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Interview with Cannes Film Awards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essmat Sophie (Asima) is an award-winning author, award-winning film director, researcher, and activist. Born and raised in the Kurdish region of Iran. After several years living in United States, now she is living in Norway...

She holds a master’s degree In information Science from University of Oslo and Tehran university, and another degree in English Literature, American and British studies, from University of Oslo, and another in Social Science from Salt Lake City university.

The titles of her latest books are: “Dancing Amid Fire, Rising Above Ruins” (2023), “Last Day of Autumn” (2021); and “In The eye of the Storm" (2013), which got the literary award "Ordknappen" Prize in Norway. She has translated some books and articles from English to other Languages. Latest translated title is: "Women's Journey from Shadow to Light"

Essmat Sophie's writings have appeared in Science databases as ScienceDirect, Academy Search Premier and some literary periodicals. Sophie's stories and articles have appeared in various publications.

Sophie is a prolific film director and film producer. Her last animation short film: “Dancing Amid Fire, Rising Above Ruins” is made in 2023. An excerpt from the most current published novel by Essmat Sophie served as the inspiration for this animation. She is writer, producer, and director of this animation film.

 

Learn more at www.essmatsophie.com

Your project has entered our festival. What is your project about?  

I'm an author. This short film is based on a scene from my debut novel, Hundred Thousand Words, which was recently released in May 2023 in London. The book also goes by that name. The quest for freedom is the subject of the book. Trauma and persecution are battles that the human spirit fights. Additionally, it provides insight into the history of Kurdish resistance in Iran, an ignored region and its people. The complexity of Kurdish or Iranian women's triple struggle to escape political oppression, male dominance, as well as enduring a life of exile and marginalization, is also thoroughly psychologically depicted in this book. In poetry and songs, friendship, love, and betrayal are frequently depicted in the context of war, gender and ethnic discrimination, activism, and resistance. Novel links the past to the present by relating contemporary women's movement in Iran "woman, life, freedom” , to the past.

This short film follows Tara's life as a child and subsequently as an adult. Her life is linked with life and death. When their city is destroyed, she loses her new red shoes, which she received as a new year's gift. Her family and she seek refuge in shelters. 42 years later, Tara now lives in Norway with her young children. Many people chanted "woman, life, freedom" and cut their hair in front of the Norwegian Parliament in solidarity with the Iranian women's movement. After marching, Tara's daughter selects the exact shoe that Tara lost 42 years ago. Tara dedicates the hope, ambition, and passion she lost in her life to her daughter, or the next generation.

 

What are your ambitions with your project?  

Since this is my debut film, I hope that it will gain acknowledgement, be screened at film festivals throughout the world, and receive positive reviews and producer interest. Additionally, I would like funding to help me improve this short film and turn other chapters, or maybe the entire book, into a movie or an animation. Beyond this goal, my biggest ambition for this project is to keep doing what I do best, producing and writing narratives that spectators throughout the world may enjoy and appreciate. My goal is to sign with a large agency and producers so that my writing may give voice to the voiceless. The more creative opportunities I have, the happier I'll be overall.

 

Tell us something about your shooting? What pleasantly surprised you?  

I functioned as the film's producer, director, and writer for this animated short. Of course, Mr. Mohammadi, a Kurdish artist who resides in Iran, created the animation designs for me. Due to the fact that I was also the self-producer and had a very limited budget, it frequently led to arguments between the animator and I about how to adapt a scene from my novel for the short film. In animation, every single second of the film is expensive. I had to supervise from a distance because the animator was in Iran and I was in Norway. To describe every scenario and guide the animator, we occasionally had long phone conversations. The story was so compelling that we were able to set all of our doubts aside at times. However, each time I spoke with the animator, we gained more ambition and drive to continue working on this project.

 

For what group of spectators is your film targeted?  

There is no specific audience group targeted by the movie. Its target and message are universal. I wished to be unrestricted.

Why should distributors buy your film?  

Because This film is about bitter reality. Despite bitter reality in our world, as war and .. but we should continue to dream and give a better future to next generation. This movie enables the film's message, which is closely tied to worldwide difficulties, to reach a wider audience. Perhaps as a result, we might envision a world that is more beautiful and safer.

 

How would you specify your work? What characterizes your film?  

This movie is about life, struggle and hope. Sometimes we need to forget what we already know and look at the situation from the perspective of the Other. This film is significant because it links our experiences to those of individuals, historical periods, and geographical locations that we have never been. This short film is significant because it transforms empathy into resistance, much like an alchemist. It centers the peripheral, gives the voiceless a voice, and makes the invisible visible. And it explores silences while also bringing to life other people's stories.

 

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?  

As I already mentioned, I am a writer. since I was a little child. I used to use my imagination while I wrote. I always envisioned every scenario as a movie in my head and wrote and imagined everything at the same time. Along with writing, making movies has always been a goal of mine. I was always curious about people's lives, their unique stories, as well as the factors that divide people—such as borders, color, class, or gender—from one another. I believe that the roles of writer and filmmaker are extremely similar. They try to connect people across boundaries and allow us to see beyond the artificial divisions of race, gender, class or ethnicity. They strive to remove people's indifference and make them aware of what is going on around them. There is no "us" and "them" for me as a writer or filmmaker. There are just people with stories and silences.

 

Who is your role model?  

Not only have filmmakers and films impacted me throughout my life, but so have great authors, singers, painters, theater actors, musicians, philosophers and scientists. It's difficult for me to name anyone. But I believe that my role models are the humble women or men, who play their best roles in life's movie and have never received a medal or an accolade. As my grandma and my mother, courageous women or mothers are always my role models. Men and women who, despite adversity, never gave up and played the game of life and their roles to the best of their abilities. If I name a great film director in the film industry, I can name Michael Powell and his film Red Shoes, Francis Ford Coppola and his Godfather and Alfred Hitchcock and his unique films.  

 

Which movies are your favorites? Why?  

Because there are so many movies, it is difficult to pick one or few, but I can mention some names: Beloved, reader, Precious, Sindabad and One and Thousands Night. They depict a world of legends, magic, and mystical. or demonstrate the realm of politics, strife, inequity, and discrimination.

 

Where do you look for inspiration for your films?  

Based on my personal experiences. In the lives of unnoticed and modest people whom I might have randomly encountered at the train station or on the side of the street on any given day. When I come across them, I realize that existence entails resistance—for them as well as for me.

 

Which topics interest you the most?

Human relationship, History, social construction and its impact on human life, political issues and human’s struggle and comics.

 

What do you consider your greatest achievement in your career?  

Finding the strength to complete my novel and making a very small passage of that novel into a movie is my greatest achievement. Another important achievement is the freedom to choose the topics which have global values and implications. To write about, produce movies about, or engage in any creative endeavor is always my greatest accomplishment. These achievements illuminate my vision in a world that can often appear so dark and gloomy. Creativity, the situation that led me to begin with the process of filmmaking, the tasks which I had to accomplish, and all the actions which I had to do, taught me to set priorities for my time and maintain goal focus. I'm happy with this accomplishment as well.

What do you consider most important about filming?  

Belief in one's work and a universal message. Something that softens the harsh reality and makes it more bearable. By making films and depicting the realities of human life and the environment in which we live in, we hope to not only raise consciousness and attention to topics that we believe are vital, but also to create the possibility of portraying a better and more beautiful world. I believe that the film inspires us to visualize and depict a more idealistic future. Perhaps the ultimate goal of making a movie is to improve our reality in the world.
 

Which film technique of shooting do you consider the best?  

It varies. But in my opinion, what matters most is that you be aware of the emotional impact that each scene should have.

 

How would you rate/What is your opinion about current filmmaking?  

If the world is changing, so must filmmaking change too. I feel it is heading in the right path. However, I believe that filmmakers should take more chances. We live in extremely different times these days, and traditional narrative no longer suffices. As a result, thinking beyond the box is essential. In addition, we can see that young individuals and the upcoming generation have wonderful, original ideas. The first prerequisite for producing better films is budget. Independent filmmakers should, in my opinion, receive greater attention and oppurtunity.

 

What can disappoint you in a movie?  

Failure to provide a good script or writing, weak plot or a weak ending.

 

Who supports you in your film career?  

Apart from my family and friends, no institution, organization or individual have supported me. My family and friends were a great source of spiritual support for me. All of the drawings of this short animation film are produced by hand rather than by machine. I paid for everything by myself with a bank loan. َ I had saved some money to taking care of my teeth and had to use that savings to make this movie. As you know, the cost of fixing and repairing teeth in a country such as Norway is extremely high. However, in any case, my main priority was to finish this film. The interest, passion and enthusiasm was so great that nothing could deter or discourage me because. I have never received sponsorship from any organization or institution. Of course, I didn’t contact or apply to any of them. Maybe they'd have helped if I had sent an application. But for developing of this short movie in future I hope to get some support from other sources.

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Literature, feminism, and activism in Rojhelat and the Diaspora: A conversation

Wendelmoet Hamelink and Essmat Sophie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

In this conversation, Essmat Sophie (author of the novel and animation film Dancing Amid Fire, Rising Above Ruins), talks with Wendelmoet Hamelink (researcher on gender, migration, activism, and conflict at the University of Oslo), about her interest in literature, about the creation of her novel and film, and about her feminist life in the Diaspora. The conversation reveals much about the fragmented lives of people who left Iran and can never return, and about the history of a city in Rojhelat, Sine/Sanandaj. It shows the complexity of Kurdish or Iranian women's triple struggle to escape political oppression, state violence, male dominance, as well as enduring a life of exile and marginalization. Through Essmat’s memories about literature gatherings in Sine during her teenage and university years, the article shows how women writers served as her role models and managed to deeply impact a young woman’s life, even if their names and works may be unknown to many. This also shows how activist lives can be found in unexpected places and through creative strategies developed by women on the margins.

 

Introduction

In this conversation we reflect on Essmat Sophie’s recently published novel and animation film, both named Dancing Amid Fire, Rising Above Ruins (2023 London: Transnational Press), and talk about her life inspirations that eventually made her publish these works. The conversation is structured in three parts: literary inspirations; the novel; and the film. Essmat won several awards (amongst them the Toronto Female Eye Festival Award) with the short animation that brings to life a few paragraphs of the novel. The film managed to capture international audiences because of its capability to show in only six minutes the impact of war on the life of a small girl, who, as an adult, tries to give a different experience to her own daughter. The novel is naturally much more elaborate and manages to shed light on different themes at the same time: an important and often forgotten part of Rojhelat’s history, the life of a Kurdish woman in exile, her experiences with violence and abuse by men, as well as her struggle to live a free life.  

Hamelink initiated the interview as part of the ALCITfem research project[1]. She visited Essmat in Norway where she lives. We spent a weekend together and had ongoing conversations about both our interests in feminism, Kurdish women’s lives, and Kurdish women’s histories. The interview was not only about the novelb and film, but also about Essmat’s life. It reveals how women’s resistance against regime suppression, male dominance, and patriarchal society is not only found in large political or social movements, but also through acts such as writing and creating. In Essmat’s words, “When I am indifferent, I am not an activist. But when I care about things, I am an activist.”

The novel has two main characters, Tara and Hiwa, and is written from both their perspectives in alternating chapters. Tara is a middle-aged single mother who lives in Norway with her two teenage children, whereas Hiwa is an elderly man who lives alone in Istanbul. Both originate from Sanandaj/Sine in Rojhelat. Through their memories, the reader learns about the revolutionary history of the city that was attacked by the Iranian regime shortly after the 1979 revolution; about the consequences of the Iran/Iraq war; and about daily life experiences of both characters studying at Tehran University, but in different time periods. Another important theme in the novel is the sexual abuse Tara experiences from Hiwa. In her life in Norway, she tries to grapple with the consequences of his assault and overcome her trauma. We get to know Hiwa through his, often lonely, reflections on his life and contacts with different women. His elite background and his university position have turned him into a selfish, narcissistic man who is unable to positively connect to the women in his life, and instead tries to destroy them. Both characters live in exile and have different experiences with their migrant lives in Norway and Turkey. The novel in this way also touches upon life in exile and the fragmentation of memories depending on different spaces where the protagonists have established their lives.

We spoke about Essmat’s life and work during three interviews (in English) conducted at different meetings in summer 2023, and the interviews were fully recorded and transcribed by Hamelink. Together with Essmat, we selected the sections most relevant   and Essmat read the conversation for final corrections. For clarity, she rephrased some of the sentences and added explanations where necessary. We sometimes use the Kurdish terms Başur (South), Bakur (North), Rojhelat (East), and Rojava (West) to refer respectively to Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian Kurdistan.

 

Conversation part 1: Literary inspirations

Wendelmoet Hamelink (Wendy): You have just published your first novel and short animation film. Before that, you also published a translation of Sherko Beko's poetry into Norwegian[2] and a collection with short stories[3]. In this interview we would like to get to know you and your work a little bit better.

Essmat Sophie (Sophie): I'm originally from Sanandaj in Iran's Kurdish region. I lived there until I graduated from Tehran University. Then I worked for two years at Kurdistan University before having to leave Iran. I waited two years in Turkey before getting refugee status in the United States, where I went in 2002. Then I moved to Norway and have been there since 2005.

I have always been passionate about literature since I was around ten or twelve years old. Aside from the well-known classic works in Persian, it was wonderful to be able to read Kurdish poems and stories. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to learn Kurdish in an accredited school. So, I learned it from the Serwe magazine, which was a literary and poetic publication in Sorani and Erdalani, the dialect of the area where I come from. Because the alphabet was similar to Persian (Farsi), I studied Kurdish on my own and with the help of one of my brothers.

I tried to read the poems of Sherko Beko, Nali, Hemen, and other well-known Kurdish poets. I was conscious that I needed to follow this aspect of my identity. And I was drawn to the sound and rhythm of Kurdish poetry and literature. My mother, grandmother, and uncles all sang Kurdish songs to us as children. They sang lullabies and performed hora, and siyacamane, a type of storytelling: songs that narrate stories.

Wendy: And were there any other people in your family or around you who were reading in Sorani or who were interested in that?

Sophie: Just my brother and my father. Because we didn't have any sources, they were not available. There were only the classic poets like Hemen, Nali, Mahwi, we had those books in our library. My father had a big library and everybody in the family was engaged in reading and studying. We had another dialect, Hawrami, and I liked it. We had some neighbors who spoke Hawrami. There is a great poet from Hawraman named Mawlawi Tawagozi. I didn't understand everything he wrote, but when my father read it to me, I enjoyed the rhythm and melody and tried to read it as well. I was drawn to language.

Wendy: Was it special that your family had those Sorani books in the house or did other families also have that?

Sophie: It was common in many families. Most of the families we visited held classic works. Sanandaj is a very cultural city and people have a passion for music, song, and literature. We also have female poets like Mastoureh Ardalan and a few other female writers. When I was almost 10, 12 years old, it must have been in 1987, I started going to literature gatherings with my brother, who was also very interested in literature. Most of the gatherings were about Persian literature, but when I was about 12, 13 years old, I noticed that people in Sanandaj were more aware of their Kurdish identity.  I believe that before the revolution, it was illegal to own or sell Kurdish books, but after the revolution, it became easier to get those books from Iraqi Kurdistan. The Islamic Regime was not concerned about classics, and no one ever asked, "Why do you have these books?” But it was different for contemporary poets and writers such as Sherko Bekas. Even though he held very critical views on politics and society, he was allowed to visit Iran several times. At the same time, the Iranian government was more sensitive about his poems. I remember those days when I was working at the university, they contacted me and inquired why I had a book by Sherko Bekes at my office.

Wendy: What about Mastoureh Ardalan, was she also suspicious?

Sophie: No, she was not suspicious at all. First of all, she was a classic poet and from the bourgeois class. She didn't write anything political or critical about society. She just wrote romantic poetry, poetry about nature, or love. So even though I admire her, she was a strong woman, but she was not a role model for me like women who stood up against the rules and traditions. The first time I heard about her, I was maybe in the first grade. Since my brother and my father were very engaged in literature, we had a book of Mastoureh Ardalan in our library. We also listened to the Kurdistan radio where they talked about her and other classics. In our house we used to switch on Kurdistan radio in the evening, almost every day. So, while I did other things, I always heard those names. I think I only read a few of her poems. I didn't like it, I don't remember why, but it was not attractive to me.

I'd like to talk about another woman here since I believe she played an important role in my literary life. When I went to those gatherings in Sanandaj, most of the attendees were men. After a while my brother didn't like me to go there, because 95% of them were men. But my father and other family members didn't put any limitations. I kept attending those events and I met two women who were very good in literature. One of them was Simin Chaichi, the other one was Jila Hosseini, both of them Kurdish. Jila Hosseini was a very strong, beautiful woman and she had very powerful poems. I remember that she showed us that her husband beat her because he didn’t like her to be engaged in poetry. She first told us about the limitations placed on her by her husband to attend the gatherings, and then she spoke to us about the limitations imposed by the patriarchal culture. Although she was a capable strong woman, and her literary works were very deep and valuable, the men in the forum tried to ignore her ability and the depth of her poems. As I previously mentioned, there were other capable women who, while I was not a fan of them, I can point to as pioneers and breakers of taboos, for example Simin Chaichi, Shaheen Talabani, and FataneWalidi. I've dedicated my previous book, a short story collection, to these three women. Maybe from today’s perspective they are just normal women, but at that time, they did something good, something new. But the most important one for me was Jila Hosseini, she had a lot of impact on my literary life.

Wendy: Can you say a little bit more about these gatherings, how they went, what you were doing? Or when you visited Jila's house, how those type of gatherings went?

Sophie: It was a two, three, or four-hour afternoon gathering. Most of them were young people, but some were older. There were mostly men, although there were a few women as well. They invited poets and literature enthusiasts. Some arrived from Iraq's Kurdistan, and when they visited Iran, they were invited, or they invited a poet from another city. Everyone came to hear what they had written, whether it was a short story or a poem, in Sorani or in Persian. I went to the gatherings and I read [my poems] and I got a lot of inspiration. At the gatherings they liked it that I was so young and so serious about my work and meetings. I discovered many sides of my Kurdish identity in those gatherings as well. Sometimes Jila Hosseini invited us to her home. She knew that we were serious literature followers, each time we were with five to seven girls. She couldn't invite men, she already had a lot of problems because of her husband. We read poems there and discussed literature. She also opened up a lot to us about her private life. In those gatherings at Jila Hosseini's home, I discovered not only my literary identity, but also my gender identity. And I realized at a very young age that I have multiple cultural identities. Some of them are permanent and inherited from the past, while others I could change and I could use them to build my future cultural identity. 

Wendy: You went to Tehran and studied information science. Was it a completely different atmosphere in Tehran?

Sophie: I made some wonderful contacts and had some excellent professors at our university. They dealt extensively with social issues, such as assisting Afghan immigrant children, or made library and other services for small children in jails. They made a library for them, they wanted to develop such services in Iran. They thought about the social aspects of the library and every other public sphere and how it can help different groups in the society. With some of the teachers we had close contact, they invited us to their home. Some of them were very important figures in Iran, not only at the university but also in cultural development. One was Dr. Abbas Horry, while another one was Touran Mirhadi. She was the co-founder of The Children's Book Council of Iran. Another teacher was Noushafarin Ansari, she studied in the United States. She belonged to a higher social class and had many possibilities and resources, so when she returned to Iran, she used her resources to help immigrants and those living in underprivileged areas. So, despite the fact that my degree was unrelated to literature and social science, I was able to make such contacts. I also took several literature courses at Tehran University and made friends with students from the arts, cinema, and literature departments. We went to the theater and the movies together. Tehran was a great place for cultural activities back then, and I believe it still is. Every weekend, we could go to a literary event, the theater, or an art gallery.  We were a group of girls who were engaged in reading, writing, that was our world. And I always had contact with the teachers who were involved in social activities. Through them I also got to know women activists. Some of them were not in the university and didn't have higher education, but they were involved in the gatherings. It was a very rich life we had at Tehran University.

Wendy: Maybe you can say something about how all this led in the end to you leaving Iran?

Sophie: When I returned to Sanandaj, I worked at Kurdistan University for two years. And over those two years, I kept contact with the women and teachers I knew in Tehran. I couldn't create a good connection with my coworkers in Sanandaj because I was still quite young when I started working at the university. Instead, I had contact with the students, who were excellent. They came to my office and talked about everything, whether it was private or public. There was a group of activist students, some of them were very engaged. Some of them had gotten involved in the PKK which was very active in those years. They invited us to some gatherings, and some very good students attended. Then we never heard about them again, they went to the mountains, they left the city.

In our gatherings, we always discussed women's issues. I stayed in touch with the women from Tehran, and they came to visit from Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other places. We had get-togethers at my house or at the homes of other friends. We talked about these issues and this was very normal for us. When we were with Kurdish women, we talked about becoming more aware of our Kurdish identity. When we got together with women from different cities, we talked more about women’s issues. Environmental issues were not as developed as they are today, such as why people throw out items in nature. We discussed it and tried to take action. We had a mountain climbing group or tour groups and we exchanged our thoughts and ideas there. Then some of my friends were arrested, but I don’t want to talk a lot about it. My friends were persecuted, and I was afraid of that and left Iran.

 

Conversation part 2: The novel

Wendy: The novel is provocative in different ways, whether it is about the Iranian regime, the position of Kurds, erotic scenes written by a woman, the open discussion of sexual abuse, or Hiwa's role and thoughts about this. I was wondering every time I read in it: didn't you in any way feel a need to self-censor yourself while writing?

Sophie: I didn't feel like self-censoring, I felt like self-releasing. It was a burden, and I put that burden into words. I tried to cross limitations. Maybe I wasn't aware of some self-censorship, but in those areas where I was, I sought to push through the restrictions and boundaries that our culture, history, and society impose on us, particularly on female writers. Novels must swim against the flow. In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure and desire have been split between active/male and passive/female. The conversations between the characters show that we can go out of that circle and think critically about our culture and the values that are important in our society. I crossed the limitations intentionally and didn’t care about what society expects from me. So, in many cases, I was rioting against the culture, the values and structures, not only social structures but literary forms and structures as well.

Wendy: But at the moment that it was going to be published, didn’t you have that kind of feeling of “what will people think of it”?

Sophie: Yes, exactly, I had that for many chapters, especially for chapter 13. I had that feeling very strongly because I was a little bit worried about how people were going to judge me, because I already crossed many limitations as a woman. Many people didn't like it when I stood up against patriarchal or popular norms and those who reinforce them, or when I spoke out against a sexual harassment and a wide range of issues I think every writer who writes against the tide will be worried about how people will judge them. But it was not a very permanent thought for me. I had to go beyond those things. If people judge me, they already judged me in other cases.

Wendy: But what about politically? Do you have any fear that this would have any political consequences, in Iran?

Sophie: Yes, but I already cannot go back to Iran, I already lost many things. I already paid a high price for what I stand for. If the Iranian government knows about it, if it will be translated to Persian or something like that, they will be more aware about what I am doing. But this is nothing new. There are so many other books like this, it is not the first one. The Iranian embassy are following us in different stages, but the Iranian government cannot go and do whatever they want to these writers. So, what should I be worried about? Some writers sacrificed their lives because they wrote something. A writer writes to change the world, knowing fully well that she/he probably can't, but also knowing that literature is essential to the world. As James Baldwin says: “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it”.  So why should my private life matter if literature could change the reality or alter it.

Wendy: There is very little written about the history of Sanandaj, about this part of Kurdish history. It really touched me to read it. And I thought that this could also be special for other people who come from the same area, to read this in writing, maybe for the first time.

Sophie: What is so important in writing, is that we as people from Rojhelat, Kurdistan, we have been dehumanized. So, when you give them life, give them a voice, and put them in the spotlight, you re-humanize them. We are dehumanized, silenced, and marginalized not just in the context of Iran and that geography, but also compared to other parts of Kurdistan. I've received some feedback from readers of my novel who are from Rojhelat. This novel has had a profound effect on them, and they have said that it feels as if I have written their life story. They saw themselves in it as if it were a mirror.

It is very important you mention this because I have many friends from Bashur, Bakur, and Rojava who are unaware of Rojhelat history or what happened because the spotlight has always been on other places. We went through a lot of things that were unfamiliar to individuals from other parts. Almost none of my friends from other parts of Kurdistan were aware that we had been subjected to a 24-day government attack in Sanandaj, as well as the Mariwan exodus.[4] It exists in some literary works, such as in one of Sherko Beko's poems, but it is not written elaborately. Some people from Rojhelat wrote very good articles or books about it. I read a lot of these books, two of them are written by Golrokh Ghobadi, who is a writer from Rojhelat and lives in Sweden.[5] Even though these historical events are essential in our history, hardly any of our writers wrote anything literary about the events in Kurdistan. Or perhaps it is written, but I am unfamiliar with it.

Wendy: How did you feel writing about Hiwa? For me as a woman, I found it striking that you wrote from his perspective. We often experience harassment and violence by men, but to go inside their psychology, to understand what moves them, makes it more insightful.

Sophie: Hiwa is human as well. I had to look at Hiwa as a human with positive and negative attributes. He is a human with all his characteristics. In our life, maybe we meet many men or women, maybe they hurt us, they damage some part of our soul, but at the same time, they are human as well, with their history, with their political viewpoints and their psychological problems.  There is no “us” and “them” for authors. There are just human with their stories and silences. One must be extremely naïve or dishonest to believe that individuals choose their action or beliefs regardless of their circumstances, their situation, and their environment. Hiwa does not represent evil. There are many highly educated narcissistic men in our society. He is a good example of this type of person. We cannot just blame him because of his characteristics, we need to think about him as the outcome of a patriarchal society, a society that values women only through their body, and when they see a strong woman who swims against the flow of social norms, they want to destroy her. I had to do a lot of thinking and reading about psychoanalysis. About narcissistic personality disorder.  As a literary student, I've learned that I must see things through multiple lenses, not only history, politics, class, race, feminism, and ethnicity, but also a psychoanalytic lens. I had another version of the book, many years ago, but more based on my personal experiences. So, I decided to include someone else in the book who can show what happened before the Iranian revolution, because the current situation in Kurdistan and Iran is the result of the past. Hiwa was the pre-revolutionary voice.

Wendy: You did a lot of preparation for this novel, and you interviewed people. How did you go about it?

Sophie: I learned it from Elif Shafak. She said that in order to write Bastard of Istanbul, she had to live with an Armenian family. She lived with them, she experienced what they experienced, and they shared their thoughts, their history. It was not enough to just read a book. It is so important to go and observe what people think. Since the second narrator of the novel is Hiwa, a seventy-year-old man, I had to get to know him and the time he lived in as a child and youth, and I had to get to know the political and social atmosphere of his time, as well as his personality. From Golrokh Ghobadi and a few other friends, I received names. I contacted them and told them that I wanted to write a novel. Since I knew that I wouldn't get many personal, intimate things from men, I questioned them mainly about politics and history, how they felt about their time at the university in Tehran. I asked about their political stance and the types of books they kept in their rooms. I enquired deeply about the books they read, the setting at the university, the circumstances of the time, and the talks and discussions they had with other people. Most of the minor details I provided in the novel are true accounts from people who I spoke to.

The interviews were meant to find out more about their ideologies and their thoughts. And as James Baldwin always said, you cannot escape from the pathology of your country. We are part of that country, that history, that political situation. All these things shape the people; their identity and their definition of themselves. So, the interviews were important for me. You can look at this as the death of the author. I like that concept, the death of the author, we use it in feminist theory and literary theory as well. I think that it was important for me to realize that the author is not so important. Writing is kind of collective wisdom, and a novel can be seen as collective knowledge, collective historical, political knowledge.

Wendy: Your novel seems in many ways like a feminist interpretation of a Kurdish woman's life. Would you call it feminist and was it your intention to write a feminist critique?

Sophie: For me as a woman who was always very engaged with feminist theory, it is a very feminist book. Hanar, Tara, Mahguli, all of them represent part of women. And it is up to the definition of feminist, how you define feminist. We can think of feminist as just one part of the larger cause of defending minority rights or oppressed people's rights. As a woman from that society, I was a part of that oppressed minority group. And I and all women around me experienced intersectional oppression. Some of them could talk about it and put it into words, some of them couldn't. They just acted. So, the difference between me and those who acted in practice is that I put it into words, not as an academic text, but by using imagination and literature.

I learned a lot about feminist concepts and its theories. The most feminist figures I met in Kurdistan or Iran were people who were not prominent, such as my grandmother, a friend's grandma, or a friend's mother; they served as role models in my private life. And when I look at those theories, then I think: “they are my material, they are my people, they are the women and men of my society. If literature is about holding a mirror in front of reality, how can I not write a feminist work?”

Wendy: Did you feel that writing this novel made you - that's what I could imagine myself- made you connected, like connecting all these pieces together, in one book?

Sophie: I'm happy you mentioned it since I've always thought of myself as having many parts, each of which is located in a different location. I wanted to collect them. I've always felt incomplete and wished for the possibility to return to that moment. I often dream about the streets or neighborhoods I knew when I was 6 or 7 years old. Not just myself, but many other women are not whole or complete. We have bits of ourselves in other locations. And I wanted to collect them. When I finished the book, it felt like a relief because I could go back and look at these aspects of myself in a new light.

 

Conversation part 3: the film

Wendy: How did the film develop? How did you get the idea?

Sophie: I had to edit the book many times, go through it several times during these years. There were some chapters or paragraphs, each time I read them, it made me either cry or laugh loudly. It was so alive for me. So, I thought: “okay, I have to do something more with that paragraph”. I talked with an animator in Iran and asked him to just draw some pictures for me. Then we thought to make an animation film of it. I wanted to have more minutes but I didn’t have any funding or support to do that. Maybe the red shoe as a symbol of desire, of aspiration, of hope, and a symbol of what we lost, can tell a lot. Even though we have a background of trauma and loss, we can still give hope and aspiration to the new generation. We don't need to continue staying in that circle that makes the new generation go through loss again. Instead, we can learn and gain things from our loss or our trauma. The first comment I received was from a man who is not familiar with literature, or film. He is just a very normal, usual man from the same city. He saw the film and he said: “It was just 5-6 minutes, but I saw all of my life there”. And that gave me the courage to dare to send it to other places, because I had not dared to send it anywhere.

The film begins with the graveyard in Sanandaj, Taile. It is so familiar for each and every family and individual of this area because everybody has a precious body there. It is like a symbol of the city, a symbol of resistance. So, it begins at the graveyard, how we children had to go with our parents and play in the graveyard. All of these are symbolic for people who lived in Sanandaj. Death and life were intertwined, for us.

Wendy: Okay, my very last question is this. Can we see your book and animation as a form of activism, that is a continuation of what you did before you left Iran?

Sophie: Yes, because I think this work is like bringing the past to the present, or going from present to past. The intention was to bring the past to the present and show that it is a continuum. As a woman from that area, I had to be activist. Not in the normal usual definition, but as someone who is always in movement and wanted to change something. In that definition, I think I was an activist, and I am. Writing is a kind of resistance. Creation, not just writing, every kind of creation. As a resistant person, you can create as well, these things have a dialectic relationship, because you create and you resist, and you resist and you create. They go intertwined with each other. So not activism in its usual definition, but activism as someone who is not dumb and not indifferent. When I am indifferent, I am not an activist. But when I care about things, I am an activist.

 

 

[1] Activism and its Moral and Cultural Foundation: Alternative Citizenship and Women’s Roles in Kurdistan and the Diaspora. This is a collaborative project of researchers from Jagiellonian University, Cracow, University of Oslo, Cracow Economic University, and the Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research in Oslo. It is funded by Norwegian Financial Mechanism 2014-2021, project registration number 2019/34/H/HS2/00541/.

[2] Sherko Bekas. (2013). In the Eye of the Storm. Kurdish Poems. Translated by Essmat Sophie and Mays Haraldsen (In Norwegian). Oslo: Dreyer Forlag.

[3] Essmat Sophie. (2021). Last Day of Autumn. London: Transnational Press.

[4] See for an analysis of both events: Allan Hassaniyan. (2021). Kurdish Politics in Iran. Crossborder Interactions and Mobilisation since 1947. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 98-125.

[5] Golrokh Ghobadi. (2017). Poppies on Rocks: Life and Time of a Kurdish Woman in Iran (in Persian). Stockholm.

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Interview with Utrop; A Norwegian Newspaper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kurdiskfødte Essmat Sophie er aktuell med bok om kvinnekamp på ulike former og nivåer.

 

Claudio Castello

Essmat er prisvinnende forfatter og prisbelønnet regissør, forsker og aktivist. Hun ble født i Iran, men har kurdisk opphav.

Hun har tidligere bodd i USA, men flyttet til Norge, hvor hun har gjort seg bemerket som forfatter og filmskaper.

I 2013 ga hun ut I stormens øye som ga henne Ordknappen-prisen samme år. Tittelen til hennes nyeste utgivelse kommer fra en animasjonsfilm med samme navn. Filmen ble også prisnominert i filmfestivaler i Frankrike, Italia, Canada og Tyskland.

I sin nyeste utgivelse Dancing Amid Fire Rising Above Ruins tar hun utgangspunkt i sin langvarige rettighetskamp for kvinner.

Forfatter Sophie Essmat har i høst utgitt bok om sin egen og andre iranske kvinners likestillingskamp.

Foto : Dag Ringdal

– Romanen har to fortellere som forteller sine historier parallelt, Tara og Hiwa. Begge stammer fra Sanandaj/Sine i de kurdiske områdene i Iran. Gjennom minnene deres lærer leseren om byens revolusjonære historie og angrepet av det iranske regimet kort tid etter revolusjonen i 1979. Om konsekvensene av Iran/Irak-krigen, og om daglige livserfaringer til begge karakterene som studerer ved Teheran Universitet, men i ulike tidsperioder. Begge karakterene lever i eksil og har ulike erfaringer med sine eksiliv i Norge og Tyrkia.

Romanen berører også livet i eksil og fragmenteringen av minner.

– Dette er en historie om røtter: Hva det betyr å bli opprørt og rotplassert. Følelsen av fortrengning. Dette er ikke en historie om nasjonalisme og å vende tilbake til opprinnelsen, men snarere om å hevde at man kan være verdensborger og likevel forankre røttene på nytt hvor som helst i verden. Utgivelsen er også en kjærlighetshistorie, som handler om tverrgenerasjonell hukommelse. Fortellingene og stillhetene.

ROMANEN BERØRER OGSÅ LIVET I EKSIL OG FRAGMENTERINGEN AV MINNER.

Essmat skrev for noen år tilbake flere spalter i Utrop. I en av sine ytringer fra 2016 skrev hun blant annet:

– Vi vet alle at vi bor i en urettferdig verden hvor vi er vitne til krig, undertrykkelse og terror. Men samtidig har mange av oss, inkludert meg, tro og håp om at selv om veien til en moralsk verden kan synes uendelig lang, vil den til slutt lede til målet.

Viser frem ulike nivåer av diskriminering

Som kvinne fra en etnisk minoritet har Essmat møtt mange hindre på veien, noe som kommer frem i boken.

– Opprinnelig er jeg kurder fra Iran fra Sanandaj. Et sted med fjell, og mye snø på vinteren, ikke ulikt Norge, sier hun til Utrop.

Essmat tok høyere utdanning, på et tidspunkt hvor det ikke var veldig vanlig for kvinner med etnisk kurdisk bakgrunn. Hun endte opp hele veien som universitetsansatt i Sanandaj og Teheran.

– Jeg så systemet innenfra, undertrykkelsen av kurdere som minoritet, og dobbeltundertrykkelsen av kurdiske kvinner. Jeg begynte å lese om rasjonalitet og opplysningsidealer, og så hvordan de kolliderte med ideologien som det iranske regimet og samfunnet må følge. Etterhvert som jeg identifiserte meg som ikke-troende opplevde jeg også en tredobbeldiskriminering, som kurder, kvinne og sunni-muslim i et land som er shia-muslimsk.

Innkalt av universitetsledelsen i hjemlandet

Essmat ble flere ganger innkalt av universitetsledelsen i Teheran-universitetet.

– Ledelsen ville vite hvorfor jeg hadde et så vennskapelig forhold til mine studenter. Jeg skulle jo “rettlede dem med en tøff hånd”. Ledelsen kontrollerte og spurte hvorfor jeg leste kurdiske dikt og bøker om historie. Jeg brukte heller ikke hijab slik det var påkrevd, og gikk heller ikke til moskéen, slik universitetsansatte, på lik linje med andre statsansatte i Iran, var forpliktet til.

Hun beskriver sitt liv i de kurdiske provinsene i Iran som et raseskilleregime på lik linje med Sør-Afrika.

– Ledelsen på universitetet var alle persere, fra majoriteten, og så måtte de være shia-muslimer. Ordføreren i byen vår, og folk i ledende posisjoner i statsapparatet i provinsen. Iran anerkjenner ikke språklige minoriteter, og som kurdere fikk vi ikke lov til å lære, lese eller skrive vårt eget språk. Jeg måtte lære det i hemmelighet sammen med familien.

Endte opp i Tyrkia, så USA

Som karakterene i romanen så Essmat ikke noe annen løsning enn å forlate hjemlandet. Hun endte først opp i Tyrkia.

– Grunnet den vanskelige interne situasjonen kunne jeg ikke vise frem min kurdiske identitet i Tyrkia. Jeg hadde også mest kontakt med andre eksil-iranere i de to årene jeg var i landet.

Essmat satt fast i Tyrkia i 2000 til 2002. Egentlig hadde hun fått flyktningstatus og visum til USA. Så kom 9/11.

– Alt det som fulgte gjorde at reiseprosessen ble forsinket med nesten et år.

Etter ankomsten til USA måtte Essmat klare seg selv.

– I begynnelsen hadde jeg ingen intekt. Jeg sultet nesten i tre uker til jeg fikk første jobben min og klarte å skaffe mat og et sted å bo. I USA er det ingen sosialhjelp å få som i Norge.

Forsøkt konvertert til mormonisme

Løsningen for henne var å flytte fra California til Utah og Salt Lake City, et sted kjent som USAs mest mormonske delstat.

– Her klarte jeg meg bedre. Jeg ble godt integrert, lærte engelsk, og fikk meg gode venninner. Utah har også mye fjell og ørken. Sommerne liknet veldig ofte på sommerne i Sanadaj.

Venninene, som Essmat delte hus med, hadde samtidig sine egne planer.

– Jeg skjønte etterhvert at de var sterkt troende mormoner. Etterhvert merket jeg at samtalene gikk fra vennlig modus til ren overtalelse. Jeg skjønte at vennskapet deres var en vei til å konvertere meg inn i deres tro. Som ikke-troende følte jeg at jeg ble sett på uren. Samme følelse som jeg hadde når jeg ble innkalt av universitetsledelsen og det religiøse politiet i Iran.

Utfordrende med selvfølge rundt frihet

Etter tre år i USA fant hun veien til Norge. I Tyrkia ble hun sammen med en annen kurdisk-iraner, som selv endte opp i Norge.

– Vi fant sammen igjen i tiden jeg var i USA. Forholdet ble såpass seriøst at han foreslo giftemål. Så jeg endte opp i Norge via forlovelsesvisum.

Første møte med Norge var en iskald desemberdag i 2004.

– Selv om mitt første møte med nordmenn var kald har jeg alltid vært fascinert av, og følt en tiltrekning til Vestens universelle verdier og menneskerettigheter. Dette er verdier som mennesker har strevd hardt for å oppnå, og jeg ønsker alltid å forsvare disse verdiene. Derfor jobbet jeg også en stund som leder av flerkulturell gruppe i Norsk Bibliotekforening (NBF) for å kunne bidra til et mangfoldig samfunn og fremme integrering.

Innvandreres glasstak

Essmat har gått den vanlige integreringsprosessen som alle som kommer til Norge må gjennomgå. Så har hun også oppdaget det typiske “glasstaket”.

– Som kvinne og innvandrer føler jeg jo at det finnes et slikt glasstak, uansett hvor godt jeg har klart å bli integrert i dette landet. Og dette inngår jo også i de mange opplevelser med rasisme og diskriminering man har samlet på gjennom et lengre liv i Norge. Vi bør bry oss om felles verdier, men også mangfold og inkludering.

Samtidig er hun glad over å bo i Norge.

– Her har jeg kunnet få drive med det jeg har lyst til. Leve likestilt, og i tråd med egne prinsipper.

Videre ser hun på forfatterskap som grenseløst.

– Som forfatter og filmskaper, tror jeg at rollene som forfatter, kunstner og filmskapere er ekstremt like. De prøver å knytte mennesker på tvers av grenser og lar oss se utover kunstige inndelinger av rase, kjønn, klasse eller etnisitet. De streber etter å fjerne folks likegyldighet og gjøre dem oppmerksomme på det som skjer rundt dem. Det er ingen “oss” og “dem” for meg som forfatter eller filmskaper, sier hun videre.

– Forfatterskap er personlig

– Vil du si at romanen er selvbiografisk?

– Jeg bruker veldig mye av meg selv i boken. Hver bok føles personlig. men den er ikke selvbiografisk. Selvfølgelig er det alltid ting som gjenspeiler fra meg og mitt liv i romanen, men jeg er mye mer interessert i å prøver å se verden fra andres perspektiver. Jeg prøver å finne stemmer rundt meg. Dette roman er en stemme for de som har ikke noe stemme og er en akkumulert sorg. Mange fortellinger som ikke er fortalt og kollektiv traume.

Essmat er veldig interessert i denne ideen om arvet smerte, en tanke hun trekkes til.

– Vår oppgave som forfatter er først og fremst å skrive for å forandre verden, vel vitende om at vi sannsynligvis ikke kan det, men som forfatter James Baldwin sier, også vel vitende om at litteratur er uunnværlig for verden. Verden endrer seg i tråd med måten folk ser den på, og hvis du endrer, selv bare en millimeter, måten folk ser virkeligheten på, kan du endre den.

Essmat kan forestille seg en bedre verden for alle, og det har vært hennes hovedmotivasjon med utgivelsen.

– Jakt etter frihet er temaet i boken. Traumer og forfølgelse er kamper som menneskespillet utkjemper. Boken gir også innsikt i historien om kurdisk motstand i Iran, en oversett region og dens folk. Kompleksiteten i den kurdiske eller iranske kvinnes tredoble kamp for å unnslippe politisk undertrykkelse, mannlig dominans, samt å utholde et liv i eksil og marginalisering, blir også grundig psykologisk skildret.

Solidaritet med egne medsøstre

Nylig var hun også på Høyskolen Kristiania og Det iranske solidaritetsforums fredprisarrangement og utstilling i forbindelse med Nobels fredspris. Årets pris gikk til Narges Mohammadi, og har blitt sett på som en hyllest til Kvinne- liv- og frihetsbevegelsen i Iran.

Bevegelsen oppsto i kjølvannet av politidrapet på Mahsa Jina Amini, og førte til landsomfattende protester i hele Iran i flere måneder. I likhet med Essmat var også Amini etnisk kurder, noe som førte til en bevisstgjøring om iranske myndigheters behandling av etniske minoriteter under protestene.

– Når protestene startet høsten 2022 måtte jeg endre sistedelen. Utgivelsen handler nettopp om opprør, mot kjønnsundertrykkelse, mot etnisk og religiøs undertrykkelse, og knytter fortiden til nåtiden ved å relatere nåtidens kvinnebevegelse i Iran.

Fredshåp

Selv i mørket finnes det et håp for fred, og en bedre verden, mener forfatteren.

– Romanen min handler ikke bare om sorg, traumer og smerte. Det er også en gledelig bok. Den er en bok om håp, en livsbejaende bok som feirer mangfold og sameksistens og hyller empati og kjærlighet, som fortsatt overlever selv midt i hat. Det er også en bok som prøver å forstå våre brudd i forbindelsen med naturen. Så Jeg er håpefull og tror at at Iran også skal bil et sted for håp og fred. Også Norge var en gang for lenge siden et samfunn med fattigdom og kvinneundertrykkelse. Jeg tror at en bedre verden er mulig.

Navn: Sophie Essmat
Opprinnelig fra: Sanandaj, Iran
Yrkesliv og meritter: Forfatter, filmskaper og politisk aktivist. Nominert til Cannes-prisen i 2022, og vinner av Ordknappen (2013).

Photo by Utrop.jpg
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