A Story Out Of Kurdistan
World Affairs Council of Ventura
June 9, 2006
[A slightly altered version of this statement was also delivered at the World Affairs Council of Maine in Portland on May 24, 2006]
In 1886, Leo Tolstoy published a book titled Twenty-Three Tales. One of them was about, “The Three Hermits”. It is a story of grace and humility, rarities in an increasingly violent and arrogant world that has come to characterize our times. It is a long tale, but I have shortened it for the purposes of this lecture. I offer it as a teaser, an appetizer if you are into food, to prepare you for the main course, which is Kurdish. But I need to warn you in advance that the Kurdish fare will be heavy, and some of you may even leave this hall thinking, boy, I wish he had also told us, it was going to be raw and bloody. I guess all I am trying to say is that, don’t blame me for the repast; consider me in the light of the charming English expression, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That is what I have tried to do with our neighbors who have now become our oppressors. It is a heartbreaking tale in need of masterful storytellers like Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Dickens, and Sophocles. But tonight you are stuck with me, a tormented soul, with a dull pen and an accented tongue, whose love for truth has forced him to become a reluctant storyteller of his people, the Kurds.
First let me pay homage to a person who is not present among us, but responsible for my presence among you. She has the name of an American, but I call her the guardian angel of Kurdistan. At the beginning of this year, I got an email from her, saying, “I want to know how I can be of some help to the Kurds.” It was music to my ears, oops, my mistake, her email was a piece of sublime art before my eyes, and I wrote her back immediately, thanking her in earnest, quoting her the inimitable observation of Voltaire, that, “The worst kind of hanging is to be hanged obscurely”, and urged her to put me in touch with the children of Jefferson. I won’t bore you with the details of our ensuing emails, but suffice it to note that she reached out to the World Affairs Council of Ventura and convinced your officer, in charge of programming, that I should be given a platform to offer you a perspective on the children of Kurdistan. The decision was made; I was invited. It goes without saying that I am grateful for the invite and look forward to befriending some of you later tonight. But now, I have a duty to perform and that is to pay my dues and to acknowledge my hosts. These kind Americans, respectively, are Amy Howard and Jay Berger. Please join me in giving them a hearty round of applause.
The story of “The Three Hermits” in Tolstoy’s Twenty-Three Tales begins with an epigraph. It consists of two verses from the Bible, the Book of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 7 and 8. If heeded, they can instill a little bit of modesty into our lives not to mention some sanity into the conduct of the states. They read, “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” The tale itself chronicles the encounter of a Bishop with three hermits. It takes place in the course of a sea journey from Archangel, a city on the coast of the White Sea, to the Solovetsky Monastery in Russia. On the ship, the Bishop hears the story of three hermits who live on a desolate island for the purposes of saving their souls. Bested by his curiosity, he convinces the captain for an impromptu visit. On the ground, he greets them warmly and engages them in a conversation. At one point, he asks them, “Tell me, what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.” One of them says, “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves. …” The Bishop then asks, “But how do you pray to God?” “We say”, another says, “three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.”
A smile crosses the Bishop’s face. He then decides to teach them the prayer, “Our Father”. By the time he is contend that they have mastered it, it is almost dark. He bids them farewell and returns to his ship. He can’t help it, but go to the deck and look in the direction of the island. As the night progresses, the full moon casts a shining path on the sea. Suddenly, he notices something white on the lighted path nearing the ship. Upon closer inspection, he sees the three hermits, holding hands, and gliding on the water. When they reach the ship, they say in unison, “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. … We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.” The Bishop crosses himself and, leaning over the ship, says, “Your own prayers will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.” The three hermits then go back to their island. The ship continues with its journey to the monastery.
I wish I could stand before you tonight and recount for you our own encounters with such humble men of the cloth, or of the state, that would let us keep our prayers, speak our mother tongue, sing our songs, and maintain the tradition of giving our children the names of our ancestors. The ones that fate has sent our way, without an exception, have been unaware of the word sinner among their own ranks. They have given us no choice but to submit to their faith or race, yes, there are people out there who want us to change our race, or face consequences that should not be, if life were gentle, uttered in polite circles such as this one. But life has been anything but gentle to the Kurds, and I have been asked to put into words, what it means to be a Kurd at the dawn of the 21st century. It is akin to asking a lion born and raised in a zoo to tell those who were born in the wild how it is to live in captivity. Historians who have actually observed this phenomenon ominously note that very few ever adjust or survive in the wilderness. That also happens to be the master plan of our keepers who wish to do away with our presence from the face of the Middle East. They work around the clock to make sure you will never hear from us, or if you do, it will be in the form of artifacts in the museums. Perhaps one day some of you will visit one of those museums to learn a bit more about the Kurds. If you do, this Kurd will not begrudge you at all if you say, thank God, I was not born a Kurd.
Now that I have alarmed you as such, let me also share with you a little bit of guarded joy, yes, that is all we can afford these days, and that is, we are still rejoicing in the news of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Although your loved ones have paid, and are still paying, a heavy price, it has not put an end to our status as subjects just as your independence in 1776 did not bring liberty to the Blacks. The Middle East of today has only one use for its Kurds and that is, we can live in it all right, but we have to assume the identities of our masters, the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians. The proper name for this plan is cultural genocide over time. But you will never hear such honesty from the lips of our self-appointed rulers. And while I am at it, let me say something else, and that is that your own government is in full agreement with our foes and vehemently opposes the liberation of Kurdistan and the emancipation of its children. It is indeed no exaggeration to say, we, as a people, numbering some 30 million souls, living on a track of land as large as France, are now staring death in the face. When nations as old as the dawn of history become expendable, because of someone’s greed or someone else’s sense of entitlement, it is time, at least this lover of humanity believes, someone pulled the emergency brakes in our spaceship earth. So far, no one has bothered to even register our complaints. Unless God intervenes, or people of goodwill such as yourselves decide to stand up for the Kurds, the end of Kurdistan, which had its greater dismemberment sanctioned on July 24, 1923 in Lausanne, Switzerland, imagine someone partitioning your country in Tokyo, Japan, may become a reality on your watch or those of your children.
But before you consider the possibility of pulling down the emergency brakes for the sake of the Kurds, let me expand a bit on the dirty work of our adversaries who enjoy diplomatic relations the world over and pass as friends of humanity among their own bewitched societies. When people say, inside the souls of the most vociferous champions of democracy lurk some of the most implacable despots of the world, I raise my palm for Turkey, Syria, Iran and even Iraq to be on that list of God forsaken states that are misruled by people who speak out of both sides of their mouths. But the saddest part of this proverbial charade has to do with the shameless claims of these hypocrites that they are the disciples of “Western Civilization”, and in the case of Iran, “Islam”. Reflecting on their nonsense, I have been found to mutter, where are you Mahatma Gandhi to set these Godless misfits aright? As some of you may know, that great emancipator was once asked what he thought of the “Western Civilization”. He had responded by saying, “I think it would be a good idea!” He had tried to say you couldn’t have a “master race” and also “liberty” in one state and consider yourself on the right side of civilization. Not Just Ankara, Damascus, Baghdad, Teheran, but also Washington is filled to the brim with delusional people with PhDs no less who are bent on proving the old of man of India wrong.
But that great soul, that magnificent apostle of nonviolence, that gift of India to the whole world, that role model of humanity for the good has, thank God, left us a treasure trove of his observations that we could tap into for the thankless task of clearing the wheat fields of the world from its rank weeds. It was him, for example, who said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” What does this mean for the Kurds? Should I share with you my take on it, in the form of a to do list, the one you Americans often place on your fridge doors, and this Kurd keeps it on the wall above his computer monitor? My list, usually, is a long one, and I often fine-tune it, but there are four items on it that hardly change and have been staring at me for years now. One, do not compromise on self-determination, mobilize every cell in your body, every penny in your pocket, every friend in your rolodex, and every house of worship in your adopted city for the emancipation of the Kurds and liberation of Kurdistan. Two, tell the Turks, the Persians, and the Arabs, if possible after sharing with them a bottle of wine, oppression is like cancer, it affects the inflicted as well as the administrator. Three, remind the same folks of Dr. Freud’s famous observation, “The man who first flung an epithet at his enemy instead of a spear was the true founder of civilization.” In plain English, exchanging words is better than exchanging bullets! Four, if the knuckleheads, well, remain knuckleheads, pray that they will commit follies, like what Saddam Hussein did when America asked him to come clean, and he refused to do so.
It is but with a heavy heart that I am here to tell you that so far, in spite of everything that Kurds, like me, have done, Kurdistan remains beyond our reach. It has been very, very hard, without help from outside, to outfox, outmaneuver, outsmart, and outrun the devils that have cornered us from all sides. The fact that the world has turned its back to our struggle, or worse, aids and abets our oppressors, has made the situation even worse. Iran, for example, has been shelling the Kurdish villages inside Iraqi Kurdistan this past month, has anyone here heard of a condemnation from the United Nations? Turkish police killed sixteen Kurdish demonstrators and bystanders two months ago, five of whom were children, one of them, a toddler; did your government even issue a rebuke? I used to think if 300,000 Arabs of an artificial construct called Kuwait can tap into the goodwill of this nation, 30 million of us, the children of a real country, with some diligence and luck could expect it as well, but after spending thirteen years in your capital, I am beginning to have doubts. Am I that bad to have my faith shaken in your country? One thing I have learned and here is the difficult part of my job, the bigots speak for the Middle East and they have turned the cradle of civilization into one of the most frightening places on the face of the earth. Would someone care to contradict me here? I would love to make use of my ears and not just my tongue.
You have already heard me make a reference to a Kurdish toddler. He was knocked down with an American bullet in his head. It happened on March 29, 2006. A day before, thousands of Kurds had taken part in a funeral ceremony for four Kurds who had been killed on the mountains of Kurdistan. The Kurds, who had started the day by picking up the bodies of their fallen fighters, were shocked to find them not only riddled with bullet wounds, but also discolored. Not knowing what could be the source of such an ominous thing — but suspecting, deep in their hearts, that chemical weapons were used on their loved ones — they demanded an investigation. No one, in this world of six billion people divided into some two hundred countries, took up their petition. Even the international bodies, like the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of the Islamic States have had no use for the Kurds or their concerns.
It was then that the dejected Kurds licked their gashing wounds and got to work to bury their youth. Some ten thousand people showed up for the sacred ritual. But the Turks would not leave the grieved alone, harassing them, taunting them, and provoking them on the road to the burial grounds. Turkish piloted F-16 fighter planes, courtesy of your government, flew overhead to cow the mourners. The police on the ground did not need help to compound the problem. According to the eyewitnesses, the Kurdish fathers were indeed cowed with such overwhelming display of force, but not their children. They picked up rocks and attacked the torturers of their fathers. Up until five o’clock, it was the fight of the little Davids against Goliaths with minor injuries on both sides. Then orders were given to the Turkish police to fire live ammunition. Two Kurds were critically injured who later were pronounced dead in the hospital. The stage was set for a series of simultaneous demonstrations across Turkish occupied Kurdistan that lasted several days. By the time they were over, a toddler, four kids, and eleven adults would be killed. Scores were injured, thousands arrested while hundreds are still in custody.
While most people have expressed shock or offered explanations for the rage of the Kurdish youth, I have had trouble getting the Kurdish toddler out of my mind. I have, for example, wondered what kind of child was he at the age of three. What kind of boy would he have become in a farcical state like Turkey? Would his teens have been trouble free? Would he have ever made it to a Turkish university, a slim possibility, given the state induced poverty and lack of opportunity that prevails in the Turkish occupied Kurdistan? What would he have done about his mandatory military service in a country that would have prepared him to fire, yes fire, on his own people not just in Iraqi Kurdistan, but also in the city of his birth, Elih? If asked where he was from, would he have given that foul and impolite answer, “southeast Turkey”, or the polite but the prohibited one, Kurdistan? Now that he is in high heaven, what is he doing with his time? Can he take that bullet that the Turkish soldier lodged in his tiny head to Thomas Jefferson, your third president, a man who had the fear of God in his heart, and say that it was fired from an American gun, an M-16, when he was playing with his toys by someone who was allergic to his Kurdish identity? What would Jefferson tell him? What can you as his offspring tell me about the murder of the Kurdish children by American weapons? Do you believe in something called atonement? Would you consider removing your blessings from an evil design called the cultural genocide of the Kurds by the Turks?
As I was mulling over these and similar questions, something else occurred to me, and that was that the little toddler never actually knew he was a Kurd, never really understood why he was targeted, never really grasped the hatred that enabled a twenty year old Turkish Rambo wannabe to snuff life out of him. I thought perhaps I should write him a letter and explain to him the circumstances of his death, note the essential as well as the circumstantial, and say, for example, how his hapless mother coped, or is coping would be the better word, with his absence, how his dad is taking the news, and how his playmates are adjusting to life without him. I also wanted to tell him a little bit about life outside of Turkey, how other nations resolve their differences, and why the Turks and the Kurds haven’t been able to put an expiration date to their conflict. Finally, I wanted to see if I could get him to lobby God to work on his “contrary and wayward” Turkish offspring, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, so that they could be smart like President Vaclav Havel of old Czechoslovakia who listened to the concerns of the peoples in his care and oversaw an amicable divorce between the Czechs and the Slovaks and not dumb like Slobodan Milosevic who tried to force a marriage on peoples who didn’t want to live together and lost in the process not just his freedom, but also life and the moribund state of Yugoslavia as well.
I did actually write that letter. I would like to read it to you. I ask for your indulgence.
72 days ago today, you bid farewell to the known world. I was numbed when I saw the news. A soldier filled with hatred had pulled the trigger on you. You died instantly, but your frantic parents would not and could not accept the truth. They rushed you to the hospital. They wanted you alive. The doctors knew you were gone, but felt compelled to occupy themselves not for you, but your mom. They were seriously afraid that she would pass away in their hands. She just wouldn’t stop pulling her hair, making deep and bloody furrows with her nails on her face. I don’t know what went through the doctors’ mind, but I can tell you about mine: a nation that cannot protect its children is already half dead. You are its most blatant proof. I pray that the Kurds and their friends who have eyes that see will never close them to the evidence.
Hatred has been with us, at least, since the books were written. It has an uncanny ability to travel around the world. It flourishes, especially, in shallow minds. People, who think highly of themselves, like the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians, or the Germans when Adolf Hitler was around, are particularly vulnerable to it. In Turkey, where you opened your eyes, and then closed them for good only after, what, one thousand days, it is not uncommon to be consumed by it as early as you were. I guess all I am trying to say is that, when the die was cast for your presence on this earth, God had chosen the wrong place, the wrong race, and the wrong neighbors for you. If he ever decides to send you back, ask to be a Dane. Yes, these children of Vikings, once the scourge of the known world, are now the most faithful observers of the Biblical injunction: “To those much is given much is expected.” I have always had a soft spot for the friends of humanity in this world. They are now ranked the best in our merciless globe.
Down here in the city of your birth, you were buried right away according to the rituals of Islam. Kurds raised their trembling hands over your tiny grave and prayed that you would make it to heaven. I had no doubts that you would. To begin with, you knew nothing of hatred, the surest sign of a one-way ticket to hell, and its debilitating effects on the societies that are afflicted by it. Your good heart, although didn’t beat very long, was free of ill feeling towards anyone including those who couldn’t stand your name. Yes, Fatih, of all Kurds who have died for Kurdistan with a bullet wound, and God knows our brave fighters have been generous on this score to a fault; you probably have the cleanest record. If you agree, can you please take it upon yourself to ask God for a special audience? If he grants you one, will you be so kind to raise a question with him that has been bugging me for the past several years now?
You see, I have been telling the Americans to help us, the hapless Kurds, but I don’t have much to show for all my efforts, demonstrations, vigils and even a hunger strike on the steps of the their Capitol. I have been imploring people all over this country that Turkey can pass as a carbon copy of South Africa and that Apartheid didn’t just melt away on its own, but required the people of goodwill to call it with its proper name, evil, and then fought, fearlessly and selflessly, for its extirpation from the face of the earth. The same, I have pleaded, needs to be undertaken relative to Turkey, good people need to divest from it, stop buying its products, block its participation at the International Olympics, and censure it at the United Nations. So far, only my closest friends have bought into my arguments. The question I have for you is really a simple one. Would it help if I color myself black and urge all the other Kurds to do the same? I guess all I am trying to say is that I will do anything to help the good folks see what evil has done to the Kurds. Many, for example, tell me upfront that they can’t tell a Kurd from a Turk. That is like saying the Italians look like the Greeks. They do, but that doesn’t mean one should dominate to the other. The same should apply to the Kurds as well as Turks. Let me also make you privy to a secret, if God says yes to my question of going black, with the price of a single Kalashnikov, we Kurds could paint the inhabitants of an entire village. In other words, freedom is worth every trick in the book or outside of it save murder. Please let me know as soon as you can.
Yes, Fatih, we definitely need HELP, and I am writing the word help in bold and block letters, to bring the Turks to their senses. In the aftermath of your death, in case you are wondering, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep T. Erdogan, never bothered to send your family his condolences and did not say anything like he will undertake procedures to court martial the soldier that murdered you on that fateful day, March 29, 2006. I am not a vindictive person by nature, but I can’t help thinking what if, let’s say, a Russian soldier had murdered his grandson with a single bullet, just as it happened to you, in cold blood. Would he have then made that indecent, that reprehensible, that blasphemous, that abominable remark that you had asked for your death? Is it possible that he might have then understood your grandpa’s pain?
I have one other thing to tell you before my parting words. In the days after your death, I read pretty much everything that was written in the Kurdish and Turkish dailies about you and your friends. One paper noted that 563 people were arrested and 202 of them were kids in Amed alone. Another one said 182 individuals were treated for wounds in its hospitals. Weeks later, still another noted 116 children might be facing jail times of double digits. None of that was news to me as someone who follows Turkey closely. But what the Turkish police had announced on their PA systems, in the course of demonstrations, did take me completely by surprise. They had taunted the Kurds in the city of Amed with the following words, “Your children are outside, and you are inside; if you are man, come outside and fight us!” Can you ask God what he made of the scene? Ask him also if the Turks would have done the same thing if America had given its weapons to the Kurds? I dare say they would have run away, all the way, to Ankara, bag and baggage, as they say. I am dying to know what he is going to tell you!
I have saved the best for the last. On the day of your death, the Turkish prime minister was not in his country; he was in Sudan. After delivering a speech titled, the “Dialog of Civilizations” to the delegates of the Arab League, please don’t ask me who suggested his name for the topic, he visited Darfur and thumbed his nose to the world by saying that genocide was not taking place in the country of his hosts. He then flew home and blamed you and your mom for your predicament. In his words, “The security forces will intervene against the pawns of terrorism, no matter if they are children or women.” I remember muttering to myself, he can’t be saying so. But then I hadn’t yet heard of the most grotesque. It came on April 10, 2006. The head of Turkish military, Hilmi Ozkok, visited Amed, the center of the Kurdish uprising, and said, “We love all the people of this region.” And without missing a beat added, “The Turkish Armed Forces are doing their job.”
When love, that noblest of all human sentiments, is mistaken for hate, when duty is equated with your death, and when security forces are used not to protect but to uphold the cultural genocide of the strong over the weak, I can at least be sure of one thing, and that is, I am so happy that you did not get to hear these most fiendish of all fiendish pronouncements in the short life that you had. I can barely take them from a distance of five thousand miles. I guess all I am trying to say is that our work is cut out for us Fatih. You have got to get God, who is supposed to love all his children equally on this tortured world, to see what is happening to the Kurds and Kurdistan; and the Kurds like me have got to do their best with the Americans and America. As it stands, Washington is not siding with the right, and the Kurds. If or when it does, beginning in Iraqi-Kurdistan, we too can take possession of our lands, raise our own flag, issue our own coin, and take our empty seat at the United Nations. It will be a glorious day indeed. You can be sure of one thing: untold bottles of champagne will be uncorked to celebrate the event.
This was my letter to the Kurdish toddler. Thank you for hearing it out. I am now ready for your questions.