Being Kurdish in a Hostile World starts with the chapter “The Wrong Place” and 300 pages later ends with “An Uncertain Future.” The memoir-cum-history tells the story of a Kurdish-Canadian journalist’s life against a detailed account of the Kurdish struggle in Iraq over three decades. In doing so, it frames the story of every Kurd who is born “the wrong” ethnicity, never experiencing more than a short-lived sense of security or freedom in his or her lifetime. It is Ayub Nuri’s story, and it is mine, and it is the story of millions.
The plight of the Kurds, a distinct and stateless ethnic group scattered throughout Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria, is tragic even by the Middle East’s exceptional standards. The underdogs in a turbulent region, the Kurds have suffered both at the hands of the states that have dominated them, often with brutal violence, and from western neglect and betrayal. Even now, as the west’s curiosity and interest turns to the formidable Kurdish forces that helped liberate Raqqa from ISIS, the uncertain future of that population has not seemed to capture their sympathy. Nuri’s book traces that apathy’s long history.
Nuri is from Halabja, a Kurdish city on the Iran-Iraq border and the site of Saddam Hussein’s infamous chemical attack on March 16, 1988, that killed several thousand Kurds in a matter of minutes. The tragedy was part of a two-year genocidal campaign by the pan-Arab Baathist regime targeting Kurds for extinction. The Iraqi dictator established a culture of torture, rape, and execution that the world hoped would end after his removal from power, but continues to this day under different guises.
Nuri was a playful five-year-old when shrapnel killed his grandmother before his eyes; it also shattered his own knee, an injury he lives with to this day. He was a teenager when he witnessed snipers kill three random men on the street. “I saw him curl up on the ground and twist in pain,” he recalls of one man. These brutalities are an initiation for a youth who later becomes a reporter during the Iraq war and has to describe mass graves.
In Nuri’s book, such scenes of harsh reality are interspersed with moments of humour and wry wit. As a boy during the Iran-Iraq war, he imagines Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini sitting in their separate bunkers and shooting at each other. The Kurdish word for “artillery shell” is the same word for “soccer ball”—top, Nuri explains. “As a child I always wondered why a ball would explode and kill people,” he writes.
But by age twelve, the boy who thought Saddam fired every shell himself, is, he admits, “addicted to guns.” As a young man, he watches families picking through the skeletons retrieved from mass graves to see if they recognize an article of their loved ones who were buried for over a decade. In one moving scene during the Kurdish exodus in 1991, when starving Kurds are trekking through the Zagros mountains to escape reprisal from Saddam Hussein for a failed uprising, a Kurdish man stands in the middle of the road and shoots his machine gun into the sky. “Where is God? Someone show him to me,” he shouts. That’s a lot for a believer. His fellow travellers might have rebuked him on any other day, Nuri writes, but here they “quietly agreed that the heavens had betrayed them.” Sometimes this is literally so. Some rain on the day of the Halabja chemical attack would have saved many lives, but it did not rain then. In painful contrast, during the refugees’ escape across the borders to Iran and Turkey, the rain would not stop, causing vehicles, humans, and mules to get stuck in the sludge.
But it is not only God who overlooks the Kurdish plight. The rest of the world not only turns a blind eye to their struggle, but adds to it. When the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s to punish Saddam Hussein for invading Kuwait, the dictator remained unhurt; it was the nation’s citizens who were affected, and none more than the Kurds in northern Iraq, whom Hussein put on their own internal embargo, leaving tens of thousands to scramble for scraps. As hunger claimed lives, women became its first victims:
When a combine harvester went to a field, hundreds of women and young girls, some walking for as many as three days, would run alongside to pick up any kernels of wheat that the machine might have missed. They clustered close to the harvester, sometimes inches from the sharp blades, ignoring the driver’s constant warnings, to scour the ground beneath the machine’s huge wheels…They slept among thorns and scorpions on people’s land.
Nuri writes that the U.S., in particular, had encouraged the Kurds to rise up time and again against Saddam Hussein, but left them to be massacred after it struck deals with the dictator. In the 1970s Iraqi Kurds had been backed by the U.S. and Iran in their autonomist struggle against the Iraqi Baathist regime. But when the shah of Iran cut a deal with Saddam, the Kurdish movement collapsed overnight and hundreds of thousands of civilians had to flee their country. The mastermind of the operation, U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, famously responded to the House Intelligence Committee’s criticism of his 1975 betrayal by declaring, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” His plan, two years after he won the Nobel Peace Prize for trying to end the Vietnam War, led to the deaths of about 40,000 Kurds.
The tragedy was repeated nearly two decades later, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. George H.W. Bush encouraged Kurds to rise against Saddam and looked away when Baathist loyalists cracked down on the uprising with the aid of helicopters and artillery barrages. Defenceless refugees on the run couldn’t afford to worry about their ruined homes or an uncertain future. They wondered if they would make it out of Iraq without being gassed. The humanitarian disaster ended only after Danielle Mitterrand, the wife of French president François Mitterrand, urged the international community to impose a no-fly zone.
The same superpowers that had ignored or exacerbated Kurdish misfortunes later found these tragedies useful. In 2003 the country that had shrugged at the Halabja attack, asking for evidence that Saddam Hussein was responsible, now used the massacre to justify its invasion of Iraq.
The euphoria of a post-Saddam Iraq was brief. Within a few years, photos had emerged of American soldiers, formerly perceived as saviours, posing with their tortured victims in Abu Ghraib prison. Sympathy for anti-U.S. insurgents rose in Iraq. While Baghdad shattered in sectarian violence and people were killed or abducted on a daily basis, the autonomous Kurdistan Region grew prosperous, attracted foreign investors, adopted laws to protect women and religious minorities, and moved towards democratization. The Kurds’ good fortune lasted until 2014, when ISIS took over much of central and northwestern Iraq and proceeded to attack the Kurds, slaughtering the religious Yazidi minority and enslaving their women.
Nuri’s book, which takes the reader up to that point, is well timed. It was published in the weeks leading up to this fall’s independence referendum in which more than 92 percent of Kurds voted yes, and the fall of Raqqa at the hands of Kurdish forces—perhaps the longest the world has paid attention to the Kurds. The demand for secession was opposed by Iraq as well as Turkey and Iran who continue to suppress their restive Kurdish populations. And the international community ubiquitously turned its back on Kurds yet again. Canada’s government declared its interest in going along with the “One Iraqi policy,” despite all Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s declarations of solidarity with the voiceless and the dispossessed.
Only three weeks after the vote, Iraqi forces, outfitted with U.S.-supplied heavy weaponry and aided by Iranian-trained Shia paramilitary units, took control of oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed territories, looting and burning properties, and displacing some 180,000 civilians.
Being Kurdish does well in describing the broader story that led to the present day, but Nuri himself is absent through much of the later years. Shifting between the political and personal, he maintains a distance from his own story even when he is present, as if he is an observer rather than a participant in his life. This can be a drawback in a memoir. “The sight of blood, of dead bodies, of physical destruction, rarely affected me,” he tells us at one point, but readers never see him acquire this immunization, or the personal cost at which it comes.
One of the few instances where Nuri shares the effect of an experience on him is when he sees “the look of devastation” on a lonely woman who hears the news of her husband’s death. “I had witnessed the demolition of homes, the desecration of corpses, piles of dead bodies with blood dripping one into another…but nothing had prepared me,” he says, for that woman’s quiet emotional annihilation before strangers.
A few more such personal reflections would have strengthened this book, which is released in a world desensitized to oppression. Because Kurds’ obstacles are not merely the sectarian and aggressive regimes in Iraq and Iran, or Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The problem is something closer to one articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, when he places the blame for the plight of black America not in the Ku Klux Klansman “but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”
What emboldens the bullies of the Middle East is a world that is too conservative to support change in favour of justice, which tells the Kurds to keep waiting. Nuri’s book paints a devastating picture of what the lives of millions look like in the meantime.