the Others: Encounters with the Forgotten Turkmen of Iraq
by Scott Taylor
Esprit de Corps Books (October 2004), 208 pp.
early September, on his last visit to Iraq, Canadian war reporter Scott Taylor
was looking forward to delivering some presents: copies of his brand new book,
the Others, to those who starred in it, the Turkmen of Tal Afar.
Unfortunately, Taylor was soon kidnapped
by Islamic mujahedin, just as the U.S. was stepping up an air assault on
this ancient city. He could only look on helplessly as his books (along with
his other personal possessions) were vaporized by an incoming American missile
during the battle.
After five agonizing days
in the hands of the terrorists, Taylor was freed. His account of the ordeal,
entitled "Five Days in Hell," was hastily appended to the books still in production.
the Others might be worth buying for this last chapter alone,
the book offers plenty more to recommend itself.
As has become his trademark in over a decade of covering conflicts in the Balkans
and Iraq, Taylor seeks out the unreported side of the story in Among
the Others. In his numerous forays into Iraq, both before and after
the fall of Saddam, Taylor had reported on ignored issues like the humanitarian
disaster incurred by UN sanctions, American missile strikes that the Pentagon
denied, and the war's civilian toll. And, precisely because most media coverage
of northern Iraq had centered on the Kurd vs. Arab angle, Taylor developed a
fascination with the region's unsung Turkmen minority.
"What's a Turkmen?"
The book opens with a humorous anecdote illustrating
the kind of ignorance that Western journalists have shown regarding the Turkmen.
At the beginning of the war, on April 1, 2003, Taylor was crossing the Turkey-Iraq
border alongside a two-man British TV crew. The latter were having an animated
discussion about the Kurdish factions of northern Iraq when Taylor interjected,
"What about the Turkmen?" The "intrigued" British reporter, Taylor retells,
then asked, "What's a Turkmen?"
The author dutifully provided the factual information about the Turkmen population:
descendants of ancient Turkic tribes, two-million strong, the third-largest
ethnic group in Iraq, and the majority population of the crucial city of Kirkuk.
The eager reporter then asked, with typical misplaced British suspicion, "Can
you prove any of what you are telling me?"
Taylor proceeded to dig out "a handful of books, pamphlets, and even maps"
that he had received from Dr. Mustafa Ziyah, director of the Iraqi Turkmen Front
in Ankara. The reporter then whispered, "in a conspiratorial tone," as Taylor
recounts, if the latter would "share any of this" with him. The author continues:
"[I] hardly considered the presence of an ethnic faction in Iraq to be my
personal domain, so I willingly agreed. Almost immediately, he used a satellite
phone to call his desk in London. As all the field correspondents at this stage
of the war were begging their producers for 'face time,' he apparently thought
this information would give him an edge. 'I need a full ten minutes on the Saturday
show,' he said. 'Why? Because there has been a whole new development in northern
"Like Christopher Columbus' 'discovery' of North America, already populated
by aboriginal people, the 1,500-year-old existence of the Turkmen in Iraq became
'news' when foreign reporters first learned of them. The British background
piece on the Turkmen never did make it onto the air as a friendly fire incident
in northern Iraq, which killed a number of Kurdish peshmerga militia men, had
much more dramatic footage."
The Turkmen and the History of Modern Iraq
This comical story aside, to his credit Taylor
is magnanimous enough to admit that it was not until his eighth trip into Iraq
that he himself stumbled across the Turkmen population. When he did, however,
Taylor soon learned that far from being a "new development," the Turkmen had
long played a role in the history of Iraq
the Others is geared toward the general reader and does not presume
to be an academic work, the first-hand testimony the author has gathered from
Turkmen young and old alike will no doubt be useful for future historians of
Iraq. The book's short second chapter (one wishes it could have been slightly
longer) discusses the history of the Turkmen in Iraq. They arrived in three
waves, starting with the relatively minor influx of Oguz Turk archers in the
Muslim armies of Basra (650 AD) to the more substantial presence of Turkmen
archers in the 11th century Seljuk Turk forces and, finally, in the wake of
Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent's conquest of Iraq in 1535.
The author frequently quotes an 80-year-old Turkmen of Tal Afar, Adil Taha
Muratli, whose father had provided vivid descriptions of late Ottoman appeasement
to the Turkmen's neighbors. The father "'often complained that the Turks would
give the best jobs and promotions to the Arabs and Kurds as a means of keeping
the peace and in an attempt to buy their loyalty,' recalled the elderly Muratli.
'In fact, it seems hard to believe but in many ways things actually improved
for us when the British Army came into Iraq.'"
The benevolent nature of British role after 1918 soon dissipated however, as
the very informative third chapter ("After the Ottomans") shows. The British
experience, with its "pliant Arab rulers," massacres, and deceptions is a case
study for why foreign intervention ineluctably invites disaster – and clearly
shows how the intractable problems facing Iraq's latest occupiers, the Americans,
have deep roots in a previous interventionist period. Taylor has done an exceptional
job here in compressing 45 years of very complex history into 20 pages.
While this and the following two chapters ("The Ba'ath Purges" and "Gulf Wars")
offer a lucid, indispensable introduction into the formative events of modern
Iraq, where Taylor's treatment really departs from the usual surveys of this
history is in its Turkmen flavor. From elderly Turkmen such as Muratli to modern-day
fighters such as Zahim Jehad, Zygon Chechen, and Gaan Latis, Taylor gathers
a great deal of firsthand testimony from Turkmen, which casts a light on their
people's experience of the major events in Iraq over the better part of a century.
In general, this survey results in a one-sided litany of abuses received: being
deliberately undercounted in national censuses, being co-opted into the war
against Iran, suffering from Kurdish oppression and Saddam's Arabification policies,
etc. Yet considering that their side of the story is seldom considered, the
Turkmen testimony makes for valuable and provocative reading.
Throughout the book, the author intertwines the
historical narrative with his modern-day experiences in Iraq, sometimes more
successfully than others. For readers of last year's Spinning
on the Axis of Evil, some of the information is old news. For example,
the author's account of a January 2003 trip to a covert U.S. guerrilla training
base in Kaposvar, Hungary, is lifted from the 2003 work, as are several other
personal accounts from Iraq and the bulk of the history of Iraq's modern wars.
However, this repetition was unavoidable according to the exigencies of context
Yet, far from being a simple re-write, Among
the Others benefits both from its Turkmen angle and the benefit
of hindsight that only time can bring. While the present war in Iraq looks set
to continue for a long time to come, Among
the Others does an admirable job of summarizing the fallout of
the fighting up until the author's dramatic abduction – the ultimate reminder
of just how much the security situation has deteriorated in "liberated" Iraq.
One Giant Mess
Indeed, it was this experience that confirmed
the age-old ethnic allegiances of northern Iraq are undergoing a meltdown under
the white-hot glare of American aggression. Though at one point in the book
a Turkmen spokesman tells the author that Shi'ite and Sunni Turkmen adhere fundamentally
to a common ethnic identity rather than being alienated by religion, the situation
is changing. Taylor was kidnapped, after all, by an Islamic extremist group,
Ansar al-Islam, which according to the author draws its recruits from the ranks
of the Turkmen, Kurds, and Arabs alike. Thus, an ethnic situation that was even
before the war hopelessly fractious and complex seems to be mutating further,
as the bloody U.S. occupation exacerbates old animosities and rekindles nationalist
and religious movements.
All of this was to be expected, of course, as the author makes clear. The sordid
course of Western intervention in Iraq left room for no other option. As Taylor,
and many others have reported, northern Iraq has become a hotbed for foreign
spies and provocateurs: Israeli, Iranian, American, Turkish, Syrian, and many
others, all seeking to advance the cause of their own chosen favorites.
However, the great folly of this interventionism is that it now seems eminently
uncontrollable. You have Kurdish factions dueling amongst themselves, alienated
Arabs, Turkmen of Sunni and Shi'ite orientations, Yezidi, Chaldean Christians,
and members of all these groups whose allegiance ostensibly lies with the U.S.
occupation forces – not to mention the foreign mujahedin and local devotees
of Ansar al-Islam, al-Qaeda, and God knows who else. No wonder that even an
experienced hand like Taylor has no plans to return to Iraq anytime soon: "It's
just way too dangerous now," he says. Shortly after being released by the mujahedin
in Mosul this September, Taylor predicted for me that this would be the next
city in northern Iraq to fall to the insurgents: "Mosul's about to blow," he
said at the time. The latest
reports show in bloody detail the accuracy of his forecast.
With its rare photos, cogent summaries of complex historical events, and plenty
of personal observations from the author's interactions with the local people,
the Others is an indispensable guide to modern Iraq and one of
its key, but usually ignored ethnic groups. It will appeal to war buffs and
general readers alike, and should be required reading for anyone who wants an
inside view of how, and why, a quagmire was born for the Americans in northern
the Others is not an academic work. However, I suspect that as
with Taylor's previous works on the Balkan wars (Inat
of an Uncivil War), it will be included on various college syllabi in
Canada and the United States.
While some of the information has already been covered in last year's Spinning
on the Axis of Evil, Scott Taylor's Among
the Others is the author's most comprehensive treatment of the
Iraq wars yet and makes a valuable contribution to the modern history of that
country, especially its neglected Turkmen population.