The Statement of Kani Xulam
The George Washington University
Washington, District of Columbia
Tuesday, November 18, 2003
I want to start with the obvious and that is to thank members of two George Washington University organizations, Amnesty International and The Islamic Alliance for Justice, for sponsoring this lecture, I have titled, “A Gagged People: the Story of the Kurds”. It is without a doubt one of the most dangerous times to be a Kurd in the world. Snakes with darting heads have overtaken our country; wolves with blood-red nails have desolated our communities. To see Amnesty International approach the imprisoned and tortured children of Kurdistan with its proverbial candle of light is nothing less than extending a famished individual a slice of warm bread or giving someone who is dying of thirst a glass of cold water. The Islamic Alliance for Justice is a newer organization on this campus. Its members, mostly the offspring of the natives of the Middle East, are confronted with a new challenge called the aftereffects of 9/11. I salute them for their grit under fire and am gratified to know of their cooperation with Amnesty International as co-hosts of this event.
Both organizations serve causes greater than the lives of their members and the members of each deserve our everlasting gratitude for their services to this campus, this community and this country. I am especially touched by their vision of a world that includes, the Kurds and Kurdistan. In so doing, they have set an example and put to shame all those PhDs at the State Department. I say let’s bring them all here as students and have some of you move there as advocates of humanity to bring a sense of order and decency to that colossal institution with tentacles all over the globe. They have never heard of the words global justice, you could teach them. Human rights may be on their lips, but cuddling the dictators has been and continues to be their primary task, you could change that. Democracy, they believe it could be parachuted from the sky; you could tell them, like trees, it needs to have its roots on the ground. If anyone deserves the title, they, no one else, top the list of proverbial delinquents that stare at the good and have trouble recognizing it. Ignorance is pitiless. Wisdom hurts. Justice can be ugly. Inside the souls of some of the most vociferous champions of freedom lurk some of the most dangerous despots that have ever graced our earth.
I am as usual getting ahead of myself. A podium, a polite and polished audience, the honor of being invited by a university that has been named after the father of this country would make many wobbly, let alone, a tormented, persecuted and stateless Kurd like myself. Going back to what should come at the beginning of a lecture, I want to recognize the hard work of the organizers of this event and honor their diligence, energy and yes, faith in peace, love, truth, justice, and beauty, the shining ornaments that can make our experience on this earth a delight, and the future, if ever these values become universal, the brightest that it has ever been for all the children of God. These student activists, if asked what is the name of their country, do not answer, not just with the obvious, America, but add, without a moment of hesitation, the world. If prodded further about their religion, some might say, it is science, but most say, it is the teachings of Christ, or Mohammad, or Moses, or Buddha but in the practice of their religions, you will not find room for smugness, domination, or intolerance. Speaking for myself, I consider it a blessing to have come across these bright lights of your campus, these hopeful signs of our common future, and these true lovers of our battered humanity. I ask that, they stand up, as I read their names, and I urge you to withhold your applause till I am done with their identifications. Maria Vartanova, my intern, as well as the Secretary of Amnesty International; Maryam Sarrafee, the Vice President of the Islamic Alliance for Justice; and Tara Karam, and Scott Edley, students on this campus and interns at my office. Let’s give them all a hearty round of applause worthy of George Washington University students that could be heard all the way at the other university, Georgetown.
What is the story of the Kurds? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Last month, the Jerusalem Post run a story about a Jewish chronicler who has dedicated his life to protecting the Kurdish culture. Why is this a news item? Why aren’t the Kurds shielding their culture, if the shielding is necessary? Have you ever heard of a neighbor caring for one’s own language? Imagine if you will, America is the only English speaking country in the world, and Americans are hit by a cruel and unrelenting form of racism that forces them to forget their language, and a curious Mexican has dedicated his life to protect your grammar and syntax before it, together with you, disappears into the oblivion. Wouldn’t you be curious, as the last surviving Americans, about this Godsend messenger who is defending your mother tongue and may have some insights about your dying culture? You would. Anything else should be viewed as a treasonous act on your part.
So, I read the Kurdish story in the Jerusalem Post with interest, no, that is not true, I literally was rushing to its end, and I wanted to know more about this chronicler and his judgments on the Kurds and Kurdistan. I never made it to the end. As someone who has learned the English language later, I run into this sentence, “Kurdish, [Dr. Michael Chyet] warns, may well be on the road to perdition”, and I did not quiet understand the use of the word, perdition, next to the word, Kurdish. Had we become cousins that I did not know about? I reached out to my electronic dictionary and typed in the word, p e r d i t i o n, and waited for its meaning to pop up on the small screen. It read, eternal damnation. It went on, hell. I froze in my tracks. That is where we Kurds are heading, or should I say, pushed into, by the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians, I found myself saying, quietly. A hopeful person by nature, a mixture of rage and fear overtook my body. I better write an epitaph for the Kurdish language, I said, faintly. What could I possibly put on it? Would anyone here care to make a recommendation? Where would we put that RIP sign anyway? Our neighbors have the title deed even to our gravesites. Who could guarantee that they would not desecrate it? If the Jewish chronicler was right, I did not have to worry about the future Kurdish generations who might have said unsavory things about the last one, mine, like, cowards who had no bones in their bodies. But I worried about millions of our ancestors who had managed to hand us one of a kind heirloom called the Kurdish language and we could not protect it. I imagined them shedding tears of love from their high heavens and wondering about us, their children, the last generation, who were born retards and were fitted for perdition.
How did we come to this? Is it possible for a language to survive the Stone Age, the Dark Ages, the Enlightenment and stumble, nay, have a verdict of death passed on it, by its neighbors, in our times and on our watch? Who can stand up here tonight and say with an honest face that our times are kinder, our generation is wiser, and our tolerance is inclusive when respected newspapers write about the death of a language not out of neglect of its users, but through deliberate state policy, and are you ready for this gem, under the rubric of civilizing the indigenous peoples? If I were representing the Kurdish language tonight, and by some magic, could turn every cell in my body into a tongue, I would scream through them all and say, please, please, please give me back the Dark Ages, or the Stone Age for that matter, and to hell with your industrialization, especially the space age with its smart weapons in dumb hands that are gagging peoples, obliterating cultures, and unashamedly saying absurdities, or should I say ninnies, like our times are the most just in the history of the world. Should I go ahead and say it out loud what is really on my mind? To hell with the whole world!
But since we cannot go back in time for the sake of the Kurdish language, — I would have liked to do that and would not have missed you at all, — and ahead of us lays the road to perdition, as the Jewish chronicler puts it, which I would like to avoid, but will have to face it as the price of coming into a world right in time for a “Perfect Storm” as it were, to consume the Kurds and Kurdistan. What is to be done, to borrow the title of a book by Lenin, under the circumstances? I was born into slavery and would like to die as a free man. Is this too much for a Kurd? Like all diseases that plague our world, ours is unique in its character, has similarities, as well as differences, with some of the other race related diseases that have blighted our world. If I tell you that given the choice, I would much rather be a Jew in Nazi Germany than a Kurd in Ataturk’s Turkey, how many of you would believe me? You may not, is it because you are in a deep sleep or is it because your stomach, your greed, is far bigger than your heart, your compassion, and is in control of your mind and oblivious to the Kurds? In Germany, the Nazis targeted the Jews physically, they were killed because they were viewed as enemy of the Aryan race; in Turkey, the children of Ataturk have targeted us spiritually and culturally, we face the same predicament, and you know what is even worse, when we die our birth certificates say we are Turks. Both evil systems were and are about extirpating a different race. One did it honestly and openly; the other is doing secretly and with your aid.
Like a good physician we should perhaps look into the history of this racial virus that seems to have taken root in a corner of the world called Kurdistan and manifests itself by attacking especially our helpless children at an early age forcing them to act grotesque, like a cat barking like a dog as it were. Kurds in northern Kurdistan have to call themselves Turks; in southern Kurdistan, Arabs; and in eastern Kurdistan, Persians. This is a unique disease, a treasure trove, if you will, for specialists both in the fields of humanities as well as sciences. Let me share with you just one of its symptoms inside Turkey, for example, to give you a glimpse of what goes on as life of an honest Kurd. When the Europeans carved up the Middle East in early 20th century, contiguous Kurdistan was partitioned into four parts and the biggest chunk, about half of Kurdistan, was entrusted to the care of the Turks. The “Modern Turks”, as they styled themselves then, voluntarily injected themselves with a European disease called virulent racism, declared us Turks overnight, and our land as theirs besides. 80 years later nothing has changed. If anything, the world has joined them in calling us Turks and our land, eastern Turkey. We may indeed go down as losers, as Dr. Chyet warns, in the world.
It is said that Winston Churchill once noted to a friend, if you want to kill a person, all you need is a bullet, but if you want to kill a people, you ban their language. I have always been able to visualize, thanks to Hollywood, the mechanics of killing a person, may God forbid such a predicament for all the children of this earth, but not of an entire people. Thank God, there isn’t a market for it and the Silver Screen thus far has avoided entertaining such an abominable thought. Some nations, however, have taken this Godless road. The German case is the most celebrated one. The Turkish one has escaped notice. The Kurdish language remains banned in Turkey. The example that you are about to hear is cruelty at its worst beyond anything that the sun has ever witnessed on this earth. It is the story of a condemned Kurdish man and his mother in a Turkish prison. It is of a caliber that will outlive the Kurds, I dare say even the last generation of humans will talk of it. And it will hang like a dark cloud over the children of the Turks, Arabs and Persians, the way the Jewish Holocaust is hanging over the children of the Germans.
The man has a name but I am purposefully withholding it. The reason I am doing this is to make a point that all honest Kurds face the same predicament. This Kurd was imprisoned not because he had engaged in a crime, but because he had come out his of closet if you will, and declared himself a Kurd. This is not a priceless proposition in a place like Turkey. Let’s look at what he had to endure for what we would consider upholding the will of God. “Solitary confinement, guards’ insults, the obligation to salute the captian’s dog, the beatings, the sleep deprivation, the falaka, the fainting, the trampling, the electrodes attached to genitals, and German shepherds trained to bite the private parts of naked prisoners,” were the initiation rites for this Kurdish dissident in the Turkish Military Prison in Amed writes Elie Wiesel. No wonder, we have Kurds who lie through their white teeth and say things like, we are Turks, Arabs, Persians or some other absurdities, like Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians and if they could pronounce it, Al Qaeda, just to avoid such a fate. Going back to our prisoner and his mother, eight months after his arrest, he is given the good news, visitation rights, with his loved ones. He sends the word out that he wants to see his mom. The appointed day arrives. The Kurdish prisoner is hauled to a small room with a small window with iron bars and told in no uncertain terms that he has to communicate with his mother in Turkish. The problem is his mother knows only Kurdish. The meeting begins all right. The mother wants to know how her son is. Who wouldn’t, if you knew from personal experience that the Turkish Military Prisons leave the film “Midnight Express” in the shade? But her son is not responding. Seconds follow the minutes. Minutes began to take on the life of hours. Still, nothing, not even a word, comes out of her son’s mouth. Then in a moment of sheer epiphany, the mother screams, “O God, they have beaten my son into deafness and muteness.”
Much that I have heard in this world and I have heard my share, much that I have seen on this earth and I have done my share of traveling, much that I have read and one could never do enough of it, nothing compares to the outcry of that helpless Kurdish woman inside that evil producing factory called the Turkish Military Prison in Amed. She might as well have said the same thing for the entire Kurdish nation, a people numbering 30 to 40 million souls in the Middle East. I have thought of this exchange often, and I don’t mean in just minutes, I mean, days, weeks, months and years, and I have not come close to understanding let alone explaining what went through that hapless Kurdish mother’s mind. Do you know of words that could describe such a grief? They would, not I, be relating to you the story of the Kurds.
The story has a date, it is1980. You may wonder if anything has happened in the past 23 years that could have alleviated that mother’s suffering or, why not, let me speak in hopeful terms, put a smile on the face of the Kurds. Initially, I was going to say nothing and move on to my favorite session of these gatherings, the questions and answers. But two weeks ago, I ran into a story from Anadolu News Agency, a Turkish state owned outlet, which gave me a whiplash as I struggled to decipher its meaning. If I had thought the story of the Jewish chronicler had made me angry, this nameless one out of Brussels turned me into a ball of fire with its indescribable shamelessness, for it said, two Turkish journalists, — I realize I am abusing the profession called journalism here, — had the galls to ask Guenter Verheugen, the representative of the European Union, for alphabet change in France and Belgium to accommodate, are you ready for this, the spellings of the Turkish names, a small immigrant community in those countries, with letters like S with a cedilla under it, I with a dot above it and G with an acid sign on top of it, which do not exist in the French Alphabet.
How could that be? What brought about such questioning? Were those Turkish journalists drunk or racists-hicks disguised as reporters so dumb that they could not really see their throwing up, which they thought were questions, to the commissioner of the European Union on their country’s accession into Europe? I said Europe, right? Alas, I can’t hide the truth! A society that gave the world the cruelest monstrosity ever known to humanity, Adolf Hitler, is having difficulties recognizing its carbon copy in Turkey. And do you know who else thinks Turkey is ready to join Europe, with all its present stupendous deformities? Look no further, but at yourself, or should I say those who speak on your behalf. Who here knows of the song, “Stop the world, I want to get off”? I would love it, if someone could sing it for me, perhaps after this lecture, it would definitely put my mind to rest, for the arts have a way of providing a safe refuge for those of us who are abused and on top of it mocked in this world.
The issue in Brussels, by the way, was not about how Europe should bend backward to accommodate a few bigoted Turkish journalists with their inane questions, but for Turkey to come to its senses and accept and respect 15 to 20 million of its Kurdish subjects. Mr. Verheugen had just issued his report and listed education in Kurdish as a condition for Ankara to join the European Union. Related to the same issue was also the subject of Kurdish names that have the letters, Q, X, and W in them. Like Pavlov’s dogs, Turkish officials go into frenzy as soon as they see these letters in the Kurdish names. They have been asking us to forgo them, alternatively, threatening the Europeans with their hick journalists posing as spokespersons for their racism to change the alphabets of the European countries to accommodate the odd letters of the Turkish language.
The Turks have never bothered to listen to us, but I might as well tell you this little known fact that the differences between the Kurdish language and the Turkish one are like the differences between the English language and the Chinese one. The same also holds true for Kurdish and Arabic. And yet these neighbors of ours, together with the Persians, have taken onto themselves the Godly powers of inculcating our children with only their languages. If they ever get cured of their racism, I would like them to know that, in spite of what they have done to us, I, speaking in my capacity as a Kurdish activist, hold no enmity towards them. Truth be told, we want them only as tourists in Kurdistan. We resent it very much when they come as prison guards and torture our loved ones, teachers who profane that holy profession and make liars of our children, soldiers who act like cruel masters, and governors who rate success not with the services rendered, but Kurdish activists murdered. This is not the way to live, neither for them as our oppressors, nor for us as their slaves. Such a way of life can only bring grief, not joy; war is not the answer love is.
I want to put an end to this tale of abuse, this journey into the dark recesses of the human heart, this wrong exit from the highway of humanity that may cost the people of Kurdistan an untimely death with two final thoughts, one hopeless and the other benign. One hundred years from now, if the Kurds are no longer the natives of the Middle East, I hope the people of goodwill on these shores will dedicate a museum to the Kurdish woman who said, “O God, they have beaten my son into deafness and muteness” to remind the succeeding generations of the cruelty of our times with the hope that perhaps other less desirable peoples such as the Chechens could escape our predicament. The benign thought has to do with the question of an American woman that I met last month in San Francisco, while doing a Q&A for the documentary film, “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds” at the Red Vic Theatre in the neighborhood of Haight & Ashbury. The woman stayed longer and told me that she had lived in Turkey, she loved the Turks, she had never known of the plight of the Kurds, and she wanted to know how she, as an American, could help bring peace between the Kurds and the Turks.
I debated whether I should tell this woman about many God-fearing Americans who visited Germany before the Second World War and wrote in their dairies of the wonders of National Socialism and how much they too loved the Germans. I could have added that, had Nazis stopped believing in their nonsense, “Today it is Germany, Tomorrow all the world”, we might have remained ignorant of the “Final Solution” inside the borders of Germany, even today. Just because Turkey has not attacked its neighbors does not mean it can be absolved from its ongoing crime of spiritual and cultural genocide against the Kurds. Such brutal honesty might make a cynic out of this woman, I surmised, and God knows we have enough of them; instead, I chose to cultivate of her as a friend of the Kurds and Kurdistan.
So, to begin with, staring at this peaceful woman, with a heart of gold, in a rundown part of a city that carried the namesake of one the greatest saints of Christianity, Saint Francis of Asisi, was rather eerie to be honest with you. You don’t come across these messengers of God on earth that often, and when you do, there is nothing wrong with bowing before them. I regret that I did not, other people’s reaction got in the way rather than my own humility, but I told her to go back to Turkey. I said the Turkish-Kurdish war cost the lives of close to 40,000 people. 5,555 of these were Turks, the rest were Kurdish fighters and civilians. On both sides, the poorest and the most vulnerable in the society died for an aberration called the glorification of one race over the other. What we could not do for them, perhaps you could do for us, I said. Go find a Turkish soldier who left an orphan behind. Adopt him. Then do the same for a Kurdish fighter. Raise them both under one roof. Give them equal love, equal respect, and equal education both in the legal Turkish and the forbidden Kurdish languages and their new mother’s tongue, English. Maybe then these adopted children could show us the road back to the highway of humanity, that elusive path to freedom and its fleeting offspring peace. We talked more but I want to hear your questions. Who knows we may even have one of her cousins sitting here in the audience with us tonight.