Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Camera mightier than the Machine Gun

Hiner Saleem's My Father's Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan is a short (perhaps too short) memoir of the struggle of Kurds against the oppression in Iraq. He becomes a refugee as the Ba'athist regime excluded Kurds from public life. They join the war of liberation, believing that American forces will come to their aid. But the war is brief and fruitless, and Saleem's family returns to Iraq to suffer more humiliation as Saddam Hussein arabizes Kurdish areas (putting Arabs in positions of authority and administration and suppressing minority culture).

Saleem himself feels frustration as he is held back in school because he cannot master Arabic; opportunities in the arts are closed off to him because he refuses to join the party's youth group. Eventually, as the police prepare to arrest him as a rebel, he sneaks across the border and becomes filmmaker in Europe.

Saleem's reflections on the futility of the armed resistance are the most interesting aspects of the book. After the failure of Barzani's war failed in the late 1970s, Ba'athist forces constrained public life for Kurds. Frustrated, he runs into the mountains to join the resistance, but he finds that they are incapable and ill-equipped: they cannot confront Iraqi forces. Instead he contemplates intellectual resistance, using art and film to express his rage and patriotism.

As this narrative is too brief, many ideas are underdeveloped. However, I particularly like this passage in which Saleem, perhaps by accident, identifies his struggle with African liberation, against the Pan-Arab nationalism of the Ba'athist official.
I started painting again. I wanted to become a great painter, like Sami. The school was organizing an exhibition, so I brought over some of my best canvases. I was very excited to take part in this exhibition. On the day before the opening, I was summoned by the official in charge. One of my paintings was propped up against the wall: it represented a chained man raising his eyes to the sky.

I recalled that when I had initially painted this picture, the figure had the same skin colour as I, but dissatisfied with the colour, I had repainted the skin black. The official in charge of the exhibition wanted to know why I had painted such a skinny man. 'You make it look as if Iraqis are dying of hunger. And why those chains? What's the significance of that?' To cover myself, I replied, 'He isn't Iraqi, he's African.' He ordered me to paint other subjects: the accomplishments of the Ba'ath Party, the nationalization of oil, the Palestinian struggle against Zionism and imperialism. 'I'm still a young painter,' I replied. 'I haven't had time to paint all those subjects, but I'll surely get around to it.'

My paintings were returned to me. I was rejected for the exhibition.


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