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...

A Thousand Sighs, a Thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan

By Christiane Bird,

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.

The books I picked & why

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Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History

By Susan Meiselas,

Book cover of Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History

Why 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.

Memed, My Hawk

By Yashar Kemal, Edouard Roditi (translator),

Book cover of Memed, My Hawk

Why 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. 

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

By Margaret Kahn,

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

Why 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).

Road through Kurdistan: The Narrative of an Engineer in Iraq

By Archibald Milne Hamilton,

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

Why 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.  

Sweet Tea with Cardamom: A Journey Through Iraqi Kurdistan

By Teresa Thornhill,

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

Why 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.  

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Kurds, Iraq, and politics?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Kurds, Iraq, and politics.

The Kurds Explore 16 books about the Kurds
Iraq Explore 47 books about Iraq
Politics Explore 367 books about politics

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