IF YOU TAKE A PLANE from Istanbul and fly
southeastward to Diyarbakir, you stay in the same country. But
you leave Europe for the Middle East. And you enter the world of
the Kurds. In Diyarbakir. A boiling, teeming city enclosed within
ancient walls made of forbidding black basalt, the Kurdish flag
is prohibited and use of the Kurdish language restricted. So
elevator boys and waiters ware begin careful when whispering to
Westerners like myself:" This is no Turkey
Kurdistan. Diyabakir-capital of Kurdistan
We are not
we are Kurds."
I visited a coffee shop with my new friend Hasan, a young Kurd who had agreed to around in disgust through the plumes of tobacco haze and took the proprietor to one side. Within seconds the loud cassette music had been replaced by another tape, more wild and mournful sounding- but not until the boss had cast a swift glance down the street. Taking the best table, Hasan-a man of relatively few words-explained: "Stupid Turkish music. I told him play some good Kurdish tunes."
I had come in search of the Kurds, a people who in 1991 had been abruptly and cruelly promoted to center stage by their battle against Saddam Husseins regime and by the sympathy felt in the west for those who had suffered longer than the Kuwaitis from Saddams ambitions. For months I would travel among them, trying to make sense of where this ancient people fit in the modern world.
Who are the Kurds? They number 25 million and are scattered from the Middle East to Europe, North America, and Australia, which makes them one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a state of it own. Once nomadic, most are now farmers or have migrated to cities.
Like the majority of their neighbors, most Kurds are Sunni Muslims; a few are Jews or Christians. Their language is fractured-like the Kurds themselves-by region and dialect, but it is distinct from Turkish, nor Persian, and Arabic. The are neither Turks, nor Persians, nor Arabs. And they regard their own survival as proof in itself of certain integrity.For more than 2,000 years, travelers to the heart of Kurdish country have reported on the blue or green eyes and fair hair seen among the Kurds-and on their fierceness. Four centuries before Christ, as the Greeks were retreating from the Persians toward the Black Sea, Xenophon recorded that they were harassed along they way by Kardouchoi, people who "dwelt up among the mountains a warlike people not subjects of the King." Most modern scholars agree that this a reference to the Kurds.
Some three million Kurds live in the region of Iraq they call free Kurdistan, in the mountains here Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq come together. Here, since the humbling of saddam, the Kurds have established the largest and most populous area of autonomy in the their modern history: an area of some 15,000 square miles where Kurds are giving orders, collecting taxes, holding rudimentary elections, primarily between the two major parties, Jalal Talabanis Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Masoud Barzanis Kurdistan Democratic Party. But the Kurds seldom speak with one voice; indeed the positions of the tow parties have often shifted. Today centralissues are should the Kurds sign a limited autonomy agreement with Saddam (the Barzani view) or should they hold out for more territory and more political concessions (the Talabani position)?
When I arrived in free Kurdistan, in the spring o 1991, there was a swath of trouble and grief on every side. To the south, Saddam s forces were mustering again to reassert central control. To the north, the Turkish authorities maintained that Turkey was one nation and the Kurds were part of the Turkish family. To the seat, the Kurds of Iran chafed under the rule of the mullahs as they had under the shah. To the west, in Syria, the Kurds were some distance from full citizenship: in Lebanon and beyond were in diaspora.
The Kurds have survived like other large minorities, by sniffing the wind and begin adroit at the business of the tactic. While in large parts of the West the Kurds are hailed as tough, romantic, and dashing, it isnt unusual to hear them described by their immediate neighbors as downright uncouth, oil greedy, and for sale to the highest bidder. To the impatient, proud regional powers that already enjoy statehood, the Kurds are in the way. In the way of Saddams dream of a greater Babylon, glory of the Arabs. In the way of Turkeys plan to earn international reaccept by modernizing and assimilating the Kurdish provinces. In the way of Irans scheme for a republic based on Shiite Islam. In the way of Syria's wish to make a militarized nation out of a patchwork of religious and ethnic minorities. The Kurdish national motto, with origins older than anyone can remember, is simply: " The Kurds have no friends."
IN THE MONTHS just after the gulf war end in March 1991 it was still dangerous to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, so I enlisted the help of an armed escort hardened by month of guerrilla fighting. Hoshyar Samsam, who knew this country well and had been the personal bodyguard of Jalal Talabani, was taking care of me. He calmly conducted me through bomb-shattered villages and deserted towns. He foraged for me in an area blighted by famine and helped me dodge Iraqi patrols. He looked as if he could carry me if the need arose and I wasnt't sure it might not. He had a fierce, beaming face and huge hands. His hair was reddish and his eyes blue-green. I asked him to tell me his story.
Hoshyar was born to a peasant family in the
hills near Kirkuk. The oil capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. He had
been brought up on ancestral tales of Kurdish suffering and
defiance and had carried this formative memory with him when he
left home for Baghdad to study engineering. In the great Kurdish
uprising that flowed Desert Storm, Hoshyar was an enthusiastic
militant, and a photograph of President George Bush in a jogging
outfit was gummed proudly to the windshield of this Toyota jeep.
After the first exhilarating days of the revolution-"We took
our great city of Kirkuk, without any help from anyone"- he
had been caught up in the defeat, exodus, and massacre that
captured world attention."What about your family?" I
asked. Hoshyar's was slightly shrugging. He is a peshmerga
- in the Kurdish term of honor, one who has made an understanding
with death. He was married to the struggle and had no time for
domesticity. His relatives were extended all over the hills of
the area and scattered between the refugee camps and shelters
that do Iraqi Kurdistan today. "Maybe, after victory, I have
my own family."
The Kurds might well have broken and dispersed now if it weren't the strength of their family tradition, Everyone seems related to everyone else; it's also sometimes true. Cousins, for example, are encouraged to marry so that farms and orchards can stay in the family. In the squares and streets, met would keep asking photographer Ed Kashi to take pictures of their children. The Kurdish family is the nexus of their solidarity and survival. Even this, though, is linked to " the struggle." An old man we met in the village of Khalifan was sitting with his submachine gun hung over the back of a chair and watching his grandsons frisking about. When I praised their charm and friendliness, he beamed. "Yes," he said. "They will make good soldiers."
Even among the Kurds who live in seemingly normal circumstances, the daily reminders of reality. In the old city of Diyarbakir, for instance, a foreign visitor can leave the noise and smoke of the street, pass through thick walls opening on to a shaded courtyard, and settle in at one of 20 tables at the Trafik ÇAY BAHÇESI, a tea garden. Children play on brightly painted swings and slides nearby. Young men and women hold hands, chat, and loll away the warm autumn afternoon over bottled Coke or small glasses of thickly sweetened tea. The carefree mixing of the sexes comes as a reminder that we are deep in Kurdistan, where-unlike much of the Middle East - women have traditionally not been secluded or veiled.
Fadime Kirmizi, a law student in her early 20s (page 52), comes in, accompanied by her brother. They find a table where the light is good and settle down with her law books. He quizzes her through the afternoon. The afternoon's serenity is regularly broken by fighter jets screaming overhead, one after another, buzzing the city before returning to their Turkish Air force base. To an outsider the jets seem a pointed reminder to the Kurds that they do not really belong. Yet to most of the Kurds I met, the attitude seemed to be expressed in the thought, what are the Turks doing in their country?
TODAY'S KURDS find themselves caught between their ancient culture and the rush of the 20th century. At an embassy dinner in Turkey I was seated next to an Iranian woman. Her father was a banker, and she was married to an American, and when she heard of my interest in the Kurds, she exclaimed: "How fascinating! Of course, Khomeini treated them very badly, and they have resisted very bravely. But don't you find them really very-you know-primitive?" In shaqlawah, a beautiful but run-down town in northern Iraq that serves as guerrilla headquarters for Free Kurdistan, I was witness to another demonstration of the same attitude.
It was early in June 1991, and the barren "negotiation" between Saddam and the Kurds were being conducted in the nearby town of Arbil. A handpicked Iraqi intelligence officer had been sent to Shaqlawah to escort rival Leaders Talabani and Barzani to the meeting. Lieutenant Colonel Zeid, as he was called, arrived in an immaculate dark green uniform with carefully straightened black beret. I was eyeing Lieutenant Colonel Zeid when a hoarse and raucous voice broke in. It belonged to Kurd named Malazada, an unkempt local balladeer with a shell-shocked aspect. Impromptu, he stepped forward and began a long free verse recitation for the occasion. He went on and on, and the lieutenant colonel's clipped mustache began to writhe impatiently. Siamand Banaa, a public spokesman for Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, touched my arm. "You'll have to excuse old Malazada," he whispered. "He's just missing a few strings, as we say."
I appreciated the courtesy, but I rather liked the tolerance of the Kurds, who were willing to stall their big meeting for an old man whose liking for the village epic did no harm. In many ways I was miles and years away from his shaggy, verbose, bucolic style and his horizon bounded by tribe and the rhythms of seasons. The sight of the lieutenant colonel, who thought of these folk as barbarians, reminded me that many outwardly advanced types have taken little from development except technology, which they have employed, for barbarous purposes.
Write by Ed kashi