National Geographic : 2016 Mar
110 national geographic • march 2016 ISIS. Many Kurds will expect that effort to be acknowledged. Many will argue that they have earned their independence. Countless times I’ve stepped into a cab only to have the driver immediately declare personal independence and claim kinship with America and Israel—a state beloved by numerous Kurds because it is small and relentless and surround- ed, just as they are, by enemies. “America, Israel, Kurdistan!” a man said to me recently. He held up three fingers, then drew them into a fist. “Together, we can win!” “ Win against what?” I asked. “Everything!” His smile was magnificent. “And especially the Arabs.” He told me he had served in the Kurdish resistance, battling Saddam Hussein. He saw no difference between that enemy and ISIS, which is said to include some of Hussein’s former officers. “Same, same,” he said, wiping his palms to- gether. He stepped on the gas and turned up the patriotic folk music. Our sedan-size state streaked through the enormous blue dusk. ABOUT THE TIME Botan Sharbarzheri dropped out and chose war, another young Iraqi joined ISIS. Sami Hussein was 21 or 22 and lived in Kirkuk, a city less than two hours south of Shar- barzheri’s university and that sits near Baba Gurgur, a major oil deposit. He was a skinny Arab kid with a smudge of beard, impressionable in a way similar to Shar- barzheri, though it would pain either young man to hear me say that. Hussein’s conversion to mil- itant Islam may have begun with the whispers of a local cleric. He may, for a while, have even resisted the allure of the black banner. But there is almost no doubt that he felt despair about the future. The Kurds’ golden decade may have flickered out, but most Iraqi Arabs had never experienced anything like that flowering in the years following the American invasion. In many places their lives had been far worse. When I met him last spring, just after he’d been arrested, just before he vanished, Hus- sein said he’d joined the militants because he birthday cake. When you are young and taste freedom, how do you bear its loss? Sharbarzheri had decided he would return to the front as soon as possible. “In Kurdistan we are frozen,” he said, reach- ing for cigarettes. “Nobody knows what to do. So I will keep fighting.” KURDS HAVE A DISTINCT culture and language, but except for a few historical moments of self- rule, they’ve always lived under the shadow and control of a larger culture—Persian, Arab, Ot- toman, Turkish. Today some 25 million Kurds are believed to live in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (though the true size of the population is unknown), and it’s often suggested that they are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation. This may be true, but it hints at unity. There really isn’t any. From region to region Kurds speak differ- ent dialects and support hyper-local and often fractious political parties, and even if given the chance, they probably wouldn’t try carving a greater Kurdish state out of those diverse lands. Part of the problem is that Kurds everywhere see themselves as underdogs, and they are often blinded by the tragic beauty of their own stories. Among Kurdish groups, those in Iraq are closest to realizing independence. They have a parliament and president, oil pipelines of their own, and a military force called the peshmerga, which means roughly “those who face death.” Remaining part of Iraq has long seemed a nec- essary evil—more a condition demanded by the West, and specifically the Americans, than a Kurdish desire. Every now and then in the years since Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Kurd- ish government has hinted that it could secede from Iraq, and this enrages its powerful neigh- bors, Turkey and Iran, as well as Iraqi Arabs in the south. Yet Kurdish leaders always balk, frustrating many citizens, romantics all, who would rather have statehood than, say, peace or a functioning economy. For the past several years, Western govern- ments have relied on Kurds in Syria and Iraq to do most of the fighting on the ground against Among Kurdish groups, those in Iraq are closest to independence. They have their own oil pipelines.