In northern Iraq, Kurds warn: “Beware the Arabs”

Sunni Arab Muslim politicians are using elections to push for renewed control over Kurdish-majority,

Just off the Mosul road that runs through the vivid green plains of Iraq's Nineveh Province, a Kurdish security officer - a peshmerga - checks our documents, though we are several miles outside Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) borders. "Careful," he says, gesturing at the road ahead. "There are Arabs."

The checkpoint, manned by Kurdish forces, is on the country's "trigger line", a 300-mile unofficial boundary between the areas run by the KRG and the Iraqi central government - a border that some fear will be the setting for the country's next civil war. The KRG claims that areas of northern Iraq with a large Kurdish population ought to be part of its jurisdiction, and says its peshmergas were invited across the official green line by US forces to help protect the local people. Arab nationalist parties accuse the KRG of occupying disputed land.

The governance of these areas, particularly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, is a focal point for post-election bargaining over the make-up of the ruling coalition. US forces have begun to play an important role in managing Arab-Kurd tensions, but they are scheduled to withdraw by the end of the year, leaving little time to cut a deal.

In Talkeef, an ethnically mixed town just beyond the checkpoint, trigger-line tensions run high. Bashar al-Kiki, the Kurdish head of the district council, recalls a recent clash between Arab forces, peshmergas and US troops. "I was so scared," he says.

When al-Kiki learned that Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh, was coming to Talkeef, his heart sank. Under Saddam Hussein, the region's Kurdish minority was excluded from power, but it came to dominate the provincial government after Iraq's 2005 elections, which many Sunni Arabs boycotted. In power, Kurdish parties showed scant regard for bridge-building; in the 2009 provincial elections, Sunnis returned to the polls and al-Hadba, the Arab nationalist party to which al-Nujaifi is affiliated, refused to offer senior posts to anyone from the main Kurdish parties. A boycott movement sprang up, urging officials from Kurdish areas, such as al-Kiki, to cut their links with the provincial government.

So, on the morning that al-Nujaifi appeared in Talkeef, a crowd of demonstrators started to gather. When al-Kiki went to the town gate to explain the sensitivities of the situation, he was faced with five American trucks approaching the checkpoint, plus tanks and helicopters.

“The head of the peshmergas was talking to the Americans, and he received a call from above telling him to let al-Nujaifi go," al-Kiki told me. The armoured vehicles eventually passed through the gate, but were pelted with stones and tomatoes. Later, the governor travelled to another part of the region where a demonstration ended in gunfire and arrests. "I expec­ted bigger consequences," al-Kiki says. "If one peshmerga had decided to stop al-Nujaifi, there would have been a big fight."

Talkeef is surrounded by checkpoints, but the various groups seem to mingle freely within the town. The population consists of Kurds, Christians, Arab Muslims and Yezidis, followers of a pre-Islamic religion whose unusual grooved shrines look like giant lemon-squeezers in the Nineveh landscape. From behind his desk, al-Kiki tackles the problems of a range of constituents, switching between Kurdish and Arabic. In spite of Talkeef's location, security within the town is good, locals say.

Scores of Christian families fleeing a recent campaign of violence in Mosul have sought refuge in Talkeef. "We feel very safe here, protected by the KRG forces and the [Iraqi] police," a Christian leader sitting in the office tells me, adding: "Mainly the KRG." The peshmergas, who patrol the streets, are seen as more effective than the Iraqi security forces.

A political game

An elderly man in a dishdasha and headdress enters the office and is introduced as "the sheikh". Saeed Mohammed Saeed is one of Talkeef's Arab community leaders. "Relations between Kurds and Arabs have always been good, because we have marriage relations," he says. "The situation is not the people, it's the political parties." He is contemptuous of al-Nujaifi's decision to visit Talkeef ("just a political game"), and his take on whether the town should be part of the KRG is diplomatic. "There is a saying that Mosul is the father of poor people. Here there are lots of farmers. The majority feel comfortable if we live with Mosul."

The community members in al-Kiki's office chat and joke with each other, but there are reminders of the wider tensions. Even al-Kiki, who has many Arab relatives, is not always tactful. "In the 1960s there were just Kurds and Yezidis here," he says. "Now there are more Arabs than Christians, unfortunately."

At three o'clock, the visitors have left, and al-Kiki invites us to lunch at the local kebab shop. The streets are calm and almost empty, but an armed soldier accompanies us, and security guards at the office gates spring up nervously to inspect trucks that pass. The strange mix of security and uncertainty that characterises life here lends itself to a pervasive strain of black humour. Having insisted that Talkeef is a stable place, al-Kiki teases me about the town's proximity to Mosul, one of al-Qaeda's last refuges in Iraq. "It is very dangerous," he says in English. He chuckles. "Very dangerous."

 

This article appeared in this week's New Statesman under the headline "Hair-trigger town"

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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August