What Do They Mean to the Kurds?
World Affairs Council
February 11, 2005
On January 30, 2005, a relatively bloodless “revolution” took place in southern Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. The man who deserves the unabashed gratitude of millions of Kurds, including this one, and many, many more Arabs throughout the Middle East, save the ruling classes, is your president, George W. Bush. He may have thought he was going to do in Iraq what his father did in Kuwait, but things have not gone the way he and his neocon friends hoped they would. In the first act of liberation, a family was restored to power and an oil-rich country was put into the orbit of the United States. In the second, a family was put out of power, but the country, Iraq, is resisting the temptation to become a ward of the Pentagon.
What happened? Why didn’t the plan follow the script? Can Iraq — an illegitimate state if ever there was one — survive the constant assaults on its very foundations? What will you do if it breaks up along ethnic and geographic lines between the Kurds and the Arabs? Will you honor the breakup, this-good-for-both-sides divorce, this new and healthy beginning between two very different peoples in the Middle East? I work in Washington, DC, and know a thing or two about your government and can take a stab at what Washington might do or say in such an eventuality. What the founding fathers of your country felt towards the African-Americans is how your president feels towards the Kurds. Unless he has a vision, a heavenly intervention of some sort, the Kurds are condemned to be the lackeys of the dominant Arab race. Has liberty become a dirty word? Have you forgotten the meaning of freedom? Or do you, like our neighbors, like your Kurds as slaves? Or is it, it can’t be, are you afraid of the free Kurds? It was not always like this. You actually had one president who supported our right of self-determination. He was President Woodrow Wilson. I wish he were in the White House today. The world would have witnessed the emancipation of an old nation in the region. It would have been one of the most glorious days of our bloodcurdling history. We would have been grateful to you now, as you were to the French back in 1776. Maybe you will still do the right thing. This election certainly was a step in that direction.
I have been invited here this afternoon to tell you of the historic event in Iraq and couple it with my take on its repercussions for the Kurds and Kurdistan. Before I do so though, I want to pay my dues and recognize the individuals who are responsible for my presence here. I first got a call from Dr. Bill Cox back in October of last year. He wanted to know if I would consider visiting Alaska for a lecture on the Kurds and Kurdistan. Because I know the world suffers from a deficit of healthy information on my people, I welcomed the opportunity and told him so as well. He kindly put me in touch with another Alaskan, Barbara Propes, of World Affairs Council. After several phone calls and some emails, I actually met this amazing woman last month in Washington, DC. Over some beer for me and wine for her, we talked about the Kurds, Muslim women, peace, faith, and most important of all, the absence of love among the nations of the world. I sensed it right there and then that we Kurds had struck for diamond in this woman of 49th state of the Union. The gold came later, surprisingly in the gold depleted Nome, when I finally met Dr. Bill Cox and became his guest at his hometown of Nome. He is a man who will not sit still when there is a crisis in the world that could use his help. With such amazing people among you, who knows this last frontier might even defy the odds and be the first state to recognize Kurdistan? Whether it does so or not, I want to acknowledge Barbara and Bill, two noble souls, and urge you to join me in giving them a round of hearty applause worthy of their selfless acts towards the Kurds and Kurdistan.
What is the story of the Kurds? Who here has heard of us do something good? Can anyone tell me the name of one Kurd who has won a medal at the Olympics? How about going after a cure for the myriad of diseases that threaten the helpless? I could tell you up front no Kurd has ever won a Nobel Prize in the history of the award! But our sons and daughters are refugees at such distant places from Iceland to Argentina, from Tokyo to San Francisco. Dig deeper into the category of the losers of the world, you will find us all over the map. No one can even come close to us in terms of being the largest stateless people on the face the earth. One thing else is unique about us; we have made even our enemies famous. Who here can tell me the name of a state that claims to be the paragon of Islamic virtues, an aspirant of European values, while also dedicated to the extirpation of the Kurds and Kurdistan not only within its borders, but also Iraq, Syria and Iran? Or who could tell me the name of the state that gassed the Kurds, not recently, but seventeen years ago, and was condemned by no state, save Iran, and that for its own ulterior purposes? I am of course referring to Turkey and Iraq, two countries that control some 70 % of the Kurdish land and some 25 million Kurds who live on it. The latter is the topic of my lecture, the source of much of our heartache, tears and blood.
Given this merciless background, how do you think we felt on the day of the first free elections in Iraq? It should come as no surprise that we felt differently for different reasons. It wasn’t, for example, anything like what 20 million Arabs in Iraq or 260 million of them in the rest of Middle East felt or did. Watching the event unfold on my television screen in Washington, DC, I felt my manhood in the joy of my compatriots. I don’t know if you noticed it, we were the dancers in the streets of Washington, Nashville, Los Angeles, London, Kirkuk, Hawler, Sulayminaya, Dohuk, and Zakho. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq and your president in Washington, DC, earned our eternal gratitude, the first for conceiving the idea and the second for seeing it through. I couldn’t help but think of Frederick Douglas and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in their high heavens watching us celebrate this partial emancipation of the Kurds and Kurdistan. What would they have said to the outgoing secretary of state Colin Powell or the incoming Condoleezza Rice for their utter silence in the face of this momentous Kurdish advance towards freedom and liberty? Your country, no matter what happens between us from now on, will forever be remembered as the enabler of the day when we felt our humanity in a very, very long time. Thank you children of Wilson. Thank you children of Lincoln.
But there were also problems. Call me a cynic if you will, but I couldn’t bring myself to dancing in the streets, at least not yet, for your leaders remain committed to the preservation of an abomination called the state of Iraq. Winston Churchill was the father of that monstrosity in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein is its most infamous progeny to turn it into an open-air prison with mass graves under it. If the Jews have a claim to the name of Adolph Hitler, the Armenians to that of Enver Pasha, the Bosnians to that of Slobodan Milosevic, we then can certainly raise our palm for the “Butcher of Baghdad,” to be our nominee as a servant of the devil. Justice was exiled on his watch. Brutality was the mode of his conduct. The Kurds were his favorite victims. God who hates violence had gone on vacation. One in twenty Kurds was murdered. One in ten, to this day, suffers from the exposure to DNA altering chemical weapons. All this and much more is our history. We are now asked to forget it for the sake of an imperial construct courtesy of a man who never set foot on it. What is wrong with this world that wants us to forgo our names? We are Kurds, and Arabs are Arabs and we don’t need outsiders telling us how to live or what to do. Is this too much to ask? What do we have to do to get some respect? It was Barry Goldwater, the fiery Republican senator from Arizona, who said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” If your government has a problem recognizing our humanity and freedom, what do you think we should do? If we take Senator Goldwater’s counsel to heart, could you guarantee that your president will not fight us on behalf of Arab Iraq? Which Republican is right? Senator Goldwater or President Bush?
As is sometimes the case, I have gotten ahead of myself here. Polite company and an immense reservoir of pain do these things to me. Let me get back to my task at hand and tell you of Iraq and its tribulations. One day before the election, the Washington Post ran a major story about the expatriate Iraqi vote in America. It was titled, “In Maryland, Celebrating the Ballot.” A large flag that appeared above the byline was not that of Iraq, but of the Kurds and Kurdistan. The children of an enslaved nation had voted in their first free election and then taken to the streets, in spite of the cold, to dance and flag wave for the occasion. It was a surreal scene. Three years ago, such a view in Saddam Hussein controlled Kirkuk, for example, would have been a custom-made sight for firing squads to silence the pesky Kurds. That day, it was different. That day, it was okay to be a Kurd in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as in New Carrollton, a suburb of Washington, DC, in the state of Maryland.
The picture of the flag was not the only telling point about the story of the election. An Arab man and a Kurdish woman were also interviewed in the course of the voting. The Arab man, Ayad A-Saidi, had come to the polling station with a sign of his own that read, “Thank you USA for liberating my country.” After placing his ballot in the box, he had hollered, “Thank you, Bush!” When asked how he felt about the election, he had said, “Oh my God! … I feel freedom.” Reading the passage, I couldn’t help, but begrudge the essence of his statement. If this Arab man were a Kurd, could he have said the same thing? In fact, the best that the Kurdish woman could muster was, “we just want to move forward.” But for some reason, I just couldn’t move forward. I kept thinking about the Arab man and his “hollering.” I then got this creepy feeling that he, if you really follow the progression of events, had thanked the wrong person, your president, the right person would have been Osama bin Laden. What would have happened if he had brought a sign to the polling site that thanked the mastermind of the September 11th? That is what Socrates would do had he been alive and in Maryland, I murmured to myself. This time, I was living a surreal moment. Indeed, goodness had sprung from an evil act. The collapse of the Twin Towers had brought freedom to some Arabs and smiles, and I mean millions of them, to the sullen faces of my compatriots. Can we admit to a fact, a painful one to be sure, that your government is not really a true friend of freedom? I do. And I would like to think that I am not the only one, do you?
While you mull over the merits of my spooky point about Bush, bin Laden and Socrates, let me take you to Baghdad, the capital of Arab Iraq and then Hawler and Kirkuk, two Kurdish cities in the north, for the good as well as bad news that transpired on that historic day in Iraq. Alaa al Tamimi, the mayor of Baghdad, a man who should know a thing or two about the importance of the elected office, told a Reuters’ stringer, “This is a vote for the future, for the children, for the rule of law, for humanity, for love.” Ali Abdul Sattar, a Shiite Muslim, was even more graphic with his imagery and noted, “This election is like Noah’s Ark – whoever is on board will survive and those outside will perish.” In a Sunni neighborhood called Tunis, Mohammed Nuhair Rubaie told a Washington Post reporter, “It is like a wedding.” Ibrahim Jafari, one of the vice presidents, added, “This day represents a birthday.” But not everybody was in the mood to celebrate. One man, Khalid Mohammed, spoke for a sizeable minority when he said, “I will not vote because the price might be my life.” He survived, but not 44 of his compatriots. They were murdered in 260 attacks that took place in the course of the day that the New York Times dubbed, “A Day to Remember.”
But the mood in the Kurdish north was festive in spite of violence, snow, and fog. The bigger problem there turned out to be the lack of ballots as opposed to voters. Adhima Mustafa, a Kurdish woman, traveled nine hours and visited three polling stations before her index finger could be dabbed with indelible purple ink. After the vote, she told a Washington Post reporter, she was “very happy.” Sabriya Mohammad, another Kurdish woman, this one from Kirkuk, would have probably said the same thing, had not a tragic death intervened. In the morning, she had sent her youngest son, Yousef, to fetch water from the communal well for breakfast. A mortar bomb would snuff life out of him right in front of his house. If you thought this might have meant one less vote in the election, then you don’t know anything about how thirsty the Kurds are for freedom. Mrs. Mohammed, wrote Michael Howard of the Guardian, “washed her son’s body, covered it with a white burial shroud and arranged for it to be taken to the nearby cemetery. Then, remarkably, she went off to vote.” But the story that I liked most was of Uncle Said of Kirkuk, an illiterate old Kurdish man, who, in spite of Yousef’s death, braved the danger to cast his ballot. He was turned back for his lack of literacy. He told the election officials he would be back, wrote Jenny Booth of the Times of London.
But this election in spite of these heartwarming stories was in a class of its own for its lack of not frills but essentials. Sunni insurgents were hard at work in places like Baghdad writing graffiti on the walls or distributing flyers in broad daylight threatening potential voters with death and hellfire. Should I make you privy to some of their bizarre work? Here is one sample with my butchered Arabic coupled with its English translation. “Min al-sanduk ila al-sanduk!” It says, “From the polling box to the coffin box!” In a widely distributed flyer, wrote Steven Komarow of USA Today, the following choice words stared at the would-be voters, “God’s curse on this comedy named elections, this dirty game that serves the occupier and his bastards. Be away from the polls and save your life. Being part of the elections is a crime against religion, Iraq, and Iraqi people. All polls will be hit.” If you thought no one could match such a threat, the Shiites did, and issued their own ultimatum, and of course, on their own flyers. Again Steven Komarow of USA Today noted, “In order for you to avoid doomed death and the hell for a while, we have decided to give you the last chance for forgiveness for your children’s sake. You must raise a white flag on the roof of your house and … go to polling center to vote for anybody.” Not to be outdone, the Kurdish clerics joined the fray as well, and according to an anonymous byline of Institute for War and Peace Reporting, one Kurdish Mullah had urged his congregation to vote or be damned as a “traitor, ex-Baathist, and the enemy of the Kurds.”
With so much violence, threats and counter threats, it is a miracle that three different elections took place in 5,200 polling stations across the country. 10,800 individuals vied for local posts in eighteen provinces. 111 candidates did the same for the Kurdistan Regional Assembly. 7,700 Iraqis competed for 275 seats of the Transitional National Assembly. For the third and most important election, the whole country was viewed as one district. Because of the fear of assassination, many of the candidates could not even reveal their names. People had to place their faith in the parties and their platforms. There were 111 of them. But notwithstanding the array of parties, the Kurds, for example, primarily, voted for their joint list, the Kurdistan Alliance. The Sunnis either didn’t vote or were prevented from voting. The Shiites looked at their spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who directed them to the United Iraqi Alliance. The new parliamentarians will select, with a two third majority, a president and two vice presidents. They in turn will appoint a prime minister and a cabinet. The Assembly will be in charge of writing a draft constitution, subject to a nationwide referendum for approval in October. It will also oversee an annual budget of close to 20 billion dollars.
Euripides says, “No one has a manual for life.” No quote could ever come close to capturing the vagaries of what is happening in Iraq. But if I were to bet on the events of the last month, I would say that the Middle East is on the verge of major changes, real as well as apparent, for years and decades to come. Let me share with you one last anecdote about a baby girl and a baby boy to give you a sense of what I think is unfolding in the region with deadly consequences for the forces of intolerance and darkness from Turkey to Saudi Arabia from Iran to Egypt. On the day of election, the birth of a baby girl from Iraq became news on Al Arabiya satellite television, a competitor of Al-Jazerera, in the Arab world. The buzz about the baby was that her mother had named her, Intikhabat, meaning “elections” in Arabic. The birth of a baby boy was also news in Jordan, Iraq’s next-door neighbor. There, a little prince was born to Queen Rania and King Abdullah. He was named Hashem. The reference was to the past, a tribute to the Hashemite branch of Prophet Mohammed’s Quraishi clan.
I don’t know about you but I could not help but contrast the names. What will win in the Middle East? Will it be the future or the past? Will it be the elections or the hereditary monarchy? Can the two be reconciled as they have been in Britain or torn asunder as they were in this country for the right of people to choose their own leaders and freely practice self-determination? I am betting on the side of elections in spite of knowing that slavery ended in Great Britain before it did so in the United States. A slave Kurd in the Middle East has no time to wait and can hardly find solace in the status quo. The more the Middle East goes through changes, the more, I believe, it will herald the beginning of the end of our long night of captivity. I hope I will get to see it. I will not be shy or timid to say that you should support us in spite of your government and help us get on our feet despite the odds of fighting the combined forces of the Arabs, the Turks and the Persians. No one thought the abolitionists could ignite the beginning of the end of slavery. Dr. King and his friends were called nuts for fighting segregation. In our case the dream is for the emancipation of our people with the right of self-determination on the land of our fathers. If these shores once gave birth to the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson, they could do so again, and this time, hopefully, help us bend the arc of history towards justice, peace, compassion, and why not Barbara, love as well for the sake of all the children of the world. It goes without saying that you would earn our gratitude and the right to call you God’s angels.