ESSAY: A kid’s history and two languages - a memoir by Helim Yusiv

A kid’s history and two languages - a memoir by Helim Yusiv
translated from Kurdish by Khadija Baker

The first language is the mother tongue, the language of your home, the language of your brothers and sisters and the language of your neighbours. The second language is the language of the teachers, police, state officials, intellectuals and the holy books.

It might be destiny that led both languages to confrontation and war. In this war one of these languages had to perish and die, while the other language had to live and thrive. One turned into a fatal language, while the other licked its wounds, drowned in its blood, and died in silence.

                                                                *    *    *

When I came to this world, it was my fate to be lulled in the cradle in my mother tongue.

This language was drowning in its wounds, but resisted death. And we, the children of that wounded language, we hurried, even so late, to rescue it from extinction.

Here I am reading to you in that language the story of life and death. This story is about the spirit of a people who found themselves suddenly surrounded by betrayal.

Under the siege of blind history, and stabbed by the knife of a tousled-hair geography, and scattered in between the dogteeth of four savage countries.

                                                                *    *    *

This sad story always sets its traps in childhood. This story, which begins by cutting off the stunned child’s tongue, and planting another one into his mouth. It goes further, putting another brain in his head, and another spirit in his body.

The child I spoke to you about is now a writer without a country, a bird without wings, and a man who does not find a foothold for his wandering foot. That child is the same child to whom all countries and their troops came together in order to extract his tongue from his mouth and simply make him dumb.

Quite simply… This child is me.

[…] And the mother tongue is a plant, a beautiful one, and the gift of God can not be returned.

                                                                *    *     *

At that time he turned six. It was his first time out of his house, standing face to face with that huge and strong wall named language. His father was holding his hand and led him, accompanied by his elder brother, who was going to translate for him. They went to knock on the door of the castle called school, the castle of the other language. His father wanted to register him at school; the child was busy watching the official, an elegant one, speaking in a language he couldn’t understand. The child’s brother was speaking the same language with the official. They were mentioning his name and talking about things that a child could not comprehend.

His head flooded with an intense fog.

Then something small burned in his heart, and then it smelled of some death. He sensed empathy and sorrow in his spirit, and heard the song of a bird that has been killed. Voices turned into smoke rising into the sky. That child who has just turned six, and sunk into astonishment ... it was me; and that city was Amoude... That unforgettable smell was the aroma emanating from the ban imposed on my mother tongue.

Maybe that dead bird was... my heart.

                                                                *    *    *

The first language is the language of the soul – the language of feelings, the language of a beautiful woman and the language of wonder...

The second language is the language of schools and universities, the language of intellect and consciousness, and the beautiful language of the state.

                                                                *    *    *

That child grew up, went to schools and universities. In that beautiful language of the state he wrote in newspapers, magazines and books. He got older, and grayness invaded the hair of his entire soul. To calm down the snaps of fire in his burning soul he stained the faces of white papers with his black ink. He wrote stories about forbidden language, forbidden love, and forbidden life. A black ink inspired in its darkness by the darkness of night. He wrote at night and slept during the day. He did not need daylight. The fires of his soul were enough to brighten his nights. Until one winter’s night when he lay on the ground reading and his mother came and stood over his head and asked: ‘What are you writing, my son?’

Suddenly he felt that, if he read all that he had written she would not understand a single word. This was the second time that he sunk into surprise and astonishment. Broken, he stared into his mother’s eyes and felt ashamed of himself.

By the time he turned thirty he knew that he had the wrong key in his hand, a key which wouldn’t open the closed door of his soul. He discovered that he had lost the right key when he was six years old.

                                                                *    *    *

The next day, as a child who had lost his mother when he was six years old, that sad man came back into her arms and found her again.  He received the key of life from her hands and kissed them. From one eye he cried tears of subjugation ... and from the other eye tears of joy. His long crying and loud giggling turned into letters, words, and then to stories and novels. That broken man who still writes with spirit of a six-year-old child... is me.

                                                                *    *    *

Tomorrow, in the same country and in the same city which I descended from, another child will turn six years old. His family will register him in the same school and he will leave his wonderful language at home. He will be shocked by the language of his teachers. He will grow up in a fog of astonishment and amazement. What I fear is that a Kurdish man will stand before you after another forty years have passed, and will tell you exactly what I am telling you now. He will tell you about the horror of killing a human being called the mother tongue.

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