Voices From Around the World
Monmouth County Library
Manalapan, New Jersey
October 3, 2004
Long before the American beheadings in Iraq that are now rocking the world became part of your daily news intake, but after they had become old news in Turkey with Kurds filling in for Americans and the Turks doing the ghastly task — with no protest whatsoever from anywhere in the world, I got a call from a reporter who wanted to know, if it was an acceptable behavior, in the Kurdish culture, for a father to murder his daughter? Now I consider myself someone who is proficient in the English language, do not shy away from saying that I have a good stock of English words in my vocabulary, and am rather at ease with their use, especially when the subject is Kurds, even on my feet, without much advance notice. But this woman reporter from the state of Michigan managed to tongue-tie me with her brutal and yet evidently real question. A Kurdish father had, apparently, murdered his daughter. The police had taken him into their custody. What was left of the family would not talk to her. She was knocking on my door for some clarity on her Kurdish story.
What was wrong with the question that had reduced me to a state of disorder? Were the Kurds self-destructing and I was not even aware of it? Or was something else at play that defied the conventional wisdom? Let me share with you some facts and let you be the judge of them. In the Kurdish world that we have inherited, it is rather common for our masters, the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians, to belittle us as such, telling us that our culture is “backward” and that theirs is “up-to-date” and that we should quickly discard ours, feverishly adopt theirs, and be thankful, no grateful, and express our indebtedness, prose will not do it, in songs and poetry accompanied with dances, of our good fortune to be their slaves, but hearing an American reporter voice a question that smacked of elitism was new and news to me. It was like someone sober and reasonable was trying to tell me that Gandhi did not really go on hunger strikes in the course of his activism for the liberation of India, he cheated and ate on the side; or that Hitler was a believer of nonviolence and that 65 million people who died in the course of the Second World War, well, just committed suicide. It couldn’t be? Or could it?
It turned out the Kurdish father had indeed murdered his sixteen-year-old daughter. It turned out he had fought the forces of Saddam Hussein in Iraq before his resettlement in the United States. It turned out he had survived bullet wounds, chemical attacks, and landmines the way the most unfortunate among you would suffer from a terminal illness, divorce, and the loss of a loved one as missing in action. It turned out, feeling cornered, he had left the Kurdish mountains, once the symbols of freedom, now desolated and profaned with iron birds that dropped poison gas in their wake, for a temporary camp in Pakistan to register with UNHCR for anyplace that would take him, where he would not be terrorized for a crime of not his own making, that of coming into this world as a Kurd. In 1997, he and his family were offered a refuge in the state of Michigan. Three years later, the man who had survived the most unbelievable was now accused of committing the most unthinkable against his own daughter.
Like all Kurds, I felt crestfallen with the news of this tragic story. I made a point of bringing it up in polite Kurdish circles with the hope that the exchange would force us to deal with our demons so that our loved ones would be immune from them. The conversations would help, but something else would become obvious to me in the course of these exchanges. It was the painful realization that we Kurds, as a whole, were on our deathbeds, and do you know what is even worse, we were not even aware of it. One day, a good friend, who had seen me struggle with the story of the Kurdish father and his hapless daughter, recommended that I read the autobiography of an American slave, Frederick Douglass. I did. It opened my eyes to a world that the Kurds were living, but without the book’s happy ending. “Slavery,” said this American slave, “was a poor school for human intellect and heart.” I knew exactly what he was saying. He went on, it was akin to perpetual “mental darkness.” My lips said, amen, before my brain could register what I had seen in print. My tongue restored to its liberty, I was ready to stand up to those who were quick to suspect the Kurds of all kinds of wrongdoings while giving a carte blanche to their cruelest of the cruel masters.
Yes, if the reporter from the state of Michigan were to call me again with the same question, I would have told her, it looks like a mentally blinded man has murdered his daughter period. Then, I would have asked her, if she knew what was the leading cause of mental blindness? If she had trouble answering me, I would have helped her and said, slavery. Those who ban languages, those who prohibit music, those who get hives when coming face to face with to the letters of the Kurdish alphabet, those who force the Kurds to call themselves the bastards of the Turks, Arabs and the Persians are as much to blame as the Kurdish father who murdered his daughter when the demons of his tormentors took control of his soul. But if you read what passes as news in our times, no one is accusing the Turks, the Arabs or the Persians of committing cultural as well as physical genocide against the Kurds. If you look at the newspapers of the world around 1940s, no one was talking about the gassing of the Jews as well. If you look at the dailies of this country around 1850s, again, you will not find much concern for the slaves whose lives were a series of profiles in torture from the beginning to the end.
I can almost see some of you raise your hands here and suggest to me that perhaps this is the perfect time to strike for Kurdish liberty at least in Iraqi Kurdistan. You don’t have to add; I know it as well, since the good guys who won are the proud children of Jefferson. I will go along with the part about Jefferson, but, with a heavy heart, hasten to add that their commander in chief, George W. Bush, remains the biggest stumbling block between the Kurds and their freedom. To those of you who might say how could that be, I will only say that your own tax dollars were used to produce a film, “Saddam Hussein: Weapon of Mass Destruction” that portrays the Butcher of Baghdad as an impulsive killer, all over Iraq, while the available evidence suggests that he wasn’t as erratic as Uncle Sam would like you to think he was, for he, like his European big brother, Adolf Hitler, followed a master plan, believed in lebensraum, the living space for Arabs, and gassed the slave Kurds, by an overwhelming margin, to make room for his kind.
If what I just said is a little bit hard to understand, let me give you an example from your own history to drive home my point. Imagine if you will, the United States government had felt the need to make a promotional film to justify its defeat of Adolf Hitler and the invasion of Germany right after the Second World War. Do you think it would have said the Nazi leader was a pathological killer of both Germans and Jews alike? Would not the gassing of the Jews have been the front and center of the whole expose? If yes, what then is behind this charitable treatment of Saddam Hussein? A student of history, I am at my wit’s end to make heads or tails of what your government is doing in Baghdad. Perhaps someone here could tell me what is inside this Trojan horse, oops, I take it back, behind this film that is now distributed all over the world at American embassies free of charge? If you help me, and free me from my painful conundrum, I will not only thank you from the bottom of my heart, but also write about it to my fellow Kurds of your good deed.
There are people in this country who are deeply troubled with America’s sordid relationship with the Kurds. They don’t subscribe to the imperialistic constructs that have declared a people nonexistent in the name of “greed,” but in “polished” circles, it goes by the nifty name of “diplomacy.” Two of them have the names of Christiane Bird and Kevin McKiernan in your census. But in the Kurdish world, they are the shining stars of our firmament helping us to overcome those who are committed to the eradication of our very name from the face of the Middle East. What Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison did for African Americans of 1850s, this daughter and son of yours are doing the same, considering the progress that the science of oppression has made in our times, for us Kurds. I am sure glad a staff in this library was aware of their work. She contacted me some two months ago to see if I would be interested in coming here for an exchange on their effort. It is not everyday that I get an invitation to be in Manalapan. I accepted it without much ado. The kind person who did this is Judith Wolt. The salt of the earth could easily be another name for her. Please join me to thank her with a round of applause
I understand some of you may have read the book, “A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts,” by Christiane Bird and others may have seen the documentary, “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds,” by Kevin McKiernan. Let me thank you for doing so and tell those who did not get a chance to do so, I am sure glad you are here for nothing can replace the exchange of an American with a Kurd. As some of you may know, I helped Christiane Bird with her tour of Turkish Kurdistan and was featured in the documentary, “Good Kurds Bad Kurds.” Irrespective of my contributions to both efforts, which were minor, America can count among its many blessings these two noble souls, inquisitive intellects, and caring hearts as its children. They have put together their works with the compass of truth in their hands and the goal of a better world as their benchmark. Not empty plaudits, but their solid facts, some thousand of times more painful than 9/11, give lie to the claims that Turkey is a democracy, Iraq on the road to recovery, Syria an island of tranquility and Iran brimming with all kinds of leaders like Patrick Henry. The 405-page book and the 79-minute film have the potential to put America on the side of the Kurdish freedom, the way “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” put France and Great Britain on the side the Union. For that to happen though, the people of goodwill need to invest in these testimonials and follow their dictates. People like Bird, McKiernan and your own Judith Wolt are doing God’s work, spreading truth, enlarging minds, giving chase to the phantoms of hypocrisy, intolerance and most difficult of all, ignorance, on the face of the earth. It remains my everlasting prayer and theirs too that this generation of Americans will hear and heed them.
For now though, the destroyers of the Kurds in Ankara, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran reject these testimonials as creations of your misguided children, and their friends in Brussels, Washington, London, Moscow, Paris and Berlin are doing their utmost to keep them out of limelight in exchange for some military bases or favorable oil deals. When George Orwell said, “Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act,” who would have guessed that this gathering and its subject would have come under the purview of his prescient observation. If a free Kurdistan ever sees the light of the day, these works of your offspring, coupled with the efforts of lovers of humanity all over the world, will constitute the turning points, the milestones, of our own journey of redemption, that of reclaiming the land of our fathers. Let me just share with you an excerpt from the book and a scene from the film to give you a sense of what is happening to the Kurds in the Middle East and abroad. Both can be debated for hours and both provide materiel for reflection long after you leave this room.
The most heart-warming section of the book is the author’s description of her encounters with Kurdish students at the University of Salahuddin in Hawler in Iraqi Kurdistan. Never in my studies of history and literature, and I will be the first to admit to their limitations, have I come across such an uplifting, stark and inspiring thirst for learning. The passage attests to the Kurdish love of freedom, as it is a precious tribute to education and its high place in the Kurdish society when it is left alone. Here is the extract: “It was through [Professor] Himdad and others at the University of Salahuddin that the intense hunger of the Iraqi Kurds hit home to me. This was a people desperate to learn more about the world, to devour knowledge that had so long been denied to them. Every time I stepped foot on campus, I was instantly besieged with throngs of students and teachers, all of whom wanted to talk. It had nothing to do with me personally, and everything to do with my foreignness: I represented a conduit to the wider world.”
That the wider world remains indifferent to the Kurdish plight, as I address you this afternoon, is beyond the realm of speculation. The most poignant and quintessential example of this observation is on display in the documentary, “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds,” when the following voiceover, “The Kurds are finally on media’s radar, even if only on a tiny corner of the screen,” is coupled with a scene of a photo shoot of the abducted Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in front of a Turkish flag with his eyes shut tight with duct tape from a newspaper article courtesy of the Turkish government. No other photo, no essay, no book, no painting, no song, no poetry, not even Halapja has come anywhere close to what is in that picture in terms of capturing the reality of the Kurds. I have never thanked the Turkish government before, but this picture impels to do so for I now can tell the world, when Frederick Douglass said slavery was a state of “mental darkness,” he didn’t know the Turks, in Turkey, in that God forsaken country, the science of slavery has reached new heights, slaves are also deprived of their eye sights! Yes, the Kurds have been blinded in the Middle East and the morally bankrupt and cruel world has simply come to accept it.
You may not have much to say about how the world sees or ignores the Kurds. But you cannot say the same about your own country especially in this election year. It might be good for you to ask yourself the following questions, as you get ready to make up your minds about the choices that confront you relative to the Kurds. Is it possible that the descendants of revolutionaries like Jefferson and those of former slaves like Douglass have lost faith in freedom? Is it conceivable that they don’t know about the prohibited Kurdish language in Turkey and continue calling that monstrosity a democracy, no, a role model for the rest of the Middle East? Is it not unconscionable that they use the Kurdish dead to start a war and dump them in the nearest dumpster, soon after, not only to whitewash the crimes of a monster, but also deprive the Kurds of their own dreams of, “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness?” Is it not preposterous that they, who will be second to no one in terms of claiming the ownership of the word liberty, are the best friends of those who will be second to no one in terms of their practice of tyranny? Perhaps a quick glance at the circumstances that led to your own revolution might show you a way out as to how to handle the Kurdish Question. It was Edmund Burke who in an address to his peers, speaking of America, in the British House of Commons, on March 22, 1775, said, “[A] great empire and little minds go ill together.” Today, with America standing between the Kurds and their freedom, who will stand up in this country to sound a similar alarm? If we opt for our independence, will you fight us to prevent our revolution? If you do, how could you live with your conscience? It is my duty to bring these things up with you; it is your responsibility to convey them to your soon to be elected or reelected representatives.