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My Father's Rifle
A Childhood in Kurdistan
By Hiner Saleem
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New York, New York
2005, HC, 99 pages US$17
ISBN: 0-3742-1693-2

Enemy of the state

By Steven Martinovich
web posted January 17, 2004

My Father's Rifle: A Childhood in KurdistanOf all those who suffered in Saddam Hussein's Iraq it was perhaps the Kurds who bore the heaviest burden. Failed uprisings made them the target of vicious military reprisals that claimed untold numbers on the battlefield and in the many torture chambers that dotted the country. Dreaming of their own nation -- Kurdistan -- they stood in the way of Hussein's goal of a pan-Arab state. Denied their dream they were also denied the status of Iraqis, a status few desired in any case.

Filmmaker Hiner Saleem's My Father's Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan is a narrative of one boy's life growing up Kurd in 1960s and 70s Iraq. It is a story of a child who is forced to grow before his time, to think the thoughts of adults and to experience pain and hardship so often that his soul is numbed to their effects.

Before the rise of the Ba'ath Party, Azad Shero Selim's childhood was filled with carefree days on his parent's farm, enjoying the fruit of his mother's orchard, the love of his father and his cousin Cheto's stunt pigeons. That all changes the day pro-government militiamen come to his home to arrest his cousin Mamou for killing several of their peers. By the end of the day seven members of Azad's family were dead. Azad and his immediate family fled for a Kurd stronghold. A coup brings the Ba'athists to power and it eventually becomes clear that they aren't friends of the Kurds. The next years of Azad's life will be filled with a craving for the halcyon days of his youth and a desire to fight for his people.

Saleem chronicles the Ba'athist Party's promise of peace with the Kurds and their subsequent betrayal. Azad and his family fight the government but are eventually driven into a refugee camp inside of Iran. They later return to Iraq and resettle traditionally Kurdish territory which Hussein later attempts to subvert by settling thousands of Ba'ath Party loyalists amidst the Kurds. Young Azad, who reads banned books by day, dreams at night of joining the peshmerga, the anti-Ba'athist Kurdish volunteer army led by Gen. Mullah Mustafa Barzani, whom Azad's father served as a Morse code operator. Ultimately he decides he must leave the country if he is to survive.

My Father's Rifle, however, is not meant to be a simple biography of a young boy or an examination of Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds. It instead explores the psychic toll that results when you are an enemy of the state merely because of who you are. The price you pay is the deadening of your soul, an existence where the value of all life is diminished -- release is obtained by purging yourself at the expense of another.

"There was a bare hill overlooking the cemetery, where we spotted Slo's donkey. The donkey was roaming free; he had become useless, he was scrawny and sick, abandoned by Slo, fated to be devoured by a wolf or wild dog. He had climbed halfway up the hill to get to the leaves of the one tree on the slope, but he had fallen just before reaching the tree. We got closer. He was struggling to get back on his feet. We pushed him to the top of the hill. Cheto stood aside; he knew what were about to do, but he could do nothing to check our violent impulses. ... When we reached the top of the hill, we threw the donkey down into the ravine and laughed at the sight of the poor creature rolling to the bottom."

My Father's Rifle is a powerful documentary of stolen childhood and the suffering of an entire people. With measured -- sometimes even terse -- prose and the voice of a poet, Saleem masterfully explores the closeness of a Kurdish family juxtaposed with the disruptive force of a government pogrom designed to smash it. Hussein's war against the Kurds claimed many victims but the true toll, the one that also includes all the shattered souls, can only be hinted at. Thanks to Saleem we can begin to understand a little of the price paid.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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