A Story Out Of Kurdistan
World Affairs Council of Los Angeles
June 18, 2009
There is a non-profit organization in Washington, DC called the Close Up Foundation. It brings high school students to the nation’s capital for short stays. Like tourists, they see the buildings that are the hallmark of the city on the Potomac. Unlike tourists, they also meet the people who work inside them. The places that they frequent are the United States Congress, the White House and its many departments, the Mall and its various museums, and the watchdog of them all, the Media and its competing outlets. In fact, if you look at the purpose of Close Up on its website, it reads, “We fulfill our mission with exciting, hands-on programs for students and teachers in Washington. We use the city as a living classroom, giving students unique access to the people, processes and places that make up our nation’s capital.” Nowhere in that description is there a reference to my preoccupation, the Kurds and Kurdistan … and yet, Close Up and I have become an item as well.
How did that happen? Our time does not allow me to get into the specifics of the story; suffice it to note that an intern of mine alerted them to our presence. For a dozen or so years now, I have met thousands of your teenage sons and daughters, sharing with them a variation of a short Kurdish spiel of mine and taking their questions for about 30 to 35 minutes in every meeting that I have had with them. I am no authority on the quality of your public or private education, but the students who take part in the Close Up experience have, if you are curious about my impressions, what it takes to be the captains of your ship of state when they reach our age. Their curiosity is gratifying. Their concerns are genuine. Their dreams extend beyond your shores. In their hopes, when I look carefully, I can actually see a place called Kurdistan. I will make you privy to a secret too: they make my job, one of the hardest in Washington, DC, one of the most meaningful in the world.
Why am I telling you all this? I am doing so because in the spiel that I share with your kids, I often tell them to imagine themselves in a space shuttle traveling, with the speed of light, to a planet in the Milky Way and meeting a group of people who actually speak the English language. I then ask them, “If you were called to brief them about America or Americans, what would you tell them?” I have had a number of students take up my hypothetical question. I would like to share with you some of their answers. At one gathering, one student said, “I would like to tell them about the American flag.” At another, another one noted, “I would like to tell them of our four freedoms.” She was of course referring to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Not long ago, another one stated, “I would like to tell them of our first African American president.” And one answer that I really liked came from a young woman who said, “I would like to have them listen to my iPod.”
As you have guessed by now, I use their answers as a template of sorts to tell them about the Kurds and Kurdistan. If people are thirsting for lemonade, there is no need to serve them champagne. The contrasts between their America and our Kurdistan could not be starker. Your Old Glory flies all over this country, represents you at the United Nations, the Olympics, and even on your missions to the stars; ours is down in much of Kurdistan and you will not come across it either at the world body or the international event that honors the athletes. You take your four freedoms for granted; we only enjoy the second one, the freedom to worship. Those who rule us do not trust us with the other three. Like your politicians, we have Kurds with presidential aspirations, but ours are immediately declared, — you are going to hear me say a familiar word here, — “terrorists,” and are hunted down as if they were dogs with rabies. As to our iPods, it is safer to play Turkish, Persian and Arabic music on them; the Kurdish songs could get you into trouble and, if you are famous, drive you into exile.
Can you name me another country that at one time toyed with the idea of banning music? It was Afghanistan; the Taliban thought of it as a corrupting influence on the society and punished those who defied their dictates. This sickness, unfortunately, is not unique to the Middle East. The Germans, when the Nazis were calling the shots, practiced a variation of it. Heinrich Himmler, the head of SS, is said to have enjoyed repeating a line from a German play, “When I hear the word culture, I reach out to my revolver.” Unbeknownst to the world, Turkey, Syria, Iran and even Iraq, before the toppling of Saddam Hussein, have been experimenting with this humorless ideology on the Kurds as well. In my quiet moments, I have found myself comparing their collective behavior to the practice of British farmers who at one time decided to deny baby calves the milk of their mothers, — they thought they could sell it in the market to make more money, — and instead fed them liquid meals made from un-sellable remnants of animal parts known as “meat and bone meal” in the industry. This Godless intervention with the order of nature, turning vegetarian animals into meat eating monsters, gave us, the Mad Cow Disease. I don’t need to remind this audience what the milk deprived calves did to their owners, and the unsuspecting consumers, when they grew up. I can, however, tell you that, unless we stop those who are experimenting with Kurds, the world will not just have less music, but its void will be filled, I am afraid, with more violence.
I want to leave aside my commentary for a moment and tell you about the facts of one particular Kurdish song that has driven a Kurdish singer of Bono’s fame, Sivan Perwer, into exile and last year came very close to sending a radio DJ to jail for four years and six months. From the research that I have been able to do, the Kurdish ballad’s inception goes back to the First World War. A young Kurdish man enlists in the Ottoman Army. He fights the Allied Powers in the battle of Gallipoli. He dies thinking he was laying down his body for a place that he had called home. His bloody clothes are sent to his loved ones as remnants of his earthly belongings. It just happens that he had been engaged to a Kurdish woman before responding to the call of arms. The news devastates her. She laments his passing. Her mournful words become the material for a memorable song throughout Kurdistan. Because her loved one’s name was Mihemed, the song has come to be known as Mihemedo. I have seen grown Kurds shed tears listening to it. Suffice it to note it is a poignant one.
You are probably wondering who was that mad man that prohibited the Kurdish music. The monster in human form was none other than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of “modern” Turkey. In fact, he may have been the commander of the Kurdish soldier, the subject of the heartrending song, since he was a leading commander in the western front. While he was trying to stop the Allies at the Dardanelles, his colleague, Enver Pasha, was busy slaughtering Armenians throughout the Ottoman Empire. Since that crime went unpunished, a new one against the Kurds soon went into effect with the establishment of the Turkish Republic. But instead of killing Kurds outright, cultural genocide was seen fit to bring an end to our existence. With the prohibition of songs came the banning of the Kurdish language. Half of the Kurdish population of the Middle East, now numbering some 20 million souls, then trapped within the borders of the Turkish Republic, was declared Mountain Turks in the name of, get your ears ready for a gem here, “Western Civilization”. The plan was that, like cars of an assembly line, we would go into the Turkish schools as Kurds and come out of them as Turks. 86 years later, unlike GM, this Turkish plant is still hard at work with no sign of bankruptcy in sight.
While that unholy work goes on, with God’s indifference as it were, there was a sequel to the song Mihemedo on January 1, 2009. Somebody must have whispered in the ear of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan that the Kurdish song laments the passing of a Kurdish soldier, an Ottoman subject, against the British, the invaders of the Ottoman Empire. On that day, the song became “legal,” the charges against the DJ were dismissed and Turkey declared to the world that it was allowing Kurdish television and adopting the song, Mihemedo, as its tune. I had to pinch myself to make sure that what I was reading as news was real. Then I realized, — after checking the heavily controlled programs of the new station as if we Kurds need the Turks telling us how to speak our language, — that nothing had changed. Ataturk, the cancer of the Kurds, was now shoved down our throats with the help of our mother tongue. Is this any different than translating Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to Yiddish and broadcasting it live to the Jews? Has Hollywood ever concocted a more diabolical scenario? I can’t help but ask, how come your government has never rebuked Turkey for its cultural genocide against the Kurds? Since governments in democracies are supposed follow the demands of their constituencies, is there something you could do to curb the predatory racism of the Turks? Your children, my occasional students, deserve to live in a world free of Godless racists as do all calves free of Godless British farmers.