My Fatherís Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan
At an age when most Americans are contemplating their college majors, Hiner Saleem was crammed into the back of a refugee caravan speeding away from Iraq on the eve of the Baíathist coup of 1968, heading toward the Syrian border with a falsified passport, never to see his family or homeland again. This seems like a hard way to turn 17, but itís the least of hardships Saleem endures in My Fatherís Rifle, a memoir of Saleemís childhood lived in the unmapped nation of Kurdistan and a story of a boyís emergence as an artist in an artless world.
Saleemís gentle, understated prose illuminates vignettes from a childhood both brutal and remote. He remembers not only his neighborís stunt pigeons and the taste of pomegranates but also the day his warlord father deemed it necessary to execute his uncle under suspicion of treason. Itís charming when Saleem reveals that he cannot identify the flavor of the drink heís licked off a discarded bottle cap, that thereís nothing in 1960s Aqra that tastes like Coca-Cola. But itís jaw-dropping when, later that year, he sees pictures for the first time, printed illustrations in a book of poetry that inflame a passion for the visual image thatís bolstered by the Egyptian soap operas he watches on his neighborís television. He dreams of becoming the first Kurdish-language filmmaker and struggles through all-Arabic school lessons in order to fulfill his fatherís wish of having at least one son with a university degree. But the familyís hope of a Kurdish nation slowly erodes after internment in an Iranian refugee camp and the punitive middle years of Saddam Husseinís regime.
The style of Saleem the author grows sharper and more mature as Saleem the protagonist becomes an adult, adrift in a totalitarian state, choosing to fight for the resistance for a while but ultimately deciding to follow his dreams to freedom. Well written and evocative, with a poetic scarcity of language and an apt gift for metaphor, My Fatherís Rifle is not only an intriguing window on a lost time and place but also a stirring reminder of how hope can triumph over grim reality and a humanizing account of a people Americans have seen on the news for the past 30 years but still know much too little about.