Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Jonathan RANDAL


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

"After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan"

By Jonathan Randal(*)

I have been asked to explain why and how I came to write a book about the Kurds entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?—My Encounters with Kurdistan.”  It would be tempting to tell you that I always had a burning interest in such a project.  But that in fact was not the case. The truth is I stumbled into it.  I had been casting around for a new book project, something I could do fairly quickly and without too much research.  In other words, I wanted to do a travel book about a part of  the world not too much had been written about and not too much pawed over by the world’s academics.  For unlike distinguished professors attending this conference, I am not a scholar, but a reporter. 

In what turned out to be a book that took me a good decade to complete, I recount how I first tried the idea about writing about the Kurds on my long suffering wife.  I chose a particularly lovely summer day on South Beach in Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massaschusetts.  Aided by a cooling breeze off the Atlantic Ocean and passable white wine, I sketched out my project for her:  in and out fast, a walking tour to  a country that did not exist, throwing a new light on one of the modern world’s largely overlooked lands. 

In fact, I didn’t know much about what I was pitching to my wife. I knew next to nothing first hand about the Kurds except that some of them had destroyed a lovely building, once the home of the last Ottoman vali of Beirut, where I had written several chapters of an earlier book on Lebanon’s Christians and how they committed political suicide starting in 1975.  (The only person I knew then who had actually made more than a fleeting visit to the Kurds was my old French friend and colleague Francois-Xavier Lovat. As a very young man in the early 1960s he had walked into Kurdistan and spent months filming combat footage of the Kurds fighting the Iraqi army of the day.)  In my defense, not many Westerners seemed to know the Kurds well.  To say that my wife was enthusiastic would not be entirely accurate, but she did welcome my show of interest after so many months of grouchily searching for a book to do.

That was in August 1986. As soon as I returned to my base in Paris from my American holiday, I started seriously working on the project.  Almost immediately my plans were stymied by bad luck and bad logistics.  I had hoped to get started in September and complete my reporting by early December since I could not risk being snow-bound by an unpredictable Kurdish winter. I simply had to be back at work as The Washington Post’s roving correspondent on January 1 on pain of losing my job.

But my application for travel to Iraq-- since I was dependent on Iraqi acquiescence to visit Jalal Talabani’s PUK (and then on the sly the Iranian Kurds)-- somehow got lost in the Paris office of Abdol Rahman Qassemlou, the Iranian Kurdish leader  I had gotten to know and trust him during the Islamic Revolution. When more than a month later my travel plans were more or less straightened out, not enough time was left to do the on scene reporting I deemed necessary. So I put the travel part of the project off for a year.  Or so I thought.  In fact it was not until September 1988 that I got to Turkish Kurdistan to cover the survivors of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Bahdinan and only in the spring of 1991 that I finally set foot in Iraqi Kurdistan during the short-lived uprising.

Looking back, I now wonder why I didn’t simply ditch the book project back in 1986 and move on to something else.  Part of the answer was that I thought I could travel to see the Kurds of Iran and Iraq the following year. Why I entertained such a fantasy is best left to the special god who prevails on journalists to undertake hare-brained projects against all the odds.  But I do recall that somehow the Iran-Iraq war then raging did not figure as a major obstacle in my mind.  That proved to be a wildly over-optimistic assessment.

But I was so cocksure that I began reading seriously about the Kurds, mostly in the library of the Kurdish Institute in Paris.  I started with 19thcentury and early 20thcentury accounts of European travelers and then branched out into more contemporary writers.  And I began interviewing various Kurds who lived in Paris or were passing through.  They, in turn, put me in touch with an ever widening circle of Kurdish exiles in Britain and elsewhere in Western Europe.

Exiles by definition often have time on their hands. So then did even Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani who would wangle very occasional visas to Europe and often ask me to arrange to meet someone from the U.S. embassy when they came to Paris.  Frankly, all I did was to pick up the telephone and do a little bit of wheedling, but I was credited with moving mountains.  Today it is sometimes hard to remember how much trouble the Kurds had in getting their message across to Western officials. And when they succeeded in arranging meetings at all, more often than not the Kurds were put in their place by arrogant diplomats who refused to have them set foot on embassy premises and insisted on ground rules limiting the discussion to “humanitarian” considerations.

To this day I wonder why the Kurds were so patient with me. For make no mistake:  they were endlessly patient. I certainly doubt it was just the little favors I could produce. Perhaps my interest in writing a book was seen as potentially useful to their cause. But I am not at all convinced that was the determining reason. After all, I was scarcely the first American to have done so. My illustrious predecessors included Dana Adams Schmidt of the New York Times and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.  Both had visited Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1960s and wrote movingly about the Kurds’ plight.  That was light years earlier for the Kurds, before Saddam Hussein came to power and made their previous chastisement pale in comparison.

As for me, I kept working on the project because somewhere along the line I became genuinely attached to the Kurds. They were so unlike other Third World nationalists I had covered for decades and decades. I like to think that some of my very real fondness for the Kurds rubbed off on them.  They certainly treated me with great kindness and consideration, perhaps because I was already well into my ‘fifties when I took it into my head to write the book. And that included not a few times when I wrote things that they violently disagreed with and angrily told me so face-to-face. What I particularly appreciated was the Kurds’ sense of humor, all the more remarkable in the face of the very real adversity that had been their lot for most of the 20thcentury.

Somewhere along the line as I got to know more Kurds and realized how complicated their unhappy history was, I jettisoned the idea of a quickie book. What had happened to the Kurds deserved careful evaluating the slow march of Kurdish nationalism with its many, many defeats and setbacks and so few happy events.  Tracking down documentation about the double-dealing treatment by foreign powers, both regional and further afield, proved time consuming.  I ended up spending days on end in the National Archives in Washington and especially in the National Records Office in Kew outside London. The British documents, especially the Royal Air Force intelligence reports from Iraqi Kurdistan in World War Two, were especially edifying.  I also owe a debt of gratitude to photographer Susan Meiselas and her research assistant Laura Hubber who, with a major budget provided by an American foundation, funded research for her monumental book of historical photographs of Kurds and Kurdistan entitled aptly “Kurdistan In the Shadow of History.” They generously let me share the impressive documentation they amassed in producing the first record of the photographic history of the Kurds starting in the 19thcentury.

Still. whatever value my book had and may still have was due almost entirely to the many Kurds-- and others-- who helped educate me.  Long, and often repeated, interviews with actors in the Kurdish struggle – now that was something a journalist could revel in.  Dr. Mahmoud Osman,  Kendal Nezan, Siyamend Othman, Qassemlou himself, Mohsin Dizayee, Hoshyar Zebari, Adnan al Mufti, Kamran Karadaghi, Ibrahim Ahmad, Nowsherwan Mustafa and many others patiently answered my questions for hours on end  they doubtless could have put to better use.

Qassemlou, for example, told me about meeting Soviet officers when he was a boy during the Mahabad Republic.  Dr.Mahmoud talked to me about everything from his clandestine visit to Washington for Mullah Mustafa in the early 1970s to how he diagnosed and somehow survived the dose of rat poison that a traitorous Kurdish woman put in his coffee. Mohsin Dezayee described what he felt when a schoolboy he watched Mullah Mustafa Barzani and his bodyguard pass by. Those are the magic moment’s in a boy’s life – and in the forging of a nation. Ahmad Chalabi, who had backed the Kurds since he was a very young man out of his hatred for Saddam Hussein, provided me with many an insight and anecdote about the Kurds which were especially valuable because they spanned four decades.

  Very soon I was hooked. I often wished I had a novelist’s gift since the woof and warp of the Kurdish struggle seemed better rendered by fiction than the fragmentary facts and records that I succeeded in teasing out of archives and interviews.  The Lord knows Mullah Mustafa Barzani would make an epic hero in a historical novel. But I was satisfied with detective work, uncovering the gritty details behind the headlines. On a trip to Washington, I interviewed the former Iraqi diplomat Mohamed Dosky who had served Mullah Mustafa during his bitter exile in Washington at the end of the leader’s life.  Dosky patiently went over that painful period and provided me with a document implicating Dr. Henry Kissinger in the defeat of Kurdish nationalism in 1975. (That document came in handy when I finally wangled an interview with Kissinger who had done his very best first to refuse to meet me, then to shorten the time he had agreed for the interview).While in Washington, I also talked to various American officials who dealt with Mullah Mustafa during that period and made no secret of their distaste for Kissinger’s offhand condescension at the expense of the Kurds and their leader.

But for all my legwork, the project lay largely fallow until after 1991 when the Kurds gained a modicum of initially unintended protection from Saddam thanks to the Anglo-American air umbrella north of the 36thparallel.  That was after the first President Bush called on the Kurds (and the Shia) to rise against Saddam Hussein, then allowed them to be slaughtered by the rump of the Iraqi army once America’s objective-- the liberation of Kuwait-- was accomplished.  “Died and gone to heaven,” was how one Kurd summarized the protection Washington grudgingly provided under pressure from Western public opinion horrified by the scenes of photogenic Kurds freezing to death in the mountains where they had sought refuge.

 Abruptly I was free to come and go as I liked. No longer was I forced to hike over the mountains into Turkey to save my skin as was the case when the Kurdish resistance collapsed that spring.  My biggest physical challenge was suddenly nothing more arduous than talking my way past suspicious Turkish officials at the border.  Now the most daunting danger I faced was dealing with the abrupt change that was hard wired into the genetic code of the Kurds- and many other Middle Easterners. For the Kurds their modern history has always been on roller skates. Where to stop, how to avoid being made to look foolish by the next unexpected turn of events-- that became my main problem. 

So I deliberately held off ending the book. I think I lost nothing by postponing publication although I am sure my publisher would have preferred me to work faster.  At least, at long last I had access to Kurds in Kurdistan. I kept coming back, often interviewing the same people, each time honing my questions and prodding my interlocutors to dig deeper into their memories.  What a privilege to talk to a one of the Dolamori pesh merga who had taken part in Mullah Mustafa’s fabled retreat in 1947! ( I was lucky as well since the man was killed in subsequent fighting between the KDP and the PUK). How eerie and depressing to have driven down to Kalar and interviewed a young man who at the time was believed to be the only survivor of the mass killings in the Anfal campaign!  How useful to have been able to keep seeing Nizar Hamdoon, the Iraqi senior apparatchik in Washington, Baghfad and New York and tease out odd details about how the Baathists saw the Kurds.

I also had time to travel to Israel and interview the surviving veterans of the Mossad teams which were sent to help Mullah Mustafa starting in the mid-1960s.  I can now reveal Massoud Barzani was furious when I informed him that I intended to interview those Israelis, indeed so furious that I feared that for once I had presumed on his patience and compromised our friendship. While in Israel, I also was introduced to Kurdish Jews who delighted in telling stories of the crucial help Mullah Mustafa had received from a well off Jewish Kurd which had paid for bread for his troops on the classic retreat in 1947. 

I think I know that Massoud has forgiven me.  No such statute of limitations was extended by the very able Kurdish colleague of Al Hayat. He took me to task for recounting that his most distinguished relative, Prince Kamuran Bedir Khan, had so despaired of the Kurdish cause that in the late 1940s he had acted as an intelligence link in the Arab World for the nascent state of Israel.

If  I tell these stories again (since many of them are in my book) it is not to claim to have uncovered much the Kurds did not already know about themselves although, as I have just mentioned, some would have preferred not seeing them published. Rather my purpose is to encourage Kurds to start researching their own history rather than rely on foreigners. Let me try to explain why. Anyone who has lived as long as I have knows the value of first hand accounts, known in academe as oral history.  Even the State Department asks diplomats upon retirement to cooperate in such ventures (not that such wisdom would seem to be often put to constructive use.)  In other words, it is important to have for the record the memories of those who were eyewitnesses to history. And again anyone who has lived as long as I have also knows that key witnesses to yesterday’s crucial events can die without leaving a record of the roles they played.  I consider myself especially lucky that I met Mohamed Dosky a few years before his death.  And he was not the only Kurd who helped me and now has disappeared.

With “time’s winged chariot” in mind, I was particularly struck by the need for Kurds to collect their oral history 18 months ago when I was kindly invited to take part in a symposium here on the Mahabad Republic. The organizers somehow miraculously had found surviving witnesses from that magic moment of modern Kurdish nationalism. Their testimony was moving indeed.  I was so impressed that I wrote the Prime Minister begging him to set aside funds for young Kurds, preferably, I suggested university history students, to find, interview and tape record such everyday citizens before they took their memories to the grave with them.

I have no idea if there was any such follow through. My fondest hope is that you who have survived so many horrors in the 20thcentury will start seriously collecting your own living history.  Time if of the essence. You owe it to yourselves and your children. And do not be palmed off with the pretext that the project is too costly.  In this day and age, tape recorders, indeed even cam recorders, are cheap. Only a few hours are needed to instruct students how to proceed.  I can only pray that in some small way my book will inspire Kurds on this path.  Now that Iraqi Kurds are more the masters of their fate than perhaps ever before, it would be a travesty not to write your own history.

May I also plead for looking into the nooks and crannies that the Kurds’ very success might lead them to want left unrecorded. Quite often the things that we are least proud of are the very elements that need to be remembered in order to understand how we got to be the way we are. 

In closing, allow me to record that the greatest pleasure I derived from writing my book was persuading an old and dear Lebanese friend, Ghassan Tueni, to publish an Arabic edition. Tueni,  stalwart publisher of the Beirut daily An Nahar, agreed, but I think more to humor me than as a commercial venture. In fact, the Arabic version went into two editions so I doubt he lost much, if indeed anything.  Why, might you ask, was that edition so important to me? Because, I told myself, no longer could Arabs claim not to know what terrible punishment had been meted out to Iraq’s Kurds in their name. Arab claims of ignorance long had infuriated me as threadbare lies and transparent denial. 

A pirate edition in farsi and an above board, but quickly banned, edition in Turkish will, I hope, have fulfilled similar functions. As for the Kurds, there are two Kurdish versions of the book. One alone would have delighted me.  Two perhaps symbolized a kind of very Kurdish excess which I have grown to appreciate. Although I have made it something of a rule never to return to subjects I have written books about, I confess that I am working on an updated version of my Kurdish book. It seemed the least I could do, given what has happened in the decade since I finished writing the original.


(*) Journalist, author of “After Such Knowledge, what forgiveness”