A Few Vignettes From a Kurdish Conference
By Kani Xulam
August 18, 2002
Early this summer, I attended a Kurdish Conference in Washington, DC. I was treated to a veritable feast of memorable lines that after 70 showers I have yet to clean myself of their toxic residue. Since water has not helped, I thought I would reach out to the readers of the Kurdish political world in the hope that one or more of you out there will consider helping this blighted Kurd of his recent misfortune at this unforgettable gathering hosted by Kurds and defamed by some of its participants and sponsors.
Truthfully, I don’t even know where to start. I guess I should do so with the representative of one of the most implacable foes of the Kurds, the Turks. Ozdem Sanberk was his name. He appeared on a panel of “Regional Perspectives” to enlighten the attendees on Turkey’s views on southern Kurds. He uttered the usual caveat that he was speaking in his capacity as a private citizen — the man is now running a non-governmental organization — and not as a representative of the Turkish government. His bio-sheet read a list of Foreign Service related postings in Brussels and London. This is a Europeanized Turk, I said to myself. We should hear some reasonable points of view, I surmised.
It was nothing of the sort. Iraq, as if it was his father’s property, he wanted intact. The Turkmen, — one sensed it right away, he was approaching them as if they were his children — need to be noticed, honored and protected. They are the third largest minority in Iraq and the second in the northern free provinces, Iraqi Kurdistan, but he could not bring himself to saying the word “Kurdistan” and called it northern Iraq. Look at the misfortune that has befallen Yugoslavia, he warned. Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs should, all, call themselves Iraqis, he advised. He wished to see a new Iraq with political stability, territorial integrity and friendly foreign relations restored to the region just like in the old days.
This was a no-go with the Kurds. If he was expecting a standing ovation, it did not come. But blistering questions did. A Kurd stood up and reminded him of the frivolousness of his disclaimer that he was not speaking for his government; he could not have done a better job, and alas had done so, under the rubric of a non-governmental organization. Another one, saying that he had lived in Cyprus, — a young Turkish diplomat in the audience thought he had said he was from Cyprus, more on this later, — reminded him of his government’s brutal oppression of the Greeks in the Mediterranean island and Kurds in Turkey as well as and the incongruity of him as a speaker on the topic.
The slight worked. The Ambassador bared his soul. He started off with a list of Kurdish wrongs, Turkish rights, “terrorist” killings, and the eventual Turkish triumph over the Kurds. He added, very condescendingly I have to say, with the gloating of a victorious general, but with the simulation of a seasoned Ambassador, a decisive blow, words fail me to capture the depths of his feelings, the most memorable line of the whole conference: “In Turkey, we are proud of our Kurds!”
I was stunned. Speechless. Immobile.
The young Turkish diplomat from the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC, then wanted to be recognized. I guess he was not content with what the senior Turkish diplomat had said about the evil Kurds. He wanted to address the Kurdish man who had asked a question about the Kurds in Iraq as well as Turkey and the Greeks in Cyprus and had dared to mock the great Turkish accomplishments on that forsaken island. He was given the microphone. What followed was a sight out of this world. He did not have long hair, but if he had, he would have pulled it. His hands were full; otherwise, he would have hit his chest with them. If the room were not full, I am sure of it, he would have stood on his head to express the depths of his anger on the impudent Kurd. Here was despotism at its best and with diplomatic immunity to boot. Ignorance mixed with passion produced an unforgettable scene. I wanted to freeze the moment and share it with the world, especially the Europeans, to show them the type of Turks that we have been condemned to live with in northern Kurdistan. I was slightly content that the present company was treated to a specimen of it.
Here was a one act tragedy, one act comedy, both combined, making a play that was unfolding as an opening session of an International Conference on Kurds. It was nothing short of a carnival. What I had seen so far had already paid off handsomely for the taxi fare that I had paid to attend the conference. The rest was going to be a treat. I put my pen aside. I adjusted my seat. I was going to, simply, enjoy the show.
A young Kurdish woman barely in her twenties stood up. She wanted to address the Turkish Ambassador. Someone suggested that she go to the podium. She accepted the suggestion. She walked slowly. Those who knew her said later, she was carrying the weight of Kurdistan on her slender shoulders. She looked at the audience for effect. She then turned her gaze on the Turkish diplomat. With a firm and decisive voice, she said, “You are the terrorist”.
Now, here was another act worthy of remembrance even by the most distant generation of the Kurds. If ever there was a silver lining, this was it, and it was obvious to all present at its unfolding. The future was facing the past. The new generations of Kurds were not going to take the flack. The young woman, if my memory serves me right, got applause. This time, it was the Turkish Ambassador who felt out of place. I noticed, the Kurds who had felt dejected, earlier in the day, lifted their sullen heads. The Ambassador expressed shock that a lady would break the decorum and address him as such. He then quickly realized that it was better for him to shut his mouth tight.
But I could not get my mind off of the Ambassador’s insulting remark. I was a Kurd from Turkey and this man, this clown, this imbecile was proud of me. What had I done to deserve this largess, which amounted to vomiting in public, a gross act, to be sure, and of all places at a prestigious university of a most important city of the most important country in the whole world?
I then remembered the words of another Turkish luminary, this time of a journalist, who in the course of a debate on the stand Turkey should take, relative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, had confided to an Arab journalist another immortal line, “Turkey has a conscience” and will always support the Palestinians. Cengiz Candar is the name of this man, and in a recent column, I found him complaining that Turkey had too many writers and too few readers. Was he stating a Delphic oracle or uttering a statement of fact? I was puzzled. No one who reads in Turkey or observes the situation of the Kurds with open eyes, even if they don’t know how to read, cannot possibly say Turkey is a paragon of virtue, or a true friend of the Palestinians, or a hope for the wronged peoples. Mr. Candar was obviously trying to fool the Arab journalist. And the journalist was fooled, for he quotes Mr. Candar to close a diatribe on the truthful few who had stood by their government, which has always stood by Israel.
But there was more to the Ambassador’s remark than his simple faith in the inherent goodness of his people throughout history, he did not say it, but if he were asked, he would have chosen the same role for its future. I had a suspicion he was privy to some of the pontifications that were emanating from our generation’s most famed Kurd in Imrali who recently had penned a new defense for submission to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in which he states his “unequivocal” new stand on Kurdistan noting that even if Kurdistan were “given” to the Kurds, he would work very hard to restore it to Turkey, or quoting Ziya Gokalp, an all around Kurdish turncoat the likes of which history has seldom produced, “the Kurds can not live without the Turks and the Turks can not live without the Kurds.”
Now this is a lot of food for thought. It was a time-tested policy of the Greeks in the heydays of their expansionism in the Middle East, adopted by the Turks, that it took diamond to cut diamond, and here we were again, witnessing the use of an imprisoned Kurd to discredit all Kurds.
The conference participants were not just the Turks and their Kurdish neighbors in northern Kurdistan. Citizens of the Occident, Arabs of the Middle East and the Kurds of Southern Kurdistan also spoke at the event.
A man by the name of Sherif Ali bin Al-Hussein was another highlight at the conference. Now if you were not there, even Shakespeare’s pen would fail to describe this buffoon who declared his intention to be the next King of Iraq. No, you did not read it wrong. He stood there, or sat like a King should I say, spoke with a modulated British accent, possessed long side burns, had gelled hair combed back, and till someone introduced him, I thought he was a thug for hire for dark as well as light crimes of passion as well as greed that one reads about in the newspapers among people with money and time whose preferred company is usually beautiful faces and lite minds.
And it did not take very long for His Majesty to take the command of his vassals. Sensing an overwhelming tendency of participants of the conference for a federal model in Iraq, miffed by a question that many thought was planted which forced the Kurdish representatives of the conference to confront the issue of oil rich city of Kirkuk, mutely I might add, the yet-to-be King felt compelled to remind the participants of the conference of his, at first I thought jokingly, later I realized the seriousness of it, threat which just like the Turkish Ambassador’s statement totally took me by surprise: “I would remind the Kurds not to put their trust in the diplomats of foreign governments or scholars of foreign universities. We have more Arabs in the city of Baghdad alone than all the Kurds who reside in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
This wannabe King said all this and did not even blink. Now, you have to give credit to a man who stands before a hostile audience, be they the slave Kurds, and threatens them with contemptuous words, and nothing, I mean not even a murmur, visible or audible, is expressed or heard. If I weren’t a Kurd, I would have taken off my hat for him. Instead, I reached out to my right ear and twitched it, and really hard, God is my witness, to make sure that I was not hallucinating with an imaginary, if tasteless, gibberish.
To be sure, I wanted to ask a question. But honoring him with one would have also meant that I took him seriously and I did not. But if I had asked him one, it would have been, listen you clown, you don’t tell us who to befriend or follow in our search for the expansion of our freedoms or the liberation of our homeland. In case you did not know, your own ancestors sided with the Brits to be crowned as Kings and Queens (I realize I am abusing the words) whose genes you may carry now, but whose legitimacy was tenuous then and is almost non-existent now. I also wondered if he knew anything about the antipathy of Americans to Kings and Queens who had wanted to keep them in subjugation and burnt their Capitol for daring to declare their independence. If he hadn’t rubbed me the wrong way, with his thoughts of wanting to become my Royal Family, I would have told him that he was in the wrong city; London, not Washington, may be a better stopping point for him to recover the Presidential Place, or should I call it Kingly Place, in Baghdad.
The most prominent Kurd to bless the conference was Hoshyar Zebari. I had first crossed paths with him after the Gulf War — for a moment I was about to write after the First Gulf War — at a conference on Turkey. I was immediately struck with his kindness, tactfulness, and — despite the artificial coldness that exists between the northern and southern Kurdish activists, — his generosity to acknowledge me with courtesy and promptness. On August 11, 2002, I was part of an audience in San Diego, California, that hooked up with him through a teleconference about his meetings with the high-ranking administration officials. Again, I was impressed with the way he genuinely acknowledged every questioner and tried his best to assuage us of our collective fear of the impending calamity that is heading towards our lands.
But as a political operative, I can even say as the Foreign Minister (I will not abuse the words, like Caesar he does not want to assume the title) of the Kurdistan Regional Government, I was unimpressed with his performance at the Kurdish Conference. After expressing his debt to the organizers of the day long event, he began his much anticipated salvo with a reference to the title of a book, “The Kurds: An Unstable Element in the Gulf, 1984, by Stephen C. Pelletiere”, and said, today, on June 8, 2002, I am here to announce the scholar wrong, for the Kurds are the most stable element in Iraq. He then thanked three countries, the United States of America, Great Britain and Turkey, for the good fortune of the Kurds and credited the Turkish Ambassador Ozdem Sandberg as the architect of the Turkish Kurdish rapprochement and added, “… we will not forget those friends who have stood with us, who have helped us.” He added, “We are Iraqis and we will not do anything independently or separately. The freedoms we now enjoy are ours and we will not give them up without a charge or price.”
In the course of the Q and A, he expanded on the theme of federalism a bit more and noted that the federalism he had in mind was a part and parcel of Iraq. And he added, “As serious political parties who have responsibilities, self-determination is not our policy.”
I had several problems with these rather amusing musings on the future of the Kurds. Now, no one in his right mind can be against peace coupled with liberty, which is the greatest linchpin of civilization and conducive to happiness, prosperity and soaring spirits that one reads so pleasingly in the works of Plato, Cicero, Erasmus, Jefferson, Macaulay, Gandhi and Dr. King and Malcolm X to name just a few. But peace at the mercy of others or with the leash of the Turks, or Brits or the Yankees can never be permanent and could easily disappear into thin air just as it was accidentally bestowed on us.
There was one other problem with Mr. Zebari’s pontification. I wonder if he has ever seen a cat bark like a dog? The animal would refuse to dishonor itself — some Kurds don’t seem to get this point — as such. And even if it were possible for the cat to oblige, the scene would offer a grotesque sight. A Kurd can never be an Arab. The latter will only use him to fetch water, to carry burdens and lately to be experimental rats in labs for the testing of the chemical and biological weapons. I had a vision of Mr. Zebari calling the Arabs “his people” one day. The decorum does not allow me to put it in writing, but such an act will not be forgiven or forgotten by the future generation of the Kurds.
I thought I had seen it all that one could possibly see on a memorable day for all Kurds. There was more to it. A Kurdish professor approached me and wanted to know if I had liked the proceedings. Liking it was an understatement. Then, he told me something that went for the crown jewel of the absurdities that I had heard all day long. “I went to the Turkish Ambassador Ozdem Sandberk,” he said, “and told him about the young Turkish diplomat from the Embassy who had caused the scene at the conference and advised him that Turkey’s cause will suffer gravely if it is represented by clowns like him.”
Now here was education in the service of Turkish tyranny and the giver was no other than a Kurd.
I was holding the brochure of the conference in my hand. I began playing with it and looking at it to avoid an embarrassing eye contact. I saw a quote on it. It was from Mulla Mustafa Barzani. The date read, July 15, 1970. I began glance through it. “My dear [students], it is very well known to you that illiteracy is like a noose around a nation’s neck. The wealth and rights of an illiterate nation can be easy prey for oppressors and greedy aggressors. Our nation has unfortunately fallen into such a threatening circumstance. Therefore, I am asking you to take up the arms of science and education and exert all your efforts to liberate your people from the bondage of illiteracy and to shoulder the burden of promoting your nation to the level of developed nations in the near future. This is the most sacred duty befalling you.”
His children who were the sponsors of the conference did not utter the words “bondage,” “nation” and “liberation.” The greedy aggressors were touted as friends, some of the educated Kurds were rushing to their aids, and the very tenuous freedoms that should have been nonnegotiable on the pain of death were held up as bargaining chips with people who had trouble-acknowledging Halapja.
I could not take it anymore. Life was stranger than fiction. I needed to come back to earth. I went home. I took a very hot shower to relax my very taut nerves. It did not help. I reached out for a book, any one would have done the job, it turned out to be Plutarch’s Lives. I read through the story of Romulus.