By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Posts Tagged ‘Kurdish

Contested Stones redux

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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.)

Please read “Saving Syria,” by Christian Sahner in the Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2012.

Palmyra, Syria vintage silver print ©William Carter 1993

Palmyra, Syria vintage silver print ©William Carter 1993

East Jerusalem, 1964

East Jerusalem, 1964

“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.

Iraqi Kurdish guerillas, June 1965

Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas, June 1965

At one point I faced a dilemma while traveling for Life Magazine with the Kurdish guerrilla fighters across northern Iraq. 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.”

Colonel Akrawi shaving, Iraqi Kurdistan, June 1965

Colonel Akrawi shaving, Iraqi Kurdistan, June 1965

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

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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.

Written by bywilliamcarter

December 26, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Much More on the Kurds Part 6

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northern Iraq 1965

photographs and text © William Carter

They defended their birthright as a people.

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

Written by bywilliamcarter

January 14, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Much More on the Kurds Part 4

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northern Iraq 1965

photographs and text © William Carter

 

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Mullah Mustafa Barzani (right) with an assistant

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Marching peshmergas getting directions from locals

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Shepherds in spring: Kurds and their lands are distinct from others in the Middle East

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Migrant shepherd family in spring

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Relaxing in a village tea shop

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Christian girl sheltering in a cave from Iraqi bombing

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Mullah Mustafa Barzani during our last interview

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

Written by bywilliamcarter

December 24, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Much More on the Kurds Part 3

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northern Iraq 1965

photographs and text © William Carter

 

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These are actually Yemenis. See explanation below in comments.

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Kurdish villagers beside a well-used road in northern Iraq

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Kurdish village, northern Iraq

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Shepherd boy in spring

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Spring religious ritual, near the Iraq-Iran border

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Spring religious ritual, near the Iran-Iraq border

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Sorting grain on a rooftop

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

Written by bywilliamcarter

December 10, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Much More on the Kurds Part 2

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northern Iraq 1965

photographs and text © William Carter

 

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Morning in Kurdistan

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Native Ibex from Kurdish area of eastern Iraq or western Iran

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Conference between locals and peshmerga commanders

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Burial of an executed “josh” (“donkey” or Iraqi government spy)

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Kurdish graveyard

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Peshmergas enjoying home hospitality in village north of Suleimaniya

yet_more_2.7Peshmerga platoon on the march

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

Written by bywilliamcarter

November 26, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Seeds of Today’s Headlines

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plus some heartwarming responses

by William Carter

Mullah Mustafa Barzani, 1965

Mullah Mustafa Barzani, 1965

Running in this space for several months, my Kurdish blogs attracted wide attention, not least from the Kurds themselves. Seeing unknown, 50-year-old photographs of their own legendary founding hero, Mullah Mustafa Barzani (left), was a heart-warming revelation.

One non-Kurd who responded was Chris Kutschera, who runs a photo archive in Paris dedicated to his and others’ photographs from Kurdistan, and to his several books and many articles on the Kurds. Chris has added a number of my 1965 photographs to his ongoing collection, which can be visited at www.chris-kutschera.com

These days I get up early to scour the headlines for the latest news of the Kurdish peshmergas’ valiant struggle against the ISIS marauders in Syria and Iraq, helped by U.S. airdrops of supplies. Those of you who see the New Yorker magazine can read Dexter Filkins’ recent report in depth and detail on these special people.

Over the years visiting journalists, including myself, have admired these proud and independent folks to the point of struggling to maintain professional objectivity on the ins and outs of their long-running struggle for “autonomy” within existing Iraq, Turkey, and Syria — or, one day perhaps, independence as a separate nation.

One Kurd who responded to my photographs of the ancient Mesopotamian stones was Kozad Ahmed.  A Kurdish archeologist born in Baghdad in 1967 (two years after my visit), he contextualized those stones in his detailed 2012 Ph.D. thesis at the University of Leiden in Holland, titled “The Beginnings of Ancient Kurdistan” (c. 2500-1500): A Historical and Cultural Synthesis.” Evidently those stones were smuggled out of the village of Betwata the 1970s, auctioned in Geneva and are now in museums in Jerusalem and Baghdad.

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

Written by bywilliamcarter

October 27, 2014 at 6:35 pm

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