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The Miracle of the Kurds
A Remarkable Story of Hope Reborn in Northern Iraq
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They are the largest people group in the world without a homeland of their own. Despised and persecuted the world over, they even call themselves “the people without a friend.” Saddam Hussein tried to wipe them from the face of the earth, killing several hundred thousand of them in the attempt. Their sufferings have become legend.
They are the Kurds, descendants of the ancient Medes best known today from the pages of the Bible — inhabitants of what the world now calls Northern Iraq.
Yet today the Kurds are rebuilding so brilliantly from war and oppression that even their enemies call it “a miracle.” Six star hotels stand where bombs once fell, shopping malls and gleaming schools rise where massacres once occurred. National Geographic and Conde Nast have listed modern “Kurdistan” as a “must-see” tourist destination.
OF KURDS, CURSES, AND JAM
“In the area of Iraq that was liberated from Saddam Hussein’s control the earliest—the Kurdish provinces in the northeast part of the country—all objective observers seem to agree that an unprecedented prosperity has replaced what was once an unimaginable wasteland of misery. With their head-start of liberation beginning in 1992, the Kurds have nonetheless set an example for the rest of the region as well as of the country.”
We have jam. But we have no jam.” I smiled when I heard these words. I had heard them before. I had not expected to hear them aboard a Royal Jordanian jet flying high above the Syrian Desert.
Perhaps I had not heard them at all. It was that artificial morning that comes after a long overnight flight eastward from the United States. I had just awakened and was disoriented. Moments before, flight attendants had cheerily urged passengers to greet the new day by opening their window shades. It was an evil suggestion. Lasers of light shot through the dark cabin. I shielded my eyes against this assault and tried to locate the face that belonged to those familiar words.
Slowly, I pieced the previous moments together in my mind. Breakfast was being served. The British gentleman next to me, having already eaten all the jam willingly surrendered by passengers nearby, went in search of more. He inquired of a flight attendant. This is what occasioned that memorable sentence. “We have jam,” the woman said in the stoic civility of her profession, “but we have no jam.” The words were a subtle study in metaphysics. Jam exists in the universe, she was saying, but it does not exist on this flight.
While my British friend grumbled his displeasure, I thought back to the first time I had heard the unusual phrases. It was nearly twenty years before. I remember that I was asked to speak at a conference in the Iraqi city of Erbil. In those days, both Iraq and the Kurds who populated Erbil were in a tense season, pressed as they were between wars, between alliances and between competing visions of Kurdish destiny.
It was the early 1990s. The Persian Gulf War had ended only a few years before. A civil war had since erupted between the two dominant Kurdish political parties. To nearly everyone’s surprise, Saddam Hussein still threatened from the south, the Coalition of nations that drove him from Kuwait having chosen not to drive him from power. Then there was the grief that hung thickly over northern Iraq—the Kurds prefer the name Kurdistan—from the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Many of these were victims of chemical weapons. Others were shot, starved, landmined, or tortured to death. Nearly all were Kurdish victims of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
In the Erbil of that turbulent time, I joined my fellow conference leaders at our hotel restaurant for breakfast one morning. During the laborious process of ordering food through bits and pieces of an unfamiliar language, a friend asked our waiter if there was jam. “We have jam,” the man said brightly, eyebrows raised and teeth gleaming beneath an impeccably trimmed moustache, eager to confirm the sweet luxury existed in his land. “But we have no jam.” These last words were said with an almost mock expression of sadness, as though to assure my fellow teacher that all who knew the glories of jam—Kurdish jam-lovers in particular—shared his disappointment.
I remember that we were grateful for the waiter’s quick disappearance into the kitchen. We would not have offended for the world, but we could not have held our laughter much longer given the contradictory words and the practiced way the waiter said them.
We have jam, but there is no jam. Jam exists, but it does not exist here. The spirit of jam is with us, but not the incarnation.
For the remainder of that breakfast, we enjoyed trying out humorous variations of those words. It was all great fun and it continued as the story of the waiter’s single sentence was recounted over the following days. It was good for a laugh but soon something more began to emerge. With each retelling, the waiter’s words seemed to take on a broader meaning. They quickly became a type of shorthand for the unfortunate truth that the world often disappoints, that the promise and the reality of life are frequently two very different things. If the lights went out during a lecture—as they regularly did in those days—someone was sure to shout from the dark, “We have jam, but we have no jam.” An explosion of laughter would follow. Heads would nod as though in agreement with some inside knowledge denied to the outer world. It was the same if the hotel ran out of hot water or if some security threat proved an inconvenience. In the larger gatherings, the words became a humorous liturgy of discontent. “We have jam,” those sitting on one side of the room would offer. “But we have no jam,” came the rejoinder from the other side. And so it went for days.
In time, the waiter’s seemingly insignificant phrases took on harsher meaning. They began to invoke all the aching realities of the Kurds—the ironies of Kurdish life, the betrayals and tragedies that marked the Kurdish place in the world. It was as though the whole of the Kurdish plight distilled into those eight words. We have jam, but we have no jam. This is because we are a people, but we are no people. We are a nation, but we have no nation. We have friends, but, in truth, we have no friends at all in the world.
The words began to sting. From their innocent first mention at that breakfast, they were redeployed into a euphemism for the whole of the curse history has flung upon the Kurds. I knew this was true when on the last day of the conference someone used the familiar sentence once again. There were weary, forced grunts of laughter. It was all getting a bit old. Yet I happened to glance at an American friend just then and I saw the tears forming in his eyes. This new meaning had become too much for him, loving the Kurds as he did. He could no longer stoically endure the tension between what existed in the world and what existed for the Kurds in those days. He was grieved for a people who knew there was jam in the world but who never seemed to have any of their own.
Remembering the origins of “the jam story” caused me to recall, too, the dangerous, war-ravaged place that Kurdistan was in the early 1990s.
To be among the Kurds in the northern Iraq of those days was to be in the middle of a civil war while the troops of a tyrant amassed on a nearby border. Economic sanctions added to the general miseries by making life disease-ridden and spare. Makeshift checkpoints punctuated cratered roads. So quickly could fighting erupt that men carried their Kalashnikov machine guns while strolling markets with their families. Grocery stores were seldom more than shelf-lined half-huts partially rebuilt from loose stones and rubble. Streets were muddy and crowded. The sound of explosions nearby cleared them instantly. Jets and helicopters flew deafeningly overhead while those on the ground prayed Saddam Hussein had not sent them.
Tragedies mounted upon the Kurds. Medicines were difficult to obtain and diseases were often left to run their devastating course. Landmines dotted the landscape, particularly in those areas where Kurds grew food. This was a gift of the Iraqi regime. Stories circulated about flocks of sheep wandering harmlessly over mines that were then triggered by the shepherds who followed behind. Limbs were lost, as were lives. Survival became, in part, about detecting threats by sound alone. There were the low, rumbling sounds of heavier weapons echoing from the hills or some plain far away. These signaled little threat. Still, it was wise to listen for changes. It was also wise to listen carefully to the light machine gun fire that sometimes pierced the night from nearby neighborhoods. It was wise to listen, but there was little to be done about it except to pray against ricochets and try to sleep.
The tension was suffocating. The Asaish, the Kurdish secret police, were understandably ever-present. During one idle afternoon in an Erbil hotel, I decided to stick my video camera out the window to film some of the landscape. Despite the fact that I was on the seventh floor and it was a cloudy day, a squad of Asaish appeared at my door within minutes to ask whom I was working for. I tried to explain, with the help of my interpreter, that I was working for two children back home who were eager to understand what Daddy was doing in Iraq. The Asaish weren’t having it. They confiscated my film cartridges and told me to restrict my picture taking to the restaurant.
This ever-present tension could give way to extreme danger without warning. One of the worst of our experiences occurred as we were attempting to cross the border from Turkey into Kurdistan late one afternoon. As the sun was starting to set and we were submitting our papers to border guards, a unit of Kurdish PKK guerrillas began shooting at the Turks. Tracer fire sizzled through the air in great arcs of light. Machine guns answered from sandbagged positions. Idiot that I am, I stood to watch it all until one of the men on our team shouted me to the ground. It was all over in seconds.
Fearing a second attack, the Turks decided to close the border. We found ourselves, then, effectively locked out of Kurdistan and forced to spend the night in a region that made me think of the Old American West supplied with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). We found rooms in a seedy, war-ravaged town called Silopi. Sleep came in short bursts, kept at bay by soldiers creeping warily through the streets, periodic exchanges of gunfire, and—sometimes far worse—silence.
It was just this intermittent nature of danger that could prove deadly. Because Kurdistan was embroiled in a guerrilla war rather than a “hot war,” it was easy to forget where you were. On one occasion, our team met at length with Kurdish officials in a mountaintop complex. The floor-to-ceiling windows of the conference room revealed stunning scenery. I had lived near the Alps in my youth but had never seen such drama of snow and stone. Weary and yet transfixed by the view, I could barely concentrate on the business before us. I sipped tea and relaxed on a leather divan while other team members pressed a case of one kind or another. I had drifted far away, peaceful and unknowing, when a U.S. F-16 fighter jet roared into view and began circling. So violent were the percussions from the jet’s engines that windows rattled and tea sloshed in cups. The wings were turned so steeply and the pilot flew so near that it was as though he was leaning in at high speed to catch bits of our conversation. I was thrust back to the realities of time and space: “I am in a war zone. I am kept alive mainly by an invisible thing called a no-fly zone. Try to pay attention, Stephen.”
That was all, as I’ve said, in the early 1990s. Two decades later, I pulled my thoughts from jam and Kurdish curses to the landing our Jordanian pilot had just announced. We would be setting down at Erbil International Airport within moments. Had I not been lost in thought, I would have known how near we were to our destination by simply looking out the window. The Zagros Mountains swept the landscape on the horizon, mountains so ruggedly beautiful that they seemed part of a stage divinely prepared for events of great tragedy and import. It was like no other scenery in the world. No one on that plane who had been there before could be in doubt. Kurdistan lay below.
Our plane descended smoothly. As it did, I realized I was not fully prepared for what lay ahead. I should explain that I had visited Erbil many times before. In fact, I had traveled through much of Kurdistan, but I had not returned since news of the astonishing transformation of the Kurdish homeland began to fill news reports the world over—since “To the Kurdish Miracle” had become a toast commonly heard in Washington and London. I realized in the moments before touchdown I still had the Kurds frozen in my mind as they had been decades before. I had not allowed the new to overwrite the old. I had set myself up for a life-changing surprise.
I shook these reflections from my mind as I descended the steps from the plane. I confess my next thought was that the pilot had missed Erbil and landed in hell. It was nearly 110 degrees and hotter still on the sizzling tarmac.
The heat quickly left my mind as I was driven through the city streets. I had never imagined Erbil could become such a place. The most I had been able to envision when I heard of Kurdistan’s economic revolution were stores with well-stocked shelves, roads without murderous potholes, and a smattering of new construction.
Instead, I left a newly built world-class airport and drove by five-star hotels and office towers taller than anything in my hometowns of Nashville and Washington, DC. The newest cars from a dozen nations were common sights. Luxurious restaurants, richly provisioned grocery stores, lovely city parks, gorgeous monuments, and quiet, elegant neighborhoods were everywhere.
I confess that I wept, though it was not just for what I could see. I had known an earlier time. Where lovers strolled, families had once grieved their dead in the rubble of their own homes. Giant machines marked out the footprints of schools and hospitals where children once begged for food.
Such speed of progress and spread of liberty would have been impressive in any part of any nation on the earth. I visited a private school with thousands of students in which classes were conducted only in English, standards were high, and some graduates went on to the finest universities in Europe. I had the good fortune to be in an official’s office when news arrived that the public schools of Kurdistan would no longer favor Islam. Under a new ruling, all religions would be taught equally. Extensive knowledge of Islam would no longer be required for graduation. My Muslim host and his aides celebrated this decision like American Pentecostals, hands raised to heaven and tears streaming. Later, I sat with the Senior Mullah of Kurdistan while he assured me he was a Kurd first, a Muslim second. I joked that we might both be killed for his views as we sat together in his office. He said, quietly, “Then let it come if it is the will of Allah. But it will not come. This is Kurdistan.”
Strolling the streets, I found the people grateful, eager, and filled with hope. I spoke with merchants who excitedly described plans for Erbil to become an international shopping and entertainment destination like Dubai. Cheap fuel would bring planes from every nation, they assured. Businessmen spoke breathlessly of the 2006 law removing any distinction between foreign and domestic investment in Kurdistan, a huge welcome mat to investment capital worldwide. They also made sure I knew that the Erbil Stock Exchange had begun tapping NASDAQ’s OMX X-stream technology. I was impressed. This was an incisive move, a major step toward assuring that Kurdistan would remain a market economy. No more of the Baathist Nazi-style socialism that had raped the nation for decades.
These milestones were likely the reason men in teashops lectured me about the difference between the south of Iraq and Kurdistan. “Tell them when you go home,” they demanded. They worried that killings and civil unrest in Baghdad would obscure hard-won victories in places like Erbil, Duhok and Sulimaniya. “America must know,” they insisted. “You tell them.”
Kurds I had met on the streets for five minutes were eager to show me their version of Kurdistan. A shopkeeper wanted to close down his business for the day to take me to a monument Kurds had built to the American dead. A businessman wanted me to understand that Kurdish warriors—called Peshmerga or “those who face death”—were not the bumblers the Iraqi trainees in the south were proving to be. These warriors took target practice while standing on one leg to hone their combat skills and could survive in the mountains for months at a time if required. They were true soldiers. My businessman friend knew a high-ranking commander. They would allow me to observe. A family that ran a baklava shop—where I embarrassed myself with purchases nearly every day—told me I had not seen Kurdistan until I had seen their village nestled by a lake in the mountains. They would take me. I would be welcome.
Then came the conversation that led to this book. A writer who had lived in Los Angeles and spoke English nearly as well as I did stepped into one of my street conversations to interpret for me. As we finished and were walking away, he rounded out another man’s point by explaining that Iraq is the size of California. Culturally, he explained, the north of Iraq, where the Kurds live, is as remote from Baghdad as southern California is from the farm and ranch region of northern California. This condensed days of conversation into a single image and I was grateful.
It was what the young writer said next, as he shook my hand at the entrance to my hotel, that has never left me. He could tell I was swimming in a million facts and a thousand bits of conversation. He wanted to cut through it all. “What you must know” he said kindly, but with piercing seriousness, “is that Kurdistan is what America wanted Iraq to be. Kurdistan is America’s reward.”
I sat up late that last night in Kurdistan to ponder this. I should say here that though I have written about politics and military affairs in the United States, I have no special pipeline of information. My vantage point is very much from the edge. I was embedded for a season with U.S. troops in Iraq because I had written The Faith of George W. Bush and was known to the officials at the Pentagon whose permission I needed to enter that theater of operations. I also speak from time to time at West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Pentagon. Beyond that, I live in Washington, DC, and have some friends who are policy makers and some who command troops. I’ve also had the sad honor of attending the funerals of our war dead at Arlington National Cemetery.
None of this makes me an expert or gives me any authority with which to speak of military affairs. None of it makes me privy to the counsel offered to a commander-in-chief by his inner circle of advisors or to a commanding general by his staff. Yet with this openly acknowledged, when my young Kurdish writer friend spoke, I had just enough perspective from my perch on the edge of officialdom to know that he was right. Kurdistan is what America wanted from the war. Kurdistan is America’s reward.
During the recent war in Iraq, when the American president or a commander at Camp Victory or a senator on a Sunday morning talk show spoke of their hopes for the future of Iraq, it was what Kurdistan has become and is becoming that they were envisioning. It was what the Kurds are building that U.S. leaders were hoping for, whether they knew it or not. This is also what many of our troops were envisioning. I know because I asked them and I often asked them moments before they roared off in their Humvees down IED-strewn roads to put their lives at risk. What Kurdistan is today is what many of our troops embraced as the vision for “Iraqi freedom” worth their sacrifice—even though most had never even heard of Kurdistan at the time.
It is because Kurdistan symbolizes this galvanizing vision of our hopes for the Middle East—and because her phoenixlike rise from the ashes of history has power to inspire our own ascents—that hers is tale that ought to be told. It is a story I want my children and grandchildren to know. It is a saga I want the dismissed and despised tribes of the world to hear and to be inspired by. It is also a majestic morality tale I hope even kings and congresses will ponder. These are the only reasons I have dared to write this little book.
I should be quick to say that there will be, in time, far more skillful accounts of the Kurdish journey than this one. Eminent scholars and brilliant analysts will eventually turn to the history and recent rise of the Kurds and illuminate its meaning for generations to come, perhaps even for generations of the Kurds themselves. I hope for that day. I pray for it.
Yet, there is value in even an informal retelling of this story now—while the miracle is still transpiring, the blood is still moist in the soil and the tears still come.
I played no major role in the rise of the Kurds. I did have the privilege of knowing some of the giants of that ascent—statesman and missionaries, courageous men and heroic women, magnificent priests and mullahs. I was not among them. My only qualifications are that I was near enough to notice and I was ignorant enough be deeply impressed with all I heard and saw. And I had a pen.
Still, I saw what most could not and I cannot imagine allowing any of it to die a death of silence. I cannot fail to speak, for example, of a man like Mansour Hussein, who died of a bullet to the head simply for daring to man a fledgling Christian bookstore. I do not want to keep silent about the good the Roman Catholic Church did in one episode involving the Kurds. When Protestant/Catholic tensions arose in Kurdistan and a few American evangelicals traveled to Rome to appeal to the Vatican for help, that help came. Changes were made. The church’s embrace of what Pope John Paul II called his “departed brethren”—Protestants—was warm and lasting. In an age of very public scandals within the Catholic church, this, too, ought to be remembered.
- On Sale
- Oct 14, 2014
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Worthy Books