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Culture & Art

The Jailhouse Story of a Kurdish Artist

By KANI XULAM 21/8/2013
Lukman is an artist, with his studio in a hoary, former jailhouse in Lorton, Virginia.
Lukman is an artist, with his studio in a hoary, former jailhouse in Lorton, Virginia.


Unlike most of us, Lukman Ahmad loves being in jail.

In fact, he loves it so much he voluntarily stays in it every day!

Well, he’s not really imprisoned—as we think of prisons—but he is actually in a jail every day.

Lukman is an artist, with his studio in a hoary, former jailhouse in Lorton, Virginia.

The symbolism of working in an old prison is entirely apt, since Lukman has energetically embarked on an ambitious mission to liberate Kurdish art—a pursuit, which has often been rewarded with torture and jail time in Lukman’s birthplace, Kurdistan, a dreadful fate he takes in stride with gallows humor.

“I love going to the old jailhouse every morning,” Lukman says with a deadpan expression.  “It is like going to Kurdistan!”

Kurdistan and its Kurdish people, for those of you non-Kurds who are trying to understand it, are imprisoned in the sense that they have no national government of, by and for the Kurds—but suffer under rules cruelly imposed upon them by their jailhouse masters, the Turks, the Persians and the Arabs.

Through his paintings, Lukman tries to capture the pain and suffering of Kurds and display its depressing plight before the world, to vividly flourish their vanquished voice, horrendously crying out for emancipation the way America’s Patrick Henry powerfully shouted out for freedom when he yelled: “Give me liberty or give me death” in 1775.

He dramatically captures his compatriots’ anguish with his brush, and personifies their suffering with his endowed paint—to ennoble, uplift and sanctify the universal thirst for a life free of masters both good and bad, for a life filled with decency, dignity, respect and honor.

Being around Lukman infuses one with the inborn sense that he feels, without saying it in those exact words, the impassioned spirit of American novelist William Faulkner, when he accepted the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm:

  Lukman is a Kurdish Faulkner with a brush—even if he doesn’t know it 

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things.”

Had Faulkner known Lukman, he might have added:  “It is the duty of the painter to paint about these things, to help Kurds endure by lifting their heart, by reminding them of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of their past in Kurdistan.”

Lukman is a Kurdish Faulkner with a brush—even if he doesn’t know it—but feels kinship with the likes of Marc Chagall and Hadi Ziaoddini, Gustav Klimt and Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik, Wassily Kandinsky and Ahmed Kleige and Eugene Delacroix and Omar Youssef—the last a beloved childhood friend.

Some may say he is still a “struggling” artist, and they could be wrong.  But they would be right if they say, he is still “struggling” with his English.

But don’t let his lack of proficiency in English language get in the way of reaching out to him—or him to you.  For he is truly a gentle soul, a kind-hearted lover of learning and better yet of learned men and learned women, who works every day to elevate the honorable woodpile of human kindness a little higher than he found it.

If you happen to know Kurdish, Lukman Ahmad’s most proficient language, followed by Arabic, he is all-smiles and jubilant jests, showering you with memorable stories and light banter that is a feast to the senses.  His best servings naturally have to do with Kurds and Kurdistan.

I was recently treated to a veritable Lukman feast over numerous cups of tea, which I would like to share with you in the rest of this profile.

“Liberation is in the arts,” Lukman says emphatically by way of delving into his stories that roll off his tongue as effortlessly as the Potomac flows into the Atlantic—or, as we Kurds might put it in Kurdistan: the way the ancient biblical Tigris gushes smoothly toward the Euphrates and into the Persian Gulf.

His first story is about Seydiko, a Kurdish groom about to experience the first night of marriage with his beloved.  By tradition, he cannot consummate his love till he has hunted a gazelle.

In the afternoon of his wedding day, he and his father grab their guns and head to the nearest forest.  It is a cold season, with a light snow spraying the trees.  Seydiko, as is the custom with some hunters, covers himself with a mantle made of deer-hide to fool the unsuspecting game.  Finally, with no gazelles in sight, Seydiko and his father decide to separate to cover more territory.

They cover more territory all right, but they also lose track of each other.  After a while, Seydiko’s father notices a lone deer in the distance.  He shoots it and calls his son with the joyful news. 

  In the afternoon of his wedding day, he and his father grab their guns and head to the nearest forest. 

When he gets to the scene, however, he finds—not a deer, not the pre-nuptial triumph he expected—but the lifeless body of his beloved son.

“Seydiko,” his heart-rending artwork, captures the father’s indescribable, insufferable and unendurable agony over the loss of his cherished son.

His second story is about the Baradosti tribe in eastern Kurdistan.  Its chief, Khan Lepzerin, is a close associate of Shah Abbas I of Persia at the turn of 17th Century.  As it happens, the shah and the Kurdish chief have their falling out.

The shah orders Khan Lepzerin to pay him a visit.  Sensing a foul play, the Kurdish chief declines the invitation.  War is declared on the tribe.  Khan Lepzerin and his kinsfolk are cornered in their hereditary castle, Dim Dim, not far from the city of Urumieh in present-day Iran.

A harsh siege is grimly laid, which only makes Baradostis more ferocious than before.  When the water supply to the castle is cut off, the Kurdish tribal chief holds a war council.  They determine to break the siege by a ghastly, hideous means.

They agree that the Baradosti women will commit suicide—reminiscent of what Jewish freedom-fighters did 2,000 years ago high atop their legendary mountain fortress of Masada, to deprive their cruel Roman masters of the victory celebration they sought.

The rest of Baradostis sally out en masse, swords in hand, to let the gods of battle decide who should die and who should live.  Khan Lepzerin is killed, but one of his sons and many of his fighters manage to find refuge in southern Kurdistan.

“I have been thinking of painting this battle of Baradostis against Persian despot Shah Abbas I of Persia the way Delacroix painted the massacre of Greeks on the island of Chios by Turks,” says Mr. Ahmad.  “I want to capture for the entire world the history of Kurdistan with all its varied colors, its triumphs as well as setbacks.”

I ask him about his statement, “Liberation is in the arts.” 

Mao, the Communist Chinese leader, I remind him, might have disagreed with him when he said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”   I tinker with the original quote a bit and note, what do you say to those who may say, “Liberation grows out of the barrel of a gun!”

“Mao is no role model,” he says.  “I don’t remember the exact quote, but he also said something like, ‘If the enemy advances, retreat; if they retreat, shoot them!’  Is this what we want our children to emulate?”

He continues, “We live in a dishonest age.  Lying is now considered the most exalted form of diplomacy.  Did you not read the postings of Wikileaks?  Show me one honest politician that emulates Gandhi or Mandela these days?  The world needs the unvarnished truth of art to survive.”

  With a little bit more money, my name was allowed to live, or freed from the tyranny of a Baathist if you will 

Taken aback by the trenchant and judicious tone of his response, I am curious about his origins.  Who were the teachers of his mind?  What were the sights of his boyhood, the sounds of his youth and the seminal events of his life?

“I was born in 1972,” he says.  “At the time of my birth, like a lot of Kurds, I was branded a ‘maktoumeen’.”

The word “maktoumeen” is Arabic, meaning invisible.  Lukman Ahmad was supposed to be an “invisible” Kurd!

How did he and other “invisible” Kurds get away?

“Ten years before I was born, Arab nationalism took a turn for the worse,” he told me.  “It became violent and irrational.  Over 120,000 Kurds were ‘denationalized,’ meaning, folks including my parents were declared ‘Ejnebis,’ or foreigners.”  Those who were born to “foreigners,” as he was, were then known as “invisibles.”

How did he get to be a “visible” Kurd?

Lukman was born into a “resourceful” family, he explained. “Seven years after my birth, my dad tried to bribe a Baathist [the ruling political party functionary] to register me at school.  His money was taken all right, but he almost went to jail for it.”

What happened?

“The registration was not an issue, but he got himself into serious trouble when he insisted that Lukman was my name.  Kurdish names are illegal in Syria.  The official wanted to give me an Arabic name; he even suggested one, Muhammad.  But my dad was not moved.  With a little bit more money, my name was allowed to live, or freed from the tyranny of a Baathist if you will.”

Curious of Kurdish interactions with the dominant caste in Syria, the Arabs, and since I know military service is mandatory all over the Middle East, I ask about his military duty.

“I served in the Syrian army for three years,” he says.  “They were the worst years of my life.  It was like a factory.  We went in as vivacious young men; came out sullen and disdainful of life.  Often, we were mistreated; once, I was beaten severely and thrown into a pool of wastewater and ordered to guard a utility pole just to please the animus of a sulky army officer.  I got sick of chanting every morning, ‘With our flesh, with our blood, we are with you, O Leader!’”

  I got sick of chanting every morning, ‘With our flesh, with our blood, we are with you, O Leader! 

I am surprised to hear the content of the pledge.  I tell him that the Arab and Kurdish soldiers who served in the army of Iraq when Saddam Hussein was calling the shots were forced to recite the same chant.  And when the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan started to train his fighters in Lebanon, he had them recite the same thing with his name.

When I mention the word Lebanon, Lukman’s face lights up with another story. “When I was a soldier in the Syrian army, I was part of the occupation forces that patrolled the streets of Beirut for a while.  The same army that is now killing Arabs in Arab Syria and sometimes Kurds in Kurdish Kurdistan then lorded over the people of Beirut as if it owned the city.  Stealing became part of its duty.”   

He relayed a story popular with the Lebanese when he first got to Beirut.

A Lebanese man walks into a police station in Beirut and tells the officer on duty: “A Swiss man stole my Syrian watch!” 

The officer is taken aback.  He knows Swiss watches are famous and coveted worldwide and Syrians don’t make watches.  So he asks, “What do you mean?”

The man repeats his claim, this time raising his voice: “A Swiss man stole my Syrian watch!”

The officer says: “Do you mean to say a Syrian soldier stole your Swiss watch?” 

The man is relieved and says: “Ok, but you said it—I didn’t.”

He laughs for reliving the story; I do, for hearing it.

I ask him if Syria’s days are numbered.  “They should be and I will be happier for it,” he says.

All Kurds should hope that Lukman Ahmad’s days are not numbered, but will be lengthy and prosperous as he shines light on the darkness and depression of Kurds still living under the ominous oppression of foreign rulers.

Lukman lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his occasional singer and songwriter wife, Majda.  His artwork can be viewed on his website.

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