt Maya asks, You have Family Land in Tennessee?

It takes me a moment to figure out what she means. Then I see her looking at the sign.  I tell her we have malls, but not with roller coasters.

She says, I will take you.

It is hilly and my ears haven’t adjusted from the plane. I squeeze my nose and exhale. It doesn’t work. Everything I hear comes to me like I’m underwater. We pass a gated compound with orange buildings. There are soldiers at the entrance with the same odd-looking rifles as the driver’s got. In front of the gate is a collapsible grate with jagged metal teeth. Aunt Maya points and tells me that is my new school.

We pass a big, fancy hotel on a hill across from a field where sheep are grazing. Fuzzy gray bleeds into fuzzy white. We turn right into a compound called American Village. All the houses are really big. Uniformed guards circle the car, sticking long, shiny, mirrored shovels under the car. I don’t know what they are looking for. We pass inspection and enter. We pull up to a cookie dough-colored mansion with white Greek columns. The garage juts outward onto the front lawn. Aunt Maya squeezes my arm. We’re home.

Around the side of the house, the backyard unfolds into a patio palace. There is an outdoor fireplace built out of marble-y stone on one side of a dance floor made out of the same marble-y pattern. A DJ station is opposite the fireplace. At the corner is a sitting area. Behind one of the couches is a full bar. Our old home would fit onto just half of the patio.

Aunt Maya sees me staring and asks if I’m okay. Her big eyes shine like glass. I don’t have the right words, so I smile with closed lips. I feel my smile forming a tight line. I tight-line smile a lot these days. I don’t think the right words exist. I think I would need to invent a whole new language.


My parents both died in cars. Mom was at an intersection by a mosque when a bomb went off, back home in Tennessee. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. Dad was an interpreter for the US Army in Iraq and he died when his car drove over an IED. He was wearing a seatbelt. What are the chances? I think of chance as one of those black scorpions that blindly stings anything that gets in its path. Mom got stung last month. Dad got stung eight years ago.

Mom and Dad were the only ones in their families to immigrate to the US when Saddam was killing Kurds. Now they are gone and Saddam is gone, so the lawyers thought I should go there—here—to be with family. All my relatives are here. Aunt Maya is Mom’s sister and she was married to a government minister. I think that is why her house is so big.

Inside it’s like a museum. There are paintings behind thick glass in gold curlicue frames. The porcelain tiles feel cold under my bare feet. Aunt Maya leads me past a woman stuffing rice into grape leaves in the kitchen upstairs to my bedroom and all I can think of is I am going to get lost in this house. French doors open onto a pink and white room with plush carpet. The room smells like almonds and fresh paint. My two oversized suitcases are huddled in the corner. From where I am standing I can see their frayed edges. I wonder if Aunt Maya sees them too. On the dresser is a cloth-framed photograph of two girls in long, water-colored gowns. Rhinestones dance down their dress fronts and spray onto their hijabs. Red hair peeks out from the sides.

I picture Mom in her skinny jeans jumping up to play air guitar whenever her favorite songs played on the radio. She always claimed the surprise of it made a song sound better than playing it herself. I see her in a vintage rock concert T-shirt drinking milk out of the carton over the sink when she thought no one was looking. I have never seen her wear a head scarf.

As soon as Aunt Maya leaves I pull Annie out of my carry-on. She’s smushed from being packed for so long. I put my hand inside her yellow felt beak and she comes to life. I hold her close and inhale her synthetic, dusty odor. She tells me to let her go so she can investigate the room.

Do I sound like I’ve lost it? Do I sound like I’m crazy? Maybe. I think crazy is dressing up an explosive as a shiny piece of candy so some little kid will want to pick it up. I make Annie kiss me and feel the cold metal of her beak ring against my lip. Mom pierced her beak when I got my ears pierced for my tenth birthday.

Opening the walk-in closet doors, I see a row of empty hangers and fall down under them. I feel like I have been steamrolled. All the air has left my chest and I can’t swallow. The carpet itches my cheek but I can’t scratch it. I can’t move. I stare directly into Annie’s crossed eyes until I become cross-eyed too. We are both two dimensional. I put all my concentration into breathing. I will my lungs to beat like a bird’s wings flapping. Gradually I puff myself back into shape.


At 5:02, the call to prayer breaks the morning silence. The plaintive sound makes me think of a coffee commercial. Dusty brown hills meet the low-hanging sky outside my bedroom window. All the colors are washed out in the filmy air. Somewhere, a rooster crows.

My stomach growls, but I am too chicken to go to the kitchen and help myself. Annie finally dares me into action. I tiptoe down the stairs, take a wrong turn, and end up in the library. The books look really old. All the titles are in Kurdish. I can make out only a few words. Some have Aunt Maya’s surname running along the sides. Outside the library window, the driver is washing Aunt Maya’s car. Long, bumpy, discolored scars crisscross the back of his upper arms and shoulders and disappear beneath his sleeveless tee. The woman from yesterday in the kitchen brings him a mug. Her hand lingers on his forearm. Watching her retrace her steps helps me find my way to the kitchen.

She is making smoothies and doesn’t hear me above the whir of the blender. She uses her shoulder to wipe her cheek without moving her hands. She has a blister-sized mole on the side of her cheek and I wonder if her shoulder can feel it. There are lines pulling down the corners of her mouth. Her hands look dry and papery. She could be anywhere from thirty to fifty. She turns and is startled. She points to the blender and says something in Kurdish. She is missing a side tooth. I nod my head and she hands me a glass. She smells like a just-opened can of Campbell’s soup.

She stands looking at me and waiting. I don’t know what I am supposed to do. I want to turn and leave, but I don’t want to be rude. I finish my smoothie and take my glass over to the sink. She fires out something in Kurdish and grabs for my glass. I think she doesn’t want me to wash it out for myself. I tell her it’s okay, I don’t mind. She is surprisingly strong and won’t let go of it. We end up carrying the glass over to the sink together. I don’t even try to rinse it.

She nods at the kitchen table and smiles. I nod at the kitchen table and smile back. She hands me a mug of steaming-hot sweet black tea and pushes me toward the table. I finally remember the Kurdish for thank you, which sounds like zor spas. A flurry of plates appear. The honey is lighter than back home; the bread is darker. There is creamy goat cheese and giant, juicy, burgundy red grapes. She spoons fresh pomegranate seeds onto my plate from a large bowl. There is so much color. I take a tiny bite of cheese dipped in honey but it won’t go down. Aunt Maya walks in as I start to cough and hands me a glass of water. She keeps her hand on my back as I drink it which makes drinking it even harder.

You meet Trahzia? Upon hearing her name, the woman washing dishes turns around and smiles.

I have, Aunt Maya.

Trahzia bring you anything what you want, Aunt Maya reassures.

Holding my breath, I meet Aunt Maya’s gaze. My right eye twitches.

Today we go shopping, Aunt Maya strokes my hair, and getting you ready for school. Later we ride a—and here she makes a loop-de-loop motion with her hand—sound good?  You shower and we go to Family Land.


You want to know? How I do it? How I keep my ache silent? How I can go shopping or ride roller coasters while Mom is in a sunless box under brown earth and Dad is blowing across the dry, dusty desert? Thinking about it starts a twisting in my gut that makes me want to stay under a hot shower until I melt down the drain.

Aunt Maya sits down so close to me I can see the tiny hairs standing up on her neck. You talk about it Shatu?

No thanks.

Talking help, no? Aunt Maya asks.

No. No. It doesn’t.

Aunt Maya has three sons, but they go to school in the U.K. She started painting when the youngest went abroad. Aunt Maya’s paintings are like nothing I’ve seen in Nashville. She re-creates moments in Kurdish history on a series of old wooden doors set in manufactured pathways of broken glass and rubble. She laughs without smiling when she tells me of crushing sheets of new glass and stones to make fake destroyed streets. Aunt Maya shows me some pictures of an installation she did for a museum in Halabja from her Facebook page. The painted people look really creepy. Lots of melting noses, huge lifeless eyes, wide-open screaming mouths. Sometimes she attaches found objects so the paintings become like sculptures. There is one door with a charred stuffed animal dangling from a painted little girl’s burnt hand. Aunt Maya’s studio is housed in a cultural center that sometimes shows her work. She says the people who should see her work don’t go to cultural centers.

Saturday morning she goes to her studio so I’m left alone with Trahzia. By noon, I have unpacked my suitcases and filled the empty hangers in my closet. The starched-white school uniform shirts look like they belong to someone else. Restless, I head for the library.

Ignoring the uh-oh feeling, I sit at Aunt Maya’s desk and pull open a drawer that looks promising. Inside are wrinkled newspaper clippings detailing Uncle Mazen’s death in 2004 when suicide bombers blew up the KDP and PUK offices at the same time. Uncle Mazen was Aunt Maya’s husband. Mom didn’t come back for the funeral, which was right after Dad’s. For the first time I wonder if she ever regretted it. There is a Kurdish flag wrapped around a military medal and a silver-framed, old-fashioned photograph of Uncle Mazen with the current Kurdish President standing close to a young woman who looks an awful lot like Aunt Maya. I feel like a kid with her hand in the cookie jar when Trahzia comes in to dust.

She leans over me, putting everything back into the drawer, and gurgles something in singsong Kurdish. Then she pulls me up by the arm and leads me through the first floor to the part of the house where she lives with the driver. The insides of their rooms pulse with color. A massive orange and pink kiln dominates their sitting room. Cushions of every size and shade of red are thrown helter-skelter around a low copper table. Green plants snake along the walls.  There is so much life in the peaceful stillness of the space.

Trahzia seats me on a cushion near the window and lays my head back. She passes her hands over my eyes to close them. They smell like vanilla cake batter. Suddenly something sounds like a fingernail running along plastic comb teeth. I cock one eye open and watch two threads crisscross along my brow bone and disappear between Trahzia’s teeth. A bead of saliva threatens the corner of her mouth.

She surveys her work with satisfaction and hands me a mirror. For a moment I don’t recognize myself. With my eyebrows newly shaped, the eyes that peer back at me seem bigger and somehow brighter. They look like Mom’s eyes.

The sun glints off the mirror, creating a spotlight, and that’s when I see it behind one of the winding vines. A photo of three young girls, two with red hair, dressed in traditional clothing, performing a dance. The third girl is missing a side tooth. Chopy, says Trahzia, pointing at the picture. Chopy, says Trahzia, as she takes my hand and pulls me up. Chopy, says Trahzia, as she bounces from left foot to right foot, travelling across the floor. I stand like a statue. I have never seen this dance.

Trahzia is determined to teach me the chopy steps, but my mind is reeling. Left foot out. Mom and Trahzia and Aunt Maya were all friends when they were kids? Right foot out. Why does Trahzia work for Aunt Maya? Cross left. Were they part of a dance troop? Step right. Why is the current Presidentin an old picture with Mom? Left back. Where was Dad during all this? Left foot out. Are there more photos?

I point to the photograph and ask Trahzia for more. She starts to dance again. I shake my head no and point to the picture again. Trahzia lifts her shoulders. I mime taking a picture and she disappears behind a closed door. My body tightens and wants to throw itself among the crimson cushions, kicking and screaming. Trahzia returns, holding a worn, brown leather book.

The inside pages smell of cedar. The beginning photos are all of Mom, Aunt Maya, and
Trahzia when they were young. Here they are, picnicking with family outside an ancient monastery carved into a hillside. Here they are, in their dancing costumes at a family wedding by a lake. Here they are in school uniforms, Trahzia mugging for the camera, Mom wearing a hijab.

Trahzia wordlessly stops my hand from turning the page and looks at me with such seriousness that I am back in our kitchen in Nashville, about to find out that Mom will never again make me macaroni and cheese with bread crumbs on top because she is never coming home. A sweat bead trickles down my armpit. The next page shows photos of homemade tents set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Too many people for the number of tents crowd around, looking hungry and tired. A dirty-faced, red-haired teenager stares murderously while her listless, hijabbed sister sits with her chin sunken to her chest. Looking at the photos makes me feel like I’m lying under a slab of lead and maybe it would be better never to get up.

I stare at the hardened eyes, captured in the photograph, of Mom’s face. My mom—my cartoon voice-inventing, bedsheet-fort-on-a-school-night-making, Meals-on-Wheels-delivering, Kurdish-immigrant, dead-from-a-hit-and-run-driver-fleeing-a-bomb-explosion-outside-a-mosque-mom—looks like she could kill someone. Looking at Mom’s eyes in that picture sends all my blood to my toes.

Anfal, Trahzia says, and goes momentarily catatonic. Then she shakes herself like a dog after a jump in a pond, snaps the album shut, and puts it somewhere only snooping will find.


I know about Anfal. Every Kurd knows at least the Wikipedia minimum. I didn’t know Mom had actually lived it. What else don’t I know?

Aunt Maya comes home at 5:37.

Aunt Maya, I say, you’re right. Talking might help.

Aunt Maya smiles, takes off her hijab, and sits down at the kitchen table. She pats the seat next to her.

I don’t sit down. How long were you in the camps? What happened to Mom in the camps? Why did she stop wearing the hijab? Why is there a picture of Mom with the President? Where was Dad during all this?

Aunt Maya’s head and shoulders slump as she bunches the headscarf on the table into a crumpled ball. She looks like the last plastic doll left on a K-Mart shelf at Christmas time. For about thirty seconds we both listen to air.

Anfal. It’s like the word escapes her mouth more than she actually says it. She goes into the library and returns with one of the books with her surname on it. She tells me Uncle Mazen wrote about the eighth and final phase of Anfal in the Barzan heartland, where Saddam killed mostly KDP families and demolished countless villages. Inside, there are more pictures of destroyed villages and makeshift mountain camps.

You and Mom and Trahzia are from a Barzan village?

Aunt Maya nods her head.

I wonder if I am related to the President.

Trahzia puts out platters of food, which no one eats. The firm basmati rice of the biryani sits in perfect mounds, bits of chicken and plump sultana peeping out. Chunks of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and potatoes wait patiently in rich, ripe tomato sauce for spoons that never come. There are side salads of green, purple, and orange to fill out the table. At home we used to have one main dish and one salad that we would share.

Trahzia still won’t let me help clear the table. Aunt Maya asks, How much your mom tell you about the camps?

Some, I lie.

Aunt Maya leads me out onto the patio, where we sit next to each other on a cushiony wicker sofa. It seems strange to sit on living room furniture outside. The sun looks like a giant butterscotch candy coating the sky. Aunt Maya and I stare at it and listen to the zhur-zhur-zhur of lawn sprinklers as we both wait for her to begin.

There was whispers of marching and killing men, she says finally. Our men go to mountains for training and fighting. Some men stay in village to protection. Saddam men come.  We no see our men again. Saddam men do bad things. We women run to mountains. Many Kurds run to mountains.

Aunt Maya is breathing heavily and stops speaking for many moments. A chorus of insects fills the silence, followed by the bleating call to prayer. Nearby, someone is grilling chicken shish.

Your mom very beautiful, is what she says next.

Was, Aunt Maya. Yes, she was. My voice is so quiet I wonder if she hears me.

Bad men do bad thing to beautiful womans.

An olive-green lizard darts across the marble-y stone and melds into the drab, dry grass.

Woman lose honor. Family lose honor. Important village man don’t married woman with no honor. Woman must to marry or…or, or be disappeared for family having honor again. In the camp, elders…say…elders say to disappear your mother for bringing back family honor. Your father find out and he steal her to America.

I think of the picture I found in Aunt Maya’s desk. Did Mom and Dad love each other?

There different kinds of love. Your father love Dilin since they are small. Your mom grateful he marry her and save her. She love him after.

Life is long, Aunt Maya says as she tries to put her arm around me.

I am not a hugger.


All night the thought’s bony fingers nag at collar of my T-shirt, pin me in place, and choke me at the same time. If it happens eventually, why not do it now? Then at least the Pit of Loneliness wouldn’t take root inside my stomach and hollow me from the inside out. Mom and I could be together. I have already lost the smell of her.

Annie spends the night on my pillow instead of her shelf.

Trahzia, Aunt Maya tells me the next day, joined the peshmerga after her father and brothers were tortured and killed by the Ba’ath party in an underground prison. She fought with the Barzani tribe against Saddam during Anfal and against the Barzani tribe in the mid-1990s when they teamed up with Saddam against the PUK. It’s hard to picture those same hands, which fold flaky phyllo dough around nuts and honey, holding one of those funny-looking rifles Aunt Maya’s driver keeps in the car.

Now that Saddam is dead, Trahzia is no longer a soldier. Instead, she seems happy to wield a knife against a pile of multi-colored vegetables or stuff rice and meat into peppers. Sometimes I watch and we trade words as she cooks. She points to something she’s chopping like a fig and says hajir. I point back and say fig. Then she usually gives me a piece. I say hajir over and over again inside my head until I have swallowed. I don’t know what she says inside her head as she chews. Sometimes she just stands real still and closes her eyes.


I have been in Kurdistan for nine days when Lila calls me on Skype. Lila is a drummer in a surf rockabilly band and can’t sleep with anything covering her feet. She lived across the hall from us in Nashville and she used to babysit me. It’s 2:57 a.m. back home. Lila must have just finished a gig because her makeup looks runny. She asks how I’m doing. Hearing her gravelly Southern twang cocoons me in Nashville hominess: the soft wear of the grandmother-crocheted afghan blanket covering her shoulders, the air smelling of hot asphalt after a rainstorm, honky-tonk music drifting up from hidden courtyards, fireflies illuminating dew on birch leaves, streetlights lending playing children an extra hour. And somehow in that hot chocolate-y bowl of normal life, Lila sits at her laptop computer with a hand-rolled cigarette burning at her side to ask an orphan in Kurdistan how she is doing.

Lila sees my tight-line smile on her computer screen and tells me to breathe.

I ask her if she had a gig.

She says she did. It was a benefit for Mom and she wants to know which charity to send the money to in Mom’s name. She knows the mosque needs money to rebuild. Do I want to send it there? Thinking about what happened to Mom in the camps makes me tell her to send it to Meals on Wheels and that I have to go.

She says she misses me. A new family has moved into our apartment and it just isn’t the same anymore. She takes a drag on her cigarette and in one keystroke she is gone.

Some other mother and daughter are going to sit on our Thai peanut curry-spotted sofa cushions to play checkers. They are going to make Aqua Fresh toothpaste mustaches sharing one sink in our black and white bathroom. They’ll drink milky vanilla tea from chipped rose-patterned teacups Mom bought at a yard sale. They’ll swing our old pillows that leak feathers in epic pillow fights on Sunday mornings. They’ll use everything, all of our junk, and their spirit will push out our ghosts and someday not even Lila will miss us. And I’m living in luxury but not at all happy because I’ve got all these memories but not the person who created them. I am seven thousand miles and five weeks away and every minute is a moment without the one person who made the world make sense. And I’m supposed to live with Aunt Maya in Kurdistan for like what, the rest of my life?

Thinking about some other mom helping her daughter with math homework at our wobbly kitchen table wakes the Pit of Loneliness inside my chest. The Pit stretches, its spiky, circular teeth, scooping out my insides so all that is left is an empty husk. Falling back on my bed, the sound of the ocean rushes into my ears and all of the sudden I am drowning in mud-gray murkiness. I sink past Dad in his marine greens holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a 120-count Crayola box in the other. I sink past Mom smothering slices of green apple in chunky peanut butter as she devours Entertainment Weekly. I sink past Boo Radley tip-toeing across a lawn to leave small presents in the hollow of a tree before running home and slamming his wooden trap door tightly shut.

The smell of baking bread steals under my bedroom door. I can smell the neighbor’s sun-scorched, freshly cut grass, the desert’s far–flung, roasted sand, and the pungent, feral odor of grazing sheep. Multicolored pinpoints rain beneath my eyelids. When I finally open them, Trahzia has entered my room. She has never come into my room before. Scents of cinnamon, cardamom, and coffee saunter in behind her. A drop of water slides down my cheek as I sit up. She says something in swishy slushy Kurdish and pulls me from the bed to the window, which she closes. A fog of milky gray dust whips from the sky over the marble-y tiles and the lawn.

Shamal, Trahzia says with admiration.

I don’t know if shamal means dust or sand or wind, but whatever it is, it is pretty cool. It has power and awe and I want to swallow it whole into the Pit of Loneliness. I picture the shamal breaking the Pit’s huge mechanical jaw hinges and bringing the Pit to a grinding halt. As Trahzia and I wordlessly watch the storm bend and break young sapling trees and menace our window panes, and my insides slowly fill back in—I swear—an old man in a long white robe walks out of the center of the storm. The man has a long, white, flowing beard and porcelain-white bare feet and he carries what look like prayer beads. He rights the broken trees and turns and roars at the storm. Then he is absorbed into its center and disappears.

The wind dies completely, just as suddenly as it started. Trahzia opens the window. The air smells sweet like cucumbers.  The streets are eerily silent. The trees have healed themselves upright.

Did you see him? I know you saw him. Look at that tree, I say, pointing to a now-healthy young sapling.

Trahzia whispers what sounds like Mar Yosip and continues from room to room opening windows. I open Google.

Aunt Maya gets home at 6:03.

Aunt Maya, I say. I want to go to church.


Mom never talked about religion. Her religion said she was bad because someone did something bad to her even though she was following the rules. That doesn’t seem fair. Aunt Maya says it’s about culture too. Honor and purity are part of both Islam and Kurdish culture, and I shouldn’t turn my back on either, and would I like to try the hijab. The look on my face stops her argument mid-sentence. In the end, she buys me a modest, long-sleeved, navy blue dress with a round collar and sends me to the nearby Christian city of Ankawa with the driver.

The Christians in Ankawa are mostly Assyrian, if you don’t count the expats. Mar Yosip is the official saint of the Assyrian Church and is known for his gifts of mysticism and healing. Figuring a saint wouldn’t seek the limelight, I decide to head to Saint George’s Assyrian Church because it is small and cozy. Aunt Maya says Mar Yosip is a long dead archbishop, not a saint that appears during sandstorms to repair broken trees and I shouldn’t expect to find him in a pew praying. I point out that Trahzia said his name, so she must have seen him too. Aunt Maya scowls at this and reminds me that lots of people refer to Santa Claus, but that doesn’t mean he slides down their chimney. This makes me smile because I don’t expect Aunt Maya in her diamante hijab to argue a point using Santa Claus.

I am surprised when a round-bellied guard stops me at the church courtyard entrance to ask me if I am a Christian. I lie uncertainly, causing him to half-heartedly search my bag. I wonder who is watching us. Gravel paths snake around the vast courtyard, behind guard posts and plots of dry pointy grass before leading to the church’s unadorned entrance.

The church seems much smaller from inside. Men sit on one side while women sit on the other. Most of the older women wear lace cloths on top of their heads. Some of the lace head coverings match each other like high school team jackets. The service is in Assyrian, so I understand nothing. There is chanting and incense burning, and a few times the priest and the altar boys walk behind the altar and red velvet curtains are drawn, hiding them from view while an organist plays hymns. Then the curtains are parted and the priest and his altar boys emerge from secrecy to continue the service. I am dying to know what goes on behind the curtain. Afterward, there is a procession around the pews. The priest carries a gold-covered Bible, which some of the men kiss and the women gently pat before blessing themselves. And then it is over.

I am the last person to leave the church. I kick gravel from the paths as I stomp over to the car. The guard eyeballs me. I saw Mar Yosip. I saw him mend trees. I saw him quiet the storm. But inside his church, I felt nothing. No wonder Aunt Maya doesn’t believe me. But if I didn’t see Mar Yosip heal trees and calm a storm, how can I ever hope to fill the Pit of Loneliness? Its wrecking jaws scrape to life as I approach the car. I slam my car door, startling the driver. The dull ache that is my insides swells until I am doubled over in the back seat. It is several minutes before I realize we are headed in the opposite direction of Aunt Maya’s house.

Heading west past the airport, there is nothing but vast, empty land. We wind silently through the rugged, reddish-brown foothills of the Saffine Mountains until the driver pulls over on a chalky brown shoulder halfway hidden in shadow. I hear a crescendoing popping noise that reminds me of exploding popcorn cooked old-school in a pot over a stove. As I lift my head, Trahzia swaggers out from behind a small, scab-colored ridge, swinging one of those funny-looking rifles over one shoulder.

She stashes her rifle in the backseat with me and slides into the front seat next to the driver and his rifle. Breezy, bouncy Kurdish volleys back and forth. It is the first time I have heard the driver’s voice. It is smothered, like he doesn’t want me or anyone else to hear him. Trahzia’s, in contrast, is swingy. It dawns on me that she has an entire other life outside Aunt Maya’s kitchen.

As soon as I get home, I head straight to my room, take off all my clothes, and stand in front of the full-length mirror in my cotton underwear. Soft love handles droop over the elastic waistband. There is no space between my thighs when I stand with my feet together. Mom was pretty tall and Levi’s thin. Then I sit down at my desk in front of a magnifying mirror. Annie is perched on the shelf above me. She watches as I study my face, looking for traces of Mom. At certain angles I catch fleeting glimpses of her, and then just as fast, she is gone, and I am left with my crowded reflection. My features seem too large for just one face. Annie slides herself onto my hand, hogs the mirror, and proclaims herself GOR-geous. Then she looks me up and down like a practiced high school mean girl and returns to her shelf.

Despite the heat, I change into sweat pants and a long sleeved T-shirt, slip out the back door, cut across the marble-y stone patio, squeeze through some manicured bushes, and exit the subdivision. It is the first time I have gone anywhere in Kurdistan unescorted. Looking down at my covered arms, I realize just how much my life has changed since Mom died. My insides start to twist, so I pump my arms and legs to counteract the gut-spiraling. By the time I reach the highway, I am drenched with sweat and choking on the smoky, dusty air. I chug across to the other side where a radio tower looms over dirty hills from its solitary perch. Hot, fat, saliva-y tears streak my cheeks as I push myself toward it. The Pit of Loneliness jackhammers to life as I hit the steep incline. Roaring, it opens it maniacal mouth as I gulp down air and propel myself up the hill.

At the top, the guard station around the tower is oddly vacant. Beyond it, the land crests, then gives way to mustard-green fields lazing in the distance. A few straggler sheep graze downhill. I wonder where their flock-mates have gone. I wonder if they are lonely. My run putters to a walk as the tears subside and my left hand uncups a mouth that I don’t even remember covering. The Pit grinds to a halt as my breathing slows and deepens. Suddenly, the sheep lift their heads as if responding to some unheard signal and obediently trot over the next ridge. Instinctively I follow, scurrying through overgrown, brittle brush that smells like sewer water.

Just as I clear the top of the next hill, I glimpse the trailing hem of a white robe rounding a bend. Tips of long, white hair float behind it. I sprint toward the apparition, encouraged by a chorus of contented bleating. Around the other side, the yellow-green field has molted white grey puffs. Hundreds of sheep feed off the hillside. A young shepherd boy leaning on a wooden stick stares at me. I am suddenly grateful for sweatpants and long sleeves. A sugary breeze kicks up, tickling under my chin. High atop a craggy cliff, the sun glints off something white, waving.


Every day I run over hills, kicking up chalky, dry dirt and avoiding camel spiders. Pushups and sit-ups follow. When I feel like quitting, I picture the confidence in Trahzia’s jaunty stride when she carries her rifle. I think about Mom having to hide in mountain caves and later sneak out of Kurdistan. In the shadow of early evening with bats circling the streetlights above, I outrun thoughts about what happened to her in between.

Aunt Maya’s Anfal door panel series is being exhibited in Sami Abdulrahman Park. The exhibition is part of the Reconciliation and Remembrance Conference, featuring symposia with international artists and humanitarian aid workers, and a field trip to Sulaimaniya to the Red Security Museum. Aunt Maya is one of the guest speakers, so Trahzia and I get to go. The conference is held in the ballroom of the slick, polished Rotana Hotel and everyone who attends seems really important. Trahzia and I sit next to each other on hard red velvet-cushioned seats wearing oversized headphones attached to radio packs, like the ones you get on museum tours. We tune into different channels for our respective languages, and when I get bored, I surf between Kurdish, Arabic, and English to see what I understand. There are mostly women in attendance, and the heady mix of perfume combined with the ripe smell of cigarette smoke from the corridor reminds me of going to one of Lila’s gigs with Mom. Those days seem like a lifetime ago.

Aunt Maya takes the stage at 10:14 a.m. in a Calvin Klein suit and hijab. It’s like watching a badly dubbed movie because I see her speak but hear a male voice translating in my headset. Of course she speaks in Kurdish; I don’t know why I expect English. I am dumbfounded when she talks about the importance of honor, tradition, and forgiveness in maintaining the fabric of Kurdish society. My mind flashes to the mountain refugee camp photographs in Trahzia’s album. I don’t even realize I am shaking my head from side to side until Trahzia carefully pats the hand in my lap. Her cool palms are smooth like rice paper. They don’t seem to go with the bright coral of her nails. This is the first time I have seen her wear polish.

I wonder what Trahzia is thinking as we pile into a chartered bus and head for Sulaimaniya. She fought for both sides. Does this give her a wiser perspective? It is impossible to tell. She wears the same placid look that she has when she chops vegetables. I sit in the back so I can watch other people decide where and who to sit with. Sometimes life seems like one long extension of high school. Aunt Maya and the conference organizer sit together up front. We exchange smiles across a sea of covered and uncovered heads. The bus smells vaguely of feet.

The bus snakes southeast through pink red gorges dotted with small green bushes. Sometimes the hillside is lush and the bus has to wait for a herd of sheep to cross the road. Other times, it is jagged and barren like the wind has lashed it for the last one thousand years. We stop at the Geli Ali Beg Waterfall to take pictures and cool our feet. Then we continue on a road that dips and rises like a rollercoaster so that my stomach meets my toes. Somewhere along the way I fall asleep and dream that I am the burnt little girl from Aunt Maya’s door series but dressed in Scout’s Halloween ham costume in To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m trying to find my way home. The hills sprout trees as tall as radio towers strung with shiny silver prayer beads. Suddenly, a tree curtseys like a ballerina so I can climb on, then fully extends and passes me to a neighboring treetop. I treetop-hop over meadows and deserts until I find a waterfall cascading into diamonds. I slide down into a cool pool that tastes like lemon ice.

The bus hits a sharp bump and jolts me awake. The inside of my mouth feels like hot, oven-y cotton. Drool crusts the left side of my chin. Murmuring “bibure,” I lift my head from Trahzia’s shoulder where it has imposed itself during my nap. She smiles at my awkward Kurdish “sorry” and hands me her bottle of water. The bus passes the manicured lawn of the American University of Iraq before arriving at the buildings, pock-marked by bullets, which surround the Red Security Museum–the site of one of Saddam’s old torture facilities. Dirt-splattered tanks are exhibited in the spartan courtyard. We enter through the Hall of Mirrors, which is a long hallway decorated with 182,000 glass mirror shards—one for each victim of Anfal—and 5,000 lights—one for each village wiped out by Saddam.

Inside, the museum is even more startling. It is eerily silent. There is almost no light.  The air is thick and has no smell. There are torture rooms where men were stripped, hung up, and whipped into confessing. Remembering the long bumpy scars on the driver’s back and shoulders, I look to see what Trahzia is doing, but she is not in this part of the exhibit. Next we enter the raping room, where female suspects or the wives of male suspects-at-large were tortured. It is actually two small rooms. One is a kind of holding area where women were left to wait, and the other is a smaller room where the attacks were committed. That way the women in the holding area could anticipate what was in store for them. Being in that room makes me feel like someone has stuffed me inside a burlap sack and pulled the drawstrings shut. I cross into the teen part of the prison and find a boy’s crooked handwriting scrawled on a wall next to a bloody handprint. He is to be executed and claims that Saddam’s men have forged his age so they can legally kill him. From the grave, he calls for someone to bear witness.

When I was nine I got a wart on the middle digit of my ring finger. When it became the size of an aspirin, I finally showed it to Mom. She took me down to the emergency room to have it burned out before it spread. The doctor tried to give me a shot of Novocain to numb my finger, but the needle was so big that I said no. Mom warned me that the burning was going to hurt worse than the shot and I should get it. Still I wouldn’t give in, so the doctor started the procedure. Mom tried to hold my other hand, but I wouldn’t let her. I didn’t close my eyes or look away either. I watched as the wart was smoked away, charring my flesh, and my finger bled. Being in the Red Security Museum is sort of like that. You have to confront what’s happened. Maybe that’s how reconciliation starts.

I find Trahzia sitting on top of one of the tanks with a security guard. She seems to be showing him something about his rifle. I smile at this and the burlap sack opens the teensiest bit. Even without a common language, I still know a lot about Trahzia. I know that she likes her weapons, be they kitchen knives or rifles. I know she is as loyal to Aunt Maya as she is to the driver, and I am pretty sure those two were on different sides of the Kurdish Civil War at different times. She seems to have found reconciliation with the violence that scorched these brown hills and robbed them of their trees. They say you never really know someone until you walk around in their shoes. Standing in the brown courtyard—watching Aunt Maya pose for a photo with Trahzia, still holding the guard’s rifle, the guard in front of the tank—I think this might be a start.


The tenth grade girls are drafted to perform a chopy dance at my school’s Open House.  I beg Aunt Maya to get me out of it, but she says no. I can’t tell if it’s because she’s a stickler for rules or if she’s hoping this is the start of my embracing Kurdish culture. In any case, as much as I practice with Trahzia, I just can’t get it right. At practice I hang out with Zerin and Glara, two other Kurdish-American girls. Zerin is from San Diego and Glara is from Texas. They both have moms. They can wear makeup and put their own pictures on their Facebook pages. They can’t do the chopy. Whenever we crash into each other at practice, we have to say one thing we miss about back home.

On Saturday at 10:02, the driver takes Aunt Maya, Trahzia, and me to the citadel. I need a traditional costume to perform the chopy in, and Aunt Maya can’t be more excited. I am excited to see the citadel. People have lived there for over 6,000 years, which includes the Assyrian period of rule in Kurdistan. Maybe I’ll find a book about Mar Yosip.

It is really traditional at the citadel. I see very few foreigners. After we clamber up ancient broken steps and duck under stone arches, we head to the central square, which surrounds a massive water fountain. In its cooling mists, women in abayas pose for pictures with their children, or men enjoy bulb glasses of sugary black tea while smoking shisha. Try as I might, I can’t imagine Mom in this place.

Next we head to the fabric part of the bazaar. There is a constant smell of B.O. The walkways are narrow and throng with people. Some of them stare. Others whip out cell phones and take our pictures. Some people recognize Aunt Maya and pressure us into their shops. I am amazed at how polite and smiley she is with all of them. Mom never had that kind of patience, especially in crowded malls. She would have been swearing under her breath.

Aunt Maya finally settles on a fabric shop. Inside, I am overwhelmed by options. Bolts upon bolts of brightly colored fabric vie for attention. I deliberately stare to blur my vision and let instinct guide me through the fuzzy choices toward a water-colored fabric with rhinestones. It is not until Aunt Maya hands the tailor a photograph of two girls dancing that I understand why I chose it. He points to the woman on the right, then at me, and says “dayik.”

How does he know? How does he know the woman he points to is my mom and that I don’t belong to Aunt Maya? The answer lies behind his cash register. There is a picture of a young Aunt Maya and Uncle Arvan with just- married-grins hanging on the wall next to a publicity photo of the current President. The tailor still stocks the fabric he used to make her wedding dress. Using the picture as a reference, I agree to the same long dress thingy over the floaty pants like the one Mom is wearing, but draw a line at the hijab. Aunt Maya seems content with this. She one-arm hugs me around the shoulders. I let her.  We have arrived at our own version of reconciliation. I forget to look for a book on Mar Yosip.

The next week Trahzia and the driver take me to pick up my costume. We stop at a shwarma shop for something to eat. Inside, the place is teeming with families. Little children try not to spill on their shirt fronts while people pass napkins, hot sauce, and yoghurt cucumber spread to one another from table to table. The smell of spices, grilled kifta, deep-fried falafel, and too many bodies mingle together. The tabletops are sticky. On the pickup counter are a few stray fries. This is somewhere I can picture Mom eating, but not Aunt Maya. I wonder if Trahzia was their glue. Someday I am going to learn enough Kurdish to ask her all my questions.

We arrive at the tailor’s at 11:37. I change into my sea-swirl-blue costume. The running and the pushups and the sit-ups have had an effect. I look more like Mom and yet different.  Trahzia loops her arm through mine and drags me to chopy in front of the changing mirror. For a moment I can’t tell if she is in the past or the present. This is our remembrance. The tailor watches for a while and says something in syncopated Kurdish. Trahzia meets his gaze in the mirror, nodding yes. The tailor comes closer and joins our chopy line. Looping his arm through mine, he says, You must to put your shoulders all in, and then he demonstrates.

I try it. He is right. You must put all in.

A Sonnet for Loneliness by A. Anupama

The Head of a Chicken by Murli Melwani

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