The pandemic is far from over, but luckily, the rules allowed me to finally give a lecture about the Kurdish issue that was initially planned for the summer of 2020. It was in a town in Belgium, for a group of business people. My lecture, the invitation to the club’s members said, would be about the Kurds’ struggle for ‘a place under the sun’. When I was on the train back home, I wondered more than after other lectures, how the audience had perceived my words. Did I manage to connect to seemingly unconnected worlds?
As always when I give talks about the Kurdish issue, and also this time I connected the subject to my work as a journalist in Turkey and Kurdistan. For me, both are inextricably connected. Usually when I am introduced, the fact that I was detained in Turkey twice, spent two nights in a police cell and was then kicked out of Turkey, is mentioned, and this time was no exception.
Those ‘adventures’ (as the introducers often call them, which is rather toe curling for me, because I’m not adventurous, I’m a journalist) are not a natural part of my talks because the way the Turkish state treated me, has not defined or shaped me as a journalist nearly as much (if at all) as the Kurdish movement has. But these are the things audiences want to hear about, so I always tell myself to squeeze the ‘adventure’ in.
I forgot, this week in Belgium. I was too focussed on trying to take my audience to where their minds probably hadn’t travelled before. They, as many other people do, assume that the Kurdish struggle is ultimately about a Kurdish nation-state, which is a concept they can relate to. The idea that the Kurdish armed and unarmed movement in Turkey and Syria is about communalism and advocates against the very concept of the nation-state, is not easily fathomable.
I explained how the nation-state is considered to be a western concept forced upon the Middle-East, undermining the immense ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of the region. That respecting the core of humanity, which is diversity, can’t flourish in any nation-state, also not in other regions of the world because diversity is the norm everywhere. That being in a marginalised position, as Kurds are, makes you understand the toxic and suppressive nature of power very well, and indeed much better than those who hold power in society.
Only in the last five sentences of my talk, I made explicit that I was not only talking about Kurdistan and the Middle-East when it comes to marginalised groups and power dynamics, but about our western societies as well. Now that I may still be writing about Kurdistan and intend to travel there again early next year but am based in the Netherlands, I did not really loose my specialism. Also in the Netherlands, there are strong power dynamics that destroy people who are not part of the dominant group in society. Women, Muslims, Black people, LGBT+-people, poor people. As a journalist, I need to listen to them to get to know the society in which I was born, raised and shaped, and I need to tell their stories to show society as it is. Just like writing from a Kurdish perspective paints an accurate picture of the workings of the Turkish state.
I saw some seventy faces looking at me and listening carefully for a full hour. I know they were intrigued, but I worried that maybe, I was telling them too much. While talking, I decided to leave capitalism out of the equation. The audience consisted of people who had done pretty well for themselves in capitalism, and making a firm anti-capitalist stance after already making them doubt the concept of the nation-state, which most people take for granted (as I did), seemed too much.
But just how strong the think patterns really are, became clear afterwards, when a man came to me and asked: “So, I understand the Kurdish movement doesn’t want a state. Maybe we should have named your lecture differently, because they don’t really want this place under the sun, right?”
I was confused for a second. I replied that Kurds already have a place under the sun because they exist. “But they don’t have a country”, he replied. “True, not a country with set borders and a president or king and one flag and one language, not a country with a seat in the UN, but they have their soil, their geography, and they struggle to govern that place under the sun in the way they see fit.” “But how can you have a place under the sun without a state?” He just couldn’t wrap his head around it. “It’s happening right now”, I said. “You can have a place under the sun and not have a state simultaneously.”
So there I was, a few hours later, in the train back home, wondering if my message had landed. I picture this man, going about in his life, and when he has a moment of silence, he may ponder what it means to have a place under the sun. Giving a lecture is like journalism in a way: you send a story or a talk into the world without controlling what people do with it. They can embrace it, reject it, fully understand it or not at all, and it’s all fine. I just hope, in my writing and in my lectures, that I plant a seed. I think I succeeded.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.