Ashti’s Great Expectations
It was through work that Ashti’s path and mine intersected in 2016 in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. An experienced tutor in several languages, Ashti had agreed to work as a Kurdish language and cultural consultant to my research project. At first, Ashti seldom spoke about herself; she seemed eager to focus on our work together. She was petite in stature but radiated a kind of quiet strength. She spoke softly, but could command attention when necessary. Her eyes were solemn, though occasionally brightened by a smile. As I grew to know her better, I learned that Ashti’s seemingly tough exterior sheltered a rich inner life, a source of reserve energy that had powered her through four difficult decades.
She was born in a town near Kirkuk, where her father and mother managed a small, successful business. When Ashti was around 10 years old, her father died. Her father’s brother began pressuring Ashti’s mother to marry him. ‘He wanted to take the business,’ Ashti explained. ‘He was always jealous of my mother and father’s relationship, and their success.’ Ashti’s mother refused the proposal. Spurned and angry, the uncle took Ashti from her mother and brought her to live in his household. He forbade Ashti from continuing her formal education: she completed only four years of school, from age 7 to 11.
But Ashti was clever, and she had a kind relative who brought her books from Baghdad every time he visited. She taught herself Arabic, Kurdish and English through a combination of dictionaries, books in various genres and television. She especially enjoyed reading philosophy. By the time she was a teenager, she no longer ‘believed’ in Islam. Around age 20, she left Kurdistan and resettled in Europe. For almost two decades, Ashti lived and worked in Europe. During that time, she married, gave birth to a daughter and divorced.
In the early 2010s, Ashti began thinking about leaving Europe and returning to Kurdistan. She reasoned that her daughter, Kani, could finish her secondary education and attend university there. Ashti herself, with her excellent language skills, could find work as a teacher. When I asked what had influenced her decision to return to Kurdistan, she described feeling a ‘calling’, a spiritual yearning for her homeland, a sense that she had some important work to do there. She decided to go.
Upon her return to Kurdistan, Ashti found that much had changed in the intervening decades. With the end of the 2003–2011 war, the Kurdistan Region had entered an optimistic era of political stability and economic growth. New homes, schools and businesses sprang up across the landscape: luxury residential communities with names like Dream City, and multi-floor shopping malls stocking European brands and posh restaurants. People said that Erbil would be ‘the next Dubai’.
During this prosperous period, Ashti developed a successful business tutoring in Kurdish, Arabic, and English, usually for foreign NGO employees. Her reputation as a skilled teacher spread, and members of ‘a rich and powerful family’ hired her as a private tutor for their children. Impressed with Ashti’s work, the family offered her the opportunity to start a private school with their financial backing. Ashti politely declined. She did not want to ‘owe them anything’ by becoming a client in what she perceived to be a ‘corrupt’ system of patronage. Instead, Ashti left her would-be patron and found a low-paying job teaching English to teenage girls in a government school in poor rural community called Betala. ‘It was the right thing,’ Ashti said about her decision. ‘But I wonder what my life would have been if I had accepted that job offer.’
Mural depicting schoolchildren carrying the Kurdistani flag, painted on the wall of a school in Erbil.
In June 2014, ISIS invaded territories across Iraq, plunging the country into another cycle of war and economic stagnation that would last well into 2017.
In the classroom, Ashti was vigorous and demanding, yet gentle. For weeks, I observed her teaching the 11th grade girls’ English literature class. The textbook, probably adapted from a British school text, offered simple summaries of classic English novels. They had been reading about Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Ashti encouraged her students to learn from the novel’s protagonist, Pip. The details of the novel were fuzzy in my memory as I listened to Ashti talk with her students. Poor, orphaned Pip, yearning to belong to the ‘gentleman class’, assumes his mysterious benefactor to be the bitter, aging aristocrat Miss Havisham. Only later, after years of making foolish mistakes in pursuit of wealth and status, does Pip learn that his real benefactor was the convict and social outcast, Magwitch.
Ashti confidently told her students, ‘You do not need a rich or high status patron‘. She exhorted the girls to do their best in school because, if they could read, and especially if they could read Arabic or English in addition to their native Kurdish, so much more of the world would be open to them.
In Kurdistan, the world seemed like it was closing in, not opening. Due to the war and the economic crisis, the Kurdistan Regional Government stopped paying salaries. For many months, Ashti diligently taught her lessons without pay, relying on the income from the private lessons she offered in the evenings and on weekends. She wouldn’t leave the school in Betala to find a better paying job elsewhere; she wouldn’t leave her girls.
In 2016, when I first met Ashti, she was considering going back to Europe. ‘Things have become so bad in Kurdistan,’ she said.
I often accompanied Ashti as she drove to and from her teaching job in Betala, a rural area located along a dusty highway crowded with oil tankers lumbering to and from Turkey. Originally, Betala was created as a camp for Kurdish people displaced during the Arabization campaigns of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Eventually, the residents built permanent structures. More recently, the town had expanded to include people displaced by ISIS. Outside the town proper was a new gated camp for Kurdish refugees from Syria. Betala seemed comprised entirely of ever-expanding temporary camps that had become permanent. Though only a thirty-minute drive from the capital city of Erbil, impoverished Betala felt worlds away.
In the rainy season, the dust turned to mud, and dark clouds hung low over the flat earth. We sat in gloomy silence as Ashti drove us to school one morning. Lost in thought, I stared out the window at windswept fields. ‘What should I do?’ Ashti said quietly, as if to herself. Her small hands gripped the steering wheel. She squinted straight ahead at the endless grey horizon.
* * *
I knew that Ashti wanted to leave Kurdistan, but that she was waiting for Kani to graduate from university. But she worried about how the ongoing war and American or European immigration policies might affect their chances. Typically, our conversations about emigration would end with Ashti saying she could not shake the feeling that she was supposed to stay in Kurdistan. So she stayed.
A prayer mat draped over a school desk.
With her savings, Ashti had bought a modest house in a pleasant neighbourhood. ‘The neighbours are good people,’ Ashti said to me as she parked her car in front of the house one afternoon.
Kani was already home and greeted us when we entered. She was sitting on their sofa and watching television, listening attentively while studying the subtitles. Kani was a polyglot like her mother. In the evenings, the pair enjoyed watching Arabic or Turkish dramas.
Ashti and I sat at a small kitchen table and drank tea. ‘We try to live a healthy life,’ Ashti explained, noticing me looking at the vegetables in a colander. They exercised and ate fresh food, hoping to alleviate Ashti’s recurring stomach ulcers. Lately, the ulcers had caused Ashti to miss some of her lessons; she was considering going to Turkey to see a specialist. Meanwhile, the war dragged on, and the economic crisis lingered.
How does a person persevere when the only expectation for the future is that the future is more of the same – the same failures, the same disappointments? In Great Expectations, the character of Pip is redeemed as he accepts the reality of his situation and embarks on a new career as a colonial businessman at the margins of empire. Ashti could not travel to the margins of empire to start a new life. She lived there already, and each day was like the last. How would life have turned out differently if she had accepted her would-be benefactor’s offer to fund a private school with her installed as principal? How might her story have unfolded? What was the important work she had once believed she was supposed to do in Kurdistan?
In the spring of 2017, Ashti and I met for tea at our usual café. I told her about my visit the previous day to the annual book fair, and she asked which titles were available in English. ‘Oh, uh…George Orwell’s 1984…’ I began.
Ashti had already read that one. ‘What are some other books like 1984?’ she asked.
‘Well, there’s Brave New World,’ I replied. ‘It is about a future state in which people only care about being happy, about their comfort. They don’t read books or talk about ideas.’
‘Like Kurdistan!’ she exclaimed, smiling bitterly with recognition. Her smile slowly faded. For a moment, she watched the traffic passing outside the café.
Then she turned to me and said, ‘But the future is already here.’
Diana Hatchett is a cultural anthropologist interested in religion, the state, education, and selfhood in the Middle East, with a focus on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She has worked as a group fitness instructor for many years, including two years in Kurdistan, inspiring her research on the global fitness and wellness industries. Diana is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of International and Global Studies at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.