Excerpted from A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts by Christiane Bird. Copyright © 2004 by Christiane Bird. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Talk with Christiane Bird
First off, what drew you to Kurdistan?
I first became interested in the Kurds during a trip I made to Iran in 1998. While there, I traveled to Sanandaj, Iran’s unofficial Kurdish capital, where I was immediately struck by how different the area seemed from the rest of the Islamic Republic–heartbreaking in its lonesome beauty, and defiant. But it was only after I returned home and began reading more about the Kurds that I really began to wonder, “Who are these indefatigable people?”
Most of us know something about the tragic recent history of the Iraqi Kurds. Is this common for the Kurdish populations in other countries?
Yes. As a people, the Kurds have one of the most tragic of modern histories, beginning with the West’s partition of their lands among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq–all new countries carved out of the old Ottoman Empire–and Iran after World War I.
The Kurds of Turkey have an especially horrific history. In its zeal to establish a national identity post-Ottoman Empire, Turkey denied it had a Kurdish minority; up until as recently as 1991, Kurds were declared to be “mountain Turks who have forgotten their language.” To speak Kurdish in public, give Kurdish concerts, teach the Kurdish language–let alone talk politics–was forbidden, and could result in arrest and torture.
Between 1984 and 1999, a bitter civil war waged in Turkey’s Kurdistan, during which over 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed–almost as many as in Iraq–37,000 people killed, and at least one million Kurds rendered homeless. Hundreds of other Kurds “disappeared” and thousands more were slammed into prisons.
The Iranian and Syrian Kurds have also suffered tremendously. After Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, thousands of Kurds were slaughtered and the region was placed under military rule. In Syria, about 200,000 Kurds are denied identity cards, meaning that they lack even such basic rights as a primary education, marriage registration and car ownership.
What can you tell us about U.S.-Kurdish relations over recent decades and today?
The history of U.S.-Kurdish relations in each country is very different–meaning that each group also has a very different attitude toward the U.S. The Iraqi Kurds may well be the most pro-American people in the world, while Turkey’s Kurds are largely anti-U.S., and many Iranian Kurds harbor great suspicion toward the U.S.
The hostility of Turkey’s Kurds stems from the role that the U.S. played in the Kurdish-Turkish civil war. In its reluctance to offend a prominent Middle Eastern ally, the U.S. ignored the rampant human rights atrocities committed by the Turkish state against the Kurds, instead wholeheartedly supporting their allies, no questions asked. Many Kurds grew up in terror of the sound of U.S. Black Hawks, Hueys, and Cobras–the army helicopters used to land Turkish troops in their villages.
Many Iranian Kurds, like Iranians in general, bear a grudge against the U.S. for past betrayals, especially the CIA-backed ouster of popularly elected Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953. The Iranian Kurds, again like their compatriots, desperately want change in their country, but they distrust U.S. intentions in the region.
Of all Kurdish groups, the Iraqi Kurds have the closest historical ties with the U.S. The association goes back to the days of Mulla Mustafa Barzani (1904-1979), father of the Iraqi Kurdish independence movement, who idealized America. The U.S. brutally betrayed Barzani in 1975 by endorsing the Algiers Accord, which ended the Shah of Iran’s support of the Iraqi Kurds, causing their movement to crumble. A similarly brutal U.S. betrayal occurred just after the first Gulf War, when President Bush encouraged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam, but failed to follow through on promises of support.
You were in Iraq about a year before the war. How did you get into Iraq at that time? How difficult was it to travel throughout the land of the Kurds? Did you feel safe?
Since the Baath regime did not grant visas to most Westerners, I had to enter Iraqi Kurdistan through one of its bordering countries, using a crossing permit issued jointly by that country and the Iraqi Kurds. I applied through Syria, and then traveled by bus and Jeep to an outpost on the Tigris River. By the banks waited burly men in red-and-white turbans, and a creaky skiff. I climbed aboard. Five minutes later, I was in Iraq. Traveling over the Tigris was one of the high points of my trip–it felt astonishing to be on that mythical river, mentioned in so many ancient texts.
Iraqi Kurdistan had no buses or scheduled transportation services–everything had to be done by taxi. But I had an enormous amount of help, from both officials and ordinary people. I was one of only a few non-Iraqi Americans in the region at that time, and everyone was eager to show off their experiment in democracy to me.
The most difficult issue for me to grapple with was safety; I never felt I had a true bead on the possible danger in Iraq. And neither, it seemed, did the Kurds. Some people chilled me with dire warnings about Saddam’s agents–who were in Kurdistan, and might target Americans–and told me never to travel without bodyguards. Others cavalierly said that I had nothing to worry about, bodyguards were just a formality. For the most part, the latter assessment seemed more accurate, but I did use bodyguards when visiting isolated regions and Halabja, where the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam was active.
I faced related issues in Syria, Turkey, and Iran. I didn’t worry so much about personal safety in those countries, but since none of their governments encourage foreigners in the Kurdish regions, I never knew when the authorities might suddenly decide to stop me, confiscate my notes, or toss me out of the country.
You visited Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria on your journeys. How similar are the Kurds of the four countries?
All Kurds share a similar basic culture, of course, but each group is quite different from the others. Some of the groups also have little interaction with one another, while others–the Iraqi and Turkey’s Kurds, for example–have a violent recent history between them, with their political parties often at war with each other.
Some of the differences are historical. Even before the division of Kurdish lands into four nation-states post-WWI, the Kurds were never a united community. Each region had its different tribes and different leaders, with little trust between them. And the Iranian Kurds were always especially separate from the rest; they had their own autonomous state as early as the 13th century and were the only Kurds to fall under the control of the Safavid Empire, rather than the Ottoman Empire, in the 1500s. The Iranian Kurds are also less tribal than are Kurds of other regions, as they were settled earlier.
Over the past 80 years, each Kurdish group has taken on some of the characteristics of their respective nation-state. Like their fellow Turks, Kurds living in urban Turkey are very Westernized, while the Iraqi Kurds, like their compatriots under the Baath regime, are only now coming into contact with the modern world. Many Kurdish men in Iraq and some in Iran still dress traditionally, but in Turkey, they wear Western clothes. Most Kurds of rural Turkey and Syria are illiterate; most Kurds of rural Iran are literate. The Iraqi Kurds were the first to organize a modern nationalist movement and remain the most sophisticated politically.
The Kurds are often described as tribal. How true is this description? How does this tribal nature affect their culture and politics today?
The once-paramount power of the Kurdish tribe and its leader, the agha, is no more, and their once-dominant nomadic lifestyle has all but disappeared. However, tribal affiliations are still central to the identity of many Kurds, especially in Turkey and Iraq. For these Kurds, tribal affiliations can influence marriage decisions, world outlook, and political viewpoints. Other Kurds are completely non-tribal.
Iraq’s two major Kurdish political parties are divided largely along tribal lines. Both wield extraordinary power, and their leaders are often viewed in the same personalized way–rather like grand patriarchs–once reserved for aghas. In Turkey, many aghas serve as politicians, usually siding with the rightist Turkish state and against leftist Kurdish politicians. Proponents of the status quo, the last thing most aghas want is any threat to their position, which has grown more powerful than ever since the civil war. Aghas who aid the state are amply rewarded. Rival aghas join rival parties. Traditional tribal conflicts are tightly entwined with modern politics. Among the uneducated, aghas often wield much power on a more personal level as well–offering advice and settling disputes, including murders. In some areas, murders are still considered to be tribal affairs, to be resolved outside the law.
What are “honor killings”? Is the practice increasing or decreasing?
Kurdistan is a highly traditional society, in which women are expected to be virgins when they marry and pre- or extramarital sex is strictly forbidden. Women who break the taboos are sometimes murdered by their own families, in so-called “honor killings”–a problem in various traditional tribal areas in the Middle East, but especially prevalent in parts of Pakistan, Jordan, and Palestine, and Iraqi and Turkey’s Kurdistan.
The number of honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan is believed to have been holding steady or going down before the 1990s. It spiked dramatically early in that decade, and is believed to be on the decline again. Experts blame the spike on many factors, but economic and social dislocation seems to be the primary cause. Similarly, in Turkey, the number of honor killings went up in the wake of the civil war.
Only the early 2000s did the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey seriously address the issue of honor killings by finally repealing the laws that allowed for the killings under mitigated circumstances. Increasingly powerful Kurdish women’s groups, publications, and conferences abroad are also drawing attention to the problem.
What is the role of women in Kurdistan?
As elsewhere in the Muslim world, most Kurdish women live under many strictures. Women must marry, preferably before age 30, if they wish to gain respect and a quasi-independent life. Most traditional Kurdish women also do not work outside the home, drive cars, travel by themselves, go out after dusk alone, or spend the night away from home unless in the company of male relatives. Kurdish men are allowed to have four spouses, while Kurdish women can have only one.
However, these mores–which do not necessarily apply to educated urban Kurdish women–are changing. Many in rural Kurdistan told me that women's lives have improved significantly over the last two decades. In Turkey, some of this change has come about because of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), which welcomed women guerillas into its ranks.
Educated urban Kurdish women often live lives similar to those of Western women, with some working at the very top of their professions. Overall, too, Kurdish society has always been somewhat more liberal in its treatment of women compared to other Muslim societies.
Are most Kurds Muslim? What is their relation to Islam?
Yes, most Kurds are Muslim. The vast majority are Sunni, while about 15% are Shiite. Most Sunni Kurds are of the Shafiite school, which sets them apart from the Arab and Turkish Sunnis in the region, who are mostly Hanafite. There is also some tension between the Sunni Kurds and the Shiite Kurds, who live mostly in Iran and, up until recently, have taken little part in Kurdish movements.
But whether Sunni or Shiite, most Kurds view themselves as moderate Muslims. The political side of Islam has at times created tension between their Muslim and Kurdish identities. Some nationalist Kurds even say that Islam is detrimental to their people, as it subjugates the Kurdish cause to the larger Islamic one.
Finally, is independence what most Kurds want, and can they achieve it?
Most Kurds dream of an independent Greater Kurdistan, incorporating all four Kurdish regions, but most also realize that that dream is just a dream–at least for the foreseeable future. Far more urgent is the immediate need to create equal civil rights for the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and a strong federated state in Iraq.
Many enormous impediments stand in the way of an independent Kurdistan. None of their nations would let them go without a fierce struggle; the U.S., too, has a great vested interest in a unified Iraq. A large number of Kurds, especially in Turkey, are well integrated into mainstream society and no longer live in Kurdish areas. The Kurds also lack a strong military, adequate financial resources, organization, education, and perhaps most importantly, a unified, pan-Kurdish leadership. The Kurds remain a fractured people on many levels–torn between countries, political parties, tribes, families, and dialects.
And yet...Modern technology has changed everything. The Kurds now have their own TV shows, radio broadcasts, and Web sites. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds also live in Europe and the U.S., where they are steadily gaining advanced degrees, power, and influence. The Kurds may not have their own physical nation, but they do have an international cyberspace state, along with a quickening sense of national identity that may yet give rise to an independent Greater Kurdistan one day.
From the Hardcover edition.