Book review

Kiss the Dust by Elizabeth Laird (1991)

We receive a lot of refugees into the United Kingdom but, unless you actually meet any for yourself, it's difficult to have any grasp of the kind of circumstances that have brought them to this country. This is a book about what happened to Tara and her family before they arrived at Heathrow Airport and asked for political asylum.

Tara is a Kurd. The Kurdish people live in the Zagros Mountains which straddle the borders of three different countries: Iran, Iraq and Turkey. When this story opens Tara and her family live in Sulaimaniya, a town in Iraq where her father is a wealthy business man. The political situation has been difficult for a long time, but Tara hasn't really noticed. She's only about thirteen and is pre-occupied with school life. But one afternoon a young Kurdish boy is shot by the security forces in the town centre outside the mosque. He had been reading Kurdish independence propaganda. Tara does notice this. It happens in front of her very eyes.

And more follows. A rather distant uncle arrives at their kitchen door after dark, wounded, and in the dress of a pesh murga, a Kurdish fighting man. Uncle Rostam, it seems, is a folk hero, leading the fight against the Iraqi government for a Kurdish homeland. Tara awakes, slowly, to the knowledge that there are many ways of fighting a war, and her own father, Kak Soran, has been playing a leading role from his comfortable sitting room. All those visitors he receives have pressing business.

The secret police have also heard about Kak Soran's visitors though, and receiving a warning just in time, Kak Soran escapes to their old house in the mountains leaving his family to follow on later. They only just make it, climbing over the garden wall at the back while the secret police are banging on the front door.

Life in the mountains is very different, and Tara perceives that her life is changing for ever. Will she ever be able to go to school again? Is she destined to settle in the village and marry young, to live without electricity and running water?

There's a lot worse to come. The village is bombed and Kak Soran again fears that he is being sought as a Kurdish leader. He takes his family over the border into Iran in the dead of night, arriving as enemy aliens, for Iraq is now at war with Iran. They begin their life as stateless refugees in terrible, harsh camps. They are given meagre food rations, water and sanitation is difficult, health deteriorates, and worst of all, their morale sinks. Tara finds that she must work as she has never needed to work before to help keep her family together.

Never in her wildest dreams, until the moment comes, does Tara ever think that she will have to leave the Zagros mountains behind completely, and come to seek shelter in a totally foreign country.

This is a well-told, fast-moving story giving an insight into the Kurdish way of life. It is also a story of emotional development as Tara responds to the enormous challenges which life presents her with. She may only be a thirteen year old schoolgirl, but she has the true pesh murga instinct for survival.

What can I read next?

An excellent read. Gaye Hicyilmaz has written an excellent book about the difficulties that a Romanian gypsy refugee faced when she came to live in England:

You may like to look at Zlata Filipovic's account of life in Sarajevo during the civil war there:

Or Bernard Ashley's book:

One other suggestion, if you would like to read a story about two young girls facing other difficulties in life, you might like to look at these by Virginia Euwer Wolff:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

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