Newroz and the Haft-seen table

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Oh happy day: the day we first feel spring in the air. The first day that shoes replace boots- the light feet, the utter joy. That’s the Canadian’s late March experience, but in Mediterranean countries, they are seeing spring blooms by now, discarding jackets, eating the first local greens.

Newroz celebrates the arrival of spring and is usually celebrated around March 20, coinciding with the Northward Equinox. It has been celebrated for centuries in Iranian, Armenian, Azerbaijanian and Kurdish cultures; it was first mentioned in Kurdish poetry in the 16th century.

In Northern Kurdistan (East Turkey), Newroz is almost always celebrated with a picnic. When I visited family there, we lugged a hibatchi-type BBQ out to the woods by a stream, played hide and seek games among the trees, sang songs and feasted on tomato salad, flat bread and chicken (killed in the backyard that morning). Sometimes whole communities celebrate together with dancing and music.

In The Word Not Spoken, Ahmet uses Newroz to divert Leigh’s fears when he tells her on their wedding night that he is a freedom fighter, part of the PKK:

Ahmet hesitated. “We tell tourists and journalists about the human rights abuse and the democracy problem here.”

Leigh was relieved. “You just talk to people?”

“Yes. We are non-violent group.”

“What do you do?”

“I go to meeting every month. Right now we are planning Newroz celebrations and demonstrations.”

Ahmet explained that Newroz was celebrated on the first day of spring in Kurdistan, comparable to a New Year’s celebration in the west. It had never been celebrated by Turks, and so, over the past decades, Newroz had become an opportunity to assert Kurdish culture and identity. Only three years previous, a crowd dancing in a village square in Mersin had been fired upon by watching Turkish tanks.

“Ahmet, you don’t go to the Newroz celebration do you?”

“No. I plan it just, but I cannot be there.”

Leigh gets more information later in the story. By this time, she has met Kurdish refugees dying in tents, and she has started to write their story. Here Ahmet is telling her about his cell’s meeting the night before and what they discussed:

“We are planning Newroz. It is very important, a very strong day for my people.”

March 21st was only a couple of weeks away. Ahmet explained that this would be, as always, a celebration of spring and the new year for the people of East Turkey and parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran. The anti-government groups sought to protect the Kurdish people so that they could dress in traditional costume and dance in village squares without the army harassing them.

“Write this,” dictated Ahmet. “Ahmet says, ‘Freedom is not cheap. It is better for a Kurd to die dancing than in a burning house.’”

“Like that. With his finger in the air,” said Leigh, writing.

Newroz would happen no matter what, Ahmet pointed out. The people would be out. The only variable was what the army’s reaction would be. Some cities planned massive peaceful demonstrations. Others planned simple celebrations. Ahmet said the important thing was the Kurdish people would be seen asserting their identity and culture. The truth was Newroz had become a propaganda vehicle. It was an assertion of Kurdish identity, encouraged by pro-Kurdish groups. Ahmet said the largest demonstrations were organized in cities with weak Kurdish undergrounds. This would occupy M.I.T.’s (the secret police) attention. As well, none of the important leaders would attend. The goal was complete safety for the demonstrators.

“What else did you talk about?” asked Leigh.

This was my reality when I lived in Turkey in the mid-90s. Newroz was a time of fear and supreme courage. I preferred delightful family picnics to public gatherings; I hated the feeling of ducking my head, checking my back, walking in front of soldiers with guns in hand.

I cannot adequately share my shock when during later visits to Turkey I learned that the Turkish government had done an about-face and declared Newroz to be a Turkish holiday! If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I guess.

“The Turkish government suddenly announced that the Kurdish new year’s holiday Newroz, was in fact a Turkish holiday commemorating the day the Turks first left their ancestral Asian homeland, Ergenekon. The day was renamed Nevruz since the letter ‘w’ was not in the Turkish alphabet.” (Nationalisms and Politics in Turkey by Casier & Jongerden)

In Iran, a table called Haft-seen is displayed at Newroz. Haft-seen means 7S because seven items beginning with the letter ‘s’ must be on the table along with other more personal items. The seven items are: “Sumac (crushed spice of berries) to symbolize the sunrise and the spice of life, Senjed (sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree) for love and affection,Serkeh (vinegar) for patience and age, Seeb (apples) for health and beauty, Sir(garlic) for good health, Samanu (wheat pudding) for fertility and the sweetness of life, and Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass) for rebirth and renewal of nature.” Huffpost Religion

Personal additions to the Haft-seen table may include poetry, books, a mirror (reflection on the past year), a bowl of real goldfish (new life), colored eggs (fertility), coins (prosperity), flowers (spring), and candles (light and happiness).

I photographed this Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant, 462 Rideau St., Ottawa. The owner was so pleased with my interest that she explained every item on the table to me.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Happy Spring! Happy Newroz!

Refugee 613

I was teaching “housing” to a literacy class one morning, and I passed around a pile of photos. The photos were of places I have lived: a tiny Japanese apartment with tatami mat floors, a windowless room in Kathmandu, a cave in Turkey, the Canadian bungalow I grew up in. I had photos of residences I have visited: a villa in Istanbul, Windsor Palace, an orphanage in Bhaktapur, a yacht in the Mediterranean, a hut in Kerala… a floor-less tent in Kurdistan.

Kurdish refugee tent, March 1996, Kurdistan

Kurdish refugee tent, March 1996, Kurdistan, photo: Laurie Fraser

A shout rose, “Laurie, my house! My house same!”

Other students joined in- “Yes, same my house! Refugee camp!”

A number of the students were refugees from Bhutan who fled to Nepal 2 decades ago. I was shocked at the recognition- this tent, this shocking poverty- was getting grins of recognition.

Photos credit

I suppose refugees’ homes are similar whether they are great groups of tents (more than 35,000 lived in the Nepali refugee camps at their peak) or 54 people in 3 tents on a great plain (the Kurdish refugees that I met in 1996). Some camps are big enough to attract aid; some are isolated and without aid. But home is home and even in refugee camps I hear of pets, sickness, births, friends, jobs, domestic abuse, alcoholism and weddings.

Bhutanese refugees banner.jpg

Lately I’ve been hearing a good many refugee stories- at fundraisers for Syrians, on the radio and in the newspapers. I heard a Vietnamese refugee speak of her experience as a “Boat Person” in 1978: piracy on the open sea, arrival at Malaysia who turned them away (“We’re full”) and the heroic captain who took his over-filled boat of 300 desperate, sick and twice-robbed passengers back to the Malaysian coast in the middle of night and destroyed the floor of the boat so that it would sink forcing them all to swim ashore where the Malaysians had no choice but to accept them as refugees. And then finding a way out of there and on to Canada, learning English, settling and integrating.

A refugee from Iran told of sitting on her couch ducking as the bombs whistled overhead, yearning to go to school and then the bombing of her school. Just 10 years old and haunted by the school superintendent who had lived there with his family- all were killed as she sat her couch. Now she is a successful professional in Canada- a physician, a mother who sometimes doesn’t want to sleep and see that family in her nightmares.

A young man from Congo who was captured and forced to be a soldier at age 11. He escaped and ran through the jungle for three days. He is a student now at an Ottawa university. He apologized: “My story is short because my age is short.”

And this week a CBC Radio interviewer will come to my school to interview refugees and broadcast their stories. Well, there’s no shortage of stories at my school of 166 students, a third of them refugees. We have a Syrian family already: the mother and father in English class, a preschooler in the childcare. I met the woman in September. “From Syria?” I asked. “Yes”, she understood. “Welcome,” I said, “I am happy you got here.”

The stories are similar. They are of loss and fear and desperation. There is terrible grief for the people left behind. The refugees are similar too, in that they are all wounded. (We have a student who lost her eye when her neighbour’s house was bombed in Baghdad- she considers herself lucky. We have students with bullets in their bodies, students who limp….) They are wounded emotionally and mentally- sometimes they cry and tell the teachers they are like their mother, their sister who died, only because we give them kindness and attention. They can’t focus when they first arrive at school, often still in shock at the changes in their lives.

What do they say about Canada? “I love Canada because Canada is safe.” “Canada is peace. I miss my country but no peace in my country.”

I will never forget a woman who came to school one morning absolutely ecstatic: “My husband go jail! Police come! My husband hitting, hitting. Neighbour telephone 911. Neighbour! I don’t know neighbour- she call police! She help me! My country no one help me. Everyone know refugee camp- my husband hitting, hitting, me crying, crying. No one help me. Canada help everything. I love Canada. I love Canada people.”

I was teaching opposites one day: hot- cold, tall-short, rich-poor. I asked my student, “Are you rich or poor?”. This refugee with a spouse and 2 children receives about $2,000/month from social assistance. Her rent is $1,200. It doesn’t include utilities.

“I am rich,” she answered, smiling.

“Really?” I asked. “Little money, little shopping, small apartment- one bedroom.”

“Yes, rich. Thank you Canada.”

To help the Syrian refugees coming to Ottawa please contact Refugee 613.

Kurdish Culture

Shahram playing the tanbour.

Shahram playing the tanbour.

Kurds are more than the fight.


How often did my husband hold his finger in the air and declare, “We want to speak our language without fear. We want the right to dance, to sing our music, to write and read our literature.”



85 + at the Ottawa Public Library

85 + at the Ottawa Public Library

After all, what are they fighting for?

At this moment, in many places, they are fighting for simple survival, a peaceful place to live, clean water, a dry warm bed, a garden, a roof, a safe haven, a border. But more than that- they are fighting for Kurdish schools, Kurdish businesses, Kurdish culture.

Jaffer Sheyholislami

Jaffer Sheyholislami

We gathered on Nov. 15, almost 100 of us, not to talk about the fight or the people dying on the mountains. We gathered to enjoy the talent of Shahram with his tanbour, the singing and film-making of children in Kobani, the poetry of Jaffer Sheyholislami and other Kurds, and the stories I had to tell about my time in Kurdistan.

reading about the 3-day wedding

reading about the 3-day wedding


It was a joyous afternoon. A reporter from Centretown News had interviewed me the day beforehand. I had been practicing my speech when she called, but I said with confidence, “I’m not nervous. It can’t go wrong with these people in the room. It’ll be all heart.” How could it be anything but?




old friends who made the trip

old friends who made the trip

Jeghir Jahangir

Jeghir Jahangir, mc extraordinaire






Kurdish poetry

Jaffer Sheyholislami, Words and Kurds, Nov. 2014

Jaffer Sheyholislami, Words and Kurds, Nov. 2014

     by Sherko Bekes

From my poems, if you take away flowers,

One of my four seasons will die

If you take away the wind,

Two of my seasons will die.

If you take away bread,

Three of my seasons will die.

If you take away freedom,

My whole year will die,

and so will I.

Translated by Jaffer Sheyholislami

as performed at Words and Kurds Cultural Event, November 15, 2014


Help Kurdish Refugees

August 13, 2014

August 13, 2014

It really feels like exercising my right of free speech to walk with sign held high around Parliament Hill (Ottawa) “In Solidarity with Kurdistan”, answering the megaphone and marching over to the American Embassy. The words were grateful for humanitarian aid, asking for more, the end of ISIS, and call for immediate help for Yezidi refugees in danger.

At the eternal flame. We'd been drenched in a downpour but the sun came out again.

At the eternal flame. We’d been drenched in a downpour but the sun came out again.


I met a former student there. He’d received the text at 9:30 am, dropped everything to be downtown by 11 to march. It was spur of the moment for all of us, and spirits were high…hopes are high these days that the West will help this time.

Free Kurdistan. Stop ISIS.

Free Kurdistan. Stop ISIS.

Marching to the American Embassy. "Thank you!" we chanted outside.

Marching to the American Embassy. “Thank you!” we chanted outside. “Stop ISIS!”

I got the email the night before- the anniversary of my husband’s death- and couldn’t think of a better way to honour him and so many other persecuted Kurds, still dying as I write this.

A week later, I participated in a fundraiser for the refugees, donating book profits to the cause. “Kurdish in Ottawa” organized the event. They barbequed chicken and collected donations. We played soccer and drank tea-  a very pleasant way to raise about $2,000.

Donations for the refugees are gratefully accepted by Anatolian Cultural Foundation (ACF) 

How can you HELP?


“Lullaby” by Ava Homa- a review of the short story tribute to Farzad Kamangar

Lullaby is a short story written by Ava Homa and published by Novel Rights (literature re: human rights).

“Lullaby” is a moving account of Farzad Kamangar’s last days spent in Iranian prison. The influential Kurdish teacher and writer was executed 4 years ago. I found this story to appear deceptively simple, when, in fact, it is full of portent information- the state of political prisoners in Iran, the impotent judge and the human guard, the passing of the days and the exchange of goods with visitors.

Although the situation is certainly an overwhelming one, Ava Homa manages to share the emotion and the prisoners’ tactics for managing the impossible place they are in, without crushing her readers with pain.

This is mature writing that admits things are never black and white, and attempts to balance the characters, who are human enough to be complicated. Lovely prose too, that draws parallels with counting and delights us with chocolate. Absolutely a fascinating account and eminently readable. Homa has paid tribute to a stubbornly brave man who moved many with his integrity and words. May he never be forgotten.

With Homa’s permission, the story begins like this:

“The call rings out. I tell myself the students are still learning, in secret, the history of the Kurds. The call for prayer echoes through Evin Prison. It turns me cold with fear.

Footsteps! I know the sound of those heavy boots. I know them well. My pen falls down from my bed and I curl into a ball, shrinking with fear. The pain in my head and face, legs and back, stomach and ribs becomes much sharper. Clutching at the pillow does not stop me from shaking. The footsteps stop before they reach my ward. “Hands up,” I think, and almost say it out loud.

“Hands up,” the old guard says.

I know what they are doing in the other cell. The blindfold, the click of the handcuffs, and the guards take Ali out, pushing and kicking him.

I toss and turn and follow them in my head as Ali is taken downstairs, dragged nineteen steps to the right, down nineteen stairs and delivered to the interrogators. Under his blindfold, Ali will count the pairs of shoes in the room: four, six, eight . . . black, formal shoes that are thick with blood, polished by blood. The whipping will start soon after the curses. If the man they call “Mongrel” is there, the interrogation will last longer and be much more painful. Every Kurd knows that man’s strange voice, an unusual mixture of high and low. In his vocabulary, “fucking murdering savages” means “Kurds.” It is rumoured that Mongrel’s brother had been killed in Kurdistan thirty years ago during one of the uprisings. Five, six whiplashes and Ali will think about concentration camps, pyramids, the Great Wall of China, but he will not feel the whipping anymore. I hope.

The number of cracks on the wall is three hundred and five today. I sneak a pen out from under my mattress and take some paper, folded four times, out from my underwear. “My dear students,” I write, lying on my left on a stinking army blanket. “All I have been able to do for you is to secretly teach you our Kurdish alphabet, our literature and our history. Please, children, remember your heritage and pass it on. Dear little ones, never allow this knowledge to steal from you the joy of childhood. May you keep the joy of youth in your minds forever. It may be the one and only investment you can use later when the agony of earning the ‘bread and butter’ dominates you, my sons, and the sin of being ‘the second sex’ overpowers you, my daughters. When you are picking flowers in the valleys to make crowns for your children, tell them about the purity and happiness of childhood. Remember not to turn your backs on your dreams, loves, music, poetry and Kurdistan’s magical nature. Get together, sing the songs and recite the poetry as we used to do.”

***      want to read more? 

                                      1 COPY only €1.99

By Buying “Lullaby” Novel Rights ePUB Short Story written by Ava Homa, You will help us to create more HRL (Human Rights Literature) short stories and produce many more events around the globe promoting literature that supports human rights values.

Reading in Vancouver for Kurdish House.

There are days in my life that I’d be willing to live over and over without changing a moment- May 18 was one of those. I woke up in Shwan and Yvonne’s place in Coquitlam to a fantastic breakfast, was chauffeured to Douglas College with a detour on the way to see the beautiful Maillardville and then I ran into my old friend Jeff on his way to the event. “The Event” as it’s been called for 2 months, was planned by Kurdish House, mainly Shwan Chawshin, with ferocity. He invited MPs, put out flyers, advertised on Kurdtv, emailed, facebooked, telephoned…Shwan filled that auditorium.

Vancouver reading May 2014

Vancouver reading May 2014

What a thrill for me to read to a Kurdish audience! I felt my life had come full circle. After all these years, I was embraced again by a Kurdish community. Eighteen years ago I promised a group of Kurdish refugees that I would tell their story to the world and here I was reading from it to a group of Kurds, many of whom were refugees.

I’ve been haunted by the refugees I met in North Kurdistan in March 1996. I’ve wondered, tearfully, many times what happened to them, if any survived…I remember especially the barefoot boy who fell in the cold mud and his poor mother who didn’t have water to wash him or heat to warm him.


chatting at the end

chatting at the end

I read that part of the book to the Vancouver community. When I finished, a number of people came to talk.

“I lived in one of those tents for 4 years.”

“My father was killed, my brothers died in jail…I am the only one left.”

“I was Peshmerga, 8 years.”

chatting at the end “I was tortured every day for 45 days.”

They are miserable words, but to me, to see so many people who had survived, who had made it to Canada…well for me, it was an affirmation of life. I hadn’t been able to imagine how ANYone could IMAG0676 survive the desolate situation I witnessed.

I also read about the wedding- a foreigner finding her way through 3 days of rituals and celebrations- and the audience laughed out loud at her efforts and observations.

A few people told me they had both laughed and cried in the 30-minute reading. What a joy for a writer to see the impact her words have made! And I was reminded again of the emotional openness and honesty of this community- men who can come up to me with tears in their eyes and say what they are thinking or remembering. I have said it before: The Kurds are stunningly courageous people in so many ways.

I remember sometimes resenting that my evenings, weekends, holidays were spent in isolation, indoors, working on a manuscript. I didn’t know if it would ever be read by anyone but me. I wondered sometimes if I was wasting years of my life. Other times, there was nothing more important than keeping my promise, nothing more beautiful than the polished words that I touched and touched and touched again. I did dare to dream it would be appreciated…and this past weekend that dream came true.

Ava's reading

Ava’s reading

Ava Homa read from her fascinating collection of short stories Echoes from the Other Land, Avan Ali read poetry in Kurdish and the host Nassir gave a stirring speech. We ended the afternoon with singing by Nadia- a Kurdish singer. After the strain of travelling and the tension of speaking, that music was a release. Nadia’s voice roused the joy in us all and as we clapped along I watched for who would dance first.  It was a group of men at the back. They formed a chain and snapped the handkerchief. I attached myself to the chain and danced with pure exaltation.

With all of my heart- thank you Shwan and Yvonne, Ava and Shaima, Aras and Sewar, Taban (who gave me flowers before I even read and who had never met me before), Jeff and all of the beautiful people who shared their Sunday with me.

Thank you to Kurdish House for the plane ticket and the roof over my head!

Shwan, Laurie, Yvonne

Shwan, Laurie, Yvonne

Remembering Halabja

2013-03-31 15.14.32

Today is the day Halabja was lost, 14 years ago. In Iraq, 5,000 Kurds were killed in one chemical gas attack.

The new Halabja monument in the Hague is fashioned after the infamous photos of people dying in their tracks, shielding their children with their bodies. Bas News reports that it is fitting that the monument be in the Netherlands “since a Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat was sentenced to 17 years in prison for selling raw material for the production of chemical weapons to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s.”

See the monument here.

This is the account I was told (from The Word Not Spoken):

He leaned back against the wall and pulled her closer to put his arm around her. He showed her pictures of his army service. Ahmet looked unfamiliar in the pictures with his buzzed hair, green fatigues and black boots laced up his shins. His ears stuck out. The soldiers held their MG3s and MG11s casually. Their faces were smiling, their arms around each other. The background was brown rock with an occasional pale green bush.

Ahmet explained that every male Turkish citizen performed eighteen months of military service by the time he was twenty years old. Ahmet, however, had served twenty-one months. He had been in the army during the Gulf War. He had fought with the Turkish Army on the border of Iraq. Their enemy had been the P.K.K.

He said that the P.K.K. (Kurdish Workers’ Party) was a powerful group of Kurdish freedom fighters. They were fighting the Turkish Army in the east and in the government.

“How could you fight for the Turks against your own people?”

“It is difficult situation.”

One picture showed Ahmet jumping from one huge rock to another, a large gun hanging from one shoulder loosely swung through the air with him.

“One time, the American Army gave us the location of a P.K.K. camp. We surrounded the camp in northern Iraq. It was big; about five hundred guerrillas lived there. We shoot a few hours. Then an American helicopter came and rescued some men from the buildings in the middle of the camp.”

“The United States told you the Kurds were there and then rescued them from you?”

“A few. With a ladder. Like a rope.”

“Why would the U.S. help both sides and have them fight each other?”

“Of course, to make both sides weak. And busy.”

He flicked through the pictures. “This one,” he said, pointing to a picture of five men laughing at the camera. “The next day they died. All four. Yes, I am the only one who is still alive.”

“Really, the next day?”

“Hah, in one battle. All on same day.” He gazed at the picture and was silent for a moment. Settled now with her head on his chest, Leigh looked upwards to see pursed lips.

“What did you do?”

“I cried.”

Ahmet sighed. He flipped to the next picture.

“These are the refugees from Iraq. Do you remember 1991, they walked over the mountains to get away from Saddam Hussein?”

Leigh nodded. The picture showed hundreds of people and tents crouched on a mountain slope.

“He started many years ago. In only the 1980s, five thousand Kurdish villages were destroyed by him. One of them was Halabja. We can never forgiven that. Halabja was the most beautiful place in all of Kurdistan. Many people say it was the sweetest place on earth. It was a green diamond.”

“An emerald.”

“It was Kurdistan’s heart. One day Saddam made it rain gas. Thousands of people were burned and poisoned. Some run to Iran.

“And 1991, same crime, but many, many towns near to Turkey. They were fighting for freedom from Hussein. They run to Turkey.” Ahmet shook his head. “They are treated like animals here.”

He tossed the pile of photos aside and rummaged for more in one of the plastic bags on the floor.

2013-09-29 17.46.02



BBC News report from 1991: Kurdish Exodus

In The Word Not Spoken Leigh recalls Ahmet’s account of the events of 1991.

To bring that account to life, click on the link below. The news report posted to Youtube is astonishing.

After Iraq was defeated in the Gulf War, Kurds (in the north) and Arabs (in the south) overthrew the Ba’ath regime in many towns- disabling government and local military. Their success lasted only a few weeks and the uprising was brutally and quickly ended by loyalist forces led by the Iraqi Republican Guard.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called the Kurdish Exodus the largest in its 40–year history. Two million people were displaced and in March 1991, an estimated 2,000 Kurds were dying every day.

Faleh Jaber writes: Despite the calls made during the war by Western leaders for Iraqis to rise up and dispose of Saddam Hussein, these dramatic and tragic events were the last thing any outside powers anticipated. (read more)

click here to watch a news report from 1991- astonishing footage.

crocus- the most courageous of flowers

crocus- the most courageous of flowers