Images for a Resistance: The Birth of Kurdish Television

By Laura Davidson

This article grew out of research for In the Shadow of History: Kurdistan, a pictorial history of the Kurds to be published by Random House in 1994. Susan Meiselas, a MacArthur fellow who has spent a decade photographing in Latin America, is the book’s project director and Laura Davidson, a writer living in New York City, is collaborating on research. First names only are used in the article to protect the identities of those interviewed.

Under the cover of allied airplanes and the silence of the Western media, the Kurds in northern Iraq have hijacked the Iraqi broadcasting system and set up their own television networks. Since the end of the Gulf War and the establishment of a ‘safe haven’ in northern Iraq by the Allied forces, the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan have elected a parliament, unified the army and established a shared presidency. And while the Kurds have officially declared Kurdistan a part of a larger federated Iraq rather than an independent state, Iraqi Kurdistan remains a centre of opposition and a politically autonomous zone. In this critical period of self-government, television stations are playing an important role in defining and maintaining a Kurdish identity, an identity separate from the rest of Iraq.

Over the past two years, the Kurds have built up 12 television stations from virtually no resources. Using second-hand VHS cameras, VHS players to edit and a great deal of ingenuity, the Kurds are producing and broadcasting an impressive variety of programmes including local news hours, public health programmes, cultural panels and political satires. These in-station productions are complemented by a wide range of foreign films and children’s programming translated into Kurdish.

Broadcasting foreign programmes might seem to conflict with the project of using television to consolidate a Kurdish identity, yet incorporating Western and foreign influences is an integral part of this new identity. As UN guards protect the region from Iraqi attack, Allied planes fly overhead and international relief organisations help distribute food and reconstruct villages, the presence of the West in Kurdistan has become a way of life and, to most Kurds, a welcome one. The greater fear is that the Kurds will be left alone, defenceless against a weakened, but dangerous, Saddam Hussein.

While there are tendencies within Kurdistan which oppose any Western influences – the Islamic fundamentalists have their own television station which stands in opposition to the corrupting influences of the West – these are the minority. Denied access to foreign films and information for decades, the majority of Kurds welcome the opportunity to view films made not only in the US and Europe but also in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and India. For the Kurds, these films are windows to the cultures of the world they have not seen, and they eagerly watch both programmes made abroad and those made within Kurdistan today.

Kurdish news production, a creative montage of international broadcasts and local reports, is one example of how the Kurds are combining foreign production and local resources. International news stories from CNN, Itelevision and the BBC are captured on satellite and translated into Kurdish. While the Kurds depend largely upon the news broadcast on these stations, they choose stories they consider important to their audience and mix the images from these larger networks with Kurdish news reports written by local reporters.

Most of these reporters are young Kurdish women from the larger, more liberal cities, women who wear Western clothes and make-up. By featuring workmen news reporters in a generally conservative society, Kurdish television stations are making a bold statement about the future position of women in Kurdistan. Though Kurdish women are not all obliged to weir veils, their conduct is strictly regulated by cultural codes. And though the scope of a woman’s freedom varies greatly from household to household based on class, education and family tradition, Kurdish women must always remain aware of their reputations.

As Iraqi broadcasters often feature women news readers, the Kurds might well have reacted against the practice and used men to present news. That Kurdish women are now represented and respected as professional women on Kurdish television must have a significant impact on how young women in Kurdistan view what is acceptable behaviour and might have lasting implications on what it means to be a Kurdish woman in Kurdish society.

While Kurdish television takes the lead in representing changing roles in Kurdish society, it also looks to the past for guidance. One of the most dynamic media forms on television is the Kurdish music video, which integrates traditional Kurdish music and dance with views of the spectacular Kurdish landscape. While these videos show Kurds rejoicing at finally being free in their own land, they also include images of Kurdish peshmerga (guerrilla fighters, literally ‘those who face death’) who fought in the mountains for a free Kurdistan. Behind Kurdish musicians, the faces of martyred peshmerga appear superimposed over rugged mountain landscapes, reminding Kurdish viewers that the present tenuous state of independence in Kurdistan has only been achieved through the sacrifices made in the past.

The latest Kurdish video production aired on Kurdish television is the feature-length movie. The first of these productions is not about love or war or the triumphant uprising of the Kurds after the Gulf War. It is the story of the torture and imprisonment of the Kurdish people under Hussein’s regime. Rejecting the single hero of Western films, the film features many leading roles. While the film concentrates on how peshmerga were captured and tortured, it also shows how all Kurdish people suffered under the Baath government. ‘Families of the peshmerga should be considered saboteurs and executed’, an Iraqi guard says early in the film.

With torture following torture, attack following attack, the film is almost impossible to watch, yet it powerfully affirms the Kurdish collective experience while recording abuses committed and denied by the Baath regime. As horrible as the past is, it is recorded, remembered and shared by the Kurds for themselves through film.

Though many Kurdish programmes, music videos and talk shows discuss the crimes of the Hussein regime, the most popular programmes at present are comedy shows that critique the difficult situation in Kurdistan today: Zoom Zoom and Kashkol. These shows grapple with the everyday problems of contemporary Kurdistan: the economic embargoes imposed by the UN in Iraq, the black market and the uneasy visits of Kurds who have been living in Europe or the US.

Sherzad, one of the comedians in Zoom Zoom, says that he gets many ideas for skits from his audience. ‘At the beginning, the first three shows, we tried to prepare the programmes. But later... people started sending their problems to us, and we began depending on the problems of the people.’ In one skit, a Kurd living in Sweden returns to his home town. Carrying an expensive new camera, sporting Western hiking shorts and long blonde hair, and taking pictures of trees, he acts as if he has been dropped on some exotic planet for the first time. Approached by a close relative, he pretends he does not want to be bothered by family obligations. After some initial bantering, his cousin removes his blonde wig, forces him to defend himself in Kurdish and reminds him that he is still a Kurd. As many young Kurds go to Europe to study and few return, the ‘European Kurd’ is a recognised issue. By voicing a common frustration in television, the community admits a problem while laughing at it at the same time.

Similarly, Zoom Zoom features a skit about Saddam Hussein every week. As long as Hussein is still alive and well in Baghdad, these comedies allow people to acknowledge a real threat while controlling how that threat is presented. Saddam is shown in forward and backward motion so that he appears to be performing a Kurdish dance in one skit, synchronised swimming routines in another. As Sherzad proudly boasts of Zoom Zoom: ‘Everyone is watching it, especially the Kurdish government. And when we show it, the next day there will be a copy seen in Baghdad also.’ With the Iraqi army performing manoeuvres only five miles from the television station in Arbil, producing a comedy show becomes an act of grave risk in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The subversive use of video, however, is not new to the Iraqi Kurds. Saddam Hussein was always aware of the power of images, and under his Baath party regime television was his official forum. Even in remote villages, Hussein gave television sets as gifts or made them available at very low prices so that he might broadcast his policies through Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. In villages throughout Kurdistan, the peshmerga used alternative screenings to challenge Hussein’s claim to represent what was happening in Kurdistan.

Abas, the head cameraman for one of the two largest political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and presently the director of the new feature video production in Kurdistan, was a cameraman in the mountains throughout the 80s. During the guerrilla war against the Baath regime, he travelled with the peshmerga to document the fighting and took the videos to the small villages to show the local villagers. There, with captured generators running the televisions, the peshmerga screened the videos in mosques or village gardens so the whole village could gather to watch. In this way, the PUK used video as a tool to gain the trust of the villagers so that they would aid them in their war against the Iraqi army.

These videos were also used as powerful evidence of the atrocities committed by Hussein’s regime, evidence which was broadcast throughout the world. After Iraq’s gas attack on Halabja in 1988 (which Saddam Hussein vehemently denied), Abas videotaped the city and smuggled the videotapes to Europe. These tapes were widely broadcast on European news stations and constitute a large part of Gwynne Roberts’ BBC film Winds Of Death. Kurdish videotapes and similar images made by journalists first brought international attention to the Kurdish situation and finally forced the international community to admit the illegal actions of the Iraqi regime.

Ironically, Hussein also made images of his own crimes. Amongst the 13 tons of Iraqi intelligence documents captured by the PUK in Iraqi Kurdistan were found a number of Iraqi military videotapes which systematically documented the torture and execution of the Kurds. Hussein, too, valued the image as document, but he intended to control the circulation of those images. Now that these videotapes are in the hands of the PUK and international human rights organisations, they will be used differently. They will be presented as evidence in a genocide case against the Hussein regime which Human Rights Watch is preparing to bring before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

While the Kurds and not the Baath regime now control the images that circulate within Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds do not have control over the images seen by the rest of the world. And while the Kurds are generating representations of themselves for themselves, they have little input as to how they are represented in the West. Since events in Kurdistan have not been covered by most of the news services in recent months due to crises in other parts of the world, the Kurds hope that they will soon be able to send out their footage to Western news services so that their situation will continue to receive international attention. The Kurds have received some training in news reporting and have been able to purchase minimal equipment from outside sources. What remains to be seen is whether this footage will be accepted by international news organisations as objective reportage or whether this footage will be rejected as propaganda for the Kurdish cause.

After living under the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein, it is difficult for many Kurds to believe that there is hope for their small federation to survive. Although there is an operating parliament in Kurdistan, jobs are scarce due to the heavy economic embargo and the precarious political situation. To see the Kurdish parliament on television, the hear Kurdish used as the official language and to watch the news presented by Kurds helps Kurdish viewers believe that Kurdistan is real. Every day the Kurdistan that many people only dreamed about is being represented, contested and created before and by a Kurdish audience.