In the war-torn, Middle Eastern region of Kurdistan, Theresa Turner ventures out on a bike to explore a nearby village. She had accepted a job teaching English in the area, and while teaching there was not a joy, the school principal begged her to stay.
Alesa Lightbourne explained to the Rotary Club of Los Altos March 21 how she wrote “The Kurdish Bike,” her memoir-turned-novel based primarily on her real-life experiences. Her goal was to describe the Kurdish culture and the extraordinary courage it takes for women to survive in a zone decimated by war and dominated by men.
In the novel, Theresa lives amid the world’s largest ethnic group with no home country. Kurds occupy parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. During her time in the region, Lightbourne learned that the Kurdish people’s deepest desire was to have their own country, a free Kurdistan for all Kurds.
Theresa purchases a bicycle so she can visit a nearby village on Fridays and experience the Kurdish culture. The Kurdish village is dangerous and frightening, until she meets an aged widow, Ara.
Ara is the village midwife, an elderly Houdini who speaks Kurdish and is raising her college-bound daughter, Bezma. Despite having no money for other necessities, they warmly welcome Theresa into their lives.
Bezma had graduated from high school and expected a scholarship to attend college, but Theresa discovers that Bezma’s Kurdish education is insufficient – her math proficiency is at third-grade level. Theresa tutors Bezma while Ara and her daughter share their home and simple meals.
More importantly, they share their life experiences. Theresa learns that young Bezma is in love and wants to marry a handsome young man named Hevar, son of the leading family in their village. Bezma hopes for a wedding despite her mother’s warnings that the eligible bachelor will prove to be an uncaring husband.
Theresa knows that her U.S. passport is her prime possession, worth $1,000 to $2,000 on the black market. Suddenly, that becomes her only asset when she discovers that her savings account in the U.S. has been totally drained by her vindictive ex-husband. Ara offers to care for her, assuring the American that she can live with them and have a home and food for the rest of her life – a generous offer from an elderly Kurd who has barely enough to nourish herself and her daughter.
Theresa later bonds with other village women. She learns their opinion of other American women – “cowboys,” the women call them, for they don’t cover their hair, considered an extremely private part of their bodies. Author Lightbourne compared exposing their hair to “walking through Safeway topless in America.”
Lightbourne’s book embraces her love for the Kurds while touching on several sensitive issues, notably the cultural oppression of Kurdish women in their society.
Available online, a portion of proceeds from sales of “The Kurdish Bike” will support Lightbourne’s “family” in Kurdistan.
Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit losaltosrotary.org.