Kennesaw State University
Center for Conflict Management
International Conference on
Indigenous Conflict Management Strategies
April 20-21, 2012
I join my colleagues in welcoming you to our roundtable discussion on the Kurds and Kurdistan. I also want to thank the Center for Conflict Management (CCM) of Kennesaw State University (KSU) for making the Kurdish struggle part of this conference.
Please allow me to first commend Kennesaw—and your spectacular growth since opening in 1966—practically day before yesterday, the way time flies—with only 1,014 students.
Today, you have more than that in your successful administrative staff alone—some 1,400 plus.
You also have more than twice as many post-graduate students, alone, as your original enrollment—nearly 2,300—and a total enrollment approaching an incredible 25,000.
Along the way, Kennesaw has highly distinguished itself by winning prestigious national championships in baseball, softball, soccer and basketball in NCAA Division II. Please accept my hearty congratulations.
Kennesaw was recognized by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency in 2004 as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education.
Your well-deserved accolades, in such a short time, just keep mushrooming as Kennesaw has impressively flourished into the powerful institution it truly is.
I want to talk about how your tremendous power can be channeled into a productive use to benefit all mankind—because power alone, without a useful harness, is not at all productive…. in fact useless.
A racehorse, running wildly in an open field, produces nothing—but in the hands of a good jockey, at the Kentucky Derby, it can win millions, and perhaps even the much-sought-after Triple Crown.
A powerful river, merely running through a gorge, does no one any good—but when channeled through large turbines, it produces enough electricity to enrich the lives of millions of people.
Power, which is at the heart of many world conflicts, like water, possesses certain characteristics that are immutable all over the globe.
What may be local, traditional or indigenous is also transnational, modern and universal. The Kurdish Question touches on many of these cited classifications, and remains stuck in a quagmire.
I want to tell you a few stories from complicated past of the Kurds by way of opening our discussion for a meaningful debate. Maybe, in the give-and-take that follows our presentations, we will reach a point of clarity for a solution to the Kurdish Question.
I say this by way asking you to be your brother’s keeper, as it were. It will lead to a gentler and kinder world for all the children of God.
May we always remember the powerful warning that Marley’s Ghost strikingly gave to Scrouge: “Mankind was my business.”
Yes, mankind is truly our business—all of us.
Even the lowly, often forgotten, continually persecuted Kurds.
But: Before revealing my Kurdish tales, let’s take a brief detour through your Great State of Georgia—two detours, in fact—one real, one fabricated.
You can judge.
In 1732, King George the Second of England granted James Edward Oglethorpe a charter to establish a colony in the New World. The bequeathed land became what is now your Great State of Georgia.
Oglethorpe got the idea, while in the British Parliament, campaigning for improved conditions in English debtor prisons. Back then, if you didn’t pay your debts, you could be sent to prison—and many were.
Eventually, Oglethorpe argued for release of prisoners, to be sent to his new colony of Georgia. South Carolina welcomed the plan for a new colony, because they desired a buffer settlement between them and the Spanish in what is now Florida.
Oglethorpe persuaded the Crown that shipping poor prisoners to Georgia would rid England of its undesirable elements. In reality, however, that was just to sweeten the idea, and get things going.
What Oglethorpe really wanted for his new colony were the country’s “worthy poor,” such as English tradesmen and artisans, plus skilled Scottish workers with a pioneering spirit, to make his colony prosper.
Oglethorpe originally banned slavery, desiring a system of “agrarian equality.” But politics forced that to change. Slavery was soon in full swing throughout Georgia, and the colony prospered with abundant crops of corn, rice, silk and wine.
Georgia exported over 1,000 bushels of corn to England in its first year of 1732. Only three years later, Queen Caroline of England wore a dress made of imported Georgia silk to celebrate her 52nd birthday.
Today, Georgia is well known as “The Peach State.”
Now, those are all actual historical Georgia facts I’ve cited.
But let’s look at that “second” Georgia detour I mentioned—to illustrate my main point today—but this time without historical fact.
I have no idea whether Oglethorpe actually planted any peaches in what is now “The Peach State.”
But, for the sake of my story, let’s assume that he did, and that peaches were in high demand—especially for their brandy, fetching a handsome profit in the colonies as well as the mother country.
Again, in our fictional story, think of Mr. Oglethorpe as a hard taskmaster, miser, shrewd in business, and ambitious like Horatio Alger. After clearing his fields of trees, he planted orchards all over his domain.
As he got ready for the maiden crop, he worried about the yield of his harvesting technique—so, let’s suppose that he invented a muzzle to prevent his field slaves from eating his peaches.
In time, when his produce was ripe, it was collected, washed, peeled, sliced, mixed with sugar and stored and distilled as brandy for the markets. Homes and watering holes on both sides of the Atlantic couldn’t get enough of it.
The investment in the spirits had done well.
Mr. Oglethorpe was happy. And so was the king.
A taxable income had been created from a land that had previously been differently utilized. Happier still were his majesty’s subjects, who drank away their sorrows, together with their alcohol, and remained loyal to the mother country for another 44 years.
Please remember, in our story, that the thousands of slaves who worked in the orchards for Mr. Oglethorpe never got a chance to eat any peaches and were not allowed to taste their fine brandy.
But they knew—and knew all too agonizingly well—about the back-breaking labor required in planting those saplings, fertilizing their soil, pruning the trees, collecting the crop when it was ripe and turning it into distilled brandy for the profit of their master.
Now, you can probably guess where I’m going…without my saying it.
Please allow me to make a few observations on the current state of Ph.D programs in the world.
From Oxford to Yale, from Tokyo to Moscow, thousands of students each year are granted Ph.D’s in humanities. Some, I’m sorry to say—like the actual slaves of the real world today, and in my fictional tale—are not fully aware of the wider importance of their work.
If their Ph.D’s are on the Kurds, they know how to do the field work, learn the language of our people, count us for their quantitative analysis, distinguish the role of women in our society, speak of our diets, and don our clothes for the loved ones back home as mementos.
But—and I hate to be utterly blunt—I doubt if they ever truly, deep-down think about a key missing ingredient in the lives of Kurds.
And that is this: Freedom!
The profound lack of freedom in the tortured lives of the tyrannized Kurds!
We are often like those imaginary workers picking peaches in Oglethorpe’s Georgia that I spoke about.
But our famine of freedom is not imaginary.
It is real!
All too real—and real all the time!
It has been said that people don’t really appreciate their freedom until they lose it.
Think for a moment, if you can, what it would be like to never have had freedom at all!
That’s what the life of a Kurd is like!
I know I am in a room with many Ph.D people—and all of you are far more intelligent than I am.
So I apologize in advance if my frank comments exceed the kind hospitality you have graciously shown me.
I just want to humbly encourage you to gather more than routine and otherwise dull facts about Kurds, such as numbers, location, food and clothing.
I urge you—indeed entreat you, like the slaves we Kurds are in our terrorized home countries—to look deeper than mere exterior facts when you examine our crushed lives.
Please breathe some living, deeply-yearning-to-breathe-free flesh and blood spirit into that lifeless Kurdish picture.
Please examine carefully that evil whip griped in the brutal hands of our cruel masters—then caringly flinch as that vicious lash spitefully slashes across the bruised and bleeding backs of heartbroken Kurds.
Abraham Lincoln put it well: “Few people can feel the lash on another man’s back.”
I hope you can.
I hope you can feel the all-too-real lash on the bloody backs of Kurds.
I encourage you to try and visualize the enslaved Kurds today being able to eat the peaches and sip the brandy that was denied the imaginary colonists I mentioned in early Georgia—those muzzled as they cultivated and harvested the peaches of their masters.
My peach story was not real—just my way of vividly illustrating man’s unquenchable thirst for freedom throughout the world.
Despite my fictitious story, however, the lack of freedom for Kurds is very real—and is continually an everyday, nightmarish terror!
It’s hard for you to imagine it in America, with your First-Amendment free-speech rights. But even speaking—or especially writing—about the Kurdish language or lifestyle can be fatal over there.
Turkish jails are jam-packed with those who dared to speak openly of Kurds—including the well-known author Ismail Besikci, who was sentenced to more than 100 years for simply writing about Kurds. He was released, fortunately, after only 17 years, due to international pressure. Many more, however, still languish in sordid prisons.
Turkey has left a clear warning what would happen to people who dared treat Kurds as human beings, due any sort of rights. Many have rotted in jail, or suffered torture and death at the ruthless hands of other “modern” Middle Eastern states like Iraq, Syria and Iran.
I was denied my citizenship—in effect branded a traitor—because the elite ruling class in Ankara, in their infinite wisdom, thinks I have committed a sin to forego my compulsory Turkish citizenship and accept my Kurdish identity as God had ordained it—and I gladly accept as a proud badge of honor.
Speaking of what God has ordained, please allow me to borrow from one of your most famous Americans, who spoke so eloquently on that subject.
It may seem trite to some of you—because you take it for granted as part of your wonderful heritage of freedom.
Unfortunately, we freedom-starved Kurds don’t enjoy that luxury.
So we liberty-craving Kurds still cling tightly to Thomas Jefferson’s stirring words in your magnificent Declaration of Independence: his “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.”
We oppressed Kurds firmly believe, as your Jefferson forcefully said, that these “equal” men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and that among these are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit and happiness.”
Unfortunately, Kurds have no real life, no real liberty, and no real right to pursue happiness as Americans do.
Jefferson said these grand rights came from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Sadly, these God-given rights are cruelly denied to Kurds by their master tyrants in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
In those places, things Kurdish remain toxic—but the countries that enforce these laws against the Kurds enjoy privileges of a world body called the United Nations as members. It is, alas, a biased bundle of hypocritical contradictions, but that is another topic for another day.
Now, I want switch from freedom to food—as I dangle a Kurdish sandwich before your eyes.
It is of a traditional kind, made of two slices of bread, one black and the other white. Since I am a vegetarian, you are not going to get meat as a choice for the toppings–our Kurdish goats or sheep have served our invaders without a respite, but on my watch they are getting a break.
Their dairy products are on the menu, though. So cheese is an option. Sautéed eggplants are another. And you also get fried onions.
Black bread is courtesy of Malcolm X. As you may know from your reading of the black revolutionary, he liked his things fresh, plain and organic. Your taste buds may not be titillated by his fare, but your brain cells will never forget the experience.
Here is one serving of his incisive mind that has stayed with me ever since I came across it: “If you are not careful,” said Malcolm X, “the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
This is not just a practice in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but also a policy. Hitler’s Germany used to openly say: “Germany free of Jews.”
One of the best-selling Turkish newspapers, Hurriyet, which incidentally means freedom, isn’t shy to proclaim, every day, on its front page, “Turkey belong to the Turks!”
Now let’s put some cheese on that bread, and it comes from another American, Christiane Bird, who in 2002 visited Kurdistan and wrote a book titled, A Thousand Sighs, A thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan. It is a light read, but has its profound moments as well.
My story from its pages is about a girl and her beloved, a Turkish boy. She recounts the tale this way: “There was a boy I liked very much and finally one day I told him I was a Kurd. But he didn’t believe me. He said, ‘don’t talk about yourself this way! It’s like swearing! Kurds are ugly and stupid. You are too beautiful and smart to be Kurd’.”
Asking that Turkish boy to describe a good Kurd is like asking a Taliban to let girls go to school. He would not do it. The present Turkish ruling faction and many of its offspring, I’m sorry to say, is too bigoted to see the humanity of the Kurds.
The story of sautéed eggplants I mentioned is the story of a Kurdish woman who was condemned to be machine-gunned on the border of Iraq with Saudi Arabia. Thousands like her had met violent deaths during Saddam Hussein’s campaign of extermination against the Kurds in 1980s.
Some were taken to the border for an elaborate ritual that included being targeted by machine guns at sunset while blindfolded. This particular woman, somehow, miraculously, survived. Not knowing where she was, she ran away from her killers and threw herself on the mercy of the first stranger that crossed her path. He was a Saudi man —she was in Saudi Arabia. Eventually, she would marry him.
Years later, her husband approached a Kurdish man in Mecca and invited him to his house for some tea. In the course of the get together, the Kurdish woman told the Kurdish man her story of abduction and the subsequent marriage with her husband. When he reported the incident in Iraqi Kurdistan, it became front-page news.
On May 4, 2004, it showed up on the pages of St. Petersburg Times in Florida, as well.
Fried onions are the last topping that I am going to serve you today. They mean to address the subject of music, as it remains problematic in the Turkish misruled Kurdistan.
Mihemedo is the name of a Kurdish song. It came into existence in 1915. A Kurdish soldier had fallen in the battle of Gallipoli to stop the Allies from taking over Istanbul. His betrothed was devastated. She mourned him and composed a song.
For ten years, the song had a normal life, becoming popular throughout Kurdistan through the oral culture of the Kurds.
But in 1925, it was banned together with the Kurdish language. Ataturk, the father of Turks, developed a severe reaction to anything that had the word Kurd in it. His children followed suit.
That respect for the prejudices of the old man is still the law of the land in Turkey. Freeing the Turks from their racism and intolerance has become the badge of honor for successive generations of the Kurds.
We cannot declare a victory party yet, of course. But our aspirations remain high, and we are preparing for it with every passing day and night.
I want to now cover this concoction of cheese, eggplants, and onions with a slice of white bread. It comes from the Greek bard, Homer, the blind man who had something that most people with both of their eyes would die to have: Wisdom.
In one of his observations, and I am now quoting it from memory, courtesy of my education at the University of California Santa Barbara, he says the following: “When a people lose their freedom, male members of that society lose half of their manhood.”
I know it is hard to tell a half-man from a full-man, especially when they are physically intact, but perhaps we should listen to the wise old bard carefully. He didn’t have a Ph.D, but his enduring wisdom has undyingly transcended the approximately 3,000 years since his birth.
The brandy came to you courtesy of enforced labor that had the sanctity of the law for centuries. The Kurdish fare is a newer phenomenon and may take decades to make it legal or to untie it for the good of the oppressed as well as oppressor.
People of good will know that America is a better place for delegating slavery to its past. That was not the case when thousand were willing to die for its preservation.
The same arguments are passionately argued and on display between the Kurds and their adversaries. As thing stand, the farsighted are few and far in-between. To quote Yeats, “… the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Since the theme of this conference is to explore the prospects of indigenous solutions, I will end on a slightly positive note. In Turkey, where half of the Kurdish population of the Middle East lives, about 20 million, a Muslim, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now runs its government.
Although Turkish ruling circles remain opposed to resolving the Kurdish Question, there are slight cracks in their armor, so to speak.
On January 1, 2009, the Turkish government allowed broadcasting in Kurdish based on a law that was passed to ease Turkey’s entry into the European Union. That 2002 law states that local languages other than Turkish can now be taught in private settings.
It’s a tiny step—and honesty compels me to make you privy to it.
We Kurds are not allowed to make use of this law that now defines us as a people who speak a language that is not Turkish, but the Turkish government has begun to test it, as it were. Although the so-called Kurdish television starts with the Turkish National Anthem and says things that make this activist wince, it has also adopted Mihemedo, the banned Kurdish song, as its theme song.
I suspect somebody whispered into the prime minister’s ear, and told him the song’s origin—how a Kurdish man nobly laid down his life for the freedom of the Turks. Those Kurds willing to lay down their lives for the independence of the Turks are now, finally, honored in Turkey.
But if you want to die for the equally-precious Kurdish freedom, you are branded a terrorist. Flashing the sunshine of freedom to the Turks, Persians and Arabs has not been easy. I hope you will help us light a candle—rather than curse the darkness—not just for our shared humanity, but for all mankind, as Marley’s rousing ghost told us.
Let me leave you with these inspiring words from Thomas Jefferson: “I have never been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others…No man has a right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another.”
Like Mr. Jefferson: “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Thank you for your kind attention—and may God always bless America’s great and wonderful freedoms and one day make them the heritage of the Kurds and Kurdistan as well.
(This statement originally was a set of talking points. After the conference, I was asked to provide an expanded written version. I did, which is what you just read.)