At the border, 1979
By Choman Hardi
“It is your last check-in point in this country!”
We grabbed a drink-
soon everything would taste different.
The land under our feet continued
divided by a thick iron chain.
My sister put her leg across it.
“Look over here,” she said to us,
“my right leg is in this country
and my left leg in the other”.
The border guards told her off.
My mother informed me: We are going home.
She said that the roads are much cleaner
the landscape is more beautiful
and people are much kinder.
Dozens of families waited in the rain.
“I can inhale home,” somebody said.
Now our mothers were crying. I was five years old
standing by the check-in point
comparing both sides of the border.
The autumn soil continued on the other side
with the same colour, the same texture.
It rained on both sides of the chain.
We waited while our papers were checked,
our faces thoroughly inspected.
Then the chain was removed to let us through.
A man bent down and kissed his muddy homeland.
The same chain of mountains encompassed all of us.
Choman Hardi is a Kurdish poet living in exile in England. Her poetry reflects the love and respect she has for her homeland but also the foulness of what happened to the Kurds at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his troops.
This in a lot of ways, is a simple enough poem, but then there are depths to it that need to be sought and looked into in order to understand why she wrote it. As the poem begins, it does so as a memory of a time when she crossed over the border from one country into another. As she gets a drink she feels that soon enough “everything would taste different.” This is a phrase that has a surface meaning of different cultures equals different ways and means different foods and tastes but it also can be seen in symbolic fashion, in a negative way, as she is entering somewhere where peace and freedom are things that cannot be taken for granted. Taken this way, her words suggest an almost ominous feeling of threat as they enter this country, possibly once again.
The words “thick, iron chain” suggest harshness and pain on the landscape and on the countryside as it serves to separate one land from another. It is a border guard post after all. But the poet uses her sister who has one leg in each country to show the difference between the two. The fact that the border guards tell her off is a signal to the reader that as they enter this land once again, what mother calls “home,” is in fact, a painful place, a hard place, a place of terror and worry. This is not the sort of behaviour the guards expect, nor the mother in this context. But these two are children playing at the border post as they go home to the land of their fathers.
Up till now, the reader is thinking that by going home they are going back into something that is filled with regret, but the poem turns on the next few lines as we read that the mother then tells her children that home is a land where “the roads are much cleaner, the landscape is more beautiful and people are much kinder.” This suggests that the Mother sees home in a positive light, even if that is perhaps untrue, but more likely that the land they are coming from, being Iraq, is of no comparison to her Kurdish home, where to her, everything is so much better than where she has been living with her family.
The next line says that “dozens of families waited in the rain,” itself suggesting that the process of crossing the border is indeed a long one, where one has not only to prove one’s identity but be searched extensively before being allowed to pass through. The fact that one lady then admits that she can “inhale the land” tells the reader how strong the bond is with home; it is something that exists within us all and it is something that appears the closer we get to that which we perceive as ‘home.’
It is an emotion that leads to Mothers “crying” and their five year olds wondering just what is happening as they compare “both sides of the border.” It is in that moment that Hardi sees the similarities on both sides of the land that is intersected by that chain. She sees the same coloured ground, the same mud, the same continuity of landscape but cannot see how and why one side is better to live in than the next. The fact that it rains on “both sides of the border” shows how the five year old cannot be expected to see the intricacies of life that exist at a border crossing.
But as they wait to have everything checked and then the chain is taken away, she begins to see a change not only in her mother but also in how she views the land she is entering. She says that a man bends down and kisses his “muddy homeland” in a sign or reverence for the nation, for the very ground he belongs to, showing an understanding in older age of why the man would do that, even though the five year old would not comprehend the actions.
But the final line, with that image painted in the mind of the reader of a group of people being “encompassed” by “the same chain of mountains” that existed before, is one that shows that they have gone from bad to good, from hell to heaven if you like, from tyranny to freedom. In terms of warfare then, this poem seems ill placed, but the title of the anthology collection is not “warfare,” but “conflict” and when one applies that word to this poem we begin to see the conflict in the mother, who sees the old regime and the freedom of her homeland. We see the conflict of the children who see the same landscape but something stopping them, barring them from enjoying it and we see the conflict in the landscape, where the same mountains exist to bring about a sense of pride of national freedoms as well as being something that can “encompass,” a word that can have negative connotations as well as positive ones.