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. 

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