Iraq and Rupert Hay's Two Years in Kurdistan

Between 1918 and 1920, the British Indian government dispatched political officer Capt. Rupert Hay to Iraqi Kurdistan which, with the World War I-occupation of Ottoman Mesopotamia, had suddenly become a British territory. Like many contemporary officers stationed on the frontiers of empire, Hay saw his mission as much an anthropological as a military undertaking. Hence, the first six chapters of Two Years in Kurdistan discuss everything from flora and fauna, to the structure of village life, the roles of women in society, tribes, agriculture, and trade. The next eight chapters are both diary and travelogue, as Hay travels to Altun Kepri, Erbil, Ranya, and Rawanduz, as well as smaller towns and districts.

Hay's mission was to establish civil administration as the British took control of Iraq from Ottoman authorities. Even though World War I was over, Ottoman authorities remained in control, if only on the local level, until Hay and his column relieved or co-opted them. Hay revitalized government, working to increase the influence of allies and decrease those of adversaries in society. He pensioned families of Turkish soldiers who had perished in the war, subsidized mullahs, appointed district governors, and played tribal politics. What took dozens of U.S. officials to carry out in 2003 and 2004, Hay did largely by himself eighty-five years before, meeting with tribal sheikhs and urban notables, entertaining, negotiating, and when necessary, commanding.

The final chapters of Two Years in Kurdistan chronicle a revolt among some Kurdish tribes against the order Hay constructed. The revolt pitted Kurd versus Kurd, and tribesman versus city-dweller. For Hay, though, there was a happy ending: Key tribal allies remained loyal, and the instigators failed to conquer Erbil.

Not only historians should value Hay's memoirs of his time in Kurdistan: The many Western policymakers and journalists who pass through Iraqi Kurdistan today see the region's progress but fail to understand its turbulent, pre-Saddam history. They may have heard of the 1994-97 civil war fought between forces loyal to Kurdish strongmen Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani but do not realize that such intra-Kurdish fighting is the norm rather than the exception in modern times. Indeed, this context makes it easier to understand the resentment so many Kurds feel toward Barzani and Talabani. Likewise, Hay's account reminds policymakers that Iraqi Kurdistan has always been a region in flux, that Kurds have not always dominated the city Kirkuk, and that blood feud rather than arbitrary alliance shapes Kurdish society.

The editor's introduction adds basic context but does not seek to dominate. His mission is to reassert Hay into the canon of Kurdish studies, and this he does masterfully.

Michael Rubin is a resident fellow at AEI.

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  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


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