A belated posting of a talk that I did in Istanbul in May, trying to explain in a TED Talks lookalike why after 28 years in Turkey I felt that somehow the country will likely always do better – and more slowly – than its Middle Eastern neighbours. Turkish Review also published a cleaned-up text of the speech.
“The Turk Does Not Exist” – for sure, I was set a provocative assertion to address in my speech at Amsterdam’s De Balie cultural centre. But in fact there are lots of ways to answer that question, given the dozens of layers of Turkic cultures, 1,500 years of history, and an ethno-linguistic geography that literally girdles the globe. Here are the answers, maps and slides I brought to my 3 June talk, which was part of the 2015 Holland Festival.
Sometimes a novel can get across what others’ life is like more indelibly than the best-written news story. That’s certainly the case for the Turkish-Dutch marriage at the heart of Jessica JJ Lutz’s new novel De Nederlandse Bruid (De Geus, 2014). Like good non-fiction, this confident handling of a far-away culture has clearly been years in the making, and the well-told tale transports the reader to the heart of a normally inaccessible group of characters. And at a time when Europe is struggling with questions of Muslim, Turkish and other integration, it neatly flips the debate on its head by following a European migrant into Muslim lands.
The story of ‘The Bride from Holland’ is that of a young Dutchwoman, Emma, an under-employed recent university graduate who decides to follow love and the star of her fate. When her fellow-student boyfriend suddenly has to wrap up his studies in Holland and take over his dying father’s business, she leaves her homeland behind and travels east to stand at his side in his new job: clan lord of a remote Euphrates mountain valley in Turkey’s Kurdish borderlands.
Despite her privileges, Emma soon finds she has exchanged the middle-class comforts of north Europe for hard work, chronic feuding, codes of family honour, everyday deaths, loves, jealousies, suffocating traditions and lies that live for generations — the kind of all-or-nothing society that Shakespeare had to go to mediaeval Italy to find. For days after finishing the story, I couldn’t shake this completely convincing world out of my head, and wished that I could have stayed a part of it for longer.
The tightly woven plot is seamlessly sustained – a wedding, a murder, a suicide, adultery, treachery, ancient gold, a road, a mountain insurgents’ war and more – without losing any of Turkey’s intimate, audio-visual reality. People live vividly in the present tense, but are unable to cut themselves off from their past. And along the way, a first disoriented Emma is forced to grow up, find herself, and discover that even today, eastern marcher lords and their ladies, like everyone else, have many a dragon to slay before they can hope to secure their realm or riches.
A rural community in Turkey is no easy place to discover on one’s own. Much is left unsaid to outsiders, and more drama unfolds inside it than is apparent on the surface of poor concrete houses and chaotic family smallholdings. Jessica Lutz draws characters as they are, without a wasted word or a hint of condescension. The polished plot sweeps smoothly from the Rhine estuary commuter town of Ijsselstein to the ancient hill country of Gerger, which overlooks what is now the huge lake of Euphrates river water backed up behind the Ataturk Dam. The narrative is propelled forward by sharp, gripping dialogue that crackles with humour and cunning.
There’s one such comic moment a series of misunderstandings at the wedding – including a bottle of goat’s blood – when the bridegroom has to exclaim to his headstrong new wife: “Listen, here we don’t get married for pleasure”. Later, hearing tales of past battles when touring their new hardscrabble domains, Emma asks why the village clansmen no longer spend their winters pursuing heavily-armed blood feuds. She is told simply: “There’s television now”. Above all, what comes through is a Turkish Kurd community that is obviously very different in its concerns about religion and honour from Dutch society, but also principally motivated by much the same things as Europeans: power, love, land, jobs, money — and quick illicit profit if it might be got away with.
Lucky Dutch readers, who are already able to devour this novel. Buy it now! And producers of Turkish sitcoms, you need look no further for your next dramatic story. As for those other worried Europeans who struggle to make sense of how their societies are becoming ever-further intertwined with those of their Muslim countries to the east, I hope you will get the chance to read ‘The Bride from Holland’. Europeans are right to be worried by the problems of slow development in their eastern neighbourhood. But there’s a lot Europeans may not know, and above all, do not feel about their neighbours. When they finish a rare book like this, truly and elegantly able to reflect the inner dynamics of Anatolian society, they’ll find that they are a lot less scared.
(This is a version of an article published in Turkey’s Today’s Zaman. For the record: I am married to Jessica JJ Lutz.)
De Nederlandse Bruid, 234 pp, was published by De Geus in Breda, Holland in November 2014. Dutch paperback and ebook versions can be bought from the publisher here.
Endorsements and Reviews
“With some thirty years’ experience in Turkey, Jessica Lutz is the Netherlands’ best-informed connoisseur of this region. After her very successful book, ‘The Golden Apple: Turkey between East and West’, she has now turned to fiction. ‘The Bride from Holland’ is not just an exciting book. It lives and breathes Lutz’s deep bond with this land”. – Bram Vermeulen, Netherlands’ 2008 Journalist of the Year and a Dutch TV correspondent in Africa and Turkey.
“‘The Dutch Bride’ grabs you from the first pages, drags you into the claustrophobic isolation of a Kurdish village. Does love really conquer all? You will discover the limits of idealism, good intentions, and your belief that you can do things differently.” – Joris Luyendijk, Dutch anthropologist and best-selling author on the Middle East.
“An extraordinarily stirring and atmospheric book, which intensely brings to life the fragrance and hues of one of the most beautiful places on earth.” – Stine Jensen, Netherlands’ leading television philosopher.
“A thrilling cultural novel, in which the reader cannot escape from their own prejudices. Hooray, that a book this classy can still be written and published! Absolutely worth it: I read it at a gallop from beginning to end”. – Ebru Umar, Dutch-Turkish author, columnist and women’s magazine editor.
“A must-read in which the characters are tangibly real and the raw east of Turkey comes to life. I could almost see the morning light and smell the scent of wild flowers. Jessica describes the traditions, customs and life so vividly that I became homesick for my beautiful, complicated country”. – Fidan Ekiz, Dutch-Turkish television personality.
“Very successful, counter-intuitive and enriching … the cultural-historical background is woven into the personalities, dialogues and plot. In one great, flowing movement you are taken on a journey to an out-of-the-ordinary-world place where, amazingly easily, you can recognise your fellow man”. – Maryse Vincken, De Scriptor, 30 Nov 2014.
“An excellent, realistic, and most of all intriguing story. It’s a contemporary novel full of idealism and dreams, which find traditions and hard life standing in the way, without being unbelievable for a moment. The flowing writing style and the fine exploration of emotions, doubts and threatening situations complete the whole. I enjoyed it and while reading I felt that I was right there in Anatolia … five stars!” – Patrice, Leesclub van lettervreters De Perfecte Buren, 16 December 2014.
“A fascinating book with many unexpected twists and a surprising end … I really recommend it, especially for those who want insights into Turkey behind the scenes, and beyond inter-cultural frictions”. Nikolaos van Dam, former Dutch ambassador to Turkey, Middle East specialist and author.
Again it has taken a tragedy – this time, the jihadi massacres of Yezidi Kurds on the slopes of northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar – to focus international attention on the Kurds and on how precarious their lives can be. Yet beyond such drama, recent trips among Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have made me conscious of a new surge of self-assurance and intertwining in this once-marginalised and disparate group of peoples, who number perhaps 25-30 million people between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
On a July trip through northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds’ Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) looked more prosperous and autonomous than ever, part of a two-decade-long trend of development that has persuaded the U.S. President to tell the New York Times it is “functional the way we would like to see”. And despite the KRG’s real shortcomings – contested territorial ambitions, poor governance and a tendency for its fabled peshmerga fighters to run away to fight another day – the Iraqi Kurds’ relative success is also part of broader new Kurdish ambitions and recognition.
In Syria, whose Kurdish minority was almost invisible to outsiders until a year or two ago, the main Kurdish militia has carved out three relatively autonomous cantons. It has so far held its ground against the jihadists of the Islamic State with little outside aid and – despite some early rivalry with the KRG – helped the Iraqi Kurd peshmerga defend the Yazidis and hit back against the jihadis inside Iraq. In a rarely seen moment of Kurdish solidarity, Turkish Kurd fighters have now also joined the front lines of both Iraqi Kurd peshmerga and Syrian Kurd militia.
More than half of the world’s Kurds live in Turkey, and they are tasting new success there too. After 30 years of fighting the main insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), top Turkish and PKK officials now say they think it unlikely they can defeat each other militarily, and peace talks are making progress. Even non-PKK Kurds in Diyarbakir now speak glowingly of trying to win the kind of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds enjoy. And on August 10, an unabashed Turkish Kurd national movement leader won nearly 10 per cent of the overall vote as a presidential candidate in Turkey – sweeping in first in 11 provinces in southeastern Turkey.
There are deep cracks in the foundations of this Kurdish progress: clashes of interest with neighbouring Turkish, Iranian and Arab states, the Kurds’ disconnected mountain geography, their divided tribal societies, and their four main dialects, which are mutually hard to understand. Iraqi Kurds have yet to prove they can prosper without their share of oil income from Baghdad, have occupied territory well beyond what their Arab and other neighbours consider to be fair and have kept a tight rein on KRG media. A foreign security expert resident in the KRG told me there were increasing fears of a domestic backlash against the alleged corruption and concentration of wealth in the ruling elite – epitomised by the ownership of some of Erbil’s grandest building projects. The wounds of internecine strife in the 1990s are still unhealed: inside the KRG’s own territory, I still passed through checkpoints that divide the region up between at least three armed factions.
In Syria, the main Kurdish organisation faces long term liabilities, with threats from jihadists on one side, and continued links with the Syrian regime on the other (for instance, see Crisis Group’s May 2014 report Flight of Icarus: The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria). Turkey’s main Kurdish movement is beholden to armed insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which itself is burdened with a designation as an international terrorist group (more here). And, beyond news of occasional executions, Iran lets slip little information about the situation of its Kurds, two of whose most important leaders were murdered in exile by gunmen linked to Tehran in 1989 and 1992 (a book with rare and compelling reporting on one of these killings can be found here).
Nevertheless, many changes seem almost miraculous. When I first met KRG President Masoud Barzani during the Iran-Iraq war in 1985 – he was then a young guerrilla chief fighting on the Iranian side, and the Iranian army helicoptered us in for a surprise visit to his Loulan camp in a remote mountain corner of northern Iraq – nobody in my group of a dozen journalists had much idea who he or the Kurds really were. When I started visiting Turkey in 1980, few non-Kurds seemed to care that the government was still ordering its officials to deny that the country’s Kurds existed and to call them “Mountain Turks”. In the 1990s, when I tried to pitch a story on the region’s Kurds to the Los Angeles Times, a kindly editor wrote back to advise me “don’t put the word ‘Kurd’ in [your proposal] … To us, it guarantees that we won’t understand the story”.
In 1991, as a reporter I witnessed the stumbling dawn of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Back then, travel between major cities took hours on dizzying, broken-down mountain roads. Vehicles were falling apart and smuggled fuel was (and often still is) sold in barrels and plastic jerry cans. All around us villages had been flattened into non-existence, often with not a stone left standing on another, sad evidence of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal scorched-earth policies.
Two decades later, a Kurdistan has emerged, even if its legal status remains something of an elastic envelope. Iraqi Kurds seem to be able to use their growing international recognition and support to keep on pushing out, waiting, and pushing out again. Entering the KRG no longer needs a ride on a tin-tub speedboat across the Tigris River or shadowy permits from Syrian intelligence: there are now direct international flights to Erbil airport and its sleek tubular arches, and KRG border police stamp a welcome into many country’s passports without demanding a visa. To go on to Baghdad, however, a proper Iraqi visa is needed.
Not surprisingly for a people for whom smuggling between neighbouring states has long been a way of life, the American dollar is as good a currency as the Iraqi dinar. The newest computers, top-of-the-line cameras and surveillance equipment are carted off to the rest of Iraq, Iran and Turkey from Erbil’s bustling electronics district, which charges lower prices than New York, partly because nothing seems to be taxed. Things don’t always work out. Because Baghdad insists all Iraqi oil must be marketed through the central government [corrected: see below], two tankers full of the Iraqi Kurds’ first oil shipments that used an Iraqi pipeline through Turkey were kept floating off the U.S. coast for weeks in a legal limbo this summer. But some Kurdish oil is finding buyers.
Growing assertiveness is showing in Kurdish languages and cultures. When I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s and early 2000s, outsiders mostly used Iraq’s national language of Arabic for work. When the Kurdish zone expanded anew during the 2003 war, I moved with Kurdish fighters into territory formerly held by the deposed Saddam Hussein regime — once again into Kurdish towns with shop signs only in Arabic. Domestically, a main concern for Masoud Barzani’s region-wide television station has been to coin a new kind of high Kurdish as a language that would be understood through the whole territory. This is still a work in progress: a refugee Syrian Kurdish schoolteacher in Erbil told me in July that after nearly a year here he still couldn’t fully understand the Iraqi Kurds’ main east-central Sorani dialect. Arabic, however, was much less known to those educated after 1991. “Learn Kurdish!” the two young men who drove me across the country ended up yelling in frustration as our conversation reached another dead end. It was true: anybody seeking to operate effectively outside the English-speakers in Iraqi Kurdistan’s elite now needs to do just that.
The city of Erbil, now the KRG capital, is still dominated by its ‘castle’, an oval of fortifications and brick mansions on the site of an ancient settlement or ‘tel’ that through history has risen 50 meters over the plains around. The castle is being restored and the city is in the throes of a rapid transformation. Concentric ring roads are expanding like ripples in what has become a concrete sea. Wide highways are well-paved and busy with new-looking, sometimes expensive cars. One of the biggest buildings in the city used to be the Saddam-era regional parliament building; now it’s hard to spot. At the same time, large parks have been laid out that attract crowds after the heat of the day.
In old parts of Erbil a few old low-rise brick houses (above left) can still be found. But they are giving way to 20-story luxury mall-and-residence complexes. New-build housing estates now extend far into the surrounding plains (above right) and hills to the north.
Several new glittering malls (like the Royal Mall, above left) compete for attention from the elites. Construction is under way to rebuild the more popular Kayseri Market in the city center (above right), where straw-coloured brick vaults now frame bazaar shops that sell everything from Kurdish cradles and carpets to dried vegetables, gold and mountain honey. Soon there will be nothing left of the old corrugated iron roofs riddled with holes, a continued legacy of the malevolent neglect of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
A new sense of Kurdish pride can be felt, too, from the first ‘Welcome to Kurdistan’ sign in the airport bank ads to the vast flag that now flies over the Erbil castle (above left). After years of Iraqi oppression of Kurdishness, one petrol station (above right) seemed to feel the need to plaster the word ‘Kurd’ everywhere. Back in 1991, just after renewed Western protection gave the Iraqi Kurds their road to more autonomy, if people wanted to fly the sunburst flag of Kurdistan, they had to draw it by hand on pieces of paper.
Between long stretches of empty mountains, there are still storks on the electricity pylons and great herds of sheep and goats. But the places where the roads now turn into the jarring old bone-shakers mostly seem to be where a dam or bridge is being built nearby. The countryside is busy too: towns given over to the production of concrete breeze-blocks, or valleys in which the newly rich find hills and outcrops on which to build their own private villa-castles as summer weekend retreats.
In a sign that KRG President Barzani also remembers the precariousness of the past, however, he prudently keeps his main residence and workplace on a hard-to-attack ridge in the first line of mountain foothills north of Erbil. For sure, the Kurds have a long way to go, and any independent state, for instance, would prove much harder than it looks. Weeks after my visit to Erbil, judged safe for travellers in recent years, the city came under threat of direct attack by the jihadists from the new Islamic State. But, with help from Syrian and Turkish Kurds, its defenses have not crumbled.
Such cooperation, until recently unthinkable, are part of the recent intertwining of the fates of the Iraqi Kurds’ KRG, Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds. This could be seen not just in the operations to save the Yezidis and others but also somewhere as remote as the PKK headquarters, at times attacked and often only grudgingly tolerated by the KRG in the remote Qandil Valley. The KRG authorities have now extended a new line of electricity poles, cellphone service and a good main road to the small Iraqi Kurdish villages there. Villagers live in apparent harmony with PKK checkpoints and the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of Turkish Kurd insurgents camped out in the mountains above. Another powerfully revived link is between Syrian and Turkish Kurds, with perhaps 250,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing to Kurdish areas of Turkey in the past year (described in my Crisis Group blog here) and Turkish Kurds giving military and humanitarian aid to their cousins in Syria.
Alongside Qandil’s well-built Iraqi Kurdish village houses, squabbling ducks in the water canals and peach orchards heavy with fruit, a number of buildings lie flattened after attacks on the PKK by the Turkish Air Force in recent years. But even here, there is hope of change and peace after 30 years of a war that has killed at least 30,000 people on both sides. The PKK is becoming more open too, and won some of its first positive press in the West for their role in defending the Yezidi Kurds in Sinjar from jihadi attack (for instance, in Prospect Magazine and the Daily Beast).
Long journeys from little-known places by determined, well-organized people can sometimes reach their goal: Qandil is not far as the crow flies from Loulan, where I first met Barzani earlier in his Kurdish struggle 30 years ago. Passing the last PKK checkpoint on my way home, I asked one of the Turkish Kurd insurgents about what lay behind his dedication to a cause and an organisation that required him to live indefinitely without pay, without holidays, without families, and without a love life. He laughed wryly and took the long view of a true believer.
“I guess you could say we’re like a dervish lodge”, said the man in his 30s. “And we’ll keep at it until we win the rights we want for the Kurds.”
All photographs copyright by Hugh Pope
This version of the article article has removed an incorrect reference to sales of Iraqi Kurdish oil having to be directed through Baghdad according to U.S. and international law.
As jihadists make Yezidis suffer once again on the Syrian-Iraq border, here’s my chapter from Dining with al-Qaeda devoted to my weeks with the community during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Originally posted on From the archive:
THE YEZIDI HERESY
An Alternative Approach to Military Liberation
We rejoiced at the rising Nile, then it drowned us. — EGYPTIAN PROVERB
A good introduction is an invaluable asset. My fixer, Sagvan Murad, was a young and active member of an ancient religious community called the Yezidis. They numbered about half a million people in Iraq, the bulk of them living south of the front line and under Saddam Hussein’s government control. Murad told me that community leaders on the side that was free, liberated, and developing since 1991, had organized a plan for a smooth takeover of the Saddam-controlled areas. It was his boss in a Yezidi cultural center, a part-time guerrilla chief, who had invited us to accompany them south when Saddam’s control collapsed. This offer of open access to whatever…
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Holland’s enfant terrible of Middle East journalism, Joris Luyendijk, proved the law of unintended consequences back in 2006 when he blitzed the Dutch news-reading public about the shortcomings of his adopted profession. He had hoped that his book Het Zijn Net Mensen (published in English as ‘Hello Everybody!’ but roughly translatable as ‘they’re almost human, aren’t they?’) would stir the media to raise their game and prompt wider intellectual curiosity about the region. As sales soared, however, he found he hadn’t counted on one common reaction.
“People would come up to me, clap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I always wondered if the media was lying! So since that you say that they do, I’m just going to cancel my [newspaper] subscription’”, Luyendijk told me on his whirl through Ankara to promote the Turkish version of his book (Herkese Merhaba!) – its 14th language translation.
The account of his five years reporting from the Middle East – on top of years of Arabic study — came out four years before my own Dining with al-Qaeda. The narrative of journalistic self-criticism comes from different perspectives, but the conclusions of our two books are so much on the same wavelength that when Hello Everybody! came out, the Guardian newspaper reviewed them together.
I’d never met Luyendijk, however, and it proved a delight to share a podium with him in Ankara last week at a lively outpost of Dutch civilization, Leiden University’s NIHA Institute. We discussed our pet loves and hates in journalistic coverage of the Middle East, and his book’s central arguments: that Western coverage of the Middle East is superficial, misleadingly uprooted from its context since it is purveyed by a crisis-hopping class of “presenters”; that few of these talking heads speak local languages; and that time pressure forces many to work from agency copy forwarded by their headquarters. It points out that few spend much time outside their hotels, omit the human context and have little special knowledge of local peoples who are caught up in long, complicated disputes that are not all of their own making.
Some in the Dutch media establishment rejected this newcomer’s lèse majesté, and indeed what makes the book so readable and hard-hitting is its funny mix of oversimplification, exaggeration and iconoclasm. Luyendijk claims an outsider’s legitimacy, insisting (often with a thump of his fist into his hand) that he has been first and foremost moulded by his first career as an anthropologist. His study of journalists in action, he believes, is scientifically analogous to the work he’d really like to be doing: studying Dutch-speaking grandchildren of the arrow-shooting aboriginals of the Surinam rain forest.
For our audience in Ankara we argued over whether to blame television or parti pris op-ed columnists for the Middle East’s wars and the shortcomings of Western reporting of them. I found his book over-envious of the well-funded correspondents of the great U.S. media outlets, a position which I (mostly) greatly appreciated during my decade on the staff of the Wall Street Journal. In fact, I was jealous of him, I said, because any story he wrote would have a head start in getting closer to the truth because he was writing for an open-minded, well-educated, relatively neutral country like the Netherlands. We sparred over whether to blame the reporter or the audience for journalism’s lack of far-sightedness and nuance, and found a useful scapegoat in the editors. Then we wondered if more editors wouldn’t improve a brave new Dutch initiative of collaborative, crowd-funded journalism, de Correspondent, which allows writers perhaps too much space.
Luyendijk kept his insights flowing at another launch event at the Dutch ambassador’s residence, acknowledging how much had already changed in the business since he was having agency copy faxed to him. Back then, not having images from, say, Chechnya, meant that the deaths of thousands never even got on the TV news. At the same time, the neatly choreographed if sometimes deadly daily Arab-Israeli ballet of Palestinian stone throwers vs Israeli troops in a small corner of Ramallah – filmed by the global media and watched by spectators, both served by falafel sellers – made it seem as though the Middle East was ablaze with violence.
Now, he said, leading blog sites are helping editors frame their ideas on the Middle East (he singled out the “excellent” website Arabist, for instance). An articulate modern-day Dutch embassy dragoman in the audience noted the paradox that there is now a plethora of film from Syria, but that these cellphone shorts have done little to blunt the violence ripping the country apart. Luyendijk doubted that this holy grail of 100 per cent truth or objectivity could ever be attained. (“A report is always going to be either ‘Ajax beat Liverpool’, or ‘Liverpool lost to Ajax’”). He proposed a better gold standard would be trustworthiness. In journalistic terms, we agreed, that could be defined as “an honest best shot”.
Both maybe it’s easy for us to talk. We are no longer burdened with the intimidating task of making sense of day-to-day Middle Eastern turmoil for a non-expert audience. I’m now with International Crisis Group, and find its research, reports and advocacy method far better suited than journalism for detailing, explaining and ultimately trying to do something to end Middle East turbulence. But, illustrating Luyendijk’s point about simplification, even the best-intentioned broadcast media still often find it easier to keep calling me a journalist, as here on Dutch TV news last week.
Fed up with requests to come in on the fourth day of every crisis to criticise the media coverage, Luyendijk has moved to London and reinvented himself as an anthropologist of the banking business. He has blogged from the front lines of finance for the Guardian (here), an experience he’s now turning into a book. After hearing him retell some of the stories whispered anonymously to him by apparently self-hating Masters of the Universe, I’m looking forward to reading it — if he survives the the English food, out-of-body encounters with the British intellectual classes and all-year-round swimming at the open-air Lido lake on Hampstead Heath.
After that Luyendijk says his next project will be the European Union and its native species, the Eurocrat. He has his work cut out. Europe’s often self-imposed sense of slow decline means that even NIHA, the Dutch centre of learning in Ankara where he and I talked, will close down this year. But I parted company with him with a reinvigorated belief in the qualities and energy that Europe still has, if only Europeans could articulate it better.
Thinking too about Luyendijk’s insistence on the importance to his work of his scientific background, I feel even more flattered to remember how an elderly Canadian professor once came up to me after I’d presented my last book Sons of the Conquerors at Montreal’s McGill University. After listening to me talk about this account of my search through two dozen countries for the soul of the Turks, he told me: “you know, Mr. Pope, you could almost have been an anthropologist”.
A full video of our debate can be found here http://youtu.be/BdLqFqOCiRs
Graeme Smith has many metaphors for the often bloody mess made of Afghanistan by the supposedly good intentions of the world. One that stayed with me from his knockout new book on the country is that of his favorite barber shop in the south Afghan city of Kandahar. Despite some blue tile and sofa improvements over the years, the roof of the salon picked up a crack in the arched vault from a nearby suicide bomb. The fissure occasionally widens. The hairdresser, and his clients, assume that one day the whole structure will come tumbling down. Until then, however, he just clips to the fashions of the day: long and shaggy when the Taliban are close, cropped or spiky when more pro-Western powers are strong.
“The Dogs are Eating them Now: Our War in Afghanistan” (Knopf Canada, 2013) lays out in chiseled detail much that everyone needs to know about the most important, Pashto-speaking theatre of the Afghan war. The Taliban, Smith discovers, are far more “a bunch of rebellious farmers” than foreign zealots. Military strategies of “clear, hold and build” are delusions, and, like Newton’s law of reaction equaling action, the reality is that levels of violence simply rise in direct correlation to levels of force applied. Foreign forces graft themselves onto local tribal feuds, not a struggle of good versus evil. Many Afghans view the Afghan police as more predatory than the Taliban. Goals and missions may at first be noble, but foot-soldiers on both sides fight mostly in self-defence or for revenge. Ordinary Afghans cannot see the difference between the dominant United States and Canada, or, by implication, any other “willing” coalition partner. Even Canada’s impressive moral codes are stretched to breaking point by association with torturing Afghan security agents. “The Westerners became intimately embroiled with a dirty war,” Smith concludes, “and the filthy awfulness of it will remain a stain on their reputation”.
Finally, for those wondering what will happen after NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Smith persuasively argues that the likely outcome will be similar to events after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. As long as the West keeps paying for the Afghan government (now 90 per cent of budget revenue), the current regime will likely have the means to keep going, and perhaps things will work more smoothly than when foreign troops were charging around. But the relatively effective regime of President Najib fell within months of Soviet subsidies drying up in 1992, and Smith implies that much the same will happen when the West tires of its Afghan project. In the ensuing chaos, the best-educated Afghans, the backbone of whatever the West was trying to build, will then be almost bound to leave.
Before Smith (full disclosure: the author is now an admired colleague of mine at International Crisis Group) won Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize for this book, publishers in London and New York were dismissing its wider relevance. (“We thought it was about Syria”, one told his agent while turning it down, while another rejected it even after the prize because “getting media for a book like this in the States is just too tough”). In fact, it should be required reading for anybody who thinks that nations can be built by foreign troops on temporary assignment. It’s also the best lesson in how lucky we are that no Western soldiers are trying to do in Syria today what they tried and failed to do for 12 years in Afghanistan.
Above all, Smith warns against believing NATO statements that there was any kind of “victory” in this graveyard of empires. “Our modern techniques resemble the early days of medicine, when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting or drilled into skulls to treat madness,” he says. He is cautious, too, about the way humanitarian agencies passionately wanted to make the NATO intervention to work for the best. Perhaps there were some eager classes of Afghans on the internationals’ wavelength in Kabul and the north. But, Smith asks, “whose dreams were we chasing in southern Afghanistan? … the road to Kandahar was paved with the best intentions, but the foreigners had no idea what Afghans wanted. That disconnect [had] horrendous consequences.” A persistent piece of graffiti in a Kandahar Air Field washroom – NUKE AFGHANISTAN – prompts Smith to reflect:
Maybe it was a more sophisticated commentary on the absurd logic of the war, a Swiftian modest proposal that revealed the only way Western countries could feel absolutely certain that Afghanistan would never serve as a terrorist haven. Given that no sane person wanted to turn the country into a sheet of radioactive glass, perhaps this was the soldiers’ way of saying that the civilians at home had better get used to accepting risk in their lives, because there was a limit to how many people you can kill as a preventative measure. The phrase ‘never again,’ so often heard after 9/11, represented an impossible task for any military force.
Smith is not naïve about the Taliban, whose propaganda “showed a sickening taste for blood,” and whose tactics included a ruthless pattern of assassinations of anyone they believed to be cooperating with their enemies (500 people in Kandahar at the latest count). But his innovative interviews with the militants taught him four main lessons: the war is basically a family feud; air strikes, rather than being an effective deterrent, often pushed people into the insurgency; things were only made worse by destroying poppy fields (now double the size they were under the Taliban, a drug that “powered the south like … an invisible life-giving energy”); and that the real Afghan nationalism of the Taliban does ultimately leave room to negotiate.
Amid the tragedy and hypocrisy are moments of black comedy. The man given a U.S. contract to plant pomegranates in the war zone jokingly calls it “combat farming.” The military’s positive thinking about how each final push would bring victory becomes a doctrine Smith sums up as “rivers of blood … but it’s a good thing.” He describes the paradox of a “stubbornly optimistic atmosphere [in which] a bright young commander could stand near a troop carrier spattered with human remains and declare victory.” Amidst a rich feast of soldiers’ vocabulary, bullets popping off inside a burning armoured car are known as a “cook-off”. Then there is the Kandahar governor who takes Smith for a walk along a path where a disabled land mine still lay half-concealed and gestures “at the hazard casually, the way somebody might warn a friend to avoid dog poop on a sidewalk.”
Smith told me that much of his reporting technique involved transcribing hundreds of hours of audio recordings, one reason perhaps why the quotes in the book are so vivid. A soldier describes bittersweet Afghanistan as “eating at McDonalds and then going and visiting the slaughterhouse”. Then of course the battlefield quote from a Canadian officer for the book’s title: “We hit a couple of guys over there. Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now”.
He is also a superb photographer, the 16 chapters accompanied by gems of images that capture both desert wastes and human spirit in grainy paper tones of grey. These in turn complement his literary gifts, particularly intense as he writes down exactly what it was like to experience military camp life, battles and suicide bombings. He describes an Afghan earth so fine it is puffs up “feathery plumes of talcum powder”; an early commitment by the internationals to saving Afghanistan is so intense that a whole military camp “seems to vibrate with an energy like the thudding rotors of a helicopter”; and at one point he finds the Afghan government presence in the insecure south like “the dust devils that flitted into empty quarters, appearing and disappearing, taking form only long enough to make you wonder if they had shape.”
Smith’s voice is in tune with other clear-eyed narratives of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq – Deedee Derksen’s Thee met de Taliban (Tea with the Taliban, my review here), or Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well (review here). As a Globe and Mail reporter, Smith regrets how he just can’t fit into stories some comments by interviewees that don’t match his Canadian readers’ preconceptions, the same problem I encountered as a Wall Street Journal correspondent (described in my book Dining with al-Qaeda).
When writing a story about apparent popular support in Kandahar for the Taliban, for instance, Smith meets a psychologist who tells him that the main reason for it is the ruling foreigners’ own mistakes, including their desire to change the way Afghan women dress. “’Ninety per cent of women here are happy with the burka’ [the psychologist said]… That evening, back in my tent at the military base, I omitted those quotes from my article about his clinic. They didn’t fit my story about a city under siege by unwelcome militants.”
The book’s last reporting tour de force is from Kandahar’s main prison. Here Smith details with elegant lucidity the failure of all the vigorous, expensive efforts of the internationals to make it safe, well-guarded and impregnable. “None of these improvements would matter, however, if the ideas behind the mission proved incorrect” he writes. “They cleared, they held, they built – but it fell apart in an instant … there was nothing they could do about the bigger problem, that few people in the south seemed enthusiastic about resisting the Taliban”.