| A Year in Iraq
Negotiating Hope for the Kurdish People
“Words fall short during times of war,
like the wings of Icarus. All I can offer are mementos of the past,
which I pass on to you like small stones on a beach. These pebbles
are part of a path, but they cannot represent the entire experience.
It is only the beginning of a trail, an introduction to the Kurds,
so that readers can continue their own journey …”
IN 1993, AFTER BEING MARRIED for two weeks, my husband and I
packed up 10 boxes of used books, flew to Istanbul, Turkey, and bought
bus tickets to Northern Iraq. We went there to teach English to Kurdish
English teachers, local leaders and interested community members,
and to deliver food, clothing and medical supplies to the Kurdish
widows of the Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War.
|A Kurdish boy herds sheep
near the village of Suleymaniya in Northern Iraq. Because of
land mines planted by Iraqi soldiers, the job can be perilous.
Every year, Doctors Without Borders treats Kurdish children
who have lost limbs in contacts with land mines.
I will never forget my first bus ride through Eastern Turkey to
the Iraqi border. Leaving the many-domed city of Istanbul — a
tangled mesh of Western and Eastern customs, mosques and cathedral-like
churches — the landscape panned out flat, barren. The most
unexpected shock was the 10 military checkpoints established by the
military to control the movement of the Kurds who live in Turkey.
At the first checkpoint, the police boarded the bus and checked everyone’s
Turkish identity card and for us, our passports. At the second one,
we were taken off the bus and ordered to stand in two lines — one
for women, one for men. The papers were checked again; this time
radio calls were made.
The third checkpoint was at a military station; two large tanks were
on either side of the highway. The police came down the bus aisle
and told my husband to come with them and told me to stay on the
bus. I saw my husband enter the station, and I decided to get off
the bus. On the way down the aisle, a Kurdish woman grabbed my hand
and shook her head, a frightened “no” in any language.
Two weeks seemed like a very brief marriage interval, however, so
I continued on, walking quickly past the front desk so that they
would not stop me from finding my husband. Locating the right room,
I sat by my husband and said: “We are teachers who are going
into Iraq.” The commanding officer eventually let us return
to the bus. We heard other stories of people who were less fortunate.
In Turkey, Kurds often “disappear.”
There is only one road into Northern Iraq from Turkey.
The Turks stamp your passport with an exit mark, and there was no
the no-man’s land, the no-fly zone, Iraqi Kurdistan. From the
border, we traveled to the Kurdish village of Shaqlawa, where we
had rented part of a house from Khakha Muhammad, his two wives and
four children. This village, surrounded by mountains and green, rolling
hills, is a place that holds many memories for me.
Every week, Khakha Muhammad invited us over for a meal. Chima, a
10-year-old girl with straight black hair cropped under her ears
and inquisitive eyes, spread a large tablecloth on the floor, lit
a kerosene lamp, and brought two trays full of stuffed eggplants,
peppers and grape leaves, brimming with rice and lamb. Khadija, the
eldest wife, sat near me; her black dress with embroidered gold sequins
covered her folded legs. When Khadija realized that she was unable
to have children, she arranged for one of her most beloved cousins,
Fatima, to become the second wife in the family. Khadija’s
favorite child, Souza, a 5-year-old with curly ringlets and a round
baby face, sat on her lap during dinner. The amiable relationship
between the two women and the two young daughters was readily apparent.
The two sons were more reserved in our company, like their father.
Often, we would bring a photo or an object to talk to the family
members about, and we would ask them to tell stories about their
lives. With the kids, we would play language games. Pointing to objects,
we asked, “Tsia?” “What is it?” They would
reply in Kurdish, and we repeated the word; then we would reply in
English, and they repeated the word. Our first attempts at repetition
always led to bursts of giggles as we learned the new sounds.
Khadija wanted to know where my gold was. When they are married,
Kurdish women are traditionally given large amounts of gold jewelry,
which functions like social security. If the husband dies or divorces
her, the wife has enough capital to survive. During the economic
sanctions that followed the first Gulf War, the Kurds sold their
cars, refrigerators, televisions, carpets, clothes and furniture,
and the women sold their jewelry, in order to feed their families.
Khadija inquired whether I had been forced to sell all my jewelry.
Under sanctions, it took an entire grocery bag full of Iraqi money
to equal a $100 U.S. bill. Today, inflation has rendered Iraqi money
Like money, hope is also in limited supply for Kurdish
families such as Khakha Muhammad’s. Their people’s long
history is one of repressive rule by neighboring countries, crushing
a series of failed attempts at achieving their own state. The Kurds
are, in fact, the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland.
Primarily Sunni Muslims, their numbers are far greater than the Palestinians,
and ancient maps mark out Kurdistan as a region encompassing parts
of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Azerbaijan. Kurdish populations
live in each of these countries today.
Before World War I, Kurds were part of the loosely controlled domains
of either the Ottoman Sultan or the Shah of Iran; the uncertain boundary
between these empires kept a measure of power in Kurdish hands. After
the end of the War and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Kurdish
nationalists pressed for an independent state or local sovereignty.
The 1920 Treaty of Sevres included the formation of an independent
Kurdish state, but it was never ratified.
Since then, the Kurds have lived under the rule of their neighbors.
The Turks use draconian measures — such as executions, massacres,
destruction or relocation of villages, torture and interrogations — to
control their Kurdish population. The Kurds in Turkey have not been
allowed to speak their language in schools or wear their Kurdish
dress, and the democratically elected Kurdish leaders were forced
out of Parliament. The violence has escalated into a civil war, which
is not named and which was rarely reported in the press until just
recently. Turkey opposes Kurdish sovereignty in Iraq because it might
encourage the hopes of the Turkish Kurds for self-government.
The British controlled Iraq after World War I and promised a degree
of Kurdish sovereignty. Kurdish leader Shaikh Mahmud Barzinji wanted
complete sovereignty, however, and British troops were called in
to control the area. They bombed the Kurdish city of Sulamanya, the
first air bombing of a civilian area in history. The British went
on to set up a monarchy of wealthy Arab landowners in Iraq and granted
the country quasi-independent status in 1932. A revolutionary coup
for national independence occurred in 1958.
The Arab Baath Socialist party — which would eventually be
led by Saddam Hussein — took power in Iraq in 1963 and began
a planned genocide of the Kurdish people. Tanks descended on Kurdish
villages. Men, women and children were forced to dig a large pit,
ordered to stand in front of it, and machine-gunned-down so they
could be easily buried. Other villages were burned to the ground,
and villagers were relocated to concentration camps. Kurds were forced
out of their homes in the Kurdish village of Kirkuk, where large
oil reserves lie. Kurdish leaders and fighters were executed, and
their families interrogated and tortured. From 1975 to 1978, Iraq
deported more than 350,000 Kurds and burned 240 villages. More recently,
Iraq sent approximately 500,000 Kurdish civilians to detention camps
in 1987 and used chemical weapons to kill more than 5,000 Kurds in
Halabja in 1988. Over several generations, many Kurds fled into the
mountains, while others waited for a brutal Iraqi regime to end.
In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the United Nations forced
him back. Economic sanctions against all of Iraq were implemented,
and the United States and Britain established the no-fly zone to
protect the Kurds in the North from the Iraqi president. From that
point, the Iraqi Kurds lived in a no-man’s land. The food-for-oil
program in Baghdad, controlled by Saddam Hussein, allowed very little
aid into Northern Iraq, and only a handful of humanitarian organizations
provided assistance to the Kurdish people. Doctors Without Borders
offered medical assistance to the many victims of land mines — often
young children who herd sheep in the hills.
During our year in Iraq, I heard many firsthand stories of people
whose villages had been destroyed or whose breathing was impaired
because of chemical weapons. I saw children on crutches, missing
limbs. As a teacher and humanitarian aid worker, I listened to the
complex historical and cultural voices around me. We lived amidst
great suffering, but we joined the Kurdish people in working toward
hope against all hope.
For the Kurdish people I met and came to love during
my year in Iraq, persecution and betrayal has dimmed but not extinguished
Kurds took advantage of the period of relative peace between the
two Gulf Wars, establishing a democratic parliament six months after
the first conflict ended. Today they hope that as a minority in Iraq
their rights will be protected.
As I watched news of the war during the past several weeks, I mourned
for those who died, and I hoped for a quick resolution. Now I wonder
whether the Kurdish children have enough to eat and how the country
of Iraq will be reconstructed. In a situation as complex as that
of the Kurds, we must not grasp at easy answers, but rather work
toward nuanced understanding and compassion. After witnessing so
much suffering in Iraq, I decided to complete my Ph.D. research on
how societies work toward healing and reconciliation after violence.
With a research fellowship, I studied how state and artistic structures,
like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, attempt
As a professor at Seattle Pacific University, I teach students about
Middle Eastern literature and international fiction. When I teach
poetry by Arab women, I read and explain the poems dressed in my
brightly sequined black Kurdish dress, answering questions about
what it was like to live in Iraq. Perhaps such exchanges will lead
to more cross-cultural understanding. For me, negotiating hope for
the Kurds involves increasing awareness of the Middle East in the
classroom and applying the knowledge I’ve gained to consider
ways of resolving difficult post-war reconstruction issues in Iraq.
Kimberly Segall holds a Ph.D. in literature from Northwestern
University. Her love of modern and contemporary literature is richly
by a global perspective gained not only in Iraq, but also in her
experiences teaching English as a second language in China, teaching
at an international school in India, and interviewing and studying
authors in South Africa. With the help of a Seattle Pacific faculty
research grant, Segall is currently writing a book on how South African
literature, theatrical performance and political commissions shape
issues of social forgiveness. This summer, she will take 17 SPU
students to South Africa to study its literature, theatre, culture,
politics and humanitarian needs. Because her mother-in-law works
for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Amman, Jordan,
Segall also hopes to deliver food and medical aid to Iraq this summer.
She is planning to write on the role of traumatic memories in the
development of Kurdish identity.
For Further Reading:
The Kurds: A Nation Denied by David McDowall (Minority Rights Publications, 1992)
The Kurds: A Concise Handbook by Mehrdad R. Izady (Taylor & Francis, 1992)
— BY KIMBERLY SEGALL, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH
— PHOTOS BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS AND COURTESY OF KIMBERLY SEGALL
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