A review: Sons of Mountains: My Life as a Kurd and a Terror Suspect
by Yassin Aref. Troy, New York: The Troy Book Makers, 2008, 515 pp., $27.00.
Originally published in Street Roots, Portland, Oregon (a 5MB file)

Agents of Fear Destroy a UN Refugee
by John Hart

Imagine you are nine-year-old Muslin boy and live in a mountainous region where temperatures range from bitter cold in the winter and blazingly hot in the summer. You sleep on a straw mat on the floor of your clay hut and, if you’re lucky, you get a heavy blanket. You eat butterfat and dry flat bread. You have a torn pair of pants and no shirt. Now add to this the fear of being killed by bullets or shrapnel from the constant fighting between your countrymen and the Baathist government of Iraq.

One morning you wake up and your seven-year-old sister is dead then two years later your five-year-old brother dies because children are born weak and malnourished and often die of simple diseases. To survive, you must put a big tray on your head and walk through your village selling candy and cake to help feed your family. As a child, you must figure out how to earn money or your family will not survive. If you utter one word of complaint, your father will beat you. You are forced to spy on your village for the government. If you say the wrong thing or some bully denounces you to the authorities, you will be tortured. No Bill of Rights, no freedom of speech, no courts.

Aref’s young life was typical of all Kurdistan children: boys must prove themselves by suffering hardship. At the age of nine or ten, they are tested by adults and sent alone on a dark night in the snow or rain to another village to take or bring something. As Aref points out: “…to make the test even scarier, they are brought up with stories of jinni (demon spirit) and wolves and bandits on the road at night.”

Then to make matters worse, the Baathists tried to recruit all young Kurdish men, but Yassin refused, telling them “I want to be independent. I don’t like politics.” He also refused to join the peshmerga (freedom fighters). Yet, Yassin was constantly intimidated by the Baathists. When he and friends were playing soccer in a nearby stadium filled with 300 friends and relatives, the Baathists entered and lined up every body against the sidelines. Two prisoners wearing handcuffs and blindfolds were brought in and tied to the goal posts. The Baathist guards said “This is our answer to the peshmerga, then they shot them dead.

Now imagine the United Nations offers you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape poverty, brutality and repression. You and your new wife and young family end up in Albany, New York. You use your half-dozen words of English to find a part-time job as a janitor. Then 9/11 happens. You are appointed Imam of the local mosque and you preach to your congregation that “Islam will be spread by Muslim’s going good not evil.”

But President Bush and the DOJ need players in the theater of fear so the NSA is ordered to listen in on all mosques. Although 51 hours of secret recordings were collected, there was never a single word spoken against America, rather the FBI heard 51 hours of Aref calling back to his friends in Damascus telling them how happy he was to be in America, 51 hours of Aref’s family and friends begging for money so they too can escape their horrible conditions. But the new FBI motto appears to be: when the truth exculpates, launch a sting.

The FBI sends an informant — a convicted criminal — to lend cash to a third party — a Muslin who owns a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint — who then asks his Imam, Yassin Aref, to witness the transaction, as required by Islamic law. The FBI construes this as an act supporting “terrorism.” It is an act that nobody can understand but the FBI and the DOJ. After three years of wiretapping, the FBI opens the curtains on their Aref drama and front pages across America scream victory in the “war on terror.” After an illogical sham of a trial, the judge hands Aref 15 years of prison time.

At the end of the book, Aref’s defense co-counsel, Stephen Downs, includes an essay with details of how the U.S. Government performed their elaborate fiction in court, with lives, families, and constitutional rights sacrificed in the name of unblinded justice.

Aref’s writing style in Son of Mountains reveals an honest man, a man who tells a story with simply clarity and insight. There is no need for embellishment; the plain truth is shocking enough. The real tragedy behind the Iraq war is exposed by the man who was part of it. To understand the civilians of Iraq and Kurdistan, to overcome our propensity to hate that which we don’t understand, it’s necessary to begin with a reading of Son of Mountains, a memoir that will reveal that this humble, poetic man is no terrorist, rather a victim in a concocted conspiracy by agents of fear.

Below is one of Aref’s poems that says more than any brief book review could:

Please don’t ask from where I come
It hurts and makes all my wounds bleed
I’m a stranger since they took my home
I have no land and no country
I have no state, I have no flag.
My nation now lies anywhere
In all the world I choose to be
But still I am not living free
Nor do I carry an identity
That’s truly representing me.

Yassin Aref has written more than a book, he has opened a door for us to walk through and touch his culture, his land, his heart.

All proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Aref Children’s Fund to benefit Aref’s four young children.

John Hart is a full-time English/Writing major at Marylhurst University and president of the Marylhurst Writer’s Club.