Read an Excerpt
Through the Back Door
the maltai family lived in a big airy house on the outskirts of Dohuk in northern Iraq. Out front stretched their even bigger garden, its borders etched with fluttering purple blossoms mixed with penny-sized red wildflowers that the patriarch, Aziz Maltai, had transplanted from the mountains. Here and there bloomed flowers grown from seeds sent by friends in Europe. In the middle splashed a hand-carved fountain, water spilling from cup to cup to cup into a violet pool below.
"Flowers are like young sheep," Aziz Maltai said, examining a rosebud on our way into the house. "The more time you spend with them, the more they grow."
At the door, a line of women waited-dressed in floor-length gowns of lilac, black, deep green, and bright red, their long lacy sleeves tied behind their backs while still allowing for freedom of movement. Most of the older women's heads were covered with gauzy black or white scarves, most of the younger women's heads were bare. "B'kher-hati, b'kher-hati," they all cried-welcome, welcome-and kissed me on both cheeks before ushering me into a large room furnished only with Oriental carpets, a kerosene heater, and shiny benchlike couches lining two walls.
Women sat on one side, men on the other, as Aziz was joined by some of his nine sons and other male relatives. In contrast to the patriarch, who was wearing a Western suit and red tie, many of the men were dressed in the Kurdish shal u shapik, or trousers and jacket. Resembling billowing aviators' jumpsuits, traditionally made of goat's hair, the shal u shapik come in a variety of muted hues-browns, tans, blacks, and whites-and are cinched around the waist with elaborately woven cummerbunds, which can be up to twenty feet long when unwound. The style of the shal u shapik varies depending upon region or occasion, but today, all were wearing their finest: it was Newroz, or New Year's.
Tea was served in delicate, tulip-shaped glasses, along with cookies stuffed with walnut paste, made specially for the holiday. Then we were off-Aziz and his wife, most of his sons and their families, cousins visiting from Baghdad, and me. Moving out into the garden, amid excited children's cries, we climbed into a cavalcade of gleaming BMWs and sports utility vehicles. Proudly mounted on the lead car was the striped green, red, and white flag of Kurdistan, a yellow sunburst in its middle.
Aziz seated me in a BMW next to his son Siyabend, a small, wiry, dapper man wearing fashionable minimalist glasses and a starched military-style shal u shapik made of khaki. He and I had both spent time in Iran, and Aziz hoped we would be able to communicate in Persian.
Kurdish music spinning from the tape deck, we headed north toward the Turkish border and then east toward Iran. The snow-capped mountains of Turkey's Kurdistan appeared, along with an expansive plain shining like an enormous silver tray as it soaked in the rays of the sun.
"There's Silopi, and that's Mount Cudi." Siyabend pointed out several sites across the Turkish border. Later, I learned that Silopi had suffered especially badly during the Kurdish-Turkish civil war that ended in 1999, and that Mount Cudi, along with the better-known Mount Ararat, is believed by many Kurds to have been the resting place of Noah's Ark.
Turning off the paved road, we headed up a grassy mountainside. Although only midmorning, the slope was already half filled with parked cars and sturdy white tents shaped like miniature big tops. Children played ball, men built bonfires, and women socialized or cooked, the lush fabrics of their gowns blinking in the sun.
After parking, the men quickly set up a tent, into which the older women immediately retired, and started a fire. Many of the rest of us set off to roam the mountain and to look for wildflowers-white nergiz (narcissus), scarlet or purple sheqayiq (ranunculus), daisy-like hajile.
When we returned, much of the family was already seated on padded cushions around a now-roaring fire. One of the younger wives, a handsome chestnut brunette, was boiling water in a battered teapot. Another woman was handing around small cakes, and a third, a bag filled with nuts. Two young men were playing a game, moving pebbles between six small holes dug into the earth.
I gazed out over the plain before us. A river cut a clear meandering path across a land that changed color as it went-from browns to reds to greens and back again. The mountain ranges beyond the plain started small, but then rose and rose, each range thrusting higher into the cobalt sky until cresting into Turkey's crystalline blue-white peaks.
On the plain immediately below stood a dozen or so red and orange buses hired by picnickers too poor to own vehicles of their own. And on the mountain slopes to our left and right, tents had popped up almost as far as the eye could see.
Aziz talked about his garden. "I have always loved nature, ever since I was a small boy," he said. "And when I was a peshmerga, fighting in the mountains, I would shout 'Oh!' whenever I stepped on a flower. My friends would think I had stepped on a mine." He slapped his knee, laughing.
Lunch was served, on a big plastic tablecloth spread out near the fire: biryani rice made with raisins, nuts, and chicken; tershick, or wheat patties, filled with vegetables and lamb; grilled kebabs, served with tomatoes and onions; thin crisp bread, baked in an outdoor oven that morning; du, the Middle Eastern drink made of yogurt and water; and platefuls of mysterious, pungent greens gathered fresh from the mountains.
On the slope below, a trio of musicians was traveling from tent to tent, the sound of their cylindrical drum, the dohul, and conical flute, the zirnah, penetrating deep into the mountains. Wherever the musicians stopped, people dropped what they were doing to form a long line and begin a Kurdish dance. Joining hands, swinging arms, moving shoulders in deliberate, hypnotic rhythm; two steps to the right, one to the left, back, forward, kick. The first person in the line often twirled a handkerchief high in the air as people merged in and out, men and women and children dancing together.
When the musicians reached our tent, Siyabend and his wife pulled me to my feet and showed me how to link my little fingers with theirs as we joined the line. The dance had simple footwork that even a child could follow, but just as I was relaxing, a more intricate dance began. Everyone started singing, with one side of the line answering the other in a love song about a girl with dark hair. In and out the line moved. I stumbled, then dropped out.
A short while later, the musicians started a bold wild tune, chasing all but five men from the dance floor. Most dressed in shal u shapik, they were stomping, jumping, bending, and twisting in a dance that seemed as old and resilient and self-contained as the mountains. Watching them, the world around me vanished-the men seemed alone on a barren slope, Kalashnikovs piled beside them, winds and snows howling around them, taking a break from the fierce guerrilla war that has raged off and on in Kurdistan for over one hundred years.
The musicians moved on. The dancing stopped as abruptly as it had started, leaving an emptiness behind. Two of the youngest men, dressed in black sweaters, sunglasses, and jeans, took off in the newer, cooler, black SUV, while the rest of us returned to the now-dying bonfire. The sun was setting. A tall, skeletal blind beggar, led by a blond girl, wandered from tent to tent.
"The worst people in the world are the Turks, and then come the Arabs," Siyabend said.
I looked at him, not knowing what to say. Uncomfortable subjects had been bumping back and forth unspoken between us throughout the day. Until now, neither one of us had wanted to articulate them; the day had been too beautiful, there had been too much hope in the air.
"See over there." Siyabend pointed toward a Turkish mountain in the distance, its tip now blue-black, dipped in darkening snow. "That's where we went after the uprising. We stayed in a refugee camp there for two months and then they sent us to a camp near Mardin. We stayed there four years."
"Four years?" I said, surprised. Only my third day in Kurdistan, I still had much to learn. "The whole family?"
"Four hundred people died in the first camp," said one of his brothers.
"They tried to poison us with bread in the second," said one of the wives.
"The Turkish soldiers hit the women."
"They kicked the children like footballs."
"But we couldn't come back. Saddam-"
"He gassed his own people."
"He destroyed four thousand Kurdish villages."
"More than one hundred eighty thousand people disappeared."
"How did we survive?"
"God helped us."
from the moment I arrived in Kurdistan, I felt as if I had fallen through the back door of the world and into a tragic magic kingdom-the kind of place where tyrants' castles reigned over mist-filled valleys, beautiful damsels ran away with doomed princes, and ten-foot-tall heroes battled scaly green dragons as good clashed swords with evil. In reality, there was no kingdom-at least not of the type found in fairy tales-but I did find evil, as well as good, and castles and valleys, damsels and princes, magic and tragedy.
the kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. Probably numbering between 25 and 30 million, they live in an arc of land that stretches through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and parts of the former Soviet Union, with the vast majority residing in the region where Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran meet. About eight hundred thousand Kurds also live in Europe, with about five hundred thousand of those in Germany, while some twenty-five thousand Kurds live in the United States and at least six thousand in Canada.
Not a country, Kurdistan cannot be found on modern maps. The term was first used as a geographical expression by the Saljuq Turks in the twelfth century and came into common usage in the sixteenth century, when much of the Kurdish region fell under the control of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. For the Kurds themselves, Kurdistan is both an actual and a mythical place-an isolated, half-hidden, mountainous homeland that has historically offered sanctuary from the treacherous outside world, and from treacherous fellow Kurds.
I became interested in the Kurds during a 1998 journey to Iran. 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. Despite a large number of Revolutionary Guards on the streets, the men swaggered and women strode. These people are not cowed, I thought-no wonder they make the Islamic government nervous.
In Sanandaj, I stayed with a Kurdish family I had met on the bus, and attended a wedding held in a small pasture filled with about two hundred people in traditional dress. To one side were the city's ugly concrete buildings; to another, empty lots strewn with litter. But the people and their costumes, framed by the far-off Zagros Mountains, transcended the tawdry surroundings. Women in bright reds, pinks, greens, blues, and golds. Men in baggy pants, woven belts, and heavy turbans. Boys playing with hoops. Girls dreaming by a bonfire. Musicians on a mournful flute and enormous drum, followed by circling men dancing single file, one waving a handkerchief over his head.
After I returned home, I began reading more about the Kurds. Who are these people, and why don't we know more about them?
The Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East-after the Arabs, Turks, and Persians-accounting for perhaps 15 percent of its population. They occupy some of the region's most strategic and richest lands. Turkey's Kurdistan contains major coal deposits, as well as the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers-important irrigation sources for Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan holds significant oil reserves, and Turkey's and Syria's Kurdistan, lesser ones. Much of Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan also lies in the fertile valley of and adjoining northern Mesopotamia, one of the world's richest breadbaskets and most ancient lands.
The Iraqi Kurds, numbering about 5 million, constitute between one-fourth and one-fifth of Iraq's population. Despite much repression, they have always been recognized by the state as a separate ethnic group. Iraqi Kurds have at times held important government and military positions, and between 1992 and 2003, ran their own semiautonomous, fledgling democracy in Iraq's so-called "northern no-fly zone." Post-Saddam Hussein, the Kurds are assuming a central role in the forging of a new Iraq.
Numbering 13 or 14 million, or one-half of all Kurds, Turkey's Kurds comprise at least 20 percent of their nation and boast a birthrate that is nearly double that of their compatriots-promising an even greater presence in the future. Turkey's Kurds have been brutally repressed both culturally and politically since the founding of the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. Turkey is now striving to join the European Union, however, and its acceptance therein will depend largely on an improvement in its human rights record toward the Kurds.
Numbering about 6.5 million, or 10 percent of Iran's population, Iranian Kurds ran their own semiautonomous state as early as the 1300s. Today, they have about twenty reform-minded representatives in Iran's Parliament, who, along with many others, are pushing for more liberalization in the Islamic Republic. Syrian Kurds, although numbering only about 1.4 million, constitute 9 percent of their country's sparse population, with the Syrian capital of Damascus home to an influential Kurdish community since the Middle Ages.
Exact population figures for the Kurds are unavailable because no reliable census has been conducted for decades. All of the countries in which they reside regard them as a political threat and downplay their existence. And without a nation-state of their own, the Kurds have been slow in letting their presence be known to the outside world.
This is changing. Thanks in part to recent political developments, of which the Iraq war of 2003 is only the latest, and in part to a growing diaspora, satellite communications, and the Internet, today's Kurds are both rapidly developing a national consciousness as a people, and overcoming the geographic and psychic isolation that has plagued them for centuries. And as they do so, questions of nationalism, multiculturalism, and a possible future redrawing of international boundaries arise.