A Story Out Of Kurdistan
Johns Hopkins University
(Slightly altered versions of this statement were also delivered at the World Affairs Councils in Santa Rosa, Anchorage and Juneau)
September 30, 2006
I live in Washington, DC. Like most of its residents, I take the preoccupation of my city seriously, which means follow its politics closely. Now, Washington isn’t what it used to be, when, say, Mr. Roosevelt first arrived at the White House as the first citizen of the republic. Then, isolationism was the policy of choice; today, such a course is not within the realm of possibility. For better or worse, with the end of the Cold War, the refuge of beginning with the religiously persecuted in Europe, later politically or economically disenfranchised all over the globe, the place the school children learn to call “the land of the free and the home of the brave” has, whether one likes it or not, become the most important country in the whole world with potential to do good as well as ill never before seen or heard in the history of humanity. One hundred years from now, what will the judgment of historians be about this new development? Will they say, Washington used its awesome power for good, regulated liberty with order, sought peace with justice, and bridged the gap between its expressed ideals and its actual policy, or blew it all away, squandered it badly and proved to be the proverbial bull in the china shop that made the world an unsafe place for all its inhabitants? An optimist by nature, I am not so sure if those who speak on your behalf have what it takes to be the role models of our times. This evening, I want to take you to a place called Kurdistan and show you a page out of its history. Perhaps it can offer you a clue as to where you stand. I will be content if it helps you conduct a better foreign policy; I will be the happiest ever if it makes you a friend of my people’s everlasting struggle for liberty.
But first let me start with your capital. In the city on the Potomac, the newspaper of note is the Washington Post. It measures the pulse of the city as well as of the country and some days doesn’t even shy away from doing the same for humanity and its turbulent journey on our common home, the earth. I read it religiously. Have done so for the past 13 years. Because my lapses have been few and far between, I have a very good feel for my morning companion. I am, for example, no longer startled by its opinion and editorial pages. It is liberal on some issues and conservative on others. It was pro-Israel in the recent war between Hezbollah and the Jewish state; it is pro-Chechen when the recalcitrant nation thumbs its nose at Moscow. Darfur, thank God, has never been without coverage in its pages. The Kurds, my people, have had a checkered history with the Post. Some five million us, who live in an artificial construct called the state of Iraq, have received an okay coverage. Close to twenty million of us who live in a dysfunctional one called Turkey have not been as fortunate. I am a Kurd from Turkish occupied Kurdistan. I don’t have a good relationship with my Post. Because it is an important newspaper, because you are a critical audience, I thought perhaps I should relate to you my dissatisfaction with it through a story about the Kurds. It goes without saying that I would very much appreciate your feedback. If it is negative, I will be wiser for it; if it is positive, I will tell my supporters to take heart, their investment in me is, to use a business term, paying healthy dividends.
I want to begin with an example of what I think is too frequently taking place on the pages of the Post. On the last Sunday of last month, its Outlook section printed an article, “A Father’s Ode to His Lost Son”, by David Grossman, an Israeli novelist and peace activist. Not accustomed to reading a funeral oration in its pages, and this one about an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon, I found myself teary-eyed and also puzzled. I was, to be sure, happy to see such heartfelt prose greet me in the morning. It was better than reading the story of a group of heartless Shiites who had murdered 14 hapless Sunnis in Baghdad just because it was their misfortune to have Omar as their first names. His 2000 or so words were carefully chosen, appropriately placed, beautifully arrayed, and interspersed with more than a few anecdotal tidbits that could only come from a close relationship of a father with his son. After reading the piece, I felt like thanking him for making me privy to his shattered world. I did so in spirit. But thanking the Post never crossed my mind. To the contrary, I thought the Post was failing its readers when it was honoring the dead of the Jewish state, but neglecting the unseen, the obscene and the grotesque stories of other lands. A paper aspiring to be the voice of humanity must, even if only on occasion, make room for the dead of, why not, Kurdistan as well. Am I wrong to assume so? Is it not right for an American newspaper to use the principal of proportionality in its coverage? If the Post can’t do it, who could? Would the New York Times consider the honor?
Assuming that there might indeed be one paper out there, that might actually want to print a Kurdish ode to a fallen Kurdish woman or man, I took to my keyboard to compose one, just in case. It took me several days. If you don’t mind, I would like to read it to you, to see if I have what it takes to compose a comparable one. Mine too is about 2000 words long. Like Mr. Grossman, I am a peace activist. Unlike him, and this is an important criteria, I am no novelist. There is, in other words, a small chance you will not be disappointed with my musings. But if you are, please don’t blame Professor Croatti, my kind host, who has absolutely nothing to do with my failings. The children of enslaved nations are unequal, often, to the challenges facing their peoples. “Fear”, Cicero once noted, “is of all emotions the most debilitating.” Your own history provides ample examples of it. It wasn’t Uncle Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe who freed the slaves; it was honest Abe. According to John Adams, your second president, General Washington won the revolutionary struggle not with flying colors, but through a war of attrition that came very close to being lost to the Brits. Across the ocean, in Europe, Poland owes its liberation to the blood of Red Army in spite of reeling under its virtual domination for the next fifty years. Had Allies won the Battle of Gallipoli, the greater Kurdistan would have been a colony of Russia, and I won’t be the first nor the last Kurd to remind this audience or our neighbors, the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians, that such a turn of events in history might have resulted in our freedom today as well, as it happened to the Georgians, Armenians and Azeris under similar circumstances.
But as fate would have it Kurdistan became the spoil of war for the newly minted tyrannies of the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. None knew of their obligations to the subject peoples under the laws of nations. All adopted policies to do away with the Kurds and Kurdistan, once and for all. That is why many Kurds, today, are the most vociferous supporters of President Bush’s Iraq policy, not because we want America to have colonial possessions in the Middle East, but because the American domination, barring Kurdish freedom, is more palatable to us than what has been our lot for the last 85 years. But there is more to this intervention than the demise of a single tyrant who once was known as the Butcher of Baghdad. The Middle East is boiling is being forced to come to terms with its natural constituent parts. A couple of things are crystal clear at least to this activist. Sleep has left the bedrooms of local dictators and their bloodthirsty thugs; hope has become the predominant sentiment among the disenfranchised populations, such as the Kurds. The challenge facing my people is not the enmity of our neighbors, that is a given, no one needs to lecture us on it, but your own faith in democracy and whether it will have a closed or open auction for the equivalent of 30 silver coins. As Kurds as well as democrats of the region, we are not waiting for our friends in the West to make up their minds or provide us with cues. We are plodding onward to change the face of the Middle East because it is our home and because we are the children of those who once sparked a civilization and gave directions to the world.
Now is perhaps the best time to tell you about my own ode to a fallen Kurd. It is about a young man who was found dead under a pile of burning books in a place called Shemzinan, in Turkish occupied Kurdistan. No one has been able to determine the exact time of his death, but the day, November 11, 2005, when written in Turkish, reads 9/11/2005, the Turks put the day before the month, and makes an eerie comparison to what happened here five years and nineteen days ago today. Then nineteen angry and ignorant men assaulted and insulted a happy go lucky nation on its shores. Then, thousands of your loved ones died, some vaporized in the inferno of burning jet fuel, some buried beneath the rubble. In the attack on Kurdistan, we know of one turncoat Kurd who was used, the Turks are too “civilized” to bloody their own hands, to murder the subject of my talk. In the attack on Kurdistan, in addition to the murdered young Kurd, hundreds of books were burned; a few were the works of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Steinbeck. I don’t know about you but the juxtaposition of these two events, even if you just consider their identical yet discordant dates, has brought to my mind the mournful and immortal line of the German writer, Heinrich Heine, who once noted, “Where they burn books, they will burn humans.” For the life of me, I cannot tell the difference between the mindsets that were behind both events. Can you? And yet one, Al-Qaeda, is hunted the world over, while the other, the government of Turkey, the evil system that wants to extirpate the name of Kurds and Kurdistan from the map of the Middle East, is hailed as a respectable member of the international community. Is this what Goethe had in mind when he said, “Nothing is as frightening as ignorance in action”?
I am now ready to read you my own frightening Kurdish ode. As is often the case in situations like this one, I ask for your indulgence.
I am paying my respects to you at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. It is against the law to do so where you were born and met a violent end. 326 days separate us from the moment of your death. I will start with those dearest to you, your daughter — your darling, your son and the mother of your children. All are fine. I will not say they have gotten used to your absence; they have not. I will say this though your children are at school, and given the circumstances, are doing as good as they are able to. They are, to quote an expression popular with Aussies, keeping their “chins-up”, and are missing you just the same. Oh, one other thing, since no one has come back to earth from heaven to report, in case there is no concept of time there, your girl, your Fatima, is eight now. She is in second grade. Your boy is seven and started school this month.
I don’t know whether God has told you of the events in Shemzinan. He seems to develop blind spots for certain peoples from time to time. The Kurds of Kurdistan feel that way, as did the Jews of Europe in the 1940s and the Armenians of Ottoman Empire in the 1910s. I guess, all I am trying to say is that, there are a lot of disappointed and angry believers down here. I know there is something called Judgment Day, both the Bible and the Koran attest to it, and you will get your redress for the attack on your life. But today, I am with the students of Professor Croatti who have kindly agreed to let me share with them your story and its aftermath as an example of what it means to be a Kurd in these cruelest of cruel times in the life of Kurdistan.
Because I know you are watching us, I also want to tell you a little about my audience. When Thucydides said, “We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless character; but as a useless one”, he was referring to the Athenians of his day who took part in decision-making of every policy of the city-state. Today, he would have said the same thing for this crowd. They are the flower of this nation, the key to its hopeful future, and most importantly for the Kurds and Kurdistan, interested in not only expanding freedom and liberty at home, and please pay close attention to me here, but also abroad. Yes, Zahir, I used to say, Americans worship freedom at home and money abroad. Not anymore. Do you really want me to tickle you with some good news about the Kurds in America? The presidential hopeful, Joseph Biden, openly says he is for the Kurdish freedom and in plain English. I am praying for this Irish Catholic to become president. Please, you do the same.
Coming back to your death, when freedom came under a merciless attack on 9/11/2005, and I am using the Turkish way of reading the calendar here, you were not its intended target. Seferi Yilmaz, the owner of the Hope Bookstore, and his subversive books were. Two officers of the Turkish military together with a Kurdish turncoat, all working undercover, had taken it upon themselves to assassinate him in an inferno of burning books. They were so sure of themselves that they had come to the scene of crime in their own civilian car, with their own identification cards, and you will not believe this, 361 bullets in their trunk together with three Kalashnikovs and several lists with names of Kurds and places too, one of them a mosque, all marked with bright red markers, to be blown up from the face of Kurdistan!
But as “luck” would have it, fortune did not fully cooperate with them this time. I am dying to know whether God had a role in it. Can you please ask him when you get a chance? Although these killers had done their homework well, mishaps haunted them from the very beginning. They had intended to go for the kill between the hours of 11:00 am and 11:30 am, a quiet time in the business district, since it coincided with the daily prayer time of the most mosque-going Kurds. Mr. Yilmaz, these assassins had discovered, was not a regular in the house of God and thought, correctly it turns out, would be waiting in his shop like a sitting duck. With his death, the authorities later revealed, they would have accomplished their 15th deed in 118 days in three neighboring districts. Who knows, their higher ups might have then considered them for some promotions perhaps!
That morning you woke up like any other day, according to your wife. You were in good health and only 29. Your day job was driving a taxi and when the business was down, you visited the only bookstore in town to fortify your mind. When I related this story to an American friend of mine once, he was curious to know if the bookstore had a Starbucks in it and, as you know, it didn’t. But there was something better than the Starbucks in that store. That was the owner, Seferi Yilmaz, who had spent fifteen years of his adult life in Turkish jails, from 23 to 38, and seemed to know everything, and I underline the word everything, about the books on his shelves. When you talked to him, I am just a tad curious, did he ever bring up the Kurds who were tortured to death in Amed Military Prison where he had been an inmate with some of the brightest and bravest Kurdish activists? Like them, you had a painful end, but were clueless that the appointed hour was approaching fast.
When it came, you were at the Hope Bookstore. I can’t get over the fact that you lost your life in a place named after hope. I am beginning to think we Kurds should perhaps avoid hopeful sounding places. Seferi, the shopkeeper, was preparing lunch; he was making an omelet of sorts, cooking some tomatoes with eggs in the back. He had asked you to partake in his repast, together with your cousin, Metin Korkmaz, who was visiting from the village of Altinsu, a Turkish name, since the Kurdish names for villages, towns, cities, mountains, rivers, valleys, plateaus and highlands have been prohibited by law. Imagine Americans calling Baghdad, Crawford on the Mississippi, in Iraq! The good folks around the world would march in the streets, including thousands here in Baltimore and many more in Turkey and call it a scandalous act; and yet when the same is done to the Kurds in Turkey, it is called “progress.” Back in the shop, as lunch was being served, two hand grenades were thrown inside. Seferi was the first to see them. Later, he told reporters that he had shouted, “Bombs! Run!” and hurled himself head first out of the door.
You became history at that very moment. Your cousin saved himself with the help of the dining table, which he had the presence of mind to turn it into a shield. Seferi, the shopkeeper, once outside, noticed a man running away from his shop. He followed suit. He also called on his neighbors to do the same. They were too happy to oblige. In 97 days, their town of 14,000 had been bombed six times. In addition to destroyed property, both Turks and Kurds had been killed. No one had claimed responsibility for these deadly attacks. Some Turks up until then had blamed the Mosad, the Israeli Intelligence Agency. Some Kurds were equally bewildered thinking that it might be the work of Al-Qaeda. But now a man was running away from the scene of crime, and if caught, might shed some light on the mysterious bombs that had been rocking not only Shemzinan, but also two neighboring towns since July 15, 2005.
You will be glad to know that the culprit was indeed caught. The fact that he turned out to be a Kurdish turncoat shamed us all including our friends around the world. At the time of the chase, he had run towards a civilian car parked on the main street. The undercover Turkish officers were waiting for him. Had they known what was afoot; they would have just deserted him. He was after all an expendable item. As he reached the backseat of the parked vehicle, the crowd surrounded it from all sides. A heated argument ensued. When the word got out that you had not survived the attack, the multitude began pelting the vehicle with rocks, kicks as well as sticks. One of the officers, Ali Kaya, told them that he was an undercover police officer. It was like adding fuel to the fire. But the officer continued with his arrogance and even managed to get into the trunk of his car and grabbing one of the Kalashnikovs aimed at the assembled crowd.
Now here I need to take a break and dwell on the mentality behind a so-called police officer’s decision to protect the culprit and threaten its victims. If you think this is unthinkable in a country that goes by the name of a democracy, wait till you hear the accolades he got from Yasar Buyukanit, the highest ranking Turkish military officer, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, when questioned about the attack, chided the reporters by saying, “I know Ali Kaya. He was my soldier. He wouldn’t do such thing.” It turns out he had. But Ferhat Sarikaya, the Turkish prosecutor, who indicted him, was dismissed from his job. Sabri Uzun, the head of Turkish Security and Intelligence Office, got axed as well. He had told an investigating committee of the Turkish parliament, “When the thief is inside the house, the lock has no use.”
Mr. Uzun, to his credit, had correctly diagnosed the nature of the crisis facing Turkey, but not its extent. It is not just one thief that is inside the house, the place is “a den of robbers” to borrow a phrase from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 11, verse 17. The muggers, for now, proudly go by the name of Turkish military and run a state with the enthusiastic blessings of the international community. Now most of the states in the world have armies that take their orders from the elected civilians. In Turkey, it is the other way around; the army has a state and its politicians are its gofers. All this, unfortunately, goes to the beginning of the Turkish republic. It was its greatest misfortune to be saddled not with a human being with a sense of proportionality, but a despot who thought very highly of himself and even dictated that he be called Ataturk, the father of all Turks.
Now if you want to have a glimpse into that evil man’s soul, or of those of his cohorts who are now running the county as his carbon copies, suffice it to say that it was him who said all Kurds are Turks and thus sowed the seeds of hatred between these two unhappy peoples. Never in the history of humanity has a fraud so big, a pretension so atrocious, a theory so inimical to human nature, and a crime so grotesque ever been conceived by even the greatest ignoramuses in the world. His name will forever be remembered as a proverb of infamy, depravity, immorality and outright stupidity. Just as by ordering an Arabian horse a Spanish one will never pass as a fact, so should we not play with facts and call Kurds, Turks, against their wills. This inanity was what swept you away on 9/11; and it is what we must fight now so that at least your children will be safe from it when they are grown ups.
The time has come for me to put an end to this ongoing and blood-dripping tale and say goodbye to you. I was going to part with some good news, but there is also the bad kind. Because this is a solemn occasion, and because my hosts deserve unequivocal truth, I have to tell them, and it is with a heavy heart, of the latest between Turkey and the United States. On July 5, 2006, not even nine months after your death, the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Foreign Minister of Turkey Abdullah Gul signed a “Shared Vision” statement. It had the following choice words in its preamble: “The relationship between Turkey and the United States is characterized by strong bonds of friendship, alliance, mutual trust and unity of vision. We share the same set of values and ideals in our regional and global objectives: the promotion of peace, democracy, freedom, and prosperity.”
Regrettably, I am at a loss how to interpret this document. It is above my pay grade as the expression goes. What falls within it though is to finish telling you what took place at the scene of standoff on the main street in Shemzinan. It was initially resolved. The Turkish officers and their Kurdish assassin were arrested. The Kurds were asked to go home. But word got out that only the murderer was imprisoned and his conspirators were set free. It was then that a fight broke out, extending into days, spreading to several cities both in Kurdish east and Turkish west, between the Kurds and anything that had the word Turk in it. In the city of your birth, the statue of Ataturk was one of the first items to go with its head being decapitated. A few of the Turkish flags were lowered and burned. I was in Washington, DC then and all I could think of was the Yankee tribute to liberty in New York, in 1776, and how it too had resulted in the beheading of another tyrant’s statue, this time, King George the Third.
The Kurds, I later read in the reports, had thrown the severed head of Ataturk on a dumpster. The New Yorkers of 230 years ago were much more imaginative; they had placed it on a stick and positioned it by the entrance of a bar in Manhattan. It is, of course, with a profound sense of sadness that I, an admirer of American Revolution, have to tell my guests, the children of Jefferson, including Dr. Rice, that they have lost their revolutionary fervor and cannot even tell a tyrant from a freedom fighter. The torch of freedom has definitely changed hands. We are now vying for it, dying for it, taking up the humanity’s thankless task to lighten up the Middle East, to free the Kurds, and to proclaim to the world Victor Hugo’s undying observation, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”