The Statement of Kani Xulam at Rowan University
Glassboro, New Jersey
April 9, 2002
I appeared before you with my eyes, mouth and ears duck taped with a placard hanging from my neck, saying, “I am a Kurd”, to dramatize a point, to show you as well as tell you, that we Kurds do not have any of the rights that you take for granted in this country. I am a fortunate one. I can speak my mind. I feel like repeating the famous word: Eureka, Eureka, Eureka, because I have found my silenced Kurdish voice in the English language 5000 miles away from my homeland, in America. For that, I am grateful to this country.
This fact in itself may not mean much to you. You live in these idyllic settings surrounded by some of the greatest minds ever to walk on the face of the earth impervious to the storms that are raging in far away lands among people you hardly know and care about even less. Up until September 11, you had room to indulge in this blissful apathy. Now, you can’t. The Middle East and America are to face to face now. The warriors there and here have taken the center stage. If you listen to them, we peace activists don’t exist, we would do better to get lost and while lost we should also stop criticizing their policies.
How did we come to this? Where are we going from here? In the blithe words of Rodney King whose beatings by the LAPD officers caused bloody riots in Los Angeles, “why can’t people just get along?” These are hefty questions. I am here to offer you a view from below, a Kurdish perspective. At times, I may invoke the memory of slavery in this country before the Civil War. At other times, I may do the same with the memory of the Jews from the occupied Europe under the Nazi rule. My goal is to share with you some of our pain with the hope that you will help stop the rape of a nation by the brutes of the Middle East in spite of the indifference of policy makers in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow and Beijing.
At this time, it is only appropriate that I also acknowledge the person who’s responsible for my presence here. You have probably gotten tons of e-mails and countless phone calls from him not to miss this event. I can only bow to his dedication. I am reminded of a quote by Mark Twain who says, “It is a worthy thing to fight for one’s freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s.” Thank you Bill for all that you have done for the Kurds and I am sure there are others to whose silenced voices you have given forums here. Please join me in thanking him by a round of applause for his humanity, kindness, and vision.
I hope I did not offend any of you when I alluded to your ignorance of the Middle East. Mainstream media seconds me on this. Just last year, a humorist, a syndicated columnist, in a piece titled, “Summer In the Air”, wrote of the place I call home reminiscent of what you learned in your Sunday school Bible studies about a time when donkeys were the means of transportation in the Middle East. Here is what Dave Barry of Chicago Tribune said of Kurdistan. “If you are one of the millions of Americans planning to travel by air this summer, here is a tip from travel experts: don’t wait until the last minute to make your arrangements! Order your cyanide pills now.”
After lining up the woes of the airline industry’s inadequate services, from outrageously different fares for the same flights to atrocious delays related to weather conditions, he embarked on what he called “‘mechanical’ problems, which occur,” he wrote, “when any of the 43,000 little warning lights on the cockpit instrument panel lights up, thus requiring the pilot to call in one of nationwide total of six airline maintenance personnel, who, after repeated efforts to repair the problem while the passenger cabin reaches the temperature of a pizza oven, will declare that the airplane needs a new part, which must be brought in from the Airline Parts Storage Facility, located in Kurdistan and accessible only by goat.”
Freud says truth is often stated through jokes. I have to assume that Dave Barry speaks not just for himself but also countless other Americans that he addresses through his popular column. To be sure, growing up in Kurdistan, we did own goats, cows, donkeys and mules. I had fun shepherding them. I probably can tell quite a bit to the environmentalists among you about the balance in nature and the harmony among the creatures of the earth. What I can’t do is put meaning to the strife among the children of God living in the Middle East. Here, I have to admit to a culture of violence and intolerance in the area. It is a land rich with passion, poor in reason, poorer still in political leaders making the place a fertile ground for Western companies to dump their sophisticated weapons for imbecile generals to profane and desolate the area for all the residents of the region.
Under the clouds of war, in a land saturated with blood, my people eke out an existence no different than the livestock that farmers own all over the world. Their home, Kurdistan, is parceled out by Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the former Soviet Republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. They are the subjects of these countries forced to assume the identity of their masters. Those that follow the laws of God by asserting their own Kurdish identity do so at the cost of being either killed or poison gassed or hanged as the occasion suits the need. You may find it hard to believe, but I have heard the loved ones of the Kurdish prisoners of conscience confide in me that it is better for their beloved ones to remain behind bars for otherwise they might be hunted down like wild beasts.
An example of this stark reality hit home for me last week, when I ran into a story in an online newspaper about a Kurdish man in Turkey who found himself imprisoned for playing Kurdish music in his commercial minivan. Sulhattin Onen, the story noted, operated a van between Diyarbakir and Cinar, a city and a town respectively, in Turkish Kurdistan. On September 11, 1999, he did another of his rounds. On the way to Cinar, he played his new Kurdish tape. Once he got to the town, a Turkish customer asked him, if he could be taken to the local army base. The driver complied. At the base, instead of receiving a tip, he found himself arrested by the Turkish man who declared himself an officer and accused him of being a terrorist sympathizer for playing Kurdish songs in the course of the trip.
The story was written on April 1, 2002. I looked for signs that perhaps this was an April’s fool day joke, a custom that also enjoys popularity in the Middle East. I was disappointed. Mr. Onen, the reporter noted, was kept in custody for two days. He then appeared before a judge accused of aiding and abetting the cause of separatism. He hired a lawyer to defend himself. In the meantime, he became a marked man. His van was subjected to searches that went on for hours. Passengers missing their appointments eventually abandoned patronizing him. On the verge of bankruptcy, Mr. Onen sold his vehicle. As of this writing, the case against him goes on. On March 26, 2002, the prosecutors asked that he be sentenced to at least 4 1/2 years behind bars. The Judge postponed his decision to April 9, 2002, today.
Some of you may wonder at this time: What do the ordinary Turks think about this? With a heavy heart, I will respond by saying: What did the ordinary Germans think of the Nazi persecution of the Jews? Many condoned it. Some were oblivious to it. Only a few fought it. That is also the case in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The forsaken Kurdish people continue to suffer. The indifference of the world goes on unabated. Our gratitude towards the brave souls out there who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help us get on our feet is boundless. There are others, who reach out to us as friends, but on a closer look betray their own selfishness.
Two examples, from two e-mails that I have recently received in my office, will give you a glimpse of what kind of things pass as help these days.
The first letter came four days ago from a Jewish person who noted, “as a Jew I am utterly sickened by the fact that the proud and noble Kurdish race has to suffer so many thousands of deaths and are unable to have a state of their own like they deserve. Iraq, Iran, and Syria are all terrorist states that need to be weakened and Kurdistan will help. “Turkey”, the writer went on to note, “needs to learn to respect its Kurdish minority and to let them live life as they see fit.”
The second letter came from a Palestinian. He wrote, “Last night, May 22, 2001, a friend and I went to see Mr. McKiernan’s film, [Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends But the Mountains] at the Glasgow Film Theatre in Glasgow, Scotland. I was inspired by your example as you walked up and down the corridors of power, but I was also deeply ashamed by the way my fellow Arabs and I have been complicit, through our silence and evasion, in the terrible suffering of your people.”
After saying that he agrees with the dream that I have for Kurdistan, he added, “I have a few dreams myself, which realists will think foolish. I dream of the day when Kurds have autonomous regions in Iraq and Syria, regions which have representatives not only in the democratic governments of those countries but also cross-border institutions to support each other. I dream of schools teaching in the Kurdish medium and Kurdish language and culture appearing on the stamps, the currency, and the TV in these countries. I hope that we can cause the maximum embarrassment and difficulty to the sick racist sham of a democracy that is Turkey.”
Juxtaposed next to each other, the letters make an amusing reading. The Jewish person cares less for us and more for the state of Israel for he wants the adversaries of Israel, Syria, Iraq and Iran dismembered to make room for the Kurds, but not Turkey, an ally of Israel, where more than 50 % of the Kurds live. The letter of the Palestinian person is a bit more puzzling. At first glance, you get the feeling that he is with you for your rights just as Palestinians are clamoring for theirs. But then, just like the Jewish fellow, he wants what is good for his people, i.e., no dismemberment of Arab states but only limited rights for Kurds and only to embarrass the Turks.
These are supposedly friendly neighbors wishing us well but on their own terms. I will leave it to your imagination what our adversaries have in store for us. But we have given up listening to our adversaries as well as our neighbors. We wish to let them know that we have disenthralled ourselves of their designs on our land and our children. We fight to restore the laws of nature, the right of the Kurdish people, to live free of the yoke of others. Friends of liberty are welcomed into our ranks. Those of tyranny will regret that they ever crossed paths with us. In the frontiers of freedom, we are carving out a place for Kurds and Kurdistan because there lies the happiness of Kurds, their neighbors and humanity.
Thank you for coming and I look forward to your questions.