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McDowall, a respected British author with a penchant for writing about Middle Eastern minorities (including The Lebanon: A Conflict of Minorities [1986] and The Kurds: A Nation Denied [1992]), covers the Kurdish experience from the eighteenth century to the present. In a valuable reference on a little-known people, he finds modern Kurdish problems rooted in a time when they paid obeisance to an emperor, Ottoman or Iranian, a time when they also had autonomy enough to use their own language and express their Kurdish identity.

Modern states, in contrast, have trouble reconciling to this reality. The Republic of Turkey, ideologically zealous to establish a homogeneous state, mischaracterized the Kurds as "mountain Turks" and mislabeled their language as Turanian. Such clumsiness, the author feels, was instrumental in awakening a Kurdish consciousness and resistance to Turkish authority that cannot now be dispelled. In Iraq, too, the Kurds represent a threat to Saddam Husayn's visions of a centralized government, and especially his fear that decentralization would fatally weaken his rule. Hence the Iraqi government's use of poison gas against Kurdish civilians in 1987-88, an operation the author thinks could be repeated.

Iran, more theocratic than nationalistic, has worked out a rather repressive modus vivendi with its Kurdish minority, while Syria has little to fear since its Kurds are too few in number to pose any threat. For mistaken reasons of its own, however, the Syrian government has given significant aid to Kurdish nationalist forces in their attempt to destabilize Turkey.