A phoenix rising from the ashes: Halabja culture and sacrifice consecrated at Portsmouth Cathedral
Halabja: In the Golden Days, a recent exhibition in Portsmouth Cathedral, looked back to the time before 1988 when the town was devastated by a chemical weapons attack.
For decades Halabja was a cultural hub and intellectual centre. Gulan, a British-based charity that promotes Kurdish culture, showcased Halabja’s rich cultural history by displaying the works of its artists and providing a platform for the town’s residents to share their memories and dreams.
Portsmouth, with a Kurdish community of around 4,000 many of whom were originally from Halabja, was chosen as the venue for the exhibition which provided a penetrating flash of insight into Kurdish culture and history.
"Many people only remember or know about Halabja due to it’s terrors and I want people to know that it’s so much more than that and this city is not defined by the chemical attack"
Gulan conducted interviews with people from Halabja to create a series of articles on the city’s art, theatre, music and sports. Together with essays on Halabja’s history, poetry and costumes, these were published in an 87-page booklet, compiled with the assistance of Portsmouth’s Kurdish community, Portsmouth Cathedral and the organisation Mali Kurd.
The exhibition complimented the booklet. It featured the works of 13 Kurdish artists and Kurdish costumes. Scaffolding and a crane had to be used to install eight double-sided banners depicting life in Iraqi Kurdistan by Mariwan Jalal in the nave of the cathedral.
The publication and exhibition was the brainchild of Della Murad, Gulan’s Artistic Director who was born in Halabja and later taught biology and science in the town’s high school. In 1986, she fled with her husband and children to Iran and then on to Germany. Many of her students were killed in the 1988 attack, along with some of her cousins and neighbours.
It was her long-held ambition to celebrate the town when it was renowned for its natural beauty, history and culture, as well as famous for its parks, orchards and agricultural products.
Its most famous poet, Abdullah Goran, was the father of modern Kurdish poetry. One of the most important historical figures was Lady Adela Jaff who governed the town from 1909 until her death in 1924. It was rare for a woman to occupy such a position of power, and she was renowned for overseeing one of the most prosperous eras in Halabja’s history.
A short video of Goran’s poetry and the story of his life greeted visitors to the exhibition. The colourful works of art adorned the walls of the cathedral along with information panels that provided information about the history of Halabja. A performance of Kurdish music and dancing was featured in a programme of events held in conjunction with the exhibition.
Murad told The New Arab that, "We owe it to the people of Halabja to highlight the richness of their culture and town before the chemical attack in 1988. Many people only remember or know about Halabja due to its terrors and I want people to know that it’s so much more than that and this city is not defined by the chemical attack.
"I believe that the beautiful culture of Halabja can be revived first by rekindling the sense of belonging and love for the city by educating people through books as the one Gulan has produced,” Murad added.
“Secondly, I believe it’s up to the people of Halabja to feel less victimised and to stop relying on others to rebuild their city. If they come together to rebuild, they can have something to be proud of and empower people to remember their culture. Lastly, I believe women need to be empowered and given the freedom to be creative again. Women in Kurdistan are the backbone of our society and can pass down our traditions to future generations.”
The reflections of some of Halabja’s residents and their photographs including those of former football player Hama Balla Barz and artist Awder Osman were shared on information panels.
Barz recalled that one of the most wonderful things about the Halabja of the past was the generosity and hospitality of its people. “For many years, Halabja did not have any hotels and even after the first hotels opened, the Halabjans did not want people to stay in them. Instead, they would invite people to their homes. This generous custom existed only in the city of Halabja.
"Unfortunately, the Halabja of today is very different. The sport, arts, music, poetry and cultural awareness of our people cannot be compared to how they used to be. People’s behaviour changed enormously, becoming as different as night and day," he explained.
"In the old Halabja, all the people were relatives or acquaintances, now they hardly know one another. Even the way the people speak now does not have the love or compassion of the past. The Halabja of today is, in short, a ruin, a pale shadow of the city of old.”
"We hope to create a platform for the people still living in Halabja to talk with pride about their culture. We also hope to give the Kurdish diaspora who fled Halabja an opportunity to celebrate their history and identity and to raise awareness among the wider public about the culture of Kurdistan"
Osman recalled how his grandfather told him about the literary evenings and salons organised by Adela Khanem, who invited all of the important artists and poets to her home. “Grandfather especially remembered the poets Kuri Ahmed Mukhtar and Tahir Bag, who were quite big characters and key public figures in the city. He also spoke very fondly of the government-owned orchard, where many intellectuals would gather to discuss literature, art and poetry, and of going to see films in the local cinema with his family."
Richard Wilding the curator of the exhibition emphasised that Gulan wanted to give the Kurdish diaspora an opportunity to celebrate their identity.
“For many years the Kurdish community has held an annual commemoration ceremony of the Halabja attack in Portsmouth. With this project, we hoped to demonstrate that there was much more to Halabja than just the terrible events of 1988. We wanted to show the great diversity of culture that existed before the chemical weapons attack and build support for a cultural renaissance in Halabja," he said.
"We hope to create a platform for the people still living in Halabja to talk with pride about their culture. We also hope to give the Kurdish diaspora who fled Halabja an opportunity to celebrate their history and identity and to raise awareness among the wider public about the culture of Kurdistan and the Kurds who have made Portsmouth their home,” Wilding concluded. Gulan is planning to take the exhibition to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Karen Dabrowska is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East and Islamic Affairs. She is also the author of ten books. Her latest, biography, Mohamed Makiya: A Modern Architect Renewing Islamic Tradition was published by Al-Saqi in July.
Follow her on Twitter: @KarenDabrowska1