THIS LIFE IS FOR THE KURDS
There’s no arguing that Hiner Saleem, a filmmaker living in Paris and writing in French, is a wonderful storyteller. In the 99 pages of his new memoir, My Father’s Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan, he manages to pack in Saddam Hussein, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger; a troubled adolescence, girls, and cigarettes; war, art, and pomegranates. (Lots of pomegranates.) Characters deliver harangues on Kurdish history, Kurdish independence, and Kurdish worthlessness; they deliver harangues on Iraqi history, Iraqi independence, and Kurdish worthlessness. Seven members of his extended family are murdered by page 6, and by the end, we have witnessed our hero’s white-knuckled flight to Syria.
His opening pages are especially clipped and memorable, as if the ghost of Raymond Carver had been leaning over his shoulder with a red pen—pppht, pppht—crossing out all the adjectives and adverbs. “My name is Azad Shero Selim,” Saleem’s pseudonymous narrator begins.
I am Selim Malay’s grandson. My grandfather had a good sense of humor. He used to say he was born a Kurd, in a free country, then the Ottomans arrived and said to my grandfather, “You’re Ottoman,” so he became Ottoman. At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he became Turkish. The Turks left and he became a Kurd again in the kingdom of Sheikh Mahmoud, king of the Kurds. Then the British arrived, so my grandfather became a subject of His Gracious Majesty and even learned a few words of English.
The British invented Iraq, so my grandfather became Iraqi, but this new word, Iraq, always remained an enigma to him, and to his dying breath he was never proud of being Iraqi; nor was his son, my father, Shero Selim Malay. But I, Azad, I was still a kid.
This is the sort of voice that keeps poking you in the back. Like the boy pictured on the book’s cover (yes, that’s Saleem), it’s straight-faced but mischievous. It knows more than it says. And, in the way it conflates the personal and historical, giving us one life, wrapping it up, and then giving us another, all the while managing to shoehorn a thousand years into a couple quick paragraphs, it calls to mind another literary influence: Ivo Andric. In The Bridge on the Drina (1945), the Bosnian writer planted his feet on another patch of unusually contested ground and, with great wit and irony, reeled in generation after generation. Unfortunately, though, Saleem doesn’t have the ambition of the Nobel Prize-winner. That in itself is hardly a crime, but neither does he have the insight or the wisdom.
For all his attention to the plight of the Kurds—a timely story given recent events—Saleem doesn’t much more than scratch the surface of his relationship to that history. Part of the problem is that his voice boxes him in. “I was still a kid” are words you hear a lot in My Father’s Rifle. They’re delivered with a wink, suggesting that Azad slyly uses his youth to hide certain knowledge. But he hides it too well. Take the opening few paragraphs. Was Azad proud of being an Iraqi? He never considers the question. Or take the time Azad witnesses his family publicly execute his uncle Mushir as a collaborator. They’re suspicious because he refuses to explain secret trips to Mosul. “Later it was discovered that Mushir had kept a mistress in Mosul,” Azad explains. “He had not been a traitor.”
Does that disillusion young Azad or complicate his view of Kurdish independence? We’ll never know. He’s just a kid, after all. In fact, Saleem the adult never intrudes on the action, depriving the memoir of psychological investment and leaving us to guess at who he is now. What kind of artist did he become for having left the land he loves? In Duong Thu Huong’s 2002 novel Beyond Illusions, a politically embattled painter refuses to leave Vietnam: “No I couldn’t do it, not even out of wanderlust. I could never swap my life for a life outside myself.” Of course, Saleem can pack his bags if he wants. It’s likely he had to pack his bags. But “I was still a kid” doesn’t offer much in the way of reflection on the consequences.
My Father’s Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan by Hiner Saleem; translated from the French by Catherine Temerson (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 99 pages)
Colorado Review, Summer 2005