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Turkish Iron Kettles and Kurdish Clay Pots

By KANI XULAM 6/1/2014

“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself,” said Albert Einstein once famously.

It is what crosses my mind after Janet Biehl asks me to review a German book she has translated into English, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan.

I hope I understand it well enough to explain it.

The author is Tatort Kurdistan, which turns out to be a pen name.  Tatort is German, meaning “Crime Scene Kurdistan” in English. 

The book is amply titled, since Kurdistan remains a crime scene of atrocities that continue to haunt the collective psyche of social Kurds.  It records the findings of ten German peace activists who interviewed numerous Kurdish revolutionaries in the fall of 2011.

These Kurds are working hard to cement just foundations for a Kurdish society that prevents exploitation, rejects domination, respects the environment and cultivates true equality and enduring friendship for all.

High on the list of role models for these angel-wannabe Kurds is Abdullah Ocalan.  Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollontai and Plato get honorable mentions. 

But leaping powerfully from the footnotes is Murray Bookchin, an American libertarian-anarchist who founded the Institute of Social Ecology in the United States.

Mr. Ocalan read Mr. Bookchin’s writings in captivity on the island of Imrali. He tried to contact Mr. Bookchin through intermediaries, but the American author already lay on his deathbed.

But his death didn’t end the matter.  Janet Biehl, Mr. Bookchin’s companion, never forgot the Kurdish request.  After Mr. Bookchin’s death in 2006, she befriended the Kurds and adopted their heroic struggle.  That noble bond shows in this new book.

Mr. Bookchin wrote with easy-to-understand simplicity, whereas far too much of PKK literature tediously throws around way too many “imported” phrases such as “democratic autonomy, capitalist modernity, ecological industry and liberatory society.”

To be blunt: What the hell do they really mean?

“The writer who aims at producing platitudes which are ‘not for an age but for all time,’ has his reward in being unreadable for all ages,” said English writer George Bernard Shaw.

Of course, translations can sometimes muddy the waters.  As an Arabic saying puts it: “Translators are traitors.”  So, with all due respect to Ms. Biehl, read books in their originals if you possibly can.

I am curious as to why Mr. Ocalan is tying his “Kurdish mule” to Mr. Bookchin to paraphrase the colorful language of a hadith attributed to Prophet Mohammed.  I also know that Mr. Bookchin had once been a Stalinist and had compared Mr. Ocalan to Stalin.

Mr. Bookchin clung to his ideal that humans could do good, even if Stalin didn’t.  He moved to Vermont to develop his belief in establishing an ethical society one city at a time, beginning in Burlington.

Many have written beautiful manifestos only to be disappointed in their underlings who failed to carry out their blueprints.  Mr. Bookchin, Janet Biehl tells us, considered himself a failure on his deathbed.

Americans rejected his social prescription, but Kurdish followers of Abdullah Ocalan can’t get enough of him.  The German team wanted to see how the American ideas and the Kurdish revolutionaries were interacting with one another.

If there is a hero of this social experiment, it is Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Sur Municipality in Amed, who has been chronicled in the New York Times Magazine.  But in this book, you see him closer and want to say, “Thank you for your service, brother Abdullah.”

Take, for example, his work on an avenue called Culture Street, where he emphasized “the diversity of religions and belief systems… we have begun to restore a mosque, a Chaldean-Aramaic catholic church, an orthodox Armenian Church, and a Jewish Synagogue. …”

Then look at how the Women’s Council of the same municipality addresses domestic violence.  When a husband beats his wife—if he works for the city—his salary is given to his battered spouse.  In Gewer, if a husband takes a second wife, half of his estate goes to his first.

Unless you are a male chauvinist, and hate women, you wish this experiment well.  But all that glitters is not gold.  Next to these precious nuggets lie some unsavory concoctions.  One of them, “[we] stay away from nationalism,” says a Kurdish revolutionary.  His reason, it comes with something called, “hierarchy.”

Staying away from nationalism may ennoble a peace activist from Germany or a libertarian from America, but can a Kurd practice the same indifference to the unfolding and still incomplete national struggle of Kurds for a place of their own under the sun?

The Bible says, “You cannot keep a clay pot next to an iron kettle; the pot will break if it hits the kettle.”

When Murray Bookchin disdains nationalism, the iron shield of American freedom protects him.

We Kurds have no such security.

When we do—when Kurdistan is safe like America is—sign me up for “Democratic Autonomy.”

But not before.  Because I want to live to see freedom in reality—not just floating aimlessly in the ether of pious platitudes.


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select | 6/1/2014
It is clear that your understanding of freedom is different than Ocalan's. In a some place, it is matter of freedom. How do we define the freedom. Not only where do you want to live or under the which system. Sadly, if you do not get Ocalan's manifestation right then I might suggest you to live in South Kurdistan where you can see "real freedom" and so problematic society. I do not quiet sure but the ideal region in Kurdistan will be the place where Ocalan's ideology and its life beauties became real. You then may be want to consider to move there.
Ahmad.Bajalan | 6/1/2014
After the third paragraph , you lost me Mr. Kani Xulam. I must be 5 years old and not aware of it
Kurdistano | 7/1/2014
Thank you for the wonderful article heval Kani .
Ihsan Efrini | 7/1/2014
please release this comment instate of the previous one Ihsan Efrini. Thank Mr. Kani for your excellent explanation! Regarding a "democraticall Autonomy"; First of all, I couldn't find this phrase just in PKK's dictionary, because autonomy by itself descending from a democratic regional system. Secondly, regarding freedom, there are tow ways to fight for that right theorically and practically. Here, PKK were fighting for this right similarly as Stalin did in Soviet Union, were showing the world they were fighting for the freedom of people from capitalism and slavery; however, they were executing daily thousand of its own people for their selfishness to remain in power and extend their power on Europe. PKK did the same with the aim of the Syrian & Iranian Intelligence tried to influence their power on every part of Kurdistan and execute whoever disagrees with them. After all, how this institution or group can serve the right of their own people which is freedom! Note: PKK has grown up in Syria; therefore, I think only Western Kurdistan people know the reality of PKK closely!!! With the respect to all Kurds!!!
Qaraman | 7/1/2014
@Ihsan Efrini no need to repeat Turkish propaganda here, this is not Turkey where you can claim that PKK "were executing thousands daily" and get away with it. PKK have indeed many issues and are far from perfect, they are authoritarian and have a socialist core, but they are also a dynamic movement and have adapted and changed with the times. Take their ideology for instance, they have slowly migrated more and more towards nationalism, and when was the last time they executed someone?. They have attacked and killed both Turks and Kurds but 90% of their targets have been Turkish military, intelligence or collaborators. They have also executed some of their own party members in the past for what they call treason, some of them have been just and some of them have been getting rid of people they didn't want around anymore. If your going to mention PKK a little historical and political perspective is necessary, why does PKK exist at all? people like you very conveniently "forget" to mention the horror Kurds lived in under in Turkey for decades before PKK existed. No other party other than the one like PKK would have survived even a year under the fascist Turkish regime, there were dozens of other more moderate parties and movements in Turkey both Turkish and Kurdish, many of them were leftists and they were all eradicated by the regime. PKK had to be authoritarian to survive, they weren't exactly fighting a western democracy, they were fighting a regime that denied that millions of Kurds even existed. A regime that frequently used torture and extrajudicial killings, a regime that encouraged and directly supported other terror org. like Hezbollah to commit atrocities against Kurds, a regime that would dress up their "special forces" in PKK clothes to carry out massacres of Kurdish villagers to get other Kurds to join their paramilitary and also used the show the pictures of the same massacres to the world claiming PKK did it. A regime that burned and razed more than 3000 Kurdish villages, forcing millions to move, A regime that didn't let ANY independent media in the Kurdish region for over 30 years, I can go on and on. Your asking the Kurdish people why they choose asthma instead of cancer, I think the answer is obvious to everyone except bigots.
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