Monday, August 02, 2021

Take What You Can Carry by Gian Sardar

It’s 1979,  Olivia Murray, who is a secretary at a Los Angeles newspaper,  has aspirations of becoming a photojournalist.  Out of the blue, she has a chance to go to Iraq with her Kurdish boyfriend, ostensibly for a weeding of his cousin, but also because he needs to reunite with his family. And so begins this remarkable 2021 novel by Gian Sardar, Take What You Can Carry

In her acknowledgments at the end of the book, Sarder explains that "... Kurdistan is spread over four countries, so isolation has been both geographic as well as political." While Sardar is quick to point out that her book is a work of fiction, it is based on true events. Sardar’s father is from Kurdistan, and her mother an American. She explains that her father’s tales about his life in Kurdistan provide the kernel of the story she tells in the novel. “Growing up in Kurdistan of Iraq, my father and his family endured atrocities I could never fully capture with words.”

In  many ways this novel is a love story, Olivia and her Kurdish boyfriend, Delan, find their love and their very lives in danger. Delan has called his parents in Iraq to tell them he might show up for the wedding, but they must speak in code, since the family is political, and they know the government taps their phones, and he is not sure from their coded conversation whether his mother is telling him to come, that it is relatively safe, or  whether instead she is telling him not to come, that the risks are too great. 

Even before his trip to Iraq, Delan agitates in the U.S to inform his friends of the plight of the Kurds in Iraq. 

The United States and Kissinger had encouraged and funded them in a rise against the Iraqi government, as a favor to the Shah of Iran, but abandoned them when they no longer served their purpose...They never wanted us to win. That’s what the committee found. They wanted us only to fight and keep Baghdad busy. We were a pawn. Kurds quit their jobs, school, you name it. Everyone joined in to fight and to die in a battle we were never allowed to win.

More than two hundred thousand refugees when they abandoned us, when we were being slaughtered, and not one dollar of humanitarian aid from the United States. Our leader, Barzani, he begged Kissinger for the United states to help.

There is a lot of drama in this novel, and I don’t intend to give much of the plot away. Delan has a brother, Soran, who is a passionate gardener, and who says he must stay out of the fray, since he has an adopted daughter, Lailan, to care for. At one point Olivia questions Soran about his habit of bathing at night. He replies:

People in our family, they’ve always been political. So even in peace we had problems, Arrests. Imprisonments. But then the the kingdom was toppled in ’58  and the republic created. From then on no Kurds had peace. And the government bombed during the day.” He stops, as if this is all that needs to be said, but then sees that’s not the case. “Imagine, not having clothes on when the sirens go  off or when the ground starts to shake and you have to run. Imagine soap in your hair when you see the shadow of the plane.

We learned to live at night. To work, to bathe. When the time came, you had to run. Take what you can carry to the mountains. That is where we would go. The mountains to be safe.

Olivia learns to hear the common saying, Head for the Hills, in a new light.

Juxtaposed with the harrowing arrests and raids and constant fear, Sardar manages also to describe the colors and sounds and smells of Iraq, and to understand the history of that ancient land. She describes the vibrant colors of the dresses at the wedding they attend, so different than the bland whites of American weddings. 

In the field, she catches a flash of silver: the bride’s sisters and friends are dancing with knives. “They’re dancing with knives” 

He turns “They’re about to cut the cake. That’s to let him know they can handle knives. That he should be good to their sister. That they will protect her. 

There is so much color and excitement in this novel, and while it is often sad and frightening, there are also moments of great beauty and courage. Delan is known for his spontaneous kindness and generosity which is often impulsive and even dangerous. But one of his acts of kindness, turns out to save the family when there is an attack by government forces. This incident is one that Sardar explains is based on a real events in her Kurdish father’s life.

This is a wonderful book and I am so grateful that it fell into my hands. I was all set to review a different book, The Five Wounds, by, KIrstin Valdez Quade. But I read that book weeks ago, and it was already vanishing from memory, so I decided on this novel that I had just finished. 

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