The Kurdish Bike by Alesa Lightbourne

31206812Fiction – print. Self-published, 2016. 324 pgs. Library copy.

When oil prices were high and ISIS had yet to sweep across Iraq and Syria, American teacher Theresa Turner was recruited to teach at an international academy in an autonomous region of Kurdish Iraq. Financially underwater from divorcing her unnamed husband, Turner had previously worked as an English teacher in Saudi Arabia and is eager to accept a job in a portion of the world where she might experience a bit more autonomy.

That autonomy comes in the form of a blue bicycle, which Turner uses to leave the fortress-like compound around “The Academy”, as Turner and other teachers refer to school. During a ride through the local community, Turner meets the grandmother of one of her quietest students, Seema, and Seema’s two neighbors, a mother and her twenty-something daughter.

The daughter, Bezma, is eager to marry the man she loves, but her mother, Ara, insists that the marriage cannot take place. As a widow, Ara expects her youngest daughter to remain with her and care for her in her old age. Bezma cajoles Turner into helping her convince her mother that she should be allowed to marry. Yet, Turner’s insertion into the family’s dynamics educates her about the larger cultural and religious factors in play in Kurdish Iraq, including the practice of cutting a young girl’s genitals to keep her “clean”.

My interest in this story was slowly built over time. I struggled with Turner’s hurtful stereotypes about the Kurdish people and the voyeuristic way she approaches the community surrounding the school. To Turner, it seems like these people exist for her to study, for her to bemuse over with her American blog readers.

And I seriously contemplated setting the book aside for good when Turner visits a market and eyes every man at the market as a suspicious bomber or rapist. I had such a hard time reconciling that reaction with the information that Turner had taught in schools around the world. I only continued reading because I’ve missed the last two meetings of my book club and didn’t want to miss yet another month because I didn’t finish the book.

Thankfully, Turner’s viewpoint is stretched, confronted, and repudiated by her interactions with Bezma, Ara, Seema, Old Huda, and others in the community. In realizing the parallels between her own blindness to her ex-husband’s traits and the blindness Ara has towards her intended’s anger issues, Turner comes to understand that neither Kurdish culture nor Western culture has a monopoly on forcing women to pay for the crimes of men.

There is one particularly beautiful moment when Turner accidentally interrupts a funeral but is welcomed with open arms to share in the grief of the women assembled. Her minimal Kurdish makes it difficult for her to communicate with the women, and yet their grief allows her to final approach her own grief over the death of her father. The moment opened up Turner’s eyes to the society around her, and it made me much more invested in the story Lightbourne was trying to share.

The novel only improves from there. As Turner learns about Kurdish marriage practices and FGM in the community, she must also confront the complex bureaucracy of her employer and watch her fellow teachers run headfirst into romantic entanglements and the answers offered by particular religious viewpoints. The novel can, at times, feel a bit like an impending train wreck as poor decisions mount, but the quality of the writing escalates it above such dismissive characterizations.

In the afterward, Lightbourne explains that she worked as a teacher in the region during this time and that the novel is a fictionalization of her own experiences and those of her fellow teachers. The novel definitely straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction, and I can already anticipate some of the women in my book club complaining about the ambiguity.

While I found Lightbourne’s refuses to name Turner’s husband frustrating, the ambiguity was quickly forgotten as frustration for me as the novel progressed. Instead, I’m frustrated the novel was self-published – if only because I know it’ll make finding copies of the novel more difficult!

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