The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi

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by Susan Abraham

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi is a no-holds barred war story. It offers an intriguing storyline and one laced with tragedy, from start to finish. The dense plot reflecting battlefronts with the same atmospheric aura as pitiful families, lies condensed within this 292-page paperback, that may remain as beautifully encased and yet as vulnerable, as I still remember another beloved war story. That was Fair Stood the Wind for France, written by the famous gentleman farmer and prolific novelist, H.E. Bates (1944, UK).

In The Age of Orphans, the reader is treated to shocking disclosures of barbaric violence attributed to torture of rebel fighters and the odd sexual encounter, through mismatched opportunity between hero and villian. In the same breath, Khadivi’s brilliant literary genius, is careful to caress ruffled feathers and brutal scenes, using an assortment of haunting reflections. Her refined and elegant vocabulary is beguiling, to say the least.

Briefly, the crux of the plot is that it starts off being set, in the early turn of the 20th century, before the Shah of Persia, came into power. It will eventually work its way down into modernity. Reza, a little Kurdish boy, living with his father’s rebel and misplaced tribe, high up in the Zagros (Persian) Mountains, idolises his Maman (mother), while all around him, brave men prepare to take on the army.

The Kurds want their own land and country. Unaware, Reza appears tender, gentle and sensitive…a kind, pensive little boy who takes delight in heaping affection upon his mother and by feeding at her breasts, every chance he gets. However, he is prepared for early manhood by his father and neighbouring men, who take him into the caves and through a painful ritual, announce his manhood.

Reza suffers the first injustice at being separated from his Maman. A man no longer suckles at his mother’s breasts he is told with fury by an irate, rude father…often callous to his son’s demands. To Reza’s red-faced candour and very much a misfit in his own society, he is laughed at by the others and teased by the girls. He and his mother meet in a secret place, so that Reza may still feed on her milk. This secret tryst is soon discovered by the menfolk who laugh out loud and make his maman go insane. Being unofficially mad, she takes to hovering about in an isolated garden. Reza is eventually taken into battle with his father, where ambitious plans fail dismally in an army massacre. Reza observes the series of brutal murders with horror and that of his own father, being stabbed and kicked to death.

The foundation of the novel, begins from here.

Reza is adopted by an insensitive but amused army, together with other orphaned little boys who all vye for favour with rivalry, and soon begin their training as soldiers. Eventually, Reza rises into a powerful rank and with a stern, po-faced conjecture but terribly guilty conscience at the same time, fights against his own people. The Kurds naturally see him as a traitor but are too afraid of his power. However, one cruel farmer, takes actions into his own hands that will change Reza’s destiny in a shocking, sudden way. By now, our protagonist has properly hardened his heart and turned appropriately cold and distant, towards everyone in general. He contains all the attributes of an actor, heroic, handsome, brooding and charismatic.

Reza marries a beautiful Persian woman, with a mind of her own. She hates the Kurds and brings their children up to reflect the same misgivings. Materialistic and selfish, she takes revenge on Reza, whom she feels has short-changed her with a failed promise of glitzy wealth and status, by sleeping with other men. She earns herself a scarlet reputation.

Not that Reza minds of course. As the years flee and we now see ourselves in modern-day Iran, we also observe an increasily brooding Reza, who feels an immsense sadness at having betrayed the Kurds. He has never got over missing and losing his mother and through a chained series of events, this is naturally reflected in Reza’s initial experience with women.

The novel grows with sharp strength as the plot progresses through Khadivi’s easy ability, that allows her to reveal the often hidden but affectionate heart of Reza. Slowly but surely, despite all his brutalities, the reader learns to love him. Khadivi avoids the usual sentiment associated with heartbreaking novels, that trace a deep sense of emotion.

She does this by seeming to write with a strong masculine hand and one suspects that she rides through her own played out brutal scenes, with nary the blink of an eyelid. Her story is devoid of emotion and sentiment is played out through narration. One expects a thick maze of skilled literary metaphors and complex wordplay, poetic in rhythm and structure, and all of which are managed beautifully by Khadivi herself.

I rarely do this, but I feel that unless one is at home with serious fiction, I become protective of the author’s genius in this case, to warn the lover of general fiction or lighter literary reads, so as to thread with caution. Perhaps because I am a writer myself, that it would pain me to hear someone complain of a novel being too complex or dry, or dull, solely because of a lack of capacity to understand the author’s cleverness.

I marvel at the workings of the human spirit that seek to expand the mind and heart to unfathomable possbilities. And so it currently is with me. From an intial love of Middle-Eastern literature, I fell in love with Iranian culture and the Arts and to think, that I am now deeply curious about Kurdish history and literature. This, however gothic and foreboding, it may appear to be. My only other experience with Kurdish history and society has been in the form of a famous Iranian film, called Blackboards, made by one of the nation’s youngest award-winning film directors, 28 year old Samira Makhmalbaf.

I was held captivated by the vast isolated landscapes that made for the border of Iran and Iraq, and the lifelike performance of Kurdish refugees on their way to escaping an enemy life. The refugees all nurtured a sole dream…to reach a promised land and despite its serious connotations; the film proved highly comical and witty, with its never-ending satire. It all involved a small group of men who carried blackboards like bird wings, on their backs, so as to bring education to remote regions. However through a certain circumstance, a teacher end up trailing the refugees instead and reluctantly enters her own chapter of high comedy.

Five Sisters by Kit Anderson

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DSC01562by Susan Abraham

Quick Thoughts:

Five Sisters: A Modern Novel of Kurdish Women is a fascinating account of Kurdish life that exhibits its harsh odds with Turkey. Kit Anderson has cut out a careful and riveting narrative of her beloved West Asian mountain people while lending her sympathetic ear to excessive hardships. This is an extraordinary ancient culture, not often told.

The story of Five Sisters revolves around an obscure old-fashioned village that features a large community of siblings and relatives. It is intense. Almost all of the main characters are finally separated either by life’s tragic circumstances or courageous choices, resulting in a tender and moving tale.  The past is resurrected only when Ruya, now a successful emigrant and businesswoman in America, looks back to her young years, once wrapped tightly in a war-torn Kurdish mountain village and still held close to the heart.

The narration evolves smoothly as each sister’s girlish temperament rises to the fore. A few are headstrong, the rest dreamy but far from a stereotyped version, Anderson has allowed for true-to-life episodes and near-gripping encounters made up of dark secrets, chaotic scenes and even a spot of jealousy resulting from sibling rivalry.

When one of the sisters Aliye resorts to all the painful workings of a sullen, daydreaming and overly-sensitive personality, her no-nonsense sister Sakina and their sister-in-law, Hatice carry on with their kitchen jobs and talk around Aliye, ignoring her tantrums.  When Ruya and another sister, Songul sneak off to the mountains to be trained as guerrillas, Ruya becomes terribly jealous on observing Songul’s closeness with a new-found friend.

Each personality in relation to her environment, lifestyle and choices is finely sketched. The plot that meanders along like a slow river both through festive celebration comprising engagements, weddings and gatherings and also tragedies encompassing brutal seasons of a harsh geographical climate, ill-fated gangster runs and guerrilla fighting with the Turks; may be seen as a meditative contemplation.

I find that through her many short, neat chapters, Anderson prefers to ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’ and has skillfully developed this quality with which to command her writing strength. Village communal living composed with excruciating, meticulous detail, plods along. So much so that as a reader, I often felt caught up in a series of lingering dreamlike and extremely picturesque valley scenes. For the impatient reader, these sections may quickly drum up exhaustion. However, the plot does command a swifter pace about mid-way through. I watched rather wistfully from the outside instead of feeling too passionately for any particular character. But that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s simply the way the determined tone of the novel would choose to maneuvere my sentiments.

I might have been a passenger on a slow train ride through a time tunnel gaping at the many colourful episodes flashing past. Or I might have been seated inside a cinema hall, focussing on a film in close detail, adept at my role as silent witness. The closest visual image would lie in comparing this novel to a lengthy modern-day drama-documentary. As such, the novel portrays an excellent sense of place.

There are also vital details into the subject of honour-killing which sadly enough, lay as an ancient custom dutifully practiced by the men folk. For instance, when one of the sisters Ruya is raped one night in a barn, she daren’t scream. Her cries alone would have acted as consent for her father and uncles to kill her so as to rid their family pride of shame. Killings might be deliberately carried out or slyly woven into an unexpected hour as an ‘unfortunate accident’. Women often reluctantly supported such a decision. I like it that Anderson refuses to play on sensationalism but cuts to the bone with her ‘plain speaking’ descriptions in this area.

As a matter of personal taste, I prefer an investment into lengthy character study with my fiction rather than elaborate descriptions of scenery or a rich, rambling display of cultural habits, that tend to create a detachment for my emotions. I really enjoyed the narration overall. Kit Anderson’s Five Sisters would be brilliant as an informal, comprehensive study guide into the workings of Kurdish mountain-life, as the first point of reference before other challenging storylines may be attempted.

Further Reading:

Texts on Kurdish Studies