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Reflections on over 30 years of documenting the Kurdish struggle. By Ed Kashi.
It was 1990 and I was in a café in the historical, walled European city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. I was engaged in my first personal documentary project, a study of the Protestant community of Northern Ireland.
A friend introduced me to the influential British artist, Stuart Brisley, who was married to Maya Balcioglu, a Kurdish woman from Turkey. It was that introductory conversation with Maya that opened my eyes to the plight of the Kurdish people.
When I learned that the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation of their own, I was hooked. As a young photojournalist who was always looking for underreported stories, this one fact inspired me to work up an ambitious proposal to National Geographic Magazine, then the only publication with the willingness and budget to fund what would become a 26-week journey through 8 countries in the Middle East and Europe, to capture the plight of the Kurdish people, who are one of the great victims of post-World War I geopolitics.
During the 600-year Ottoman Empire, which ruled over large parts of what is considered Kurdistan in the Middle East, there was relative peace for the Kurdish people, and they were able to speak and teach their languages, dress as they liked and maintain a foothold between the great empires of the Ottomans, Persians and Russians.
But with the end of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were split up between multiple countries and a new Middle East was formed.
What were once contiguous ancient trails, villages and communities with shared extended families and traditional trade routes are now closed off by new international borders.
The Kurdish people are largely situated in what is now Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Through this photographic project, I went to Iraq, the birthplace of my parents, for the first time. This experience satisfied a deep and innate curiosity about The Middle East and the diverse cultures present within it. I was also confronted by the sad truths of sectarian hatred, prejudices, and fears. My family heritage is Jewish, so I quickly learned that while my parents shared so many of the same cultural mores, values, and rituals, I had to hide my identity in parts of the region — or face discrimination and violence. It was a wake-up call for me and reinforced my attitudes towards religion.
In retrospect, growing up in America allowed me to separate myself from my parents’ traditions and past. I grew up as an American kid in the 1960s and ’70s, imbibing the progressivism of the times, reflected in the music and culture that sprouted simultaneously with the anti-war movement, feminism, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and a general consciousness-raising. Probably my most American trait was becoming a diehard Yankees baseball fan.
For an unknowing immigrant kid, there was something magical and powerful about the New York Yankees. They helped me fit in.
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