Kurd risks his life to record Jewish sites

A chance encounter between Sami Solmaz,  a Kurdish film-maker, and Jason Guberman, director of Diarna(Digital Heritage Mapping), became a partnership to preserve ancient Jewish history before it vanishes. Feature by Emily Feldman in Newsweek Magazine (with thanks: Boruch):

Solmaz, who was in Iraq to collect footage for his film about ISIS,
offered to visit abandoned Jewish villages for Guberman. The two had met
in the summer of 2014 at the Center for Jewish History in New
York—Solmaz was there to inquire about using the building’s archives to
research a documentary about Kurdish Jews, which he would be filming in
Syria and Iraq. He wound up in Diarna’s office, where he and Guberman
chatted about his interest in Jewish culture.

Solmaz had grown up in
Turkey’s southeast, and his grandparents had told him stories about the
minorities who no longer lived there—Jews, Armenians, Greeks and
Assyrians. By the time Solmaz was born in 1963, Ottoman and Turkish
authorities had massacred or deported most of them in campaigns to
“Turkify” the nation in its violent early days, a part of his country’s
history that he thought about often in his work as a war correspondent
and independent filmmaker.



As Guberman listened, he realized he might be able to recruit Solmaz
to help Diarna. But doing so would be dangerous. Syria’s civil war was
in its third year, and ISIS was taking over major cities and towns in
Iraq. Guberman worried that Solmaz could be captured, kidnapped or
killed, especially if ISIS—or the Syrian regime—discovered his links to
an American nonprofit with a Jewish cause. “We actually tried to
discourage him,” says Guberman, “but he wanted to go.” The two men
agreed to stay in touch.

What had started as a chance meeting in a quiet museum would soon
become a vital partnership—spanning oceans and war zones—to preserve
ancient history before it vanishes.

A month after their first meeting, Solmaz returned to Guberman’s
office with a file of photographs. The images showed the ruins of a
Jewish village in the mountains separating Iraq from Turkey, near the
headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party; the insurgent group is at
war with Turkey and the target of frequent Turkish bombing campaigns.
Guberman hadn’t told him to go there because he’d assumed it was too
dangerous. “Jason was shocked,” Solmaz recalled. “He said, ‘How were you
able to get this?’”

Over
the next two and a half years, Solmaz planned multiple trips to Iraq,
northern Syria, Turkey, Israel and Greece, always allaying Guberman’s
concerns about safety. “Jason, I can go there, I am Kurdish,” he’d tell
him. Or “I’m a war correspondent, don’t worry.”

The arrangement has been mutually beneficial. Solmaz hikes mountains,
cajoles locals and travels to war zones to find the endangered sites
Diarna wants to preserve on the internet. In return, Diarna pays him for
photographs, videos and reports, which Solmaz often finds useful for
his projects.

03_03_JewishHeritage_01

A Diarna expedition photo shows the exterior of the Tomb of Nahum in Alqosh, Iraq.


Diarna 

 

When Diarna launched in 2008, most Jewish synagogues, schools and
cemeteries in the Middle East and North Africa had been out of use for
decades, and many had fallen into disrepair. Most of the estimated 1
million Jews who lived between Morocco and the Arabian Sea abandoned
their homelands to escape anti-Semitic violence in the 1950s and ’60s.
Now wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, along with the emergence of ISIS,
which has been attacking ancient sites with pickaxes and dynamite, pose a real threat to preserving the Middle East’s ancient history.

As destroying sacred sites has become increasingly common in the
Middle East, analysts, countries and even some militants have come to
see the costs of destroying them. In September, an Islamist militant
became the first person convicted of a war crime
for destroying cultural and religious sites in Mali. At his trial at
the Hague in the Netherlands, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who was sentenced
to nine years in prison, urged other combatants to refrain from
destroying cultural sites, saying such acts “ are not going to lead to
any good for humanity.”

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