I’d like to tell you about someone I know of named Serheldan. She’s a Syrian Kurdish refugee who appeared in a film titled after herself, Serheldan, in 2003, by a Lebanese film director named Rawane Nassif, that follows her life.
It’s unclear where the film is set, but it’s likely Syrian Kurdistan. When the film opens, we see Serheldan, standing in the middle of a quiet street, and she looks directly at us, holding a microphone. We hear her saying, “My name is Serheldan and I’m going to show you my neighborhood.”
She leads us around her neighborhood and introduces us to her neighbors. “They all love and cherish me.” She then informs us that she has six brothers, and with her mother sick in Damascus with breast cancer, she and her sister are the only girls. “I’d kill all boys, don’t think I’m a girl. I just look like a girl but I’m not. I’m a boy.” She introduces us to her neighbor Rasheed, who must be at least twice her age, and asks him if he is married. He replies no. “My advice to you is not to love girls, don’t love girls,” she explains to him with a smile. She then interviews her sleeping cat, “What’s your name, habibi?” She slaps the cat around to elicit a response. She hugs the cat, Mimi, and asks her what is wrong with her.
Serheldan has a striking resemblance to what my mother looked like as a child. My mother, like Serheldan, was a self-described tomboy who hung out with boys and had no sense of fear, skateboarding around the streets of Tehran as a fourteen-year-old. They have the same concrete sense of self-worth. They both love the people who are close to them with an intensity that results in ease. It’s the ease I imagine my mother had when she was a child surrounded by community, in a land far away.
Diaspora, for me, feels oftentimes like I was born in a land that is foreign to me, and as a result, I have never felt that any one place is home because home has always felt estranged. Home means many things, many places, and many people.
I have always moved around a lot because I feel uncomfortable staying in one place for too long. I can’t go very long without seeing my family, usually the marker of whether or not a place is a home to me, and I have family everywhere—it always feels like someone is missing.
Perhaps it is because so many of the people closest to me hold values, histories, and senses of love that originate in a place that I have never been to. I doubt traveling to that place would fulfill that sense of home, as my values, histories, and sense of love formed elsewhere, but I imagine it would not take much for it to feel like something close to home.
For now, I search for that sense of home in films from the region known as The Middle East. I use that term with the fragility it originated with—a vague, problematic idea formed outside of the land itself. It’s the most I have to work with apart from my family’s retellings. The phrase at once feels too large of a term and too small. Our people have been separated by a history decided by those who have stolen from it. Being raised in The United States, a land in a constant identity crisis, both national and personal, I have a very complicated sense of belonging and identity. Am I strictly Iranian? What does it mean to even be Iranian? If the history is so long, as I learned it is, doesn’t it suggest a broad, intermixed cultural foundation and genetic lineage? Though I have an Iranian passport, am I, a person born in America who has never been to the Middle East, an Iranian?
And when questions like that emerge, I think, well, may I speak on the affairs of others? Non-Iranian Middle Easterners? North Africans? South Asians?
The answer sometimes for me lies in the emotional reaction I have to watching kids like Serheldan and her neighbors. A sense of great, uncontrollable and unconditional sense of care. And that, for me, is at the root of concepts like diaspora. It’s that natural sense of concern for a familiar, historical culture of somewhere far away from you.
It is nighttime, and Serheldan takes us to meet a group of young boys. The older ones are called Danny and Arat, whom she calls her colleagues. “My name is Serheldan, and I am a 13-year-old Syrian Kurd and I don’t know anything about people.” Arat tells us his full name is Arat Farhan Ibrahim and that his mother’s name is Zahiya. He then lists the names of his numerous siblings, and the others giggling along. Serheldan asks “Where is Kurdistan?” The kids quiet, and Arat says, “Between Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.” Serheldan interrupts, “Turkey and Iran,” and looks knowingly at the camera. She asks, “Where is Halabja?” Arat, with a serious face that suggests respect, describes the Halabja Massacre of 1988 in the autonomous in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Iran-Iraq War, the largest chemicals weapon attack in history where an estimated 5,000 Kurds died and more than 7,000 more were injured. The President of Iraq Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to repel an Iranian army that had invaded the town two days prior, gassed his own civilians in the Kurdish town. Some older boys who are listening chime in and explain that a man named Ali Hassan “Chemical Ali” Majeed, the commander of the Iraqi army, conducted the massacre. The camera pans over to look at the older boys and, with smiles, they cover their faces and say, “Please don’t film me.” The camera pans back to Serheldan, and she smiles, the boys giggle.
In the next scene, we see Danny one of the young boys from before. He is with the younger unnamed boy from before, who is falling over onto Danny. Danny yells with a smile at the camera, “Thousands of people. They were Kurds and were killed by someone called,” Danny raises his finger and wags it at an unseen apparition, “That dog, son of a dog, Saddam Hussein.” The boys begin to sing, and Danny asks, “Where is the loud mouth George Bush, who sentenced the world to be executed?”
Diaspora, for me, can mean survivor’s guilt. To exist within diaspora is to be a survivor—it means to have been expelled and reached safety while others remain. It means thinking of the many places you call home, and wondering how many others have not yet found even one home. It means watching Serheldan and seeing my mother, who has spent most of her life away from her home, searching and attempting to discover new homes in the land responsible for the chaos in her first home. Yet, what happened to Serheldan? Where is she now? Was she forced to leave her home? What would have happened to my mother if she had stayed in her home, and why was she able to leave when so many others couldn’t? It’s curious to ask questions like this, because no matter how complicated I feel about it, how much I long for these lands far away, I would never have been born if my mother had not left.
We see the younger boy from before, and he is speaking to us; his name is Takoshine, and he would like to meet us. He likes karate and swimming. Takoshine then interrogates another boy, named Azeez, who appears to be under attack by all of Takoshine’s questions. Takoshine gets close up into Azeez’s face with the microphone and demands that Azeez tells us his mother and father’s name. When Azeez reveals that his mother’s name is Hanifa, Takoshine laughs, and Azeez responds, “I’ll smack you right on the mouth.” Takoshine calms him and asks for Azeez’s sister’s name. Azeez responds, “What’s your concern with my sister?” The two boys sing for us.
The boys from before, Danny and Arat, are sitting in another room with Serhaldan and a nameless girl. They are discussing Abdullah Öcalan, the de facto leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the KPP, a militant revolutionary organization that operates in the greater Kurdistan, primarily in Southeastern Turkey and Northern Iraq. Abdullah Öcalan, at this moment, is imprisoned in Turkey and has been serving a life sentence since 2002. He has written multiple books since his imprisonment outlining the conditions of a Kurdish state. From my understanding of some of his writings, the goal of Kurdistan is both to create a land where all Kurds are free and to create a land where all people are as free as the Kurds, an egalitarian society, socialist society, dependent on the freedom of the Kurdish people.
“They wanted to execute him but they couldn’t,” Arat tells us. “They threatened him. If they executed him all Turkey would now be gone. Abdullah Öcalan is right below God.”
Danny holds a framed photo of Öcalan. “[Öcalan] means revenge,” he tells us.” He explains the story of Öcalan’s formation of the KPP.
“Kurdistan was a beautiful country,” the nameless girl explains. “with lots of green and space. How is it that they ruined it like this?”
“There was oil there,” Arat tells. “The richest oil country in the world was Kurdistan. For oil, especially Iraq, they did what they did.”
“The Iraqi people had nothing to do with it,” the girl says. “The president is responsible, but the Iraqi people are paying the price now, not the president.”
They discuss Saddam and the Turks. Serheldan chimes in for the first time in a moment. She tells the story of her aunt, who was a part of the KPP in Turkey, and retells a gruesome story of her torture after being captured by the Turkish government where she was mutilated and publicly shamed. They told her if she renounced the KPP and told her secrets, she would be released yet she refused. The government let her go regardless, but she later died from her injuries.
Whenever I hear of new bombings in the Middle East, I think of the kids in Serheldan, and all the other kids like them who are affected by these conflicts. There was a point in my life where I developed physical issues as responses to the anxieties I retained for these children. During a time when my father was living in Iran, I routinely checked foreign news reports on The Middle East out of fear for his safety. I read first-hand accounts, the sort that are difficult to find in western outlets, of children across The Middle East who suffer from borders, policies, and warfare that the west have created. Syria. Yemen. Iraq. Palestine. I know well what the faces of children from these countries look like. I have studied them closely. I never want to forget them, because the world seems intent on ignoring these survivors. They are forced, at a young age, into diaspora, an experience I do not share with them or my mother. They are spoken of not as individuals with stories and lives, but as statistics. Deprived of the agency that comes in telling their story, instead marked as invaders in host countries.
And no matter your opinion on U.S. foreign policy, whether or not you agree or disagree with President Biden’s decision to reengage in proxy warfare in Syria, it’s undeniable that the conversation around the decision has been completely ignorant of the people it affects the most: the Syrian people. The American political media system is so self-concerned after a lifetime of selfish foreign policy that we, the ever-present perpetrators of international disorder, are somehow the only people affected by our leaders. We center the assailant, the president, the government, and we argue in favor or against their decision-making. The media world refuses to change the conversation from, “Do we trust our president to do what it takes for freedom?” As if the Syrian people have any effect whatsoever on our freedom. We used to call it communism and then we called it terrorists but now there is some immaterial ethereal subject that we are fighting. Saddam is dead. Osama is dead. Who are we fighting? Why? And is it worth even one Syrian life, one life totally uprooted, disrupted, or destroyed?
Diaspora, sometimes, means confusion around belonging. To be raised within a diaspora means to have an imagined idea of origin that is created the moment one leaves the homeland forever. It is an idea that is crystallized under pressure, a rigid and unrelenting retelling of the past, immovable and timeless. It is this imagination that is the bedrock of diaspora. Without imagination, without longing, without an eternal sense of displacement that is buttressed by the absence of home, diaspora would not exist. It is passed down between generations; the imagination of homeland is an heirloom, beautiful, aged, fractured, and treasured. It means an eternal duality of here and there, both, neither.
And, still, what does it mean to be from this region, one that has been totally abused by history? Entire cultures divided from each other because of backroom decisions made by Europeans at the end of wars that did not involve us (see: The Sykes-Picot Agreement). To be from this region of the world means to have a history that is both ancient and recent. Depending on where you are from, you hear some mythicized idea of the history of your people. Persian. Kurdish. Arab. Turkish. Armenian. Yazidi. There are countless, countless more, that have mixed and mingled for centuries. And then, with one quick decision from outsiders, we were told who we were, and we were bestowed our designations of servitude by outsiders. And there are few people like the Kurds who were more betrayed by history. Separated across borders and lands decided by colonizers and at every step of the way chose the route that meant taking the most from the Kurdish people while giving back the least. Abused by people who were once their historical neighbors, excused by the designation made by the same foreigners they aim to scapegoat for failures of the state.
I am of the Iranian diaspora, and my parents would swear until the day they die that they are Iranian and nothing else. When belonging is, for them, something so known and unreachable, why would you complicate its meaning? For me, I have issues classifying diaspora by the borders found on maps that quantify a separation of histories. My mother’s family is from Hamadan, a region in Iran that borders the land that some would call Southeast Kurdistan and others would call the Kurdish region of Northwest Iran. My family, supposedly, has existed in that region for thousands of years. Considering the fact that these lands have been arbitrarily outlined by outsiders for the last century, I find it difficult to feel distant from the Kurdish people whose homeland is adjacent to my homeland, and some may even say they are intersected in history. I find it hard to believe our histories are as separated at the borders on a map make it appear. I actually find it hard to accept.
Within my sense of diaspora, I feel a kinship to the Kurdish people, no matter where we may be, for the lands in our imaginations are not far from each other, so our imagined futures must be adjacent as well. The futures we dream of, I hope, appear similar.
When I watch the kids in Serheldan, I see a girl who reminds me so much of my mother, with talkative, serious, giggly boys that appear like myself and my brothers. I watch them with a video camera, filming each other, laughing at each other, and discussing identity and belonging with each other. My father used to take videos of my brothers and me, and we would laugh and perform and discuss like the boys in these videos. And we looked like these kids. It’s rare to watch people on a screen that look like us, that sound like the people that are close to us. I feel like I know these kids, they could be my cousins. To have such a deep insight into their world through their own point of view, it’s an invaluable privilege. A people whose stories are so often manipulated or ignored at every point in the discussion over the foreign actions that have forced their situation. And to see them live their lives, uphold their identities, and practice life so unapologetically brings me hope that perhaps a route to change lies in the distribution of more stories like these.
I’d rather not describe the second half of Serheldan to you. No matter how much I have tried, I have failed to put into words how beautiful the ending is, and how much it has affected me and stayed with me since I first watched it almost a year ago. I’d rather you take the time now to go and watch the film and come back here once you have finished it.
What was your favorite moment?
Mine was when Serheldan shows us a drawing she made for her mother. When asked what the occasion was for the drawing, Serheldan responds, “The occasion is that I love her.”
I think about that line often.