Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Nation Without Borders – Journeys Through Kurdistan

Kurdistan comprises a craggy, mountainous stretch through the epicenter of the Middle East and is home to as many as 30 million Kurds, the fourth largest ethnic group in the region. Long marginalized and brutally repressed--as in the late 1980s, when Saddam Hussein attacked Iraqi Kurds with chemical weapons and destroyed more than 4,000 Kurdish villages--the Kurds are notoriously independent, passionate, and proud, and today they hold tremendous geopolitical importance, as evidenced by their role in building the new Iraqi government.

The author of the book that represents this region (“A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts”), Christiane Bird, first became fascinated by the Kurds during her 1988 visit to Iran. Here, she explores Iraqi Kurdistan - which, with a decade of protection as part of the "Northern No-Fly Zone," has flourished as a near-autonomous democracy - and makes stops in Syria, Iran, and Turkey, showing Kurdish history and culture along the way.

Though the Kurds played a major military and tactical role in the United States’ recent war with Iraq, most people know little about this fiercely independent people. Christiane Bird’s travels through this volatile part of the world, provide us with a glimpse of the Kurds’ story, using personal observations and in-depth research to illuminate an astonishing history and vibrant culture.

For the twenty-five to thirty million Kurds, Kurdistan is both an actual and a mythical place: an isolated, largely mountainous homeland that has historically offered sanctuary from the treacherous outside world and yet does not exist on modern maps. Parceled out among the four nation-states of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran after World War I, Kurdistan is a divided land with a tragic history, where the indomitable Kurds both celebrate their ancient culture and fight to control their own destiny. Occupying some of the Middle East’s most strategic and richest terrain, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the region and the largest ethnic group in the world without a state to call their own.

Whether dancing at a Kurdish wedding in Iran, bearing witness to the destroyed Kurdish countryside in southeast Turkey, having lunch with a powerful exiled agha in Syria, or visiting the sites of Saddam Hussein’s horrific chemical attacks in Iraq, the intrepid, Bird sheds light on a violently stunning world seen by few Westerners. Part mesmerising travelogue, part action-packed history, part reportage, and part cultural study, this critical book offers timely insight into an unknown but increasingly influential part of the world. Bird paints a moving and unforgettable portrait of a people uneasily poised between a stubborn past and an impatient future.

The book's title comes from a Kurdish poem about the Kurds' determination to be masters of their own lands, an effort that brings about "a thousand sighs, a thousand tears, a thousand revolts, a thousand hopes." Bird deftly describes each of those aspects of Kurdistani culture, from the sighs and tears of women who offer Bird both flavourful dinners and wrenching stories of loss, to the hopes of Kurdish artists who believe their ethnic group's artistic traditions can survive beyond war. Where Bird focuses most, however, is the revolts that have plagued the Kurds for decades. The largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own, the Kurds live in an arc of land that stretches through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of the former Soviet Union. As Bird travels through Kurdistan (a country that isn't on any map), she meets an array of people, from scholars to bus drivers. Each story of conflict, poverty, homelessness and suffering is like a brushstroke in a larger portrait of the Kurdish experience.

The journey to my next port of call – Iraq – should be relatively easy, as technically I am already there! This trip is covered by “The Baghdad Blog” by ‘Salam Pax’. Salam Pax is the pseudonym of Salam Abdulmunem, under which he became the "most famous blogger in the world" during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Along with a massive readership, his site "Where is Raed?" received notable media attention. The pseudonym consists of the word for "peace" in Arabic (salam) and in Latin (pāx). His was one of the first instances of an individual's blog having a wide audience and impact. In 2003 Atlantic Books, in association with The Guardian, published a book based on "Where is Raed?" under the title "The Baghdad Blog". It comprises Salam's blog entries from September 2002 to June 2003 - at the epicentre of the build up to and invasion of Iraq by Allied forces.

Rather than risk an overland journey through Iraq (still not advised for foreigners), I shell out £334 one a one-way MEA flight that takes me from Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), into the Iraqi capital itself, Baghdad (via Beirut on a 16.5 hour journey…leaving at 22.25 and arriving bleary-eyed at Baghdad International Airport (formerly Saddam International Airport) at 01.30 in the morning…

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