June 30, 2003
I don’t know if it ever happens to you, but it happens to me often, I am either listening to someone on the television or in a lecture hall — granted that the person has piqued and kept my interest — and then bingo, the person utters the name of an interesting book or movie, I rush to my pen and paper and jot down the information, and place it somewhere visible, like the corner of my yearly calendar by my desk in my office, till I get hold of the thing itself, to see for myself, if what I heard dovetails with what I read in the book or see in the film. It usually does. I read the book, An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser this way and I am very grateful for the tip. Jiyan is a Kurdish film by Jano Rosebiani, stop reading this right now, reach out to your pen, post it paper, write it out, J-I-Y-A-N, and place it somewhere visible in your office or study till you either see it in a movie theater or rent it out from a video outlet.
You will be glad you did, I would not joke with you in a public forum like this one otherwise, and after seeing it, you will thank me for it, but the person you should thank and that goes for all the children of Kurdistan and their friends, past, present and the future, is the struggling Kurdish artist who first worked as an usher in a movie theatre some 26 years ago, and after watching not thousands but tens of thousands of films, moved his Kurdish camera to produce a Kurdish film that at first sight dazzles you with its beauty and horror, joy and sorrow, soaring human spirit and depravity of the kind that makes you wonder if humans deserve to live on this earth, and all of it, in a span of 94 minutes; in short, all your senses, good and bad, are treated to a veritable feast with the culmination of, you guessed it, hope triumphing over despair, life blooming in moonscape, and Jiyan, the ten year old Kurdish girl whose last and parting shot in the film is her face with rivulets of tears flowing from her eyes, in slow motion, outlasting her nemesis Saddam Hussein, and slowly gravitating towards a future, very fragile for her, of hope, of light and of beauty. But you are never too far from the day, in her words, when “chemical rain” poured on her — disfigured her — and her loved ones — killed many — while the “civilized” world was in a state of stupor, oblivious to the danger that blighted her kind and her generation, because the dead were Kurds and the murderer was Saddam Hussein, the first did not matter, the second made the indifference of those who could have spoken on this crime against humanity look glorious by comparison, for, at least, they did not harm their citizens.
I would be lying to you if I said that the movie did not disturb me. The temperature of my anger reached a crisis point. My tears flowed when I sensed that Jiyan was about to shed hers, they started flowing again every time I heard — I could not keep my eyes open — the Kurdish flutist, a Kurdish mullah, the equivalent of a priest in the Christian faith, play for God, or was it for the sun, moon and the stars, I don’t know, on a rooftop in all weather, for the loss of his eight children and wife. I don’t know why, but I thought of Arundhati Roy — the lighting rod of the antiwar movement, I proudly marched along her likes, by the way, with my quaint sign, “Down With Saddam Hussein; No War,” prompting one protester to ask me if I was for the war or against it, and leaving my conversation with this deluded activist aside for a moment, and getting back to Ms. Roy again, who came to embody the feelings of, by her counts, ten million people who marched, worldwide, against the recent war — and wished to God, she were watching it with me. Referring to George Bush, she had often said, “he is more dangerous than Saddam Hussein.” If she had seen the film, I was convinced now, knowing that the film would cure her of her ignorance, about the darling of the deluded, Saddam Hussein, not that I was equating the president of the United States to the Mother Theresa of Calcutta, she would go down on her knees, I imagined, true scholars eat their words with grace, and apologize to Jiyan and her blighted generation for the misuse of her pulpit, she is on C-SPAN all the time, to lash out with her acidic tongue against two wrong doers, one, Saddam Hussein, in her diction, a man as dangerous as Al Capone, who in his “best selling”, ghost written, novels equates all Kurds to adulterous, treacherous, and fickle creatures; and the other, George Bush, treated as a modern day Adolph Hitler, who used the Kurds, to be sure, as a prop for the war, but had a better appreciation of the man who had used chemical weapons once and could do so again, remember Hitler who had reminded his generals how the Turks got away with the Armenian genocide, unless he was stopped in his tracks.
But it looks like there is a feeling of remorse gripping both the Great Britain as well as the United States, not because war is organized crime let loose and as much as possible should be avoided, and if undertaken, the United Nations should be the institution to invoke it — that boneless wonder that did not even acknowledge the Kurdish dead when they were gassed in broad daylight — but because the weapons of mass destruction have, get your eyes ready for this, not been found. I have to assume that these peaceniks and the inadvertent supporters of Saddam Hussein have never heard of the Kurds and their 281 villages, towns, and cities which were indiscriminately gassed not just in one day, between the sunrise and sunset, but in a span of eighteen months, in the course of an operation called al Anfal, which for those of you who are versed in Islam, the name means, the spoils, and comes from a chapter heading in Quran. Imagine if you will, Ariel Sharon using chemical weapons on a Palestinian settlement, and christening his diabolical plan with an Orwellian name, like, say, “tikkun!” To paraphrase Ms. Roy, I can almost hear the footsteps of ten million peace activists marching in the streets of major cities all over the world, all shouting in unison, “Never Again!” It would be a sight out of this world, signifying the hypocrisy of our generation of peace activists, who are quick to condemn the wrongs of Israelis and Americans, but hardly can be bothered, when the unspeakable is committed in the name of Islam and by the likes of people like Saddam Hussein.
It was Dante Alighieri who said, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.” It pains me to see that those who rained chemical concoctions on Jiyan and her loved ones will have a cooler place in Hell than the ten million who marched in the streets of the world against the recent war. I guess I have to admit to a little known truth that, in the world that we have inherited, there is no right or wrong, but only strong and weak. If five million Kurds of Iraq are gassed, no different than the way Adolph Hitler gassed the six million Jews of Europe, there is no outcry from those who are not gassed, the surviving Jews have been the only ones who want to make sure that an indifferent world remains cognizant of their sufferings. So it has fallen on us, the Kurds, to keep the memory of Halapja alive, for no one else cares much about the loss of Kurdish life in this world.
And that is the task Jano Rosebiani undertakes in his film, Jiyan, with courage, integrity, faith and hope. There is an eerie congruence of events unfolding in front of you as you try to understand the plot. Diyari is a transplanted Kurd from America who goes back to Kurdistan to build an orphanage for the surviving children of martyred Kurdish city, Halapja. His own story begins in the same neighborhood in 1974, as a boy, when he is in the middle school, and a bomb drops on the schoolyard, killing dozens of his friends and terrorizing him and his friends. The teen is uprooted. He finds refuge in America. In the shade of freedom, holding onto his Kurdish roots, he goes to school, later marries, and becomes the father of two children. In 1988, like all Kurds all over the world, he is shaken to his core with the news that his people are viewed as beasts of prey and hunted down with chemical weapons. Five years later, he is in Halapja, happy to be with the survivors, eager to build for them a house of refuge and learning.
In the course of his feverish activity to build the orphanage, Diyari gets invited to go to the mayor’s house for dinner and there, in the midst of his conversation with his hosts, we discover his detestation for Dr. Kissinger as the author his own misfortune back in 1974, as well as the person responsible for the aborted Kurdish revolution of 1975. It is a long story, suffice it to note that the wily Secretary of State in the Nixon administration took the legendary Kurdish leader Mullah Mustapha Barzani under his wings, provoked him to fight ferociously the central government in Baghdad with promises of help not for the liberation of Kurdistan, it became obvious later, but with the aim of knocking Iraq out of the war against Israel. Baghdad did not take part in the Yom Kippur war. It was forced to cede supremacy to Iran in the Persian Gulf. The quid pro quo was Kurdistan. The deal was made between, you cannot go wrong by guessing, the Shah of Iran and the strong man of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein. The underwriter, the transaction was ironclad, was no other than the United States of America.
Watching the film, I could not help but compare the stories of Diyari and that of Henry Kissinger. Both became refugees in their teens. Diyari fled Saddam Hussein who later gassed the Kurds. Henry Kissinger fled Adolph Hitler who later gassed the Jews. In America, their paths took a different turn. Diyari honored the lessons of his oppression and went back to Kurdistan, a place of death and darkness, where on an average day, you had two funerals, one wedding and one circumcision party, where not the theatre or the music hall or the university, but the hospital was the most frequented place, because everybody was ill and even if they were not, they knew of someone who was, and the place had a nickname too, don’t laugh, summer resort, where roses didn’t bloom anymore, people only saw them in their dreams or on the cover of western magazines as advertisements to show the clarity of certain monitors, and where lovers were judged not by their charming looks, graces, character, intelligence, but whether or not they had been exposed to chemicals. He tried to lift them up from their misery, to show them the light of education, to give them hope for a free Kurdistan, where they could grow with love and respect, as opposed to fear and torture, so that they too could add luster, the Kurdish brand, to the human rainbow. Henry Kissinger, on the other hand, subverted the lessons of his oppression and switched sides, a victim chose to become an oppressor, and he oppressed not the Germans, his heart was “big” enough to befriend them, but the Kurds, the Vietnamese, the Chileans, and the Timorese. At least one thing is clear, human beings in every land and in every generation will see in Diyari a friend of humankind; in Kissinger, one of its most implacable predators.
The most alarming thing about the film is not in the film itself, but in the reaction people have expressed towards it. “Several Israelis came to me after the film”, said the filmmaker Jano Rosebiani in New York, after the showing of his film, courtesy of the Human Rights Watch, at Walter Reade Theatre, “and told me, they never knew of the chemical attack on Halapja.” One of America’s best selling reporters, Thomas Friedman, in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, writes extensively on the crackdown on the Islamic militants with conventional weapons in Hama, Syria, by late Syrian leader Hafiz el-Asad, but the destruction of Halapja, in Iraq, with chemical weapons only gets a perfunctory mention in his book. Therein lies the crux of the tragedy of the Kurds. No one will talk of the Kurds, only the Kurds will have to do it, and they better wake up from their deep sleep to rescue their kind from the existential threat that stares them right in the face.
One other thing has been bothering me intensely that has some bearing on the Kurds in that unhappy region in these unhappy times. The United States government is spending one billion dollars in Afghanistan on security per month, but only 25 million on economic revival. I don’t know about you, but every time I think of the number, I become numb wondering about how “civilization’s” strength and resources are squandered, and cannot help but augur the approach of evil times. This is the same United States that has now told the Kurds of Iraq for the sake of the Turks of Turkey, who refused to give the United States transit rights for its troops, across the Turkish occupied northern Kurdistan, you can not declare your freedom from those who gassed your loved ones with chemical weapons. I pray every day that it is just me who feels queasy about our times and hope and work for better days not just for the Kurds, but also the Americans who think they have the light of truth on their side and I wish they were right.
Oh, one other thing, if I ever were to meet Diyari, I would remind him of a quote by Jean Monnet, “Nothing is possible without humans, but nothing is lasting without institutions.” It is not enough for Kurds to be accountably good Kurds, as he certainly was, and many others think they are as well; they have to go beyond it, and create accountable institutions or support those that have earned their confidence, and can unleash their passions for their inalienable right of self-determination, otherwise, a place will be reserved for the Kurds in the losers’ section of the world’s museums.