The best classic books about the world of the Kurds

Christiane Bird Author Of A Thousand Sighs, a Thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan
By Christiane Bird

Who am I?

I first became interested in the Kurds during a 1998 journey I took to Iran to work on my first book about the Middle East, Neither East nor West. While there, I traveled to Sanandaj, Iran’s unofficial Kurdish capital, where I was immediately struck by how different the area seemed from the rest of the Islamic Republic—heartbreaking in its lonesome beauty, and defiant. Despite a large number of Revolutionary Guards on the streets, the men swaggered and women strode. These people are not cowed, I thought—no wonder they make the Islamic government nervous. I had to find out more.

I wrote...

Book cover of A Thousand Sighs, a Thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan

What is my book about?

From a Kurdish wedding in Iran, to the destroyed Kurdish countryside in southeastern Turkey, to lunch with a powerful exiled agha in Syria, to the sites of Saddam Hussein's horrific chemical attacks in Iraq, Bird offers welcome insight into a violently stunning world understood by few Westerners. Part mesmerizing travelogue, part action-packed history, part reportage, and part cultural study, this critical book—published in 2003, but still highly relevant today—helps to unveil the mysteries of an increasingly influential part of the world.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History

Why did I love this book?

This enormous repository of Kurdish history and culture is jam-packed with everything from photographs and maps, to excerpts from memoirs and letters, to clips from newspapers and government documents. Covering the period from the 1870s to the early 2000s, it includes accounts from both the Kurds themselves and outsiders. I poured over the book both before and after my travels, and each time I did, I discovered a powerful new narrative or image I hadn’t noticed before.

By Susan Meiselas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kurdistan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kurdistan was erased from world maps after World War I, when the victorious powers carved up the Middle East, leaving the Kurds without a homeland. Today the Kurds, who live on land that straddles the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, are by far the largest ethnic group in the world without a state.Renowned photographer Susan Meiselas entered northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to record the effects of Saddam Hussein's campaigns against Iraq's Kurdish population. She joined Human Rights Watch in documenting the destruction of Kurdish villages (some of which Hussein had attacked with chemical weapons in…

Memed, My Hawk

By Yashar Kemal, Edouard Roditi (translator),

Book cover of Memed, My Hawk

Why did I love this book?

A Kurd born in Turkey in 1923, Kemal was a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature for years, and this book is the real deal, a classic novel of adventure and heroism that has been compared to works by Faulkner. It’s not overtly about the Kurds—the ethnicity of its main character, Memed, is not mentioned—and yet it is, as Memed is a rebel who refuses to submit to authoritarian rule and risks everything for freedom. Fast-paced and gripping, yet also lyrical and meditative, the book is set in southeastern Turkey—i.e., Kurdistan—and its descriptions of the land are unforgettable. 

By Yashar Kemal, Edouard Roditi (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Memed, My Hawk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Memed grows up a serf to a vicious overlord on the thistle-clad plains of Turkey's Taurus region. When his plan to escape is dashed, and the young woman he loves murdered, Memed makes for the mountains to become an outlaw. Before long he has transformed from a young rebel to an infamous bandit, the scourge of corrupt oppressors and hero to the poor. With vividness and simplicity, Kemal's classic novel evokes the fierce beauty of his country and the struggles of its oppressed people.

Book cover of Children of the Jinn: The Story of My Search for the Kurds and Their Country

Why did I love this book?

Five years before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Kahn traveled to northwest Iran to study the Kurdish language and teach English. Because Kurdish was outlawed at that time, she endured much suspicion and endless stonewalling before finally being welcomed into Kurdish homes. The result is this moving and groundbreaking work that in a sense paved the way for other travelogues about Kurdistan, including my own. Kahn writes beautifully about the Kurdish women she meets, the difficulties of understanding another culture, and the constant threats of living under SAVAK (then Iran’s secret police).

By Margaret Kahn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Children of the Jinn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Forty years after the publication of Margaret Kahn's book, Children of the Jinn, Kurds, the fourth largest linguistic and ethnic group of the Middle East, are still being denied basic human rights. The book is an historical and ethnographic account of the lives and struggles of the individuals she met during the year Iraqi Kurds rose up, with American backing, to wrest their rights from the Ba'athist regime. In the Iranian border town where she lived, she witnessed the arrival of a hundred thousand refugees. She volunteered in the refugee school and saw first-hand what happened when the U.S. government…

Book cover of Road through Kurdistan: The Narrative of an Engineer in Iraq

Why did I love this book?

I journeyed along what is now known as the Hamilton Road with this book by my side. A civil engineer born in New Zealand, Hamilton traveled to Kurdistan in 1928 to build a road through the impossibly beautiful mountains of northern Iraq. He spent four years in the region, and his book describes not only the immense engineering obstacles he encountered, but also the tough, resilient, fiercely independent Kurds he met—people whose spirit still lives on in the region today. The stunning landscape he describes—especially lovely in the spring, when the mountains are covered with wildflowers—also remains little changed.  

By Archibald Milne Hamilton,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Road through Kurdistan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1928, A.M. Hamilton travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan, having been commissioned to build a road that would stretch from Northern Iraq, through the mountains and gorges of Kurdistan and on to the Iranian border. Now called the Hamilton Road, this was, even by today's standards, a considerable feat of engineering and remains one of the most strategically important roads in the region. In this colourful and engaging account, Hamilton describes the four years he spent overcoming immense obstacles - disease, ferocious brigands, warring tribes and bureaucratic officials - to carve a path through some of the most beautiful but inhospitable…

Book cover of Sweet Tea with Cardamom: A Journey Through Iraqi Kurdistan

Why did I love this book?

Everywhere I traveled in Kurdistan, I was invited into homes to have a cup of tea—and so was reminded again and again of this captivating book by an English barrister and linguist who traveled to the region in 1993. Through her work, the suffering of the Kurds, especially women, under Saddam Hussein’s regime comes vividly to life, as does their courage, strong sense of family and place, and indomitable spirit.  

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