“None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free.”
--Pearl S. Buck
It was the gentle calm after the violent storm of 9/11. Americans had by then bought many books about the Quran, Muslims and the Middle East. While a few natives of the Middle East were attacked for being “compatriots” of Osama Bin Laden, many more were noticed for the first time in their neighborhoods.
Seide Sise and his family, recent immigrants to Grand Rapids, Michigan, were part of the latter group. “I thought Americans would make a distinction between those who murdered their loved ones and those who had nothing to do with the wicked attacks,” he says.
Besides, Mr. Sise does not like to be called a native of the Middle East. He much prefers to be known for what he really is, a Kurd from his own country of Kurdistan (largely southeastern Turkey). It was his Turkish-targeted-for-destruction identity that drove him into exile that he would like people to know as his primary designation.
So when a journalist with The Grand Rapids Press called him for insight into the Middle East, Mr. Sise welcomed the chance to tell her a bit about the Kurds and Kurdistan. Like Americans tearing up during an inspiring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, Mr. Sise gets misty-eyed when nostalgically discussing the Kurdish flag and the Old Country.
Mr. Sise does not like to be called a native of the Middle East. He much prefers to be known for what he really is, a Kurd from his own country of Kurdistan,
Kurdistan is partitioned. Kurds are oppressed. Oppression is spawning evil the way spring blesses Kurdish lands with its flowers. Yet, just as the brightest thunderbolt flashes from the darkest cloud, domination often wrings out the most heartrending stories. And Mr. Sise is full of them. He is also full of hospitality. It is a strange combination. Why is it that those who suffer the most are often the most generous? I ask my questions. Let’s see what Mr. Sise tells me in his answers.
“How did your interview with the reporter go, Keke Seid?”
I added an honorific title to his first name, the custom in Kurdistan, which means beloved old brother. “I made her some tea and was willing to make her a Kurdish dish as well,” he said, but she had only an hour.
“I could not believe my good fortune,” continues Mr. Sise. “We Kurds have become a powerful magnet for oppression by local thugs and their misguided international “friends” and she was in my house asking me for stories. It was like asking a cow with bursting udders, if she wanted to be milked. Of course she did!”
So: “I gave her an earful!”
A few days later, a condensed version of their conversation appeared in the paper. “You see media here is very important. Our monumental sufferings have gone on unnoticed. Lawless and godless criminals have desolated Kurdish lands. Exposing them is an important way of disempowering them,” he muses aloud.
Was there a reaction to your story, I ask. “Yes. I got, for example, an angry letter in the mail, from a Turkish professor in our local college, accusing me of ingratitude towards Turkey. He was especially incensed that I had said, ‘I would rather make $ 2,000 a month in America than $ 10,000 in Turkey.’”
Unlike the reporter with a deadline, I spent several leisurely hours over numerous cups of tea with Mr. Sise last week. (Full disclosure: Although I didn’t know Mr. Sise growing up, he hails from Sise, a village in Lice, a town in the news these days, which abuts Pasur, my hometown, in the province of Amed. Our paths crossed in America and I have attended the wedding of his daughter, Neval.)
He was especially incensed that I had said, ‘I would rather make $ 2,000 a month in America than $ 10,000 in Turkey.
Like most Kurds born in the 1940-70 era, Mr. Sise doesn’t know his exact birthday, since precise records were not kept. Years later, when his dad went to register his birth, he told the clerk it was “a time of snow mixed with rain (berf u baran).” The clerk put November 7, 1945. “I have come to accept it,” says Mr. Sise.
Sise, his native village, is abandoned now. The marauding Turkish army forced its residents to flee in the 1990s. But when Mr. Sise was a boy, it provided livelihood to at least 3,000 souls. The year he went to school, about 80 students were his classmates. How many of them were girls, I ask. He says, “20.”
Sadly, none of the girls graduated. Some parents felt the Turkish-run school, which prohibits students to speak their Kurdish language, is “the work of Satan,” which contributed to their drop out rate. “If we had Kurdish schools, the literacy rate in Kurdistan would have been much higher than what it is today,” he says.
Of the boys who graduated, only a few continued with their education, and a mere two finished high school. One was Mehmet Serif, later recruited by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to spy on Kurds. The other was Mr. Sise, who attended the College of Law of Istanbul University.
He enjoyed “the beauty of Istanbul as well as its cosmopolitan culture.“ Just like today, the youth of Turkey took to the streets demanding better from their government. The government, as is often the case in Turkey, was impervious to them. “But, some of us, unfortunately, took to the destruction of property and kidnapping of foreigners thinking that it would lead to a more inclusive government. It didn’t.”
He relishes how he “came face to face with the giants of Kurdish politics: Musa Anter, Mehmet Emin Bozarslan, Yilmaz Guney, Jelal Talabani, Sinemxan, Orfi Akkoyunlu, Medet Serhat, Mehdi Zana and Abdurrahman Ghassemlou among others. I also spent a memorable night in the company of Abdullah Ocalan.”
As if wanting to relive that “memorable night,” he told me: “The year was 1976. I was home with some friends. A friend of Mr. Ocalan called and wanted to see if he could invite himself for some tea. When he showed up, he had Mr. Ocalan and another friend with him. The time was about 10:00 pm. When they left, it was 5:30 am.”
If we had Kurdish schools, the literacy rate in Kurdistan would have been much higher than what it is today,
What did they talk about for seven and half hours? “Six and half hours of it were taken up by Mr. Ocalan,” he says. “He started with the dawn of socialism in Europe and ended up with the challenges facing the ideology of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in Albania and China. It was an impressive tour de force. I was smitten.”
He continues, “But honesty compels me share with you the observations of another living Kurd who was present at our nocturnal session, Ahmet Zeki Okcuoglu: “Vi merivi dine; ewe sere Kurda bixe belaya,” which translates, “This man is mad, he will mean trouble for the Kurds.” 37 years later, I ask Mr. Sise, what he thinks of Mr. Ocalan now? “I am still smitten by him,” he says.
Mr. Ocalan has become a controversial figure, at least among the Kurds, since his imprisonment on the island of Imrali. When the Turkish military was calling the shots, he started quoting Ataturk, their idol, thinking—hoping may be a better word—it might lead to his freedom from his Turkish prison.
Now that the much-vaunted Turkish army has been taught a long-overdue lesson in obedience, Mr. Ocalan, acutely in tune with the political winds of Turkish politics, has started making favorable references to “the flag of Islam” to the delight of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the sultan wannabe prime minister of Turkey.
I sense that Mr. Sise cannot bring himself to criticizing Mr. Ocalan when he says: “He has enough sense to run not just the affairs of Kurds, but also Turks.”
If he were not a Kurd, I could easily see him following the footsteps of Mother Teresa.
I want to say: “Keke Seid, he is a prisoner of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a habitual liar (a munafiq by Islamic standards) who would not let his prisoner engage in truth telling. And without truth, Kurds will never be free.”
But, fearful that he might equate my criticism with disrespect for him, I keep quiet. But I do tell him that I am writing an analytical piece and he says he looks forward to my thoughts on his observations.
We move to other topics. His pride and joy: his children. Neval, Heval, Delal and Kendal are all adults. Three of them are college grads and one of them has made him a grandpa. He and his wife Pakizer have opened a restaurant in Grand Rapids that serves Chicago style gyros, which apparently mean generous servings.
Generosity and Mr. Sise go well together. He is also extremely kind. If he were not a Kurd, I could easily see him following the footsteps of Mother Teresa. Mahatma Gandhi would have delighted to have him as his companion. But fate has hurled his destiny into a violent corner of the world. He thinks, works, hopes and prays for the emancipation of the Kurds and liberation of Kurdistan.