Posts Tagged ‘Kurds’
Too late — again?
As a sad update to my recent “Contested Stones” blog, events continue to unfold in the Middle East. Under the headline “Saving Syria,” the Wall Street Journal notes that, amid that nation’s current civil war, poorly guarded monuments of immense historical importance, including the medieval Crac des Chevaliers and the Roman ruins of Palmyra, are starting to be degraded by looters and damaged by modern weaponry. Below the link to the WSJ story is one of my photographs of Palmyra, in the eastern Syrian desert. (Recall that Iraq suffered other important archaeological losses which occurred during the American invasion.)
“Watch any mother kneeling beside her toddler, pointing and explaining what they are looking at. Our urge to see, to comprehend and connect, starts there.”
That’s how I put it in the opening text of my Causes and Spirits.
Received culture profoundly affects how we see the world. Including how we view it through our cameras.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Holy Land” fought over for thousands of years by followers of the three Abrahamic religions, plus such secular claimants as the Romans, the Turks, and the British.
When I was living in Beirut 1964-1966, much of Jerusalem and the territory around Bethlehem were controlled by a classic buffer state — the Kingdom of Jordan. On two successive Decembers I was sent by an American magazine to photograph Christmas in Bethlehem. None of those pictures survive, because the magazine was buying full rights, including the films themselves. But I retain strong memories of the tumult swirling within and without the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Monks of various traditions were physically fighting for jurisdiction over this and that section of holy stones at this and that hour. The surrounding city bubbled with the sorts of strife to which the region has always been heir, and to which the Israelis would soon contribute. Seasoned observers would continue to watch these underlying tensions weave threads of irony into all the heartfelt salaams and shaloms of the private greetings, public blessings and international agreements.
But I did my gig: I sent the Midwestern magazine what I was sure they wanted: warm, candlelit faces of Protestant pilgrims processioning past the ancient, contested stones.
Where and when to cut slices of space and time with the bright-line frame of my Leica was never obvious. I reflected, sometimes, on earlier generations of foreign photographers of the Middle East: of the dreamy harem scenes, for instance, always included in the sets of stereopticon slides sent back to reinforce colonial stereotypes in London drawing rooms — some of those same drawing rooms where ruler lines were then being traced across the maps of Arab sands creating nation-states where none had existed before – thus helping set up the kinds of tribal quarrels the world still struggles to contain.
Working far from home, journalists can face ethical dilemmas that are personal and immediate, as well as professional. Covering the Korean War in the 1950s, a journalist I knew watched an American TV crew stop a farm family from putting out the fire engulfing their shelled house until the cameraman got great footage of the licking flames.
At one point I faced a dilemma while traveling for Life Magazine with the Kurdish guerrilla fighters across northern Iraq (see also previous blog post Plight of Syria’s Kurds Breaks into the News). My main contact was an intelligent, helpful, English-speaking former Iraqi army officer named Colonel Akrawi. Huddled by a lantern one night, noticing I hadn’t gotten any combat shots, he moved closer, tapped on a map and whispered, “At the bottom of these hills, in the flat desert north of Suleimaniya, there’s a small Iraqi police post. Half a dozen of them sleep there every night. Next Tuesday is full moon. So if you want, we can raid the place and kill all the policemen – and you’ll can get great pictures! Okay?”
He was leaving it up to me. His offer was laden with the warmth and generosity of traditional guest-honoring, plus a dose of macho that included me as co-conspirator in their revolution. How to reply? The pictures sounded tempting. But to get them, I would, in effect, be sponsoring a few murders. And, I would be creating some news in order to report it – not exactly what photojournalists are supposed to do. As the lantern light flickered over our faces, I thanked the colonel, but explained that for that job I would have needed a flash, and mine was broken. The gentlemanly Kurd nodded and accepted this. I photographed Akrawi and his aides, conferring in the orange lantern light well into the night. Days later I photographed him shaving. Then we marched west for several nights to the mountain passes above the oilfields of Kirkuk. Under shellfire the colonel handed me his binoculars, pointed, and declared, “That oil is ours!” Today, sixty years later, the Kurds are negotiating to sell that oil direct to major American producers without bothering to ask permission from Baghdad.
A year or two after my visit, word reached me Colonel Akrawi had been badly wounded in battle. Eventually, I was told he had died. An amateur botanist, he had showed me a scrapbook he toted around, into which he pressed samples of plants peculiar to the Kurdish region of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Whatever happened to that lovely notebook, with its unique specimens? In Paris, much later, I visited the Kurdish Institute and asked about Akrawi: they remembered him well — but not his collection.
In the late 1970s I was sitting on the cool tiles of a crowded courtyard near Bombay, listening to a talk by spiritual master Swami Muktananda when he remarked, as if casually, “One sees the world as one is.”
In the Western press, the story of Syria’s beleaguered Kurdish population has been overshadowed by coverage of their immediate cousins, the U.S.-friendly Kurds of northern Iraq and those of Turkey. Michael Kennedy’s story on page A6 in the New York Times of April 18 changes that. In a deeply sourced and widely researched report, Kennedy quotes longtime Washington Post correspondent and author Jonathan C. Randal and other experts on the Syrian Kurds’ long and heartrending struggle for independence against the long-running hereditary regimes of strongman Syrian Presidents Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad.
An old personal friend of my wife and myself, Randal always had a reputation among his colleagues of daring to go where no one else would asking the provocative questions no one else dared ask. Following on the pioneering 1960s book on the Kurds by another friend, New York Times’ Dana Adams Schmidt, Randal’s updated and highly detailed book on the Kurds’ struggle landed him with a subpoena from a Turkish court which he, characteristically, flew from France to Istanbul to answer in order to assert freedom of the press in some of the more dangerous corridors within a strife-torn nation wishing to qualify for membership in the European Union.
Kennedy’s fine piece in this week’s New York Times alerts modern readers to the seemingly eternal reality of tribalism as a stumbling block to national identity everywhere in the Middle East and south Asia — the fundamental resistance to political “modernization” as earnestly attempted under the evolving value systems and political motivations, in the course of their histories, by Britain, Russia, and now the U.S. Good luck. Or maybe Godspeed would be the more appropriate term, given the religious undercurrents always involved.
Another fine photographer who covered the Kurds extensively is Susan Meiselas. Visit her website www.akakurdistan.com, “a safe and anonymous space on the web to share some of the complexities of Kurdish history.”
Here’s another photo to illustrate tribalism — a portrait of the famous Kurdish tribal chief, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, taken when I was traveling illegally in northern Iraq in 1965. This black and white version appeared with my six page article in LIFE Magazine the same year, and it reappears in my recent book, Causes and Spirits, on pages 264-265. Mullah Mustafa died in 1979. The original is in brilliant color (Kodachrome slide taken with Leica M2), which I could probably find and scan into my website if anyone is interested (ie, if enough readers write and ask). Another picture of Barzani taken by me at the same time illustrates the current Wikipedia entry on Mustafa Barzani.
The deep tribal affinity of the Kurds in their generations-long struggle for independence from the Iraqi central government is a textbook-perfect case of the enduring power of in-group tenacity throughout the Middle East and south Asia. Mullah Mustafa’s son, Massoud Barzani, has played a leading role in Iraqi politics since before and after his alliance with the US-Coalition invasion. He is the current leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq, and was re-elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan with 66% of the vote in July 2009.
The deeper reality is that the Barzani clan commands the fundamental loyalty of only part of the Kurds. The others traditionally adhere to a faction called the Talabani (unrelated to the Afgans by a similar name); Jalal Talabani serves as the sixth President of Iraq. He met with Barack Obama in Iraq on April 7, 2009. Past relationships between the two Kurdish clans were frosty at best, but (perhaps as a sign of changing political realities) the Barzani and Talibani appear to have evolved a cooperative relationship. The stories of the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria are politically different, yet ethnically similar in that, for instance, nearly all speak Kurdish and some have blue eyes; quite a number have also emigrated to Europe.
My step-daughter’s husband, Kushi Gavrieli, is a Kurdish Jew born in the Negev region of Israel whose family migrated there from a village in western Iran where the ancient Aramaic language is still spoken. The Middle East is speckled with such anomalies; I visited a band of Chaldean Christians living in a cave among the Iraqi Kurds.
Sure, all of above complexity will be beautifully sorted out and settled by whomever wins the U.S. election in November. Send over a few more bombs, and we can “get it behind us.”