Poet of the Camps: An Introduction to Zêdan Xelef
By: David Shook
The Chamishko Camp sits near the western edge of Zakho, a city once known because of its prominent Jewish community as “the Jerusalem of Assyria,” mere kilometres from Iraqi Kurdistan’s border with Turkey. Nicknamed the “capital of camps,” its complex of tent blocks stretches over thirty hectares of summer dust and winter mud. Today Chamishko houses 5,013 families, composed on average of eight or nine internally displaced persons. The IDPs here are predominately members of the Êzîdî communities forced to flee from their ancient homeland of Shingal Mountain, in Northwestern Iraq’s Nineveh Province, by the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign to exterminate the Êzîdî. This August marks the tragedy’s five year anniversary. Chamishko is the latest chapter in a narrative that dates back centuries. According to Êzîdî history, their people have faced 73 attempted exterminations. Their oral tradition includes hours-long songs describing, mourning, and documenting every single one.
In November 2014, a young man arrived in Chamishko after eight days traversing the spartan 75-kilometre-long spine of Shingal. Separated from his immediate family during their escape, as they were actively pursued by Islamic State militants through the high-desert landscape, Zêdan Xelef had not anticipated spending his last few weeks of secondary school hiding for his life. Starving and disoriented, he ate the only vegetal substance he could find in any mass, the leathery leaves of a scrub oak. Over the next few hours, as the leaves’ desiccating quality dehydrated him, his health deteriorated rapidly. His mouth had become as dry as the parched crags around him, and his vision faded in and out. Still, he resisted death. As his consciousness waned, an unknown figure lifted his head. A fellow escapee put a canteen to his lips. He survived.
Today Zêdan, a talented poet and translator, is twenty-four. Slender and tall, he exudes a bookishness and seriousness of purpose offset by his quick smile. This spring, he meets me at the gate to the camp, to present the guard manning its entrance with the letter permitting my visit, acquired in advance from the Kurdish intelligence police. The lenses of his glasses are, as usual, slightly smudged. In the camp’s mid-April mud, tire ruts furrow the thoroughfares like canals of coppery roux. We traverse Chamishko’s grid—unpaved streets in rows A to M, intersecting columns 1 through 25—until reaching Tent I-19, where Zêdan lives with his family of eight. He is happy I have come to visit, and later, when his family serves me an entirely vegetarian meal, I realize the full thoughtfulness of his hospitality.
Much of Zêdan’s work describes the lives of IDPs, and I immediately begin to recognize images from his poems, the muddy streets and whipping gusts of “A Barcode Scanner.” After greeting us, Zêdan’s parents and siblings prepare the sitting room. A small gas heater is brought into the half-tube of the structure’s primary tent, one of two that extend in an L from the compact concrete foundation of the home’s functional nucleus, a small kitchen, with running water, and a bathroom. Chamishko is unique among its peers in this regard; one bathroom per family is a luxury few IDPs are afforded. Along with its imposing size, these types of luxuries are how it earned its nickname. The heater’s flame burns blue against the blanched, slotted ceramic of its face, and the slight scent of gas makes me mildly lightheaded. After tea and cigarettes with Zêdan’s father, his two youngest siblings perched attentively beside us, a friend arrives, the family’s neighbour from their forcibly abandoned village on Shingal. He visits each weekend, and though he hardly speaks over the course of several hours, both parties seem comforted by the familiarity of his presence in the tent.
Over the course of several hours, rain falling steadily over the camp, its gentle lapping slightly muted by the patterned sea-foam polyester that lines the inside of the tent, a rotating cast of family members, neighbours, and visiting friends come and go. Children watch YouTube on their parents’ phones, a saz and guitar are strummed with varying degrees of attention. Zêdan’s father Xhalaf, a talented player, performs a traditional song of the harvest season. A hookah appears and disappears, the double mint of its shisha sweetening the second-hand smoke and slight scent of fuel. Tea is served, and biscuits. As in Zêdan’s poems, life goes on. The realities of everyday life in Chamishko today are human realities. People connect—through the oral tradition, through Facebook.
And because of the connectedness of today’s world, Zêdan’s poems refer with equal ease to Anne Sexton and Sasha Grey, ration cards and emojis. They feature tent fires and cell phones and zebras and pirates and UN envoys. The poet put himself through university while living in Chamishko with his family of eight, studying translation at the nearby University of Duhok, and has since translated Marina Abrimović into the Arabic of his education and Walt Whitman into the Kurmanji of his home life. He loves Gregory Corso’s Gasoline and quotes Allen Ginsberg, whose work he first encountered in the translations of Sargon Boulus, the Iraqi iconoclast Zêdan mentions first when I ask him about his influences.
Soon Zêdan gives me a tour of the camp. We pass a school, nearby water towers emblazoned with the red, white, and green of the Kurdish flag, its central sun an icon of the brutal heat that will oppress the camp in just two months’ time. We visit the bazaar at the centre of the camp, pass by dress shops and mechanics. On our way back to the family tent, I ask him, in an effort to be positive, “Do you think there’s anything good about life in the camps?”
Quick as a reflex, he responds. “Nothing.” But after several seconds of silence, as we evade a pothole’s best imitation of a puddle, he tilts his head toward me with a sly grin and concedes, “Well, I guess it’s easy to get shisha.”
David Shook and Zêdan Xelef will be performing together at our Translating Possibilities event at SOAS on 12 September 2019.