My Father's Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan

My Father's Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan

Book Information

Macmillan 2005
  • Character-Building Curriculum
  • Social Studies Curriculum

  Hiner Saleem offers an almost spartan
narrative of his childhood, under the name Azad Shero Selim, one of
the youngest of a family of proud Kurds. His father carries an
ancient Czech rifle, a Brno, which he cherishes. Azad has grown up
hearing his father speak of the Kurd army's daring exploits against
the Iranian army, and of how he chafes under Iraqi rule. His father
works clandestinely as a Morse Code operator for General Barzani,
leader of the Kurds.
        The story opens with a brutal act: in
the midst of a normal, pleasant day, soldiers appear at Azad's door,
beat his mother with a rifle, and demand the whereabouts of a cousin
suspected of sympathizing with Barzani. When they catch up with him a
Western-style gunfight ensues and the cousin, and 7 other members of
Azad's extended family, becomes another sickening casualty of the
lopsided fight between the Kurds and Iraqis.

        Azad's family must flee to escape the
tightening scrutiny of the Iraqis. They take up residence in
increasingly crude and depressing shelters, from a house with a leaky
roof about to fall in, to a cave in the mountains.  With little to
eat, and bombers regularly flying overhead, life goes on, and Azad
attends school and makes friends in a tiny village that offers them a
degree of safety.
        When Azad's older brother returns home
from fighting in the mountains and Saddam Hussein  agrees to a
cease-fire with the Kurds, life improves, and the family returns to
the bomb-strafed home they'd been forced to flee. Things have
changed, however. In Azad's school classes are now taught in Arabic,
a language he doesn't understand, and he begins to fall behind his
classmates. This is troubling, as his father has expectations that
Azad will become a lawyer or judge. However, his talent in music and
art begin to blossom.
        As he matures, Azad feels compelled to
follow his older brother and father into a life of resistance
fighting. With little forethought, he and a friend embark on a
hair-raising journey to join seasoned Kurdish soldiers. There, he
realizes the futility of the dream of Kurdish independence, and
compares it to his father's obsolete yet beloved rifle; what has been
gained for all the years of struggle his people have endured?  There
is a grain of hope when his group leader explains to him, “This is
our homeland. You're students; our people need educated persons, and
they also need fighters in the towns. If you're courageous, return to
your town, go back to your studies, and help us organize acts of
        Still, when Azad returns to his
hometown he feels enemy eyes are watching him. As his world tightens
around him, his dreams of pursuing a career in film, art, music,
anything but fighting, seem to be slipping away. Only when he hears
that Syria and Iraq agree to a union between the two countries does
he see his means of escape: with everyone celebrating this change of
events he submits questionable paperwork to a distracted official and
gets a passport which he can now use to travel through Syria – away
from the futile dreams of the Kurds and toward a new life for
himself. Although he leaves behind the country he loves, he takes
with him a cassette of Kurdish music and a book of Kurdish poetry to
sustain him as he steps into his new life.

        At a mere 99 pages, My Father's
Rifle has been called a “spare narrative,” yet the beauty and
matter-of-fact-ness of the writing draws the reader into the Kurdish
culture and what it must have been like to grow up in that tumultuous
time in the 1960s and '70s. Middle school students to adults will
take away unforgettable images from this book. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Jane C. Behrens
Teacher Librarian
Johnston High, Iowa USA

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