“Is it Possible, I Wonder, That for Us too, A Star Will Emerge Out of the Firmament?”
July 22, 2004
The call came from the Department of Defense. The caller said, “I am wondering if you could help me identify some Kurdish rugs.” He added, “I have got two of them here; one for Secretary Rumsfeld and the other for Deputy Wolfowitz. They are gifts of the Kurdistan Regional Government. They appear hand woven. Would you know if they are made of silk or cotton?” I said, “I don’t know the answer, but I could share with you the coordinates of the representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government.” And I did.
The call came in the middle of my reading of Christiane Bird’s new book, “A Thousand Sighs, a Thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan.” It made an interesting interruption for the book is filled with favorable references on the part of Kurdish Iraqis towards the Americans. One Kurd confides in the author, “The United States [is] by far the greatest and most honorable country in the world.” Another one who passes as a historian adds, “Truly, [the years 1520 to 1561 were] the golden period for [Kurdistan] and the Kurds. And now we hope America will [usher] another.”
The reference to “now” was made before the war. The historian, Ms. Bird tells us, was giving voice to his prayers — like all Kurds in Iraq, but unlike those in Turkey and Iran — for a quick U.S. intervention in Baghdad, which would be followed with a new awakening in Kurdistan — with the Kurds taking major steps forward in the fields of arts, literature, music, and sciences. More than two years have gone by. Uncle Sam is in “firm” control of Baghdad. The Kurdish rugs are finding their way to the Pentagon. Could the second golden age of the Kurds and Kurdistan really be next?
It is too early to prove or disprove the Kurdish historian right. What is crystal clear, at least to this activist, is that the address, where the Kurdish rugs were sent, was wrong. Secretary Rumsfeld does not care about the Kurds. Deputy Wolfowitz would bury us alive, as a favor to the Turks, if hecould get away with it. What the Kurdish historian should have done is not only to focus on the glories of the Kurdish past — a few we do have, when bowing was reserved only for God — but also brush up on our own stupendous failures, the types that have made us the laughing stock of the world. Had he done so, his exuberance would have been guarded. The same, by the way, applies to the representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
For in the memory of people still living, another Kurdish leader, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, showered another American, Henry Kissinger, with gifts more valuable than rugs, some were irreplaceable Kurdish artifacts, only to find that he was sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik and exchanged for some change money with Saddam Hussein, the rising star of the Baath Party in Iraq. The year was 1975. Overnight, the Kurdish revolution collapsed. But the irony of the criminal act lingers. Dr. Kissinger almost lost his life to the Nazi death camps in Germany. In Iraq, he had no compunction to deliver us to the same. He did that, after being awarded with the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.
So I gave the coordinates of the representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the fellow at the Department of Defense — helping the Kurds and their friends has been my preoccupation for the last eleven years — but I could not get this Kissinger wannabe Wolfowitz out of my mind. I imagined him serenading on the Kurdish rug — elaborately designed by some Kurdish widows, painstakingly woven by some Kurdish orphans, two groups, which were, in turn, the gifts of Saddam Hussein to Kurdistan.
Reflecting on the imaginary scene for days afterwards, I got this quirky idea that if there were justice in this world, every time Wolfowitz stood on that beautiful Kurdish rug, an invisible angel would appear out of nowhere and pull it from under his feet. He would fall flat on his back or front or side and the view would qualify, I am sure of it, for the perfect definition of poetic justice in the world. Imagine seeing the spectacle itself in the pages of a patriotic Kurdish daily — I would have greeted the news by quoting the tragic poet, Euripides, “Let me see that sight and I could die content.”
But since there is no justice in this world, the best we Kurds can do is to strive for its semblance in our lives, personally, nationally, and why not, we have got to have some Mother Teresas as well to spread the Kurdish fame worldwide, but only after the liberation of Kurdistan. So it was in the context of wanting to see how we Kurds could free ourselves in the Middle East, that it occurred to me, had the representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government asked me for a gift idea for Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, I would have suggested two autographed copies of Christiane Bird’s new book for them. Yes, the books, I am absolutely sure of it, would have injected some sense into their deliberations relative to Iraq, and perhaps – here I am reminded of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which played a significant role in the emancipation of the slaves in the South — put the Kurds on the path of liberty, which would have been good for the United States, and should I say the unpopular as well? Israel.
Speaking of Israel, last month, Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist of the New Yorker, had a lengthy article in his magazine about the on-again-off-again Israeli-Kurdish relationship that brought forth absolute and vociferous denials from both the Israeli as well as the Kurdish leaders, apparently, you have got to get your eyes ready for this part, to assuage the Turkish and the Arab public opinions respectively. Wow, I said to myself, I should call this journalist, Mr. Hersh, and thank him for discomforting two of the most implacable foes of the Kurds, killing two birds with one stone as it were. But before I even could locate his number, Al Arabiya, the Fox News of the Middle East, called me, — just like my call from the Department of Defense, I was surprised to hear from them – with an unusual request, the caller was almost begging me on the phone, “I am wondering, If you could defend Mr. Hersh’s point of view on the air.” He added, “Our regular Kurdish Iraqi contributors are avoiding the topic.” He did not say it, but had he continued, he would have said, “like a plague.”
This time, I could help. This time, I told the caller to expect me at his studio for his live evening show to the Arab world. I reached for the New Yorker article once more and read it again to see if I could glean some additional lessons from it. If given a chance, I was going to shame the Arab world for being the authors of the gassing of the Kurds. Lest it needs to be stated, I consider it the patriotic duty of every living Kurd to discomfort, short of torture and death, every living Turk or Arab or Persian who buys into the argument that their peoples have an “inherent” right to dismember Kurdistan and terrorize its children. But knowing what I know about the Arab world, I also prepared myself for the worst, i.e., something along the lines of “backstabbing” Kurds, who are now siding with the Israelis, and who also sided with the Americans in the occupation of Iraq.
I was right about preparing myself for the worst. Lucky for me, Al Arabiya had also arranged for a Turkish guest on the program as well. Like Mr. Hersh, I was going to kill two birds with one stone, I murmured to myself quietly. Our host, facing us from his perch in Dubai, went straight to the question and wanted to know what could be behind the Israeli policy of reaching out to the Kurds. I countered him by saying, 87 years ago, when the British helped the Arabs to chase the Turks out of their lands, freedom won in the region. Today, if Israelis back the Kurds to chase the Arabs from the Kurdish lands, freedom, again, would win, and most importantly, the rapprochement, if handled correctly, could bring some balance to the region. The Turkish guest countered me by saying something like Israelis were mature enough not to do such a thing. That is an improvement, I said to myself, for his ancestors did not say a thing about the British being “mature” when they landed in Basra; they called the Arabs who cooperated with them, “backstabbers” as well as “gavurs,” i.e., the infidels.
Oh, one more thing about the gift items, no, I was not consulted about them, and since, to be honest with you, neither Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz would have read a book that was recommended by some hapless Kurds, be they the representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government — we are only consulted as victims of chemical weapons, torture survivors, and lately, on occasions, as rug experts or fortune tellers who could read the Israeli tea leaves — I thought I owed you, the readers of the Kurdish political world, my own impressions of the insightful primer since I say, ideally, it should be read by those who are making policy in Washington, DC. My hope is that every Kurd who is fluent in English and wears, proudly, the adjective, patriotic, next to her or his name would invest in a copy of it. Better yet, she or he should buy at least a dozen copies to keep them at hand, as gift items, for their friends. And if Iraq disintegrates, and this Kurd hopes and prays that it does, you would be the first to know why the “humpty dumpty” could not be put together.
There is a famous saying of a wise man about the pleasures of the table. “The first glass of a good bottle of wine quenches thirst, the second one begets jollity, the third stirs up desire and the fourth makes one mad.” This book, like a good bottle of wine, is bound to affect you, but I hope it will also transform you, i.e., make you a friend of the Kurds. It is the product of an educated mind holding a dismembered people and a partitioned land to the light of analytical — compassionate, too — inquiry, ostensibly, purely for cultural understanding, but as the honest Turks or Persians or Arabs would tell you, in the profaned and desolated Kurdistan, you could not separate it from the political realm. The author has tried it. At times, she has succeeded. Often though, the emerging picture, though labeled “light” or “cultural” is laden with pain, sadness, contradictions, questions, wonders and some comic moments as well. Hearing the ancient Kurdish tales comes across as “interesting”; listening to the modern ones, “I didn’t know where to put my eyes, or what to do with my limbs,” she says.
In Turkish Kurdistan, where this scribbler was born and raised, the Kurds are “alive on the outside, but dead on the inside.” The characters that she meets are afraid to give their full names, they use assumed ones or the author has decided to withhold them lest she contributes to their sufferings. A Kurdish woman relates to the author, “There was a boy I liked very much, and finally one day I told him I was Kurd. But he did not believe me. He said, ‘Don’t talk about yourself that way! It is like swearing! Kurds are ugly and stupid. You are too beautiful and smart to be a Kurd.’” Another one says, “I hated being Kurdish growing up. I tried not to think about it, and I never said I was a Kurd — I did not even want my mother to come to my school conferences, because she spoke only Kurdish and then my friends would know.”
If you say these scenes have eerie similarities with what went on in Nazi Germany, you are right and also wrong. You are right, for the Jews faced some of the same things until Hitler decided to extirpate them once and for all. You are wrong, for the Kurds, unlike Jews, are persecuted on their own lands, an important point often neglected in the discourses of those who counsel patience to the Kurds and urge Turkey to engage in the acrobatics of reforms. Of course, not all Kurds have accepted their self-appointed Turkish masters. Many have struggled mightily to free themselves from the blasphemous yoke. Their last attempt lasted some fifteen years. To her credit the author calls it one of the “greatest” underreported stories of our times, but unfortunately also dubs it as a “civil war.” A civil war it was not. A war of national liberation was its name, even though one of its authors, Abdullah Ocalan, now calls it a “mistake.”
One good thing about the “greatest” underreported Kurdish struggle is that it has come to a halt not because it was a “mistake”, but because it was underreported and waged by a merciless foe against a predominantly agrarian population that was easily outmaneuvered, in addition to being subjected to internal contradictions. Take, for example, the story of Sakine, a Kurdish woman, who mothered five sons in Turkish Kurdistan. One died in prison, of a hunger strike, she tells the author. The second joined the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, and died fighting the Turkish forces. The third fell victim to a traffic accident. The fourth was arrested, jailed, “raped with sticks,” given a sentence of thirteen years, and joined the rebels right after his release. My husband divorced me when I visited him in the prison, “saying, respectable women don’t visit jails.” The fifth is with me and I am very afraid for him, wondering, if I will be able to keep him safe. But another Kurdish woman, a writer, Suzan Samanci, sees something else in Sakine’s story and says, “War makes many people, one people. The war woke us up; we learned a lot of things. Now villagers want to be doctors and lawyers, we want our language.”
A Kurdish lawyer might be — this is more like a prayer than a certainty — a better fighter for the Kurds and Kurdistan in a place like Turkey, a country that is aspiring to become a member of the European Union, but what about the Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Syria, saddled as they are, or were in the case of Baghdad, with absolute dictatorships? Iraq under Saddam Hussein has been subjected to all kinds of scrutiny, and one might innocently say, all that needs to be said — has been said — about that forsaken country, but such a statement would belie the sufferings of the Kurds — as the book makes it clear — and it looks like there is an attempt in the “new” Iraq to do just that, for the sake of creating an “Iraqi” identity. A subjugated and withered Kurdistan has always been the preoccupation of Arab governments in Baghdad and a duly elected one in January of 2005 will continue, when it feels strong, with the same policy, this time, under the guise of “democracy,” just like in Turkey.
But no amount of guise or disguise, be it democratically woven or dictatorially put together, can cover what has been created on the ground, in the killing fields of Kurdistan. The word “lugubrious” is not a word that Americans use in their daily conversations with one another. In Kurdistan, it is, often, your constant companion along with its cousins, nephews and nieces. I was not sure of its meaning and looked up for it in a dictionary. It means mournful, sad and gloomy. It is not just people’s faces, but also the places of summary executions or numerous RIP signs with identical dates of deaths that force you to seek solace in these haunting words. Dr Shawkat, a civil servant in Dohuk, is paired with this word often. The sources of his sadness are many. Some are absolutely heartrending. One that he relates to the author leaves one gaping. At the age of sixteen, in 1963 — that was before Saddam Hussein — I was “arrested [over] breakfast with my mother who was epileptic,” he tells the author. My “last sight of home was [my] mother running after the police car and collapsing on the road in a seizure,” he adds.
Then there is the story of an English teacher, again in Dohuk, at the College of Arts, who shares with the author one of her own “lugubrious” moments. “Once I asked the students to write an essay about their most memorable moment.” Then she continues, “One student wrote that she came home one day, when she was ten, to find the whole family gone. She never saw any of themagain,” — this was under Saddam Hussein.
If you are still reading this, and I am thankful to you for so doing, you probably are wondering, my God, Kani, is this what you call a good bottle of wine? It is more like vinegar, and you should know the difference between the two. It is the Kurdish wine, I should have conceded to you at the beginning, potent to be sure, but like Kurdish politics, topsy-turvy, upside down or is it downside up? I am sorry that you have become mad before feeling jolly, but bear with me, what I have got left is guaranteed to tickle your cheerful and hopeful side.
The things that stand out in the riveting pages of Ms. Bird’s book are the well-known Kurdish hospitality and lately ill-directed Kurdish gallantry. The first sample is worth quoting in its entirety, “When I arrived in Qamishli, the Syrian border town, on my way back from Iraq, my host family was waiting for me. We had spoken only briefly on the phone, and I had never met our mutual contact, but in true Kurdish fashion, the family showered me with gracious hospitality. They had turned their cheery children’s room into my guestroom, prepared an elaborate welcoming meal for me, and arranged to take time off from work to provide tours of the area. Before I left them five days later, they would also insist on taking me out to dinner several times, buy me a half-dozen CDs and ring to remember them by, purchase my plane ticket from Qamishli to Damascus, and give me money for the taxi ride between the Damascus airport and my hotel. No amount of protestation on my part would deflect them from these purposes.”
The second sample has to do with the epic of Dim Dim, a castle in eastern Kurdistan, not only because it is more telling than the hospitality of the Kurdish family in Qamishli, but also because it is emblematic of the present situation of the Kurds and Kurdistan. Like the Jews of Masada, this symbol of Kurdish resistance to tyranny, soon to be turned into a motion picture by filmmaker Anwar Sindy, needs careful scrutiny, especially by those who aim for the noble goal of liberating Kurdistan from its present captivity.
A Kurdish prince of the Bradosti tribe is willing to exchange his fidelity with the Persian Shah Abbas the First for some limited autonomy. While fighting for the Shah, he loses his hand and gets a replacement of sort that is made of pure gold — hence his Kurdish nickname, Lepzerin. Eventually, he and the Shah have their falling out. The latter angered by the subordinate act of a subject, surrounds his castle, Dim Dim, and demands submission while shutting off its water supply. In an act that has brought deathless glory to the name of Kurds and Kurdistan all over the world, Lepzerin decides to fight sword in hand rather than bow for a bowl of water. The women of Dim Dim commit suicide. Lepzerin dies in the battlefield. But one of his sons and some of his fighters manage to breakthrough with glory that will live so long as there are Kurds in this world.
A people capable of giving birth to such generous and gallant souls will not and cannot long endure captivity. One day, when the children of that hospitable Kurdish family in Qamishli pay as much attention to liberty as they do to hospitality, the Arabs will have no choice but to pack and leave for the lands of their ancestors or submit to our laws as neighbors. One day, when the children of Kurdistan learn the lesson of the castle of Dim Dim, that you could never sacrifice essential liberty for temporary safety, freedom will be our lot as well, as it was of the surviving Bradostis. The latter lesson should act as a warning for our present day Kurdish leaders in Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus. The first should never be abandoned, but must be coupled with a love of learning in the fields of arts, literature, music, and sciences so that we too could raise our palm for liberty not because, when the day comes, we would be girded with a sharp sword, which is important, but because we would be equipped with a sharp pen, which is essential in the world that we have inherited. One million Kurds of Diaspora should lead the way. The children of Kurdistan are ready to invest their faith and reputation in a leadership that would be selfless and fearless for the emancipation of the Kurds and liberation of Kurdistan.