Reflections on Teaching Mrs Dalloway in Iraqi Kurdistan: An Interview with Steven Barfield (Part 1)

8 November 2021

Alan Ali Saeed, Sulaimani University, and Steven Barfield, London South Bank University

The following is the first of two parts of an interview between Steven Barfield and Alan Ali Saeed. Steven Barfield was a British academic for most of his career, teaching principally at the University of Westminster, London. More recently he has been an educational consultant and has taught, mentored, and advised throughout the middle east. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at London South Bank University. Alan Ali Saeed, the interviewer, lectures in Modern English Literature at Sulaimani University and Komar University of Science and Technology (KUST), Iraqi Kurdistan. In this part of the interview, the two discuss Steven’s experience of teaching Mrs Dalloway in Alan’s city in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the students’ interactions with the text and with modernism more broadly.

BARFIELD: This is not a piece of educational research, but rather a series of anecdotal reflections that I hope will nonetheless prove of interest. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is a wonderful modernist novel. From the point of view of working on it with non-native speakers, who were learning English, it was both a tremendous pleasure to teach and taught me something about the Kurds.

SAEED: I am sure you often get asked this Steve. But what were you doing teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan? In the middle of the war with Daesh (Islamic State) no less? (Laughing.)

BARFIELD: When you do a PGCHE [Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education] the tutors are very keen on discussing educational setting. Mine was somewhat unusual. Sublime mountains through which Alexander the Great once passed. Fascinating, resourceful, and remarkable people. Oh, and there was a war to the death against Daesh. (Daesh is the Arabic acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham; everyone prefers this in the middle east, as it does not give the group the legitimacy that western names suggest.)

2014-2015 was my second year in Iraqi Kurdistan (hereafter IK) and I had elected to teach at a different university to my previous year, in this case, the University of Human Development, Sulaimani. Many of my friends were somewhat surprised that I was keen to return to IK to teach in the middle of a war.  Both academic and non-academic friends were more than a little surprised: ‘So IS are just ninety miles away!?!’ ‘Yes,’ I would say, ‘but there are mountains en route and the roads are ridiculously treacherous. And well, they are Kurds.’

So, there I was, teaching Mrs Dalloway in an area close to a war zone, on the home front so to speak. This was quite unlike anything I had ever experienced at a British university. Strangely enough, I did not realise what this really meant, at least consciously, until I started exploring the text with my students.

I should also add that everyone in Kurdistan felt they were looking after my safety. Especially my students and colleagues. No people on earth are more hospitable than the Kurds. SAEED: I assume you had taught the novel before?

BARFIELD: Yes, about twenty-five odd times at university level. I taught it on modernism courses, and extracts on London studies courses. I knew the text, or I thought I did.

SAEED: What did your university colleagues think about your choice of novel?

BARFIELD: Funny you should ask that. Some of my Kurdish and Arab colleagues did think teaching Mrs Dalloway was ambitious. It was not a prescribed text (by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education), such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

‘But you teach T. S. Eliot in poetry and Samuel Beckett in drama,’ I would say. ‘Are they not more difficult than Mrs Dalloway?’

‘Very different though,’ they would reply. However, I trusted my teaching skills; I trusted the novel and I trusted the students.

SAEED: You mentioned the war and Mrs Dalloway?

BARFIELD: Well, I was teaching this novel (set on 13th June 1923), which is dominated by the aftermath of World War I. Septimus Smith’s shell shock is only the most obvious example of this. It is also filled with a tremendous sense of melancholy, displacement and sadness hidden just under the surface. David Bradshaw argues: ‘Time and again, the novel reveals how the myriad anxieties and overwhelming grief of the war were etched into every aspect of post-war life’.[1] British students usually found that aspect of Mrs Dalloway hard to recognize and if they did, tended to understand it abstractly, as a history lesson from the distant past. I probably found it hard to understand myself.

However, in IK I was very conscious that I was working on the home front and the war with Daesh dominated everything. Sulaimani was full of armed people, albeit often smiling and chatty ones who sometimes asked me for a selfie. My driver, a part-time peshmerga, kept an AK47 on the back seat of the car ‘just in case’ and there were spare magazines clattering in the glove compartment, along with numerous CDs of Hollywood musicals (his ambition was to sing on ‘Arabs Got Talent’). I had a couple of Kurdish police generals on my speed dial and an evac bag ready-packed. At night, a trip to the local supermarket meant going through several heavily armed checkpoints. Cars were continually checked for bombs.

War seeps everywhere and sometimes in strange ways and in odd details. The Sulaimani barbers were unusually busy. Kurdish men have moustaches but seldom beards; now very short hair was the order of the day. Daesh were deeply offended by Muslim men having their hair cut. Crew cuts were therefore common. Even the Kurdish hippies had changed their views to conform. My friend, a lovely Kurdish judge, insisted on taking me to his barbers at least once a week. He probably did not want me to get mistaken for the enemy with my unruly hair. In such a situation, the sense of communal solidarity is very potent and strangely visceral, but even if I wasn’t worried about myself, I was worried about my students and friends. I often passed by some government offices near where I lived and there was always a towering, special forces peshmerga, completely masked and absolutely motionless who guarded it.

In class my students really did not need me to tell them about war and its costs. Quite early on that academic year, a young female student had asked me if she could be absent from class for a week as she had to attend her uncle’s funeral in Kirkuk. She looked quite upset and told me he was part of a patrol that had unluckily encountered a suicide car bomber. She did say that she was very glad he had died a martyr. Numerous students had relatives in the armed forces or police, so the war was on everyone’s mind.

I also had two charming, serious, and very sensitive peshmerga officers in my class who were studying part-time. They tended to fall asleep in the afternoon session when they were there and I usually let them have a rest before I woke them, as they were no doubt tired for very good reasons. However, when we were discussing shellshock, they were very much awake and spent a long time discussing the effects of war on soldiers and civilians with the rest of the class. I just listened. Daesh were known for their extreme brutality and especially hated the Sunni Kurds. I think the war meant the class found Septimus a very real character and one they had few problems recognising and relating to on an emotional level. I ended up valuing Mrs Dalloway much more as a novel about the aftermath of war. Woolf was coming to terms with the fractured, dislocating experience of having been on the home front during World War One, as it had been part of the fabric of her and others’ day-to-day experience.

SAEED: Do Kurdish students read Mrs Dalloway in a similar or dissimilar way to British counterparts?

BARFIELD: Well, in some ways the nuts and bolts, the formal properties of the text do not change. We were still discussing stream of consciousness, modernist fictional techniques, narration, time and space, characterisation, language and all the usual things you do when teaching this particular novel. However, Kurdish students do read texts much more emotionally than their British counterparts. While they knew it was a modernist novel, they read it as if it were any novel (categories like realist and modernist as I will explain later, do not mean much in terms of Kurdish literature). There were two things that were quite unexpected though.

SAEED: What were those?

BARFIELD: It is a truism to say that the Kurds understand grief and trauma all too well. Saddam Hussein’s Al-Anfal campaign of the late 1980s was a genocide against Kurdish civilians (possibly 100,000 deaths, some sources say more). All this is etched into Kurdish consciousness and identity. Yet, despite all this, ordinary Kurds are remarkably optimistic.

Optimism and pessimism, a celebration of life and despair are the opposing poles of experience in Mrs Dalloway: Clarissa chooses life over death, while Septimus chooses death over life. There is really something mythological, almost archetypal about this structural opposition. This is not to suggest either Clarissa or Septimus are themselves mythological in the way that Stephen and Leopold are in Joyce’s Ulysses. Woolf’s two protagonists are in fact very ordinary people.

I have found that the affirmative nature of Mrs Dalloway is normally a difficult concept for young British students to grasp. It is in Clarissa’s case partly a feature of melancholic middle-age when life seems to be narrowing while also speeding up towards eventual death. (Though I now think the aftermath of war may also have something to do with it.) Hence the repetition of the lines (or allusions to them) from Cymbeline in Mrs Dalloway: ‘Fear no more the heat ’o the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages’.[2] Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts are overburdened by intimations of mortality. In contrast, my Kurdish students who were the same age as their British counterparts had relatively little trouble with these concepts.

Part of this was that while they didn’t understand upper-middle class dinner parties per se; they were used to communal meals where the extended family and friends were all gathered, and this was what they understood as an equivalent to Clarissa’s party. I was lucky to be invited to some of these by colleagues and could recognise that this feature of Kurdish life was a genuine source of strength and unalloyed delight. You were plied with more food that you could possibly eat, with people sitting everywhere and anywhere, all talking volubly at once.At an intellectual level my students may have seen the war with Daesh as a battle for national survival (more like World War Two than World War One). Everyone understood it perfectly well when I asked if they agreed with King Abdulla II of Jordan’s comment that Daesh were Khawarij (the outlaws of Islam). But at a deeper level, the Kurds really saw the war in metaphysical or mythological terms. I was frequently told that the Kurds were fighting ‘for life against death’. My driver told me much the same. When the Syrian Kurds of the YPG liberated Kobane, after an extraordinary series of battles, the male and female peshmerga started dancing. Kurdish dancing is a celebratory and collective activity.

I knew before I travelled there that peshmerga in Kurdish means ‘those who face death’ or ‘those who confront death’ , but I had not realised this means more than simply saying those who risk death. Like many terms in Kurdish culture, it is as much poetic as literal, and I am not pretending an outsider can really understand this. The national symbol of the Kurds (found on the Iraqi Kurdish flag and elsewhere), is the Roj, a flaming sun with twenty-one rays. The number twenty-one is presumed to refer to the vernal equinox which falls on the twenty first of March and is celebrated in Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. (See figure 1). I It appears to me an explicit symbol of light and life against darkness and death. Such aspects of Kurdish culture may all help explain why my students so easily understood Clarissa’s decision to declare for life in the face of despair and death.

Figure 1: The Roj on regional flag of Iraqi Kurdistan.

SAEED: That is interesting. I never thought there was any issue with Clarissa Dalloway’s decision to continue with her life. Why commit suicide because your life is a disappointment? It is a good thing, surely, to choose life over death. What was the other aspect you mentioned?

BARFIELD: In contrast, I was greatly surprised by how upset the students were over the death of Septimus Smith when we came to discuss it in class. There was anger. There were protests. There was a great deal of speaking animatedly in Kurdish. My two peshmerga officers were very disapproving, I could tell, from their pained expressions. There was a general feeling that Septimus was badly let down. Why didn’t the British army or government do anything? What about his family and friends? What about Mrs Dalloway herself?

It turned out that while I was used to seeing this in individualist terms as a suicide resulting from Septimus’ war trauma, and part of the novel’s symbolism and structure, my students were focusing on the fact there was no one there to help Septimus and there surely should have been. Kurds are far more collective than a British person readily understands from our much more individualist point of view, as I discussed above. The many centuries of adversity and brutal conflict with their neighbours have meant that aiding other Kurds and a belief in Kurdish solidarity was often all they possessed. The fact that no one really seemed to care about Septimus was an affront and they expected more of Britain. They were disappointed in us.

SAEED: Yes, Kurds have always been like that. Hence the continuing importance of socialism and egalitarianism to us. Do you think Kurdish students draw on Kurdish literature, as well as their history, when reading an English literary text?

BARFIELD: I think that is inevitable. When we read a text in a foreign language that we are only learning then we are often doing this. However, it should be said that one challenge of teaching in Kurdistan, without speaking the language, is that while everyone knows the Kurds have a remarkably rich literary tradition, precious little is translated or even written about in English (or any other language). If I had been teaching in an Arab country, then I could have easily read several contemporary Arabic novels in translation.

I also knew that Sulaimani is famous as a city of poets and writers. The municipal library has statues of poets and writers where we might expect to see statesmen or financial benefactors in London. (See Figure 2 and 3.) Even the city’s main street is named Salim St., after Abdul-Rehman Begi Saheb-Qiran (1800-1866 CE), a celebrated nineteenth century Kurdish poet, known by his pen name Salim. It seems clear that Kurdish culture values poets and writers in a way that the British do not.

This statue is Nali, the poet.
Figure 2: This statue is of Nali, the poet, (Mallah Xidir Ehmed Şawaysî Mîkayalî). 1800–1856 C.E. Sculptor unknown. Photograph Alan Saeed, 13/9/2021.
Nusarek la QalamIt was created for the Kurdish poet, Latif Halmat.
Figure 3: ‘Nusarek la Qalam’, meaning ‘A writer of the pen’. It was created by Zirak Mira, for the contemporary Kurdish poet, Latif Halmat (born 1947 CE). It is upside down out of respect for his poetry, as the audience should kneel to appreciate his face. Photograph Alan Saeed, 13/9/2021.

I did find most of my students seemed to know Kurdish poems by heart and when I asked, they were happy to stand up in class and recite them (Kurds are known for being extroverted and natural performers). The first Kurdish novel to be translated into English, Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared at The Night of The City, only appeared in 2016.[3] It is experimental magical realism while also deeply philosophical. It is still the only Kurdish novel available in English translation as of this date. As I mentioned earlier, Butterfly Valley only became available in 2018. Normally when we are teaching an introduction to modernism in Britain, we are often setting it against realism and the realist novel. However, it seems (from discussions with colleagues) that there never was a significant realist novel tradition in I.K., and the novel as genre only appeared relatively recently. While I was expecting (and to a large extent teaching) students to read Mrs Dalloway against the grain of realism, much as I would do in Britain, they were not disorientated by Woolf’s modernist techniques, or at least, not as much as I expected them to be.

SAEED: I can follow that argument. However, Mrs Dalloway is arguably not a very experimental modernist novel. Might the situation be rather different if you had chosen, say, Joyce, for example?

BARFIELD: I agree with you that Mrs Dalloway is an ‘approachable’ modernist novel. Compare it to Woolf’s The Waves and you can see that. I think Joyce’s Ulysses would have been far too linguistically challenging, as well as being impossibly long. For better, or worse, and for many reasons, Mrs Dalloway is the novel that commonly occurs on the syllabus of the standard ‘introduction to modernism’ course in the U.K.


[1] David Bradshaw, ‘Mrs Dalloway and the First World War’, The British Library, (2016), n.p.

<> [accessed 25/8/2021]

[2] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, ed. by Stella McNichol and Elaine Showalter, (London: Penguin Classics: 2001), p.6.

[3] Bakhtiyar Ali, I Stared at The Night of The City, trans. Kareen Abdulrahman (Reading, Berks: Periscope, 2016).

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