A TROUBLED HISTORY
January 15, 1998
The arrival of boat loads of Kurdish refugees in Italy in recent weeks has again reminded the world of the precarious lives of the Kurds. Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco reports on a new book on their history.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Kurds are the largest minority in the Middle East without a country of their own. Twenty-two million strong, they live in an area some call Kurdistan, which spreads across six countries: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Kurds were left dispersed and divided after World War I, even though the treaty that carved up the Ottoman Empire at the end of the war called for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state. But the Kurds have continued to press for their rights in demonstrations like this one last year in Turkey, which was met with fierce repression, and also with arms, as shown here in Iraq. In 1988, entire villages of Kurds were driven from their homes in Iraq when the government of Saddam Hussein used poison gas as part of a large offensive against Kurdish separatists. Thousands were killed and maimed, including children among these refugees who had fled to Turkey.
REFUGEE: If we go back, they kill one of us, even the child who's age one month, they hang him.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Right after the Gulf War in 1991, Kurdish guerrillas seized several key towns in Northern Iraq. Saddam Hussein's troops put down the rebellion, sending some 2 million more Kurds fleeing to Iran and Turkey. Thousands died of exposure in the mountains, leading to a huge multinational rescue mission, which included American troops.
JAMES BAKER, Former Secretary of State: (1991) The important thing to do now is to make certain that the entire international community gets geared up in a hurry with a massive relief and humanitarian effort.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It was then that the United States, Britain, France, and Turkey established a safe haven for the Kurds in Northern Iraq and a no-fly zone above the 36th parallel. Over the past year and a half two Kurdish nationalist factions in the safe haven have been fighting each other, one with the support of Iraq, which has caused the flight of still more refugees. And recently, on the Turkish-Iraqi border, British separatists have been engaged in fierce fighting with Turkish troops. More than 27,000 people have been killed in the 13-year conflict between Turkish security forces and the Kurdish rebels, who are considered terrorists by the Turkish government. Without a secure homeland, the Kurds have struggled to maintain their identity as a people. It has often been illegal to speak Kurdish in school, and many photographs and documents from the past have been stolen or lost. In a new book ["Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History"], photographer Susan Meiselas has recovered some of that history. Meiselas spent six years gathering items of the Kurdish past, including 19th century photographs and a Kurdish book of ABC's, which she says is the only alphabet book in the world known to be banned. Meiselas's own photographs have become part of the history too. Susan Meiselas first started photographing among the Kurds in 1991. She received a MacArthur Genius Award in 1992 and used that money to produce her new book. She has also published books of photographs from Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Chile. Thank you for being with us.
SUSAN MEISELAS, Photojournalist: It's great to be here. Thanks.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is not just a book of your photographs. It's also found material, archival material. And you spent six years on it. Why? What drove you to do this?
SUSAN MEISELAS: I think I just got pulled in. I went just after the Gulf War. In a sense, I'd missed the story. I mean, the Kurds had been fleeing across the mountains of Turkey and Iran. Many people, I'm sure, remember those images. I went into Iran and then back where they had just left into Northern Iraq and was stunned by what I saw. It was a devastation of over 3,000 villages, what one could see right along the side of the road, the main road that they were leaving.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You'd seen so much devastation in the past that somehow that made you want to discover their past?
SUSAN MEISELAS: I was struck by those people, you know, those people living in the rooms of the former villages, resistant to leaving, fearful of leaving. Many refugees went to the mountains; many people wanted to stay in Northern Iraq, surprisingly, where they had been, what they knew to be theirs. I knew nothing about them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You could have taken pictures of people and interviewed them about their past, or, you know, talked to very elderly people, but you started looking for found objects. Why did you do that?
SUSAN MEISELAS: One of the early experiences I had in Istanbul, wandering through the streets and sort of curious to, in a sense, to just see what their was about the Kurds, there was a moment where I picked up a postcard in a small kind of bookstore, and I remember thinking that he perceived me to be just like everyone else visiting Istanbul, a kind of tourist of many colors that visit, and when I asked to buy that specific postcard, which was one of a Kurdish noble who is probably from the turn of the century, 1880's, 1895, he immediately wanted to know why. And I sensed that I had crossed a line, and that it was no longer appropriate to talk about the Kurds inside Turkey at that point, which alerted me again to this feeling of, there's a disjuncture. So, I guess, in a way, that became as interesting to me as what was happening in the present tense, was trying to understand what was this past, what was it, what did the Kurds represent?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you develop a personal feeling, kind of a personal tie with any of the material that you started gathering? I mean, we should say you gathered archival material from libraries. You have missionaries' diaries and journals and letters. You have all kinds of pictures from the past of Kurds. Did anything really start to grab you?
SUSAN MEISELAS: I came across an album that was eight inches literally high, a ten by twelve, beautifully made, very, very personal, handwritten lettering under every image, a real record of a very personal experience, which was travels through Kurdistan, amongst other parts of the Middle East, and I made an emotional link to this woman who traveled on her own to a part where she knew nothing a hundred years before me, making something where it's a very personal experience comparable to my struggle with, what can I do with what I've documented, what happens to what I've made, what role does it play in documenting the history of that country, or informing people, you know, larger community--her choice to make such a personal rendering quite struck me. And that really, in a way, shaped again the project, to put myself in a time line of people who had traveled to Kurdistan.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some of the objects you found were--would have been illegal for somebody to have them in Iraq or Iran or Turkey, right? Tell us something about that. These are archival material that are hot.
SUSAN MEISELAS: There's the story from the man named Jabbar, whom I visited, who when I was in Kurdistan, I would constantly ask, well, who are the local photographers, where are the studios of the--in each town, and I would try and see if anything survived their deaths, for example. In the case of Jabbar, somebody had pointed to me in a small town called Ranya, and I'll never forget actually walking into his home and he said, "Well, wait a minute," and he climbed up to his attic and he brought down a cardboard box, and in it was sort of curled up, scratched negatives, and he said, "There's nothing left." And I said, "What happened?". And he talked about having to bury his own photographs for fear that they would be confiscated, and he would be accused, because what he had photographed were the Kurdish leaders of that region who had met earlier in the years before. So to protect the history he buried it. And what happened was they were lost to him, and all he had were the pictures of the family portraits that he had made, and that's what's in the book today.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you actually took things like the postcard that you got early on back into the Kurdish regions to say, who is this, right?
SUSAN MEISELAS: Exactly. That seemed like the only thing to do because the people in the Western archives often had only maybe a date, maybe not even an author's name, certainly not a place, didn't know what the events were, so I would xerox those photographs that I'd found like the postcard, et cetera, bring them back to the communities where they come from, and ask people one by one, house to house kind of both searching out--they would sometimes bring up other images at the same time, respond to the ones that I had brought to them, and I think the book becomes a lot about that encounter, and who we are looking at who they are.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What was the most important thing you learned about the Kurds from this process?
SUSAN MEISELAS: In one sense, no matter where they live, they feel themselves to be Kurds, which is a very powerful force to be around, a sense of identity that's despite tremendous oppression in some regions and suppression of their history or the forbidden language, unable to publish, unable to maintain certain traditions, they, nonetheless, know who they are.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The book has painful pictures, pictures very difficult to look at about the various episodes of repression against the Kurds through all these centuries. Some of the hardest pictures for me to see were of victims who had been gassed by Saddam Hussein's troops. How did you get those images?
SUSAN MEISELAS: Some of those images were in the media, but what it involved for the photographer who made that picture, who was a Turkish photographer, he flew into Iran and the Iranian Army--it was convenient for them to castigate their neighbor, Iraq, for the gas bombing--so the images were made under those circumstances. The photographer I found in Istanbul did feel that it was a tremendously important moment in his life, and it turned out he was Kurdish, and it also turned out that he felt he couldn't document the situation of the Kurds in Turkey, but he could go into Iraq, the enemy territory, and make those images.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Six years on this. You gave up for the most part all the rest of your photographic work to do this. Did you get out of what you wanted? Did you learn what you needed to?
SUSAN MEISELAS: Well, it was a great challenge to make something that could speak to two very different communities: a community, I hope, of westerners who know very little and hopefully want to know, and to a Kurdish community for whom this work was totally inaccessible. I know it's hard to expect that Americans might care about the Kurds, but maybe they'll just remember how little the know, and they will remember six years ago seeing those beautiful people fleeing the mountains, and remember that they're still there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Susan Meiselas, thank you very much.
SUSAN MEISELAS: Thank you.