- - Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Surrounded by enemies and terribly outnumbered, Mustafa Barzani, the great Kurdish nationalist, hoped for the support of a trusted ally in the early 1960s. He expressed the essence of an ideal alliance with a quote from Sa’adi, the 13th century Persian poet of Shiraz: “Joint interests make for the best of friends.” Perhaps that explains the Kurds’ current role as our most trusted ally in the war with the Islamic State, or ISIS. That might also explain why so many Kurds have Christmas trees.

“I love my Christmas tree so much I keep one next to my desk year ‘round,” a Kurdish Muslim woman said to me in her office on a Peshmerga military compound in Northern Iraq. Sure enough, behind her stood a five-foot tree proudly decorated in tinsel, garland and colored ornaments. “To me, it represents happiness, love and beauty,” she added. “These are values that all Kurds respect. They are values all human beings should respect.”

Her tree is no anomaly amongst Kurds. Kurdish Christians keep them in their homes, of course, but so do many Kurdish Muslims.

Yakhi Hamza is a Kurd who grew up in the mountain village of Shaqlawa, an hour’s drive from the Kurdish capitol of Erbil. Nature blessed his village with spectacular, scenic beauty, but the predation of Saddam Hussein reduced much of it to ashes. Despite the devastation, the generations-deep brotherhood between the village’s Muslim and Christian inhabitants survived. “When I was a child the Muslims and Christians celebrated each other’s holidays. My mother put up a tree for me and my Christian friends. Most of my teachers were Christians, so were many of my classmates. We didn’t know the difference. It was a time of war, and the economic situation was very bad, but people lived happily together.”

Twenty-five years later and in the face of the desperate realities of a new and barbaric war, this one to oppose ISIS, the Kurds defiantly display a 35-foot-tall Christmas tree in the glittering center of their capitol. The ISIS stronghold of Mosul is just 50 miles away.

“Mosul, a city of 2 million, had a sizable Christian population for 2,000 years,” said Bakhtiar Dargali, descendant of a particularly historic, Kurdish family. “Now it has close to zero. Many of them fled to the tolerance of Kurdistan, where the beauty of a garden is measured by the various colors of its roses.” To him, the Christmas tree in Erbil is a powerful symbol. “It’s a mark of celebration for the birthday of the Prince of Peace. Kurds stand with their Christian brothers and sisters against this threat of Islamic terrorism.”

Some Kurds now live in the United States, of course, and many of their homes have Christmas trees, too. “Of the 8,000 Kurds living in Dallas,” said Mr. Dargali, “you will have difficulty finding a family without a tree.” Chiman Zebari believes she knows why. “The Christmas tree brings joy to the children. To me, it means love, family gatherings and spending time with loved ones.”

That many Kurds have gleefully adopted the Christmas tree should not be taken as an expression of a preference for one religious group over another. It’s not. Rather, it’s a reverence for life and humanity regardless of chosen faith.

On a silent night in 2006 in Iraq, the most violent full year of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a Kurdish woman named Anna Khanaka took to the podium at a Christmas party hosted by the local Kurdish community for the U.S. soldiers embedded with their Peshmerga. Her words are the tangible result of a body of important values shared between Kurds and Americans. They are as powerful today as they were that night.

“I wish all of you a merry Christmas,” she said. “Please consider yourselves to be among family and at home. I will be side by side with you at all times. On behalf of the Peshmerga forces and every Kurdish citizen and my family, I would like to tell you that we mourn the loss of each and every American soldier on Iraqi soil. Our hearts go out to their families. God bless the parents of the brave women and men who sacrificed their blood to give us and other nations freedom. Those soldiers’ names will be honored and remembered in our history. May God bless your presence in our country, and may you consider Kurdistan your second home.”

Ernie Audino, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, is a senior military fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. He is the only U.S. Army general to have previously served a year as a combat adviser embedded inside a Kurdish Peshmerga brigade in Iraq.

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