Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History

Tribute to a Forgotten People

Photo book, historical document and reference work for ethnologists in one … With the assistance of the renowned Kurdologist Martin van Bruinessen, Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas has produced a comprehensive photo book that gives readers a better understanding of various aspects of Kurdish history and culture. Élena-S. Eilmes sums up the book

​​ The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world not to have their own state.

The Kurdish community is spread over a wide territory that includes parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, with smaller communities in Lebanon and the former Soviet Union.

It is no surprise, therefore, that their history is eventful and their cultural heritage colourful. Susan Meiselas' 400-page photo book – a large, heavy volume bound in linen – gives readers and photography enthusiasts alike a totally new insight into the eventful Kurdish history of the last 120 years.

Fascinating historical journey

In six comprehensive chapters, Meiselas draws an arc from the Kurds' situation shortly before World War I to the ensuing division of the Middle East, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the military coups in Turkey, and the poison gas attacks perpetrated by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime towards the end of the first Gulf War, in which thousands of Kurds perished.

The three nations that constitute the rump of the Kurdish heartland – Turkey, Iran and Iraq – receive equal attention.

Also covered in the book are the Kurdish revolts of the early twentieth century in Turkey as well as the founding and collapse of the only Kurdish national state to date, the Republic of Mahabad, which was established in Iran in 1946, and the current situation in northern Iraq, where the safety zone set up by the UN in 1991 under Kurdish self-administration gives the Kurds quasi-statehood.

Meiselas also introduces a number of famous Kurdish personalities such as Ali Agha, head of the Dêbokri Clan in the first half of the twentieth century, who received a title from the Persian shah, and Leyla Zana, the political activist who married the former mayor of Diyarbakir, was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and is currently completing a prison sentence in a Turkish jail.

Interviews with contemporary witnesses

​​ With painstaking attention to detail, Meiselas has put together a comprehensive collection of historical photographs and texts. In addition to numerous black-and-white photos and hand-coloured pictures, the book also contains pictures taken by the author in northern Iraq since 1991, where, among other things, she recorded the opening of mass graves with her camera.

In addition to short interviews with contemporary witnesses, Meiselas includes diary entries and articles written by former travellers: adventurers like Freya Stark, missionaries, engineers and doctors, who ended up in the Kurdish heartland.

The Kurds do not possess a national archive, nor do they have sufficient resources and security to maintain archives and libraries. This explains why many of the historical documents and photos are not preserved in the Kurdish heartland, but in universities and private collections in the West.

Here too, Susan Meiselas' unremitting search of these sources proved fruitful, allowing her to include various contemporary documents in her work.

Attention to detail

The Kurdish region (photo: GNU/DW)
The heartland of the Kurdish community is in modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey

​​The author's love of detail and dedication to her subject can be felt and seen on every page of this book. For example, the introduction is translated not only into Turkish as an addendum, but also into Soranî, a central Kurdish language mainly spoken in Iran and northern Iraq.

Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History is not only a feast for the eyes but also highly informative. The book presents background stories that relate not only to the Kurdish people but also to the entire Middle East.

Élena-S. Eilmes

© Qantara.de 2009

Susan Meiselas studied visual communication at Harvard and since then has made a name for herself as a photographer. She has been a member of the famous photo agency Magnum since 1976 and has published multiple photo books. Meiselas' considerable collection of historical photos and documents relating to the Kurdish people led to the publication of Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History.

Meiselas, Susan: Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History; University of Chicago Press, 2008

Translated from the German by Mý Huê McGowran


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Susan Meisselas' website

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