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Slender Roots

The way his two children saw it, a vacation in Iraqi Kurdistan would only take them away from their friends. But for Rashid Karadaghi, who spent a lifetime protecting the Kurdish language, you must go home again.

January 07, 2007|Kevin McKiernan

The last time Rashid Karadaghi and his wife, Bayan, took their children "home" to Iraqi Kurdistan was in 1997, when 13-year-old Diyari--the name means "gift" in Kurdish--was a little boy of 4 and 11-year-old Lanja ("spirited walk") was just a toddler.

A lot has changed since then--both in Iraq as well as at home for the Karadaghis. Now the California-born youngsters are immersed in a culture of cellphones, rap music and PlayStations--"bombarded," as their father puts it, "by everything not Kurdish." The very notion of a vacation in Iraq--even in the relatively stable Kurdish region--seems exactly what Bayan's employer calls it: crazy.

But Rashid has a dream: He wants his children to know their Kurdish roots. "I want the kids to see the donkeys and sheep where I grew up and to see the pile of rubble where Saddam's soldiers destroyed our house," he says. "I want them to see where we baked bread, hauled water from the well and where I napped under a mulberry tree."

Karadaghi, who holds a doctorate in English from UC Santa Barbara and is now a teacher, set out in 1971 to write the first comprehensive English-Kurdish dictionary, translating tens of thousands of words and making painstaking entries with his Parker fountain pen. The project culminated in 1999, when an Iraq-bound friend succeeded in smuggling his manuscript through Turkey--where the Kurdish language is still a source of controversy--in a crate of satellite parts. From there, the manuscript made its way to Iran, where last summer 10,000 copies of the 1,256-page hard-bound book, each weighing more than 51/2 pounds, finally rolled off the press.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Kurdish author: The photo credit for a Jan. 7 West magazine article on English-Kurdish dictionary author Rashid Karadaghi said the accompanying photographs were taken by him. They were taken by the article's author, Kevin McKiernan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 04, 2007 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 5 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
The photo credit for the article on Rashid Karadaghi, who wrote the first comprehensive English-Kurdish dictionary, said the accompanying photographs were taken by Karadaghi ("Slender Roots," Jan. 7). They were taken by the author of the article, Kevin McKiernan.

Those stats, though, aren't the ones that interest Diyari, the sports fanatic in the Kurdish American household. Inside the Karadaghis' home in Salinas, ESPN is blaring. Diyari's hero, Barry Bonds, has just hit his 715th home run, surpassing Babe Ruth's former record, and Dwyane Wade, the NBA star whose jersey hangs in the boy's room, is shooting 59% for the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the NBA playoffs. Lanja, Diyari's precocious sister, thinks her big brother is acting "ridiculous"--again--and, for the umpteenth time this weekend, she needles him as a "couch potato."

Rashid is having a hard time selling the upcoming trip to his kids. They are too young to know that today's Iraqi Kurds have their lands mostly under control; that the semiautonomous enclave established as a no-fly zone in 1991 to protect them from Iraqi forces has advanced--though not yet brought about--the age-old Kurdish dream of independence; that the bloody chaos in the rest of the country is largely outside the checkpoints manned by Kurdish fighters called peshmerga ("those who face death"); and that not a single American soldier has been killed in the region they are about to visit.

Lanja is worried, in particular, about creature comforts. "There are supposed to be normal toilets in the houses on my mom's side," she explains, "but on my dad's side I think there are just holes in the ground." Diyari thinks a full month is too long to be missing Pony League baseball at Jack's Park, where he plays left field for the Monterey Cardinals. "Why can't we just take a short trip to Hawaii like the other kids in my class," he complains.

I met Rashid Karadaghi in Santa Barbara in 1991, when he briefed me before my visit to the Kurdish area of Iran, where I was going to do some relief work. That was a year before Bayan came from Iraqi Kurdistan to marry Rashid and a dozen years before the U.S.-led invasion would topple Saddam Hussein. Rashid lived in Isla Vista, the student ghetto near UCSB, in a two-room cottage carpeted with scraps of paper, scrolls of words, old texts and would-be dictionary entries, which he stored in an Igloo ice chest. (After moving to Salinas, he would secure them in a heavy safe in his bedroom closet). Karadaghi called his dictionary Azadi ("Freedom")--"the most precious word" in the Kurdish language, he said.

"They can confiscate your land and they can take your cattle away too," he explained, "but as long as you have your language, you are a people." After 20 years, he had reached page 4,112 in the giant manuscript, having just added "domino effect," a term he had heard on a talk show on his car radio. He had recorded a staggering 44,000 entries by hand, and he told me proudly, "You know, Samuel Johnson's dictionary only had 42,000 entries!"

When he landed in California in 1964 as a scholarship student from the University of Baghdad, Karadaghi knew nothing of Isla Vista's storied counterculture. His naivete came to an end during a campus discussion about hallucinogens, when a UCSB instructor asked students to recount their favorite "trip." Karadaghi laughs now when he recalls how he almost blurted out the details of the flight from the Middle East, his first experience on an airplane.

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