Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Ferocious Past

The Ferocious Past

Dr. Grant of Kurdistan: 1807-1844

By John Agresto

Mr. Agresto, former president of St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico, is currently interim provost of the new American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Previously he served as senior higher education advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, 2003-2004. In the fall of 2008 he will be a visiting professor at Princeton University. This article appears as the preface to the paperback edition of Gordon Taylor's Fever & Thirst: An American Doctor Amid the Tribes of Kurdistan, 1835-1844 (Academy Chicago Publishers). Previously posted at History News Network, 19 May 2008.

Everything seems so different now. From my room here in Sulaimani, in Kurdish Iraq, I can look down the street to the dilapidated green domed Shiite mosque and, from there, to the more prosperous Sunni mosque not too far behind it. Up the street is the Kurdish Cultural Center next to the Chaldean Catholic church, next to the headquarters of the Communist Party. Overlooking it all is a heavily treed compound that everyone says is the CIA headquarters. No one seems to think twice about any of this; religion, tribe, sect, nationality, this part of Kurdistan they all seem to coexist peacefully, even happily, together.

Compared to the world described in this extraordinary book, things seem different, things are different. The Kurds of Iraq, once surely one of the most ferocious people anywhere, have calmed down a good bit. Getting a job, owning a Nissan dealership, visiting Europe, flirting and being flirted with...all these are more important these days than cutting off your neighbor's ear. Commerce, trade, and money-making have worked their wonders on this part of the world, and turned peoples' attention to less sanguinary pursuits. Islam - never as fanatical here as in other parts of the Middle East - remains a mildly cohesive rather than a divisive element. And nationalism, Kurdish nationalism, exercises an attractive force that erodes, dissolves , many of the petty differences that only recently separated tribe and village and family.

Beyond politics and nationality, even the ancient religious landscape seems to have been erased by time. Asahel Grant, M.D., the great protagonist of this book, went to minister to the "Nestorians." But even among serious Christians, who these days knows anything about the Nestorians? No matter that these Christians were the offshoot of the first great and lasting divide in Christendom, dating back to 431 AD, when the Church of the East separated itself from the rest of Christianity. No matter that, for a while, these Nestorians - "Assyrians" as we refer to their remnant today --might even have been Christianity's dominant branch, with Nestorian churches thriving as far away as China, India, Japan and Tibet. But that was then, and surely times have changed.

So maybe everything is different now, and maybe Gordon Taylor's book is simply a beautifully written, impeccably researched, compellingly told historical curiosity. But... why do I have this odd feeling this book is more than that?

Perhaps, as the French might say, the more things change the more they remain the same. Look again at the Kurds. It wasn't all that long ago that half the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan, under the banner of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, called upon their arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein, to help them exterminate their political rivals in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Not to be outdone, the PUK, in turn, called upon the hated Iranians to help them in destroying the KDP. And now, fifteen years later, a political alliance brings both parties together, based, as always, on newly-perceived shared interest. And the cycle called History rolls on. More importantly, perhaps Americans haven't changed much, either. Look at Asahel Grant -- physician, missionary, and educator - improver of the body, the soul, and the mind. Asahel Grant epitomizes everything admirable, everything naive, and everything almost incomprehensible to the rest of the world, about the American spirit.

In some ways, the Kurds of this book are unremarkable. Tribesmen warriors, with all the brutality of the unconquered world in which they live, they display all the virtues and all the many vices that are catalogued in all stories, travelogues, and histories since the start of writing. Perhaps the amazing thing about the Kurds is not the ferocious picture of them in this book, but what they seem to have become of late.

Nor, perhaps, should we be too surprised by the character of the Nestorians, even though Asahel Grant, in his most American naiveté, was initially taken aback by their un-Christian like natures. (How else to describe a sect so rife with murderers, thieves, swindlers, and extortionists?) Despite the fact that most of us would like to think otherwise, that there are serious religions and serious religious sentiment without a shred of morality is a fact of life.

No, for me at least, the most amazing thing about this more than amazing book is Asahel Grant, the American. We meet the good doctor with a swollen face, bleeding himself with a lancet. We meet him in the sixth year of his sufferings. He has already lost his wife and two infant daughters to the ravages and diseases of Kurdistan. Yet he bleeds himself, and rides on. Why? Simple answer - To bring some semblance of literacy and education, some medical relief, and some moral support to an ancient Christian denomination that civilization seems to have passed by.

But, again, why? Why should Asahel Grant care so much about people he barely knows to lose his wife, his children, his health, and ultimately his life over them? In a world these days where we so easily talk about the common threads of our humanity, how all of us are really the same, why does Asahel Grant, the American, seem so different? Why is he concerned about the health of - of all people! --Kurds? Why does he exhaust himself over the education of children not his own? Why does he care if these "Nestorians" fall under the sway of the pope or not? Why are their bodies, their minds and the freedom of their spirits of any concern to him? To be sure, not one of the people he ministers to would have given up all they possessed to cross the ocean and climb the hills to minister to Asahel Grant. So why? Why does he do it?

This is hardly an idle or academic question in my life. When I look out my window here in Kurdistan I see more than buildings. Not missionaries exactly, but I do see Americans setting up schools, starting clinics, laying sewer pipe, helping to build roads.... All with lives elsewhere, all with families left behind. Like Asahel Grant, none of them are here for money or oil or politics or honor or acclaim. What's the idea or the idealism that drives them? Is it the same vision of Humanity that drove Grant? I think it is, though I'm not sure what to call it. Nor do I fully know exactly why it's there.

Perhaps the Kurds are changed from what they were in 1840. For sure the Nestorians are pretty much gone. But Asahel Grant seems still to be around, with all his idealism, all his boundless energy, all his up-to-date technology, all his mistakes, and, all too often, all the failures that come from his misplaced good intentions. Fever and Thirst, like any great book of biography and history, is hardly a book just about the past, hardly a curiosity at all.

In saying that, I have only touched on one of the wide-ranging themes of this book. Yet, even if we resist succumbing to any of the grand and perplexing themes of the book, the fascinating thing about Fever and Thirst is that we can easily take in its hundreds, its thousands of wonderful details. "Phlebotomy"? Here it is. Ever wonder what the sweet that Kurds and Arabs call Manna from Heaven is made of? That's right...aphid secretions. (Sorry to say, I read it here after I had eaten it.) Need to know about gallnuts or mercury poisoning or the proper use of leeches? No worry; they're all here. Or perhaps you had forgotten that lions roamed Iraq until the 1920's? From philosophy to botany to politics, religion and medicine -- I now know how the first reader must have felt upon opening Diderot's Encyclopedia.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Stones of Chal

On things asleep, no balm

~T. Roethke

Residents of even the tiniest, most insignificant places can love the relics of their past. And when they speak out to defend them, people of good will should take notice.

Readers who know about Turkish affairs will assume that I'm referring to the town of Hasankeyf [discussed here, here, here, and here.], the latest in a series of historical treasures that Turkey's Dam Builders seem determined to inundate. But in fact I'm talking about Cukurca (chew-koor-ja), a town in southeast Turkey situated on the Greater Zab River, with the Iraqi border immediately to the south. Its name in Turkish means a "hollow" in the mountains, a good label for its position among the close-packed border ranges. Before being Turkified, Cukurca's name was Chal (rhyming with doll), and until the 20th century, when the Turks began extending their power into central Kurdistan, it was ruled by a Kurdish Agha. Like so many rulers in this region, however, the Agha of Chal held sway over more than just one ethnic group. While Kurds have always held a large majority within the geographical abstraction known as Kurdistan, there were, until the 20th century, substantial numbers of Jews and Christians to add to the mix. Of this Chal was an excellent example.

In The Cradle of Mankind (1914, 1922), the Anglican missionary W.A. Wigram noted that the Agha of Chal, "an old man", was the Ottoman Mudir (supervisor) of his district, which was part of a larger trans-riverine region known as Berwar. But the Ottoman government no more ruled these mountains than did the Agha: both were shepherds over a flock of cats. Wigram writes:

[The Agha] is also a Sufi by religious profession; and both of these circumstances should make for respectability; for the Mudir is put there to keep order, being lowest on the scale of local governors, and Sufis are usually supposed to be quiet mystics. Many of them are so in fact, and most interesting religious philosophers to talk with; but this man is noted for being on the whole the most crafty murderer in the country-side. It is of course something to rise to eminence in a profession so crowded as that peculiar one is locally; but perhaps that is not the most remarkable thing about this particular Agha. He is the only man of the writer's acquaintance who keeps a really large herd of domestic Jews. Chal village is largely populated by men of that race; and they are to all intents and purposes the serfs of the Agha--his tame money-spinners. The writer was even offered full rights in one of them for the sum of five pounds.
Such was the position of these mountain Jews. They were rayah, or "subjects", in local parlance, rather than ashiret (independent tribesmen). Though cribbed and confined, at least they enjoyed a settled feudal position under a lord who (in theory at least) would go after anyone who troubled them. "There are other chiefs who keep 'tame Jews' in this fashion," Wigram wrote, "though not on the same scale as does the wise man of Chal." Wigram, in observing this, reminds the reader that at one time all the Jews of England were the personal property of the King. Indeed, before the Exodus to Israel (after 1948), Jews could be found in all the towns of Kurdistan. There they plied the same trades associated with them in the Christian West: bankers, accountants, money-lenders, shopkeepers, workers in metal, jewelery, and other crafts. When they lived in villages, Jews lived essentially the same life--subsistence farming, stock breeding--as Christian and Kurdish rayahs. In 1850, near the mountain town of Bashkale, south of Lake Van, the archaeologist and explorer Austen Henry Layard came upon a tribe of Kurdish nomads whose clothing and adornments seemed slightly different from others he had met. Then he realized his mistake: these were not Kurds at all but Jews, living in the same black tents that their ancestors had carried with them in the Sinai. This was, as far as I know, the last documented encounter with Jewish nomadism in modern history.

Kurdish Jews spoke Syriac, or neo-Aramaic, a modern version of the same language spoken in Palestine and across the Near East in the time of Jesus. This same Syriac was also--and still is--the language of Kurdistan's Christian population, those "Nestorian" or "Assyrian" Christians which first the American Asahel Grant (1835) and later the English cleric W.A. Wigram went to contact. The Nestorians (Nasturi) were ashiret, the only independent Christian tribesmen in Kurdistan, and they dominated the ranges and narrow gorges to the north of Chal. These people were Christian; but in this context, do not think of St. Francis of Assisi: think rather of Vito Corleone.

The societal patterns of the Kurds were mirrored by those of the mountain Nestorians. An English-speaking reader coming from a middle-class and (at least culturally) Christian background, one habitually biased toward the underdog, might tend to assume that the Nestorians were somehow "nicer" than the Kurds. This--at least at first--was the assumption of the missionaries. It is, however, a dubious proposition. "Blood for blood" was the code by which the mountain Nestorians lived, a code no different from that of [the Kurds]. Frederick Coan, D.D., an American missionary in [Kurdistan] during the last decades of the nineteenth century, loses no love on behalf of the Kurds, and yet in his memoirs (Yesterdays in Persia and Kurdistan, 1939) he gives ample evidence of both sides' willingness to engage in robbery, murder, and subterfuge. His missionary father, Rev. George Coan, wrote in 1851: "The Nestorians are continually embroiled in quarrels. My very soul was made sick by their endless strifes." Close examination of other travelers' stories reveals that they were often just as wary of the Christians as they were of the Kurds. [In fact,] the Muslims of surrounding areas were petrified by the thought of entering their domains. Asheetha, the district where Asahel Grant built his home, was notorious for its plunderers and thieves. W.A. Wigram relates that one tradition among the mountain Nestorians involved raiding Jewish villages every year on Good Friday, in retribution for the death of Our Lord. This he relates as evidence of the mountaineers' boyish energy and high spirits. The reaction of the Jews he does not record. [F&T]
Today the Christians are gone, along with the names of their tribes and villages. Only on the Iraqi side of the border do Assyrian villages remain, and many of these have been abandoned due to shelling by the Turkish Army. The same applies to Kurdish villages as well. Faced by random bombardment, for local people the practice of animal husbandry has become next to impossible. In places where Turkish planes have bombed, villagers report hundreds of goats dead, not from the blasts themselves but from something that appears to have poisoned the grass. Goats' milk, a major part of the mountaineers' diet, now makes them ill. Recently a delegation from the Red Cross came to the mountains to take samples from the dead animals. So far no verdict has been issued. Said one Kurd villager in Iraq, "The Turks have done far more to us than Saddam ever did."

On the Turkish side of the border, things are no better. Villages have been forcibly evacuated by the army to deny help to the PKK guerrillas, a policy that has driven Kurds to the larger cities and towns, where they have little chance of employment and lots of time to demonstrate against a government they detest. In Cukurca, a sub-province (ilce) of Hakkari, the population declined drastically during the 1990s, and it remains low today. Indeed, there is little reason to stay. What was once a sleepy backwater has become an artillery base, where Turkish guns fire across the border at "suspected PKK positions" and make life unpleasant for the inhabitants.

This has taken a toll not only on the residents of Cukurca, but on the main thing that makes their town unique: the ancient buildings and stone houses on the citadel rock in the heart of the village. Look again at the photograph which leads this post. Now look at this drawing of Chal:


This was done by Edgar T.A. Wigram, brother of W.A., probably around the year 1910, when the two men were part of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Mission to the Assyrians of Kurdistan. It clearly shows the same citadel rock and the same houses as those in the modern color photo.

And remarkable houses they are. They range between two and four stories in height, and the quality of their stone work far surpasses that of houses usually put up in the mountains. The stone houses of Chal have endured for centuries--some sources say for 1500 years. Not so the peasant houses of Kurdistan, which usually consist of a rectangular excavation in the earth (for earth-sheltered weatherproofing), walls of rough stone stuck together with mud, and a flat roof of poplar logs and branches, plastered over with mud. In earthquakes these dwellings are death-traps. The stone houses of Cukurca, however, live on, their corners sharp and well-laid, their joints secured with lime mortar. Nearby is a large cistern, built to supply the citadel. It's not known who built them (the Emir Saban Medrese, a Muslim madrasa in the town, dates from Ottoman times), but if Chal village was "largely populated" by Jews it's a reasonable assumption that they not only lived in the stone houses but had a hand in their construction.

What time and earthquakes could not do, however, the Turkish Army is completing with its artillery. Their explosive shells may land miles away, but the shock waves from the guns begin in Cukurca. I have never heard a large cannon. Sources tell us that during the Great War their noise carried far from the Western Front and could easily be heard across the Channel in southern England. The thought of multiple batteries surrounding my neighborhood, hammering at the sky throughout the day, fills me with horror. So it has been in Cukurca. Now cracked and increasingly fragile, the houses have been forcibly evacuated by government authorities. But to the anger of residents, nothing is being done to preserve them.

"These houses shine a light into history," says Ziro Koc (pron. coach), a longtime resident. "Their destruction is something that cannot be accepted." Ziro Bey is afraid that one more military operation will cause major damage, and he like others in the town urges the government to embark on an emergency effort to preserve them. These structures, after all, cling to the sides of a very steep slope. Meanwhile, there is little or no employment in the town. Its reason for existence, the surrounding villages and their produce, have evaporated. "Cukurca," says another resident, Faruk Aksac, "is the possessor of many historical and beautiful things. But all this beauty has fallen under the shadow of war." Like so much else, the stone houses of Cukurca appear to be going downhill fast.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

The Turkish Right Comes to Canada

Note: I post this simply as an illustration of what happens in Turkey all the time, and quite often at universities, where gangs of toughs will attack Kurdish or liberal student groups. This kind of attack is a trademark of the Turkish right, the "ulkuculer", or "idealists" of the MHP, the Nationalist Action Party. I have a feeling, however, that they picked the wrong country to do it in. This is one case where I'm sure the Mounties will get their man.

Bloody attack at cafe

By Renato Gandia

Edmonton Sun, 23 May 2008

A mob rampaged through a west-end cafe in a bloody attack yesterday that sent three men to hospital.

After the bloodshed, angry Kurds pointed the finger at their Turkish neighbours.

"This attack is a well-organized hate crime against Kurds by racist people," said Metin Yesilcimer, who rushed to the scene as soon as he heard about the violence.

Two men in their 40s and one in his 50s were taken to hospital with non life-threatening injuries after a group of 20 to 25 armed men stoned Ankara Cafe at 15960 109 Ave., and assaulted eight people with metal batons, knives and stones, said eyewitnesses.

"They are like Nazis. They are Turkish Nazis," said Yesilcimer, who said he was speaking on behalf of the victims.


Just before 4 p.m., about eight construction workers were playing cards, drinking coffee and watching television when the attackers suddenly stormed the cafe.
"Somebody could have been killed here today," Yesilcimer said.

Cuma Yuksel, 40, sustained a bloody cut above his left eye, Halil Ekinci, 50, had a swollen arm, and Riza Med, 42, had a bruised nose after they were beaten with wood and metal sticks.

The attackers fled before cops got to the scene.

The owners were left to clean up smashed glass, droplets of blood and broken chairs and tables.

Thirty minutes earlier, an unknown man surveyed the cafe, said Yesilcimer.

"He came, looked around and I was kinda feeling something bad was going to happen."

He left the cafe and 30 minutes later, he got a call about the vicious assault.

Jalal Mardin, 31, said he was not surprised by the violence because of the history between Turks and Kurds. That's why he left Turkey six years ago and came to Canada as a refugee.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has fought for self-rule in Turkey's southeast since 1984.

The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people since then.

About 30 outraged Kurdish men met at the cafe last night to discuss their next move.


Yesilcimer said they are not planning to retaliate.

"Nobody can guarantee that, but some individuals would be too angry they might retaliate.

"We want to be as peaceful as possible."

Mardin said most of the men at last night's meeting were refugees who wanted a new life in Canada.

"Most of these people have lost their relatives back home. They know what war is. They suffered from our country and they don't want to see this kind of conflict again in Canada."

Damarys Chavez, the 31-year-old wife of the cafe owner, said she now fears for the safety of her 2 1/2-year-old daughter who sometimes stays at the restaurant.

Police were investigating, but no arrests had been reported by the time of publication.

[Cross-posted at Progressive Historians.]

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mountain Images and More

The following writing and commentary by Gordon Taylor appeared at Progressive Historians. Listed by most recent first. Click on titles to read.

A Boy and His Arm II
Continues the story of Cuneyt Ertus, the boy in Hakkari whose torture by police was caught on video and broadcast over the Internet.

Anatolia Revisited
A collection of items describing the current state of war in Turkish Kurdistan.

Mountain Boy
Halil Uysal: photographer, filmmaker, guerrilla. Rest in peace.

A Boy and His Arm
The case of Cuneyt Ertus.

Another Day at the Office
More about police thuggery during Newroz 2008

A Day at the Office
Police brutality in Hakkari caught on camera.

The Red Arrow
Comments about the River Tigris.

Enemies Wanted: Inquire Within
Turkey's unique brand of paranoid nationalism.

Twenty-six Below
February 2008: Turkey's ground offensive against the PKK.

Updates from the Battle
Just what it says: dispatches from Turkey's Feb 2008 offensive.

Today the Struggle
February 2008: Turkish Army makes a move into Iraq.

Philippe Dudoit: Photos from the Ravines
A French photographer captures unique images of PKK guerrillas.

Riding the High Horse
Barham Salih, Kurdish-American, comments on Turkish nationalism.

Paranoia Inc.
Who else? Turkish etatists and their delusions.

The Twenty Million-Dollar Sheep Hunt
The Turkish Air Force hunts Kurds, and kills sheep instead.

Merry Christmas
News of the season from a snowbound place.

The Genuine Article
Noah's Ark: the "real one" and the fake.

La Gioconda Perduta
The death of Aynur Evin and its possible meaning.

Alice in Turkeyland
Living a lie in Turkey.

"Babes in Kurdland"
Images of women among the PKK guerrillas.

The Back of Beyond: Mountain Images 8
Photos taken by PKK guerrillas, notably Halil Uysal (see "Mountain Boy").

The Return of the Karduchoi
Mysterious artifacts recorded by guerrillas.

Turkish Army Captives
Images of Turkish soldiers taken captive by PKK: October 2008.

The Friends of Aynur: Mt. Images 4
The world of PKK guerrillas, focusing on people.

Oramar: Mt. Images 3
A clash in the Hakkari mountain village of Oramar; captives taken.

More Moonlight
More about Aynur, the Kurdish female guerrilla, and her friends.

Moonlight in the Mountains
A look at a guerrilla, her equipment, and her motivation.