Selahattin Demirtaş wouldn’t have been in jail if his family had taken the opportunity to leave Turkey and settle in Europe. They refused to leave even though they knew that Selahattin would very likely be jailed, his wife Başak said in an interview, because they wanted to continue their struggle together with the people. A brave and admirable decision – but honestly, the bravery started generations earlier.
Selahattin Demirtaş, as most readers of this column will know, was eventually arrested in November 2016 and remains incarcerated up until today. Many lifetimes of jail time have been demanded against him by prosecutors, on top of the several sentences already given to him. His freedom is eventually a political matter, just as the freedom of the ideological leader of the Kurdish movement, Abdullah Öcalan, is a matter of politics.
Demirtaş’s decision, a friend on Twitter told me, is reminiscent of the decision of Qazi Muhammad, president of the Republic of Kurdistan in 1946 in Rojhilat (Kurdistan in Iran), after the short-lived republic collapsed. He had the opportunity to go into exile in the Soviet Union together with the Barzani clan (who had just founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party), this dissertation taught me (page 185), but he refused, saying that ‘the best for me is to be martyred in my motherland and not to leave my people alone in these dire conditions.’ He was hanged by the Iranian regime in March 1947.
It’s incredibly brave, and heroic even. But in my perception, the bravery of these people started earlier, namely at the moment they decided to become active for the Kurdish cause. Either in Iran in the 1930s or in Turkey in the 2010s (as Demirtaş did, becoming an MP for the DTP [Democratic Society Party], a predecessor of the HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party]), or, for that matter, in Iraq in the 1960s or Syria in the 1990s, or anywhere in Kurdistan right now: the decision to stand up for your rights against brutal states is courageous. Because you know from the very beginning that the state is going to do whatever it can to stop you reaching your goals. They’ll prosecute you, torture you, murder you, abduct you for your family never to find you again, and throw you in jail for years.
Several Kurds have told me that it’s not really a choice. It’s a necessity to fight against oppression, to defend the life of yourself, your family, your people. Self-defence is, you could say, a reflex inextricably tied to being alive. Kurds, and other oppressed nations, know from a very young age on that their lives are constantly threatened, and resistance has become part of their existence. Berxwedan jiyanê, the slogan of the Kurdish movement meaning ‘Resistance is life’, has this very deep meaning.
This is also tied to the concept of ‘resistance knowledge’, a term I learned from the Kurdish author and artist Behrouz Boochani, whom I was honoured to meet in Amsterdam recently and whom I interviewed about his latest book. He fled Iran for political reasons. He tried to reach Australia by boat but ended up as a prisoner in that country’s refugee prison system on Manus Island for six years, and eventually received refugee status and a residence permit in New Zealand in 2019. The generations-long resistance of the Kurds, he told me, has created a culture and concepts and values that are reflected in literature, art, film and popular culture. All Kurds, he said, were influenced by this resistance knowledge, which has become part of the collective mentality.
Is Behrouz Boochani less brave than Demirtaş because Demirtaş stayed put and Boochani fled? I don’t think so. Boochani took his resistance knowledge abroad, wrote a book on a phone he smuggled into the prison on Manus Island, and now uses his knowledge and experiences to resist colonialism, making connections with other suppressed communities. His work has a huge impact, just as Demirtaş’s work does. But it’s a reflection of their people, of their ancestors, of their mothers and fathers, of the mountains which are their friends and that echo their longings for freedom. They resist by singing lullabies in Kurdish to their children, by cooking food for soup kitchens and for guerrilla units, by defending the prosecuted in court, by writing for the free press, by going into exile to engage in diplomacy and organising tasks in Europe, by joining women’s and youth groups to stand up for their specific interests. They are all brave together.
While I was researching Qazi Muhammad for this column, I stumbled upon the gifts he gave members of the Barzani clan as they left for the Soviet Union, after he had rejected their offer to join them going into exile. One of the items was a picture of Selahaddin Ayyubi. He is an iconic Islamic figure, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty and leader of the successful Muslim military effort against Crusader states in the Levant in the 12th century. Ayyubi was a Kurd.
Guess who brought up Ayubbi the day after last Sunday’s elections? Selahattin Demirtaş. He reacted to a disgusting event on Sunday evening during Erdoğan’s victory speech at the presidential palace. Erdoğan said that under his rule, Demirtaş would never be freed, and instantly, the crowd started demanding the death penalty for Demirtaş. But the jailed Kurd tweeted “I could say, ‘You can’t even hang my coat’, but you’re not worth it. Let me say this: I am a grandson of the great Kurdish commander Selahaddin Ayyubi, conqueror of Jerusalem, after whom I was named. I promise to treat you all fairly when the day comes.”
What can I do but bow deeply?