Monday, May 30, 2016

Reading around the world: Kurdistan, the Country Which Doesn't Exist

Not what springs to mind when you think of Iraq, is it?

This week I explore the difficult history and present of a country which doesn't exist. Kurdistan lives in the hearts and dreams of 35 million people scattered across Northern Iraq, Southern Turkey, and small sections of Iran and Syria. It is the hope of a people who have fought for their existence for generations, and struggled to maintain their heritage in the face of cultural erasure in Turkey and systematic attempted genocide by Saddam Hussein. Who are the Kurds? For a people separated by so many borders this is a complicated question, but the easiest answer is any native speaker of Kurdish. The book I read, Invisible Nation, focused on the Kurdish population of Northern Iraq, a fiercely independent people whose culture has been shaped by decades of fighting for survival. While Kurds are primarily Muslim, they are far less conservative than their regional neighbors. They drink, women go unveiled, and sometimes even join men on the front lines. But perhaps most surprising to me: they love former president George W Bush.

A map of 'Kurdistan', showing areas where Kurds live in four countries. Iraq is the only one where their dreams of autonomy have come close to being realized. 

I am grateful to have found this book, because while I have lived with the Iraq war for almost as long as I can remember, my knowledge of this deeply complicated event is still colored by my simple child's understanding. Going to anti-war protests under my parents wing I learned the Iraq war was Bad, that there should be No Blood for Oil, and that Bush and his cronies invaded seeking only profit and nationalistic fervor. I I never learned about the Kurds, never heard that there was a whole population in Iraq who welcomed the American soldiers with songs and flowers, and fought alongside them.

The  now iconic image of Saddam's statue being pulled down. In the North, meanwhile, uncaptured by photographers, Kurds were gleefully pulling down their statues without the encouragement or assistance of the watching US soldiers shown here. 

To understand why the Kurds would so enthusiastic greet an invading force, we have to back up and examine their history. Perennial victims of a map, they have been consistently exploited for other's wars, strung along by their hope of a homeland. During the last throes of the Ottoman empire they were used by the Turks as executioners for over a Million Armenians, only to be later despised, never 'Turkish enough'. Iraqi Kurds joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, a disastrous alliance which gave Saddam Hussein an excuse to finally try to solve 'The Kurdish Problem'. In one of the world's most notorious use of Chemical weapons, Hussein poisoned towns full of civilians, and killed thousands in just days. During the first Bush presidency when Bush I invaded to defend Kuwait from being annexed by Iraq, the Kurds were heavily encouraged to rise up in order to create chaos, with heavily implied American support for an independent Kurdistan dangled as an incentive. When the brief war ended and to everyone's surprise, Saddam Hussein was still alive and still ruler of Iraq, this promise melted away. Retaliation, again, was harsh. The slaughter that followed was so terrible that when at last the American grew a conscience and attempted some humanitarian aid, mothers threw their babies onto departing helicopters, rather than let them die together. In the aftermath, the American military began to enforce a no fly zone around Kurdish Iraq, in effect creating the infant nation of Kurdistan.

This nation, having survived Hussein's ravages twice, did remarkably well under the patrol of American jets. While Iraq's currency spiraled into inflation, the Kurdish one stayed stable. The Kurds elected their own government, started reconstructing their bombed cities, and built universities. Things were looking good. They might even achieved independence at last had not political bickering divided the tiny country even further until another Bush came along to unite them.

The capital city of Erbil

Having lived at the edge of security, their existence barely tolerated by every nation surrounding them, when Washington began to growl threats against Saddam Hussein, they were among the old people in the world who cheered. They readily offered assistance in information and manpower. When the invasion finally came, Kurdish Pesh Murga fought alongside American soldiers, and the two armies developed a strong mutual respect. The Kurdish government, well practiced in running their section of Iraq, was eager to offer their experience to rebuild the country. It seemed on the edge of a happy ending for the Kurds, far from the horrific bloodbath I imagined as a child. But it was not to be.

During the initial successful invasion, Bush's envoys to Iraq were veterans of the area, people with strong connections to Iraqis and a good grasp of the complicated politics on the ground. Later though, Washington began to favor politics over pragmatism, and sent people for their loyalty to the White House, not their knowledge of the region. One particularly disastrous ambassador, Bremer, spent most of his career in Europe and then was given the unenviable task of running a country he knew nothing about. He made this harder upon himself by refusing to respect local customs, and horribly insulted every Iraqi politician (whose cooperation he desperately needed) by continually putting his feet up on his desk, soles pointed towards his supposed allies in one the worst insult possible in the Middle East. With clueless bureaucrats the helm, the power vacuum in Iraq quickly turned to a cyclone. Internal politics soured even further, and violence erupted around the country in opposition to the defunct occupation. While the Kurds still maintain a seat in government as the (primarily symbolic) President, they have mostly retreated back behind their invisible border as Iraq disintegrates to less than it was under a dictatorship. Kurdish independence remains at the forefront of everyone's thoughts, but the issue has once again been set aside to deal with yet another catastrophe: ISIS. America may find itself begging their help once again, as the Kurds are one of our best hopes against the rapid spread of ISIS, which they fight with characteristic bravery.  I find the Syrian war hopeless, a battle for the least awful outcome, with no hope for a good one. But after learning about the Kurdish people and their struggles and successes despite the odds I have one hope: that at last, somehow, from the rubble of the modern Middle East, Kurdistan will rise. 

Kurdish pop star Helly Luv sings anti-ISIS tunes, just miles from ISIS occupied territory. 

For more on Kurdistan:

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Anuradhapura: Memory and the Sacred City

A Carving of a elephant playing in the water

There is something magical to me about ancient places. It is a near human universal – this desire to step into the past, to stare at crumbling ruins and try to imagine life in them, to feel some kind of connection to a time we can barely imagine. Why we love this I don't know, but for me it is like walking through a world you can half create: imagine walls around empty foundations and pillars. Fill them with people. In some ways I enjoy the condition of wondering more than the condition of knowing, so my favorite site was the most ruined one. Half covered in grass and trees, sometimes walls emerging from the ground and sometimes only strange lumps of green hinting at the world beneath. Felt like a child again, imagining the kings and gods and ordinary people who filled these palaces and temples.

Jonathan and I navigated the sacred city of Anuradhpura on bikes, enjoying wet air cooled by rain, a world saturated in growth and green. We cycled aimlessly, pausing to admire vast stupas rising out of the fields, or herds of monkeys, goats, and water buffalo that wander through the ruins

These Langiers may have made my day with their acrobatics - we watched them tussle and turn backflips and swing on the wire in the background. 

A random, beautiful, Stupa. 

We visited a 3000 year old Bodhi tree, brought by the Buddha when he came to settle a dispute between Sri Lankan kings. It is the oldest tree in the world continuously cared for by humans. The air hummed with prayer as families in white sang and chanted, offering flowers or incense or plates of food.

The ancient Bodhi tree. 

The only experience comparable to the two great Stupas that I can think of is standing at the foot of the great pyramids – at the time they were built the only things in the world which rivaled them in size. At 70+ meters in size (only half their original height) and made up of 90 Million bricks the scale was astonishing. Barely believable, that such a thing could be made with human hands and sweat before mechanical aid. No words or pictures can describe the feeling of standing next to one – you feel minuscule.

Detail of a ladder going up the Stupa 

But, like everything in Sri Lanka, Anaradhapura has a political dimension as well. After the war the ex president Rajapaksa announced a plan to build yet another stupa in the middle of the sacred city – even taller than the ancient ones – to commemorate the bravery of the (Sinhalese) soldiers against the (Tamil) 'terrorists'. From what I could see of construction the project survived the regime change. It breaks my heart, but this beautiful place has become symbol of triumphant nationalism. Anaradhapura, is, in a way, a monument to nostalgia – to a time when the Sinhalese were the best architects and one of the wealthiest civilizations in the world. Yet, just like when Americans harken back to 'the good old days' (what good old days? The days of 'colored' water fountains? The days when women couldn't vote? The days of slavery?) nostalgia is dangerous. It is almost always built on a simplified, idealized past, and erases those who complicate the present. Not that progress is always positive, Anaradhapura demonstrates the need for a respectful but critical eye towards history, lest it become relegated to a prop for our stories about the present. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Batticaloa and the 'Real' Sri Lanka

This weekend Taryn and Jonathan and I traveled to Batticaloa, a town on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, almost directly on the opposite side of the country. Though it is less than 200 miles away as the crow flies, it is a journey of 10 hours by train, and when you step off dusty and sweat stained, you are in another world. In Batticaloa there is a different language, Tamil, and different faiths - Hinduism and Islam dominate here.There is little in Batti to attract the casual tourist, but we went to visit friends who have lived there as part of their research. Seeing the East through their eyes, mediated by their connections and observations, we saw into a part of Sri Lanka that is hidden from the cluttered streets and shining buildings of Colombo.

After seeing a Tamil action movie with our friends Kim and Sam, and several of Kim's friends.

Colombo is a place of new chances, a place where the enthusiastic proclamations from politicians carry weight, where optimism cautiously circulates around the tongues of an English speaking elite, who watch eagerly for reform, and the flood of Western dollars this will bring. In the East, difficulty crashes back around you – the reality that even when rhetoric changes, this country has lived 12 years under routine torture, kleptocracy, disappearances in the night, bombings. In this world life hovers hesitant, the boundaries between life and death are thin, easy to fall from one side to another by some twist of chance, the whim of some soldier. Even when inflammatory rhetoric cools, the bureaucrats, the police, the soldiers, the monsters these angry words created, still inhabit their positions of power. They will not change overnight at the visit of a United National Commissioner for Human Rights. For Easterners, change is not miraculous with the switch of a president. They see their land, their culture, their language still chipped away at by powerful people imported from the West. Kim tells us how the local Buddhist temple is almost always empty, but for Buddhist holidays buses of Sinhalese from the West are shipped in to worship there, while the Hindu temple next door blasts music in not exactly silent protest. Sam tells us about the bad old days when his Tamil friend's house was firebombed by a 'patriot', and white vans circled the town catching young men and boys, who never reappeared. New buildings are built, new stories are told, but these memories simmer under the surface of the town. The war lingers far closer than in Colombo.

Damage from the  2004 Tsunami 

In Colombo, Taryn and I often talk about how we sometimes feel we are not in Sri Lanka. My life is nestled in the crux of globalized anonymity of Sri Lanka – I live in the wealthiest area of Colombo, next to several embassies. You can go your whole day without hearing a word of Sinhala or Tamil: even in grocery stores people speak English to one another. Our own limited language skills mean we can't make very meaningful relationships outside the English speaking elite, with whom we converse about American politics and TV shows. When I first arrived in Sri Lanka I was primed for intense poverty by my recent experiences in Cambodia and Rwanda, and it took me several weeks to recognize that the facelessly globalized places around Colombo, the business hotels, restaurants serving imitation European food, and Starbucks clone cafes, are primarily inhabited and own by Sri Lankans. They are a part of Sri Lanka too. It might be satisfying to a Westerner to go abroad and find something different and exotic, but who am I to admonish Sri Lankans for not being Sri Lankan enough, to be disappointed in their love of McDonald’s and Pizza hut? This, too, is Sri Lanka.

So I learn to recognize the many worlds contained in this small island, none more 'legitimate' than any other. Is Shakespeare in the Park in Colombo any less 'Sri Lankan' than helping Kim's host sister cook Dhal? Is the hope in Colombo any more 'real' than the fear and resentment in the East? I have to say no, but the danger comes in believing Sri Lanka is limited to one sphere or another. Dangerous to forget that the experience I have had, while it may be a Sri Lankan one, is limited to a tiny minority of the Sri Lankan population. One of the great challenges Sri Lanka faces is the reconciliation of these worlds. And what deserves more priority: the hope for a new future or the need to recognize a horrific past? How can memory be honored without dredging up old fears and hatred? How can you move forward without erasure?

No easy solutions to these questions – they have circled through my mind without settling since leaving the East . One method of reconciling these worlds is addressing the economic disparities between the Western Province and... well, anywhere else in Sri Lanka. It is letting people return to the lands and lives they inhabited before the war. It is improving and investing in rural schools. It is judicious development based on maximizing impact for the people, not the poorly placed and badly designed ego projects of the previous regime. I see these changes moving slowly forward, but I am stumped by the question of memory. How do you memorialize without triumphalism or sensationalizing? I have traveled in the wake of genocide enough to know that the traditional approach – gather bones and stack them high, might impress some NGOs into shelling out some dollars, but the unceremonious and anonymous display of the bits of their loved ones is only hurtful to the survivors. How can you honor the dead and respect the living?

Still circling.  

A Batticaloa Sunset