At a time when humans can walk on the moon and aspire to reach to the stars how could one imagine a colony called Kurdistan? Indeed, those who control it would like you to think that it does not exist at all. Therein lies the importance of this recent publication as a contribution not only to our understanding of the Kurds and Kurdistan, but also of our earth and its myriad peoples who have been wondering aimlessly and sometimes dangerously on it. This flickering light on this much-neglected issue is timely, revealing, and also disquieting. Looking at what it reveals, I could not help but remember the time when the Taliban mercilessly attacked the stone statue of Buddha in Afghanistan. With the exception of a few gaping art critics, not much was said about the pulverizing assault on art. The emboldened attackers then attacked the Twin Towers in New York. It then became fashionable to say that, had the world kept a closer tab on those misguided “true believers” with turbans in Kabul, perhaps the tragedy of September 11 could have been averted.
A similar assault is now taking place on a people, called Kurds, on a land, called Kurdistan, and again with the exception of a few gaping Kurds no one is bothered with this misuse and abuse of power against a defenseless people and their land. The arts, thank God, have their protectors dispersed all over the world, the Kurds, unfortunately, do not prompt such a defense. The world, one day, could indeed witness the days, like what befell the stone statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, the pulverization of the Kurds and Kurdistan. And if these molesters of the Kurds do not export their violence abroad, especially to the countries in the Occident– no such plans have ever been uttered by the abusers of the Kurds so far– few will hear and fewer still will read about the tragedy that befell the Kurds, notwithstanding the recent war in Iraq, unless, of course, the Kurds and their friends do something, now, about the merciless attack on their very existence that goes on unabated throughout the Middle East.
That something was done by Dr. Besikci in this book you are holding in your hands– and many others that have yet to be translated– is beyond any question. The treatment Dr. Besikci received in Turkey makes it abundantly clear that he was viewed with hatred, persecuted with diligence, and branded as an enemy of the state or a darling of all those who are the sworn enemies of the Turks. He did — a better word for it would be “tried”– what thousands of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students do all over the world– except unfortunately in places like Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran– to study the Kurds. For his efforts, harassment became his lot from his Turkish compatriots; torture, often meted by Kurdish guards, became his companion; and jail become his home in 13 different places And yes, at one time, his prison sentences were in the vicinity of three digits, until an amnesty released him from his latest adobe, in 1999, and by then, he had served 17 of them behind the bars.
The western readers who draw solace in the benign concepts such as “cultural relativism” and the “sovereignty of the states” often remain indifferent and can’t be bothered with what the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians are doing to the Kurds. But indifference was not one of Mr. Besikci’s faults. At the age of 22, in 1961, he headed, as an intern, to Elazig, a predominantly Kurdish city in Turkish misruled Kurdistan, and to his surprise uncovered a lie that his government had been trying, assiduously, to hide from him and his compatriots for the past 38 years. The lie was that everybody in Turkey was a Turk. So when the young Besikci came face to face with the Kurds in Turkey, he did not, to be sure, like the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes, run out of the governor’s office, the place of his work, to shout eureka, eureka, eureka, or the Turkish version, buldum, buldum, buldum, but observed a profoundly cowed and frightened population who had to use the help of translators to communicate with his boss. Something snapped in Mr. Besikci there and then. The Kurds acquired a friend in this diminutive yet steely man. The Turks, lucky for them, put on the path of truth, one of their own.
So how do you go around with a mission like discovering truth about the Kurds in a country like Turkey that claims, even today, it has no Kurds of its own, see Article 66 of the Turkish constitution. That same constitution, under the subsection, the freedom of expression and dissemination of thought, no less, makes a reference to a “prohibited language”, read Kurdish, and how it shall not be allowed for use to express or disseminate information, see Article 26. That same constitution– a psychiatrist would have a field day reading it– makes 22 references to, “the indivisible integrity of the state with its territory and people”, which only underscores the very existence of peoples other than Turks in that forsaken peninsula and the very real possibility of separation if it were possible for these peoples to express their will without the fear of persecution. That same constitution, in going to the lengths that it does about the “unitary” nature of the state, only holds a mirror to the level of contempt that the Turks hold towards the Kurds, and other minorities, for that matter, and the upshot is a monstrosity worthy of horror movies that goes by the name of a government.
The most jarring example of this denial of the Kurds– perhaps it is not a coincidence– has found its most poignant expression in the English playwright Harold Pinter’s play, “The Language of the Mountains”, notes Dr. Besikci. The reference is to another lie in the Turkish nomenclature, unique in the annals of history, where Kurds are referred to as mountain Turks. In the play, a Kurdish activist is arrested and imprisoned. His mother wants to visit him, and is told that she will not be able to speak her mountain language, but only the state sanctioned one, Turkish. The trouble is, she doesn’t even know how to speak Turkish. So she goes to the prison anyway, and the most she can do is stare at her son. In a second visit, the mother is told that an exception has been made to the prohibition and that she can now speak her “mountain language”, but this time, she refuses to speak. Rage and fury emanate from her eyes and face, but no words will crack her mouth. Her son’s pleadings are worthless. She has decided to do what she wants to do and be no part of a state that has only disdained her. Inside the prison, a rebel Kurd is born.
One could perhaps applaud this imaginary Kurdish mother, apparently prompted by a real one, who found a way to bedevil the Turks even though submitting to them would have been what a mother would do for the love of her son. The Turks may not know it, but their behavior only resonates with what the Nazi leader, Herman Goering, used to say, “When I hear the word culture, I reach out to my revolver.” Such brutality is the norm in Turkey and has created, what Mr. Besikci calls, a predominantly “cowardly”, “submissive”, and “obedient” Kurdish population. The Turks seem content with their progress and often brag about the compliance of their subjects. And it looks like it is not just the former Nazis who would offer kudos to the Turks, but last June, this Kurd was horror-struck to read in the Turkish press that the United Nations too had decided to cheer Turkey on with its campaign of cultural genocide against the Kurds.
The story was in the Turkish Daily News. It ran on June 18, 2003. It was titled, “Education Campaign Kicks Off in Southeast”. The drive was part of United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF) to ensure that Turkey would “Leave No Child Behind”. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy was at hand in Van to bless the undertaking in person and sanctify it with the name of her employer, the United Nations. All that, on the face of it at least, looks good. Who could, in his or her right mind, be against education? But the thought lingered, would Turks do anything good for the Kurds? Can a deer expect mercy from a wolf?
The article noted that there were 7 million illiterate people in Turkey, and 6 million of these were women. It went on to say that the campaign would target the cities of Van, Agri, Batman, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Hakkari, Mus, Siirt, Sanliurfa and Sirnak. But the article did not bother to note that all these cities are situated in the heart of Turkish Kurdistan. It did not address the discrepancy of why all these illiterate children, millions of them, were concentrated in the Kurdish regions alone. And it made no reference, whatsoever, to what would be taught in these schools to the children. Ms. Bellamy noted, the scene must have tickled the Turks, “Our aim is to convince families to allow their girls to attend and finish eight-year compulsory education.”
Dr. Besikci calls these same compulsory Turkish schools torture chambers for the Kurdish kids. This scribbler remembers vividly how, he and his classmates were often terrorized in those same schools, back in 1960s, by the Turkish teachers who ran them like indoctrination camps. The mornings would begin with the ubiquitous pledge of allegiance that would end with, “varligim, Turk varligina armagan olsun,” which translates to something like, may my life be dedicated to the preservation of the Turkish existence! If one of the students had forgotten to clip his or her nails, mercy would escape the room, and those tiny fingers would get a through beating. If the homework was incomplete, even God would not intervene, the beating would graduate to the forms of blows to the face with open hands, the buttocks with kicks, and some of the kids would wet themselves in front of a class full of other children. The body heals, the pain goes away, but the scenes of mortifications endure, and I suspect they will only part us, when we are on the other side of the grave. Dr. Besikci does a good job of covering these deformities of the Turkish education system, but I doubt very much if any of his findings have ever made it to the desk of Ms. Bellamy. That is why it is of paramount importance to have this book in the English language right now.
The pages of brutality are also interspersed with contradictions that are a prominent feature of Turkey and its inhabitants. The very name, independent Turkey, in any polite and intelligent gathering, conjures up images of the first country that threw off, successfully, the yoke of colonialism and imperialism, says Dr. Besikci. Many Turks, to date, ardently believe that, Ataturk, the founder of their country, inspired people like Mahatma Gandhi, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Mihn, and Nelson Mandela. The latter was awarded Turkey’s highest civilian award — no surprise here, the Ataturk prize– in 1992, in the midst of Turkey’s genocidal war on the Kurds, but the award was soundly rejected by the African National Congress. The Turks, not knowing what hit them, called Mr. Mandela a cannibal. It may surprise the Turks but a better comparison for their leader would be Adolph Hitler, his contemporary, and closer to home Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad, whose statues came tumbling down in Iraqi Kurdistan as soon as he retreated to his lair. If the Turks are wondering what will happen to the statues of Ataturk in Turkish Kurdistan, when the Kurds are free to express themselves, the fate that befell the thug from Tikrit may be instructive for them.
Utter the words, independent Kurdistan, says Dr. Besikci, in the same polished and courteous Turkish circles that equate Ataturk with Mandela, then expect to be yelled at as “primitive nationalist”, tool of “foreign powers”– and you will love this– “minority racist”. So it is not just the laws that deny the Kurds a say in the body politic, but the entire Turkish population has been schooled as such that the Kurds are viewed as bad news, especially when they ask for their rights, and the only good ones are those who accept their lot.
Another theme that strikes you throughout the book is the lack of scientific knowledge about the Kurds. The Turks, the Arabs and the Persians will not engage in such studies notes Dr. Besikci, and he urges the Kurds to do so in spite of the odds, and despite the lengthy prison terms. The nascent Kurdish struggle that was unfolding on the mountains of Kurdistan, circa 1990, under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan wins his praise, and he urges further study of it, and one wonders, what he would think of it today, given that Mr. Ocalan himself has now joined the Turkish nationalists, in accusing the Kurds, who ask for the right of self-determination as, “primitive nationalists”. Dr. Besikci’s own analysis and conclusions leave one with no doubt that he favors divorce for the Kurds from the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians. Only that could restore them their lost dignity, he intones. Only then the Kurds could free themselves of the yokes of cowardice, blind obedience, and submissiveness.
The light that Dr. Besikci sheds on the Kurds and Kurdistan may not be very strong, but it is the best that can be shed on them given his circumstances. More is needed, and hopefully, the readers, while understanding of Dr. Besikci’s constraints, will appreciate his efforts to tread on this less traveled road. On his shoulders, to paraphrase, Isaac Newton, they will see a bleeding Kurdistan, a cornered deer, if you will, surrounded by a wolf, a coyote, and a jackal as it were. Darkness has enabled them to indulge in their assaults; light will serve, especially, the Kurds and Kurdistan on the path of freedom.
Kani Xulam is the Director of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN), a Washington based advocacy office for the Kurds. For more information: www.kurdistan.org He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org