Female Scholars in Exile Form Legion of Longing

Monday, January 11, 2010

Exiled female writers find they have little in common with immigrants who come to the U.S. seeking material gains. Instead, they are often looking for the chance to find continuity and tell stories about their ruptured lives.

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Mehrangiz Kar faces prison if she returns to Iran.(WOMENSENEWS)--She left Baghdad in a hurry.

Dunya Mikhail, a poet in exile, still carries with her a pocketful of memories. The delicate smell of Razqi, small starry white flowers. The bustle of Mutanabi Street, with new, used and banned books spread on blankets. The taste of masgouf fish, grilled with olive oil, pepper and tamarind.

She tries hard to forget the gory images of the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s and the Gulf War of the early 1990s.

She cannot forget, so she writes.

"The transition from disconnection to calling it your place happened when I returned to writing poetry," said Mikhail, who worked as a literary editor of the Baghdad Observer.

Her writings put her on Saddam Hussein's enemy list. In 1995 she fled to Amman, the capital of Jordan. She came to the United States a year later and reconstructed her life as a poet and Arabic teacher.

Around the world more than 42 million people have been forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution, according to United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Sixteen million live in exile; 26 million are internally displaced.

Over the last few decades many international and grassroots organizations, including some that cater to writers and intellectuals, have sprung up to help refugees survive and resettle.

"It was not easy at all starting from zero, trying to find your space," said Mikhail, the author of two poetry collections in English and four in Arabic, most of which were translated into English during her years in exile. She won the 2001 U.N. Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing and the 2006 PEN's Translation Award.

Sitting at the Barnes and Noble cafe in her adopted hometown of Dearborn, Mich., sipping mugs of mocha, she often contrasts her life to the one she led in Baghdad, where a male relative had to chaperon her. "Here I am with people and also left alone," she said.

She works as an Arabic resource coordinator for Dearborn Public Schools and Michigan State University, living with her husband Mazin Hana, an exiled Iraqi whom she met here.

War, peace and loss of homeland are her recurrent themes. "The killed loses his life. The killer loses his humanity," she said.

'People in Exile Are Different'

"People in exile are different from immigrants who come here by choice seeking better opportunities," said Mahnaz Afkhami, founder and president of Women's Learning Partnership, based in Bethesda, Md.

Before being forced into exile, Afkhami was the minster for women's affairs in Iran.

One chilly November day in 1978, when she was in New York City negotiating the terms of the establishment of the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women in Tehran, the revolutionary government ransacked her house and invalidated her passport.

She found herself alone with $1,000 and a temporary visa.

Back home, the Ayatollahs put her name on the death list for her opposition to repressive laws against women's rights and freedoms.

In exile you are stripped of all possessions, titles and safety, Afkhami said. As another example, she shared the story of her sister: "She was smuggled out of Iran through the Turkish border while eight months pregnant, accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter."

Her sister continues to live under an assumed name because the Islamic regime arrested and executed her husband for being a member of the political opposition and was most likely also seeking her.

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Thank you very much for this report which is instructive but also very deeply moving.