Salman Aziz Baban, Iraqi Kurdistan, 2002
The Statement of Kani Xulam
At the Middle Tennessee State University
June 20, 2002
As it is customary in settings like this one, I want to start by thanking your Professor, Dr. Louis Haas, as well as my friend, Dr. Pippa Holloway for giving me the privilege of acquainting you with a bit of my Kurdish story today. I come before you as an activist with a memory, not to invent horror, as writer Richard Wright put it while he was trying to relate his experience as a Black Boy, but to share with you what horror has done to us, the Kurds, and our country, Kurdistan.
I have agreed to do this for selfish as well as selfless reasons. The selfish reasons have to do with a Roman maxim that holds: “A problem shared is halved; a pleasure shared is doubled.” This aphorism assumes that you are going to be a friendly audience. Are you? It also assumes that you will listen to everything that I say. Will you? If you do, to quote Voltaire, at least some our suffering will not be in vain. For the Frenchman once said: “Nothing is more annoying than to be obscurely hanged.” You are now the antidote, the audience, to what Voltaire thought of issues that should have their spectators. For that, I am grateful to you.
The selfless reasons have to do with our state of humanity. Human beings, in their long journey on earth, have accomplished some great feats, have contracted some great ills, have fallen from grace once, and might do so again, unless those who speak for the earth, or live in it free like you and slave like me, invest in tolerance and understanding and divest from hatred and violence that have plagued our common journey in the old world as well as the new under all kinds of systems that we have invented and tried. One thing is abundantly clear. Weeds always grow with wheat. And sometimes they even try to dominate the field.
That was the story of your history only 150 years ago. Harriet Beecher Stowe immortalized the experience that was slavery in her now immortal work, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Maya Angelou went even further and wrote the following for the journey into bondage in words that would haunt even the bigots, if they would only listen, “We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of slave ships in each other’s excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together.”
The survivors were then unloaded, as Denzel Washington told us in his impersonation of Malcolm X, not on Plymouth Rock as the Whites had done, but with Plymouth Rock having “landed on us”. Woe to the one who resisted carrying that rock. In Beecher’s rendition of the lives of the slaves, Uncle Tom was beaten to death not because he refused to carry the “metaphorical rock”, but because he had connived with the decision of Cassy and Emmeline to toss their rocks and to escape into freedom. The few who believed in the universality of freedom and trembled at its absence for Blacks were called abolitionists.
In fact, in 1862, when Harriet Beecher Stowe had her first audience with President Lincoln, he greeted her with the comment, “the little lady who made this big war.” As an activist, I have always been intrigued with this statement by the president. Can a book really start a war? Can a pen really move a free race to rescue another one in bondage? “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, apparently, sold well in the free states of the North, which contributed greatly to the war effort of the Union forces. And more importantly, it sold well in England and France making their governments reluctant to give in to the entreaties of the South for allies and recognition.
Eventually, as we all know, the cause of this big war that the little lady had advocated won. The slaves were proclaimed free. This nation at least took some momentous steps to stop the commerce in human cargo. A few who could not sleep at night were able to return to their normal lives. The fear that the weed would take over the whole field was pushed back into the future it seemed.
I took this detour into the dark recesses of your country’s heart not to say that what we face is the same. I have read enough history to tell you that in the science called government or misgovernment no two experiments have been identical or produced the same results. Those of us who are trying to make sense of the past to plow onward with the least pain and the most happiness don’t have the certainties of our colleagues who are in Mathematics or Physics. We have to read the experiences of many to feel somewhat certain that perhaps a rule could be gleaned from them.
That the Kurdish experience constitutes one of the dark chapters of our humanity is beyond any question. A race of people as old as the dawn of history numbering some 40 million souls is now staring at its grave cannot be debated. Our land almost as large as France, rich in oil and richer still in water, offers the prospect of a gazelle to three hungry wolves that constitute the nations of Turks, Arabs and the Persians. The world at large pretends to be oblivious to our plight, but when it meddles in our affairs, we have too often found that it has always sided with our implacable foes in the sport called the slaughter of the Kurds.
I think, at this time, it is only right that I share with you the story of a Kurdish mother in order to put a face on the pain that has become our lot. I suppose, one could say at the very outset that, it was her misfortune that she lived at a time that coincided with the life of Saddam Hussein. In 1988, according to Jeffrey Goldberg who interviewed her for his article titled, “Great Terror”, in The New Yorker, she was a mother of seven, four boys and three girls. Before the year’s end, her husband and three of her older sons would be taken away from her never to be seen again. Her youngest son, Rebwar, at six, would die in her arms from starvation in a concentration camp and her captors, Arab soldiers, would throw his dead body to hungry dogs with her as a spectator.
Salman Aziz Baban is the name of this Kurdish mother. Her village destroyed, she now lives with her three surviving daughters in a cinder-block house at Chamchamal, in Iraqi Kurdistan. She related to Mr. Goldberg that she couldn’t sleep well. “My head is filled with terrible thoughts. The day I die is the day I will not remember that the dogs ate my son.” She asked me, Mr. Goldberg says, to write down the names of her disappeared three sons, Sherzad, Rizgar and Muhammed. She urged me “to find her sons, or to ask President Bush to find them. ‘One would be sufficient,’ she said. “If just one comes back, that would be enough.’”
Uncle Tom couldn’t say goodbye to his children because he was brutally murdered by his cruel master. Chances are it is very unlikely that Salman Aziz Baban will ever see her children because they too have been murdered along with 182 thousand other Kurds and shoved into mass graves along Iraq’s southern border. President Bush, so far, has not responded to the plea of the Kurdish mother. But a memo that has surfaced lately, titled, “Guidelines for U.S. –Iraq Policy”, written for senior Bush in 1989 leaves one in no doubt that such a step can hardly be expected of the junior Bush. The memo urges the father to, “in no way associate” himself “with the 60 year Kurdish rebellion in Iraq or oppose Iraq’s legitimate attempts to suppress it.”
I have always wondered if there were any memos written by the diplomats of His Majesty’s government in 1860s to the office of the Prime Minister of England urging him to support the South’s legitimate use of its power to uphold the institution of slavery because it meant good business for Great Britain. Had that happened, and had the Prime Minister acted on that abominablerecommendation, perhaps today, the first African American Secretary of State Colin Powell would have worked as a butler at the Department of State and Condoleezza Rice, the first African American National Security Adviser, would have been, perhaps a cook at the White House.
Speaking for myself, I am glad that the boundaries of freedom and liberty have expanded in this country to include the likes of Powell and Rice to be serious contenders and candidates for these highest offices of the land. But I can’t help remind you that their silence only six generations after their emancipation and only one generation after the heroic struggle of people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the face of barbarity that is visiting the Kurds is deplorable, abominable, blasphemous and contrary to all the ideals of the abolitionists of 1850s or civil rights activists of 1960s.
It is said that Harriet Beecher Stowe through her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, wanted to invent a horror so terrible that her compatriots would conjure up a house on fire with a baby inside and the mother rushing in to save her child. Some scholars say that she actually succeeded in her task. That generation of Americans, by ending the slavery, restored beauty to their soul, righted a wrong and took a saner step into the future. It is said that when Winston Churchill was writing as an opposition member in the British House of Commons in the 1930s, he was trying to conjure an image of a British maiden about to be ravished by Hitler and his henchmen unless stout British hearts armed themselves to save her and their honor. It took a while, but he too succeeded.
In our case, we don’t need to create a horror. What the most exquisite painter could not have imagined or the most expansive poet would hardly have thought of took place on the morning of March 16, 1988. Saddam Hussein sent in his air force to Halapja, a city of 70 thousand Kurds, and bombarded it with bombs that the survivors noted that unlike the previous ones hardly made a noise. Among thousands of photos that were taken of the 5000 dead one has stood out and has come to symbolize a watershed in the history of horror. It is the photo of a Kurdish father, Omar, and his son, an infant, in his arms, brought down by the fumes of Saddam’s chemical and biological concoctions.
A virtual slave, I have often wondered of this country’s enormous power to do well and of its unerring mischievous tendency to side with the wrong guys in the realm of international politics. One day, while recuperating from an illness common in Washington called burnout; I stumbled upon a comedy program called the Gallagher Show on cable television. After witnessing what looked like the dumping of all kinds of pies, sauces, fruit and juices on the audience with a medley of profanities thrown in for good humor, I saw a standing ovation with a sign that read, “Gallagher for President”. Could the needs of the Kurds ever match those of the Americans, I wondered? Would the Kurds who are condemned to live in hell on earth ever rout for a comedian as a leader? I had no answers.
But then, 9/11 happened. After 14 years of deadening silence, The New Yorker sent in its senior correspondent to visit the site where Omar and his infant son were brought down by chemical and biological weapons. Now, we were in company with Americans. For the first time, they understood fear and its debilitating effects on populations that span generations. Unlike one Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Birand, who proudly thanked Osama Bin Laden for America’s decision to bail out Turkey, for joining America’s war effort on al Queda as a Muslim country — instead of Argentina — in the tune of some 30 billion dollars, I held on to my hope that America could still be a force for good abroad the way it has tried to be so at home.
Edmund Burke once said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” Twice in the life of this nation the state of the union has gone out of whack and both times women and men of good sense and good will have risen to the challenge to right the wrongs and to put America on the right course, towards a more perfect union. Harriet Beecher Stowe and her generation did their patriotic duty as abolitionists. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X did theirs as civil rights activists.
Today, another crisis is facing this country. This time it is your foreign policy that is totally out of whack and reflects not your expressed ideals. Turkey, which has a policy of slow motion genocide against the Kurds in its constitution, is cuddled and pampered as a friend worthy of your standing. Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1988, but the Reagan Administration did not even raise its voice to condemn it. The Bush Administration started a war with the butcher of Baghdad not because of his treatment of the Kurds but because of his invasion of Kuwait. Genocide was condoned. Freedom was soiled. Resistance was a dirty word. Oil was everything.
In 1836, Mr. Edward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, had witnessed the lynching of Elijah Lovejoy, a White man, an abolitionist, at the hands of an angry Illinois mob. In 1850, with the passing of the Compromise of 1850 bill in the United States Congress which allowed fugitive slaves to be captured and returned to their “rightful” owners, Mrs. Edward Beecher wrote to her sister in law a letter that started with the word, “Hattie”, and went on, “If I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” A year later, the idea for the book was conceived. And it took another year to finish it.
Surely, there must be people in this room who carry the blood and the vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dr. Martin Luther King or Malcolm X in their veins and in their hearts. I hope, one day, some of you too will feel compelled to rise, this time, to connect the gap that exists between your foreign policy and the expressed ideals of your country. I may not live long enough to see that day. But it is a day worth living for and fighting for. If you win, America will take another gigantic step forward, this time for the cause of humanity. I hope you will be a part of it.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions.