Connect, Grow, Thrive

Creative Writing in a Conflict Zone: An interview with Lone Bendixen Goulani

Elsbeth Mäder

What originally started off as a bit of small talk at the LitSIG’s trip to Stratford before the 2016 IATEFL Conference in Birmingham has meanwhile developed into a very interesting exchange due to Lone sharing a collection of stories in her talk on ‘Creative Writing in a Conflict Zone’, which inspired me to share her collection with my own students (see Versatile Stories in ETAS Journal, Summer 2017, pp. 24-27).

Thank you, Lone, for being ready to share a bit more of your life and work in this interview. Many readers probably share my original ignorance concerning the city which is now your workplace and home, so could you please tell us a bit about it?

Erbil is the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and its largest city. It is often hailed as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and there is an ancient citadel in the middle of the city where the old Qaysari Bazaar is also located. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has over the past few years become well known for its fight against ISIS. Despite the economic crisis and the war against ISIS, the area is still known for being the most peaceful region in Iraq, and many IDPs (internally displaced persons) from Iraq and refugees from Syria flee to this region.

Could you please also tell us a bit about your university and about your job there at present?

The University of Kurdistan Hewler is an English-medium university offering different degree programmes like Petroleum Engineering, Telecommunication, and Business and Management. I work as a lecturer in English for Academic Purposes in the English Language Centre. At the moment, I teach Academic Writing to about 90 first year students in five different degree programmes.

From what I’ve gathered so far, you originally studied modern culture and cultural dissemination, so what made you also take up EAP?

Many teachers have interesting routes into teaching in general, I think. When I graduated, I started working for different NGOs, because I take a great interest in development work, but one of the difficulties in this field is to uphold the sustainability in the societies where the projects and programmes are implemented. After many years in the field, I therefore changed lane because I see education as a very sustainable contribution to a society’s development. EAP gives my students the opportunity and abilities to study in a good English medium university, so I like contributing to their academic career and the development of the society and this region in general.

Why did you and your student Ashkar Rashid Darwesh decide to publish your collection of students’ stories, and how did you get funding for the printed booklet The Girl from the Banks of the Tigris River?

Since former and present regimes have suppressed the Kurdish culture and limited the use of the language, we feel it is important to contribute to the Kurdish cultural heritage. Besides, I have always been fascinated by the stories and the history of the Kurds, so publishing the stories is one way to do so. The impetus for doing this happened while I was grading my students’ exam essays where the writing prompt was to describe a memorable event in their lives. Truly amazed by the variety of great narratives these young students had written, I decided to collect more student essays from all the other EAP lecturers and started to edit them. Later, I invited teachers and other students at our university to share a story as well. Some just wanted to tell us the story, so my student, Ashkar Rashid Darwesh, and I wrote a couple of the stories based on interviews. To get the ISBN number and the funding for the publication took Ashkar more than six months of going back and forth to the Ministry of Youth and Culture, a very complicated procedure I would never have been able to manage myself.

After ‘The Girl from the Banks of the Tigris River’ project, you apparently set up a writing club which now has about 700 members - both inside and outside the university. Could you please give us a bit more information?

Yes, Ashkar and I set up a simple Facebook group to provide opportunities for our students to engage in English writing activities. I post different writing tips and events and encourage students to participate in one of the projects known as the Grammar for Peacebuilding Course. This course is aimed at addressing the students' weak grammar skills, at the same time enabling them to learn and reflect on life skills like conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Mainly offered to our pre-sessional students, this course includes grammar instruction in the context of peace and conflict in Iraq. In each session, students practise the grammar feature in a written piece.

Another purpose for having an online grammar syllabus is that we have a lot of teachers coming and going, but it takes time to get to know the students and understand what grammar instruction they need. The project and the grammar syllabus therefore also help new teachers to understand what the students’ typical grammar trouble spots are and give them an opportunity to learn more about the local culture seen from a student’s perspective. 

How long has it been running?

For about three years.

How old are the club members?

Typically around 18-22 years old.

Are all the club members students of yours / of your university?

No, it depends on whom we are offering the course to. At the moment, we are running the course for two pre-sessional groups – about 45 students.

Are all the club members non-native speakers of English and if so, does anyone correct their writing?

Yes, they are. Their subject teachers correct their writing. A crucial part of improving is for the students to incorporate the feedback they get into their revision, so I recommend that the students correct their writing and resubmit it to their subject teacher. In reality, however, time influences how much of this is being done.

Do you always decide on the topics or are proposals made by the students, too?

I have chosen 10 topics based on a peacebuilding manual from the United States Institute of Peace. After each session, we ask the students to express their thoughts and ideas. This feedback determines whether I need to change the topic, for example, democracy. If students don’t really like a particular topic, they are allowed to propose a different one.

Are there any other teachers involved?

Yes, the students' writing instructor.

Can writers submit contributions freely?

I've tried both. It works best if the students work under time constraints, so we take them to a computer lab on a regular basis, and then they have to finish within a set time frame. If there is no system, most of them tend to complete the work a couple of days before the deadline instead of incorporating the teacher’s feedback bit by bit and slowly building up a more comprehensive language.

Do they have to contribute regularly?

Yes, sometimes each week for 10 weeks or every week for five weeks in semester one and again five times in semester two.

Could you tell us a bit more about how you run the course?

I have conducted the Grammar for Peacebuilding course 5-6 times now in slightly different ways – from the very first in-class course to the present online course. I've run the course both as an extracurricular course for our own students, for the public, but in particular for our pre-sessional students in cooperation with their writing instructor. Based on last year’s survey, the latter has been the most successful approach. 

As project coordinator this year, I make sure that computer science and engineering students are running the course, and this also seems to work well. The pre-sessional students are expected to submit five paragraphs in the first semester and five short essays in the second semester. Their subject teacher corrects their writing and students have to incorporate the feedback in their revision. If I run the course, I check their writing and give them feedback. Over the past few years, I have been compiling the students’ submissions, and currently I am editing a new collection of students’ contributions describing their perspectives on peace and conflict in Iraq. Hopefully, it will be published in the course of this year.

Besides your work at university, you are also involved in supporting children in refugee camps in Erbil. In what way do you support them? What does this commitment mean?

I am an art teacher for children in a camp for Yezidis from the town Shingal who fled from ISIS three years ago. This ethnic group has been one of the biggest victims of this war. An NGO wanted to help get the children back to school, so a partnership between them and our university was set up to support the children in returning to school. Last month, the children were finally allowed to start at school, which we’ve all been very excited about.

I feel I have a responsibility to contribute to the society I live in if I am able to, both as a professional teacher and as a volunteer. Fortunately over the past few years, I have seen an increase in engagement in voluntary work among our students and among people in general. Giving and showing empathy to people in need is not only beneficial for the recipients but also for the givers, and I view this development as very positive. So definitely, it is not only the refugees who benefit. It also means that I get the opportunity to do art and connect with other people in my society, and I feel blessed for having this opportunity.

It’s been a great pleasure corresponding with you and I especially treasure having met such an extraordinary woman. We wish you all the very best and thank you for your willingness to share your experiences with a wider audience living in very different circumstances.

Thank you very much. I truly appreciate your interest in my work and our stories from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.