Reviewing Kajal Ahmad’s ‘Handful of Salt’

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

Traditionally, when we hear the voices of Kurdish women from exile in the diaspora, it is often from the lens of the colossal tragedy of post-conflict issues, involving the tirade of political violence, ethnic cleansing, and forced assimilation that has resulted in the murder of her mother tongue and that of her children. Modernity and its progenies of anti-multiculturalism, neo-nationalism, violent globalization, and capitalism have not been kind to women in minority ethno-religious communities. For Kurdish women, this mantle has come with extensive loss, suffering, displacement, and immense pain.

From the women whose suffering was often marginalized during the genocidal Al-Anfal campaign under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussain, to Kurdish women’s experiences of gender based violence (including sexual violence), to imprisonment and torture in the equally brutal prisons of Iran, Turkey and Syria—Kurdish women’s stories have often fallen through the cracks of marginality and the footnotes of history. Yet, these oppressions are frequently viewed, presented, and ingested by the women who have dared to speak against the top-down violence imposed by colonial aspirations against the Kurds. From the police states across Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, oppressive regimes of violence, cruelty, and animosity have often taken center stage in punishing Kurdistan’s defiant women.

As a result, women in oppressed nations are often directed to speak less of the tyrannies at home and more of the external violence imposed on them by colonial and imperial powers. They are taught by the long hand of history that gender liberation must always be relegated into a distant future, sacrificed at the altar of national liberations. Yet, we also have seen as in the examples of women in Iran, Lebanon, Algeria (and many others), how when national liberation revolutions do occur, rather than being freed, women are often silenced even further, and often erased from the limited roles they held previously. Tragically, they are not allowed to partake in the revolutions they helped win.

This is why, Ahmad’s ‘Handful of Salt’ (published in 2016), is a phenomenal piece of poetic art, as she boldly points to the oppressions that occur within a Kurdish woman’s life in the home, in the bedroom, in her workplace and community, and of course in her most intimate relations. She fiercely adds another layer to the complex and multifaceted oppressions that Kurdish women experience. In the preface of this volume, Barbra Goldberg synthesizes that “Her words, like knives, dig deep, peel away the tough outer skin of Kurdish custom and culture, laying bare her vulnerable heart.” But more than that, Ahmad dares to challenge not only the patriarchal norms within her culture, but also the religious values that an Islamic society inflicts on women. Handful of Salt, is translated by a number of individuals including: Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Mewan Nahro Said Sofi, Darya Abdul-Karim Ali Najm, and Barbara Goldberg and can be acquired through Amazon here and online here.

The title of the volume is telling, even in isolation. As salt itself is a commodity that, according to the editors, has both healing and destructive properties, from the salt in shared bread, to the saltiness of blood and tears, to the salt used by invaders to prevent agriculture and growth in razed and occupied cities, a handful of salt speaks of the duality of the existence that Kurdish women experience. From the double burden of oppression by external invaders and occupiers, to that of the erasure, silence, and suffering that they experience in the privacy of their own homes and communities.

Representations of pain, suffering and marginalization have a long history within the Kurdish nation. Unfortunately, the majority of these poems and poetic works remain untranslated and inaccessible to non-Kurdish speakers. For this reason, English translated works such as this volume are essential as a bridge between Kurdistan and the West, and most importantly, Kurds in the diaspora who are losing touch with their mother tongue and identity.

Kurdistan is replete with famous Kurdish poets, usually men, whose poetry has yet to be widely available and read through the various parts of Kurdistan, let alone to the global community. From the works of Sherko Bekas (1940-2013), Piramerd (1867-1950), Nali (1800-1855), Cigerxwin (1903-1984), and Abdulla Pashew (1946-), poets across Kurdistan have redefined and revived Kurdish identity in light of decades, in not centuries, of colonial erasure and appropriation.

Kurdish poets have become symbols of national resistance and the ongoing struggle of a disposed nation. They have kept alive and revived a culture facing extensive pressure to assimilate, or to remain mute. They have restored and maintained the pre-Islamic sensuality of Kurdish culture, in which love and sexuality were not deemed as taboo subjects, but rather an every day aspect of Kurdishness. Abdullah Pashew, in a discussion with the the translator of Kajal’s volume states that “in Kurdistan poets are more than poets!”

Yet, much of these voices and perspectives have come from men whose personality and aversion to political pettiness has set them apart and increased their respectability within Kurdish society. Which begs the question of how much a female poet, in an increasingly religious and conservative Kurdish society, can speak of the same sensuality and anti-patriarchal cultural norms, without facing significant ostracization? How much can she speak freely without endangering her poetry, her voice, and even her very life?

Kajal’s own life trajectory speaks volumes of this duality within Kurdish society. Initially seen as a feminist, who failed to attract suitors because of her poetic voice and position, she was shunned by women for fear of tarnishing their reputation. Kajal’s eventual marriage with a Jordanian man of Kurdish origin, saw her donning the hijab and moving to Jordan, which for some time effectively erased her voice and rendered her mute. Much criticism followed, by the very same women who had ostracized and shunned her presence, for her failed feminist values. While Kajal was forced to make a choice as to traditional values or her poetry, women in Kurdish society remain largely silent.

While the Rojava Revolution and the “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” Rojhilat Revolution in Eastern Kurdistan has brought the importance of the role and contribution of women in Kurdish society to the forefront; there is still much resistance and regression within traditional Kurdish communities towards erasure of women in the public sphere. As such, Kajal’s voice and positionality in this space remains crucial. She not only comes from that silenced background and tradition, but she actively resisted its efforts to mute her and her fellow women, only to be forcibly silenced in the end despite her immense courage and strength.

If women like Kajal are driven back into the darkness of the private domain, if women who are highly educated, informed, experienced, and travelled can break under the force of the pressure of such cultural values, then what hope is there for less privileged women across Kurdistan? This is a question that can only be observed across time and space in the years and decades to come.

To Ahmad, the correlation between nation and womanhood are often synonymous. Kurdistan’s situation, and her ongoing struggles for freedom and liberation by throwing off the cloak of occupation, mirrors the struggles of Kurdish women in their struggle to discard the suffocating oppression of patriarchal cultural norms. In poems such as “No”, “Two Chairs”, and “The N’s of Negative” we see the theme of resistance, both as women within a patriarchal society, but also as women in an oppressed nation whose role in the liberation of the motherland is defined by men:


A wild horse inside me gallops

And neighs in the breeze.

What good is it? For women today

Is a stone age. I wish my eyes

Could make it end, no need

to explode, to burst

into laughter, tears. It’s simple

to find melody in a glance, dance

while still, sing in symbols, but speech

is heavy, a nest of tongues, no shelter

for egg and fledgling. The snake

in my throat has come to feast.

Ah, how I resent our mothers. The female

Partridge knows her sex, but our girls,

Our women don’t. It will take

My mother to act as my father.

Mother-Father, tell me what

to say. What’s said in the streets

beheads me.

Later in the same poem she goes on to say:

The Insanity of existence

I die for Kurdistan. Its patriots won’t

Let it be my Kurdistan. In a land

Of men, under a sky of men, under

A God of men, how did this No

Grow to my height? Where are

the winged branches, leaves, and roots

of this blind tree, this No tree

of mine? I am flooded with No: this

is the rain of conscience and season

of loathing. Come. Welcome.

A carnival of corpses, women and girls,

Unleash their ululation to welcome

The last gasp of reticence.

In a stone age, No

Is a ray and a miracle.

In the poem entitled Mirror, she alludes to the monsters and dictators that have caused immense violence but also its direct impact on women too:


The distorting mirror of my time broke

Because it made what as small big

And what was big small.

Dictators and monsters filled its face.

Even now when I breathe

Its shards stick into the walls of my heart

And instead of sweat

I leak glass.

Are these dictators and monsters men in the community, those who rule with an iron feast and suffocate the Kurdish people, or are they unmet expectations and hopes of silenced women within society? Other poems titled “27 Years of Suicide”, “Let Baghdad Come to Halabja”, and “Our Holocaust”, continue the themes of gender, nationalist struggle, and oppression.

Poetry still holds deep meaning within Kurdish society, in many ways Kurdistan remains a “poet’s haven”, where hundreds of people still show up for poetry readings. Kurdish poetry remains the language of the oppressed, the cry of the silenced, and the wail of the murdered. For this reason we cannot afford to lose our best to the clutches of conservatism or linguistic and cultural policing. Poetry by its very definition must remain free and uncensored. Ahmad now resides in Jordan, forced into exile, not by the external pressures of foreign powers imposed on Kurdistan, but by the internal pressure of a society increasingly at odds with gender equality and women’s unbridled expression of her emotions, sorrows, sexuality, and freedom.


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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