Is Nonviolent Resistance an Option for the Kurds?
Go see “Min Dit”
December 18, 2011
(A slightly older version of this piece also appeared on Rudaw.net earlier today, December 18, 2011.)
If you want to see a good Kurdish film that tries to define the complicated Kurdish Question in 102 minutes, go see “Min Dit”. The late Evrim Alatas, a journalist covering the killing fields of Kurdistan, is credited with its story. The Filmmaker, Miraz Bezar, has adapted it to the screen. At first sight, violence seems to be its primary theme. The children are its collateral damage. A Kurdish folktale about a wolf — played on a tape recorder — is in the background as a bedtime story. In the tale itself, the wolf attacks the livestock. The villagers put on their guns and get on their horses to kill the beast. A village elder intervenes: he wants to handle the predator himself. His request is granted. He approaches the animal carefully and offers it meat. As the wolf devours the offering, it turns gentle. The old man takes advantage of the opportunity and ties a bell around its neck. It is the beginning of the end for the wolf. No longer can it engage in sneak attacks on the unsuspecting livestock of the villagers. The children, quick learners, take the tale’s message to heart. They use it to expose the Turkish thugs who have murdered their parents. Watching the film, I had a cathartic moment. I had gone through a similar feeling when the Kurds had mounted the statue of Saddam Hussein on April 12, 2003 in Kirkuk. I am looking forward to a replay of the same in Turkish Kurdistan when the mounting is done to Ataturk. Lukman Ahmad, the struggling Kurdish artist in Northern Virginia, is right: “Art is stronger than politics.” “Min Dit” is a good proof of it.
Not everybody was on board, at the Washington, DC showing of the film, with the central theme of the movie: nonviolent resistance as a tactic. During the Q&A session with the director, a viewer expressed something to the effect, “We,” meaning the Kurds, “would be foolish to turn the other cheek,” a reference to Jesus’ admonition to his disciples in Matthew (5:39): “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” I don’t think we should reject Jesus or his message outright. There has to be a reason for their enduring popularity in our merci-less world. While I am no authority on either, some of my favorite authors speak highly of both: John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. And the message of the film was not about Jesus per se, but one of our own, an old Kurdish man, who, when confronted with an existential threat, didn’t just fold, but fought back, and (read this part slowly and twice) with wisdom, élan and elegance. How many of us know how to fight like that? Really. In the latest Kurdish uprising in Turkish Kurdistan, close to 90 percent of the losses have been our own. A change in tactics will not mean disrespecting the memories of the fallen, as the above referenced viewer thought it might, but only smarting from our losses to take stock of our situation for the good. We have to also admit to a brutal fact: we have lost every battle for freedom in the last two hundred years. Only our staying power has saved us, so far, from the evil designs of our adversaries. A reevaluation of our situation is certainly needed. This film compels you to inch towards that necessary moment.
The film itself begins with an old man selling cigarettes for a living on the streets of Amed, a.k.a., Diyarbakir. You can’t help but wonder why would he sell poison to steal days from the lives of the living. Chances are he is oblivious to what he is doing. Poverty is not conducive to speculative pursuits. Because I come from Amed, the city where “Min Dit” was filmed, and because I know the type, I could easily picture him living a comfortable life in his village tucked away in the mountains of Kurdistan as a farmer or animal herder before his forced displacement. That life was subjected to an earthquake of sort because of the armed struggle of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against the occupation forces of the Turkish government. That resistance and its suppression have created a recurring cycle in Kurdish lands. The youth in the villages join the rebels. The Turkish army retaliates by destroying their settlements. The old and the youngest flee to the larger cities. Hunger, homelessness, fear and a bleak future welcome the uprooted into their new environments. Proud grandfathers end up selling cigarettes to stay alive. Young mothers sell anything – even, sometimes, their bodies — to buy toys, often guns, for their children.
If the scene reminds you some passages from Thomas Hobbes, you are not far off. Life comes close to his famous words: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That is what happens to you if fate sends too many Turks your way. They don’t know how to rule, worse, they think allowing the Kurds to rule themselves will mean the end of the world. They have a prime minister who engages in hypnotics as a matter of policy and talks to the Kurds as if they were retards. In his words, “Sorun var diye inanmayacaksın, sorun yok diye inanacaksın. Sorun var diye inanırsan sorun olur. Sorun yok dersen sorun ortadan kalkar. – which translates as, you have to not believe that there is a [Kurdish] question, you have to believe that there is no [Kurdish] question. If you believe there is a [Kurdish] question there will be a [Kurdish] question. If you say there is no [Kurdish] question there will not be a [Kurdish] question [the italics are mine].” Never mind that some 45 thousand people, mostly Kurds, have died in the most recent and still ongoing Turkish-Kurdish conflict. His arrogance and habitual lies remind one of Fyodor Pavlovitch, a character in The Brothers Karamazov. What Father Zossima tells Mr. Pavlovitch can easily be said of Mr. Erdogan: “The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than any one. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill – he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness.” Genuine vindictiveness… Doesn’t that sum up the policy of Erdogan and his ilk towards the Kurds? What else could explain his army’s use of chemical weapons against 36 Kurdish fighters on October 22, 2011? And we still have some happy-go-lucky Kurds who have tethered their fate to his capriciousness. I feel like giving a copy of The Brothers Karamazov to every one of these Kurds.
After the opening shots of the film, we are introduced to a journalist by the name of Vedat Gun. He covers the killing fields of Kurdistan for a fledgling Kurdish newspaper, Ozgur Gundem. Death is his daily intake as water is ours. He has a wife, Sevda, and they have three children: Dilovan, Firat and Gulistan. It is a tense job in a tense city teeming with soldiers, armored vehicles, tanks, helicopters and fighter planes even though we don’t get to see many of them on the screen, but hear them in the background. The humor is dark; the smiles are bitter and short. Yekbun, Sevda’s sister, is a Kurdish activist. Sevda is worried about her and tells her so. Yekbun shots back: “Don’t worry sis. There are one hundred thousand Turkish soldiers in the city. It is the safest place to be…”
It is the opposite. The soldiers are there to hunt the Kurds. They target the bravest, the brightest, the kindest, and the most politicized – the favorite Kurds of the Turks are the happy-go-lucky ones. A Kurdish guy, Memo, is a fugitive. Yekbun asks her sister if he could stay with them. It is a tough decision, but hospitality is all-important. Sevda talks to her husband. They agree to have him. It is a dangerous arrangement. As Memo moves from house to house, his hosts are discovered. Vedat is put under surveillance. The fact that he is a journalist is an additional “bonus.” Right around that time, Vedat and his family are invited to a wedding in nearby Elih, a.k.a., Batman. He borrows a friend’s car. He and his family have a great time at the celebration. On the way back, they are stopped. The killers, masquerading as Turkish police officers, kill him and his wife in front of their children. It is a hellish scene. I was only partly happy that, at least, Vedat and Sevda’s last day was a festive one. I kept playing their dancing scenes in my mind while watching them die on the screen.
Yekbun, Sevda’s sister, takes charge of the children. As she tries to make arrangements to fly with them to their grandfather in Sweden, the police arrest her. They also get Memo. Both are tortured. Later, their dead bodies are dumped outside of the city as if they were trash. Yekbun missing, the children are all alone. Dilovan, the infant girl, needs care, but Firat and Gulistan, who are seven and ten years old respectively, can’t provide it. A neighbor who has been helpful relocates to Istanbul. Money runs out. House furniture is pawned for emergencies. But when Dilovan gets sick, they can’t afford to buy her medicine. Unable to pay their bills, their water is cut off. The electricity soon follows. Dilovan’s death comes after. On the day of her burial, they are also evicted from their apartment. They wander in the streets like rudderless ships in a hostile sea. It dovetails well with the master plan of the Turks. A shocked and awed Kurdish youth will never challenge the Turkish rule. But what the Turks don’t understand is that Gulistan has internalized the wisdom of the old folktale. A mind has been lit by fire. Understanding beyond her years guides her actions now. It is like as if God has finally decided to pay a visit to Amed. To quote one of Dr. King’s favorite prophets, Amos (5:24): “Let justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It does. A warm feeling takes over your body. At least it did mine.
That it takes the help of a prostitute to deliver justice to the leader of Turkish thugs is one of the more interesting twists of the film. Dilara, a Kurdish hooker, meets the homeless siblings in a city park when they are munching on bread for nourishment. She needs customers and the kids are desperate for an income to stay alive. She asks them if they would distribute her flyers in exchange for some spending money. They accept the proposal. Initially, Dilara reneges on her promise and cheats the kids. But Gulistan runs into Dilara again and they manage to work out a plan to help each other. Dilara can’t afford a pimp to protect her from violent customers, but uses Gulistan as a lookout. Despite the awkwardness of initial encounters, a routine is established. One day, one of the callers turns out to be the killer of Vedat and Sevda. Gulistan recognizes him, but holds her tongue – when the same happens to Firat, in an earlier scene, he freezes and wets himself. In the meantime, we find out that the killer has a son that he adores – he is as old as Firat – and a beautiful wife that adores him.
But this supposedly “family man” is not at peace with himself. The Turkish rulers are not just killing Kurds for fun, but also failing their own flesh and blood, the Turks. Sleep escapes him. Restlessness is his companion. Cigarettes hardly ever leave his lips. You can’t help but ask yourself, was that the reason the old man was selling cigarettes for a living at the beginning of the film? Because he lives the life of a killer and a liar, like his prime minister, again, as Father Zossima of Dostoyevsky would have put it, “[He] loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and himself.” In such a state of mind, he continues to meet with Dilara and one day asks her and Gulistan to accompany him to his apartment. Dilara is hesitant, says, “I don’t go to the homes of my customers,” but Gulistan urges her to do so and she complies. To the killer’s home, they go.
When Gulistan enters the apartment, it is like a Jew entering the headquarters of Gestapo in Berlin or an Iraqi Kurd entering the command center of Mukhābarāt in Baghdad or a Tibetan entering the offices of Ministry of State Security in Beijing or my favorite, the old man of the folktale entering a pet store to buy himself another bell to disarm another wolf – sorry People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), I don’t mean real wolves, but people who have developed wolfish characteristics, like the Turks. While Dilara is servicing the bestiality of the Turkish thug, Gulistan is on a mission of her own. She finds out the true identity of the killer. She steals one of his photos. She grabs his gun and considers avenging the death of her parents, but hears, I think, the old man of the folktale telling her not to go for violence or instant gratification. She doesn’t. Instead, she steals his gun and goes to her brother, Firat, and says, “I saw the killer.” Its shortened version, “Min Dit,” becomes the title of the film.
Firat, in the meantime, has teamed up with a bunch of other homeless kids. They steal for a living. They cultivate their violent streak by killing live frogs with slingshots. With the discovery of the killer, the children decide to expose him like the wolf in the bedtime story. They make a flyer with the information Gulistan has collected from his apartment. They deliver one to his door handing it to his son. They distribute the others from house to house and shop to shop throughout the neighborhood. They take control of the PA system in the local mosque and denounce him as the killer of Vedat and Sevda from the top of a minaret as if God were making the announcement. They use the streets as blackboards and write out his name and crimes in large block letters for all to see. Right away, the neighbors shun him, as does his son. He goes berserk as an involuntary big smile crosses your face. The Turks have a built-in advantage in violence. It behooves us to look for their soft underbelly. Having shepherded livestock in the mountains of Kurdistan as a kid, I can tell you from experience that a whip that weighs ten ounces can corral a bull that weighs 3000 pounds. I will also be the first to note that it is harder to engage in nonviolent resistance than violent retaliation. But we have tried the latter. It is high time we also experimented with the first.
If you are a Kurd or a friend of the Kurds, please consider hosting a showing of this film in your communities to spark a debate about what is happening in Turkish Kurdistan. If your means allow it, consider also inviting the filmmaker, Miraz Bezar, for a Q&A session. He knows how to tickle minds; your audiences will love him. Many thanks to the Kurdish Studies Association (KSA) of Middle East Studies Association (MESA) for doing both at the latter’s annual conference in Washington, DC in early December.