The publication of the Chilcot Report last week, along with the ongoing verbal ejaculations of America's Republican Candidate, have many of us replaying that well-worn Double A-Side vinyl from 2006; 'Saddam Was A Bad Guy But...' / 'Blair Is Satan's Spawn'. I shall leave the latter anthem for another day, but that first glib reduction of Saddam Hussein to a 'Bad Guy But...' which once so irked the late Christopher Hitchens, is something which Choman Hardi's Considering the Women will surely do something to redress.
Dr. Hardi, Kurdish exile and celebrated British poet, fills in some gaps left by Western journalists and correspondents who present the Middle East as a military case-study and an alien war-zone inhabited by an alien people. In Considering the Women, Hardi is not concerned with sweeping, wide-angle audits of the Kurdish body politic. The collection is, rather, a plainly spoken, tentative presentation of some of the individual narratives that have played out against the backdrop of human atrocity.
The centre-piece of Considering the Women is 'Anfal'; a devastating sequence comprising testimonies from survivors of one of Saddam Hussein's most brutal and far-reaching evils. On her website, Hardi explains the horrors of Anfal:
"The term 'Anfal' which means 'spoils of war' is the name of the eighth chapter of the Qura'an which came to the prophet in the wake of his first jihad against the non-believers. The Iraqi government used this word to refer to a series of military operations which targeted Kurdish Muslims in the north of Iraq from February to September 1988. By using this word the government intended to mobilise support from within the country and to legitimise the operations in the Muslim world, portraying the Kurds as non-Muslims."
This genocidal campaign of bombing, gas-attacks, starvation and large-scale slaughter is one which Western culture has kept at an emotional distance; it is not the subject of history lessons and movies and it is not part of the mainstream humanitarian vocabulary. Hardi takes on this dark period in her homeland where there are no true victors, and she sees to it that history can be written by the survivors.
The sequence begins with the naïve Researcher delivering a saccharine sonnet to her interviewees, assuring them that 'I have come to learn about your pain' promising that she will 'stay true to your story, / not distort or edit your grief'. This is undermined in the book's acknowledgements where Hardi explains that 'The details of the survivors' stories have been changed', an early sign that we are to regard this 'Researcher' with suspicion.
The testimony which follows is harrowing in its frank delivery of human misery and the aftershock of war. In 'The Gas Survivor', the perpetually bleeding survivor has been ostracised from the community and ponders 'Who would have thought there are weapons / that turn every part of your body against you?'. In 'The Child at the Pits', Hardi presents a twelve year-old boy's testimony of a mass shooting. In the bleakest moment of the sequence, 'Dispute Over a Mass Grave', Hardi depicts two mothers arguing. The argument is over whose son's remains they are standing over; who will get to take them home and feel that they have been able to bury their child. Symmetrically, the sequence then ends with an inversion of Auden called 'Researcher's Blues' in which the previously naïve speaker has succumbed to the enormity of her task: 'all I can do is / pour with grief which has no beginning and no end.'
Whilst the fifteen pages which make up 'Anfal' give the collection its most significant swells of pathos and logos, it is the poems either side which contribute the strongest sense of ethos. The opening section deals with the exile's feelings of displacement and desire to heed the homing beacon of a remembered motherland:
"The fact that you left is certain / but when did you cross back? / Was it when you were tickled by your language / once again? When a childhood song intruded, / stayed in your head all through your dreams?" (Crossing Back)
And the section which follows 'Anfal' deals partly with the poet's return to England and the ways in which the trauma of survivor's guilt and the weight of her interviewees' testimony turns her marriage to delicate touchpaper:
"I went back in search of a nation / and found fragments instead - / tribes, regions, dialects, religions. / I went back to make a nation and came / back dispossessed, full of partitions... You didn't understand // why I kept going back to the dust and ruin, / to all the broken hearts that broke my heart." (Our Different Worlds)
Considering the Women is impressive in the sense that it leaves its dent upon the reader. I came away from my first reading dizzied, imbalanced and ashamed in a way which I have not felt since first encountering the work of Primo Levi. The collection delivers snatched fragments of the Kurdish story to an Anglophone audience and enacts the uncomfortable yoking of an adopted nationality with fading memories of a crumbling homeland. The grainy footage of barren Middle-Eastern landscapes which make cameos in UK news reports are hereby superseded, through Hardi, by the unflinching force of human testimony.