Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa, published by Harper Collins in Canada and The Overlook Press in the US, is a searing, heart rending, and heart breaking tale of Leila, a young Kurdish woman, coming of age in contemporary Iran. While news stories in recent years have been telling the world of the heroism of Kurdish partisans fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the horror of the Turkish campaign against them in Northern Syria, we hear very little about the lives of the ordinary people living under Iranian rule.
The Kurds are one of the world’s stateless people. Promised the return of their traditional territories, lands now controlled by Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, the powers that be have consistently betrayed them since the end of the first world war. Treated like criminals simply for existing or trying to speak their own language, the Kurds have continued to resist in an attempt to keep their culture alive.
In telling the story of Leila’s family, her father, mother and younger brother, and their circle of friends, Homa is not only telling us the story of a family, but manages to convey something of the accumulated horror of being a people constantly under assault. Even as a small child Leila understands they are different. From the map of scars on her father’s back showing where he’s been tortured to his constant simmering anger and grief she knows their family is not like others.
As Leila and her brother Chia grow they begin to realize just how different they are. Not only are they punished at school for speaking Kurdish, their father is obsessed with the atrocities committed against the Kurds both in the past and the present. Each horror is another scar on his soul that festers into anger. The children can’t help but be affected by his emotions and damaged spirit.
As Leila’s story unfolds we see how this upbringing impacts upon her own sense of self worth and personality. However, we also find out how much of her father’s indomitable spirit she’s inherited when her beloved brother Chia is arrested. He had been writing about the plight of Kurds in Iran and publishing his articles online through supposed safe channels outside Iran.
However, when he is arrested for participating in an anti-government demonstration he vanishes into the horror of the Iranian prison system. For months nobody knows whether he’s dead or alive. That doesn’t stop Leila from using whatever resources she can scrape together to pester, badger and bribe bureaucrats to find her brother.
What’s truly remarkable about this book is how Homa not only personifies a people’s suffering through one character, but also shows us how piece by piece the emotional and psychological trauma of living as a persecuted minority gradually destroys a person’s confidence and spirit. No matter how strong Leila tries to be, the cracks in her veneer gradually widen into crevices.
While we read about the atrocities committed against the Kurdish people by the Turkish government we know very little of their existence in Iran. Daughters of Smoke and Fire gives us a peak behind the curtain as to the level of persecution they face from not only a dangerous government, but a populace who have bought into the lies told about the Kurdish people.
While this book is about a Kurdish family in Iran, the story could be about any minority living under the rule of an oppressive majority demanding their assimilation. Homa has created a story that’s both personal and universal in its scope. Daughters of Smoke and Fire might break your heart, but its also a book of sublime beauty that will engrave itself into your memory for years to come.