Kurdish was a term I heard long before I had any real sense of the world, of where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are, or what cultural and religious intolerance mean. When I was about 7, a Kurdish girl called Hozan showed me how her people danced at weddings and at great moments of celebration, stamping, swirling and clicking her tongue. She was 15, and to me she was glamour personified, spinning in a field, her tiny denim shorts alarmingly far up her bottom, her head thrown back. This was in the mid-Seventies, in Oxfordshire, and Hozan’s family was encamped with some local Romany gypsies. At about the same time, in March 1975, the Shah of Iran signed a treaty with Saddam Hussein. The Kurds of Iraq thereby lost all their external support. And so they began to be exterminated.
The Kurds, scattered across much of the Middle East, are the largest population in the region without a homeland of their own, and their recent history is also the story of the changing political maps of the twentieth century. Hiner Saleem’s memoir of his childhood in Kurdistan, My Father’s Rifle, begins:
My grandfather had a good sense of humour. He used to say he was born a Kurd, in a free country. Then the Ottomans arrived and said to my grandfather, ‘You’re Ottoman,’ so he became an Ottoman. At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he became Turkish. The Turks left and he became a Kurd again in the kingdom of Mahmoud, King of the Kurds. Then the British arrived, so my grandfather became a subject of His Gracious Majesty and even learned a few words of English. The British invented Iraq, so my grandfather became Iraqi,
but this new word, Iraq, always remained an enigma to him, and to his dying breath he was never proud of being Iraqi; nor was his son, my father Shero Selim Malay.
The story of Saleem’s family is the story of a people who are Muslim but not Arab, whose land has been fought over, whose culture has been trampled.
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