by Reimar Heider of the International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan-Peace in Kurdistan”
After being expelled from Turkey, professional journalist Fréderike Geerdink did something none of her numerous colleagues in the same situation did so far: she took the plunge forward, went further south and did a year-long investigation accompanying the “Öcalan fighters”, as she calls them, of the PKK. She compiled her findings in a gripping new book that combines observations, interviews, background information and her own reflections. These are sometimes visually separated, which I guess is good journalistic style. She appears also keen to maintain a professional distance to the people she is living with, although that seems to have been quite difficult at times.
Geerdink is especially concerned with the feelings and motivations of the women who give up civilian life to join a revolutionary struggle that has been going on for decades, and probably will last even longer, and may result in death. She manages to convey that very well and make their choices understandable and more than that: relatable.
Some of the strongest passages of the book are Geerdink’s reflections on her “own”, Western society. While explaining how the PKK forms actually an “alternative” society with different values, going even so far as to claim that capitalism, patriarchy and the nation-state don’t exist there, she turns the discussion about “brainwashing” around: is it not the Western societies that are brainwashed? That somehow accept all kinds of hierarchies including patriarchy and a planet-destroying system like capitalism as somehow normal?
Without stressing the term “revolutionary” too much, Geerdink expresses the revolutionary nature of the transformation that is taking place in and around the PKK in a very compelling way. The change of all relationships between human beings, usually formed through patriarchy and capitalism, through establishing caring, solidary based relationships are really at the heart of the building of an alternative society that the author observes. In this way, it is also one of the best accounts of the Rojava revolution that I have read so far.
At the same time, the author does not hold back with her own criticism. She does not take everything that she is told at face value, and she begs to differ on occasions. She is especially concerned about civilian victims on all sides of the conflicts and does not shy away from very controversial issues like the violent attacks of TAK. But even in the discussion of these uncomfortable topics she manages to outline different arguments and gives the reader the opportunity to think and re-think their own standpoint.
In the process, Geerdink dispels concepts like “child soldiers” that are simply not applicable, although some fighters have joined the movement at a very young age, and critically discusses an Amnesty International report that raised a lot of eyebrows in 2015.
Another strong point of the book is the portrait of the individuals she meets and interviews (or not interviews, in one case) over the course of a year. They are contoured so well that they seem to appear in front of the reader’s eye with their plated hair, colorful socks and infectious smiles. But it’s not about their looks, but about their ideas, motivations and reasoning. A lot of thought is given to different traumas people — especially women — have suffered in the course of a century old oppression and the more recent conflict as well as patriarchal structures. Intrigued by the question of how people cope with their numerous traumas, she arrives at a striking conclusion: “In the PKK, you don’t need therapy. Being in the PKK is the therapy.
Geerdink appears to have read relatively few of Öcalan’s writings, so she conveys his ideology rather through the effect it has had on the fighters and how it has shaped their thinking. This is a legitimate approach and works very well in the context of this book. Several times, though, she paraphrases one of the interviewees without realizing that they are quoting Öcalan. It’s at places like this that I wish she had read more of “the great man”, as she calls him once in a tongue-in-cheek way.
At one point she casts a doubt on whether he has actually written all his books himself, being in aggravated isolation and all. That seems to be rooted in a misunderstanding though. Apart from that, the book is well researched and translated, I found only a couple of minor inaccuracies. The headlines are catchy (“The State is a Man”, “The PKK is a Woman”, “Comrade Kimmie wants to die for the revolution”), but in the latter case inaccurate, because comrade Kimmie of course does not want to die for the revolution.
Books similar to this have been written before. I must mention Carla Solina’s “The Path to the Mountains” (Nautilus, 1997; Mezopotamia, 2012; Edition Mezopotamya, 2019) and Anja Flach’s “Jiyaneke din – Another life.
Two years with the Kurdish women’s army ” (Mezopotamia 2003; Edition Mezopotamya, 2019) whose authors stayed with the PKK for two years in the second half of the 1990’s. While these are only available in German, it is interesting to compare them to see how much the movement has changed in twenty-five years — and how much it actually hasn’t. In English there is Arundhati Roy’s account “Walking with the Comrades”(Penguin, 2011) of her time with Naxalite guerillas in Chhattisgarh which received a lot of publicity at the time. I haven’t read Roy’s book yet, but I wish Fréderike Geerdinks book the same success.
“This Fire Never Dies” is an outstanding achievement. It offers fascinating and deep insights into the minds and motivations of the women (and men) of the PKK, but also the different dimension of the ongoing conflicts in Kurdistan and the Middle East. Especially Geerdink’s reflections on conflict reporting and the way Western thinking is shaped by education, transcend the focus on just the PKK and contribute to an overall very interesting and important read. I recommend this book to everybody who is even slightly interested in what’s going on in Kurdistan.
Fréderike Geerdink, This Fire Never Dies. One Year with the PKK (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2021). Translated by Vivien D. Glass and Anna Asbury. ISBN 9788195031047