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The Question of Kurdistan | The Nation

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The Question of Kurdistan

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Kawkas is a big man with a wide, scowling face and baggy eyes. He is a cocher, a Kurdish nomad, and was named after a common Kurdish tree. He sits cross-legged on a carpet, at the opening of a tent made of woven reed mat walls and a black woolen mesh awning held up in dramatic peaks by six wooden poles. As he talks, Kawkas smokes and drinks tea from a small fluted glass.

Research for this article was supported by the Investigative Fund of The
Nation Institute.

About the Author

Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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Here in this tent is the quintessential heart of Kurdish culture, but the talk is not about nationalist dreams of independence--all Kurds united against Iraq. Instead, the grievances concern other Kurds, the rich and powerful ones.

"This life is like honey mixed with snake poison. It looks like freedom, but we rent this," Kawkas gestures to the rolling fallow cropland where his sheep graze and to the abruptly rising bare mountains beyond where they grazed a month ago. "Aga, the landlord, controls it all. And the parties, the mayor, they all serve Aga. Aga gives them gifts and they do what he wants."

Kawkas is angry, but the older man who owns the tent where we sit is scared. "Don't say this! Don't talk about these things in front of strangers." We have hit a nerve: class power in the countryside. Kawkas ignores his elder and tradition and continues enumerating his grievances. The old man gets up and starts pacing outside the tent.

Traditionally Kurdistan was controlled by a landlord class, the agas. Sometimes they were clan leaders, but always they were rich men acting as feudal lords, doling out favors, taking tribute, mediating disputes and imposing punishment. After 1958, when General Kassim overthrew the Hashemite monarchy established by the British, an extensive land reform sought to ruin the aga class, but it persisted. Under Saddam the agas ran pro-government Kurdish militias called the Jash, which hunted down and tortured the rebel peshmerga. Then pieces of the Jash switched sides. Now the agas are insinuating themselves into the politically confused networks of the KDP and PUK, using their capital and superior education to gain government jobs, party posts and contracts.

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