Mountains, Mines and Memories: The Idea of Kurdistan

November 5, 2014

Francesca Recchia, Picnic in a Minefield (Foxhead Books, 2014).

We have heard the tales of soldiers, diplomats, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers. They have chronicled the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the war that followed, sharing perspectives and observations that have become familiar to us. Their nuanced arguments and biases have helped shape our memory of the war and the Iraq that was left behind. Now, three years after the final combat troops were withdrawn, enough time has passed for authors to begin producing serious fiction and introspective memoirs. At the same time, their musings carry some urgency as Iraq has once again spiraled out of control. It is in this space that we find Francesca Recchia’s voice narrating the story of her experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan from 2008-2010, as well as observations from her most recent travels in 2014. Recchia’s new book Picnic in a Minefield places us at the center of life, loss, and hope in Kurdistan’s Erbil and provides a unique insight into the current events that have once again brought the Kurds to the forefront of our world.

Recchia is an Italian academic who left Europe for a position at the University of Kurdistan Hawler (UKH) in Erbil, Iraq in the hopes of expanding her professional horizons as an educator. In the course of two years, Recchia experiences life in many different circles. She transitions between guest, traveler, teacher, and mentor with an ease that disarms those who might stand in her way. It is from the unique perspectives of both her professional work at the UKH and her personal interactions with locals that Kurdistan is made real for the reader. Through Recchia’s travels, the soldiers, diplomats, journalists and humanitarian aid workers that usually narrate our collective Iraq experience, are illuminated for the reader from a new perspective. She reports their actions, thoughts and intentions in the insightful and articulate observations of a self-aware and humble narrator.

At UKH, Recchia challenges her students to search for their own unique identity and insightfully realizes that what she is teaching is less important than how she teaches. The environment she creates for her students becomes the true prize. She comes face to face with the reality of gender based violence and the struggle for equality even within the relatively progressive circles of Iraqi Kurdistan. The difference between her personal experiences and public interactions between men and women is poignantly illustrated in her description of the subtle courtship of two of her students. She manages the polarizing topic of gendered violence deftly, both in person and in the book; framing it, addressing it, and then quickly moving on. These troubling experiences are balanced by her interactions with Kurdish and Arab women throughout the book and leave the reader with a powerful account of life in Kurdistan for women.

The author’s experience is not limited to the confines of the University and Erbil. She ranges far afield across Kurdistan and it is on these forays that we find her narrative and observations at their strongest. Recchia’s personal unfamiliarity with conflict zones and their unseen dangers are manifested in the presence of mines and her repeated encounters with these hidden and indiscriminate objects of war. She finds them on the side of a mountain, at an abandoned villa of Saddam Hussein, and along the edge of the oldest intact aqueduct in the world. Land mines are as much a part of Kurdistan as the people and they shape the psychology of the Kurds as much as they do the geography of the mountains they inhabit. The book captures this relationship with the factual approach of an academic, the observation of an anthropologist, and the shock of someone unknowingly exposed for the first time to a threat as insidious and pervasive as landmines. Perhaps the only theme more dominant than landmines in her book is the Peshmerga. Recchia finds these legends—some still living in the mountains, others long gone in the prisons of Amna Suraka—and listens to the stories of both the living and the dead. By doing so she captures the essence of Kurdish nationalism and how it defines their hopes and aspirations for the future of the Kurdish people.

We are left looking forward from a hopeful 2010, where “Erbil and Sulaymaniyah are prospering and expanding at breakneck speed in an almost desperate attempt to turn the future into the present.” Recchia’s Picnic in a Minefield sketches Kurdistan as it was on the eve of the American withdrawal from Iraq. There are hints here at what Afghanistan’s Kabul may look like in the not too distant future. When Recchia returns to Erbil in 2014, I cannot help but hear my own experience in Kabul echoing in her voice. She finds paved roads where before there were none. Cranes dot the skyline, pulling concrete and steel skyward where once there was nothing but vacant, dust blown lots. Both Erbil and Kabul struggle under burgeoning populations of immigrants who seek security, education for their children and the relative economic opportunities provided in the city. The change of pace in these two cities is both disconcerting and comforting. Although the city Recchia returns to has physically changed, its soul remains the same and the portrait she crafts leaves us with an image of what exists today, a glimpse of the future, and a haunting memory of the price of conflict in a land of rugged people and mountains.

It is just now, some four years later, that we have come to realize that for Kurdistan, the future holds more war. Recchia returns to Erbil in the summer of 2014 as a new wave of violent extremism sweeps across Syria and Iraq. She finds an American trained and equipped Iraqi army disappearing into the darkness, the only proof of years of effort are uniforms left along roadsides and caches of weapons and equipment that have fallen into the hands of ISIL. A checkered performance by the Peshmerga with the backing of American airpower manages to stem the surging tide of ISIL.

The Kurdish phenomenon is perhaps best exemplified with their capture of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army abandoned it.  It is possibly in this single act that the West sees a glimpse of what Recchia believes: that the Kurds have what the Iraqi army lacked—a will to fight. For the Kurds there appears to be no option to abandon their lands, no defection or collusion with the enemy. In a part of the world where so many groups seem to be grappling with or running from their history, the Kurds appear to have single mindedly faced their future. As surely as Syria and Iraq have descended into chaos, the possibility of an independent Kurdistan appears within reach. The hope of Iraqi Kurdistan presents itself in the voice of Nurmin Osman, one of the first Kurdish women to join the Peshmerga. She tells Recchia: “Do you know why the Kurdish struggle can only succeed? Because ours was not a dream. We have never fought for our dreams. We only just fought for our rights.” This echoes of some manifest destiny for Kurdistan and Recchia leaves us with a provocative image, observing that “[Kurdistan] is the home of a stateless people that feels closer to Israel than to Palestine…”

The legend of the Peshmerga may not be the idealized image of a cohesive resistance that Recchia experiences. The Peshmerga is not simply a unified national army of Kurdistan. Instead, like Afghanistan’s mujahidin, they are a collection of local forces united against a common enemy, yet fractured by national politics and loyalties to local powerbrokers. Whether or not Kurdistan would be able to govern and sufficiently control the Peshmerga absent an existential threat remains an important and unanswered question. The Afghan experience would suggest that what comes after the defeat of a common enemy may well be the most difficult part of a battle for independence.

Recchia set out for Iraqi Kurdistan in search of herself. Along the way it is fair to say she found an entire group of people in search of themselves, their own identities, and perhaps, their own nation. These two arcs, one individual and one collective, intersect in Picnic in a Minefield and provide a compelling narrative that gives insight into the permanence of resistance, the pace of change, and the promise of a Kurdistan.

Ty Mayfield is a Political Affairs Strategist in the U.S. Air Force and holds a MA in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma and a MA in National Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Ty is participating in the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff directed AFPAK Hands program and splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Kabul, Afghanistan.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: G2musicgroup, CC