Daughters of Smoke and Fire (courtesy of HarperCollins)
When his grandpa drew a yogurt mustache above Alan’s lips, the boy dissolved into giggles. Picturing himself with real whiskers thrilled Alan, who thought that facial hair might make up for being shorter than the other boys in his class.
“Your laughter woke me up, you cheeky monkey!” Uncle Soran, youngest of the six uncles and the only one awake, tousled Alan’s hair as he came onto the patio that opened to the yard. They sat around a nylon cloth spread atop a crimson handmade rug to eat breakfast.
Alan laughed again. “Bapir, I want handlebars, please.”
With a chapped finger, Bapir curled the ends of the yogurt mustache on either side of Alan’s puckered-up lips and planted a dab of the stuff on his nose too. Alan collapsed into laughter.
That June morning in 1963, Alan decided that Bapir was the most amusing person on earth. Perhaps he was the reason Alan adored older people and loved to listen to their stories of maama rewi, the trickster coyotes. It hurt Alan that most people with gray hair weren’t able to read or write, that their backs hurt and their papery hands trembled; his dream was to read stories into a loudspeaker for hundreds of elders while they relaxed in a large meadow filled with purple and red flowers.
Grandma brought out more nan, the thin, round bread she had baked in the cylindrical clay oven dug into the basement. Alan made his own “bulletproof ” sandwich: fresh honeycomb mixed with ghee. “After I eat this, I can run faster than the bullets,” he said.
“Our monkey is growing up, and yet we all treat him as if he is a young child!” Uncle Soran said, making his own bulletproof morsel.
“One’s grandchild is always young. That’s just how it is.” Bapir brushed crumbs from his lap. He winked. “If I were you, Alan, I would make it so I never grew up.”
“Growing up is a trap,” Grandma agreed, nodding.
“But I like the future,” Alan said.
They laughed. Bapir splashed a kiss on Alan’s face. “Something a six-year-old would say.”
Still wearing his yogurt mustache, Alan frowned. “I am seven.”
Father had come to Sulaimani to publish an article he’d written with Uncle Soran illustrating the suffering of the working class in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. Kurds had settled in the Zagros Mountains three hundred years before Christ was born, but now Alan’s people had no country to call their own. When the Western Allies had drawn the map of the Middle East, they had cut Kurdistan into four pieces, dividing it among Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
To visit Bapir with his father, Alan had to ace Kurdish spelling. But Kurdish was not a subject taught at school; Arabic was the only language used there. Father had been trying to teach him and his three brothers to write in their mother tongue, something Alan saw no use for. That morning, Father had skipped breakfast to search the city for a contraband typewriter.
Across the yard, Grandma was watering the pink roses and white lilies. A pounding on the wooden gate in the cement wall that surrounded their plot of land shattered her concentration. She dropped the hose.
“I’ll get it.” Alan ran across the yard to save her the trouble, but before he reached the gate, six men in Iraqi army uniforms, their faces hidden by striped gray scarves, broke the lock and directed their Kalashnikovs at Grandma’s face.
“Where are they?” the shortest one demanded.
Bapir froze, a morsel still in his open mouth. Alan turned to see Uncle Soran leaping over the wall and clambering onto the neighbor’s roof. Somebody—Grandma—grabbed Alan and backed him toward the house.
Nestled against her bosom, Alan watched the soldiers invade the house without waiting for an answer. All six uncles were pulled from their beds or hauled from the bathroom, the basement, a closet, and off the roof next door. Alan wiped off his white handlebars with his sleeve and tried to make sense of the chaos, the jerky movements, the incomprehensible noises escaping people’s throats. If only his eyes would give him weapons instead of tears!
His uncles were dragged by the neck, screaming and struggling, like animals to slaughter. Bapir’s questions and prayers, Grandma’s cries and pleas, the neighbors’ screams and curses—nothing had the slightest effect on the soldiers, who conducted the raid without a reply.
Alan’s uncles, some still in undershirts, were marched out at gunpoint to army trucks carrying hundreds of Kurdish boys and men between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. Alan peeled himself from Grandma’s arms and ran to the street. The men were told to squat in the beds of the trucks, to place their hands on their heads, and to shut their mouths. Alan looked back at Bapir, who remained next to his smashed gate, head bowed.
Along with other children, women, and elderly, Alan chased after the lumbering trucks, their huge rubber tires kicking up clouds of dust as they carted away the men amid the anxious cries of the followers. The older men, unarmed and horrified, searched for weapons and ran up the mountains, asking the Peshmerga to come down to the city to face the armed-to-the-teeth soldiers.
Alan trailed after the truck carrying his uncles as it traveled up the hillside at the city center. His heart had never beaten so fast. The truck finally stopped at the top of the hill, and prisoners were shoved out. On the hard soil, the captives were each given a shovel and ordered to dig.
“Ebn-al-ghahba,”spat the soldiers—Son of a whore. The angry bystanders were ordered to stand back. People obeyed the AK-47s.
Dirt sprayed over the prisoners’ bodies, hair, and eyelashes as their shovels cracked the earth open. Sweat dripped down their faces, and tears ran down over hands that muffled sobs. Alan looked at the pee running down the pants of a boy next to him, at a woman behind him clawing her face and calling out, “God, God, God,” at an older man shaking uncontrollably, his hand barely holding onto his crutch. Alan did not seem to be in possession of his own frozen body.
Once the trenches were dug, half of the prisoners were ordered to climb down into the ditches, and the rest were forced to shovel dirt up to their friends’ and relatives’ chins. Bapir had finally made his way to the top of the hill; he had found Alan in the first row of spectators, gnawing his thumbnail as he watched. Alan begged his grandpa to stop the cruelty.
Bapir hugged him. “They will be released in a few days, these young men.” He pressed Alan’s head to his chest. “They will be sent back home, bawanem, maybe with blisters and bruises, but they will be all right. Pray for them.” His hands trembled as he squeezed Alan’s. “May it rain before these men die of thirst.”
Alan searched through the crowd to find Uncle Soran lifting a pile of dirt with his shovel. Soran’s grip loosened when he looked into the eyes of his brother Hewa, whose name meant “hope.” Hewa stood in the hole, waiting to be buried by his closest relative, a man whom he’d play-wrestled as a boy and confided in throughout his life.
“Do it, Soran,” he said, his eyes shining up from the hole. A bearded soldier dressed in camouflage saw Soran’s hesitation. “Kalb, ebn-al-kalb!”—Dog, son of a dog—he barked, and swung his Kalashnikov at Soran, the barrel slicing the skin under his left ear.
Soran growled, almost choking, as he turned. With his shovel, he batted the Kalashnikov away so that the gun hit its owner in the head, cutting his scalp. Alan flinched. Bullets rained from every direction. Soran crumbled. His blood sprayed over Hewa, who was screaming and reaching for the perforated body, pulling him forward, pressing his face to the bleeding cheek of his brother.
Crying out, Bapir tried to run toward his sons, but dozens of guns pointed at his chest, dozens of hands held him back. The shower of gunfire wouldn’t cease; it struck the hugging siblings, painting them and the soil around them red.
His uncles, still in each other’s arms, were buried in one hole. Half of the prisoners were still covered up to their chins with dirt. The remaining ninety-five men were sent down into the other trenches, and the soldiers buried them up to their heads. Alan stared at the rows upon rows of human heads, a garden of agony.
Intoxicated with power, the soldiers kicked the exposed heads of the prisoners, knocked some with the butts of their guns, and jeered at them. At the top of the hill, Bapir sobbed with such force that his wails shook the earth, Alan felt. He clutched Bapir’s hunched shoulders and felt impossibly small.
A sunburnt man and a neighbor with shrunken features hugged Bapir, then placed the old man’s trembling arms around their shoulders and walked him down the hill.
“Where are my other sons?” Bapir gasped for air.
“Let’s get you home,” the neighbors told him.
Alan wanted to go with his grandpa, but he was afraid to move. If he took a step, the nightmare would become real. He scanned the hill for his other uncles, who were perhaps buried in some distant trench and unable to move. He couldn’t see them. Even Bapir was no longer in sight.
The hubbub was dying down. The strangers who’d witnessed the scene were bound by their dread, their exchanged looks the only solace they could offer each other. Their heads seemed to move in slow motion, as if everyone were suspended underwater. Alan breathed in the atmosphere of quiet horror, of paused hysteria.
Suddenly people cried out in terror. From the road below them, several armored tanks were approaching. Gaping in disbelief, Alan staggered back, holding a hand to his mouth. He could neither run away nor slow his hammering heart, which was now threatening to explode. When the panicking crowd pushed forward, guns fired into the air to hold them back.
The tanks advanced.
Alan’s mind couldn’t process the scene before him. Screams. Curses. Pleas. The devilish laughter of the soldiers. He felt an invisible piece of himself drop away and melt into the ground. He was not Alan anymore.
It took an excruciatingly long time for the tanks to pulverize the heads of the prisoners.
The metallic stench of blood, of crushed human flesh and skulls, the foul odor of death made its way into the spectators’ nostrils and throats. The lucky ones threw up. Alan did not.
While the giant metal treads ground his family and the other Kurds into nothingness, Alan sucked in shallow and unhelpful breaths.
Bapir lay in bed at home, tossing in anguish, a hand still on his aching chest. By his bedside his wife shed silent tears. Although they had not witnessed the crushing of their sons, they collapsed that day of broken hearts, one after the other. Someone went to find a doctor.
Father arrived at his parents’ home oblivious to the tragedy, having taken an unusual road to safeguard his treasure. His typed article was tucked under his shirt. The joy of achievement and hope for his people glowed in his eyes. Then he found his parents on their deathbed. In bits and pieces, the neighbors told him of the massacre, how Ba’ath soldiers—ordered by President Aref and Prime Minister Al-Baker—had punished the Kurds for daring to demand autonomy.
Father ran to the hill, where bewildered children gathered and clung to each other. Beside them, a group of adults wailed and cried, threw dirt into their hair, and beat their faces in terror.
“The British bastards armed Baghdad to kill us. Their tanks, their planes, their goddamn firebombs and mustard gas that killed Iraqis forty years ago are now killing us,” Father said to no one in particular.
Then he just stared with unseeing eyes at the gory mound of his pulverized people, his brothers.
Seeing his father’s dazed reaction, Alan finally allowed the sobs he’d held in since he first saw the soldiers to burst forth. Other children followed suit. Tears and snot rolled down the dusty faces of the boys and girls who’d been abandoned by the living and dead alike.
Alan ran to his father and held on to his leg. “Baba gian, Baba!” he cried. It took a couple of moments before his father noticed him and hugged him close.
“We will leave Iraq. We won’t live here any longer.” A wild urge to be anywhere but here tugged at Alan’s gut too.
Some stoic women and a few elderly men tearlessly buried the unidentifiable remains. They laid down uncarved stones in row after row and asked Alan and the other children to pick wildflowers and pink roses from the slope of the hill, placing them in rows too.
Alan sucked on the blood dripping down his index finger, torn by the rose thorns.
“Alan!” cried a woman whom Alan did not recognize. Three other boys turned when she called; one ran to her. Alan was a popular name, meaning “flag bearer.” It testified to what was expected of the children of a stateless nation, who had to fight against nonexistence.
Credit: From Daughters of Smoke and Fire: A Novel © 2020 Ava Homa, published May 12, 2020 by The Overlook Press, an imprint of ABRAMS and in Canada by HarperCollins. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.
Ava Homa: Activist, humanitarian, speaker, and writer in exile. Her debut novel “Daughters of Smoke and Fire” is a survival story. Her collection of short stories “Echoes from the Other Land” (Mawenzi, Toronto, 2010) was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Conner Short Story Prize and secured a place among the ten winners of the 2011 CBC Reader’s Choice Contest, running concurrently with the Giller Prize. Homa is also the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-In-Exile Scholarship.
She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Windsor in Canada, another in English Language and Literature from Tehran, Iran, and a diploma in editing from Toronto. A Writer-in-Residence at the Historic Joy Kogawa House, BC (2013), George Brown College, Toronto (2012), R. D. Lawrence Cultural Centre, Minden Hills (2011), and the Open Book Toronto and Ontario (2011), Homa has taught Creative Writing workshops, judged writing contests, served the editorial board of the Write Magazine and the National Council of The Writers’ Union of Canada.
Homa has delivered speeches on writing as resistance, human rights, gender equality, Kurdish affairs, media literacy, and other topics in different settings across North America and Europe.