Throughout their history, the Kurdish people have been the victims of geopolitics. Consistently entangled by conflicts in the oil-rich territories along the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; exploited and betrayed first by colonial nations and Cold War superpowers; and suffering the genocidal campaigns of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds have endured decades of displacement.
While I was photographing in Northern Ireland in early 1990, I met a British artist and his Kurdish wife. Over the next year, I spent time with this couple learning about Kurdish ancient culture, their seemingly never-ending fight for survival, and the atrocities committed against them, which were mostly unreported by Western press. I became fascinated with their history and drive for a homeland. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation due to the breakup of the modern Middle East after World War I and the Kurdistan region’s division into what is now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and the former Soviet Republic of Armenia. Thus followed decades of oppression and even chemical warfare.
The Ey Reqîb is the Kurdish national anthem, written by poet and political activist Dildar while in jail in 1938. The title is translated to “O Enemy!” or “Hey Enemy!” referencing the torture Dildar suffered at the hands of the prison guards and indicates a revolutionary socialism. Translated into English, the first verse reads: “Oh, enemy! The Kurdish people live on / They have not been crushed by the weapons of any time / Let no one say Kurds are dead, they are living / They live and never shall we lower our flag.”
Having become increasingly interested in the Kurds and their history, I finally headed to the ancient city of Diyarbakir, Turkey in 1991; and with the support of National Geographic, I had the means to cover eight countries in six months. By the time I returned to the states, I had shot over 1,100 rolls of film. This body of work became a book entitled When The Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds including an introduction by acclaimed political writer Christopher Hutchins. There was a brief period after the Gulf War that brought the Kurdish story to global attention, but it was not long before it became overshadowed. The Kurds fight daily to maintain their lives, their land, and their language. When The Borders Bleed, published by Pantheon Books in 1994, is a tribute to the strength and dignity of the Kurdish people.
Newroz or Nowruz, is the Kurdish celebration of New Year’s Day, falling on March 21st, the first day of Spring. The holiday originated in Zoroastrianism in Persia and is celebrated by Iranian influenced cultural regions. The holiday partly recognized the Kurdish plight as well as hope for the future and the new beginnings that spring represents. I had the opportunity to photograph the Newroz celebration in Diyarbakir, Turkey in 2003; the same location that I began my journey over a decade prior. That year, the celebration was marked by over 10,000 passionate Kurds and heavy Turkish security measures with some anti-US and anti-war sentiments.
Today in Diyarbakir, according to a recent New York Times article, the oppression of Kurdish culture and identity remains, and under the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it appears a new war against the Kurds has sadly begun. “Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, which enshrined a monocultural national identity, the country’s sizable Kurdish minority – around 20 percent of the population, numbering close to 20 million – has often been banned from expressing its own culture or, at times, from speaking the Kurdish language.” (Patrick Kingsley, 6/29/17). According to the same article, over 140,000 people have been fired from their jobs and up to 50,000 have been arrested. The individuals targeted were apparently promoting the concept of a “unique Kurdish culture.”
To know that the Kurdish plight for a homeland continues still 20 years after I first began documenting their struggles is heart wrenching. The Kurds will hold an independence referendum in September in Iraq, where many are located along the borders; along with locations in southeast Turkey, northeast Iraq, and northeast Syria. The current administration, led by President Erdogan, fired over 80 elected mayors and replaced them with state-appointed trustees. In Diyarbakir, which is known as the spiritual capital of Turkish Kurdistan, the municipal department promoting the teaching of the Kurdish language had to deal with the firing of 80% of their staff. The only Kurdish-language newspaper in Turkey was closed last summer in addition to 10 television channels that broadcast some Kurdish programs. Erdogan claims that the firings and jailing’s are about terrorism, not Kurdish identity eradication. Critics believe that the government’s tactics are clearly attempting to end Kurdish culture.
In 2005, I spent another seven weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan on assignment for National Geographic, making thousands of photographs capturing the daily lives of Kurds spanning the gamut of human experience. The Iraqi Kurdistan Flipbook film I created offers an alternate perspective on a changing culture, one different from the destruction and discord that dominates so much of media coverage of the region. I discovered this mixture of old techniques and new technology while editing my first digitally shot project for National Geographic magazine. The story focused on the Kurdish region of Iraq post 2003 American invasion. The mountainous, verdant, and magical land about the size of Switzerland is home to bitter and tragic history. Between 1975 and 1991, more than 4,000 of the Kurds’ villages and cities were destroyed. After the American invasion, the Kurds have enjoyed freedom from the Iraqi Arabs and continue to strive for a thriving democracy of healing and rebuilding.
Captured in the film are policemen seated in the floor, eating lunch and laughing, old men taking care of their fields, and young girls celebrating at a suburban birthday party. The Iraqi Kurds endured generations of brutality under Saddam Hussein, and the 200,000 lives lost take a toll on the people as a whole. The film explores, despite these immense hardships, the growing autonomy and equality that a free Kurdish people dream of creating.
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