The Statement of Kani Xulam
The Sixth Annual International Week Lecture
James Madison University
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
I am extremely pleased to find myself associated with your “Picture This: Envision Yourself in a Connected World” annual International Week celebration here at James Madison University. I am touched that you have made room in it for the ordeal of the Kurds and Kurdistan, one of the most wronged and shunned peoples on the face of the earth. Musing about what I should share with you tonight, by way of presenting a people with a forbidden tongue and a land with a fallen flag, I thought of what the honorary patron of this university, a founding father of these United States, and one of the authors of Federalist Papers, would have thought of this talk, coming as it does, at a time, when the country he helped put together, and led as its fourth president, now controls a part of my homeland, southern Kurdistan, but people in the know, unashamedly, call it northern Iraq. The Virginian who often spoke of the supremacy of law over brute force and ended up declaring war on Great Britain on the issue of neutrality rights, I have no doubts, if my scanty reading, of his life and times, is correct, would have felt proud of you, his children, today. I said proud, because, you who thread on his footsteps continue to display his revolutionary spirit and uphold his legacy by honoring the right that is weak, for example, the Kurds and Kurdistan, rather than the strong that is wrong, for example, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and their well wishers in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing. Did I say well-wishers? What do you call someone who wishes someone else well and that other person is engaged in an act of genocide? Should I say it out loud? Is this hall big enough to accommodate the pronouncement of such a toxic, foul and profane word? But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here. A guest, I should continue with my acknowledgements, first. I am grateful of your kind invitation and cognizant of its meaning both for my people and myself in Kurdistan and abroad.
Let me at this time also note my appreciation for two individuals who are well known to many of you on this campus. One runs your Center for Multicultural and International Student Services and the other is one of its distinguished staffs. Three months ago, I had no idea such great souls lived in this city, and six hours ago, I had the pleasure of meeting both of them as my hosts. I have been amazed with their attention to detail and honored to consider them my associates in making this world a better place for all. Interacting with them and thinking about what led them to invite me here to this podium, I am reminded of a quote by Tacitus, who might as well have thought of this convergence when he said, “Those who attend mere trifles do not disguise their responsibilities for important affairs.” These Virginians, by reaching out to the stateless Kurds, may have displayed something innate to their nature, but in so doing have also demonstrated the nobility of their souls. This community, this state and this nation are a better place because of their dedication to causes larger than themselves. You know these bright lights of our dim world as J. Stacy Edwards and Felix Wang. I want them to stand up, and I ask you to join me in giving them a worthy and hearty round of applause.
I am a Kurd from Kurdistan. There are as many as thirty to forty million of us in this world. Our land is as large as France or the state of Texas. We are the children of the Middle East and yet the modern Middle East wants nothing to do with us. The culture of intolerance and violence has taken root in the birthplace of western writing and religions and the upshot is a blood-curling monstrosity that threatens the very existence of the Kurds. You may find it hard to believe, but in the land of our fathers, we are forced to speak someone else’s language, and for the preservation of the Kurdish one, our children attend schools in places like Stockholm, Berlin, Paris and Washington, DC. Subjugated by our immediate neighbors, disdained by a cruel and indifferent world — the moon is neither livable nor accessible, otherwise, we would leave this rotten world behind like Virgil’s Aenied for a new homeland beyond its reach — we are branded as Turks, Arabs or the Persians at birth, or sometimes denied even that, as is the case of the paperless Kurds, in places like Syria. What will come of all this? How long will this Godless usurpation of our rights continue? Will we ever see the day when it will be all right to be just a plain unmolested Kurd? How about a Kurd from Kurdistan, alone, apart, respected and accepted into the United Nations? So far, our friendship with the barrel of a gun has taken us nowhere that we could call home. The ink of our pens, to be sure, has shed some light on our sorry state, but not enough to topple the tyrants who oppress us and whose happiness, it often looks like, rests, solely, on how to make life miserable for the Kurds.
I come before you as a student of history and subscribe to the proposition that those who can look into the darkest recesses of our past can also view the farthest vistas of our future. I want to share with you a couple of stories of our fallen state, and ask for your understanding, when I couple them with some of my own reflections on the future of the Kurds. Ideally, I would like to hold your hand and take you on a tour of my homeland, but I have thought of it over, and have decided to ask you for a favor, to join me for a detour, through Paris, France. In doing so, I want to better prepare you for the ultimate trip to Kurdistan, painful, to be sure, but instructive, nevertheless, for you, as children of a free land, for me, as an exile, who has been deprived of the sights of his boyhood. In the French capital, I will take you into a printing shop circa 1735 on Rue Saint-Severin. In the Kurdish one, Amed, which happens to be my hometown, I will take you into a Turkish Military Prison, and what happened in that forsaken place, in the afternoon of September 24, 1996, seven years ago, tomorrow. The first event, some historians have said, had all the elements of the coming French Revolution written all over it, which changed the face of Europe. The second one, no one has bothered to look into it, but I surmise, has the potential of igniting a Kurdish revolution, in due time, which will change the face of the Middle East.
The nights are short. The stopover in Paris will take some time. The Kurds and Kurdistan, I know — as a native son — are awaiting your visit with impatience and anticipation. I think we’d better hurry up, for I want to make sure you see both places — two beautiful cities on two ancient rivers. And then, I would love to hear your questions and perhaps even suggestions as to how, we too, the terrorized and helpless children of Kurdistan, could step into the realm called liberty with order, peace with justice.
16 years ago, I was a student like you and was blessed with some wonderful professors of humanities who did everything in their power to bring to life the past so that we could walk safely into the future. One of them, one day, told us that if we wanted to understand other cultures, it was not enough for us to understand its jokes, jests, or stories that were easily decipherable, but that we had to focus on things that were opaque and difficult to grasp. When you have understood the sources of laughter for others, but of riddles to you at first, then, and only then, you can hang your hat and say that, I am proficient in that culture. To drive home his point, he had us read, what was considered to be a funny story, “Workers Revolt”, from Paris, France, in Robert Darnton’s book, titled, The Great Cat Massacre.
I have never overcome that experience. As any of you, who have had the good fortune of traveling abroad, or the privilege of befriending strangers at home, can tell, in the absence of forewarning, cultural exchanges are riddled with moments of awkwardness that can bring all kinds of conversations to grinding halts. So, when the good professor warned us in advance about the perhaps-not-a-very-funny story — I was part of a study group, the pressure of forcing ourselves to laugh, for example, was at least, off our mind, and the fear that we might be considered a blockhead, if we did not laugh, also no longer applied. Primed as such, our interest for the story was actually heightened, to look for something amusing, to be sure, but if we didn’t find it, that was all right, as well.
The story that we read was anything but funny, it could actually qualify, I remember telling my friends then, as a memorable example of a literary oxymoronic sampling. It was about an apprentice in a printing shop in Paris. What passed, as an example of the funniest thing in the boy’s life, was rather lucid, to be sure. The part that was not so, was, why was it a source of laughter, not once, but many times, especially when Leveille, another apprentice, pantomimed it. Reading it, I was sickened. Seeing it would have constituted watching a crime unfold in front of your eyes unhampered. Cats were viewed as deadly foes. War was declared on them with the express purpose of extirpating them. Let’s listen in to historian Darnton, the person who introduced the story to the American audiences, for the first time.
“The funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent, according to a worker who witnessed it, was a riotous massacre of cats. The worker, Nicolas Contat, told the story in an account of his apprenticeship in the shop, rue Saint-Severin, Paris, during the late 1730s. Life as an apprentice was hard, he explained. There were two of them: Jerome, the somewhat fictionalized version of Contat himself, and Leveille. They slept in a filthy, freezing room, rose before dawn, ran errands all day while dodging insults from the journeymen and abuse from the master, and received nothing but slops to eat. They found the food especially galling. Instead of dining at the master’s table, they had to eat scraps from his plate in the kitchen. Worse still, the cook secretly sold the leftovers and gave the boys cat food — old, rotten bits of meat that they could not stomach and so passed on to the cats, who refused it.
This last injustice brought Contat to the theme of cats. They occupied a special place in his narrative and in the household of the rue Saint-Severin. The master’s wife adored them, especially la grise (the gray), her favorite. A passion for cats seemed to have swept through printing trade, at least at the level of the masters, or bourgeois as the workers called them. One bourgeois kept twenty-five cats. He had their portraits painted and fed them on roast fowl. Meanwhile, the apprentices were trying to cope with a profusion of alley cats who also thrived in the printing district and made the boys’ lives miserable. The cats howled all night on the roof over the apprentices’ dingy bedroom, making impossible to get a full night’s sleep. As Jerome and Leveille had to stagger out of bed at four or five in the morning to open the gate for the earliest arrivals and the journeymen, they began the day in a state of exhaustion while the bourgeois slept late. The master did not even work with the men, just as he did not eat with them. He let the foreman run the shop and rarely appeared in it, except to vent his violent temper, usually at the expense of the apprentices.
One night the boys resolved to right this inequitable state of affairs. Leveille, who had an extraordinary talent for mimicry, crawled along the roof until he reached a section near master’s bedroom, and then he took to howling and meowing so horribly that the bourgeois and his wife did not sleep a wink. After several nights of treatment, they decided they were being bewitched. But instead of calling the cure — the master was exceptionally devout and the mistress exceptionally attached to her confessor — they commanded the apprentices to get rid of the cats. The mistress gave the order, enjoining the boys above all to avoid frightening her grise.
Gleefully Jerome and Leveille set to work, aided by the journeymen. Armed with broom handles, bars of the press, and other tools of their trade, they went after every cat they could find, beginning with la grise. Leveille smashed its spine with an iron bar and Jerome finished it off. Then they stashed it in a gutter while the journeymen drove the other cats across the rooftops, bludgeoning everyone within their reach and trapping those who tried to escape in strategically placed sacks. They dumped sack loads of half-dead cats in the courtyard. Then the entire workshop gathered round and staged a mock trial, complete with guards, a confessor, and a public executioner. After pronouncing the animals guilty and administering the last rites, they strung them up on an improvised gallows. Rousing by gales of laughter, the mistress arrived. She let out a shriek as soon as she saw a bloody cat dangling from the noose. Then she realized that it might be la grise. Certainly not, the men assured her: they had too much respect for the house to do such a thing. At this point the master appeared. He flew into a rage at the general stoppage of work, though his wife tried to explain that they were threatened by a more serious kind of insubordination. Then master and mistress withdrew, leaving the men delirious with “joy”, “disorder”, and “laughter”.”
This apparently was a specimen of what was funny in Paris, France around 1730s. I will spare you of what was considered cruel and unusual punishment. The fate that the cats of Paris could not avoid, soon, a mere 50 years later, visited the owner of the printing shop and his class in one of the bloodiest revolutions in the history of modern Europe. The indiscriminate slaughter of haphazard popular tribunals sent shock waves around the world and divided even the elites in this country about the efficacy of a revolution as a means for the advancement of the society. And the debate has not subsided at all, as Dr. Henry Kissinger on a trip to China discovered. After learning that his host, Premier Chou En-Lai, was a student of French History, the American diplomat asked him, what he thought of the French Revolution. The premier, Dr. Kissinger writes, responded by saying, “It is too early to tell.” The exchange took place in 1972. 183 years separated the Chinese leader from the events in Paris. And yet, he had a point. We disregard it at our own peril.
A mere ten years after the famous exchange between the American diplomat and the Chinese leader, on July 14, 1982, 21 years ago last summer, six Kurdish political prisoners began a hunger strike in Amed not only to honor the Bastille Day, the birthday of the French Revolution, but also set the stage to free a people from the claws of despotism and liberate a land from the darkness of the Middle Ages. Hayri Durmus, Kemal Pir, Ali Cicek and Akif Yilmaz met death — their loved ones outside, unlike the French in Paris, could not storm the prison in their midst — and the event has given birth to an aftershock that, in spite of all the efforts of our adversaries, refuses to go away. These efforts have been cruel and unusual. A dying system has always committed its worst atrocities before its inexorable path into stupor and extinction. What follows is an example of it.
September 24, 1996 is a day of mourning for the Kurds, one of numbing loss for the advocates of freedom, and of monstrous abomination for the Turkish government that authored the deed. It is destined to live in the memory of posterity for as long as there are Kurds in this world. On that blackest day, 68 heavily armed Turkish police officers and soldiers attacked 34 unarmed Kurdish inmates in the Turkish Military Prison of Amed. Seven fell on the spot. Another three died in the hospital. 24 were injured with massive lacerations in their heads. This is the same prison where six Kurdish inmates had started their hunger strike to coincide with the birth of the French Revolution. It is also the place where four Kurds set themselves on fire on May 17, 1982, an event that has entered the Kurdish national consciousness as the “Night of the Four”. Scores of other Kurds have met their ends behind its walls. And the saddest and the strangest thing about it all, that it remains standing, erect and intact, not as a museum, not yet, but as a functioning Auschwitz, continuing with its nefarious work of devouring the bravest, the most honest and the most honorable children of Kurdistan.
Three days after the event, on September 27, 1996, an attorney, Sinan Tanrikulu, working for Amed’s Human Rights Association, visited the survivors of the massacre and filed the following report for their loved ones as well as an indifferent world that did not even notice the slaughter. Like Robert Darnton’s account of the “Workers Revolt”, it is filled to the brim with atrocities. I ask that you give me your undivided attention to hear and reflect on the evil that struck the Kurds. You yourselves were then, probably, in Junior High and had no clue such brutality could exist in this world. You will soon graduate from this university, still, I am afraid, unaware of the human sufferings that, if not addressed on time and with care, can plunge the humanity into its second fall from grace, the darkness and despotism of the Middle Ages. Revisiting the issue for the purposes of this lecture, I was reminded of Pascal who once lamented that the more he dealt with people, the more he loved his dog. Let’s listen to Mr. Tanrikulu, the first outsider, who spoke with the survivors of the massacre.
“On September 24, 1996, the inmates of dormitories number 18 and 29 were scheduled to visit their loved ones. The inmates were broken into groups and the first one went about its business without an incident. The second group was called and we were about 30 prisoners. As we were heading toward the visiting room, two of our friends, in the hallway, stopped in front of the bars of dormitory number 35 and asked for some washbowls. It was about 11:00 am. The guards ordered us not to talk to the inmates of dormitory number 35. Up until then no such restrictions had existed. The chief guard, Ahmet Fethi Onat, walked on us and called us, “the children of prostitutes, dishonest creatures, lowly ones!” A few of our friends approached him and urged him to be respectful of our rights. … The chief guard would hear none of it. He then told us, he would show us [the price of insubordination], locked us in the hallway and left the scene. …
We were kept in the hallway till 3:00 pm. No one told us anything. Right around that time, a group of police officers approached us from one end of the hallway and another group of soldiers the other. Some of the soldiers had beards, connoting their status as members of the Special Teams.
One of the military officers came closer and ordered us to handover the “trouble makers”. One of us stepped forward and told the officer, “Fine, we will have them step forward, but we don’t want an incident.” In spite of our desire to cooperate, the chief guard and his assistants, Mr. Mahmut Caca and Mr. Aziz Gurer continued to taunt us.
Then, all at once, the doors opened and we were attacked from both ends of the hallway by soldiers as well as police officers shouting, Allah, Allah, Allah. We formed a human shield and congregated in front of dormitory number 35. We could not defend ourselves and only received their merciless blows. Then, they pulled us, one at a time, from the group and beat us into unconsciousness. They used batons, iron sticks, and baseball bats with protruding sharp nails. At the same time, some of the military officers urged us to become informers. When no one responded, they asked the guards to point out the troublemakers. These individuals received blows to their heads and necks. And when they were down, the beating continued with kicks, again to their heads.
Ahmet Celik was beaten so badly that his brains were all over the floor. He died on the spot.
The chief guard pointed a finger at Ridvan Bulut. A military officer with gray hair and glasses beat him to death.
The guards pointed at Cemal Cam, Iskan Osal and Mehmet Aslan and the soldiers made sure they too met a violent end.”
This is how the inmates saw the situation from the receiving end of the blows. Other investigations that have followed since corroborate their account, with the exception of one inmate whom they thought that had died, but was later saved in the hospital. For those of you who are brave and unafraid of gore, I have brought photographic evidence from the morgue, if you would care to see such a thing, of what befell the Kurds on that fateful afternoon. The pictures, making up for the inadequacy of my tongue, will one day provide Kurdish novelists, playwrights, poets and painters with a treasure trove of invaluable material.
Comparing the lot of cats in Paris with those of the Kurds in Amed, and making exceptions for the different times as well as cultures, I don’t know about you, but I sure feel happy for the present feline population of the French capital since the public mind of France has softened, as it has ripened, in the last 268 years. If, God forbid, a similar massacre of the cats were to take place in the streets of Paris today, the cat lovers, the animal rights activists, and some Turks, a few perhaps even from that group of 68 officers and soldiers that so callously murdered the Kurds, would take to the streets and lodge their protests in front of the French Embassies all over the world. But when disarmed Kurdish prisoners are beaten to death in Amed, and their cousins are gassed in Halapja, and their leaders are gunned down in the streets of Vienna and Berlin or kidnapped from Nairobi, Kenya, nothing of the sort happens. Why is that?
The wiser and kinder peoples of the world must awaken from their deep sleep not only to stop the Turks, the Persians and the Arabs from their genocidal campaigns of exterminating the Kurds, but also urge the United States of America, the new power broker in Baghdad, to respect and accept the sacred and inalienable right of Kurdish people, like all the other peoples of the world, to self-determination in southern Kurdistan, and help protect it from the predatory nationalisms of Turkey, Syria and Iran. That is what the Providence and humanity demands and it is what we must ask of President Bush to do. You, the apprentices of today, who should feel grateful that your lot has fallen to safer places and happier times, must feel obligated, if you have beating hearts and wish to avoid future 9/11s, to study and confront despotism, hatred, intolerance, and violence with the force of truth, love, and yes, education, and also light, and the last not just to brighten the darkness of the night, which is important, but that of the heart, which is where our common humanity can find its only safe refuge.
Speaking of finding a safe refuge for our battered humanity on earth and your share in it as to how it could be achieved, I have one request to make of you and that is to urge you to adopt and sign our online petition, a.k.a., Declaration of Conscience, which calls for the Congress of the United States to urge the President of this country to respect and accept the right of Kurdish people to self determination. If you have ever asked yourself what would I have done had I been alive in Nazi Germany or better yet in this country before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, please see me afterwards, your better angels are in charge of you, and together we can make this world a tolerable and acceptable place not just for the cats of Paris but also the Kurds and Kurdistan.