By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Them vs. Us, and Beyond, Part 3

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THE KURDS  AND I

By William Carter

When I boarded the plane with a hand grenade in my coat pocket, I never thought that much about it. I just laid the fuzzy garment in the overhead rack. I was far more concerned with the camera bag containing a couple dozen canisters of undeveloped film, which I slid under the seat in front of me. If anything could still go wrong, I reasoned, those films would somehow or other make their way to Beirut – God knows what would happen to them then.

Sure enough, before the engines started, a polite announcement: “Would Mr. William Carter kindly step off the aircraft?” My limbs began to quiver. But I had already thought this through: leaving the films where they were, and the wool coat where it was, and with my passport and boarding pass in my shirt pocket, feigning calm, I unbuckled my seat belt, walked to the door, down the gangway in the spring sunshine, and stopped. What next? There was no one in sight to direct me. I stood there in the sun for a few seconds —  minutes? — my toes nervous in their hiking boots already warming on the hot tarmac.

If I were arrested, I wondered, could I call the U.S. Embassy and could they get someone in Beirut to pick up my stuff (my film) off the plane? A door in the terminal opened a crack. A hand emerged and seemed to be waving me to get back on the plane. I couldn’t be sure. I shaded my eyes with my hand and squinted. Half a person emerged, faceless but connected to the hand, which kept waving. I went back up the steps. At the top the stewardess in her high heels and perky hat was smiling professionally. “Customs wanted to be sure it was you,” she said, preventing any questions. “Customs,” I knew, meant the Shah’s secret police, the savak, which, I was to pretend I didn’t know, was tracking my movements in and out of Iran.

As I buckled my seat belt, the door closed and the engines started.

The hand grenade – it was disarmed — had been given to me days earlier just across the border in Iraq as a parting gesture of hospitality by the pesh mergas, the Kurdish guerrillas fighting for independence from the Baghdad government. This was June 1965. To this day, some friends think I was working for the CIA in that era. Far from it. I was a freelance photojournalist, on assignment in this case for LIFE Magazine. Authentic except for the explosives, the grenade had been proudly presented to me by the Kurds after  I visited a nondescript village house which my hosts had transformed into an impromptu arms factory.

Weapons factory, northeastern Iraq, 1965

Weapons factory, northeastern Iraq, 1965

This was the pesh mergas’ way of showing how self-sustaining they were while at the same time begging me to tell America how much they needed modern weaponry. That was not the first time, those past glorious weeks, when I had to improvise a semblance of diplomacy.  “America is a big ocean,” I replied, “And I have only a small spoon.” Hearing the translation, they laughed and slapped my back with that ready good cheer that has charmed many another visitor to these Swiss-like mountains of Mesopotamia, origins of those twin rivers of life—the Tigris and Euphrates – which, millennia earlier, had enabled the blossoming of man’s earliest civilizations in the vast deserts below.

But what was so obvious among the mountain-based Kurds were the profound differences between their character and those of the Arabs, Iranians and Turks under whose authority they were forced to live. After World War I, following the collapse of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire and the century-old British Empire, the international boundaries of the Middle East had been drawn in the drawing rooms of Europe, with scant regard to tribal realities on the ground. For a century, and counting, those artificial lines on the map have remained a recipe for instability — magnified now by the ever-increasing importance of energy resources in a globalizing economy.

P.S.  I made it okay back to Beirut, developed my black and white film in my impromptu bathroom darkroom, scribbled the story and some captions, and airfreighted all that — plus the undeveloped color films – to Manhattan. LIFE ran the story only in black and white. Few of the color slides have ever been published, but you can view them now by hitting the button below.

That was 47 years ago, when I was 30. Our thanks to old Kodak for creating Kodachrome, a wonderful, permanent film whose worldwide success has outlived that of the company. And to Leica for the cameras, an M3 and an M2 (later ripped off my neck covering a flood in Jordan, but that’s another story).

Oh, the hand grenade? I lost it at the Beirut airport, if you can believe that. Perhaps it got reloaded with explosives for use in one of Lebanon’s own fierce tribal wars soon to come in the later ’60s and ’70s. Which I was not around for. Except that my (now) wife (of 27 years) did live through those bleak Beirut years. Which is another story.

I recount the story of the hand grenade and the coat in this video segment.

Here is a video segment in which I recall my travels in Northern Iraq with the Kurds in 1965.

With Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Iraq, 1965

With Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Iraq, 1965

 

With Kurdish pesh mergas, Iraq, 1965

With Kurdish pesh mergas, Iraq, 1965

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.

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Written by bywilliamcarter

December 26, 2015 at 3:20 pm

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