UC Berkeley News


From Kurdistan to Berkeley . . . and back
In Shayee Khanaka’s past is a world where libraries were neglected and books either censored or burned as fuel. The Kurdish staffer recently returned to the Middle East, on a mission to help Iraq’s librarians rebuild

| 10 November 2004

As Shayee Khanaka speaks of her summer 2004 travels in the Middle East, a listener can almost taste the yogurts, kababs, and fava stews she so lovingly describes, and see the fertile fields and dry, oak-dotted hills, reminiscent of the chaparral landscapes of northern California.

Shayee Khanaka (Peg Skorpinski photo)
For the Doe Library staffer, born in the oil-rich Kurdish region of Iraq, the sweetest aspects of “home” come hand in hand with harsher remembrances of things past. Her trip brought her face to face with a public memorial to her mother’s cousin, Eli Eskeri, a legendary Kurdish freedom fighter slain in the early 1980s, as well as a bleak roadside “processing facility” where entire Kurdish villages were detained and able adult men and teenagers executed. From the same location, any remaining family members were relocated to controlled housing complexes during a Baathist campaign to “Arabize” the Kurdish region. Khanaka also saw the bare room, made of white gypsum, that at one time was her family library, stuffed with books and manuscripts until occupying soldiers used them as kindling to warm themselves.

History has shaped Khanaka’s life in dramatic ways. Her father was twice tried in absentia and sentenced to death by Iraq’s Baathist government for the crime of being a Kurdish intellectual. He went into exile in 1971 in a small village near the Iranian border. In March 1974 she, her mother, and seven siblings joined him in exile, losing their Kirkuk home and all its contents — including that well-stocked library — in the process. After a time in the rebel-controlled Kurdish countryside (where she studied in Kurdish for the first time, “with no barriers between me and the text”), the family went first to Iran, then to Baghdad (where her father lived under house arrest), and finally to Europe and the United States.

Landing in Berkeley

Exile led Khanaka, at age 22, to California, where for nearly a quarter-century she’s made a life for herself — as a Berkeley student, mother of twin girls (now 10 years old), and library staffer. In 1984, soon after enrolling at Berkeley as an undergraduate, she was hired by the Library to catalog books in Arabic. After earning her B.A. in comparative literature, she pursued an M.A. in folklore, writing her thesis on Kurdish humor in Iraq. (“I have a thing for jokes,” she says. “Wherever I go, the first thing I learn are jokes. There’s so much you can learn from them about the politics and culture of a country.” For an example of such instructive humor, see sidebar.)

Khanaka’s fluency in Kurdish, Arabic, and Persian, and her working knowledge of French, German, and (to a lesser extent) Turkish, have been valuable assets to the Library — so much so that it assisted her in earning a second master’s degree, through distance learning, from the library program offered by Syracuse University. In her current capacity as head of the Library’s Middle Eastern collections she works closely with campus faculty and scholars, keeping a special eye out for Kurdish-language materials, which she believes are going to be in demand in coming years.

From the Iraqi ‘war of jokes,’ here’s one on Saddam

Besides the “physical fighting” in Iraq, there’s a “whole war of jokes going on as well” between different groups, says librarian Shayee Khanaka. “A lot of the Polish jokes you hear here are told about Kurds in Iraq by Arabs. So we are the ‘stupid people’ of Iraq.”

Of course the Kurds have their way of fighting back in the humor wars. “Our jokes are long,” says Khanaka, who wrote her master’s thesis on Kurdish humor. “People tend to take time to embellish, which is something you don’t see as much of here. The telling of the story is as important as the story itself.”

Many are about Kurdish-Arab tension, with a whole subset that poke fun at Saddam Hussein. Here’s one from Khanaka’s travels. It helps to know, as background, that Hussein had photos of himself, in a variety of outfits, put on all Iraqi stamps, and that some Muslim caliphs are known for going out among the common people, in disguise, to learn first-hand how their subjects are doing, in order to improve their lives.

In the joke, Sadaam orders a new photo of himself to be printed on a postage stamp. When it comes out, he dresses in disguise and goes to a stamp seller’s.

“How’s the new stamp doing with the picture of the president?” he asks.

“Very well,” says the stamp seller. “Lots of people are buying it. But there’s a problem,” he adds.

“What’s that?” asks Saddam.

“The stamps keep falling off the letters.”

“But isn’t there glue on the back?” asks the president.

“Yeah,” says the stamp seller. “But that’s not where people spit.”

Though “uncomfortable with advocacy,” as she puts it, Khanaka often ends up offering pro bono services to “pay back my culture” — assisting members of the local Kurdish community, translating articles, and speaking on radio programs and to campus classes. “I have had to educate myself,” she says. “Much material on the Kurds was prohibited in Iraq when I was growing up.”

Assisting Iraqi libraries

With the U.S. invasion of Iraq last year, history came knocking on Khanaka’s door again. In the aftermath of Saddam’s fall (an event she “cannot help but be happy” about, even while disapproving of how the Bush administration has justified and executed the war that felled him), she joined with colleagues (through the Middle Eastern Librarian Association) to address the losses caused by the looting of Iraqi library collections before and during the invasion. Later, she was tapped to help Iraqi librarians update their skills after three decades of underfunding, neglect, and censorship under Hussein and 13 years of U.N. sanctions.

The latter project took Khanaka to Amman, Jordan, in June, where she and a team of librarians from Simmons College, Harvard University, and other institutions — supported by a small grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities — met with faculty from Iraqi library schools. “Iraqi libraries are in dire shape,” she says. One elite institution, Sadaam Hussein University, “had a fabulous library, teachers, and professors. In the rest of the country, though, the collections are 20 to 30 years behind.”

With Khanaka serving as translator and cultural bridge (as well as ad hoc joke collector), the American librarians shared ideas with their Iraqi counterparts. The team is currently designing two intensive, nine-day training sessions, consisting of hands-on practice as well as theory, to be offered next year in Jordan to Iraqi librarians and library-science teachers. “In libraries we don’t do anything like we used to 20 years ago,” she notes. “And they have missed out on all of this new technology and information.”

After Amman, Khanaka continued by plane to Istanbul and then proceeded by car to the Turkey-Iraq border — where, after a “convoluted” and “Kafkaesque” encounter with Turkish bureaucracy, she entered Iraq and set eyes on a sign reading “Welcome to Kurdistan of Iraq.” Many emotional reunions followed, and much collecting of Kurdish and Arabic materials — dictionaries, government reports, folklore, biographies, histories, and a prize collection of reprinted copies of Iraqi laws from the 1950s — “to fill in gaps” in the campus’s ambitious Middle Eastern collection.