Magnum Foundation


Notes from Kurdish Iraq-Donald Weber




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.

Simone Salvo