‘The Shakira of Kurdistan’ discusses feminism, Kurdish unity, and healing the scars of war.
By Benjamin Ramm. Published 3-30-2017 by openDemocracy
As the battle for Mosul nears its conclusion, the fate of civilian survivors remains uncertain. The Kurdish singer and humanitarian Dashni Morad, whose youth was defined by conflict in the region, aims to highlight the psychological scars of living under a brutal regime. In 2014, Morad raised funds for refugee camps outside Mosul, where she witnessed the impact of three years of war on displaced children. Tutored only in fear, the children are aggressive even in play: “it made me so upset to see that a kid can be taken from its inner child”, she says. “It is the worst thing you can do to a human being – to take away that magical world”.
Morad’s tranquil demeanour belies her childhood trauma. At the age of five, in 1991, her family fled from Iraqi bombardment of their hometown Sulaymaniyah into the mountains near the border with Iran. There were no camps in the region, and Morad tells harrowing stories of the perilous conditions – she ran behind aid helicopters in order to catch food and medicine, and witnessed death at an early age. Her father travelled to Turkey, then swam to Greece and from there walked to Germany, before settling in Holland, where he was reunited with his family after 18 months without contact. Dashni grew up in the small town of Didam, 18 kilometers east of Arnhem; she speaks fluent Dutch, Kurdish and English, and a smattering of German and Arabic.
After the fall of Saddam, Morad returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in an attempt to help build an independent homeland. By the time she moved to Erbil in 2007, Morad was already a notable figure – she had presented 48 episodes of the cutting-edge programme Bê Control (Without Borders) on a Kurdish television station based in Germany. The show was popular and controversial, often exploring uncharted territory, in particular women’s issues. Iraqi Kurdistan is generally more socially conservative than other Kurdish regions, such as Rojava (northern Syria), with its feminist democratic confederalism, and Turkish Kurdistan, which prides itself on a secular outlook.
Since the 1970s, women’s freedoms in Iran, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan have been rolled back. Morad laments the proliferation of mosques, funded from abroad, which attract disillusioned young people, “who feel neglected and forgotten. When a group come along and gives them attention, they join”. She notes that local Kurdish TV stations now air Iraqi soap operas, which convey a conservative Islamic message. In response, she says “we need investment in education, to raise awareness and leadership among women, especially in the refugee camps. Many of the female fighters who go to the frontline are trying to escape a war in their own home – they are escaping domestic violence”.
Conservative elements in Kurdish society did not welcome Morad’s entrance onto the musical scene, fusing Kurdish folk with Western pop. Her appeal to young people, and her liberal dress sense, only deepened this animosity, and a mullah even called for her to be boycotted. The albums had limited commercial success, and Morad returned to television with a show called Shepolakani Jiyan(Waves of Life). “The older generation couldn’t accept me in a short skirt, dancing and singing, but with the show they understood that I care about society and the people. I had times when I was scared they would stone me, and I had times when people would run up to me to take a photo”.
In 2014, she launched the charity Green Kids, seeking to raise environmental consciousness among young people. Morad says “there’s a lack of public knowledge about how to respect and protect the environment” (a recent news report supports her claim), and every spring she led a group into the mountains to clean up the area. But the escalation of civil war forced a shift in focus, to providing support for refugee children as well as fundraising and delivering aid to the Yazidi community. She admires the advocacy of Nadia Murad on behalf of the Yazidis, and hopes to act as an ambassador for the Kurds.
Morad is a persuasive advocate for her homeland and its natural habitat: “We have 27 different wild flowers, unnamed, in the mountains, ready for you to discover! It is beautiful, magical scenery”. She hopes to entice not only tourists, but Kurds from the diaspora: “Just imagine, if we have peace and investment, refugees will return”. But she is honest about the toll of decades of war: “We are so tired – our minds are weary – we are raising the next generation with anger, with shock and trauma, without the opportunity for recovery. Many people are slowly losing hope, especially the young – they dream of the West, of living in a more peaceful world”.
The lack of unity among Kurds is also a concern. “We have so much distrust and so many divisions – the war may be ending but it is difficult to heal with so little trust. Instead of infighting, we need to be smart. I would love to see more talks between the Kurdish factions, and I would like to see more Kurds lobby for wider friendships – not just with the US, but also Iran, Iraq, Turkey”. With Kurds in each of these nations, it is difficult to forge a Kurdish national consciousness, across borders and language – in Syria, publishing in Kurdish is prohibited. Morad plays me a short clip of her unreleased version of the Kurdish national anthem, and notes the popularity of Kurdish Idol in creating a shared identity. She feels that artists have a duty to perform in each of the regions, to write in Kurdish, and to make films in the national language.
In the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, the cause of Kurdistan was frequently cited as a justification of the war, but in recent months the US has cooled in its commitment towards the Kurds. I ask whether Morad feels betrayed: “It’s not the first time that the Kurds have been betrayed”, she replies. Her hometown of Sulaymaniyah was the residence in exile of Mustafa Barzani, who fought for independence against the British, and I assume her remark is aimed at Churchill’s poor treatment of the Kurds. Morad says she is “not chasing the past – but I would like to see more acknowledgment of Britain’s historic role in Middle East”. Perseverance is a key Kurdish characteristic: “We have been betrayed many times, but we are very patient”.
Morad has spent time in Halabja, 80km from her hometown, where at least 5,000 civilians were killed in a chemical attack during Saddam’s Al-Anfal campaign of genocide against the Kurds. Her optimism after the fall of the regime did not withstand the civil war. “I think the post-Saddam era was not handled well. There is no Iraq now – it’s gone. And the Kurdish people tried very hard to be part of it, but we were constantly marginalized. Daesh is almost defeated, but there is a new Daesh in the making. Many of those fighters have cut off their beards, their families are protecting them, and they are going back into the desert, to reform and become stronger”.
The day before our meeting, Morad appeared on BBC Breakfast to promote her new single, Love Wins. Since being feted as ‘the Shakira of Kurdistan’ by the LA Times, Morad has released English-language tracks, with mixed results. I’m curious about the song’s upbeat message – especially in light of everything she has witnessed. Doesn’t the election of anti-immigrant populists demonstrate that the politics of hate trump the politics of love? Morad acknowledges the trend, although she doesn’t think it is inevitable (she proudly cites the rejection of Geert Wilders in her adopted homeland), and says that it is the role of the artist to counter this power-driven vision: “whereas the politician relies on fear, the artist advocates for sympathy and compassion”.
Morad’s conviction stems from her own experience. On 12 May 1991, the BBC broadcast live to 36 countries a concert for Kurdish refugees, with performers in London, Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Sydney, along with a short film on the plight of the Kurds. The event featured high-profile artists such as Paul Simon, Gloria Estefan, MC Hammer, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones and Whitney Houston, and raised $15m for the Red Cross – aid that directly benefitted Dashni and her family. “Love helped me to survive”, she says. “I survived because people believed in love, in giving and in caring; and like them, I believe in it too”.
Sinéad O’Connor & Sting perform at the concert for Kurdish refugees in 1991
Benjamin Ramm is editor-at-large of openDemocracy. He writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @BenjaminRamm
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.