Newroz has been celebrated by the peoples of the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and the Balkans around the spring equinox, 21 March, for thousands of years, and has been examined, explained and carried forward to our day in different ways in various written works such as the Zoroaster’s Zend Avesta, Firdausi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings), Omar Khayyam’s Nowruz Nameh (Book of Newroz) and Sharaf Khan’s Sharafnama (Book of Honour). The legendary Kawa has become the personification of societal justice, and the tyrant Dehak that of oppression, from thousands of years ago to the present day.
Newroz is celebrated by peoples living in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Balochistan (in Pakistan), Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzistan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Uzbekistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tatarstan (in Russia), Gagauzia (in Moldova) and Sakha (in Russia), and carries different meanings for all peoples.
Newroz represents the day that Kurdish resistance achieves victory. It is celebrated as the day the Kurds rose up, the day the fire of rebellion was lit, the day of the struggle against the Assyrian tyrant king Dehak under the leadership of Kawa the Blacksmith.
Savaş Dede is one of the Academics for Peace, hundreds of whom have been dismissed from their profession by the Turkish state. He has studied in depth the meanings and influences of the legend of Kawa the Blacksmith who gave life to Newroz, and continues to study political myths. He answers questions from Mezopotamya News Agency.
The metaphor of Kawa the Blacksmith appears in the mythological folk tales of various different peoples. What does Kawa the Blacksmith represent to the people, what are the common points of the tales?
The meaning the myth Kawa the Blacksmith carries for people is related to how the people preserve the myth among themselves and also to some degree to types of political intervention. Therefore, in order to understand what meaning it has, it is necessary to be in among the people. For example, I can say what the story of Rustemê Zal (Rustem son of Zal) means for the Van region. I spent my childhood there. But stories of Rustemê Zal in the Diyarbakır region are all different. They have the same aspects, but the ways people preserve them are all different. I can say that Kawa differs from Rustem in having a more abstract image. When politics or society enter crisis, those in power will knock on the door of the people, take whatever is there and use it to their own purposes, and so politicise the myth. But there is also a dialectic process here. They cannot separate the myth off from the people completely and use it to their own ends. The influence of the people emerges and persists as a third influence effecting its interpretation.
Briefly, we can only learn what myths mean for a people by living amongst that people. We need to go and ask the mothers, the elderly, people who are both subjects and objects of the matter in hand. As time passes, we all break away from the community lifestyle that Kawa wanted, but some, for example the Peace Mothers, still carry that call for justice, both as influencers and as influenced.
What do the Newroz symbols represent?
We need to look carefully at the Newroz symbols. Fire is a sacred symbol in the lands of the Middle East, and it also has a critical significance in connection with people’s relationship with nature. Kawa the Blacksmith himself represents labour. In many versions of the tale, when Kawa goes to demolish Dehak’s palace, he attaches his apron to his spear as a banner. The labour element of this must not be ignored. There has been exploitation of labour for centuries, there are perceptions which the fire represents to this community. It is also important not to limit this to the present day. Newroz has been around for thousands of years. For thousands of years peoples have been celebrating it both within the framework of their unity with nature and in the context of their struggle against the political decision-makers.
In what times of hardship does the myth of Kawa the Blacksmith emerge?
Myths persist as folk tales and usually spill over into politics as a result of need. They can also emerge when something needs to be preserved or changed. We have lived freely in these lands for thousands of years and they might emerge by reason of our need to continue to do so. The Kawa the Blacksmith that we hear about in the Shahnameh and other stories emerges in order to change a system. Kawa emerges to meet the need for a revolution with the aim of changing the injustice, oppression and tyranny embodied in a monster by the name of Dehak. And the concept that he represents is justice. As a result Kawa the Blacksmith emerges as the people’s justice in response to situations where there is a need for societal justice.
Why define it as the people’s justice?
The definition of the people’s justice comes about because in the myth of Kawa the Blacksmith, Kawa demands justice, he sets up the environment to achieve this and then withdraws again. As a result he gives this message to the political arena, to the administration: we can only live in a system with justice. Otherwise societal justice itself will intervene and keep overthrowing the system until the highest institutions of society accede to the will of the people. If we are to express this in terms of the Kurdish movement today, it has emerged as a result of the need felt for the idea of societal justice rather than as a result of a political demand.
What does the societal justice we observe in the myths of Kawa the Blacksmith consist of?
Whether we talk of the myth of Kawa the Blacksmith or any one of millions of other stories, from the first day of human consciousness to today, the institution that we call justice progresses in two directions. One of these is the demand for rights. It emerges in the form of a demand for compensation for injustice done to any unit of society. Although we see law as a part of the institution of the state, this does not come into existence from nothing. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu says, “justice becomes manifest in society, but the state seizes control of it.” For example Women’s Day actions are a demand for justice across the whole world. Or self defence is itself a demand for justice, but the state seizes control of this, for example it evaluates it within penal law, it takes its concepts under its own rules and translates them into a different language and imposes a different justice on us, with techniques specific to itself.
Why is justice identified with the state? Is it not possible to establish societal justice as in the myth of Kawa the Blacksmith?
Justice is identified with the state because the state has the power and the tools to systematise it. If society were to form such a mechanism inside itself justice would not be linked to the state. For example, when I started university I researched blood feuds. While the committing of murder was initially mitigated through the incentive of blood feuds, the state defined them as being an incitement to murder and made them a ground for aggravation in the committing of murder. But blood feuds have not decreased. In one case I followed more than ten people had their lives taken. But the exact opposite can happen. The system they have in Rojava (West Kurdistan) is like this: community reconciliation takes control if just one person get a nosebleed from a fight, because killing is in itself an exceptional situation, and if community mechanisms step in and the community constructs its own law, solutions can be found. There are cases where solutions could be found to blood feuds which have lasted over a hundred years; the state seizes half the family, penalises them, but five people have still died, and no-one holds out any hope that the blood fed will end. So a need arises for the establishment of justice of this kind in the community arena, but because the state has the tools to take control of this it becomes identified with the state. Kawa did not demolish the political system itself, but that version of the political system which had mutated to become an element of oppression. So why should a system sourced in the demands of community justice not be possible?
What meaning do Kawa the Blacksmith and Newroz have in the face of the phenomenon of the nation state?
How many thousands of years of human history we are talking about here! The best method set up for the way a community becomes standardised and governed and distinguished from others is the nation state. The nation state has not only paved the way for modernism but also for the worst genocides, massacres and sorrows in the history of humanity. It is not a coincidence that the word genocide came into being at the same time as the nation state. In my opinion, it is the Kurds who have suffered the most damage during the formation of the nation state in our lands. If we consider that the modern day incidents in Cizre, Roboski and Sur add up to partial genocide, we are talking about genocide spread over the course of 150-200 years. The nation-state emerges upon the idea of a homogeneous identity, but we can never completely realise this. We can still point to hundreds of ethnic links within the borders of Turkey today despite all the genocide that has taken place. This oppression causes its own social reaction. The first emergenceof this reaction in the context of the Turkish nation state was possibly the Şeyh Said rebellion. This was a demand for justice. Then it continued with the Ağrı rebellion, from there it spread to Dersim, and it continues to this day. This expression of the demand for justice has many parallels with Kawa’s demand for justice. Kawa demolished the oppressive system and left the re-establishment of justice to the Persian king Feridun.
Although Kawa the Blacksmith has a mythological element, we observe that every period of history carries an essence of rebellion against domination. How do you evaluate this fact?
Myths are not everyday events. What makes myths myths is the fact that the relationships involved are based on societal realities. It is societal reality that brings myths to life. I see myths as the philosophy of the people. When a community evaluates its own life it will determine what it needs and doesn’t need, and form a model on that basis. From this point of view myths are reality. When a community becomes aware that it has a need of a certain desire it either turns to the reality of a myth that existed before and was changed, or to one that did not exist before but was fabricated, and it is constantly reassessed. When we consider the myth of Kawa, when we look at a section of the Kurdish lands, the traditional hero in the Kurdish movement is Rustem. For example, in the early 20th century Cigerxwin repeatedly mentions Rustem in his works. But with the changes in the political aspirations of the Kurds Kawa receives more mention. In the 1900s the myth of Kawa became identified with the National Liberation Festival of 31 August. Today as we approach 21 March, we see Kawa as the leader lighting the Newroz fire. But in the 1900s Kawa and Newroz were before us as two separate entities, two separate stories. As community today is constantly re-imagines itself, it deals with its needs over and again in this framework. Myths are a historical fact, which appear before us as a phenomenon emerging as a result of the changing of historical needs.
Which demands of the people will be voiced in Newroz demonstrations this year?
We cannot separate this year’s Newroz from the third world war and the pandemic. The pandemic showed us that reality is created societally. No matter how strong the political systems in our world of today may be, they still get re-formed according to societal needs. It is society that created the reason for a virus emerging in China to be able to affect the whole world. Newroz has been celebrated for years. Demands emerge. For example, the years of the peace process were years in which the political demands of Newroz were more prominent. But whatever the demands were in the peace process, they are what will define our reality in the process before us now.
We observe that the demands for justice and the freedom of the Kurdish people that emerged in earlier years are a societal reality and in the final analysis it is no longer possible for political oppression to turn a blind eye to them. So the messages sent by Newroz are significant.
In the face of this reality there will also be times when political oppression will be completely eliminated.