Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Michael J. Totten's road-trip to Kurdistan saga is up in its latest installment. He's seen the place before, of course. But his path in this time -- crossing over from the tightly leashed Kurdish region of eastern Turkey rather than coming up the rivers from Arab Iraq -- puts everything in a new light.

The first time I went there on a day trip from Erbil it seemed like such an innocent place. After seeing the rough hell of Turkish Kurdistan, though, and realizing that the Kurds in Iraq had it even worse under Saddam, it did not seem so innocent to me anymore. Iraqi Kurds struck me as deeply, profoundly, mature. It took so much work, blood, and sacrifice to build what they have. And they built it from nothing.

Iraq is the only country in the world where Kurds wield any power. They're ground down under the majoritarian boot everywhere else. For the most part they wield their power responsibly. Government corruption is still just atrocious, and they haven't yet fully emerged from a traditional society into a completely liberal and modern one. A Kurdish journalist was recently thrown in prison after a fifteen minute show trial for blasting the KDP in a newspaper column. He was later released, but he's not yet out of trouble. The Kurdish quasi-state wants to be liberal, but still doesn't quite understand how or what that means.

Even so, they've made more progress in the region than anyone else except, perhaps, for the Lebanese and the Israelis. And they started a mere fifteen years ago from the bottom of Saddam's mass graves. From the Mouth of Hell to ... the Utah of the Middle East. By force of sheer will against extraordinarily long odds.

Right. It's not perfect by any means -- you don't get "perfect" in human affairs. If you want perfect, go to a theological seminary.

But what's truly frustrating is that when I read accounts of Kurdistan, from Michael and others, I see this tantalizing vision of how the whole thing was supposed to be. This was what Iraq could have been -- should have been -- right now from one end to the other.

When the question of "what went wrong" comes up for a serious answer (i.e. more serious than "Shrubbie lied, they died") Kurdistan's success will somehow have to be explained away. What was different there? They had been under Saddam's boot. Yet they also had had a period of self-rule under the aegis of Coalition air power. They are largely secularized; when they fall into the rage of fundamentalist religion -- as in Krekar's nasty little gang -- they are as vicious and willfully medieval as Sadr's boys.

So is that the difference? Is essential secularism the quality that differentiates success and failure? If so, is there really any hope for this experiment in democratizing/modernizing the nations and economies of the Middle East beyond its existing successes in Lebanon and Kurdistan?

Michael also notices something else worth remarking:

Americans and Kurds don’t just get along because we’re temporary allies of convenience in the Middle East. The connection is deeper and personal. Kurdish culture and American culture might as well be from different planets. But somehow, oddly enough, Kurds think much like Americans do. Let me rephrase that: Americans think like the Kurds. We have similar values despite our extraordinarily different cultural backgrounds. I find it easier to develop a rapport with Iraqi Kurds than with people from any other country I have ever been to. It’s instant, powerful, and totally unexpected.

Exactly. He compares it to the encounter between Americans and French: no matter how well-disposed toward one another, there's an awareness of essential difference. I've been treated well in France and Belgium, and I like it there. But when I get to Germany, I'm home. The accounts of American soldiers in 1944 and '45 reveal that it's not just me. Cultures and nations, like individuals, sometimes just "click," even when they don't have much in common on the surface.

So, go and read it, but also, please, leave a few bucks. He's doing something here that needs to be supported. Along with Michael Yon and a few others, he's carving a third way between the standard MSM reporting and the standard blog writing. It has elements of the best of both, and it avoids the faults and excesses of each. As such, it's nothing new, just a rebirth of the old value of good, solid writing-from-a-strange-land, an American tradition since Bayard Taylor. It needs to be nurtured back to health.

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