This week, Western students will have the unique and exciting opportunity to learn about the lives of women in the Muslim world from two prominent Middle Eastern women writers.
Poet/novelist Choman Hardi, formerly of Iraqi Kurdistan, and journalist Alia Mamdouh, formerly of Iraq, will be appearing on campus with the financial and material support of a massive coalition of groups and organizations, including Hedgebrook, the Arab American Community Coalition and campus groups ranging from Fairhaven College and the World Issues Forum to the Women Studies program and the Cold Beverage Contract Lecture Fund.
Hedgebrook is a non-profit organization Northwest organization that supports women writers.
“They basically run residency programs, residency scholarships, at a residential home in Langley on Whidbey Island for women writers to have time away from the regular pressures of their lives to just concentrate on writing,” said Niall O’Murchu, a Fairhaven professor specialized in Middle Eastern politics.
O’Murchu had been working with Women Studies Director Rosanne Kanhai in an effort to attempt to bring women speakers from the Middle East to speak at Western. Through a conversation with Carol Janson from the Art Department, O’Murchu learned about Hedgebrook’s May residency of several Middle Eastern writers. Calls were made and eventually Western secured a visit from two of the women.
Although the occasion is being advertised as Arab women writers, one of them isn’t Arab at all. Choman Hardi was born in the Kurdish corner of northern Iraq.
The Kurds are a fiercely independent ethnic minority historically occupying portions of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Republic of Georgia. Kurds represent the planet’s largest stateless ethnic group. Kurdish efforts at independence have frequently garnered them invective and violent reaction from the ruling states; Saddam Hussein’s infamous late 1980s chemical weapons attack is just one example.
Hardi, the daughter of a well-known Kurdish poet, has followed a long and complicated path to get to where she is today. During the Iran-Iraq War, her family fled Hussein’s forces to Iran, where they remained for several years before returning to Northern Iraq. Her family fled Iraq again in the late 1980s, this time for Turkey. Eventually, Hardi landed in the United Kingdom. According to O’Murchu, England represents a sort of diaspora gathering spot for many Middle Eastern intellectuals.
“In some ways, London is the cultural capital of the modern Arab world.”
Since coming to the UK, Hardi has published several volumes of Kurdish poetry as well as serving as the chairperson for Exiled Writers’ Ink!, a group providing support for artists living in exile in the UK and mainland Europe. Hardi also recently completed her PhD, studying the effects of forced migration on the culture and lives of Kurdish women.
The other speaker is Alia Mamdouh, a well respected journalist and author born in Baghdad in 1944. Growing up, she bore witness to the coups and power struggles of the 1950s and 1960s which eventually culminated in the installation of the Iraqi wing of the Ba’ath Party. Mamdouh worked as a reporter before moving to Beirut, Lebanon, where she advanced up the journalistic ranks. Violence in Lebanon forced another move in the 1970s, this time to Paris, France, where she remains today, writing and editing for a variety of Arabic and French newspapers.
“Her life is interesting,” said O’Murchu.
“It’s really sort of the migration path of an Arab intellectual.”
On Tuesday evening, at 7:00 p.m. in the Old Main Theater, Wilson Library and the Women Studies department will host a public reading and discussion period with both Hardi and Mamdouh.
The next day, the two women will appear at the last Fairhaven College’s World Issues Forum of the year, held at noon in the Fairhaven Auditorium.
According to O’Murchu, “the topic is going to be the lives and culture of women in the Arab world.”
They will discuss the stereotypes and realities of the lives of Arab and Muslim women, as well as the special challenges they face.
O’Murchu said to expect the unexpected.
“I think it will be different from anything that we expect it to be,” said O’Murchu.
“We’re getting a particular slice– we’re getting middle class intellectuals. But I think we’ll find that, politically, these people will surprise us in different ways. As intellectuals, these people find themselves between a rock and a hard place. I think it’ll be very welcome to hear what they have to say and even before that, hear what they write about.”
The reading and discussion session will be Tuesday, May 24, at 7 p.m. in the Old Main Theater. The World Issues Forum is Wednesday, May 25, at noon in the Fairhaven Auditorium. Both events are free and open to the public.