January 25, 2004
“A little bit of discomfort,” is what a friend confided in me by way of his reaction to the Kurdish film, “A Little Bit of Freedom,” which premiered here in Washington, DC, a few days ago. Another one said, “The filmmaker dared to open a door that no Kurd had touched before.” A third chimed in, “the only thing that we had left was our honor, and that too became a fair game for all.” I was drawn to the larger Kurdish Question, the struggle of the Kurds for freedom, and its repercussions among an exiled Kurdish community in Hamburg, Germany.
My Kurdish friends were referring to a platonic friendship between a Kurdish teen and an African one that gave birth to a gay moment that came, no one should be surprised here, with its tremors as well. The boys fought a bit and made up. The Kurds who were watching the film weren’t as forgiving though. There was a sense of invaded privacy. Something that was yours, and dear, was no longer so. To say that it was a time-stopping moment would be an understatement. For Kurds, it probably was comparable to how the Turks after sedating and blindfolding Mr. Ocalan had him pose for cameras in front of a Turkish flag, or Iranian killers passing as diplomats murdering Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou or Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani lining up to kiss Saddam Hussein.
Sometimes it may actually be good to lose everything in life. Adversity is a far better teacher than prosperity says the good old proverb. Perhaps that is what the director Yuksel Yavuz was trying to tell us in his film. A thirsty person who is given a little bit of water may never look for a permanent source. Imagine if you will, there is a law that bans the Kurds from drinking water! My hunch is, before long, you will find all Kurds fighting, tooth and nail, for the rivers of their fathers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. In this film — don’t let me scare you — there wasn’t such a stark scenario. In life, one hardly comes across alternatives so black and white. Our foes, for example, have managed to camouflage their stinking rule with honeyed words that induce sleep, as opposed to disgust, in the children of Kurdistan. The filmmaker himself was only trying a bit of cinema verite to show the world a bit of Kurdish reality in his Altona, Hamburg neighborhood. “A little bit of freedom” was as much about a little bit of freedom as it was about its total absence in Kurdistan. When the players appeared on the stage, virtually if you will, you saw fear, poverty of soul, and disintegration on many levels. The most telling part was Kurds killing and being killed by Kurds. It is the most popular sport in the Middle East, a multi-billion dollars undertaking akin to football in this country or soccer in Latin America and Europe. Like the gladiators who fought to death in Ancient Rome, our misery gives happiness to our masters and provides revenue for American and European arms merchants. The Turks, the Arabs and the Persians must have replayed the scene in their daydreams as well as night ones. At the theatre, I could not control my tears.
Woody Allen once quipped, “I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It is about Russians.” This film took five times as long. One could, like Mr. Allen, say it was about the Kurds. But it was also about our fallen flag, our prohibited language, our partitioned country, our murdered fathers and mothers, and their orphaned children who seek refuge abroad and eke out a very precarious existence. There is perhaps nothing new about some Kurds falling through the cracks be it in Kurdistan or outside of it. What is frightening — and no one is alarmed about it — is that the Kurds, as a people, are fitted for this Godless role and it is business as usual all over the world.
The Israelis have a song that starts with, “The whole world is against us, who cares!” Lately, for me, these words better capture my Kurdish mood than the Jewish one. Any Kurd who is half awake or sober — choose your pick — cannot help but notice the unholy alliance of our neighbors and their Godless supporters who are bent on shamelessly feasting, with blood dripping from their mouths, on the biggest carcass of modern times, Kurdistan. These devils incarnate pass as representatives of Islam, the harbingers of democracy, and the custodians of the human race. We Kurds are not a part of humanity, according to them, and perhaps it is good, given what the strong are doing to the weak, that we aren’t. Looking at Kurdistan from a strictly Kurdish point of view, there is absolutely no difference between Saddam Hussein who is sitting in a jail cell in Baghdad and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who will soon be honored at the White House. The first one murdered and gassed the children of Kurdistan; the second, in case you haven’t been following the news in Turkey, is coming to seek help from a God-fearing Christian president to deny the Muslim Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan a place in the sun. Is Bush going to side with Godless Erdogan, who calls himself a pious Muslim, and push the Kurds into the waiting laps Osama Bin Laden? Perhaps it is still not too late for someone to remind this president of the maxim, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, was coined in the Middle East. If his administration does the bidding of Erdogan, and early indications seem to favor such an outcome, can anyone fault the Kurds for praying for a second Saladin to put an end to these blasphemous machinations once and for all?
Freedom, historian Edward Gibbon wrote, is the happy parent of creativity and it is a tribute to Mr. Yuksel for deftly undertaking the enduring Kurdish struggle for liberty through the life of an orphaned Kurdish teen on film in the cold and lonely streets of Altona, Hamburg, among a notoriously indifferent population who only two generations ago let six million defenseless Jews be gassed in its midst. This film about freedom starts with footage of a homemade video, a scene from a house in Amed, a.k.a., Diyarbakir, where two Kurdish women talk about a squalling pig that has lost her babies to hunting. An elderly Kurdish man walks in and becomes the center of attention. “You are being filmed,” one woman tells him, but the admission registers nothing. Before long, you realize that the reference to the pig is actually a metaphor for him. Provocative? Yes. The honest Germans used to call Jews, rats; the dishonest Turks don’t call us pigs, but treat us as such just the same. For the old man, like the squalling pig, has lost something precious, his son — in the torture chambers of a Turkish prison. The pig has his primal scream. The old man takes it in, sends his grandson to Germany for safety, and speaks of his love for Kurdish mountains, a dream that the Turks have put beyond his reach — the Turkish military has banned the Kurds from going to their highlands lest they help the Kurdish fighters who are battling the Turkish soldiers for freedom.
The rest of the story unfolds in Germany. We are introduced to the grandson, Baran, who is now 16 years old. He works as a delivery boy for a snack bar in Altona, Hamburg, famous for its red light district. A kid removed from his peers, he is shy, confused, and laden with a burden that no child should ever be subjected to. In the course of his deliveries, we see him befriending a homeless captain. In his breaks, he takes him food. One wonders if he is looking for a father figure that was taken away from him so violently and prematurely? Perhaps. The copy, like the real one, is not much of a help to him. But the captain has another fan, an African boy, Chernor, who also visits him on occasions. At one time, the boys’ paths cross in his presence. Then, the film revolves around their lives.
You notice it at once, the boys need each other; the way plants need water. Both are lonely. Both are refugees. Both are surrounded with people who are cold and impervious to their needs. They go on deliveries together. They learn about each other’s hopes and aspirations. Chernor is a small-time drug dealer. Baran tells him to stop it. He says disaster is another name for his profession. He tries to find him a job at the snack bar. He also tells him of his friend Erkan who became an addict, got deported to Kurdistan, and ended up living in Istanbul as a lost man. One is pleasantly surprised to hear so much wisdom emanating from a mind so young. Chernor, on his part, knows a bit of the “fucked-up” Kurds, but hears more from his friend, Baran, he pronounces, with his cute French accent something akin to, Bagan.
What he learns is not pleasant. Baran relates a story of horror. His parents have taken care of a wounded Kurdish guerilla under their roof. Another Kurd informs the Turkish soldiers of the deed. Their house is raided. His parents are taken in for questioning. No one sees them again. He and his sister have a new name, orphans. At the age of eleven, he is spirited to Germany. Like thousands of other Kurds, he applies for political asylum. Five years later, he is still waiting. Then, he meets the betrayer of his parents in the middle of Hamburg. The man is fragile, fearful, lonely and jobless. The Turks, after milking him, have tossed him as well. Baran tells him of his place of employment and urges him to drop by. When he finally does, other Kurds in the shop recognize him. Something snaps in Baran. Vengeance overtakes his body. He finds a way to get hold of a gun. He begins to stalk the guy. He manages to corner him on a quiet street. He wants to kill him. But he cannot do it. The informer apologizes. He parts from the scene.
A few days later, they come face to face again. The encounter is awkward, but also endearing. The Kurdish informer has shed his fake Turkish identity. In “a little bit of freedom”, he has found his Kurdish voice. He is selling roses, green, red and yellow, the Kurdish national colors, in restaurants for a living. People who follow Turkey closely know that traffic lights, which happen to have the same combination of colors, have gone through transformations in Turkish Kurdistan. The green has become blue. In Germany, a Kurdish informer, in a matter of weeks, has chosen patriotism over treason. The present generations of Americans who insist that Iraqi Kurdistan should remain a part of Arab Iraq have unfortunately forgotten the true meaning of freedom. The children of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison act, behave and speak as if they were the children of Benedict Arnold.
The film’s tragic beginning has a tragic end. Chernor is arrested and will face deportation. Baran, the 16-year-old paperless Kurd, decides to take the law into his own hands to stop the whole thing. With a pistol, he confronts a dozen or so armed police officers to free his friend. Overpowered, he too is detained. No doubt, he too will face the same predicament. Alas, Europe has no room for the “fucked-up” Kurd or the African boy. It had no such compunction when it partitioned Africa and the Middle East along perfectly straight lines, the source of Baran as well as Chernor’s problems. In the final analysis, the lessons of the film are clear and unmistakable for the Kurd who is sober and awake. With a little bit of freedom, wonders may happen, but one may also face jail time and deportation back to the Middle East. With no freedom, death can be as close as one’s shadow. With freedom, we can claim our womanhood and manhood again and walk into the fields of light once more. The old man of Kurdistan put his hopes in Germany for the safety of his grandson. The children of Kurdistan must do better and place their faith, sweat, tears, and if need be blood, in the land of their ancestors. Nothing else is redeeming. No one else will take up the challenge. That is what Kurdistan wants. That is what its children will do.