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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

A son of Kurdistan tells his story


MY FATHER'S RIFLE: A CHILDHOOD IN KURDISTAN. By Hiner Saleem. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 102 pages. $17.

What do we know about Kurdistan? It is in the contentious Middle East and the Kurds were those people whom Saddam Hussein gassed. That created one of the reasons for going to war against him in 2003. Should we care? Hiner Saleem, a native Kurd, fervently believes so.

Reaching back nearly a generation, Saleem writes a stark, beautiful, brief, and brutal story of a boy - himself, but named Azad - in Iraqi Kurdistan. He writes of his family's pride in their heritage, their longing for independence, and the suffering they endured at the hands of Hussein's Baathist Party.

Azad, about 10 at the outset, loved his mother's orchard, his father's old Czech Brno rifle, his cousin's stunt pigeons, his older brother who was fighting alongside other Kurdish guerrillas.

When Iraqi planes attacked Azad's village, everyone fled to caves. They had no food. Azad's father, Shero, the Morse code operator for Kurdish Gen. Mustafa Barzani, could not catch any fish in the river. One day bombs fell in the river and Shero went for the fish.

"Moments later he came back his arms loaded with fish, which he threw down on the ground. They were all mangled. We could easily imagine that we had been within a hairsbreadth of suffering the same fate as the fish. We set about preparing the fish. We all realized that if we wanted to eat, the airplanes would have to return every day."

Kurdistan, part of the old Ottoman Empire, had no clout after World War I and so it did not become a country despite having the essential attributes: a language, heritage, people and definable territorial region. It was split up among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Since then, the Kurds have been fighting for their freedom. Saleem describes how his family resisted the Iraqis, fled into Iran, eventually were inveigled to return to Iraq and finally how the family splintered under governmental pressure.

Shero had utmost faith in Kurdish resistance. Year after year would say, "After one more year of struggle and sacrifice we would obtain our independence." He polished his ancient Brno rifle and kept it under his mattress. Baathist oppression increased and Azad had to flee Iraqi Kurdistan.

Today, Saleem and his two brothers are in Europe. He directed Vodka Lemon, winner of the 2003 Venice Film Festival's San Marco Prize. His father is dead, his mother lives alone in their hometown in northern Iraq. The Kurds still do not have a country.

Jules Wagman, last book editor of the former Cleveland Press, reviews books in Jacksonville, Fla.

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