No Direction Home
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One reporter's dispatches from a dispossessed middle kingdom.
Reviewed by Selwa Roosevelt
A THOUSAND SIGHS, A THOUSAND REVOLTS
Journeys in Kurdistan
By Christiane Bird Ballantine. 405 pp. $25.95 *
09.05.2004 - Shades of Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu! A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts evokes those intrepid Englishwomen who ventured into the exotic Middle East many decades ago. But this time it is an American, Christiane Bird, who follows in their footsteps with an informative and altogether fascinating account of her recent travels throughout Kurdistan.
No book could be more timely. The centuries-long struggle of the Kurds to be masters of their own land -- summed up in a line from an old Kurdish poem, "A thousand sighs, a thousand tears, a thousand revolts, a thousand hopes" -- is a critical factor today in the establishment of a new Iraqi state. Bird has brought keen observation, great personal courage, and an obviously empathetic personality to the story of her adventures among the Kurds of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Bird, New York-born and Yale-educated, is the author of the 1988 memoir Neither East Nor West: One Woman's Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the spring of 2002, she spent three months exploring Iraqi Kurdistan, returning in the fall of that year to travel in the Kurdish lands of Iran, Turkey and Syria. "From the moment I arrived in Kurdistan, I felt as if I had fallen through the back door of the world and into a tragic magic kingdom," she writes.
A lone American woman, traveling mostly by bus, she was offered hospitality in various Kurdish homes -- some comfortable, some primitive, but always warm and welcoming. She frequently slept on the floor. More often than not, she ate with her hosts from a meal spread on a cloth on the floor, where she was usually the only woman eating with the men. She was invited to weddings, festivals and obscure religious ceremonies and attended an environmental conference in Sananjad, the capital of Iran's Kurdish province. She interviewed Kurdish writers, poets, journalists, artists and musicians about their struggle to preserve their rich cultural heritage, and she spoke with women about sexual mores and "honor killings" -- which, while rare, still occur.
Bird's narrative sheds much light on one of the world's oldest yet least-known cultures. Numbering some 25 to 30 million, the Kurds constitute the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. Ethnically close to Iranians -- being of Aryan, as opposed to Semitic, origin -- they are believed to descend from the ancient Medes, and historians seem to agree that they were the Kharduchoi, the fierce warriors described by the Greek general Xenophon. The Arabs, who converted the Kurds to Islam in the 7th century, found them as difficult to control as do modern governments today. Their greatest hero is Saladin, a Kurd from Tikrit (coincidentally, the home of Saddam Hussein), who created an empire and drove out the Crusaders.
Today, 90 percent of the Kurds are Muslims, mostly Sunni, and they view themselves as Islamic moderates. Bird was particularly impressed with their achievements in the "no-fly zone" that the United States enforced in Iraq after the 1991 war, which gave Kurds an unprecedented opportunity for self-government. Freed from fear and repression, the Kurds created a major university, an Institute of Fine Arts, a technical school and 12 secondary schools. They built thousands of new housing units and hundreds of miles of roads -- all since 1992.
But what the Kurds suffered before achieving this is almost beyond imagination. The author describes the Anfal, the Baath regime's genocidal attack on the Kurds begun in 1988: "During the Anfal Campaign, about twelve hundred Kurdish villages were systematically destroyed by the Iraqi military through bombing and burning, mass evacuation and execution . . . tens of thousands of Kurds -- perhaps as many as one hundred eighty thousand -- were murdered or disappeared. Ruined villages were bulldozed, wells capped with concrete, fields poisoned and tens of thousands of civilians placed in refugee centers that were, in effect, concentration camps." The ultimate atrocity was the chemical bombing of Halabja, which killed 5,000 villagers instantly and sent another 5,000 fleeing over the mountains to Iran, many dying along the way. Anfal was Saddam Hussein's final solution, his plan to make the Iraqi Kurds and their rural way of life disappear forever. (Even today, some 12-15 million land mines still riddle Iraqi Kurdistan.)
Despite all this, the Kurds reserve their fiercest resentment for the Turks, who since the time of Ataturk had outlawed the speaking or teaching of the Kurdish language and waged a civil war against their Kurdish minority that did not end until 1999, leaving 37,000 people killed, 3,000 Kurdish villages destroyed and at least a million Kurds homeless. (Interestingly, she writes, Istanbul is "the world's largest Kurdish city, as it is home to about 2 million Kurds, out of a city population of 12 million." Most of them manage to live there unharmed by denying their Kurdish identity and integrating into the fabric of Turkish society.)
Bird observes that the Syrian Kurds have not suffered as much extreme persecution as those in other countries, but those in Iran are better integrated: "Kurds and Persians share a similar language, a similar tolerance, a similar independence of spirit, and a similar outlook toward the Arabs, who conquered both their lands in the name of Islam in A.D. 637." She attributes some of the Kurds' notable courage and determination to the mountains amid which they live. "Mountain people all over the world . . . are a notoriously independent, stubborn, rebellious and proud lot. Isolated in their craggy fortresses, they are accustomed to taking care of themselves, and don't cotton well to being told what to do." But, she adds, the extraordinary repressions they have faced -- and survived -- have also contributed to their strength.
Bird learned much on her journey, and she returns with the realization that the Kurds are central to the future of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, and hence to the whole Middle East. She enlightens us and also gives us a great gift -- a sense of the humanity and pride of a beguiling people. •
Selwa Roosevelt was chief of protocol for seven years during the Reagan administration. She has lived and traveled widely in the Middle East.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Note: Reports are published based on respect for freedom of opinion's expression, they do not necessarily reflect views of Kurdistan Democratic Party.