Painting the Occupation

What did Suleiman Shakir paint? An abandoned house. An old man on a donkey. Children picking daffodils. The pictures didn’t need captions. Everyone knew what he was trying to tell them about the tragedy of a Kurdistan pacified by the Iraqi military.

The painting is large: two meters high by six meters wide. It stands directly behind the chair from which the Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament will soon preside, and before the chairs where the deputies will sit.

The seats are not much more comfortable than ordinary chairs; the names of the deputies are written on slips of paper stuck to the backs. No one has sat in them yet, since parliament still can’t meet for its ceremonial inaugural session. Everyone says it will meet tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow at the latest. But everyone also knows the day after tomorrow may extend into the following weeks—because the partisan strife, the jockeying for positions, the fussing about every single article of the agreement between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan . . .

What divides these two groupings policy-wise? I try to understand, but to no avail.

But the painting is there already: a portrait in dark colors of Mustafa Barzani—the spiritual father of Kurdish national aspirations, the guerilla commander and the cabinet official who had no luck, a thing as important in politics as instinct and military support.

I don’t like art in honor of someone, crude, one-off paintings glorifying presidents, prime ministers, or generals. But perhaps the dark colors, perhaps Mustafa’s sad, attentive face, finally perhaps the empty chairs in the dark, deserted parliament render the painting riveting. It hypnotizes in blacks, browns, and grays, but is somehow bright and suffused with light.

 

A time of portraits

There’s no shop, building, or park where the flag of Kurdistan wouldn’t fly—within red, white and green horizontal stripes it shows a beaming, golden sun. So is it any surprise that Mustafa Barzani appears on posters and calendars, on paintings and postcards, on metal lapel pins and the faces of wall clocks? He is displayed in government offices and private homes—everywhere just as proud and unapproachable, in the same pose, with the same scowl on his face.

It’s the same with his son, Masoud, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Sporting a mustache, but with fuller cheeks, probably shorter than his father, sometimes faintly smiling—always the same, reproduced in hundreds of thousands of images, though the Qur’an prohibits making portraits of people.

In places where the Democratic Union of Kurdistan has more followers, however, there hang portraits of Jalal Talabani—the current president of Iraq and coalition partner of Masoud Barzani, and until recently his fierce enemy.

Few street stalls in Kurdistan would sell portraits of Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani side by side. Only Mustafa is everywhere (though in 1964 Talabani renounced him and took up arms against his son): patron saint of the two once-feuding, now reconciled, sides. He is respectfully portrayed as the great leader and politician, whom Allah did not allow to see Kurdistan’s dreams fulfilled; painted badly, on his knees, almost idolatrously. Nothing like the painting in parliament.

 

Three Years in Sand and Poverty

Suleiman Shakir has painted since childhood. He was an orphan, which in Kurdistan is not unusual. What was unusual was that Suleiman’s parents had simply died, and were not killed in yet another uprising or suppression. He was raised by his grandfather and his uncle. The latter was glad of his nephew’s talents and would reward him with pocket change for each successful drawing. The neighboring families’ boys were going to study to be engineers, lawyers, or doctors, but when Suleiman asked his guardians if he could study fine art in Baghdad, his grandfather and uncle applauded his choice.

He graduated from the art institute in 1957. Two years later he was imprisoned for the first time, for—as he tells it—wishing Iraq would finally become a friendly country for the Kurds.

He can’t remember how many times he’s been arrested—several times at least between 1962 and 1965. He can’t remember the police and prosecutors’ charges, or the judges’ verdicts. They locked him up for being a Kurd, though he wasn’t fighting in the ranks of the Peshmergas—what use would the guerillas have for a sensitive artist?

Later came exile to the boundless southern desert, near Nasiriyah. He stayed there for three years, in sand and poverty. He painted Arab women cleaning clay pots or washing clothes in a stream that was running dry. He painted the desert.

Those women and their pots, the flat buildings of Nasiriyah, and even the desert sand—in short, everything he saw in the south was so foreign that he often drew the craggy Kurdish mountains from memory.

When after his exile he was permitted to settle in a little Kurdish village forgotten by God and man, he—a person raised in crowded Erbil, as used to the city as a fish is to water—felt he was already almost home.

 

Paint the Lion of Babylon

Those two accidental encounters are particularly engraved on Suleiman’s memory. They lasted a minute or two, but were so important it was impossible to forget them.

The first was on the steps of a government building in Erbil in 1959.

The second was thirteen years later, during a picnic somewhere on a remote mountain road by the Iranian border.

Twice fate brought Suleiman into contact with Mustafa Barzani. Twice he was able to shake his hand, greet him, and thank him.

Mustafa was outside the government building in traditional Kurdish dress. Beside him were two bodyguards, whom he shooed away like flies when Suleiman reached out his hand to him. Mustafa was on the mountain road, leaning out of his open-topped Land Rover, smiling, sincere—not at all the proud hero and formidable leader. A Kurd greeting another Kurd, as ancient custom dictates.

And that Sunday morning too, in a small Greek town. It was the early 1980s, Suleiman was on a trip to southern Europe. He had the misfortune of running out of money in Greece. He went up to a group of men sitting in a shaded kafenio to ask where the nearest bank was, and then mentioned he came from Iraqi Kurdistan.

One old Greek raised his eyes from his glass of cloudy ouzo and said: “Mustafa Barzani,” and gave a thumbs-up. The other Greeks smiled amicably. Suleiman felt if they knew about Mustafa in this small place, the whole world must be interested in the Kurdish cause.

But the world couldn’t care less about the Kurdish cause. The Iran-Iraq War was being fought, and Saddam Hussein was meant to stop the advance of the Iranian Ayatollahs in exchange for money from Arab countries and the West. Artists were painting the Lion of Babylon, first in military uniform, then in a long traditional robe, with a dove of peace in one hand—although the dictator had just been poisoning the Iranians with nerve gas, to be followed shortly by the Kurds. In the other he is holding a rifle or sword, with troops marching proudly in the background.

In Saddam’s Iraq there could be no apolitical art. Many Iraqis can’t read or write, so only majestic paintings, mosaics and murals, or the words of patriotic songs, can speak to the people’s imaginations. Defiant artists would disappear. Some were tortured to death in the cells of the secret police, the Muhabarat.

 

The Kurds Are Not Yet Lost

What did Suleiman Shakir paint in those days? An abandoned Kurdish flat-roofed clay house surrounded with turf. Dry, brown mountain valleys. An old man riding a donkey, a thin bundle of brushwood on the saddle, the path meandering toward a gloomy, wretched village below. Kurdish children picking wild daffodils. When the Iraqi military pacified the area around Barzan in 1988 (at the time 182,000 Kurds disappeared without a trace; their mass graves are now being uncovered in northern Iraq), Shakir painted a woman in the costume of the Barzani clan, selling a box of matches or dried-out, withered stalks of rhubarb at the bazaar.

The pictures didn’t need any captions. Everyone knew what Suleiman was trying to say.

The abandoned house was a symbol of pacification or of the Kurds’ flight after the latest failed uprising.

The dry valleys: there was still snow in the mountain passes, so there should have been more than enough water, but everyone knew the military blocked the springs with concrete and poisoned the streams.

The bundle of brushwood: that’s the time when people had already cut down all the forests, because they could only heat their homes with pine wood. But the wood ran out too.

Children with flowers, shabbily dressed and hungry: the Kurds were not yet lost, as proclaimed by the words of their national anthem, which could only be sung in Peshmerga camps.

A woman of the Barzani clan, exhausted and poor: her husband, along with thousands of others, taken somewhere in military trucks and never heard from again.

These paintings were like a political demonstration: for outsiders, ordinary and innocent; for Kurds, obvious.

Toward the end of the 1980s Shakir showed a painting of children picking daffodils at an exhibition in Erbil. The painting soon made its way to a gallery in Sweden. The Swedes looking at the grubby little kids wondered why this painting was so simplistic, so naïve—and they were surprised that if a dark-skinned man stood before the canvas, sometimes he would choke back tears of emotion.

 

Respectfully, Not on His Knees

Suleiman has painted Peshmergas too. But he never painted a single canvas depicting the Kurdish civil war.

In 1991 the UN forbade Iraqi planes from flying over Kurdistan. The Peshmergas came down into the valleys. It soon became clear that both commanders—Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani—divided more than they united. Each one considered himself top dog, each one wanted to lead, each one thought he had the more legitimate idea. Masoud was relying on tradition—he was, after all, the son of the great Mustafa. Jalal was a political risk-taker, unsteady, but better educated.

Who declared war first? There are as many versions as storytellers. Talabani was supported by Turkish and Iranian money and arms. Masoud made a tactical alliance with Saddam. Each accused the other of benefiting from the aid of mortal enemies of the Kurdish cause.

Finally Masoud expelled Talabani from Erbil. Crowds of refugees flooded into Erbil from the cities subjugated by Talabani. Blood flowed, Saddam rubbed his hands together, and the world was silent—for what did the world care about the Kurds?

Shakir, although a supporter of the Barzani clan, did not paint the victory of Masoud.

In the end, thanks to the mediation of the Iraqi Communists, the feuding leaders saw reason. The shots died down and a cease-fire was reached. Talabani and Barzani appointed separate administrations in Kurdistan. The ministers of defense, internal affairs, and tourism, belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, govern in Erbil—their counterparts from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan govern in Sulaymaniyah.

However, in the Iraqi government elections that year, the two parties presented a joint list. Elections to the Kurdish regional parliament were also held, which has been delaying the start of its sessions.

A contest was announced for a portrait of Mustafa Barzani to decorate the main chamber of parliament. Every participant was given the same photograph reproduced on color prints and shoddy posters. Shakir’s sketch won.

The painter looked at the faded photo—and he remembered the steps of the government building in Erbil and the road high in the mountains, where he met Mustafa. He laid the photo aside and put down the first layer of paint from memory. The face in the photo became different, fuller. Realistic, but mysterious. Alive, but in dark colors.

Suleiman says he didn’t paint the person, but his own feelings—admiration, gratitude, and love. He painted someone who never gave in, even when he had to escape to the Soviet Union or the United States. He painted the Kurdish soul and Kurdish aspirations as best he could, as his memory and talent dictated, with respect, but not on his knees. Mustafa was a great man. He wasn’t interested in tributes, thought Suleiman.

 

I’m Not for Hire

Suleiman Shakir could be a rich man today. In every government building and in many well-to-do homes people would like to have a portrait of Mustafa Barzani from the brush of an artist so admired in Kurdistan. But Suleiman—an elderly, gray-haired, slightly potbellied man in spectacles—drives a thirty-year-old Toyota and does not expect to make any money from further paintings of Mustafa.

So what does Suleiman paint today? A Kurdish cottage with a leaky roof. A woman in the costume of her clan. Mountains, valleys, and green meadows (the springs blocked by Saddam’s soldiers are flowing once again) full of daffodils and poppies. Or snow high in the mountains.

In his stuffy, sun-drenched studio are the beginnings of sketches of ordinary people, ordinary landscapes, and still lives. On the shelves are books and albums—especially of the French impressionists, the unrivaled masters of light, of the moment and of atmosphere. Among them is the brilliant, beloved Claude Monet—a man who, to Suleiman’s mind, gave global painting as much as Mustafa Barzani has given to the Kurds.

Suleiman Shakir may never paint Mustafa again, certainly not on commission. He has not always painted the same things—those mountains and those people—to become a court artist, a person for hire. Not even in times as happy as these. Kurdistan—Suleiman praises God—is a democracy. All the posters, calendars, and wall clocks with Barzani’s picture on them are sure to be gone some day. But even if they are not as perfect as a canvas by Monet, the paintings will remain.

This is exactly why he has opened a small gallery in his home. Soon they are going to clear the chips of brick and lumps of white plaster from the floor, then put in the lighting. He is planting roses in the garden, mixing his paints, tightening his canvas stretchers, and wiping the lenses of his glasses . . .

But if he ever did paint a portrait of Mustafa, he would portray him as a peshmerga. In Turkish pants and a jacket with a mandarin collar. With a knife in his linen belt and a Kalashnikov on his back. Brave and valiant. A leader. But as one of many, in a group of other peshmergas. Among the people whom he, Suleiman, never joined, for what use would the guerillas have for an artist?

© Paweł Smoleński. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Sean Gasper Bye. All rights reserved. A second article by Paweł Smoleński, on the life of a Kurd female Peshmerga guerrilla (also translated by Sean Gasper Bye and with photographs by Krzysztof Miller), was published in a special English-language issue of Continents, available as an app for iPhone and iPad.