A Story Out Of Kurdistan
5th Annual Kennesaw State University (KSU) Peace and Religion Conference
March 27, 2009
On November 11, 2004, a Turkish newspaper, Radikal, ran a story with a headline, “Kulp’ta Toplu Mezar.” For those of you who don’t know the language of our oppressors, it translates as, Mass Grave in Kulp. I remember reading the news the way you Americans read your election results or watch your Super Bowl or follow the stock market. You have to forgive me for equating your peaceful indulgences with my warlike fixations. The more I live in your country the more I realize that yours is a truly blessed society where peace is taken for granted and mine is a cursed one where war or its alternative, slavery, is a permanent fixture of our lives. The fact that I was from the village of Gavgas in the district of Kulp, in Kurdish, Pasor, the place where the mass grave was discovered, made the matter even worse, for I became more curious to know if any of my missing relatives or friends were among the piles of bones. None were. What was I supposed to do? What would you do if the Atlanta Journal Constitution had a caption that said, Mass Grave in Kennesaw? A group of Kurdish farmers was taken into custody by the Turkish armed forces and killed summarily in October of 1993. Their loved ones were “happy” — in 2004 that is — that their search was over. In Washington, DC, I was, needless to say, seething with anger.
Five years later, I have calmed down a bit. Perhaps it is the age thing. But doing something for their memory has always been in the back of my mind. This afternoon, I want to pay them my respects, to fulfill an obligation, 16 years too late. I don’t sing, so you will not hear me hum mournful songs. Grieving, I have discovered through bitter experience, pleases our foes, so there will be no lamentations. I do, however, dream, so you are in for a Kurdish dream, as bold and poignant as Dr. King’s, but, alas, lacking his imagery and more important still the power of his delivery. Men who were Godless and lawless denied my compatriots the light of day. The soldiers who killed the hapless Kurds were members of Bolu Mountain Commandos, a branch of the Turkish military. With Kurdistan still on its knees, no one has bothered to issue warrants for their arrest. But they are sleeping less because we have not forgotten our dead, because of what happened to Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, and because of the arrest warrant that was just issued for Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the President of Sudan. Thank you and God bless you the International Criminal Court. One day, dead or alive, these Turkish killers too will get their just retribution. Justice, which is no match to its nemesis, hatred, has a way of doing the right thing even if it takes its sweet time. Truth, though barred from our current conversations, will revisit our discourse and help us to reconcile with our neighbors. Freedom, the birthright of all humans, denied to us for too long, will become our companion. Peace, the everlasting hope of humanity on earth, will, for a change, come to my country, Kurdistan, as well. For now though, I want to turn to the story of the Kurds. It goes without saying that I ask for your indulgence.
Dear Farmers of Pasor,
I am not in Pasor, Kurdistan and you are not in freshly laid graves for this address to be proper. I am in Kennesaw, Georgia and this funeral rite is performed in front of an American audience. I will start with the obvious and that is your children and their mothers. Suffice it to note that they are alive. Notice I didn’t say they are well. After your massacre, the Turkish soldiers burned down your village and chased away your womenfolk and the kids. There were so many other deaths and so much other destruction in that cursed year: 1993. My own village, Gavgas, became a casualty as well. There was, however, one big difference between the Turkish commander who ordered his soldiers to burn down your village and the one that burned mine. I don’t know how to embellish evil — imagine forcing a Jew to say something kind about a Nazi — but since this is a solemn occasion, and since you deserve nothing but the truth, I will, for your sake, give it a try. The commander who set my village on fire had a “heart” of sorts, for when he committed his atrocious act, he did not harm any of my relatives or neighbors. I have always wondered if God planted that last-minute seed of mercy in his heart. The monster that came your way ordered his soldiers to kill all adult males, turning, overnight, your darlings into orphans and your wives into widows. I know for sure God was on vacation on that day. I feel awful to report his lapse to you. After such knowledge, you are probably wondering if I am going to say anything hopeful or even remotely cheerful. I can’t guarantee you a laugh, but I will try to bring a smile to your faces.
The first story that I want to share with you is about Barack Hussein Obama. Never have so many felt so great in such far-flung places of the world as in the election of this man to the presidency of the United States. In the word many, I can count for you thousands upon thousands of our own Kurds as well. Three days after his election, on a Friday, the holy day for the Muslims, we, your surviving kin and kith, sacrificed 44 sheep in his honor. In so doing, we were paying tribute to the first African-American to occupy that post. And as I already alluded to it, we were not the only ones. Before his election, I personally witnessed Rahm Emanuel, a rising star in American politics, say Barack is a Hebrew word and it means blessed, implying that the Jewish Americans should vote for him. Everyone knows the name Hussein is Arabic and Muslims all over the world are ecstatic that one of their own is in the White House. And then there were these Germans in Europe. Normally, not known for their passionate outbursts, — save that one time when they lost their bearings for Hitler, — they, too, fell for Obama head over heels so to speak. There is no other word for it: we are witnessing a global phenomenon. The center of gravity has finally shifted from Hollywood to Washington, DC. Indeed, if you could place his popularity next to ours, the scene would offer one of the starkest contrasts ever. He is adored; we are despised. He is welcomed pretty much everywhere; we are unwanted even on our own lands. Can you please ask God, who is supposed to be impartial, to figure this thing out? Remind him, because it looks like he has forgotten it, that we, the Kurds, are his children too.
You see, the Kurds, the Jews, the Muslims and the Germans have hardly ever claimed one man as their favorite son. To be honest with you, I am a tad jealous of this good fortune of America and wish we could produce a leader of his caliber who could tap into the goodwill of the world to emancipate the Kurds and liberate Kurdistan. Just to be fair, I would want the same thing for Tibetans and Tibet. But as things stand, Kurdistan is reeling under the boots of not just one but three peoples. The world has come to know them as Turks, Arabs and Persians. They style themselves as Muslims, people who are grounded in faith and justice. Let me not lose sight of the fact here and acknowledge the humanity of a thousand or so members of these peoples who have paid and are still paying the ultimate price for siding with our fight when it was so much easier to for them to withdraw from it. They have humbled us with their selflessness and Kurdistan owes them a debt of gratitude that can hardly be expressed with words. But their virulently-racist-when-it-comes-to-the-Kurds compatriots continue to threaten us and pose the greatest existential threat to our very existence. We have always called them hypocrites, the destroyers of humanity and cultures, but have never understood why the rest of the world will not second our motion. This deference to the worshipers of false values makes our job one of the hardest in the world. Tell God he has it wrong when he said, “To whom much is given much is expected.” He has given us nothing and has tasked us to fight three peoples, in four countries, to free one of his peoples. Tell him as well, that we have not given up, that our tortured bodies and — worse still — tormented minds will go on till the last of us is alive. Nothing less will redeem your blood. Nothing else can bring a smile to your faces.
So far, I have told you about our place in the world. Now let me tell you about Obama’s place among the Kurds. We feel for America’s new president the way he feels for president Abraham Lincoln. It is no mystery that the latter made it possible for the first to aspire to the highest office in the land. We rooted for Obama not because we thought he would free us, — we are not that clueless about the world, — but because we know he loves his children, the daughters of American slavery, and felt that he would hold an implacable hatred towards the new slave masters who justify the old evil under the new and fancy name of national sovereignty or security, take your pick. On his watch, if we had it our way, the despots would look for a place to hide and freedom would come out in full stride. That is why we sacrificed 44 sheep in his honor and prayed God to protect him. But more than the blood of our sheep, the signs that we held at our ceremony said it all for those who still have eyes that see and hearts that feel. Dr. King would not have needed a translator to relate to our ritual. Gandhi would have smiled at us for our creativity while chiding us for not substituting watermelons for the hapless sheep. Rosa Parks would have felt at home in our midst. Desmond Tutu, had he been at our event, would have offered us a benediction while poking God not to go on vacations when the fate of a nation was at stake. One of those signs said, “You are one of us!” Another one, taking its cue from the campaign slogan, “yes we can,” proclaimed, “You can change the world!” Then there was the customary one, “We love you,” but the Kurds had added the word Van to it, the name of our province, making sure that Americans knew that thousands were behind the expression as well as affection. I think I can speak for you, in heaven, as well as for the Kurds, down here on earth, in wishing the new president well as he takes on one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
I have told you how Obama-mania has taken over the Kurdish lands. I also want to tell you how our adversaries have reacted to our jubilations. To say that they were shocked is an understatement. Bigots have always mistaken their rancor for wisdom. The Internet was deluged with their tantrums. One of them said, “I bet they are going to make hamburgers out of the meat [implying that we wanted to honor the American cuisine as well.]” Another one noted, “This couldn’t be the work of ignorant villagers; there are probably Armenians and Greeks behind it.” A third wrote, referring to the American president, “He doesn’t look black to me, why are these Kurds so supportive of him?” A fourth expressed a contrary opinion, “He is not one of you, he is black.” A fifth didn’t quibble over Obama’s skin color at all and spoke for most of his compatriots when he said, “You can not make brothers out of the Kurds, you can only expect backstabbers from them.” These were their prideful racists some of whom are in charge of Kurdish provinces no different than the way George Wallace once run the state of Alabama. And then there were their professors, people who should know a thing or two about an enslaved population’s irrepressible desire for freedom. One of their best, a faculty member at the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding of Georgetown University no less, couldn’t bring himself to say that Kurds had sacrificed the sheep, he attributed it to the Turks, missing in the process the significance of the event, and said, “Obama represents hope not only for Americans but for all the people[s] [of] the world.”
I wish I could say the Turkish professor was right about all the peoples of the world. The new American president, I am sorry to break the news to you, has competitors in the globe. The Middle East has produced one such person and in the remaining time that I have I would like speak of him since he himself has spoken of the Kurds. But before I do so, let me digress a bit and put some coordinates on the place, yes, the Middle East, we, and our neighbors, call home. As you know, our ancestors were famous for their inventors, teachers, judges and prophets who set new standards and gave directions to the world. These days, we are second to none in subverting that glorious past. Like you, I am full of questions as to why we fell from grace. You could perhaps ask God for an answer up there, down here, I am hoping some of my listeners who are better versed in these things could, perhaps, explain this lapse to me. The only thing that comes to my mind is a quote from Goethe who once mused, “There is nothing more frightening than ignorance in action.” It looks like we have turned that observation into an art form and have perfected it besides. Think of Uday Hussein feeding his pet lions with dismembered human parts. Try to comprehend, and good luck to you in doing so, the government of Turkey’s decision to ban the letters of the alphabet, the q, the x and the w. Forget it if you can, the shattered morning of September 11, 2001.
While you are trying to put your minds around these scenes from hell, let me tell you of the man who has already staked a major claim to the imaginations of our children throughout the Middle East. His name is Muntadar al-Zaidi. He came into the limelight on December 15, 2008. Although he tells the world he was born on January 16, 1979, history would not err if it marked his date of birth as April 9, 2003. On that day, a dictator went into hiding. That same evening, 20 million Arabs and five million Kurds took their first baby steps into a realm called freedom. In the ensuing chaos, Muntadar al-Zaidi took a fancy to journalism. Perhaps it was his misfortune to be practicing a profession at a time and place when affront and insolence are often mistaken for greatness. So when I saw that he had thrown his shoes at America’s 43rd president, unlike many who were amused by the spectacle and one Saudi billionaire who was beside himself with joy offering ten million dollars to redeem them, I cringed. Then I heard him say, he was compelled to do so not just on behalf of his Arab compatriots, but also us, the Kurds. That is when I too started to laugh. It is, after all, what my doctor keeps telling me I should do more often, given the odds that we face.
But to be honest with you, my laughter did not last very long. Sadness overtook me as I reflected on the farcical scene in Baghdad. Four years earlier, an Arab family in Iraq had named their daughter, “Intikhabat,” meaning elections, and it meant nothing to the likes of Mr. al-Zaidi and his legion of fans. Six years ago, CNN had reported that a Kurdish family, in Iraqi-Kurdistan, had named their baby boy, Cheney, not because they knew what Dick Cheney had stood for, but because only he and his boss had dared to stand up to the monster from Tikrit. Perhaps Tacitus is right when he said, “More sins are committed from the desire to please than from a wish to injure.” Perhaps that will be the epitaph of junior Bush’s tombstone in Texas. Whether it will be or not, some 40 million Kurds, although not yet free, are eternally grateful to him for sending Saddam Hussein with a one-way ticket to hell. I don’t know what is going through your minds, but down here something doesn’t just add up when it falls on us, the Kurds, to tell an unbelieving world that the Middle East is thirsty for freedom, for accountability, for transparency and yes, for independence too, but along linguistic, and if need be confessional, lines. That is news to Muntadar al-Zaidi and his Arab supporters. He thinks, and there are many in this country that side with him, that when the American troops come home, the Sunnis and the Shiites or the Kurds and the Arabs will sing the old song, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Nothing remotely resembling it will ever come to pass. War will come with force multiplier. The hatred that has paralyzed our loved ones in Pasor, Kurdistan, will, I am afraid to say, find its echoes here, — and I pray God that it won’t, — in Kennesaw, Georgia.
I started my lecture with the story of 44 sheep and Barack Obama and would like to end it with a tale about Abraham Lincoln and one Arabian horse. The world has come to know the anecdote through the writings of Leo Tolstoy; I first read of it in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It is a delightful charmer that speaks of the greatness of Honest Abe not just in America but also the world. The Russian writer, as Ms. Goodwin writes it, visited a tribal chief and his clan in the mountains of north Caucasus in 1908. He was asked to regale them with the stories of great men. He told them about Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon. Although the night was old, they wanted to know about another hero, and as Tolstoy relates it, “His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.” “I looked at them,” Tolstoy says, “and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that those rude [villagers] were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend.” I told them of Lincoln’s “home life and youth … habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength.” When I was done with the story, they gave me, “a wonderful Arabian horse.”
It is too early to tell if the Obama tale will be worth a horse. With the stroke of a pen, Lincoln freed not just some three million terrorized women and men, children and grand parents, but also earned the gratitude of millions more around the world. Obama, if he wants to be great, doesn’t need to do what Lincoln did — engage in a costly war; rather, he should simply fulfill, through the soft power of the United States, what Wilson proclaimed in the 12th of his 14 points: that the Ottoman subject peoples should enjoy “an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” If he does so, some 40 million Kurds will take their rightful place under the column of freedom. That will be 37 million more souls than what Lincoln freed. Whether he does so or not, we will continue to fight and die for the old glory freedom. We hope you, in heaven, and the free peoples, down here on earth, will stand up and cheer us on as we inscribe our names without blood if we can, with ours if we must, to the roster of emancipated peoples in the Middle East and freed nations at the United Nations.
(A variation of this statement was also delivered at the Committee on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) monthly gathering in Tampa, Florida on March 19, 2009)