Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle, and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine, in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician, who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Abdulla: Unfortunately, I stopped the military service, but in prison, it was a big challenge, you know. I would talk, if you asked me about that.
Jalali: I had belonged to an ethnic minority group, the Kurds, who are outnumbered in Iran and Syria, in Iraq, in Turkey. We’re the largest minority community in the world without our own homeland. So there’s always been this holy desire, this dream, to have our own land conquered to start, and just for having that dream we getting in trouble with the armies and the dictators in all those three or four countries.
Dr. Lisa: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. You are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 295, Exile, Art, and New Lives, airing for the first time on Sunday, May 14, 2017. What does it feel like to find a new homeland when it is no longer possible to live in the place of one’s birth? Today we speak to two individuals who have channeled their experiences into their writing and art. Originally from Baghdad, Iraq, Kifah Abdulla is a former prisoner of war, who writes, teaches, and creates art in Portland. Reza Jalali came here from Iran, and is now an author and the coordinator of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs of the University of Southern Maine. Thank you for joining us.
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Dr. Lisa: With summer now upon us, I invite you to join us at the Kennebunkport Festival, five days of celebration centered around food, wine, art, music, and of course,community. This year’s festival is June 5th through 10th, and we’re especially excited to note that Love Maine Radio’s producer, Spencer Albee, and his band are headlining the Maine Craft Music Festival, with special guests, the Ghost of Paul Revere. For tickets to the Maine Craft Music Festival and details about all the good times waiting for you at the festival, go to kennebunkportfestival.com. All of us at Maine Media Collective look forward to seeing you there.
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Dr. Lisa: Today it is my pleasure to have Kifah Abdulla in the studio with me. Kifah is a poet, artist, writer, performer, teacher, and activist. Born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, he spent over eight years as a prisoner of war in Iran. He published his first book of poetry, Dead Still Dream, in 2016, and he is preparing to publish his second book, Mountains Without Peaks, very soon. Thanks so much for coming in.
Abdullah: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa: I think that you may be the first prisoner of war we’ve actually ever interviewed.
Dr. Lisa: I’m not sure that’s a good thing for your sake.
Abdullah: Yes, yeah, yeah.
Dr. Lisa: That’s a huge deal. Tell me a little bit about, first of all, how you got to be a prisoner of war in the first place.
Abdullah: Yes. When I finished my school, that college of science, and by law that the boys the men, and then unfortunately at that time, the longest war in the 20th century after the 2nd World War started between two neighbors in the Middle East, Iraq and Iran. At that time I finished my school, and I must go to the war. I was an activist against the dictatorship, but then I couldn’t said no. I said no, but I faced the trouble, a big trouble. I signed like for execution if I don’t go. But anyway, I was in the war front, and it’s like battles. Ours, they were lost the battle and they withdraw, and they left me there. I was responsible to build shelters for the soldiers. Then I was lost in the big desert for three days before I captured. It was a beautiful, I say, experience for me, but I touched the threshold of death. Something like that. Then after three days, I was under hallucination, hunger and thirst, and then I was captured. I was sent to prison, and they stayed for more than eight years.
Dr. Lisa: So you were a student of science?
Abdullah: Yes, I studied the biological sciences. I loved that, but it was not my choice first. I wanted to go to that art academy, but my father, he said, when I finish my high school, I said, like physics, chemistry, like math, you know. He said, “No, you should go to study sciences, but you can keep that your talents, art as happy.” Parents say, that’s okay, yeah, that’s okay, yeah, that’s it.
Dr. Lisa: So you’ve always had an interest in writing and art?
Abdullah: Yes. The story about that, about art first, before writing. Since I was really young, in elementary school, in four through eight, in art class, the teacher, you know, the art teacher, he stood beside my desk at that time and he said, “wow, you are an artist.” And it was like a shock for me, like lightning hit me at that time. Then he said, “You should come to after school for the studio.” I came back home, I told my Mom. She said, “it’s okay.”
So I went again to the school. It was so quiet, calm. Four through eight, to go to school, and when I reached that studio, and the door was half-opened, just like I opened the door. That moment, you know, the smell of oil colors filled my chest. It was so wonderful for me. And he saw me and he say, “Come in.” That was the beginning. I learned from him since I was very young, but the same story that happened again when I was in the middle school. The same that the art teacher, he thought that I was very talented in painting and drawing, and he taught me how to work on murals. I worked with him, and I learned from several teachers about shadow and lights. I just like developed my experience with teachers.
In high school, I was like, I worked like professionals. The art teacher say, “You’re an artist. You should go to the art academy.” I said, “Yes, I really would love that.” But that is the story happened, but they kept, even that when I was in college, my colleagues, the teachers, knew me that as an artist, besides a biologist. But unfortunately, I stopped when the military the service. But in the prison, it was a big challenge. I will talk maybe. You will ask me about that.
Dr. Lisa: Yes, I would love to hear about that. I’d love to hear one of your poems. I believe you’ve written a poem about your experience. Would you be willing to read that for us?
Abdullah: Yes, my pleasure. I would like to read what I call “Dream One.” This is about, I was in a prison, we were like thousands in a small prison with no windows, and this is a poem about that time.
I dreamt of a small window. Through it flows clean air looking over a blue sky. White clouds travel through it. Flocks of birds pass by like air. I dreamt of a small window, the size of my hand, overlooking a sea. My eyes travel in it, into distant waves of blue. There the sun comes awakening the morning, and the night comes inlaid with light, a window into which the snow whispers, suspended in it, the moon and the rain. Into it, flow the colors of Autumn and in Spring the fragrant buds. A small window in which I count my mornings and my evenings. Nesting in it are my memories. I cultivate in it lash of dreams. I dreamt of a small window the size of my hand. I look from it to see my sweetheart. When she comes from afar, she waves to me, that she is coming soon, carrying between the folds of her heart happy news. A small window overlooking onto the last of a new age. I dreamt in a place where my one and only dream was and all that I wished for was to have a small window the size of my hand. I dreamt.
Dr. Lisa: So, you stayed in a place where there were no windows?
Dr. Lisa: And that is why this window was so important to you?
Abdullah: Yes, that’s true. Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: What was it like as someone who had this artistic spirit inside of himself, to be in a place where there were no windows… where there was no light coming in from the outside?
Abdullah: Yes. You know this is true, you know that in life, we don’t know. We are very rich, we have many things that we don’t pay for. Simple things. Like, you know, you can walk, you can touch even that glass. You can feel that in the sun, the stars, the blue sky, the water, the smell, you know, even the senses. I almost was lost to many of these things, and it was a big challenge. Then, just like I have no way, like my memories and the dreams like wake me up again and return me back to life. It’s like my body was captured, but not my mind.
Dr. Lisa: Were you able to do any art or any writing while you were in prison?
Abdullah: No. Absolutely. It was like it was forbidden and it’s like a sin, if they catch someone with a pen or pencil. But for me, it was really difficult. You know, I can say that different than others maybe because I was an avid reader and I used to use, pen and pencils most of the times. Then I missed them very much. But that after years, like by secret, I got a small pencil, little pencil, like five centimeter and they investigate us, that every time. Suddenly they come, they look for everything. Just like I hide that it’s like my jewels at that time. My treasure. I just like hide it anywhere, just like you cannot imagine, even in my body.
But at that time, even there was no papers. When I say that prisoner of war is completely different than in normal prison. Can you imagine, most of us we dreamt that we are in a normal high five-star prison? You can see TV. You can have a radio. You can walk. You can have a pencil. You can read. You can study. But they started like a brainwash, and they give us notebooks and pens, pencils. I drew many portraits of the prisoners, their portraits and their pictures of family, children, wives, their parents. I filmed the prison of that time, the guards, they were mad about that. They punished me and they tortured me for that. But I didn’t just stop.
After years and years, but also they forced me to paint. To paint their leaders, their scholars. I refused. This is like a story. Maybe I talk too much that I have many stories to talk about. I was dying one time, and they don’t send prisoners to the hospitals. They let the prisoners die in the prison, and unfortunately, we were two. One of the others, he died. But then I just like, my fate, it wasn’t my time. I saw that someone I know, he was a doctor, a prisoner doctor, just like his, that he see the prisoners. And just like I said to him, goodbye, and he understood what I mean.
Then he came with guards, and they send me to the hospital. In the hospital, I drew the guards. I drew the people. It was like a kind of freedom. When I think back to the prison, it’s like I had the surgery and then I refused to paint. I don’t like, and they forced me and they punished me even that I had surgery. My friends, they say, “Are you crazy? Do it. Just like, you should survive.” But then you know like after seven years in the prison, I wrote a novel, but in a notebook, in secret, like I give to enjoy you know that with each other based on a true story that happened in the Netherlands I didn’t see. Also that, I drew the prisoners and the prison and the barbed wires. I documented everything and just like I keep them secret between the prisoners. Unfortunately, I would love to bring them with me, but I couldn’t. Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: How was it that you were able to get out? Did they finally decide to release the prisoners of war?
Abdullah: Yeah. You know that the war ended in 1988, but we stayed in the prison. There was no deal. But after two years, that was in 1990, there was an agreement between two governments, between two regimes, and by help of the International Red Cross, and just like for almost like two months, we were 70,000 prisoners. Iranian prisoners, almost 50,000 in Iraq. The deal would be in like within two months. But the first time when they came to us, they say, “We will return you back.” We laughed. Like they are not serious, because we heard it many times and just like we almost forgot, and we won’t be released. But then just like they came again and my name was in the second list, a big list and that’s what happened when I returned. But I was very afraid. It was a big challenge.
Dr. Lisa: How did you come to be in Maine?
Abdullah: Yes, I say my fate. This is my journey in life. I was a refugee in the Netherlands. It’s a long story, but my life is complex and full of beauty and scares and scars. I had, at that time, two children, two boys. They live here with their Mom, in Portland. In the Netherlands, I tried to build myself again and I studied in the University of Amsterdam to be besides an artist and also the writer also a teacher of biology and Dutch. To teach biology and Dutch, I didn’t like that. But it’s very hard. Then I decided to move; through the family reunion I moved to Portland, Maine.
Dr. Lisa: How old were your boys?
Abdullah: Yes, my boys now, like the older, he just like graduated from Cheverus High School. He’s doing very well. He’s very smart. I’m very happy for that. He got full scholarships from three colleges. This is wonderful. One is like Bowdoin.
Dr. Lisa: That’s wonderful.
Abdullah: Middlebury School in Fairmont and in New York also, and he is seventeen years old. The younger, Kalil, his name, he is just like in eighth grade in King Middle School. That guy, he is crazy about basketball. He is fourteen years old now.
Dr. Lisa: How old were they when you reunited with them?
Abdullah: They were young. It was like five years ago. Just imagine like Mo, he was twelve years old, and Kalil was eight years old.
Dr. Lisa: So, it sounds like they spent some period of time, when they were younger, without knowing you at all?
Abdullah: Yes. Yes, this is true. That’s what happened, because this was my fate, my journey in life. This is not easy. I don’t hope for anyone to face what I faced in life. I’m not sad about that, just like I accepted it and it’s my fate. I experienced many things. Many things. Also, that I were in many places. Honestly, we were in Jordan, also refugees. My kids were there. They were very young and even that they don’t know they are Iraqis and when people asked them when they moved here, “Where are you from?” They say, “I’m from Jordan, Amman.” Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: You have another poem that I’d like you to read for us.
Dr. Lisa: I believe it’s about being in Portland.
Abdullah: Yes. This poem I called “Resurgo.” You know the story. I say I will rise again.
Pearls embroider the blue. White canvas of Casco Bay, and gulls break the breeze. Raindrops drum on the window, and a white line expands in the sky. The clouds are mothers nursing the earth. The Nova Star approaches the Port, and I yearn to see my sweetheart. Portland morning is white. The white gulls are bowls of ice over the roofs of the Old Port, and silent light grieves over the water. A car drives on Franklin Street and the flowers open their petals along the roadsides. Clouds sway on the strings of air, and the pink disk rises in absolute stillness. Two ferries making their journey in Casco Bay. All things are quiet, but a voice in my head singing. That evening I touched my spirit. It was transparent with tenderness of the breeze. My heart, a city you created in stories of love. My eyes inlaid with colors. Green covers the earth, a new dress, and buds blossom on branches. My mind, a sea filled with boats of love. My mind, a longing filled with light, and my memories are gulls never tired of the flight. My spirit a mirror. In it I saw more beauty than ever an eye could see. The wound over me is a magnolia flower and my sweetheart, a supreme cloud approaching. This poem about my new hometown, Portland.
Dr. Lisa: How is it that in the face of being imprisoned for such a long time, and going through a lot to get to Maine, and having so many things that were so difficult to deal with in your life, how is it that you’ve been able to maintain this sense of hope?
Abdullah: Yes. I lived with hope, since a long time that I can say that I was an activist against the dictatorship. Beside that I was an activist for peace and also for women’s right, that’s everywhere. The woman, she struggles. I had to choose just like I listen to myself. I had to say yes, I should accept what’s happened to me. It’s okay. That’s what happened. Just like I wanted to go for war. This is just like, in my writing, even in my painting, you can taste the hope every time. Besides, my experience in life, that put me in a situation to practice all these things.
Dr. Lisa: I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Your poetry is beautiful, and I feel really blessed that you were able to come in today and to share this with me.
Abdullah: Thank you very much.
Dr. Lisa: I’ve been speaking with Kifah Abdulla, who is a poet, artist, writer, performer, teacher, and activist, currently living in Portland. Thank you very much.
Abdullah: You’re very welcome. It’s a great honor. Thank you.
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Dr. Lisa: It is my great fortune today, to have with me, Reza Jalali, who is an author and the coordinator of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine. Reza co-authored the 2009 book, New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors, which told stories of recent immigrants and has since then published three additional books.
Jalali: Three more books.
Dr. Lisa: It’s great to have you in here today.
Jalali: Thank you. Thank you.
Dr. Lisa: So, I’ve been interested in your story for quite a while, because you… I think in reading originally, The New Mainers piece, you talked about this interesting limbo space that you found yourself in. As someone who’s now of Maine, but also of elsewhere.
Jalali: I call it the inbetweenness. It’s really being in the no man’s land emotionally and spiritually. So you belong to two worlds at the same time with one foot in each. It sounds easy, but it’s quite hard. At times I come across immigrants that seem to live in two worlds at the same time, and they tend to wear a mask when leaving their homes, and inside their homes have created this world which is really not real. It’s imaginary. It resembles what’s home to them, and a small piece of home, with all pictures and things that remind them of home. Then they walk outside in this other different world. We see that again in all immigrants, including myself.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about your growing up years.
Jalali: I had a happy, happy childhood. I grew up in a small, dusty border town, between Iran and Iraq. The Palace of Syrian, named so in honor of Shirin, the beautiful Armenian queen, and the tragic love affair with this poor stone cutter. So, it’s called the City of Lovers in Iran, because the name of the city actually represents the day ancient love story. But life was hard at times, and I had a happy childhood. I was the youngest in the family of nine, so it took me a while to understand that I do have just one real parents, because to my young eyes I thought I had all my older brothers and sisters, with such a vast difference in age, were all my parents. So, I felt like I had six fathers and five mothers, and it was fun. Once I got to my teen years, I start to write poetry, and I must admit, really bad poetry. Then I sort of get into trouble with the secret police, and then life became difficult.
Dr. Lisa: I’m relating to your large family story. I’m the oldest of ten, so I was the mother to many of my young brothers and sisters, and that’s not as normal here, I believe, as it was with you.
Jalali: No, it’s not. It’s not. In fact, it’s even changed in Iran and many parts of the world. We have only two children, and as again, it’s a clear departure from the old tradition where families would have ten, eleven, fifteen. It was really wonderful, and being the youngest was of course, lots of fun, because again, you had your older brothers’ wives, my sister-in-laws, who also would take care of me. They didn’t have children of their own yet. So, I had all these people who managed to spoil me.
Dr. Lisa: So, that must have been difficult, when you needed to leave, because you were leaving a very large family behind?
Jalali: On a familiar community and the landscape, which I loved. I was forced to leave. I was one of those who was kind of displaced, because of the international politics of the time. I had belonged to an ethnic minority group, the Kurds, who are outnumbered in Iran and Syria, in Iraq and Turkey. We’re the largest minority community in the world without our own homeland. That’s always been this holy desire to dream to have our own land called Kurdistan. Just for having that dream we get into trouble with the armies and the dictators in all those three, four countries.
It was hard to leave, but I went to India, and I had to learn a brand new language, and I was all on my own. That’s how I relate to many of my students, here at USM, the asylum seekers ,to displaced young persons who are coming from different parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, to live in Maine. I see myself in them. So, I went to school and I did quite well. I was so naïve, I thought I would go back to Iran, marry a Kurdish woman and raise a very large family in the same town, but I guess my fate had something else in mind, and I ended up in Portland, Maine, as a refugee years later.
Dr. Lisa: Do I remember correctly, that there was some foreshadowing in your life, that you would actually be leading this different fate in other members of your family?
Jalali: That’s right, That’s right. It seems according to a tale in my extended family, my fate had been protected long before when a baby. The story goes something like that, that like every good story, starts with a knock at the door. My mother carrying me, the youngest of her nine children, to find a group of singing gypsy women. One of them offers to tell a fortune in exchange for money. My mother stretches out one hand out while holding onto me tight, for the common myth back then was that the gypsies would snatch city babies to raise them as their own. The gypsy woman loses interest in reading my mother’s palm, and instead peeks at my face and size. “Your baby shall drink much water in a strange land”, she says. In her broken Farsi, her face turning pale, because she knows that’s really not so good news will mean less reward. My mother gets upset on hearing her youngest might move away to a far-away land to live among strangers, so she curses the unfortunate woman and throws some change at her, before shutting the door. I heard the story of course, many, many, many years later. I was sitting in a hotel room with my mother in Istanbul, Turkey. I couldn’t go to Iran, and she couldn’t get a visa to come and see me, once I got to the United States. So, we would meet in Europe, and she would leave Iran and I would go to Europe. We would spend some time sitting together and sharing stories in the hotel room. It was quite strange and surreal. We got to talk, and I still get emotional talking about it. She shared this story with me and I had tears in my eyes, because I thought, “Wow, it did happen. That gypsy woman was absolutely right, that I spent almost two thirds, more than two thirds of my life, outside of my homeland.” Yeah, so it’s strange how these things happen.
Dr. Lisa: So, it’s not bad enough that you need to leave the place of your birth, and leave your family, but the fact that your mother can’t come visit you, and you can’t go visit her, and that you’re both in a limbo.
Jalali: Absolutely, and that’s the common story shared by millions of other immigrants. That they are unable to go back to their countries of origin, and their siblings, their loved ones, cannot visit them here, for one reason or the other. So that has been really part of the heartache, that I could not go back. I did manage to go back years later, but by then my mother had passed away, and then she couldn’t come here because it’s extremely hard for Iranians to obtain a tourist visa otherwise.
Of course, the disruption in the political diplomatic relationship between Iran and the U.S., which by the way, they used to be really good friends. I go out of my way to remind my American friends that Iran and the U.S. were close allies. Not that long time ago, some 30-40 years ago, and it’s heartbreaking to see that these two countries that have so much in common in terms of old friendship, in terms of Americans being responsible for establishment of the first schools in Iran, the first girls’ schools were established in Iran by Americans. There’s so much shared history between these two nations, and I’m not talking about governments here necessarily, the people. Even if to this day, you were to visit Iran, and many American journalists and diplomats would back me on this, Iranians, as a society are the most pro-American communities in the Middle East, perhaps after the Israelis. They love America and everything about America. Now the government is a different story, of course. They have their own agenda, their own world view, and their own political agenda, which is not necessarily the same as the United States, but we’re talking about people here. So it’s sad to see these two nations going through these years of distrust and mistrust, and of course for good reasons. The Iranian regime has been responsible for most of the misunderstanding.
Dr. Lisa: You were in trouble with, I’m guessing the government or someone….
Jalali: The secret police.
Dr. Lisa: The secret police. Because of your….
Jalali: Couple of reasons. My belonging to the Kurdish ethnic group, was one problem. That was a huge liability. And the same thing, by the way, Iraqi Kurds were in trouble with Saddam Hussein if you recall. Kurds in Turkey are now involved in almost a civil war with their respective government. The same thing is true about Syria. The Kurds are fighting, not only the Syrian Regime, as we speak, but ISIS and helping Americans too in their fights and battles against jihadists. In Iran the same thing was true, continues to be true. So, being a Kurd was a misfortune in those days. It didn’t help that I wrote poetry, that I was active in the politics of the time. I was a troublemaker.
Dr. Lisa: Why would you take that chance, if you knew that you were already going to be put into this risky category because you were a Kurd? Why would you put yourself even further at risk by writing poetry, and being an activist?
Jalali: The short answer, I was young and foolish. I loved the politics of my time and I did not like what was going on with the Kurds, and how they were treated. We lived like shadows in our own homeland. We’re the second class citizens, men and women. The government went out of its way to tell us that we did not exist. We were the indigenous. We are the indigenous people of that land. There was this cultural genocide against Kurds in Iran. Now there are physical genocides against Iraqi Kurds. But in our case, they were trying to stop us from speaking our language, wearing Kurdish cloaks, and also listening to Kurdish music, playing Kurdish music, and I did not like that. So really going back, I would have not done that. Perhaps I would have stayed away from the politics of the time, and focused on writing better poetry. I don’t know.
Dr. Lisa: So, it wasn’t because your poetry was not good that they were giving you a hard time. It was just that your poetry….
Jalali: My poetry just happened to be bad. That really, we didn’t have a secret police saying, “Oh, you write bad poetry, you’re going to get into trouble.” That actually would be quite nice. That would be an ideal world, where you would have an office going after bad poets. No, it was really worse than that in all seriousness that again, and my story by the way is quite universal. Young persons being in Argentina, being in Turkey, in Syria, in France. In the United States now, we see young people participating in marches against the current administration. So, it’s the same story almost everywhere, that young persons continue to be engaged and involved in the politics of their time in their land, and it’s not really bad news necessarily. We want young people to be involved and engaged. I think the opposite of that can be horrible, if young people stopped caring for their planet, or stopped caring what goes on in their countries and their societies.
Dr. Lisa: You are the Coordinator of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine, and I’m guessing that you’ve seen, over the time that you’ve been doing this, some interesting changes.
Jalali: Absolutely. At times I talk about it feels like we went to sleep one night in Portland, Maine, only to wake up the following morning to see the world has come to our harbor. The change has been dramatic. It’s been amazing. When I came to Portland, Maine some 30 years ago, it had very few immigrants. Now, again, it’s unbelievable. If you were to drive down Forest Avenue, you would see the number of stores, business, owned and run and managed by immigrants. It’s quite amazing, because all of this is happening in a state where it still continues to have the off-putting title of being the whitest state in the country. But that’s changing in the southern part of the state. One out of five residents in the greater Portland area is now a new Mainer.
So, yes, in my office at the university where I work, I’ve seen a change. When we started this program we had perhaps 20 to 30 new Mainers. I’m not talking about international students, that’s a different program. I’m talking about folks who are here as immigrants, as refugees, as asylum seekers, or children of immigrants. Now we have numbers close to 500, and I personally know that in perhaps five years, if not less, we would have 1,000 or 1,500. We would have perhaps, half of our student body as new Mainers. I make that assumption, an estimate based on the number of new Mainers studying in middle schools in the greater Portland area, high schools. Deering High School, to give you an example, now has more minority students than the minority students two years ago. They crossed that historic threshold, that you have a high school in Portland, Maine with larger number of minority students than white students.
We hope that some of them would end up at the University of Southern Maine, and if some of them show up at our doorsteps, we should be all set, because we are in need of students. Our enrollment has been down, and we need more students, as all universities across the nation do. So, it’s good news, and there are opportunities. There are challenges, but I like to focus more on the opportunities. To me, it’s an old story. There’s nothing new about this. This is story of America. This is part of the narrative of America: waves of different immigrants coming her, and establishing routes and calling this place home, and in the process, adding to the richness, and contribution to the magic we call America.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about your art, your writing, and what that has meant to you, as a means of communicating your own personal story.
Jalali: Well, to me, some of the stories need to be shared and need to be told. There are indecent regimes in my part of the world, dictators, tyrants, who go around renaming towns and rivers and mountains, and trying to rewrite history. To me, writing in exile is one way that I could make sure some of our stories would not be forgotten. I write about the faceless, invisible people of the world. Some of them have arrived here as refugees, and as solemn seekers. I told their stories, my own stories, and again, I want to make sure that some of these stories are kept for future generations. The heartaches of having to leave Kurdistan and having to come here and start a brand new life, and how painful that can be at times. At the same time, it can be a very positive experience. It can be a transforming experience. In my writings, I try to give life, not only to people who are no longer with us, but also the old keys to buildings which no longer stand. I remember when my mother was a refugee, became a refugee in her own country in Iran, forced to move to a safer part of the country, because of the Iran-Iraq war, which went on for eight years. She would wear a key around her neck, and by doing so, she was reminding us of her assets at home that she had lost through the war. I thought that was so unique and wonderful, until I realized that it wasn’t only my mother who was doing that. I started to remember that Jewish shopkeeper in Poland, who was forced to leave his business and his community, because of the violence, the Hitler era violence in Germany, must have also had a key around his neck perhaps, to remind him of what he had lost. So, these are universal stories of loss, of sense of despair, when you see the boatloads of Syrian refugees leaving the water on Syria, they must be so desperate to put their lives on boat and risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones, you know there’s something totally broken and re broken about this world. So, as an artist, I’m trying to write about that. How broken our world is, and perhaps can we repair it. So, my stories are all about despair, and really, I want to make sure that people would not stop reading my stories and would not give up on me. But there’s also hope somewhere, that we have to find ways to repair our broken world.
Dr. Lisa: When you speak to your own children, in your own family, about….
Jalali: They don’t listen to me. I’m kidding.
Dr. Lisa: That’s shocking.
Jalali: I’m kidding.
Dr. Lisa: Somebody who’s kids don’t listen to them…. how strange. But, let’s assume at some point, they will listen.
Jalali: They would listen.
Dr. Lisa: Most children… My experience, at least with my kids, who are a little older, is at least they eventually come back, and they start listening to you again.
Jalali: They do.
Dr. Lisa: Yes. What are some of the things that you would like them to understand about you as a person, and you as a person of the world?
Jalali: Well, now they are older and they listen to me. They’re in college, both of them. But when they were younger, they must have thought of me as this crazy dude, who listens to this strange music, and then sometimes wipes a tear after listening to the music and looks at this old black and white family albums and then has these books in the strange languages, and spends tons of his time listening to the news and worrying about what’s going on in the Middle East. I recall, to give an example, I recall the time when my daughter would come home and would tell me, “Dad, when I bring my friends home, could you not cook that strange dishes that smell funny. My friends don’t like that. Can’t you be….” She would say that to my wife, “Can’t you guys be like normal parents, and just serve us like pizza?” My kids, “My friends don’t like what you make.” That’s heartbreaking. We found It quite funny, but quite heartbreaking that there was this now vast gap taking place culturally between our kids and us. Now, of course, they love the food we make and their friends like the food we make, and they don’t think I’m crazy, and they understand why at times, I’m very sad.
As you said, they come around, but children of immigrants really live in a different world than us, than the parents. The intergenerational attention starts soon. They become immigrants much faster than we do. We do reluctantly. We keep on hanging onto that old world, because this is fading hope, and it fades as the time goes by. Then maybe, maybe going back would be a possibility. I run into my friends from Armenia, here locally, in Portland, Maine, who still talk about Armenia. I run into friends from other parts of the world who talk about their communities, about their towns, about their villages, about their house where they grew up, with a sense as if they’re going to go back tomorrow.
So, it’s quite natural for all of us to feel that way, but the kids become Americanized very quickly. They learn the language fast, and they want to listen to “American music”, and they like to fit in, which is quite natural. They don’t want to stand out and be different. I remember our son coming home, and he was in the middle school and he has this gorgeous Kurdish name, and he said, “Dad, I want to be called Michael starting today.” And I knew as an educator, as a former social worker, I knew what he was going through. So, we didn’t show any resistance, so cool, Michael. Awesome. Your name is Michael starting today. Six months later, three months later, he forgot the point that he was trying to fit in. Not so much with us, or do we have the skills to really lead two different lives, different than one another.
Dr. Lisa: Well, it has really been wonderful to have you in the studio with me today, and I appreciate all the work that you have done to help others be part of Maine, that way that you have become part of Maine.
I’ve been speaking with Reza Jalali, who is an author and the coordinator of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, at the University of Southern Maine, and also author of multiple books and father to children living in this area, and husband.
Thank you so much for coming in.
Jalali: Well, thank you so much for having me and I want to thank you, and all of the wonderful work you do in keeping Portland healthy and safe and vibrant place for all of us. Thank you.
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Dr. Lisa: With Summer now upon us, I invite you to join us at the Kennebunkport Festival, five days of celebration centered around food, wine, art, music, and of course community. This year’s festival is June 5th through 10th, and we’re especially excited to note that Love Maine Radio’s producer, Spencer Albee, and his band, are headlining the Maine Craft Music Festival, with special guests, the Ghost of Paul Revere. For tickets to the Maine Craft Music Festival and details about all the good times waiting for you at the festival, go to kennebunkportfestival.com. All of us at Maine Media Collective look forward to seeing you there.
You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 295, Exile, Art and New Lives. Our guests have included Kifah Abdulla and Reza Jalali. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our eNewsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week.
This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our Exile, Art, and New Lives show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day, where you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is made possible with support with Berlin City Honda, The Rooms by Harding Lee Smith, Maine Magazine, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine.
Audio productions and original music have been provided by, Spencer Albee. Our Editorial Producer is Paul Koenig. Our assistant producer is Shelby Wassick. Our community development producer is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Lisa Belisle.
For more information on our host production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle, and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine, in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician, who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are some highlights from this week’s program.