September 3, 2005
Most of the English-speaking world will, for the foreseeable future, associate July 7, 2005 London subway bombings with what happened here in America on 9-11. In the heart of Turkish occupied Kurdistan something else took place on that memorable July morning which was not noticed at first but later made it to Jay Leno’s desk at NBC News as a joke. The Associated Press (AP) had reported the death of 450 sheep in Turkey. It had all happened when one of them had jumped headlong over a cliff overlooking a deep ravine. Others had simply followed suit. A number of Kurdish families had lost all their livestock. But neither the AP story nor Mr. Leno made any references to the Kurds or Kurdistan. Both were introduced to the world as Turks and Turkey. The Kurds suffered. The world laughed. I don’t know what the Turks thought of this tragic event, at least for the Kurds, but all I could do was brood and wonder when the truths about the Kurds, or their sheep, will ever see the light of day. But then I hadn’t yet read the “Meeting Notes” of Abdullah Ocalan from the island prison of Imrali.
I have since read them all, over 1,000 pages long, commanding as they do the attention of most of the Kurdish activists in Turkish-Kurdistan, whether one likes it or not, covering a span of six years, from 1999 to 2005, and now wonder if what the Kurdish owned sheep did on that forsaken Kurdish mountain was an omen of sort for what is happening in an equally frightening Turkish prison where those “Meeting Notes” were taken, assiduously I might add, by a group of lawyers who now report to the Kurdish leader, with the full blessings of the Turkish guards, as his personal secretaries who are openly chastised and second guessed, by the prisoner, for their loyalties and professionalisms sometimes. What is going on in that dark place away from the eyes and ears of the Kurdish people? Who is concocting what, is it poison or medicine, which is meticulously administered on the Kurdish body politics? Have people forgotten that the desolate island has been declared a military zone, even the Turkish government doesn’t have much to do with it, and the generals who run it think of the Kurds as nobodies who should always be dominated by their ilk? So when I finished reading the “Meeting Notes” of Mr. Ocalan and remembered what the Kurdish owned sheep had done, accidentally I want to note, I forgave Jay Leno for his politically incorrect transgression, thought nothing of the miniscule losses of the Kurdish farmers, and wondered aloud if the NBC News had missed the real joke, tragedy if you are a Kurd, that of the Kurdish leader and his supporters who are now committing another mass suicide, without an audience of laughers or criers on the part of the Kurds, the rest of the world, and even God.
“Many are the wonders of nature but nothing walks stranger than man,” quips Sophocles in his play Antigone. I can’t think of anyone else, in living memory at least, who comes close to Mr. Ocalan in embodying the truth of this observation. Apo, as his fans call him to this day, came to politics not through the social clubs or beer halls of the West as wannabes sometimes vie for the first place among their contemporaries, but the killing fields of Kurdistan and, in a span of fifteen years, rose to preeminence unequalled in the annals of the Kurdish politics. Sure, it was dangerous, treacherous, lonely, and heartbreaking too, but at the end, it was as much a personal struggle as it was a national one. To say that Mr. Ocalan failed miserably in the first test is an understatement. The make or break point came suddenly and unexpectedly on February 15, 1999 in Nairobi, Kenya. Cornered at a diplomatic compound, — through an international conspiracy that gave the expression, politics makes strange bedfellows, a new meaning in life, — he was ordered to surrender himself, alone, without his translator, to the Kenyan police. His aides told him it was the end of the road. One of them, apparently, offered him her gun. Mr. Ocalan balked. I guess he had never heard of the old admonition for the besieged, “No man who has a weapon in his hand should expect help from his feet.” His feet took control of his brain. They took him to a waiting SUV in front of the building. The Kenyan police then took him to the waiting arms of the Turkish commandos at the airport.
The next day, the world got a glimpse of a video footage, courtesy of the Turkish government, in which he declared his, if needed, total allegiance to the Turkish state. To prove his sincerity, he made the world privy to a long held secret as well, and that was that his very mother, surprise, surprise, was Turkish. More than a few Kurds asked how come he had never volunteered this disarming tidbit in his countless interviews with the Turkish reporters. Others wondered, if he was copying another Turkish politician, Turgut Ozal, who had, in circumstances that one might consider also bizarre, stated that his mother, this time, was Kurdish. For a western audience this business of doing politics at the expense of one’s mother or her identity must be very bizarre indeed. Not so in Turkey. But going back to our odyssey of Mr. Ocalan’s untimely return to the land of his mother, it wasn’t just the Kurds who were baffled by the turn of events and the telling pronouncements. William Safire, a columnist for the New York Times, a conditional friend of the Kurds, — only when they fight the Arabs — had predicted a defiant Ocalan with the courage of a martyr. He had even engaged in a political prophecy, the Kurdish leader would eclipse every other revolutionary, including the famed Che Guevara, as the idol of the rebellious youth in the world. He must have had in mind what Winston Churchill calls, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities.” As it turned out, we were all deceived.
To be sure, Mr. Ocalan still thinks the world ganged up on him, and he has a right to this complaint, but what he did with that assault hardly crosses his mind. From his prison cell, he continues to lash out at Syrians for chasing him out of Damascus, the Greeks for betraying him in Athens, the Russians for denying him a sanctuary in Moscow, the Italians for violating the universal laws of hospitality in Rome, the Americans for blocking his way to a universal right called asylum, the Kenyans for acting as stooges of western intelligence agencies, the Israelis for being the midwives of evil in the Middle East, the Armenians for not letting him return to the mountains of Kurdistan from Tajikistan and the Kurds for not declaring him a God or worshipping him as such. The Turks, on the other hand, make an exception to these across the board withering criticisms. He loves them to death. And do you know what is even worse? He wants all the living Kurds to do the same. Not since Jesus walked on earth has the world seen so much love concentrate in the heart of one man against those who are implacably bent on his destruction. In fact, Mr. Ocalan has already urged his followers to write a four-volume biography of his life and title the last one, “While On the Cross”. He also wants them to fly three flags over his gravesite. If you thought one of them would be Kurdish, you don’t know Mr. Ocalan; if your guess was for a Turkish one; you are beginning to understand the man, or what has become of him in that forbidding prison.
But this flip-flop as we say in the United States or U-turn as the term goes in the United Kingdom has not come, for a man who is in his late fifties, without its costs. Just as his ideals have gone through changes, his heroes too have had to play their musical chairs. Those of you who have read some of his 500 plus books, that is the figure he dictates to his personal secretaries, will admit to his affinity for people like Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin up until his arrest. When he landed in Italy in November 1998 the Med TV hailed the news as, “Modern Spartacus has landed in Rome.” Today, those names are no longer honored in the paeans of Mr. Ocalan. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has taken over their place as a giant of a man knowledgeable on all things under the sun. The orphan of Tsaloniki, says Mr. Ocalan, was the embodiment of the ideology of Rousseau, the politics of Robespierre and the military genius of Napoleon. Reading the passage, you are left with the inescapable conclusion, and Mr. Ocalan is not even subtle about it, that it takes a genius, Mr. Ocalan, to recognize another one, Ataturk. When the Turkish state was on its knees, the Turkish general saved the day and did so with the help of the Kurdish tribal chiefs, he crows. Only two other Turkish figures were as visionary as Ataturk and they were Alparslan, who according to Mr. Ocalan, would never have made it to Anatolia from Central Asia without the help of the Kurds; and Yavuz Selim who sealed a strategic relationship with the Kurds to expand Ottoman power into Europe and Africa. These three periods were the glorious times in the history of the Turks, he muses, and the “fourth” is at hand, can be jumpstarted, if only Ankara paid some attention to him.
You are probably wondering what do the Turks make of these unwashed, sordid, and bewildering declarations of Mr. Ocalan. To say that they totally disregard them would be to repeat what they always do and that is that they don’t talk to the “terrorists” or their leader. But I suspect there is more to these pronouncements than meets the eye. Mr. Ocalan has already noted, at least on several occasions, of a high-ranking Turkish official who confided in him, “Let’s put an end to this game. The Greeks delivered you to us not as a favor, but to sow the seeds of a hundred year conflict between the Kurds and the Turks; let’s stop this war of brothers.” Mr. Ocalan then goes on to note, “I thought about it and decided to go along with it.” Or when the same official, apparently, said, “We won’t keep you here for long.” To date, no Turkish official has stepped forward to confirm or deny these allegations. My own hunch is that these exchanges never took place, and if they did, they only prove that Mr. Ocalan has entered his second childhood now. I don’t know how else to put this, but to state it the way it is, and that is Mr. Ocalan has had an uncanny ability to “imagine truths” and lead the Kurds on all kinds of fantasies, some successful and others suicidal in terms of their consequences. That is why these latest “imagined” stories of Mr. Ocalan, where Turks play magnanimous roles and the Kurds, poor simpletons who are easily manipulated by the Greeks, cannot have a basis in fact and will not, for long, hold a sway over the Kurdish masses. What they say for now though is that Mr. Ocalan has allowed himself to become the megaphone of the Turkish military against the Kurds.
I don’t know about you, but as someone who has been cursed with a secondary school education in Turkey, I have lost sleep over Mr. Ocalan’s choice of characters, as his favorites, from the annals of the Turkish history. The sleepless nights have paid off and I am here, to paraphrase the presidential hopeful John Kerry, to report to you that what Mr. Ocalan is doing is cherry picking at best or disingenuous to say the least. Ataturk gets the lion’s share of his attention and most people would agree with him that he is betting on the right horse to ingratiate himself with the Turks. The Turks worship the man and Mr. Ocalan has now decided to join their ranks. His other two heroes are Alparslan and Yavuz Selim. The reason Mr. Ocalan likes these individuals has nothing to do with them per se, but everything to do with himself, and his everlasting desire to be free and lord over the Kurds again. Ataturk, says Mr. Ocalan, in addition to being a great statesman, was a magnanimous soul, for in the Turkish war of liberation, he freed a captured Greek general, Nikos Trikopis. But what he did to Shaikh Said, a Kurdish rebel, is conveniently brushed aside. Alparslan, Mr. Ocalan goes on to add, went even further and freed not a general, but a captured emperor, Romanus Diogenes. He doesn’t say it, but makes you wonder, if Caesar did anything like it. Yavuz Selim, as far as I know, didn’t forgive anybody; in fact, he is known to have beheaded some 40 thousand mostly Allawite Kurds, hence his nickname, Selim the Cruel, but the reader is left with the inference that the cooperation of the subjugated Kurds in the person of Idris of Bitlis with Yavuz Selim, — the Kurdish collaborator’s name never comes up, — was what made the Turks great in the world. In other words, Mr. Ocalan wishes to be forgiven a la Ataturk and Alparslan so that he could serve the Turkish state a la Idris of Bitlis.
But this farce is already crumbling in spite of Mr. Ocalan’s Herculean efforts and machinations. “Imagined truths” do not have a long span of life. In one of his periodical meetings with his lawyers, Mr. Ocalan talks about getting hate mail from the Turks. One of his newly “discovered” Turkish brothers has threatened him with a disease that will cause his skin to peel off leading to a slow and painful death. He tells his attorneys he is not feeling well and adds, ominously, his skin is coming off. He is wondering if something sinister is in the making. No one needs to second-guess Mr. Ocalan here for something sinister has been going on from the very beginning. This second act of his life, that started on a warm evening in Kenya or cold morning in Turkey, has seen, so far, extraordinary agility, breathless servility, outrageous pomposity, and worst of all, venomous reaction to everything Kurdish in the world. If wonders were named after humans as opposed to monuments, as they were in antiquity, I have no doubt in my mind that Mr. Ocalan would have qualified as the eighth wonder of the world. Just in case you are not fully convinced, let me shower you with a few of his other priceless gems from his latest “Meeting Notes.” He now calls Kurdish nationalism the “cancer” of our times, and declaring himself a physician in the same sentence, has vowed to eradicate it from the face of the earth. Patriotic Kurds, he says should support Turkey, but if they support Kurdistan, he calls them “primitive nationalists.” And in a low that will forever be associated with his name, he quotes the Turkish generals, his new buddies, to inform his supporters that Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani are “selling” their wives and daughters to the Turks in exchange for favors. Now I know why Cicero says, “Fear of all emotions is the most brutalizing,” or what the psychologists call, “[It] drives people to madness.” And if I could set aside Mr. Ocalan’s half-cooked Kurdish-ness for a bit, I truly feel sorry for him as a human being.
I have finally made it to the end of my presentation. When Mr. Ocalan was free, alone among the Middle Eastern leaders, he loved forcing his associates to engage in self-criticism sessions in front of the video cameras reminiscent of what Mao did, apparently, with his party faithful, in his times. But Mr. Ocalan always exempted himself from those sometimes hilarious, often dreary, and always-repetitive self-condemnations. The other day, as I was getting ready to put together my thoughts for this conference, I had a flight of fancy and imagined him doing one himself, in front of the Kurdish people, and saying the following things. I hope you will find them instructive. I ask for your indulgence.
“To the people of Kurdistan,
“I apologized to the mothers of the Turkish soldiers at the outset of my trial and apparently left the impression that I did not care about your losses, the children of Kurdistan. I do. Belatedly, and sincerely, I extend you my apologies and condolences as well. Now that this misunderstanding is out of the way, I want to address you, as promised, on my shortcomings. I have had six years to reflect on them. There is no other word for it; I am one of the biggest liars in the history of Kurdistan. Most politicians are. But I went way overboard and lost track of what is proper and what is not. Last month, I read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. I got stuck on page 43. I thought the Russian writer was talking about me. Because Dostoyevsky is a better writer than I am, I want to read you a short passage from it. It is from the address of Father Zossima to Fyodor Karamazov, the patriarch of the family whose life is chronicled in the novel. It is bitter, as true medicine often is, but it is good. Here is Father Zossima: ‘The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions, and coarse pleasures, sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and himself.’ With my imagined truths, I am guilty of these charges as well. I have lost my way. I don’t even know who I am. I have said I have the patent to Kurdish nationalism; nothing could be further from the truth. I have declared Ataturk the senior God and myself the junior; both are lies. I have said I support Turkey and oppose the liberation of Kurdistan; this qualifies for the father of all lies. James Madison once noted, ‘There can be no doubt that there are subjects to which the capacities of the bulk of mankind are unequal.’ He too, the founding father of America, has me in mind when he refers to the bulk of humankind. I thought I could outrun truth, science, skill and ability, but there is no such thing. Look where it has landed me. It is not the place to be. I am truly sorry for the pain and suffering I have caused you. I ask for your forgiveness.”