Sunday, 20 February 2011

A Life in Exile

Hasan Usak

It was a very cold Sunday afternoon as if December had hidden its coldest day for the day I walked from Camden Town Station towards Primrose Hill. The usual crowd of Camden Town was not around. People were rushing into warm café's, restaurants and pubs in the area. Some people were returning from shopping. The traffic was relatively calm due to weather conditions.

I had checked her address and got a direction map which I printed out from Google Earth to find my destination. I followed the direction and I found her home easily.

I was going to meet well known Kurdish fashion designer Della Murad.
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It was not first time we had met, but it was the first time I met her at her home for an interview. I met her first at a Kurdish event where she had dressed traditional Kurdish clothes.

“This is the first time I am meeting a punctual Kurdish man,” said Della, with a puzzled facial expression. Thereupon I said: “It is first time I am meeting a Kurdish lady who lives in a privilege area.” “David Miliband is my neighbour,” she added with a smile on her face.     

Della had her own design traditional Kurdish clothes on. She had a three colour scarf, colour's symbolizing the Kurdish flag, and an Iranian patterned rug was laid on the floor. There were five photos of her different fashion shows on the walls of the Kurdish style classically furnished room.  

“This photo was taken at the British Museum while I was having a fashion show,” she said, then she pointed at another photo, “Look at this photo I don’t have gray hair,” said Della, showed her hair to me and she added: “Life in exile is very difficult.”

Della Murad was born in Halabja, the place targeted by Saddam Hussein’s chemical bombs which caused over five thousand Kurdish people’s death, as a middle child of 10 children.

She lived in the most painful Kurdish city, Halabja, until she was two then her family moved to Baghdad in 1962. `I left my home town, because of my father’s job. I resided in Baghdad until I completed my university degree in biology. My father was a very liberal minded person to the extent that my father aspired for his children to be liberal and Western minded in their approach to life. He ensured that religion was not a barrier in any of his children’s life. Growing up religious was not a main feature in our household,” she said. 

Della Murad returned to Halabja in 1985 as a teacher. `I loved working as a teacher and I loved living in my home town,” she said.

She took a deep breath and continued: “When I was in Halabja it was during Saddam Hussein’s regime and I witnessed much of his brutality even against my own students who were demonstrating against his regime. On one occasion I too was arrested as a conspirator.”

After spending 18 months in Halabja, she tried to teach Kurdish students in another Kurdish city called Sulaimania. In that period of time Della met her first husband; the marriage would break in London in 1992.

During the time when Saddam was on in power, everybody had to show their allegiance to Saddam’s Baath Party, particularly civil servants and key workers. Most of Kurdish people did not accept this obligation and they preferred to live on rural area due to this approach. They were tortured, murdered, evacuated from their premises and massacred.

She had to leave her students, friends, relatives and the "smell of wild flowers of Kurdistan" in 1986, and she went onto Iran as a refugee.  A long term exile life started for her.

“I left Kurdistan because all teachers had to sign up and pledge allegiance to Saddam’s Baath Party.  Teachers were unwilling to do so were arrested and imprisoned. At this point my father pleaded me to leave, he was hopeful that the regime would not survive much longer due to Iraq’s turbulent political history, and I would soon be able to return home. I left behind my friends, family and students, the people I left behind are forever etched in my memory. The pain was only further deepened by the uncertainty of my return to Sulaimaniya.  I don’t believe at the time it dawned on me how much I would miss Kurdistan itself, it was only once I had left and was in foreign lands that my heart yearned for  the charm and warmth of my beloved Kurdistan,”  said Della, while her husband Ahmad was preparing a cake to serve us. 

Although Della Murad hoped to return soon she would only manage to return to her country after almost 20 years.

“We were housed in a camp for Kurdish exiles that were fleeing Iraq,” said Della, after looking at the photo on the wall for a while, she added: “Our accommodation was made up of shanty, like houses, cramped and dirty; many families were often stuck in small confined houses. There were two toilets for everyone on the camp to share and a few showers that were often broken and run down. All the families tried to make their little homes as comfortable and clean as possible.”

Della Murad spent nine months in Iranian Kurdistan, as an exile in her homeland; she went to Germany with a prospect of starting a new life. However things took an unexpected turn. She was diagnosed with a rare thyroid cancer. The doctors believed that it was because of the chemical poison that Saddam's regime would often implode on Halabja.

“The hardest part of this was not seeing my children, and however looking, back I can honestly say that this time of reflection and enforced solitary confinement in the hospitals ignited much consideration about my future and what I wanted from my life. In essence it was the first stepping stone in my life as it is today,” Della added.

 After defeating cancer, Della came to London in 1989 and a new page in her life was opened.

She decided to come to London in order to change her irresistible fate and to be able to one day return to Kurdistan. She was prepared for a challenge in a new country, a multicultural city and a language that she could not speak at the time.

“The biggest obstacle was the language barrier,” said Della, while having the Kurdish-style brewed tea, and continued: “I felt like I had so much to say and offer but no longer had the vehicle to carry my thoughts and identity.”

A passionate woman Della learnt English in a short time and met her second husband Ahmed in Newroz – Kurdish New year celebrations on 21st of March 1993. 

I asked her that why she had become a fashion designer. She told me that she had worn traditional Kurdish clothes to attend a party and everybody had their eyes on her, she had felt like a princess.

Feeling like a princess revealed Della’s hidden talents, which lead Mrs. Murad to become a renowned Kurdish fashion designer. She has worked as a fashion designer for the last 15 years.

“My inspiration is the traditional Kurdish clothes,” said Mrs. Murad and showed me old items of clothes that she had brought from Northern Kurdistan, Kurdistan region in Turkey, to modernise, “I researched and reached the resources as much as I could. I travelled to each part of Kurdistan. Kurdish people have many nice clothes; everybody should has information about our culture,” she added.

Della Murad organized many fashion shows, at City Hall, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, at the British Museum, at the Museum of London, at Hackney Museum, in Belgium, in Germany and in Iraqi Kurdistan.

She won the Millennium Award for innovative ideas and projects in 2004. The certificate was given to her by the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.  

“When I received the Millennium Award in 2004 I felt as if my work had been appreciated and validated. It meant to me that I had contributed to a country that gave me so much in my own way.  It only made me strive harder, believe in myself and cause to promote every part of Kurdistan and its culture and to aim higher,” she said to explain her feelings. 

Della organized the last significant Kurdish fashion show in Dubai under title of “Colour of Kurdistan” in January 2011. She collected fabrics around the Kurdistan and harmonised them in order to create past, present and future of the Kurdish fashion at the same time and on one design.

“Traditional Kurdish clothes were showed first then my designs were showed by Kurdish and Arabic models,” said Della.

She invited representatives of foreign countries, Journalists, fashion designers and representatives of textile sector.

“My aim was to present, not only fashion, Kurdish music, Kurdish cuisine and Kurdish art. A short film was screened. I wanted to show a small Kurdistan,” she said with a proud tone of voice. 

The fashion show in Dubai for me can be described as one of the highlights of my career. Not only was it a culmination of years of hard work and commitment on a personal level but it was also the first of its kind in an Arab country,” she added.

Della Murad was successful after a tough struggle. She fought both internal and external factors to stay on her own feet. She is a positive role model for Kurdish Women.
After interviewing I stepped toward Camden Town Station. It was still cold.


  1. Very good! Well written piece!

  2. della you are not only one who suffer like this but most of our people suffering with these sorrowful events