“Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.”
The landscape of memoirs documenting Kurdish struggles, wars, and trauma remains sparsely populated compared to those of other nations with analogous experiences. This scarcity is noteworthy, as it reflects an imbalance in narrative representation. While several memoirs by Kurdish authors have emerged within the past few decades, they represent only a fraction of the diverse stories and experiences that characterize the Kurdish journey. Moreover, the authors of most of these memoirs have been male and have enjoyed more favorable political and sociocultural circumstances than their female counterparts. This gendered skew suggests that the act of chronicling these struggles has been shaped largely by privilege, limiting the diversity of voices and perspectives that could offer a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the Kurdish narrative.
Using Chro Is My Name, a war survivor’s memoir, as a case study, this article attempts to unpack the significance of first-hand testimony in a post-truth era, especially in relation to displacement and war. Furthermore, it explores how contextualizing personal narratives with collective experiences and societal components such as families, religious and cultural communities can amplify the authenticity of the storytelling.
Chro Is My Name recounts Chro Zand’s experiences in Kurdistan and abroad and details her life amid the numerous conflicts that tore through her homeland. A substantial portion of Zand’s memoir is devoted to naming and acknowledging brutal misdeeds, centering on the theme of devastation and discrimination. She commences with her idyllic childhood within her supportive family, then transitions to her challenging adolescent years in high school, where she and her classmates engage in school demonstrations advocating for the curriculum to be taught in her native language, Kurdish. As a consequence of these protests, her beautiful and honorable principal, Mrs. Gillas Arif, is targeted by Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. From that point on, the narrative revolves around Zand’s displacement from her homeland, her heartrending separation from her loved ones, and the particularly distressing experience of witnessing them undergo physical mutilation:
“April 24, 1974, was the day that changed the life of my childhood friend, Chiman H. Mahmood. It was the day when the entire city of Qaladiza was bombed and when Chiman lost her left leg… I still remember, as a child, accompanied by my mom, taking flowers to Chiman at the Sulaimani hospital.”
However, even amid the bleakest moments, Zand harbors a perpetual glimmer of hope. She extends aid and compassion to fellow displaced individuals whose plights are akin to her own. Despite bearing witness to numerous traumas, she absorbs strength and optimism through the examples of those around her.
Due to the subjective nature of autobiographical writings, a memoir’s honest representation is a concern for researchers and casual readers alike. According to the memoirist Fern Kupfer (1996), what readers tend to find most fascinating about the genre is the idea that it can reveal truths that can reshape their way of viewing the stories and the characters in them (22). She believes that “It is the authority of the truth—the idea of truth, anyway—that makes the memoir attractive to readers.” Kupfer does not say that a memoir should include only facts, but since it is recognized as “nonfiction,” readers do expect authors of nonfiction to portray the world accurately. She further explains that “Lying—like cheating and stealing—is almost always wrong from an ethical perspective. But shaping the truth when writing memoir is an acceptable aspect of the craft.” She then wonders, “So where are the boundaries here?”
It is crucial to remember that memoirists are not only concerned with issues of authenticity and memory, but also with difficult aspects of writing, especially when it has to do with their traumatic experiences and the atrocities that they have faced. For instance, if the writer is writing about violent conflicts, they must be very careful while describing how their war is portrayed by the media and explicitly differentiating media portrayals from their own. Indeed, evidence from past and present conflicts indicates that while the media wield significant influence, they often align themselves with particular political factions and purposefully distort the truth to serve those factions’ ends. As a result, narratives of war play a vital role in enabling fellow survivors to articulate their individual emotions and convey an authentic depiction of the war’s multi-layered realities.
Zand deploys some powerful strategies in her memoir to earn her reader’s trust. Her work holds profound historical importance in that she portrays the struggle, the ambiguity, the cruelty, and the humanity of the Kurdish experience and unconsciously asks other survivors and readers to do the same. Her memoir includes some accurate details about dates, places, characters, and events:
“On that freezing first day of April, some people could not make it through the night and died from cold, falling before our very eyes. We saw families buried their loved ones who had died on the road, mostly small children and the elderly. We had to continue walking. Along the way we saw more images of death. No voice of strife was heard, only the silent multitude of the dead.”
Another aspect of Zand’s book is that it also uses photographs of her family, friends, and hometown to authenticate to readers that the memoir, indeed, is as an accurate and honest reflection narrator of her life own experiences. In his book, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes (1981) points out that “Photography never lies: or rather, it can lie as to the meaning of the thing, being by nature tendentious, never as to its existence.” Roland Barthes’ quote underscores the dual nature of photography. On one hand, it is a medium that faithfully captures the existence of subjects in the world, providing a form of visual truth. On the other hand, it can be manipulated or interpreted in ways that convey different meanings, influenced by the photographer’s perspective and the viewer’s interpretation.
Given that Zand’s memoir recounts numerous horrifying and traumatic experiences, she faces an even greater responsibility to represent subjective recollections as objectively and accurately as possible. Zand reinforces her narrative with a collection of photographs depicting her journey from childhood to adulthood. These photos not only raise authenticity concerns but also evoke vivid mental images, aiding readers in understanding the significance of these landscapes and individuals in shaping the events. While the photographs in Zand’s memoir function as both evidence of the past’s existence and tools for constructing narratives that can shape our understanding of history and reality, the existence of the people she lived with and the places she inhabited takes precedence in creating a more precise portrayal of the events and stories detailed in her book.
Another interesting characteristic of Chro Is My Name is that it contains some universal truths about how to be a better human being. While recalling how she and her family awaited their visas approval for travel to Canada in the city of Sivas, Turkey, Zand reflects on the remarkable kindness displayed by the people around her. She vividly recalls the day of their arrival in Sivas with her two children, a memory etched deeply in her heart. Exhausted and weary, they find themselves in front of a quaint store, their hunger pangs gnawing at their empty stomachs. Just as the sun begins to rise, the storeowner leaves for the mosque to engage in his morning prayers. Seizing the opportunity to alleviate their hunger, Zand carefully retrieves a loaf of bread from the store’s shelves and tenderly divides it among her famished children. As she is about to take her first bite, a sense of trepidation washes over her, – a feeling that proved to be justified:
“The owner appeared, shouted at me and accused me of stealing. I was terrified at what I had done, and my piece of bread fell to the ground. I tried to explain my situation, including my kid’s hunger while not having a penny on me. The man asked me if I was Yabanchi (Turkish for foreigner) and I replied yes. He immediately changed from anger to kindness and asked me to go inside his store to have tea with a new loaf of bread for me and my children.”
And so, while waiting in the bustling city of Sivas for their visas to be approved, Zand’s heart was warmed by the memory of a simple loaf of bread, shared in a moment of vulnerability and grace, a testament to the remarkable generosity that can be found within the hearts of strangers. These accounts demonstrate how Zand imparts universal truths to her readers.
In other words, the successfulness of writing the efficacy of a memoir does not necessarily hinge only on the amount of truth that is being conveyed, but rather on the way these facts are being narrated. Many autobiographical theorists believe that, just like novelists, memoirists should employ fiction techniques in their memoir. In Chro Is My Name, Zand endeavours to encompass more than just a narrative. Employing vibrant depictions and genuine life encounters, she weaves a tapestry that not only depicts her friends and relatives and their relationships and dialogues, but also captures the her blooming adolescent instances of her blossoming affections for her Arab lover, Saad. The author navigates through her teenage memories with unfiltered candor, presenting the reality as she observed it alongside her companions. The portrayal of her homeland’s geography and history is meticulously detailed, enhancing the authenticity of her storytelling.
Zand’s memoir regains control over her own narrative by oscillating between ethnographic details and personal accounts. For instance, in the concluding chapter of Zand’s memoir, she explores the life of her parents and their deep connections within their community. She fondly recalls countless moments spent with her father, Karim Zand, a celebrated Kurdish translator, historian, geographer, and writer. Through her recollections, she illuminates his interactions with various minority communities. She vividly remembers accompanying her father to the local church in their city, where he would entrust her with money to place in the offering plate. Subsequently, Zand delves into her mother’s involvement with friends and the diverse communities that thrived in their city:
“I had grown up in a secular family, one that was spiritual, but not religious. My mother used to celebrate Hannukah with the Jewish community in our neighbourhood. She shared food and goods with members of that community. In spite of all the different religions that existed in our city and country, we did not have religious conflicts in the neighbourhood. We learned to share and enjoy each other’s celebrations. However, over the years, many things changed and religious complexities became an issue. As a result, my father was attacked and three attempts were made to kill him.”
These details indeed provide accurate insights into the cultural diversity, communal interactions, and the evolving cultural landscape within the author’s community.
In our modern world, there is a constant emphasis on the idea of truth, yet the irony is that we are living in the most artificial and augmented age of all time. Today’s memoirists tend to offer their readers a pathway to the truth they yearn for in an era where truth often remains elusive, concealed beneath layers of misinformation and subjective interpretation. Hence, amidst the ongoing debates surrounding truth and falsehoods, one cannot help but reflect on the pertinence of Hannah Arendt’s timely quote: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”
In the context of widespread disappointment in contemporary political slanted news, Zand’s memoir reveals deeper, more tangible, and more relevant truths behind Kurdish massacres. At the same time, it illustrates the possibility of transforming a seemingly miserable situation into an unexpected opportunity for triumph by reconditioning one’s own way of thinking on an individual level. As critically important as these narratives are, they are often suppressed, depriving readers of opportunities to enhance their understanding of trauma and build spaces of healing. But as Kurds who have had our lived histories erased by states denying our existence, every written word about our pain serves as a testament of our continued survival.