Do They Mean the Same Thing When They Say Freedom?
University of Minnesota
February 9, 2006
In societies that have been deprived of the lights of freedom, you have to excuse people for expressing their true feelings through jests to avoid a one-way trip to jail. One such place is Turkish occupied Kurdistan and one such jest that has been making rounds in the teahouses across my homeland goes something like this: two prisoners, one Turkish and the other Kurdish, are about to be hanged in Ankara, Turkey. As it is the custom with the death row inmates the world over, the prisoners are asked for their last wishes and parting words. The Kurd goes first. He says, “I have not had a visitor for eight months and I would like to see my mom.” Then it is the Turkish prisoner’s turn. He says, “I don’t want the Kurd to see his mother.”
I don’t know about you but I can easily see this very joke being duplicated in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, South Africa when it was misruled by Apartheid, Germany when the Nazis were calling the shots, and this country when slavery and segregation were the laws of the land and killing the Natives was, for a while at least, considered a rite of passage for the White man. Thank God, those days of blood and gore are behind you. Today, to my knowledge, no one questions the genocide of the children of these shores, the evil nature of slavery and its half-brother Jim Crow, the monstrosity that was Nazi Germany, the abomination that was Apartheid, and the domination of one race over the other in spite of the elections that have taken place in the West Bank and Gaza. Our experience in the occupied Kurdistan isn’t that much different, but this world, or this generation if you will, is too tired, too jaded, too preoccupied, perhaps you could tell me, which one is it, to bother with the struggle of the Kurds. But our adversaries are exempt from this blasphemous indifference on the part of the “International Community”. They have been welcomed into your capitals and supported in their homes to continue with their unholy war against our children. Why is that?
Humanity in its endless wonderings on earth has authored many brilliant accomplishments, but immunity from moral lapses has not been one of its characteristics. All the way through to the beginnings of Industrial Revolution, all the peoples of the earth could not have done much damage to the family of Polar bears; today our kind is about to consign them to the museums as artifacts. Our “over-civilized” generation has, it looks to this activist at least, lost some of its bearings. As Kurds, we can be exempt from this charge of waging a merciless war on our planet. But that hasn’t stopped this Kurd, much like Cassandra, the Trojan princess with mythical powers, to warn you that you can’t wallow in your freedom while others are reeling in their bondage. Cassandra, as those of you who are fond of the Classics know, lost her freedom for questioning that of God’s. I have racked my brains, talked to all kinds of Kurds and non-Kurds alike for clues, and burned many “midnight candles” so to speak, to see if we have done something similar to deserve our fate. Yes, there was a time when some of our fathers became the stooges of the Turks, the way some Poles allowed themselves to be of Nazis in the occupied Poland, and like them gave a helping hand to the destroyers of humanity, the Turks, as the Poles did with the Germans. Could that be the reason why God has forsaken us? How many Kurdish generations will have to bear this burden? Will this hapless Kurd ever see the light of freedom, the sight of liberty, a liberated Kurdistan?
I am, as usual, getting ahead of myself here. I should stick to the terms of our agreement and tell you of our predicament, the ill-fated journey of my people on this merciless and tortured world. I have been asked to tell you of our sufferings the way a terminally ill patient is expected to share her condition with a physician. I can’t help it, but to carry on with my conversation with God, with you as my interlocutors, so to speak. How come, it has allowed other sinners, monsters if you compare their crimes with ours, to bask in the sunshine of liberty and disregarded our stupendous sacrifices and prayers as well for the same? I am, to paraphrase the inimitable Kurdish poet, Ehmede Xani, confused about his wisdom in this age of world states. I find it puzzling that your president can subscribe loudly and proudly to the notion that, “America was a slave-owning society that became a servant of freedom”, and yet refuse to hear the Kurdish cry of liberty not only in Arab Iraq, where he calls the shots, but also Syria, Turkey and Iran. One man who knew his Almighty well was your third president, Thomas Jefferson, who noted, and it must have been with great pain, “I tremble for my country, when I think that God is just;” and then added, “God’s justice can not sleep forever.”
Well, it did sleep for four score and seven years as Abraham Lincoln so aptly reminded a crippled nation in his Gettysburg Address. Four score and three years have passed since Kurdistan was erased off of the map of the modern Middle East and its children were slated for extirpation. Up until then, we had survived a slew of benign masters, with occasional spells of freedom, but none had banned our language, our culture, and our way of life that had been preserved and handed over to us for generations. When Rudyard Kipling’s infamous “White Man” showed up on our doorsteps, not with a burden but with a sinister design called predatory nationalism in his head, a dark age, unlike anything we had ever seen, descended on us forthwith. It would be a lie to say that we simply turned the other cheek. Yes, our own John Browns have responded to a higher law and have continued to wage a holy war on these derelicts of humanity ever since. No, our adversaries have not given birth to a Harriet Beecher Stowe to help us rouse morally bankrupt nations to their feet. Degeneration has reached new heights where cultural genocide is now viewed as affection. It is a slippery slope with deadly consequences for the cursed as well as the misguided. It is not something that one should associate with the children of Lincoln, and I do so with a heavy heart, breaking the rules of hospitality that you have so graciously extended to me tonight. But I will seek shelter in the words of Martin Luther and say, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
I don’t know how to put this for you, but to state it the way it is: this world is a scary place if you are a free Kurd. I have been wondering about the Turkish prisoner, believing as I do in the observation that truth is often stated through jests, and why he would deny the Kurdish inmate his wish to see his mother even at death’s door. I have been asking myself, in the trains, on the busses, and sometimes during my sleepless nights, what would it take to have the Turkish inmate say, “I want my Kurdish friend to see not just his mother but also his father.” Historians tell us that John Brown, the American abolitionist, refused to call Black slaves, “niggers”, and addressed them as “misters” and “misses”. It was a revolutionary act that helped catapult this nation out of the cesspool of evil. Will there ever be Turks, save the likes of Ismail Besikci, who had to spend 18 years in jail for saying that there are Kurds in Turkey, who could call us humans? If they do, will they also say we can sing in our language, including the revolutionary tunes? When we do, will we be guaranteed that a knock will not be on our doors in the dead of the night to steal our sons to be tortured and our daughters to be ravished?
Perhaps I should ask you a couple of questions to better help us understand the Kurdish predicament. How come there was commerce in human cargo in 1820s on these shores and not so in 1920s? Why did the Ottomans, the fathers of the “modern” Turks, allow Kurds to speak their language in 1823, but their children banned it altogether, in the name of civilization no less, in 1923? In the 1860s, the European nations reduced their commerce with the recalcitrant South, did not extend to it the recognition it sought, and helped America, thank you Europe, walk away from its evil past. And yet the same Europe, on October 3, 2005, welcomed, yes welcomed, an unrepentant Turkey, an evil state, if ever there is one, into its waiting arms. What was that about? Who do you think was cheering for Turkey in the front row as it were, with tears of joy in his eyes so to speak, jumping up and down as the expression goes, to celebrate the news? Don’t look at me for the answer, but at yourselves, or the fictional entity that has come to be associated with your name, Uncle Sam. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Is this still the country of Tom Paine? All I could do was wonder and murmur, what would Homer make of the ghastly scene? Since he was blind, what would Euripides say of your unconditional, and are you ready for this, unrequited love for Turkey? Has anyone checked on the moral compass of this nation of late? You don’t need an immigrant telling you all of this, do you?
Coming back to our Greek thinkers, both would be aghast with the news. Both knew a thing or two about freedom. Both had insights into the human nature that you and your European cousins seem to have lost, or should I say replaced, with a voracious appetite for the material riches of this tired world. Is this too harsh of a rebuke? Don’t believe a word of what I say, take a trip, save Iraq, to the various capitals of the Middle East. Ask them a simple question, save Iran, who is your most reliable ally in the world? Don’t blame me, if every despot you talk to, cites you, Uncle Sam, as his most beloved and dependable friend in the world! But to revisit our poet and playwright, it was Homer who once said, “When a people lose their freedom, male members of that society lose half of their manhood.” It was Euripides, who once noted, “But this is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.” 15 to 20 million Kurds live in an open-air prison called Turkey and cannot speak their God given language, let alone express their thoughts in an alien one! Is this what Europe wants on its resume when it incorporates Turkey into its body politic? If not, I am just a tad curious, what has happened to its tongue, to stay so calm in the face of this ongoing legalized Turkish genocide against the culture of the Kurds? The Taliban became famous the world over for their brutality against women. Is the Turkish treatment of the Kurds any different? How come one is abhorred and reviled and the other is excused and accommodated all over the world? If Freud were alive, what kind of envy would he say this is, to embrace a state with such a long laundry list of brutalities? Alas, I have no answers. Like you, I have a lot of questions.
One of those questions has to do with my new status as a European. I don’t know why, but I keep repeating the word to myself to see if what my tongue says is indeed what my ears hear. Does that mean I will not be tortured anymore? Will I be able to speak Kurdish in school? How about furling a Kurdish flag from a Kurdish building? Can I just have the Turks as my neighbors, as opposed to my masters? I have gotten a headache from thinking about all these things. I thought Europe was about rights, respect for languages, cultures, and the freedom to do good so long as it did not infringe on the rights of others, and others did not include racists, bigots, and hypocrites. As I was looking for an aspirin, a friend recommended that I take a look at Moliere and his play, “The Bourgeois Gentleman”. It proved to be the medicine I needed. In Monsieur Jourdan, the main character of the play, I saw a European who actually becomes a Turk. Yes, you heard me right; a European becomes a Turk, not by force, like the hapless Kurds, but by choice with the nodding of an authority like Moliere. So, this is what it is all about. Monsieur Jourdan, for those of you who haven’t seen the play or read it, is a nouveau rich who wants to buy his way into nobility. It would have been easier for a cat to say I am a dog than for Monsieur Jourdan to say he is a gentleman. But as Moliere would have it, Monsieur Jourdan is a man on a mission. He hires all kinds of teachers to make up, quick, for his lack of manners. In his first lesson with a philosophy instructor, to his utter surprise, he discovers that he has been speaking “prose” all his life, some forty years to be exact, and without even knowing it.
But this comedy, as most art should, is interlaced with truth. Moliere unpacks it with one layer at a time. For example, a neighbor wants to marry Monsieur Jourdan’s daughter. He is of humble origins. Monsieur Jourdan will hear none of it. He wants nobility for himself and a noble husband for his daughter. His wife pleads with him, but to no avail. Perhaps all those Americans as well as Europeans who like Pavlov’s dogs are championing this odd Turkish matrimony with Europe should pay some attention to her reasoning. It is full of wit as well as wisdom. Like a good French wine, 336 years has only made it better. In her words,
“Marrying above one’s station leads to double trouble. I don’t want a son-in-law who criticizes my daughter for her parents, and I don’t want her children to be ashamed to call me grandma. If she should come to visit me in her fancy carriage and, by mistake, doesn’t say hello to one of our neighbors, you can imagine what they would say: ‘Look at that show-off. She’s Monsieur Jourdan’s daughter, when she was little we were good enough for her. She wasn’t so high and mighty then. Both her grandfathers were in dry-goods business. They piled up a lot of money for their children. But you don’t get so rich by being honest.’ Well, I don’t want this cackling. I want a man who will be grateful to me for my daughter, to whom I can say, ‘Sit down there, son-in-law, and have dinner with me.'”
Monsieur Jourdan is not moved. What moves him is the sudden appearance of a Turk, the suitor-neighbor masquerading as an Asiatic, claiming to be a son of the Turkish Sultan who is on a visit to France and in love with his daughter. As the Turkish custom would have it, he declares Monsieur Jourdan a noble — in Turkish, a “Mamamouchi” — who apparently, instantly, becomes blessed with the “strength of a lion and the cunning of a serpent.” The play ends with the French bourgeois as a Turkish noble, his daughter as the wife of a Turkish prince, and audiences that has been laughing at the turn of events ever since.
I have one more thing to say about Moliere’s play, and then a short story about Karen Hughes, and then my parting words. You and I can laugh at Monsieur Jourdan, but who will at laugh at a Kurd who might just one day tell a Turk, I am the real European; I speak Kurdish, which belongs to the Indo-European language family, while you speak Turkish, which is related to Mongolian and Korean? Can someone contradict, linguistically speaking, this point of view? Europe has twenty official languages. Article three of the Turkish constitution states, the language of the country is Turkish and there can be no changes made to this article. What does that mean in plain English? Imagine Turkey has a majority in the European Parliament. Is it going to dictate to Europe one language policy, that is to say, Turkish? It was John Stuart Mill who said, “There is no tyranny worse than the tyranny of majority over minority.” Try saying, “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk”, in French, as all Kurds do in Turkish, not by choice, but by force! It will be comic for sure, should I or should you say, it will also be tragic? The Jews have a saying, “Man makes plans, but God laughs.” Are we capable of creating a world where God is content? What do you think?
I am now ready to tell you about Karen Hughes. She is your public face to the world. Her job title reads, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. A writer as well, she is the author of an easy to read book called, “Ten Minutes to Normal”. It is full of enthusiasm, plenty of idealism, short on reflection and shorter still, unfortunately, on analysis. My favorite line in it is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who says, “Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve.” She speaks of it approvingly. She thinks, as I do, everyone should try to test its efficacy. So when this woman who is often cited as a close confidante of President Bush decided to visit Turkey last year, I became all ears about her trip and wondered if her service, the type that she had imbibed from Dr. King, would extend to the politically impoverished Kurds in what we call northern Kurdistan, but a callous world has come to call it, following the Turkish lead, “southeast Turkey.” Call me an optimist if you will, but I had this vision of her donning the traditional Kurdish colors — the combination of red, green and yellow — and walking down the streets of Amed, my hometown, the largest Kurdish metropolis in the world. It would have been an unforgettable sight, one that would have definitely made her famous with 40 million Kurds overnight, and might have even started a fashion craze, Karen Hughes clothing line, that could have guaranteed her a comfortable retirement. None of that happened; okay, I take it back, an unscheduled stroll did take place in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
I don’t know if anyone has told Karen, but that short stroll of hers was one of the bravest ever undertaken by an American woman in a country with the highest anti-American hysteria in the world. A BBC published poll had noted, prior to her visit, an 82 percent Turkish disapproval rating for America and its policies, the highest in the world, in the Middle East. A dictatorship had been toppled next door, Thank you America in spite of your difficulties, and the others were becoming nervous churning out all kinds of conspiracy theories very, very popular in Turkey, one becoming the subject of a bestselling book, “The Storm of Metal”, competing with Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, a frightening development, characteristics of societies on the verge of implosion. In the first book, written by two upstart Turkish writers, you have American soldiers invading Turkey, its Black Marines raping Turkish maidens, while an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type of a Turk blows up Washington, DC with a single nuclear bomb, putting the likes of Osama Bin Laden out of work. But I am digressing here and I should get back to Karen. In the very streets that she was taking her stroll, shops were displaying signs on their windows, some in bright colors, some in black and white, this is a charmer, okay in quotation marks, “Amerikalilar Giremez!” These signs didn’t exactly say, “Yankees Go Home”, but their Turkish equivalent, “Americans can’t enter!” I like Karen. I am, for a change, happy that she didn’t know Turkish. If she did, not only her stroll, but also her health might have been ruined.
I hope you and Karen will forgive me if I say that what could have possibly ruined her health, and on the face of it spoiled your evening as well, is the beginning of the good news for us Kurds. Evil ones, as Winston Churchill once noted, referring to Nazi Germany, will eventually make mistakes, as the Fuehrer did with his attack on the Soviet Union. The Turkish attack on Washington will not happen, but that cesspool of evil will not sit still either, as the death of one dictatorship in Iraq has exposed its soft underbelly to the world. As it stands, the Turks’ blasphemous reason for existence amounts to, give us death and not liberty to the Kurds. They will get their death, I am sad to note, but sure of it, for when it comes our children will taste their emancipation and theirs, the remaining ones, just like the Germans who survived Adolf Hitler, will feel their humanity.
But this rank hypocrisy, although in a class of its own, is not just a Turkish trait. The world has come to be treated to a smorgasbord of veritable double standards across the board in recent weeks. When Palestinians elected Hamas over Fatah, the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia urged it to renounce violence and accept Israel as a state worthy of neighborly relations. Hamas has not said much, or done anything, but the volume of music has gone up in the region. Teheran has stepped up to the plate demanding Israel be relocated to Europe with Germany and Austria making room for its children. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes pinch myself to make sure that what I am seeing and hearing these days are real and not just my hallucinations. To me, it all amounts to pots calling kettles, you are very, very black. If Americans and Europeans had asked the Turks to respect and accept the Kurds and Kurdistan; today, they might have had a better chance with Hamas. If Iran is serious about helping the Palestinians achieve their self-determination; why doesn’t it respect the Kurdish cry of freedom, inside its borders, eight to 10 million strong, for independence?
But our times, it should be clear to all by now, are not ordinary times. This world of ours will soon file for Chapter Eleven for lack of morality bringing about a realignment of forces and a redrawing of the map of the Middle East, this time, by the children of the region. As Kurds, we will continue sweating for liberty. We will also not be shy, quoting Homer, “Modesty is not good for a needy [people]”, and ask for help as well as your prayers to outfox and outlast the despots of the Middle East. It goes without saying that independence remains our sacred goal because we wish to be full men and women not just in your sight but also that of God. When that day comes, you will all be invited to our birthday party, and I hope you will come, if for nothing else, to renew your faith in liberty, civility, beauty, and yes, love of humanity, the loadstar of them all, if we wish to be remembered fondly by our posterity.