Part I: The Smell of a Soul
?The history of an oppressed people is hidden in the lies and the agreed myth of its conquerors.?
Meridel Le Sueur
?Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.?
Moustafa Mala Bozan is a Kurdish poet and musician from the city of Kobany in northern Syria, not far from Aleppo. He’s been corresponding with Wanda Waterman for the last year, during which time he’s been imprisoned, has lived in refugee camps, and has travelled across Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
I’ve written to Moustafa to warn him about some things in this article. I don’t want any surprises. Moustafa has always been a little volatile, and twice our conversations have ended in blasts of choler that left me questioning the man’s mental health and reliability as a witness, even as a witness to his own suffering. I need to know that telling the truth about my opinion of him won’t destroy our friendship. I’m also strongly suggesting that for his safety I use an alias for him. His reply:
?Thank-you if will write something about me, and please you can use my real name . . . Never mind about me, never be worried about this, and please, I won’t ask you to tell something you didn’t find . . . in me and in our conversations. If you think what . . . you write about me is true and real, just do it. I won’t ask you to describe me as an angel, as I’m not. If I will feel offended, I will thank you because you opened my mind about something I didn’t know about . . .?
The first time I read about the Kurds was in The Anabasis (The Retreat of the 10,000), a 5th-century B.C. Greek history by General Xenophon.
The Persian prince Cyrus the Younger had hired the Greek hoplites to aid him in his fight for the throne. He was unfortunately killed just after the Greeks arrived in Persia, so after having come all that way they had to return home. They couldn’t return to Greece using the route they’d come, because they’d fed themselves by killing most of the wild game along the way. Their only choice was to take a rather circuitous and difficult path back through the mountains of what is now Kurdistan, Armenia, Iraq, and Turkey.
One of their many ordeals was fighting hostile mountain tribes, including the Carduchoi, the ancestors of present-day Kurds. Like the Greeks, the Kurds were the enemies of the Persians, but the villagers didn’t know this when they spied the army of thousands marching their way. They reacted with all the aggression they could muster, attacking the Greeks with slings and longbows.
Seven days, says Xenophon, spent in traversing the country of the Carduchians had been one long continuous battle, which had cost them more suffering than the whole of their troubles at the hands of the king and Tissaphernes put together.
Xenophon has my sympathy. In my conversations with Moustafa, I must work very hard and be very diplomatic in an effort to get clear answers to my questions. Part of the problem is his limited English, but he gets irked by my attempts to get him to explain in greater detail. He becomes frustrated and accuses me of having no plan and of being ignorant of Syrian politics. At one point he asks me if I need his help with English because I seem to be having trouble understanding his.
Moustafa’s abrasiveness aside, the Kurds themselves have my admiration. Like the Irish, the Romanov gypsies, and African Americans, their music and poetry throbs with a longing for serenity and beauty and at the same time a deep knowledge of suffering that renders their longing ever more poignant. From the dawn of their history, the Kurds have been oppressed to varying degrees by whatever mega-power happened to be ruling their environs. This has not yet abated; their genocide by Saddam Hussein is now a matter of historical record, and in Syria they’ve been brutally targeted by the Assad regime. They are also now inextricably tangled in a web of conflicting loyalties.
For example, Syria now has at least ten Kurdish parties under the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a body working toward greater autonomy for Kurdish Syrians. In conflict with the KNC is the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), or Kurdistan Workers? Party. The PKK is an international socialist Kurdish organization, based in Turkey, that provides protection against armed groups to Syrian Kurdish cities, including Moustafa’s Kobany. This is a little ironic considering that the PKK is almost universally believed to be a terrorist organization, having claimed credit for a number of kidnappings, hijackings, and armed assaults in Turkey, Northern Iraq, and Western Europe.
And yet Moustafa is fearless and outspoken. It’s clear not only that he’s extremely vulnerable, but also that the bullet could come from any direction.
On Thursday I receive the following email from Moustafa:
?Today, my cousin died as a martyr. He was [a] soldier, and my day was so busy and tired. He was 21 years old, just as a flourishing flower, an angel to all of us. Today so many strange things happened to me, without sleeping until noon today. They called us [to tell us that] he died and that his body was in Aleppo and would in some hours be in my city, Kobany.
In this time some of the young, we went to dig a grave. It’s not the usual feeling, the usual sense. So strange, digging a hole and I know someone I loved will sleep in this hole. I was helping him, but in so sad a way. When he arrived he had been dead 20 days. There was such a strange smell from his body; I wondered at this smell. Was it body smell or soul smell??
(To be continued.)
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.