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Of Kurds, Rats and Locusts

The Statement of Kani Xulam
St. Cloud State University
St. Cloud, Minnesota
April 21, 2004

Before the current spike in violence in Iraq, I ran into an American friend at Dupont Circle, a bustling neighborhood in Washington, DC. After exchanging the customary pleasantries, he asked me how I felt about the newly passed Transitional Administrative Law, a.k.a., the interim constitution in Iraq. Here was a question I could have spent at least an hour discussing with him or anyone else for that matter. Washington being what it is, we both knew, he expected me to give him a sound bite, an answer that was no more than two or three sentences long. I put my mind into over-drive and gave him what I thought was a cogent reply. Five weeks later, I stand by my answer. Ten weeks from now, I am not so sure if it will stand the test of time. If it does, and the abomination called the state of Iraq moves forward intact, I will be unhappy for it. If it doesn’t, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or perhaps his junior, Moqtada al-Sadr, might be the beneficiary of a theocracy in Baghdad, and here is the catch: the Kurdish Iraq might finally decide to cut loose from its malignant part, Arab Iraq, with some guarded understanding on the part of the International community, and proclaim to the world the birth of Kurdish Kurdistan. The day would mark the first deathblow to the schemes of British, French and Turkish colonialists who partitioned Kurdistan in the modern Middle East on that unhappiest day for all Kurds, July 24, 1923. One oppressor down, we could then focus on Syria, Turkey and Iran. A free Kurdistan would not only usher a glorious day for all Kurds, but also bring about a transformed Middle East true to its heritage. A region restored to its constituent elements, plus a peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the children of the Near East could then resume on the bright path again and, just like in the past, give directions to the world.

Going back to my friend at Dupont Circle, I told him, “If I were a Kurd inside Iraq, I would have viewed the news of the signed interim constitution as a glad tiding, a time to uncork a bottle of champagne and exclaim, wow, at least, eighteen Arab members of the Governing Council have seen the light of day and agreed to sign a document with the words Kurds and Kurdistan in it, a sacrilegious act among the ruling circles throughout the Middle East. But when I look at the document from these shores, I cringe; I look for a place to hide. I am appalled that five Kurds would affix their signatures to it, pledging allegiance to a state that saw us fit for genocide with poison gas.” Waiting for his reaction, it became obvious to me, I had drowned the poor fellow in details. Because he was polite, he wished me, and my people too, good luck, and added, “Frankly, I am forced to spend far more time on Iraq than I would like to, and I can’t wait for our troops to come home.” I thanked him for his good wishes, and headed to the bookstore on the circle to buy another friend a birthday gift.

Ordering my feet to take me to a place I love was easy. What was not so easy was to make sense of what my friend had just unloaded on me by way of a goodwill gesture. If scrutinized closely, it was nothing short of an expression of irresponsibility disguised as a desire for peace in the Middle East. It was also to borrow a word from President Bush the “gathering” sentiment, the overwhelming feeling of most Americans about the war in Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction had not been “found.” Saddam Hussein had not attacked the United States. The “neo-cons” had duped a nation into war to topple a somewhat “harmless” tyrant at the expense of American blood and treasure, the first approaching one thousand young lives, and the latter already in billions of green dollars. And as if these reasons were not sobering enough, the Europeans were drifting away from the Americans like never before. One million Italians took to the streets on the first anniversary of the war and demanded an end to the occupation. My Dupont Circle friend, I imagined, would have been one of them, had he been in Italy on March 20, 2004. If I were there, an anti-war activist with a solid record, I would have declined the march and gone to see some Roman ruins without much ado, as Shakespeare would have put it.

What is going on in Baghdad that could put a wedge between two activist friends in Washington, DC? Why is it that those who stand for peace and wish genuine goodness in the world have it wrong this time or is it at all times? Can it be true that as the inimitable Tacitus puts it, “more sins are committed from the desire to please than from a wish to injure?” If the good folks in Italy have it their way, and the Americans pull out of Baghdad right away, and Iraq moves forward one country intact, can one imagine what the dominant Arab race will do to the subordinate Kurdish one for welcoming Americans with sweets and flowers? A flyer circulating in Kirkuk and Baghdad right now has the following lines for the Kurds, “Worse than pigs, thieves and tramps.” A man, Abu Taif Mashhadani, who lost a child to the war in Fallujah told a reporter after a prayer service in a mosque, “When the fighting is over in Fallujah, I will sell everything I have, even my home. I will send my brothers north to kill the Kurds, and I will go to America and target the civilians.” If you say, Kani, this is just temporary, and it will go away, let me share with you an Arab proverb about the Kurds from the journal of a British colonialist who administered Iraq for two years, “Thalatha bad-dunya fasad, al Kurdi al jurdi wa al jarred.” If you are wondering what this rhyming diatribe means, it translates to something like this, “There are three plagues in the world, the Kurd, the rat, and the locust.” But then again, Tacitus may be right, it is the sentiments like these that put on the path of freedom and liberty those who are condemned to slavery. Those of you who are students of history will no doubt have a flashback here and remember that Israel owes its birth more to Adolf Hitler and less to the diligence its sons and daughters. Your president may say volumes about freedom, but he will be no match to Moqtada al-Sadr or Ayotollah Ali al-Sistani in putting the Kurds on the path of emancipation for their kind and liberation of their homeland.

Who are these peoples with a mindset that reeks of our rude beginnings in the Stone Age? Why is it that they dislike the Kurds with so much concentrated hate? Is it possible to survive such toxicity for very long in this world? The Germans of the 1930s hated the Jews. Today, they say, they were wrong. The Jews, they admit publicly, were good and right. The German government is now paying the surviving Jews reparations. The Turks, the Arabs and the Persians hate the Kurds just the same. If they could do it, they would emulate their better-known European role model and cleanse the Middle East of its Kurdish children once and for all. No one with a backbone, except the battered Kurd, has stood up to say that this suffocation of a people is wrong, blasphemous, and if not addressed on time will bode ill for the peace, stability and security of the world. But then again, we have been through this road before. The world, as those of us who study history know, did not rush to Europe to save the Jews from its gas chambers. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans bombed the railroad tracks that were hauling the hapless Jews to their hapless ends even in the last weeks of the Second World War. The Coalition, don’t believe a word of what President Bush tells you, is not in Iraq to sow the seeds of freedom and democracy. If it did, 1.7 million adult Kurds who signed a petition for a referendum to be or not to be part of Arab Iraq would have gotten at least an acknowledgment from him. But just like the Jews of Europe we might become the accidental beneficiaries of a fight that is now raging in the Middle East. It is my intention to shed some light on this issue through what passes as diplomacy in America and public opinion in Iraq. It is my purpose as well to tell you that the time to strike for Kurdish liberty has arrived and people of goodwill are needed to disenthrall a forsaken people from the yoke of despotism that runs amok in the Middle East.

Before I go on with the rest of my lecture this evening, let me at this time be a good guest and acknowledge my debt of gratitude to my hosts who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to bring us together in this auditorium for what Goethe used to say, a little bit of light in this world. I will start with the name of the individuals and move on to that of the organizations. I ask that you withhold your applause till I am done with their introductions. Of individuals, I am indebted to Sara Harris, Brent Bohan, Dan Martinez, Melanie Lahr and your newly elected student government president, Hal Kimball. I also would like to say a word about a gentle soul on this campus, a friend of the Kurdish people in this state, a name synonymous with activism for the Palestinians as well as the Kurds in America, my definition for a great academician in universities in the world, our professor friend Jesse Benjamin. It is people like you that will eventually lift the veil of darkness that prevails over the Kurds and Kurdistan. Thank you. Of organizations, I want to acknowledge Amnesty International, People United for Peace, Nonviolent Alternatives, Arab Students for Peace, and the Student Coalition Against Racism. Please join me in honoring these individuals and institutions with a round of applause worthy of the students of St. Cloud State University.

How does one tackle the story of a people that is slated for extirpation? Can a tormented soul rise to such a challenge? Wouldn’t it be better for a well-read philosopher to address this issue? Alas, we command no such interest on the part of healthy minds! The troubled ones like mine try their best and often fail to connect with the right people. This evening as well, I am raising my voice for truth, for justice, for peace and for co-existence of the strong with the weak in the Middle East where the Kurds and Kurdistan are located. This time around, I want to tell you of some tales of irresponsibility at the United Nations and then couple them with what passes as public opinion in the Arab street. The first institution, the world body, came into existence to help the forsaken children of our world. The Arab street deserves our attention because it holds a mirror to what is happening in the Middle East. The first person that I can connect with the story of the Kurds and the United Nations is Hans Blix. No, you did not hear me wrong, the old Swede has been on my mind lately and I would like to think that his story has an interesting lesson for the friends of the Kurds and Kurdistan in these turbulent times. As many of know, he was tasked with a mandate to find Iraq’s Weapons of mass destruction before the war. Not finding any, he has just published a book titled, Disarming Iraq. Last month, he was in the United States promoting it from coast to coast and was given a welcome worthy of the rock stars. At New York University, the faculty introduced him to a hall overflowing with students with titles like, “real-life hero,” and “unbiased and critical” thinker of our times. At the University of California at Berkeley, he did even better, two thousand people showed up to hear him talk about the elusive chemical and biological weapons. At both places, thousands gave him a thunderous applause and later lined up to get his autograph. I sure was glad that St. Cloud State University was not one of those venues.

If you thought the old Swede might have said a thing or two about the hapless Kurds who were gassed by Saddam Hussein, think again, no such thing parted from his lips. Instead, he made the claim that the Butcher of Baghdad was hanging a sign from his palace that read, “Beware of Dog,” but possessed no such canine at all. Saddam Hussein, Mr. Blix went on to say, was “bluffing” all along. It was an outlandish admission that got him numerous standing ovations from people who desperately wanted to believe in his findings. If truth be told, like many in this hall, I was all for his success when he strived mightily to avert the war. But now, as a Kurd, I have had trouble reconciling my past with his new proclamations about Saddam Hussein and his Weapons of mass destruction. It was Plato, the wisest of all philosophers, who said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” The good people of this world, including Hans Blix, cannot afford to be so glib about the profound challenges of our times, the use of chemical and biological weapons on human beings. Just as we study crime with the hope of bridling it, we must study war to keep it away from our children and ourselves. Shoving it under the rug or pretending it will never be our lot is poor counsel for all of us who call this earth home. The marriage of evil with power in the person of Saddam Hussein brought about the first time use of chemical weapons against the civilian Kurdish population. This lethal combination, conceived in Washington, cultivated by a money hungry West, tolerated for too long, should have been declared a threat to our common humanity by the United Nations rather than the United States. Alas, Mr. Blix offered no such counsel. Do you know what is even worse? No one in the audience even tasked him for it.

Perhaps a bit of Kurdish history is in order right here. Last year, a month before the war, an American reporter filed a story about a young Kurdish woman out of Halapja, Iraqi-Kurdistan, where Saddam Hussein had gassed 70.000 people with chemical weapons. The Kurdish girl then, in 1988, was only eight years old. When the reporter met her she was 23. Those of you who are women, how many of you are 23 in this hall? Perhaps you would want to pay closer attention to what is about to roll down on my tongue. Like many of the other survivors, this young woman had her lungs damaged to the degree that she could only carry on a conversation with prolonged moments of silence. Curious about the future of such a blighted woman, the reporter had asked her of her hopes and aspirations for the future. The Kurdish woman had confided to him of her desire to marry, but no one had expressed an interest in her. She was known as one of those “exposed-to-chemicals” girl. Her babies would have altered DNA, infants born with enormous deformities. No Kurdish man would bother to father a monster with her. No one had tried to cure her of her desire to have a child of her own.

In an ideal world, a representative of the United Nations would have mentioned the inability of this Kurdish woman’s desire to have a family of her own and connected it with the Butcher of Baghdad as exhibit A of his presentation about the nature of threat that is facing the children of this earth. In an ideal world, he would have added that in the history of humanity no one has come up with a way to unlearn things and the fact that Saddam Hussein had these weapons and used them against the Kurds is all the more reason to take him and his sign of “Beware of Dog” seriously as all Kurds do in unison, and the fact that the rest of the world does not is, because, frankly, it has so far lucked out and avoided such a scary fate. Such an honest acknowledgement may not have jacked up his book sales, might not have attracted thousands to his lectures, but would have prepared the citizens of this country, or the world for that matter, better for the unthinkable that happened to the Kurds, and if history is any guide, will certainly happen to the others as well.

The other tale that has riveted my attention and deserves your notice is that of Benon Sevan, the director of the eight year old oil-for-food program for Iraq at the United Nations. I first ran into his name back in 2002, when I read of his complaints in an article in the New Yorker about the pesky Kurds who were badgering him for money. He had the temerity to tell his interviewer, if the Kurds had a theme song, it would be, “Give Me, Give Me, Give Me.” At the time, I wondered about his nationality and remember murmuring to myself, this level of animosity is unbecoming of a public servant who is authorized to speak on behalf of the world body. I knew the Kurdish representative at the United Nations. He was not asking for more than what the United Nations resolution 986 had allocated to the Kurds, 13 % of the oil proceeds of Iraq, even though the Kurds constituted 20 % of the population and if they were free would have possessed 40 % of the oil wealth of Iraq. The Kurdish demand was not about their share per se, but with the way it was subjected to the approval of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and Benon Sevan in New York — Imagine partnering Adolf Hitler with the United Nations to provide humanitarian aid to state of Israel. Mr. Hussein and Mr. Sevan, the newly released records now show, managed to withhold some four billion dollars from the Kurds. As if the mystery needs an additional layer, the money was kept at a French bank, the Paris National Bank (BNP Paribas). Now that Saddam Hussein is in custody, you might wonder what the United Nations has done with the Kurdish money? It has been handed over to Ambassador Bremer for the reconstruction of Baghdad. The last time I checked, no Kurdish leader had registered a complaint, but I have a feeling that the Lady of Justice is shedding some tears under her blindfold over this blatant miscarriage of justice.

Saddam may be out of sight, but Benon, as of this writing, still has his job. Last January, an Arab daily, Al Mada, published a list of people who were the recipients of Saddam’s oil vouchers with reduced prices that were later sold in open markets with substantial markups. It was a given that those who were closest to Saddam Hussein would be on the list. But there were also jaw-dropping gems. One recipient of these oil vouchers was Shakir al-Khafaji, a Detroit businessman who had donated $ 400.000 to former U.N. arms inspector Scott Ritter to make the anti-sanctions film, “In Shifting Sands.” The shifting part of the film, it now looks like, was more about Mr. Ritter than the sanctions or Mr. Hussein. Another name, more intriguing for this activist, was Benon Sevan, the very director of oil-for-food program at the United Nations. He was listed next to a company in Panama with the name of Africa Middle East Petroleum (AMER), Co. Ltd. The article noted that at least one voucher for 1. 8 million barrels of oil was approved for his use on August 17, 1998. In the history of the oil-for-food program, some 67 billion dollars worth of oil was sold in the international markets. Last month, the General Accounting Office, an auditing arm of the United States Congress, reported that Saddam Hussein had managed to pocket an additional 10.1 billion dollars for his personal use in the course of the program. So far, Mr. Sevan has denied any wrongdoing. His employer, the United Nations, has noted that he is on extended vacation to be followed with a permanent retirement sometimes in April. I would be most curious to know if the news of his retirement has anything to do with his shameless accusations against the Kurds.

Let me at this time leave those who make a mockery of their oaths at the world body aside and turn your attention to the Arab street in Iraq and the Middle East. Let me make one thing clear at the outset and it is that I approach this part of my task with a heavy heart. I would have liked to have told you of a land and its children who had found a cure for AIDS, invented gadgets that made it easier for the billions of the illiterate to read, or produced and exported to the world over not suicide bombers but cultural ambassadors that bridged the gaps in civilizations. Alas, that is not what the Middle East is known for these days. For now, we have to deal with hatred that has found a fertile ground in the region, and worry about a disease called nihilism that is spreading throughout the Islamic world. A few observations may be in order here. Ignorance is an ally of those who wish to take to the Middle East to the Middle Ages. Despots are their natural allies in this fight for supremacy in the region. Both are in abundance throughout the globe, but especially in the Near East, and we neglect them at our own peril. So like a good doctor, we must open the wound and let the air, light and time to do its work on this cut of our times. If the pain is unbearable, it is because the wound is deep and has been ignored for too long. Only the light of science, the love of humanity, and freedom will cure the region and the world of our current ills.

Speaking of the deep cut, like many in this room, I had never heard of Fallujah until last summer. When it became the hotbed of resistance against the American forces, I read of its residents and their role as favorites of Saddam Hussein who ran Iraq with an iron fist. Because I think the American influence in Iraq is better than what was there before, and hopefully it will not be for long, I was curious of the interaction of the population with the occupation forces. If my memory serves me right, it was last August that I ran into a story in a wire report of an Arab farmer who was interviewed after a deadly confrontation between some Jihadists and the American forces. When asked who he thought were behind the attacks on the Americans, the Arab farmer said, “They were Kurds. They came from their mountains and attacked the infidels.” I could not believe my eyes. If the Kurds wanted to attack the Americans, why would they abandon their mountains, better suited for hit and run tactics, and take vulnerable positions against the invaders in the middle of the desert or intermingle with a population that was openly disdainful of them? It took me a while to realize that what I had just read was the time-tested observation of all conflicts that truth was the first casualty of war. But as a Kurdish activist, I was not amused. I was curious about the underlying reasons for his deep-rooted antipathy towards the Kurds.

As the world media continues to put Iraq under a closer scrutiny other gems have popped up as to what the Arab street is thinking about the Kurds. One Arab sheikh, Ghassan Muzher Alassi, on an official visit to Turkey was not just pleasing the Turks, but also stating the prevalent view of his compatriots, when he said, “[The Kurds] want to change the past, and the present, to create a new future favorable to themselves.” Referring to the gassing of the Kurds in Halapja, he added, “There has been enough attention [paid] to the past. We want to focus on the present.” The past that Mr. Alassi wants to forget is to deny what the Human Rights Watch calls the genocide of the Kurds. The present that Mr. Alassi wants to keep intact is to hold on to the Kurdish lands that Saddam Hussein has cleansed of its Kurdish inhabitants. If one were to make the mistake of saying these are the ravings of just a few of the misguided, the view at the top is not very different either. Moqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand cleric with thousands of armed followers, had some of the choicest words for the interim constitution, when he said, “It is Balfour Declaration intended to divide Iraq.” His senior, Ayotollah Ali al-Sistani, urged the United Nations to reject it outright. Saddam Hussein called the Kurds infidels to enable his Muslim soldiers to gas them. These Saddam wannabe clerics are equating us with Jews or worse as nobodies and I will leave it to your imagination what they will do to us given the chance. If you want clues, in a sermon delivered to thousands of faithful on March 26, 2004, the junior cleric al-Sadr blessed 9/11 as a “miracle from God.”

With “public servants” like Hans Blix and Benon Sevan running the show at the United Nations, with “kind” neighbors like Abu Taif Mashhadani, Ghassan Muzher Alassi, Moqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, and with Americans preoccupied with the vagaries of the an election cycle at home, what is a Kurd to do under the circumstances? I would love to hear your comments, but let me also attempt an answer by way of a story out of Spain and a plea for the Kurds and their friends to close ranks for the emancipation of a people and liberation of a homeland. On March 11, 2004, some 200 people were murdered in ten simultaneous bomb attacks in Madrid. When the rescue workers reached the scene of mayhem, they came face to face with a phenomenon of our times, the constant ringing of cell phones on the dead bodies of the victims. The loved ones were calling, but no one was responding or turning off the ringers. Thinking about the callers and their grief, I said to myself, my God, this is how it feels to be a Kurd. We have been calling the world over, to be noticed as human beings, to be treated with respect and dignity, to be allowed to speak our language, to be left alone to name our children after our own mothers and fathers, and to be separated from our neighbors who have gassed us to make what Adolf Hitler used to call “lebenstraum”, living space, for their own children. Alas, no one is responding. It is as if the whole world is gone deaf. It is a scary comparison. It is the world we Kurds are reduced to live in.

When faced with such evil, I cannot help but remember the words of one your patriots, Tom Paine, who at another trying moment in your own history noted, “These are the times that try the men’s souls.” With no room for the cowards, the brave Kurds together with the lovers of humanity are plodding onward to strike for liberty, for justice, for truth, for peace, and for the restoration of dignity to the Kurds and Kurdistan to its rightful owners. Perhaps you will not begrudge me to say that our struggle is not just for the Kurds and Kurdistan, but also for you. We are upholding the honor of humanity where it has come under one of the cruelest attacks the humanity has ever known. We hope some of you will take your place on our sides, befitting the children of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Nathan Hale, and my favorites: Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Luther King Jr. For those of you who hold dear and near the ideals that have made this country great, the choice is a clear and simple one. You need to reach out to the children of Kurdistan and sing the old song anew: we shall overcome, this time as well.

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