Passages of the Heart

By on April 23, 2012

This poignant story of two Kurdish children, ages three and twelve, survivors of the 1988 massacre at Halabja, is fictional but based on fact, recounting the genocide perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s forces when chemical bombs of cyanide, mustard gas and nerve agents were dropped on Kurdistan villages.

This short story won First Place in the Arts Commission literary contest at the “Write on the Sound Writers’ Conference” in Edmonds, WA.


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Tomar couldn’t help but spread a wide smile across his sun-bronzed face as he hastened through the dusty streets lined with mud-brick houses and stone-rubble huts. The joy he felt, especially today, radiated from his face pushing his boyish cheeks upward and crinkling the edges of his dark brown eyes. He sucked in a deep breath as he passed an outdoor clay oven, sniffing in the pleasant aroma of bread baking. At the same time, he kept an eye on Nusha, his three-year old sister who skipped ahead of her twelve-year old brother. The caress of the morning sun and the warm breeze that wafted in from the south promised that nothing would mar this special day. Tomar had no reason to believe otherwise.

He headed toward the outskirts of his small village, Halabja, situated near the Iranian border, and wound through the same by-ways he and Nusha always followed. Passing his grandmother’s home he spied her carrying an armful of wood across the yard. Shading his eyes from the sun with his hand, he called to her.

“Good morning, grandmother!” At the same time, he flashed her a wide grin to relay his excitement about the festivities the family planned for the evening. She looked up, smiled and returned the greeting.

That night they were to celebrate his father’s birthday. There would be dilok, the spirited dancing, and he intended to wear his best shirt and pants along with the colored sash that his mother made. He could hardly wait. And the food…his eyes widened with anticipation.

Grandmother would bring Baslog, filled with nuts and sprinkled with shredded coconut. His aunts and cousins would bring sweet cakes and other delicacies, and his mother, Fesenjam chicken with pomegranate molasses and walnuts. There would also be fresh bread and thick honey. The house would fill with relatives and neighbors laughing and talking and everyone would nibble on Nakho-Chi cookies topped with sugar and pistachios. They would also sip Chai Kurdi tea through sugar cubes held in their teeth, Tomar’s favorite. He loved the soothing taste of the cinnamon. It reminded him of the feeling he got when his mother tucked the covers around him at night.

Then, after dinner, his father would work music on his flute-like zornah, accompanied by his grandfather drumming his fingers on the dahol, and everyone would sing the stories of their Kurdish heroes, especially the Peshmerga—the village fighters who face death for Kurdistan’s freedom. The music often varied but the words were always the same so that they could be memorized and handed down to posterity. Often, his father told him, “Tomar, some day you will make a fine warrior.”

This morning, he and Nusha’s task was to climb the high hill and pick berries and almonds for the celebration. Tomar carried two baskets for this, a third for the wildflowers which Nusha would fill. She ran down the street ahead of him in anticipation, her short black hair bouncing up and down about her head.

They cut across the square, a small open space and the focal point of the village. In the center stood an old gnarled walnut tree with branches that shaded most of the plaza. The area was already noisy with chattering women and loud voices of competing vendors bargaining over apples, sugar beets and tobacco. He and Nusha finally reached the outskirts of the village, skirted a wheat field and headed for the foothills.

They climbed the hill under a brilliant blue sky with puffs of white clouds. Within an hour they reached Tomar’s favorite place, the plateau, where the sun slid golden fluid down the slopes that overlooked their peaceful village. A mild breeze wafted the tall grass into soft, rolling waves. Only the gentle lapping of a nearby stream broke the profound quiet of the hillside with its perfumed fragrance of honeysuckle and wildflowers. Something special always stirred deep inside Tomar in the palpable silence on the hill, much the same comforting feeling the cinnamon’s aroma gave him.

He spent the next hour picking berries, loading his basket and shaking enough almonds down from tree branches to fill the other. After that, he plopped down on the ground to rest. Nusha continued to dart about barefoot, picking purple and yellow flowers.

Shading his eyes with his hand, Tomar took in the panorama lying in the valley below him. Sun-drenched fields and pastures rolled endlessly in all directions. Beyond them, more villages.

With a pleased smile, he lowered his head and started to reach into his pocket for his pencil and small drawing tablet that he had brought along. But a sudden noise startled him. He looked up.


Click here to read the rest of the story.

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Passages of the Heart