IT IS DIFFICULT for an outsider to learn the
essentials of the Kurdish cultural style. For one thing, although
most Kurds who are Muslims adhere to the Sunni sect, some are
Shiites; still other Kurds practice one. Of several indigenous
religions. In addition, the Kurdish language is divided by
dialects and subdialects. Kurds in northern Iraq, eastern Turkey,
and former Soviet Union speak Kurmanji, while those in western
Turkey speak Zaza; in southern Iraq Sorani prevails, in Iran the
Guran and Laki dialects. This problem of Babel is an impediment
to Kurdish identity. Nonetheless, all Kurds can recognize
Kurdish. Scholdars at Institute recognize Kurde in Paris are at
work on a Kurdish-French dictionary of about 50,000 words.
While this codification goes on, the mass of Kurds keep together with a sort of musical vernacular. During my sojourn in Iraq, for example, everyone was glued to cassette taps by singer Juwan Hajo, a Syrian Kurd whose productions are bootlegged all over the region. And in Diyarbakir the cassette business proved so popular that the Turkish authorities relaxed their ban on Kurdish music-the ban that my friend Hasan had so casually defied. Kurds who have made the United States their home live in communities from California and Texas to Brooklyn, New work, where the Kurdish Library and Museum acts as a focal point for Kurdish affairs an crafts.
Most of them live in and around San Diego, where they began setting after the collapse of another Kurdish revolt in Iraq in 1975. The late Mustafa Barzani, father of political leader Masoud Barzani, came to U.S. first, followed by a few hundred of his retinue. A community leader sponsored a social evening for me in the suburb Chula Vista. Though almost all present had made good lives for themselves, they struck me as stranded in time, compelled to watch the sufferings of their kinsmen from afar. They had all recently been, once more, taken up as a cause during the Gulf War, and then dropped. There was much wistful talk, over tea and cakes, of the way it had been fashionable to be a Kurd during Desert Storm and of how newspapers never sent photographers any more.
"We are know as a refugee people," said Jamal Kasim, who runs a trucking business. Hes burly, smiling fellow who doubles as California spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "So our image depends on the daily an weekly news," he went on. "People are generally friendly, and they sympathize with Kurds, especially since Halabjah, but Americans these days are not so interested in foreign affairs, and there are many who do not like immigrants of any kind."
Yet again, it seemed, the Kurds had pitched their tents in a difficult environment- the San Diego-Tijuana border, with its daily flux of illegal and its mounting anxiety over language, culture and integration. (One local Kurd, I later found, had resolved the problem of his own assimilation by landing a job with the U.S. border Patrol.) Our gathering in Chula Vista included a food store manager, an architect, a free-lance journalist, and two computer engineers worked for Ted Turner; one of them, Alan Zangana, was very proud of his companys having colonized "a film you may have seen called Casablanca ."
Successful as they were, though, I noticed again the absence of women, a tender subject that caused a mini-controversy when I brought it up. Alan Zangana picked up an argument I had been hearing off and since I had innocently asked, back in Shaqlawah, where all the women had got to. One of my Kurdish guides then took to pointing every time he saw a female, as if to vindicate the good name of Kurdistan, "Look. There is one. Now are you satisfied?" It is easy for Westerners to mistake the Kurds for backward fundamentalists, Alan maintained that it was high time that women played an equal role in the political struggle. Nobody exactly disagreed, although I had the sense that I had stumbled into an argument they would have again.
I HAD ALMOST ABANDONED MY DREAM of finding a " typical Kurd " when I was introduced to Sheikh Talib Berzinji of Los Angeles. "Sheikh" is an honorific title; in the old country his family claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Talib himself, with his leonine head and ample military mustache, is from the area of As Sulaymaniyah. He had been a follower of Mustafa Barzani "Ah, the old general!" He now divides his time between running a laundry service in Los Angeles, which he must do to make a living, and writing and translating plays, which he would do full-time if he could. He has translated the Merchant of ice into Kurdish.
But his days are filled with the endless responsibilities of being a Kurd. The old Sheihk explains to journalists and radio interviewers who the Kurds are and how long they have been fighting. He has to raise money for refugees. He has to think of his extended family back in the perilous mountains. A spread of the hand: "You see how it is."
If I had started my quest by talking to Sheikh Barzinji, a lot of what he said would have seemed either mysterious or self-pitying. But now I saw the stages through which I had passed. The Kurds are homeless even at home, and stateless abroad. Their ancient woes are locked inside an obscure language. They have powerful, impatient enemies, and a few rather easily bored friends. Their traditional society is considered a nuisance at worst and a curiosity at best. For them the act of survival, even identity itself, is a kind of victory. The old man, holding on to his Kurdishness in a choice of hostile or indifferent environments, is the Kurds for all seasons.
Write by Ed kashi