Featured Interview: Chiman Zebari
Tell History talks with Chiman Zebari, a woman who has many stories to tell from the various chapters of her life. She recently published a book, “My Life, My Food, My Kurdistan,” about her personal story and traditional Kurdish recipes.
Zebari was born in the city of Akre in Iraqi Kurdistan before fleeing the town after her family was terrorized by a local tribe, the Zebaris. She later fled to Iran during the Baathist regime’s persecution of Kurds, where her family arranged a marriage from the same Zebari tribe. Ultimately she and her husband emigrated to the United States, where she lives and works today, although she has returned to Kurdistan and Iraq many times during times of war and peace.
We ask her about her life, what motivates her to tell history, and the challenges of explaining Kurdish issues in the United States.
How have history or stories been passed down in your family?
Well, I have been meaning to write my family story and tragedy for a very long time because my parents constantly talked about what has happened to the family. This became almost like an obsession for me to write and I also witnessed this tragedy myself as a youngster. Besides my parents, I also gathered the information from my distant family as well and the people of [Iraqi Kurdish city] Akre who were family friends.
In your book, you describe how feuds between different Kurdish tribes shaped your early life. Is it difficult to explain the interwoven histories of the various tribes to non-Kurds?
Yes, it is difficult to enlighten people who have not been exposed to the Kurds or know about the Kurdish history; and especially the connection between the Barzanis and the Zebaris. They had a love-hate relationship in the past, but we Kurds do not have research and/or analysis to point out the detailed information. In my book I briefly touched on that subject and it was what I had gathered from the elderly who knew about the feud between the two families.
Do you believe that telling these stories will repair relations between the tribes in Kurdistan, or does it open old wounds? Are people in Kurdistan ready to talk openly about the past?
I hope this does not open up old wounds and that is not my aim. What I am saying and writing is what has happened and you can’t erase the past. Also, there isn’t any animosity among the two families anymore. As you know, the Great General Mustafa Barzani was, after all, married to a Zebari who was the mother of Masoud Barzani, who is the current president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Since then, there were many other marriages between the two families. As for the Kurds being ready to talk about the past, the past is the past and there is nothing to discuss anymore.
There is a large Kurdish population in the US. Are stories shared and told the same way there as they are in Kurdistan? Is new technology changing the process in the US, Kurdistan, or in the global Kurdish diasporas?
Yes indeed, there is a large Kurdish population, mainly residing in the largest cities, such as Nashville, Dallas, San Diego, and much of Virginia. As a refugee fleeing a war-torn country, similar stories are unfortunately shared by millions around the world. The world of computers and technology has become a hugely important aspect of everyone’s lives. Nowadays, technology makes it far easier for us to function as transnational communities for identity maintenance and political mobilization.
Growing up, how were you aware that other people were from different religious or ethnic groups? How was this different in Kurdistan, Iran, and the United States?
Since our perceptions are shaped by our view of the world, we need to examine and understand how we see the world. If you love your culture, you must learn to accept and love other cultures because if there isn’t any foreign culture in your mind, you can’t compare your culture with it, so you can’t know your own culture well.
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s population has grown to 76 million people. However, in spite of its 7000 year-old history and its rich culture and civilization, many are deprived of basic human rights. In Kurdistan, I don’t feel any pressure of practicing one or another religion. Among us Kurds, we have Christians, Yazidis and Jews who live side by side without any judgments. I have the same rights in the United States.
In one section of your book, you talk about escaping from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq to safety in Iran. You had to cross fields of landmines, but how were you able to detect them?
I survived by the Grace of God. We did not know how and/or where to even look for them; all we were told is to walk on the rocks instead of flat land, as they had planted landmines.
You and your husband moved to the United States after fleeing to Iran. What did you think about the United States before you moved there?
While I lived in Iraqi Kurdistan, and later in Iran, there were some differences between these countries in the overall lifestyle, religion and the language, yet I experienced the uniqueness of each country’s culture. What I call the real challenges include lifestyle adjustment, culture shock and a whole different level of acceptance when someone with my background (Muslim Kurdish woman) moves to America. You are not just learning and adjusting to one culture, but you are approached by random people at the grocery stores, doctor’s office, restaurants, metro stations, etc., coming up to you and making small talk, commenting on the handbag you’re carrying or something your wearing, and even asking you where you are originally from.
We all need to invest and enrich in our relationships with each other as humans. The best thing is to take the negativity out of your brain , don’t assume everything you hear in the media is correct and treat people for who they are. This, of course, applies to the American people as well and they need to take the difference in culture, religion and politics out of the equation and treat people for who they are. While you are free to pray, worship, eat, look and behave the way you want, you are always expected to follow rules and obey the law. I deeply admire and respect the application of the law in this country. No one is above the law.
Prior to moving to the States, of course thanks to television and movies, for some reason, I thought everyone wore cowboy hats and sat around drinking beer instead of water, however, of course this was not the case; again, this was a stereotype of mentality that was embedded in my head. Over the course of living in the United States since the mid-1970s, I have met so many great and honorable people with great family values.
One of the things you talk about in your book is that your marriage was arranged by your family. Was it difficult to talk about your this when you first arrived in the US?
Yes, of course it was difficult to tell people that your marriage was not based on love at first sight, but instead that it was set up by your parents. However, that was a different time, a different country, and a very different culture. I don’t think American women will ever marry someone she has never met. Unless a girl has been really isolated and brainwashed by her family, she is not going to want to marry a stranger.
How did Kurds in Nashville react to the news of the Anfal (the systematic murder of Kurds by Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s)?
I remember that sad evening. We were celebrating Newroz, the Kurdish New Years, and halfway through the night, the stage, which was full of dance and music, suddenly stopped and there was a sad speech to be delivered, which was the Anfal campaign. This was the first time I heard of this term. During the Anfal campaign, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and thousands of villages were destroyed. Of course, the Kurds in Nashville and other areas in the United States started rallying against the Iraqi regime, lobbying and doing what they could to get the media’s attention and for the politicians to start protecting the Kurds.
Later, a defendant in the Anfal proceeding was convicted by trial court in the Dujayl case and was executed prior to the conclusion of the Anfal case. Among those convicted in the Anfal case is the notorious Chemical Ali, who was convicted in June 2007 and was sentenced to death for the crimes of genocide against the Kurds committed in the al-Anfal campaign of the 1980s. His appeal of the death sentence was rejected on September 2007 and he was sentenced to death for the fourth time on January 2010; he was hanged eight days later, on 25 January 2010.
You interviewed victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on the Kurdish city of Halabja for the Department of State, and have collected your own oral histories. What was that like?
I have faced so many tough challenges in my life and am still facing them as I grow. Accepting and facing challenges makes you learn many things in life and takes you ahead always. For me, at that time, it was difficult to see men crying while giving their testimony. Women were panicking while talking about seeing their family dying in front of their eyes. Those horror stories were hard for me and I was always putting myself in their shoes. I have a lot of memories of the time I was working with the victims and witnesses. My heart was melting and I could not hold back my tears while hearing what a human being was capable of. Saddam Hussein was one of the most brutal dictators in Iraqi history. He had no heart, no feelings and, in my mind, I was thinking he had to be a robot not to feel the pain he caused the Kurds.
Were you aware you were making history? How did the stories reach the world, and was the reaction what you expected?
No, I was not aware of making history. I was doing my job, which I loved because I was involved in Kurdish issues and was trying to do the right thing for both the United States Government and the Kurdish people who suffered under the previous regime. I don’t believe this was for public information, but only to gather the data and bring this notorious man to justice. I am so grateful to our government for getting rid of him for good and my only wish is to now see an independent Kurdistan.