From a land of wonders to a state under construction

Kurds and Kurdistan

“As the building sites progress and the Middle Eastern dust stirred up by the war begins to settle, questions are starting to be asked. Is it possible to found a land of dreams together with those who have shattered every last dream in the Middle East? What are the Kurds, the accursed of the Middle East, going to do?” For Kurds in Turkey and in Iraq, US investment in Kurdistan is both a blessing and a burden, writes journalist Ece Temelkuran.

“How can I bring my wife here? No Turkish woman can put up with this place.” In “Pushi”, the poshest restaurant in Erbil, Kurdish Northern Iraq, a brief silence ensues when head waiter Bekir, a Kurd who has come to Erbil from Diyarbakir in Eastern Turkey, realizes what he has just said. “Is your wife Turkish then?” I ask. “Look, what I mean is that no Kurdish woman would be able to bear it either,” he replies with a laugh. We both laugh, with the feeling of contentment of people who have come across someone from their own country in another part of the world. Having said that, I’m not Kurdish, and the country in which Bekir finds himself isn’t so foreign to him either; this incident is taking place in Kurdistan! Head waiter Bekir, and the other Kurds from Turkey who have come to work in Erbil, are always complaining about how “undeveloped” the Kurds “over here” are. Their griping sometimes even descends to the level of “They don’t even know how to eat”. And as I listen to their complaints, I begin to think that, because they have come from Turkey, they see themselves somewhat as Europeans here. At the same time, I recall how, a few months ago, the word “Kurdistan” had reverberated around the town of Semdinli where bombings (which some claim to have been the work of rogue elements in the military) reawakened debate on the Kurdish question in Turkey.

On a cold but sunny day in November 2005, I was chatting with some secondary school students who were out on the streets demonstrating about the bombs that had gone off just a few days earlier. With great enthusiasm, they pointed to Efkar Tepe, a mountain in the distance, and told me: “We’ll just go and live in Kurdistan, under our own flag, speaking our own language in freedom. Rather than being humiliated here, made to feel like criminals and always exposed to violence because we are Kurds, we’ll just go across the mountains and get to Kurdistan.”

They pointed to the area beyond the horizon as if there lay a promised land. Just as young people all over the world think that they can get the better of life, these sixteen-year-olds also believed that they were going to overcome everything that this country Turkey had done to them and those who had come before them, and that they would pull all this off by going to live in Kurdistan. In Semdinli, a little town nestled between the mountains, which has a rather ghost town-like feel to it, they were nurturing their dream of a big and beautiful paradise-on-earth, trying to reconcile this dream with the real world with the help of a story that has become the stuff of legends. The story goes like this. A young Kurdish boy is in love with the daughter of a Turkish gendarme. Because the boy is Kurdish, the father doesn’t give his consent for them to marry. Then, one night, the young Kurd gets hold of a white horse, seats the girl behind him on the horse and rides off over the border. The young man and the young girl are still there, living very happily in Kurdistan.

Throughout the seven days I spent in Kurdistan, I looked for this young man, whom people always referred to as “the friend of a friend”. I asked everyone that I spoke to about him. No one had heard such a story, but the person who commented most forthrightly on it, saying “There’s no way something like that could have happened”, was another Kurd from Turkey by the name of Agit. Agit had come to Erbil to study at university, and he was the representative there of the Kurdish students and youths who had come over from Turkey. He began by noting that “If something like that had happened, we would definitely have known about it,” before going on to talk about being a Kurdish youth in Turkey: “I dunno – perhaps if we hadn’t been so surrounded by fear, our personalities would have turned out differently. We wouldn’t have become so angry if we hadn’t felt so frightened. Maybe then we wouldn’t have made up stories like that.”

Today in Kurdistan, in that dreamland of the Kurds, there is no fear. Instead of fear there are dreams and the building sites that belong to these dreams. Kurdistan is one big building-site. On the façades of the buildings at the front of every massive construction project you see computer-generated pictures that show what the housing estates will look like when they are complete, whilst behind the giant billboards displaying these posters are swathes of mud and dust. In the computer-generated pictures, the people strolling around between the buildings have blond hair and blue eyes. These people, who look like they have been simply lifted from the memories of these computers, look nothing like Kurds, nothing like that Kurdish youth who came over from Turkey with the daughter of the gendarme seated behind him. As for the men and women on the street, though, the pictures they are buying from the street traders contain different faces. One trader showed me the picture that has sold best among the Kurds up until now. In it, there is a little boy in ripped clothes, standing with his back turned and looking through a half-opened door into a classroom where children of his age are having a lesson. The trader explained the “legend” of this boy in the following way: “This boy was a shepherd. He couldn’t afford to go to school, and the other kids didn’t want him around them. So every morning he would listen to the lesson through the gap in the door. Later, thanks to what he had learned by listening through that gap in the door, he became a wise man.”

Judging from what this trader said, the days are over when the Kurds thought that they would become “wise” by listening to the lesson through the “gap in the door” of humanity, surrounded as they had been on all sides by three powerful states – Syria, Turkey, and Iran – and by a tyrant-like Saddam. Because now the best-selling picture on the streets, the one that Kurds buy and stick up in their homes, is completely different. On the right there is an old granddad with white hair and a white beard, in the middle a river, and on the left a young man atop a white horse and, in front of a sweet little house, a beautiful woman cradling a baby. It seems as if the Kurds have put behind them the old days full of fear, like an old man looking back on his past. Now the hair and beards turned white by the days of fear and violence lie on the other side of the water. But what of this side of the water, this side of time?

When I ask Molla Bahtiyar “When did your hair go white?” he laughs, continuing, “Believe me, but when I was up in the mountains I didn’t have a single white hair. It all started when I moved to this office.” Bahtiyar, who was in charge of organization in Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, fought as a peshmerga in the mountains for seventeen years, but is now one of those responsible for the politics of a country establishing its institutions. Not only does he no longer speak the language of Marxist-Leninism, but he also constantly hails the benefits of globalization. So maybe that’s why his hair is going white! Whereas he had laughed when answering my first question, when it came to the following question his laughter froze: “Don’t you think that, as a consequence of your cooperation with the US you’re now all on your own in the Middle East?”

Bahtiyar boomed, “Which other people in the Middle East has been massacred in the way we have?” Then he continued, “Where were all the nationalists? Where were the Leftists? Where were the Moslems? While Saddam was massacring us in our hundreds of thousands, did anyone do anything? Yes, if only we didn’t have to cooperate with the US, but this was a matter of life or death. We didn’t have any alternative.” To which he quietly added: “I’m glad you asked this question. We’ve got so much pent-up frustration.”

In the old men’s cafés, the customers gather excitedly to watch Saddam’s trial, with all the excitement of an outdoor cinema. At the same time, they speak of how one day they’re going to send the Americans packing. Whoever you speak to in Kurdistan harbours a secret hatred for the Americans. For the moment though, with their awareness of the realities of the Middle East, Kurds remain silent and appear to like the American soldiers on the streets. Yet on these very streets, the same story is being told over and over again. A young Kurdish girl in Erbil went to sing in a hotel located just outside the city, in which American soldiers were staying. When she eventually left the hotel, she had been raped by forty Americans.

Forty is a significant number in the Middle East. It crops up again and again in tales, legends, and stories, betokening a startlingly large number. But is this story true? Well, if the story of the Kurdish youth who ran away with a girl from Semdinli is true for the young men of Semdinli, the story of the young girl in Kurdistan is no less true. In any case, in the Middle East stories become true the moment they are told, and become ever truer the more they are recounted. To some extent, in the East realities are constructed on top of stories. When the scaffolding has come down and the buildings have gone up, we shall see how truthful the stories are about the US, which is currently investing all that money in construction projects in dreamland Kurdistan. But today, what is truer than anything else is that cooperation with the US is a political burden and a burden of conscience for both Kurds in Turkey and those in Iraq.

What the Kurds have now started to talk about is their soul-searching and political reflection concerning cooperation with the US following the foundation of Kurdistan. As the building sites progress and the Middle Eastern dust stirred up by the war begins to settle, questions are starting to be asked. Is it possible to found a land of dreams together with those who have shattered every last dream in the Middle East? What are the Kurds, the accursed of the Middle East, going to do? These days, this is the most agonizing question for our politicized angry young Kurd from Semdinli, who sees Kurdistan as a “land of wonders”, as it is for those high-ranking political circles which include the likes of Jalal Talabani and Mesud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. But try asking a man called Safacan of an evening in Erbil.

The only centre for nightlife in Erbil, which has undergone a revival in the post-Saddam and post-war period, is the Erbil International Hotel. There, at any hour of the day, you’ll see Middle Eastern businessmen shaking hands, doing business in whispering tones, sorting out contracts, and you’ll be able to understand how much money is awash around here. As you know, where there’s money there’s sure to be “entertainment” too. Well, Safacan is the long-serving “organiser” of this entertainment. He brings dancing girls and female singers over from Baghdad to Kurdistan. Of course, he also provides this service for any occupiers who want to savour these orientalist pleasures to the full. And Safacan knows stories about the Americans that nobody else knows.

“We’re about to leave Baghdad, and I’ve got five dancing girls with me. But the American soldiers don’t let us go. The commanding officer says, ‘How do I know that you haven’t abducted Zarkawi [reputed leader of Al Qaida in Iraq]?’ Well, I reply, ‘These girls are dancers. What’s Zerkavi got to do with them?’ But the guy doesn’t look like budging. So, right at the checkpoint, in the middle of a whole load of soldiers, I tell the girls to get out of the car. ‘Dance,’ I tell them. And our girls start to dance, at the checkpoint. They danced there for the Americans for half an hour. And that’s how the Americans allowed the girls to carry on their way.”

Until now, the Kurds have been regarded throughout Europe as “freedom fighters”. Now, however, because they collaborated with another group of “fighters for freedom and justice”, who are feared and reviled throughout the world, the Kurds find themselves faced with stories like that of those girls dancing at the checkpoint.

Yet the Kurds know better than anyone else that they have never had it easy in this part of the world. I don’t want to prompt another cartoon-crisis, but I’d like to tell a story that Kurds tell among themselves. When the Prophet Mohammed was giving his farewell sermon, he gathered the Arabs, Turks, and Kurds around him for this, his final address. Weeping, the Arabs asked, “What are you going to leave us?” The Prophet got angry with the Arabs, saying, “I delivered you the Koran in your own language. What else do you want me to say?”

This time, it was the Turks who began to whinge: “What are we going to do when you’ve gone?” At which the Prophet assigned the Turks a duty: “You shall take up the sword and fight for this religion. The best you can do is to be fighters.” Because the Kurds had been left to the end, they really began to grumble. Well, the Prophet got annoyed with this incessant whingeing. In fact, he got so annoyed that he shouted at the Kurds: “Damn you and all your whingeing! From now on, your bread will travel on horseback but you shall walk!” Because of this, because they were at the receiving end of the “curse of the Prophet”, the Kurds have for centuries been struggling to earn a crust.

Whenever someone tells a joke that has been translated from another language, they tend to add the following sentence as if to apologise: “Of course, it’s funnier when it’s told in the original language.” The same applies to this joke. But don’t all our stories, legends and realities in the Middle East change their meanings once they are translated into European languages? And hasn’t this been the case for years, again and again? Haven’t the Kurds in Europe, far from home, been struggling for a long time to establish a country on the basis of concepts whose meanings have been changed through translation? This time though the Kurds, whose existence has been ignored throughout history, who have been brutally killed and subjected to massacres, need to work things through in their own language. This is for the sake of the dreams of the young Kurds from Turkey who want to ride over to their promised land on their white horses as well as for the Iraqi Kurds stranded on the other side of the river – both those who gave their lives fighting in the mountains to establish a free country and those who have witnessed their beards turn white.

Published 29 May 2006
Original in Turkish
Translated by Jonathan Ross
First published by Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) 5/2006 (German version)

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) © Ece Temelkuran/Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) Eurozine

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