Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History

Pelizzari, Maria Antonella.

by Susan Meiselas New York: Random House, 1997, pp 388

“. . . The world is a garden of culture where a thousand flowers grow. Throughout history all cultures have fed one another, been grafted onto one another, and in the process our world has been enriched. The disappearance of a culture is the loss of a colour, a different light, a different source. I am as much on the side of every flower in this thousand-flower garden as I am on the side of my own culture.”

– Yasar Kemal

These words were written by Turkish writer Yasar Kemal for a speech criticizing his government’s cover-up of Kurdish genocide in Turkey following the Gulf War. Kemal reflects on the historical tragedy of fellow soldiers and independence fighters turning on each other. But the overriding issue of how different cultures can exist peacefully on the same land has been raised by many intellectuals, historians and anthropologists recently. This question involves all of us as we witness group migrations across African, Asian, European and North and South American borders. How do migrating communities retain their own identity and how do they mix with other ethnic groups? What do they sacrifice of their own history?

In Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History photographer Susan Meiselas cites Kemal’s words among many other voices gathered during a six-year project with the help of Kurdish scholar Martin van Bruinessen and a team of cultural historians, photographers and research assistants in North America and Europe. Through a montage of photographs and texts from Middle Eastern and Western poets, writers, leaders, activists, photographers, scholars and families in exile, Meiselas’s book surveys the complex and suppressed history of the Kurds, an ethnic group of more than 20 million people scattered between Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Russia, Europe and North America. Kurdistan is a place that exists only in the mind of its people.

Without a state or a clear delineation on the map, the Kurds nevertheless have a language, -religion and tradition of their own. A sixteenth-century legend recounts that the Kurds gradually formed a group, escaping the terror of human sacrifice inflicted on them by a Persian tyrant. This legend repeats cyclically in Kurdish history, revealing the hegemonic control imposed on the population by foreign nations like Britain, Russia and Turkey. As van Bruinessen observes, the Kurds developed a modern sense of nationhood in opposition to the pressure imposed upon them by other countries. Paradoxically, “the destruction and oppression that forced many Kurds to leave their homeland has had the unintended effect of regenerating Kurdish culture.” Meiselas’s book is proof of this national endurance.

When a state such as Kurdistan becomes intangible due to massive attempts at its annihilation, a project to resuscitate its voices and images is as courageous as it must be creative. Meiselas, a Magnum photographer and winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal for “outstanding courage in reporting” in Nicaragua, reveals in this book the enormously difficult task of collecting a culture’s history piece by piece, fragment by fragment, photograph by photograph, in order to allow its people to exist, belong and unite together.

This is not the first time Meiselas has worked with people on the fringe of society and countries in despair. From 1973-75 she worked with carnival strippers in New England, photographing their lives and performances and recording their voices on tape and in book form. In the 1980s, she edited images by native photographers from El Salvador and Chile culminating in two books, El Salvador: Work of 30 Photographers (1983) and Chile from Within (1990). In both she let the subaltern speak, assembling their own voices and images. Photographs, for Meiselas, have a special power; they mainfest survival. They testify to life and build collective memory. As she says, “a photograph is a document that resists erasure.” Professional photographs are as valuable as those made by amateurs, as proof of evidence against death and denial.

Meiselas embarked on her Kurdistan project in 1991 while participating in a Human Rights Watch mission in northern Iraq investigating Saddam Hussein’s massive destruction of Kurdish populations. She was asked to photograph the exhumation of Kurdish mass graves conducted by a forensic anthropologist. Witnessing the unearthing of anonymous clothing, skulls and bone fragments, Meiselas says she felt “strange . . . photographing the present while understanding so little about the past.” Left with scattered signs of death, she sought to understand the Kurds’ lives and their resistance to death, sensing that this culture had many stories buried under decades of oppression and sacrifice. She included only a dozen of her own photographs in the book, instead searching for remnant photographs of these people, beginning a dialogue with a community while building a massive archive of Kurdish history.

The archive is assembled in a beautifully designed book, in which the entire gamut of photographs that she collected is on display: ethnographic records of Kurds; nineteenth-century travelers’ views of desert landscapes, ruins and people; hand-painted photographs of Kurdish costumes; family snapshots; aerial views; combat photographs; contact sheets; magazine and newspaper spreads as well as contemporary reportage. The photographs are treated as artifacts, often printed recto-verso, with extensive captions where available delineating the context of their original use. The chapter headings follow Kurdish history, starting from the late nineteenth century, “Before the Great War,” and ending with, “After the Cold War.”

Throughout this project Meiselas remained an outsider, “dependent on those who can inform and interpret,” yearning to experience a country from within. She traveled throughout Kurdistan extracting photographs and answers from the Kurds’ backyards and secret drawers, behaving like a gentle Socratic inquirer sorting out their stories through spontaneous encounters. These moments trigger intimate conversations, discoveries and memory retrieval that are printed on nearly every page of the book. In these, the outsider, Meiselas or the reader, is “invited inside,” to listen to the history and recollections of these families. Often the stories are based on the dress, flag or site depicted in the photograph. Reading these stories we are able to see the Kurds not as “other,” but as individuals fighting years of oppression, gathering as a group and even rebelling against their own rules of gender division.

What surfaces is the progressive hybridization of Kurds due to their forced migrations. A Kurdish Jew is exiled from his native village near the Turkish border to the newly constituted state of Israel and describes the passage from one place to the other as “a change of a thousand years in one or three years.” A Kurdish man explains the difficulty in marrying a Russian woman, who is viewed by his community as “a savage” because of her ethnic difference.

One poignant photograph by an unknown photographer depicts a Kurdish family listening to a radio. For families listening from foreign territories such as Soviet Armenia, the radio plays an important role in keeping communities together, helping them articulate the sounds of their culture. Another photograph shows a woman holding up a page from Paris Match that documents the firing squad execution of two of her sons as if to say “I have never been able to put into words what is inside me.” Below the photograph is a wire release stating that the photographer of the Paris Match image was awarded the Pulitzer Prize anonymously. Authorless, the photographic news captures a massacre, but helps a mother to mourn and remind others of the tragedy.

Meiselas interweaves photographs and documents including newspaper clippings, travel journals, citations from books on Kurdish history as well as archival documents from places such as the British Public Record Office in London, the Persian Gulf Collection in Washington and the Kurdish Institute in Paris. Produced by travelers, anthropologists, officers and missionaries to the Kurds’ personal stories and snapshots, these images and documents allow Meiselas to compare and contrast the outsiders’ and the natives’ interpretations. The foreign fascination with the Kurds presents nuances. Seen through the eyes of a French ethnographer, “the physiognomy of the Kurds breathes savagery . . . their step is firm, they hold their hands with pride, and their look has a supreme arrogance.” British traveler Isabella Bird is haunted by these “mysterious people” and their religion and British archeologist Gertrude Bell approaches the land and the people through the orientalist romance, reflecting on the ancient splendor of this civilization and the special quality of the desert and Babylonian plains.

These written and photographic documents tell us that the Kurds are savage, brave, brutal and mysterious, living as tribes but continuously lacking nationhood. Becoming the pawns of larger powers – Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, Israel, the United States – Kurds have often been perceived as firm, proud, courageous, “peshmerga” warriors, ready to give their lives in battle. But for whose battle have they fought and for whose life? Their story has always been told through foreigners. In Kurdistan they begin to tell their own.

The Kurds’ voices and photographs resist the foreigners’ interpretations not only in the book form, but also on the web (www.akakurdistan.com). With the many documents received from the Kurdish community, Meiselas created this site as an ongoing history and conversation about Kurdish photographs, historical events and personal stories. The site is a living archive and museum, storing the images and opening a dialogue with its audience about attributions, dates, locations and subject matters of unknown photographs. The site contains the spirit of the book, functioning as an active container and nestling with great accuracy and passion the Kurdish identity.

One of the last images in the book shows a Turkish Kurd in Germany in 1994, having set fire to himself. He runs toward police officers, “calling for a homeland” as the New York Times caption puts it. Mourning the loss of his pride, dignity, story and legend he becomes a “peshmerga” to attest to his own life and presence. Similarly, Meiselas’s book burns with life through images of struggle. It lets history unfold from a mosaic of sources, bringing to this history the strength of its people revealed through photographs. This is not a typical history book, but rather a photographic essay of history that chronicles the brutal traces and proofs of a people’s dreams of acceptance and independence. The garden of culture needs more work like this.

MARIA ANTONELLA PELIZZARI is Assistant Curator of Photography at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal.

The official Website of Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History

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