By Kani Xulam
June 17, 1997
I looked forward to reading Jonathan C. Randal’s newest book, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan. I was curious to know how a Washington Post reporter would view my homeland. Would his projections as an outsider collide with mine or would they be similar to what I know for virtue of being a Kurd? An activist, I also was hoping to learn some lessons to help me advance the cause of the Kurds.
What emerged was a picture political in nature. The struggle of southern Kurds in northern Iraq figured prominently in the pages. The tragic Kurdish figures of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Jalal Talabani and Massuod Barzani lead the fortune of the Kurds to hell on earth several times over. The writer wonders if misfortune is part of the Kurdish genes.
The senior Barzani is described as both a commendable figure and a pitiful one. In his forties, he fights on his own against great odds, earns his people’s respect and, though he is forced to flee to the Soviet Union, he becomes a myth, a legend, a symbol of Kurdish resistance to tyranny of all kinds. In his sixties, he fights again, but, this time, on the shoulders of the United States, Iran and Israel. The result is a tragedy of monumental proportions: the Kurds are sold to Iraq, the butchers of Baghdad, and a slaughter ensues.
One would think one gets wiser as one gets older in life. But the senior Barzani — Randal makes clear — loses to the machinations of his adversaries more so later than before. When Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran offer him help to gain his objectives for their own ends, he believes they mean goodness for the Kurds. In Algiers in 1975, they deliver him and his people to the to the Iraqi envoy, Saddam Hussein.
The most telling statement in the book comes from the senior Barzani himself. A Palestinian woman confronts him and asks why he is dealing with the state of Israel, the pariah state in the Middle East. He says, “I am [read, we are] like the blind beggar[s] outside of Sulaimaniyah mosque.” To the outstretched hands, not liberty but the blood of the Kurdish martyrs and the tears of their families are poured.
Whether one is a Kurd or not, one cannot help but feel profound remorse for the travails that befell the old man of Kurdish nationalism. The Shah of Iran has pushed him and his people into the abyss, yet Barzani can only ask him for refuge. The wily Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, notes that covert operations are not missionary undertakings and rejects even a visa to the ailing Kurd whose health requires urgent care in the United States.
There is also suspense in the book. After some outcry from the friends of the Kurds, the senior Barzani is allowed to come to the U.S. for his treatment. During the next several years, the Middle East goes through changes and Barzani makes plans to return to Iran on March 2, 1979. However, the day before his planned departure, he dies of “natural” causes. Or does he?
The stories of other Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani, Massuod Barzani, Abdurahman Kasemlou and Abdullah Ocalan, are lighter, less engaging and, to a certain degree, wanting. Talabani and the junior Barzani are doing nothing different and are committing the same follies as the old man. The aftermath of the Gulf War, their experiment in self- rule and their present impasse with one another make abundantly clear the absence of any new thinking on their part.
Mr. Randal accurately expresses a great admiration for the late Kurdish leader, Abdurahman Kasemlou, who was gunned down by Iranian assassins in Vienna in 1989. He was worldly, urbane and rather articulate, and at ease in several languages. He understood politics to be an art of compromise and tread the treacherous waters of the Middle East with elan. Or did he? A man of his caliber should not have failed himself; he did. And, he also failed the Kurds. His loss was incalculable.
Criticism galore, on a few occasions, admiration but, in general, an aloofness, grips Mr. Randal when he tackles Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish resistance movement in Turkey. Immediately, you notice his agreement with the Turkish chorus arguing that this Kurdish maverick is a Marxist, marches to the beat of a different drum, commands devotion and is a look-a-like of Stalin.
Mr. Randal clearly argues that Ocalan is not who the Kurds need and his choice would be someone closer to Mr. Kasemlou. This unsolicited advice is a mistake, for societies are living organisms that respond to the stimuli surrounding them.
After what Saddam, Ataturk and the Shah have done to the Kurds, expecting democracy in Kurdistan remains only a beautiful dream. Kurds will have to first unite under an iron fist, if you will, and then opt for democracy and pluralism. Putting the cart before the horse will provide them with nothing if not more misery.
Many countries in the West, due to their imperial designs, and all the countries in the Middle East, because of their colonial interests, are in agreement to deny a place in the sun to the Kurds. Worse, in Iraq and in Turkey, the powers that be prefer dead Kurds to the live ones.
Of all Kurdish factions, Turkish Kurds pose the greatest threat to the stability of the region. They defy their oppressors and the imperial powers to boot. So, it is much easier for Mr. Randal to say they are an enigma wrapped in a mystery. For a vast majority of Kurds, however, they represent the hope for freedom and liberty. Such optimism is absent in Mr. Randal’s reflections on the Kurds.
In all, the book is a good one, for it sheds light on a part of the world kept in darkness.
One thing else, Mr. Randal believes the word “imperialism” no longer applies and to speak of it is to betray one’s naivete. Unfortunately, he is wrong. Imperialism is with us because of capitalism and the Kurds view it as a cancer on their lives equal to the racism of the countries which have jurisdiction over them.