Consider first this story: During World War II, Archibald Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore and cousin of Franklin, was serving as an intelligence officer in Iraq and Iran. In the hinterlands he encountered the Kurds, and like many Westerners was smitten with this stateless, combative and likable mountain people. By chance, he became the sole American observer of the birth and death of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, whose fate is as instructive as it is forgotten. During the war British and Soviet troops invaded Iran and forced its Shah, perceived as pro-German, to abdicate in favor of his young son. The Russians occupied northern Iran, the British the south, leaving a narrow buffer in between. This was a Kurdish area, whose principal city was Mahabad, meaning place of the Medes, the supposed ancestors of the Kurds.
At war’s end, the Russians continued their occupation for a year. Sensing an opportunity, Kurdish rebels led by Qazi Mohammad and his two brothers proclaimed Mahabad’s independence in January 1946. Though the Qazis were encouraged by the Russians and bolstered by Kurdish guerrillas from Iraq, theirs was a hopeless cause but not a dishonorable one. That is what Roosevelt concluded after he flew to the Kurdish heartland and heard the Qazis’ grievances, the foremost being the denial of language rights by the old Shah. They insisted they sought negotiations, not war, so when the new Shah’s soldiers marched on Mahabad, the Qazis surrendered without a fight. When he heard the news in Teheran, Roosevelt urged the American Ambassador, George Allen, to seek an immediate audience. As Allen began his appeal, the Shah broke in: ”Are you afraid I’m going to have them shot? If so, you can set your mind at rest. I am not.” He kept his word with regal duplicity: the Qazis were hanged the following dawn at the command of the new Shah.
This is one of a hundred episodes related through pictures, memoirs and intelligence files in ”Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History,” by Susan Meiselas. It is a superb and enriching book: the family album of a forsaken people, the archive of a nation that has not been permitted to exist. It speaks movingly to the fate of all marginal peoples whose principal offense is their existence, meaning they are treated with contempt by nearby masters and with fickle opportunism by distant well-wishers, America included. It is an album rendered in what Virgil called the tears of things, filled with nobility and brutality, passion and terror.
Meiselas is a photojournalist known for her work in Central America. In 1991, in the wake of the gulf war, she visited villages in northern Iraq from which Kurdish refugees were fleeing Saddam Hussein’s warplanes. She was appalled by what she saw: ”I had never witnessed such a complete and systematic destruction of village life, even in 10 years of covering the conflicts in Central America.” In fact, the worst horrors in Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds came in 1988, before the gulf war — an assault in which as many as 100,000 Kurds are thought to have disappeared. Meiselas was struck by how little she knew of the Kurds, a tough mountain people, mostly Muslims, who speak a distinctive language akin to Persian. An estimated 20 million Kurds inhabit a stony heartland spread through adjacent areas of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and the former Soviet Union; they are the world’s largest ethnic group without its own state.
As part of a Human Rights Watch team documenting evidence of Saddam’s massacres, Meiselas was haunted by bits of the Kurdish past she discovered in photo studios, family albums, yellowed press clippings and dusty books. Out of this she has composed a group portrait of a proud and quarrelsome people, incapable of servility. Here are Kurdish warriors and poets, their tasseled headgear tied with a flourish, often with bandoliers across their vests; and their wives and daughters, nearly always unveiled, with eyes as bold as their dresses, their gaze suggesting defiant fidelity to a hazardous cause. Just how hazardous is spelled out by Martin van Bruinessen, a Dutch authority on Kurdish life, who contributes commentaries preceding each thematic section. Otherwise the text consists of letters, diaries, interviews, diplomatic cables, news reports and accounts by travelers, excerpted without comment.
Words and images pull the reader into a narrative tide, beginning in the 1880’s with the first stirrings of the Kurdish awakening. Thereafter the story is a recurrent cycle of hope and disaster. Starting in the 1920’s, with the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were promised autonomy by various powers, but the promises were repeatedly broken for fear that the Kurds would inconveniently unite across vital frontiers. As this book makes plain, the Kurds are scarcely without sins, ranging from fratricidal feuds and terrorism to participation in massacres of Armenians. But that does not excuse or explain the savage efforts to wipe out their culture.
In all this, Washington has played its part, beginning with promises of self-determination from Woodrow Wilson and continuing into the Nixon era, when America secretly armed and then abandoned Kurdish rebels in Iraq. Like other big powers, Americans offer Kurds comfort and sympathy tempered by Realpolitik. Cruelly, their mountains both protect and isolate them. Living so far from the world’s care or sight, Kurds are the more readily hanged or shot, at the whim of shahs or presidents, with the certainty that no one will notice. This book could not be more welcome.
Karl E. Meyer, a former editorial writer for The New York Times and a contributor to the arts pages, toured the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey after the Persian Gulf war.