Magnum Foundation


Notes from the Field: A Series of Misunderstandings


One of my favourite writers, Don DeLillo, once wrote, “And you know how it is when you’re starting on a project, how you sometimes have to start with a series of misunderstandings?” I always start that way. Working through these misunderstandings is the only way you will come to an understanding, looking for the obvious that takes forever. And here in Kurdistan I certainly began with a series of misunderstandings, misconceptions, misguided attempts. I love that. By talking with people, walking the streets, having your throat clotted with dust, do we start to realize that no level of preparation can guide you forward. Boots on the ground, so they say. The best line (amongst many) was this, found in a museum: “We neither manufactured these weapons, nor feel proud exhibiting them. In fact, these were used by those who threatened our existence. We also admit that these very weapons helped us achieve our freedom.”

A very powerful statement contradicting the usual sentiments of war and a question that needs to be asked: is war good? In this case, another misunderstanding that needs to be clarified.


One of the earliest examples of storytelling that sets the tone and structure of all western literature is the epic tale of Gilgamesh, a demi-god of superhuman strength, a Sumerian king from southern Babylon, which is what we know as Iraq. A fascinating story that today is being mimicked in the creation and construction of a new Kurdish state. I love these moments of serendipity when you see History unraveling itself again, a cyclical nature that time really does not change, a slight evolution of what we already have defined. In my case, the themes and ideas of Gilgamesh are mirrored back to us, just in a modern setting.

The basic plot goes something like this: Enkindu, a wild beast-man created by the gods to counter the ruthless tyranny of the king Gilgamesh, eventually become friends after an initial confrontation. Together, they begin a journey to the west. During their journey, Enkindu is slain by the gods in retribution for his killing of the monster Humbaba. Distraught by his friend Enkindu’s death, Gilgamesh sets out to redeem himself through immortality. The arrogant and brutal hero is transformed into Gilgamseh the broken mortal. During this pursuit, Gilgamesh is lead on many adventures, the most notable being his encounter with Utnapishtim, an ancient hero who survived a tragic flood. The tale bears many resemblances to the Biblical story of the Flood that Utnapishim is often called the Babylonian Noah. Gilgamesh learns that his quest for immortality is a futile one, that the creation of death also contains the seeds of death.

The life you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man they created death, but life they kept for their own keeping. When humans die, humanity continues to live.

During my travels in Kurdish Iraq, I saw many instances of the epic tale of Gilgamesh reflected back. Gilgamesh’s journey is a reflection of his struggle to become a better, selfless, leader. I, too, see in the Kurdish people’s quest to remake their land and identity, it is a transition from the wilderness to civilization, about accepting death in a triumphant and honorable manner, just as Gilgamesh and Enkindu did, 4,000 years ago.

What does primitive man lose in the process of becoming civilized – and what does he gain? When people use violence for political ends, how do they justify it and at what scale do they undertake it given differing situations and ideas abut them?

When Enkidu tells Gilgamesh his dream of the Underworld, Gilgamesh responds, “We must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.


A friend of mine passed me a link to YouTube recently, something I usually delete upon reading. However, what caught my eye was this:

This folkloric musicis dedicated to the United States of America’for the assistance that gives small states to have independence Kosovo is a new state in Europe THANKS (U.S.A)-and NATO Alliance

Somebody else was also thanking the United States, lone countries acknowledging very unpopular policies. On the day I flew out of Kurdistan, preparations were underway to celebrate “Occupation Day.”

War is Good* focuses on Iraq and Kurdistan in particular, but this YouTube video was made by a Kosovar folk singer praising the interventionist policies of Europe and NATO - but most emphatically, America. The sentiments in this video were the exact same sentiments from the Kurds–without America, they wouldn’t have their freedom, a little sliver of land that is theirs. But of course Kosovo wasn’t made in the United Nations. Like all quests, it was formed by our overwhelming desire and capacity to achieve our ends through violent means.

So, are there more people out there grateful for American and NATO military intervention? Can it work, does it work? I have always been interested in the nature of violence and how it is used, what is the “moral calculus” (William T. Vollman) that we use to engage in various levels of violence? This work looks at how acts of political violence are used to achieve an independence from oppressive regimes and the consequences when one engages in violence. Can we have differing ideas about violence and the uses of violence? On a politically correct level, no. But I am interested in looking at places that are defined in a positive way by the use of force.

The writer William T. Vollman wrote: “History is the result of people ‘rising up’ against oppression, thereby intensifying violence, which, even when justified, causes the human condition to ‘rise down.’”

So, to end on a positive note, the refrain from ‘O sa mire me kana Shqiptar,’ by Shkurtje Feza:

“USA, USA, for Albanians right of day, we were friends, side by side, today Kosova is so bright…”

Simone Salvo