Finding the fruits of exile

(Edmonton) Jalal Barzanji had no time to react. While hosting a party in the Kurdish city of Hawler, feeling trapped by the obligatory small talk, he happened to glance longingly out the window, hoping for escape.

That’s when he saw the Iraqi secret police armed with AK-47s surrounding his house. Before he could warn anyone, the police burst through the door, “acting as if they were trying to capture a fortified military prison.”

So begins Barzanji’s compelling prison memoir, the product of his time spent in 2007 as the Pen Canada City of Edmonton's inaugural writer-in-exile, released this week by University of Alberta Press. The Man in the Blue Pyjamas describes the Kurdish writer’s imprisonment and torture for allegedly subversive activities between 1986 and 1988 in one of Saddam Hussein’s brutal prisons, followed by the long road that eventually brought Barzanji and his family to Canada as refugees in 1998.

“Even as a teenager, he began to express via his poetry a world�an idea of culture�that did not match the official nation-state model,” says Canadian writer John Ralston Saul in the book’s forward. “Almost in innocence, he became one of those inexplicably frightening wielders of words.”

The conditions Barzanji endured were excruciating. Bitter cold, frequent beatings and cramped cells that prevented sitting or lying down�these are only a few of the indignities he and his fellow prisoners suffered. “The only thing we would look forward to was the freedom to go to the washroom,” he writes.

But through it all, the desire to write, to document what was happening to him and other prisoners, could not be extinguished. He wrote on whatever scraps of paper he could find, which he later used to stitch together his memoir.

That exercise in excavation was largely made possible by the PEN Canada City of Edmonton writer-in-exile program, initiated when Saul threw down the gauntlet to Edmonton’s literary community, challenging it to support writers from abroad, especially given Edmonton’s ethnic diversity. Along with other city partners, the U of A’s Faculty of Arts came forward to fund the first year to get the program off the ground.

“Such luxury was beyond my wildest dreams,” recalls Barzanji of his productive residency at the Stanley Milner library. Though he had cherished his newfound freedom, he was forced to learn English when he first arrived in Edmonton, working any job he could find to support his family. There was little time left over to write, until he was appointed writer-in-exile.

“Sometimes I was worried that I would lose touch with my pen,” he said. “But this program opened doors.”