A travel writer’s anabasis through a country that is no country.
The Kurds, writes Bird (Neither East Nor West, 2001, etc.), are “an often-overlooked society that has been rocked and at times devastated by some of the most catastrophic events and tragic political policies of the last eighty years.” The fourth-largest ethnic group in the whole of the Middle East, they inhabit a huge swath of territory, stretching “through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and parts of the former Soviet Union,” and they are numerous, with between 25 and 30 million in that region and another million in Europe and North America. Thus, Bird notes, they are the world’s most populous stateless ethnic group. History has not been kind to the Kurds; in recent years, thanks in part to the fact that Kurdistan takes in some significant deposits of oil, their country has been the object of contest and conquest among many powers. Bird relates a typical incident: the Shah of Iran had been arming the Kurds in their ongoing struggles in neighboring Iraq; yet, following a favorable accord with Iraq brokered by none other than Henry Kissinger, the Shah abandoned the Kurds, thousands of whom were subsequently slaughtered by Iraqi forces. “America is too great a power to betray a small power like the Kurds,” the Kurdish leader lamented; yet, as Bird notes, the US has betrayed the Kurds time and again, and so has England, and so have other major powers. Strangely, though, the Kurds still seem more or less favorably disposed toward the West, affording Bird safe passage throughout difficult country, where she sympathetically reports on daily life—much of it tough, to be sure, but with some surprising wrinkles (the Dohuk Kurds’ devotion to high fashion, for instance) that, in Bird’s hands, do much to humanize people who, for most Westerners, have hitherto served as an exotic symbol of endurance.
Impressive reportage, a fearless commitment to seeing what there is to see, and a strong sense of history: a fine work of literary travel, one that honors its subjects.