When I met Haifa at home in North London, her niece had just telephoned from Iraq. Her baby had been delivered prematurely by caesarean because war was about to start. ‘The hospitals will be full of casualties or bombed. Women in Iraq are reluctant to get pregnant since the Gulf War. Remains of depleted uranium weapons lead to deformities in children.’
Haifa Zangana, writer and humanist, grew up between the Baghdad of her mother and the Kurdistan of her father: a seamless mix of identity between the overwhelmingly male society of Baghdad, and the cool mountains of Kurdistan, where women never covered their faces and could inherit property.
‘Kurds were major actors in overthrowing the monarchy in 1958; it was only when the Kassem junta took power that the attack on the Kurds began - they were accused of being collaborators with the Israelis. I was in the Communist Party, not the pro-Soviet group, which collaborated with the Ba’athists and betrayed us to the regime. My sympathies were always with the Kurds because they were on the losing side. I always identified with the oppressed.’
Haifa was imprisoned by the Ba’ath regime in the early 1970s. She escaped execution, released because the Ba’athists needed the help of the Left to consolidate their supremacy. ‘When I came out of prison I stayed in Iraq to finish my studies. They used to call me to Security Forces HQ. I sat on a chair all day, watching other people arrested, humiliated. You never knew if you would be detained or released. They controlled you by fear. Then I went to Syria and worked for the PLO there, before coming to Britain in 1976.
‘I remember thinking: “This is democracy.” The first time I voted, I was up at five in the morning. I took my daughter in the pushchair before the polling booth opened. I cast my vote with great pride.’
As we speak, a researcher calls up from BBC TV’s Question Time to check whether Haifa is a ‘suitable’ voice for the programme. Haifa explains she is against war in Iraq, since the Iraqis have suffered enough - from Saddam, war with Iran, the Gulf War, sanctions and continued bombing by US and British aircraft. ‘I was imprisoned, my three brothers were conscripted to fight against their will in the first Gulf War.’ What is the answer? asks the researcher. ‘What do you think? The scenario is already written. There will be war. If anyone suggests an alternative, as Chirac has done, he is demonized.’ What have you written about? ‘I write about exile, an autobiographical novel, short stories; a book in homage to Halabja, where Saddam gassed thousands of Kurds.’ Clearly, Haifa does not fit into the ideological mould. The conversation is terminated.
‘I hate everything Saddam has done, but I also detest Bush and Blair. I have been thrust into addressing public meetings, rallies, media appearances, especially on Arabic-speaking TV and radio. I was co-founder of Act Together: Women against sanctions and the war on Iraq. It is against my nature. My instinct is to sit in a corner and observe the world. But I can’t be silent. I see these young Iraqis trained by the CIA to speak like automata at meetings. They spit out statistics and soundbites. They say it is more urgent to get rid of Saddam than to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are completely without feeling. Anger makes me speak.
Tony Blair also asks history to be his judge. Beware of men with visions
‘The Ba’ath regime took away our voice. The Kurds had a role in Iraq. Students in Baghdad learned Kurdish as a second language. The union of writers flourished. Many Kurds were Communists. When they were attacked, they retreated to the mountains, from where revolt has continued ever since. Gradually Kurdish voices were silenced, discussion was reduced, until only the voice of Saddam was heard. He hijacked the multiple voices of the people, claiming he can see further than they can, that he has a vision that goes beyond this world into history.
‘So does Tony Blair. He also asks history to be his judge. Beware of men with visions. He has also taken away our voice, the voice of dissent. We sent a letter signed by 160 artists, academics and intellectuals. He ignored it, but quoted from a group claiming to speak for all Iraqis in UK, imploring him to go to war. It is strange to feel the same thing happening in a democracy that happened in Iraq. I would rather get on with my own life, my own writing. But how can you remain silent?
‘I always feel for the poor and oppressed. That hasn’t changed. I was punished for this; and you go on being punished for it. It is as though I never came out of prison, even though I’ve been here 25 years.’