An Open Letter to Nesreen M. S. Berwari
Minister for Municipalities and Public Works
Baghdad, “New” Iraq
“That If Gold Rust, What Then Will Iron Do?”
July 4, 2004
Dear Minister Berwari,
Our paths have crossed only once. You made quite an impression on me. I have tried my best to get you out of my mind. So far, I have not succeeded. It would have been better, if I had talked to you in private, face-to-face, and confided in you the source of my affliction. I tried. You rebuffed me. You did so very gently. I did not feel offended. Kurds and non-Kurds were lined up to talk to you. I said to myself, “Kani, this thing can wait.” Now, I think differently. After some reflection and a few exchanges with some Kurds who know you in person, I have decided to submit my case to the court of Kurdish public opinion. My aim is not to cast a shadow on your luster, this is not what I am about in life; it is, rather, to glean a lesson out of it for the Kurdish patriots who are marching to the honorable drumbeat of freedom and liberty in these most critical days in the life of our Kurdistan.
Perhaps I should start by noting what I had known about you before our memorable encounter at American University in Washington, DC, on June 11, 2004. On that day, you were invited to address a conference on “Iraq: Power Sharing and Its Discontents”. Years before it, I had seen your name in the media, as a dedicated public servant of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Hawler, southern Kurdistan. You were hailed as the Harvard educated Kurdish woman who knew how to combine tradition with modernity and were cited as a role model — at least a dozen references I have seen with my own eyes — for Kurdish children, especially girls. Americans, not caring one iota about your Kurdish identity, but very much interested in using you to prevent the disintegration of Iraq, cleverly capitalized on your lore and appointed you as a minister for the country and arranged for you to meet with President Bush on September 22, 2003. I heard you two “clicked” really well. My hunch is that when the 43rd president writes his memoirs, after his defeat in 2004 or retirement in 2008, he will not mention you at all. Don’t take it personally; neither he nor anyone else, for that matter, has any respect for the slaves. As someone who reads whatever passes as news relative to the Kurds, I will be anxiously awaiting your take on the former cowboy from Texas. Make sure you convey to us what actually transpired in that meeting as well as what was unspoken. Your eyes, in case you did not know, were treated to a feast of incredible magnitude. Did you, for example, notice that all the tables were round in that White House of most American presidents? Reliable sources have noted that Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, ordered them round, you might want to read this part aloud and twice and highlight it with a yellow marker as well, so that each person would feel of “equal” importance around them. I know you did not stay for the dinner. But feel free to make use of this tidbit of information in your account of that unforgettable meeting with the most powerful man in the world. It will be the first time that a Kurd has written a book about her meeting with an American president. I will be sure to buy a dozen or so copies and gift them to my friends. If you were not so busy, I would say do so now, for there is an anti-Bush hysteria that is sweeping the world and why not, be smart, you too could make some good bucks as well.
Speaking of your memoirs, I hope you will at least allocate a whole chapter of it to your incredible good luck to go to Harvard University in the United States. I know only of two Kurds who are affiliated with that awesome seat of learning, one as a researcher and the other as a one-time academic for a short period. Other Kurds might have attended that school as well, but I don’t a call a Kurd a Kurd who also calls himself or herself an Arab, or Turk, or Iranian, or Iraqi, or Syrian. We are better off without those slaves. Coming back to you, Minister Berwari, you actually are the possessor of a miracle by Kurdish standards. To begin with, you aimed for America’s most preeminent university even though you had eight brothers who did not even think of applying to it. As a university graduate myself, one that no Harvard types would ever consider attending it, with a Kurdish sister who can’t even tell the time on a watch, I found myself teary eyed when I read of your success from it, an incredible feat, by any standards! You proved to me that my sister was not a retard. Thank you. She was the slave of a tradition that did not believe in her education. The fact that she was born into slavery in Turkish Kurdistan has added other woes to her lot.
But when I read an account of your stay in the United States in Christiane Bird’s new book on Kurdistan titled, “A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts,” I was taken aback. What came across is conduct unbecoming of the most favorite daughter of Kurdistan. “Shopping” passes as one of your memorable pastimes on these shores. I looked in vain for signs of your interest in “Boston Tea Party” or “Lexington” or “Bunker Hill”. I know an education in Baghdad, in Architectural Engineering, under Saddam Hussein, might not have alerted you to these milestones of human liberty, but you came to Harvard from the “liberated” Kurdistan with at least seven years of public service with the United Nations affiliated nongovernmental organizations. If you say, “Kani, these UN people are a bunch of boneless wonders” — here, I agree with you, by the way — “and never told me anything about ‘tea parties’ in Boston,” I will give you a reprieve, but ask what about when you were here in the city of the patriots? Boston is filled with monuments glorying the virtues of liberty. A short drive from your house in Cambridge, in Quincy, stood the house of the second president of the United States, John Adams, whose modesty and dedication to liberty matches the humility and majesty of our own patriot, Qazi Muhammed. Did you ever visit his house? Maybe you did and Ms. Bird’s cynical editor redacted the homage to freedom from the lengthy tome! Yes, some among this generation of Americans are so very jaded, and oblivious of their roots, that they think of the whole world as a “shopping mall” and love it when others catch up with their habits. If so, I can forgive you. If not, I will count myself among those who are disappointed in you. What is it?
So it was with a lot of hope and some misgivings that I came to the International Conference at American University on Iraq to see you as well as other Kurdish experts on the fate of a portion of our troubled homeland, Iraqi Kurdistan, and its forsaken children. You may not believe this, but I was looking forward to your talk. I was, to paraphrase one of your favorite expressions, “like a sponge,” ready to soak anything you were willing to share with me. The moment you took your seat at the panel though, I felt like, my heart skipped, one, two, three, four and maybe even five beats, I lost the count of them. Never had I felt so much shame in my whole life. Several strands of my hair turned white in those few unforgettable moments. I would have wished, if such a thing were possible, temporary blindness for myself to avoid seeing the scene. If nature had placed an emergency call on me a minute or two earlier, I would have gladly accepted it, just to circumvent the moment. A minor earthquake would have been fine with me as well, again, with the same end in mind. None of those things happened. I was destined to see what I saw helplessly and painfully. Do you really want to hear the bad, bad news? C-SPAN taped it showed it to the whole wide world!
As the scene has been etched in my memory forever, I want to share it with the readers of the Kurdish political world as well. You were slated for the afternoon session with a number of your colleagues from the interim Iraqi government. The panel was named, “Iraqi Perspectives on Power Sharing Arrangements.” There were four seats at the table. Three had been taken by their intended designees, but your chair was empty with your name prominently displayed on the table in front of it. I remember murmuring to myself, “damn it, I am not going to see her.” Then, you were called to take up your seat. I guess your introducer was following a rule of some sort, saving you for the last, as the most important guest of the panel. From then on it was a disaster unlike anything I have ever seen. You and another person walked towards the seat. Where was he going to sit, was the first question that crossed my mind. I knew you knew English well and did not need a translator. In three to four excruciating moments, I had my answers. They were not what I expected.
The man who accompanied you to the table pulled out the empty chair, which had wheels, in case you were not looking, for you. He motioned you to sit and pushed you gently forward to line you up with the other panelists. He then placed in front of you a folder that apparently contained your statement. Right at that moment, as if by magic, I saw the ghost of Saddam Hussein on the monitor above your head, smirking at me, smiling at you, and said, “Can you still say, the Kurds were born into slavery, but slavery was not born inside the Kurds?” My body shook uncontrollably. I held to my seat instinctively. I closed my eyes momentarily and asked God, why he had chosen us, the Kurds, as the happy go lucky simpletons of this merciless world? Nothing happened.
That Saddam Hussein was fond of such a ritual and its repetition on American soil by a Kurd was scandalous must be news to you. That at least some Americans think that their sons and daughters shed their blood for people like Abid Hamid al-Tikriti — the man whose only apparent job was to make sure Saddam Hussein knew how to sit on a chair — to regain their freedom from the evil system in Baghdad must also baffle you. Lest it needs to be stated, President Bush, for all his shortcomings, carries his own statement in his own pocket. I know you grew up in Baghdad with only one role model, an omnipotent and superhuman of sort that was the fountain of all things good on his good days, but God himself when he was enraged. He is no more. He will not come back. There are other role models, fallible but honest, modest but commanding, caring and yet not intimidating that you could follow, that is, if you would like to follow role models. Have you ever seen Dalai Lama do his “namaste” before an American audience, which incidentally means, I respect the God in you? Try it. People will love you for it. It will get you and our forsaken people more respect and recognition. It might even lead this world-weary American generation, like the French in the 18th century, to support our liberation. I am a tad curious, has anything like that ever crossed your mind?
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not usually the type that judges a person by one act alone. So after overcoming my initial shock of seeing the calisthenics of Saddam Hussein in Washington, DC, I focused on you like a laser beam and listened intently to every word that parted from your mouth. 12 days later, a summary of your talk appeared in the “Pravda” of the Wall Street, the “Wall Street Journal” itself. In both places, you begin your statement with, “as an Iraqi”. You already know how I feel about such a misnomer. I don’t think I should belabor on our national shame or subject you to Political Science 101 or honor the British, the criminal authors of our modern enslavement in southern Kurdistan. I do, however, want to say a few words about your more extended talk at the conference and your complaint of how discomforting it is, for you, to cover yourself from head to toe as part of your job in some parts of “new” Iraq. As a woman, that is an abridgement of your civil rights, you decried. I imagined a mullah noticing a strand of your loose hair and shouting, “haram (sinful), haram (sinful) to your face.” And you retorting, “if it is haram (sinful), don’t look!” I like such quick wittiness on the part of women. What I don’t like is their longing to act like Saddam Hussein. It is enough to erase the very word kindness from your sex. The fellow who carried your folder, don’t underestimate the human longing for equality, might secretly wish for the triumph of the fundamentalist Islam. If Iraq goes theocracy, he could be your boss and you, his former boss, will not even be allowed to accompany him as an assistant, unless you lie and say, you are his sister or mom or aunt. In other words, all I am saying is, be a source for equality not domination when exercising your power. Do you get my point?
I already told you that I had talked to some Kurds about you. After hearing my take on your performance, one told me that, “She was young not only in age but also in sense.” Another one said, “I have seen her quote Gibran; I have yet to see her mention Xani or Cigerxun.” A third one referred me to a quote by Samuel Adams, but also told me to preface it with the maxim, “Medicine is bitter, but it makes people better.” Here is the quote, “Contemplate the mangled bodies of your countrymen [picture Halapja here], and then say, what should be the reward of such sacrifices? … If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom — go from us in peace. Crouch down and lick the hands, which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!”
If you say, Kani, “I have never heard of the guy and I actually like what he says and how come his grandchildren don’t follow his words, or at least the ones in Baghdad”, I would say, bingo, we are finally talking the same language! Yes, Minister Berwari, if Samuel Adams were to rise from his grave today — the occasion would also mark the 228th anniversary of his signature on America’s most cherished document, the Declaration of Independence — he would have trouble differentiating his generation’s arch foe, King George the Third, from his country’s new president, George Bush the Second, relative to the Kurds. The king fought the Americans to thwart their march into the sunshine of liberty. The president or his couriers, to be exact, as you know, have threatened us with the Turkish paper tigers, and if the threat fails, have warned us with the use of American fighter planes, to stop us from claiming our birthright, independence. And the problem isn’t just the current occupant of the White House or those who make policy on his behalf. Michael Moore, some have started calling him the “prophet” of our times, has just released a movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” about the war in Iraq, and millions of Americans can’t seem to stop talking about it, and are you ready for the shocking news, there is no mention of the gassing of the Kurds in it! Imagine if you will, someone makes a blockbuster film about the Second World War and Germany and neglects to mention to the gassing of the Jews. The rightful cries of anti-Semitism would rise even in the caves of Al-Qaeda! No such shock has been uttered for the forsaken children of Kurdistan. I can’t help it but look up again and this time shout with open eyes, can anyone, on this Fourth of July, with a modicum of “respect to the opinions of mankind” stand up and say all is well with Jefferson’s beloved Republic? An honest answer would have to make room for the painful observation that the Americans of these times have taken a holiday from their senses. Their White House is staffed with Orwellian neocons whose preferred companions are slimy excons. You have heard of the expression, “Tell me who your friends are, I will tell you who you are,” right? The torch of freedom will not long endure such abuse. We, who are deprived of its light, have nothing to lose but make a dash for it. Do you think we could count on your support?
But coming back to our meeting Minister Berwari, I thought our Kurdish friends focused too much on you, alone, and very tangentially on the shame of every living Kurd, our continuing slavery in this world. Speaking for myself, reflecting on you, I could not help but remember Cassandra, the Princess of Troy, who was taken captive as a spoil of war some 3200 years ago. 700 years later, a Greek playwright, Aeschylus, wrote of her as a slave in Ancient Greece. I think it is quite fitting that we, the enslaved Kurds, glean some lessons from her experience. Clytaemestra, another character, a free Greek woman, tries to counsel Cassandra. It is, as we can attest to it from experience, a hopeless situation, but what she says has stood the test of times. At least, she convinces me of the truth of her observation. I think it would behoove all of us living Kurds, including you, to pay heed,
But if the constraint of fact forces you to such a fate [slavery],
be glad indeed for masters ancient in their wealth.
They who have reaped success beyond their dreams
Are savage above need and standard toward their
I don’t have to tell you what the orphan of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein, after reaping success “beyond his dreams”, gave us. I have only read of Halapja; you have seen it with your own eyes. What I want to tell you is this: please, Minister Berwari, do not force me or any other Kurd to choose between an Arab master or a Kurdish one. Both are an affront to the martyrs of Halapja. If we have to submit to someone else, here, I am speaking for myself alone, I am opting for Americans. The free Greek woman is right, at least, they are, “ancient in their wealth” and will be “tolerable”, in spite of Abu Gharaib, given what we have endured. I hope you agree with me. Should I hold my breath?
It is Fourth of July, today! Happy birthday America!
I remain disappointedly yours,