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Asahel Grant: The First American to Fail in Iraq

On October 21, 2007, in Turkey’s Hakkari province, eight Turkish soldiers were taken prisoner after a clash with Kurdish rebels. Digital photos of the men, hidden in a forested ravine, soon appeared in Kurdish news services, and then the soldiers vanished.  Two weeks later, despite search efforts by the Turkish Army, the soldiers emerged and were handed over to Kurdish officials in Iraq.

To those who know Hakkari, where the episode began, such a disappearance is anything but surprising. For this is terrain that reads like ad copy.  “Gashes in the Earth!” it might say: “Hidden Canyons! Buried Torrents! Pinnacles of Rock!”  In Hakkari mountain is packed against mountain like vertical cordwood, as if two great invisible hands, one in the north at Lake Van, the other at Mosul on the Tigris, have taken between them a patch of earth and pressed it into a tight, wrinkled heap.  It is as rough as ground can get.

It’s also a place with a past.  For five centuries, from the time of Tamerlane (ca. 1400) until the First World War, the high peaks of Hakkari were dominated by tribal Nestorian Christians, truculent warriors whose villages and terraced fields clung to near-vertical cliffs.  Their first American visitor, who arrived in October 1839, came to the mountains riding on a mule.  This was Dr. Asahel Grant, aged thirty-two years, a missionary physician from Waterville, New York.

Grant was not the first Western traveler to penetrate this region, but he was the first to come out alive.  Grant was preceded in 1829 by Friedrich Schulz, a German scholar who came to Hakkari on an expedition sponsored by the Academy of Paris.  Schulz gathered artifacts and mineral samples, took measurements of castles, and made no effort to hide either his money or his expensive scientific instruments.  In Julamerk, now the city of Hakkari, he met Nurullah, the Kurdish Emir.  In Kochanes, a nearby village, he met Mar Shimun, Patriarch of the Church of the East and nominal leader of the Nestorian tribes.  While returning to Persia, Schulz was shot in the back and killed, along with his servants and several accompanying Persian officers.  Nurullah, the man behind this deed, was never brought to justice.  Hakkari remained beyond the control of any government, Ottoman or Persian.

This was the situation in 1839, when Asahel Grant, alone and unarmed, rode north from  Mosul and entered the Hakkari mountains.  At the Nestorian village of Duree, just south of the current Iraqi-Turkish border, Grant left his mule behind.  In the terrain ahead even mules were useless, so he took on porters and exchanged his animal for a pair of goat hair sandals. At this point Dr. Grant looked nothing like a New England Yankee.  He wore the loose robes and pantaloons of the natives.  His skin was darkened by months in the sun, his beard had grown out, and on his head he wore the turban favored by all hill people, whether Kurd, Nestorian, or Jew.  Ever mindful of Schulz’s fate, he never allowed himself to be observed taking notes, and his gold coins he kept hidden in a roll of salve.

The next eight weeks, filled with danger and exhilaration, were the high point of Grant’s life.  In Hakkari he discovered a wonderland of snow-crusted peaks, rushing rivers, and terraced gardens.  He met the Christians’ patriarch, Mar Shimun, and made plans for American schools in the mountains.  The Nestorians flocked to greet him and receive medical care, and the Kurds came as well.  A terrifying encounter with Nurullah, the murderer of Schulz, ended in triumph when Grant “cured” the Kurd of a flu-like illness using a powerful dose of tartar emetic.  By Christmas 1839 he had returned to the American mission station in Urmia, northwest Iran, where he had begun his long journey ten months before.

Grant’s goals were plain: to heal the sick, to bolster the area’s Nestorian Christians for the fight against “Mohammedan delusion,” and to prepare them to lead in the “spiritual regeneration of Asia.”  The grandiosity of this plan did nothing to keep him, in the remaining four years of his life, from striving for its fulfillment.  Reality, of course, steered him in quite a different direction.

Mountain life, Grant discovered, was hard.  Hakkari’s windowless hovels were built of mud and stone.  Its terraced fields, hacked from the rock, shuddered beneath the assaults of winter avalanches and spring floods.  From their caves, bears emerged to ravage crops and kill sheep; and the wolves were never far behind.

Among humans, intrigue abounded.  The Kurdish emir, Nurullah, plotted against the Nestorian patriarch, Mar Shimun, a prelate who carried a loaded rifle whenever he went abroad.  Nurullah’s nephew, also a Muslim and a good friend of the patriarch, plotted against his uncle. Some Christian tribesmen wanted to kill the emir; others planned to kill their own patriarch. The Turkish pasha in Mosul wanted to hang all of them.  And all the while the raiding, blood feuds, brigandage, and sheep-stealing went back and forth in every possible Christo-Kurdish combination, with the Christians making a special point every Good Friday to attack the Jews.

Dr. Grant’s arrival, all parties believed, foretold European encroachment and conquest.  Thus, though he abjured politics, his very presence made a political statement.  Strictly honest in his dealings, generous and kindly to a fault, Grant and his motives were always suspect. When he built a mission house in Asheetha, a Nestorian village, all assumed that he was building a fortified castle.  In a world where only “my enemy’s enemy” was a friend, the man who loved all people was building on sand.

In 1843 the Kurds united their forces and, aided by Christian allies, attacked three Christian tribes whose raids had proved especially vexatious.  The result was a massacre.  Grant, helpless and discouraged, fled the mountains forever. He died a year later in Mosul, a good man in a place that had overwhelmed him. The Kurds, meanwhile, turned his abandoned house into a fortress, the very thing they had accused him of building.

Fond hopes, blunt reality, bitter retreat: these words have played out so often in human history that their repetition palls. But the pattern can be compelling, especially in that always-new form: the History You Don’t Know.  This is certainly true in the case of Asahel Grant, who was, after all, the first American to fail in Iraq.  In 2007 Grant’s place of burial, a Mosul church that dates to the 3rd century A.D., is inaccessible to Americans, and descendants of the Christians who once buried him are either dead, in exile, or hiding in the shadows.  In the mountains rebellious Kurds fight on, while their enemies plot revenge.  Just a few miles north of Mosul, a great dam across the Tigris threatens to give way at any moment. (Is there anyplace here that doesn’t instantly transform itself into a metaphor?)

Now, for all but a few, the Fond Hopes are gone, and Blunt Reality has turned a thousand Humvees into junk.  Bitter Retreat may take a while, but I have a feeling we’ll get there. Sooner or later.