—Think

Rebranding Mesopotamia: The Inextinguishable Fire

By Övül Ö. Durmusoglu
Authors
  • Övül Ö. Durmusoglu

    Ovul O. Durmusoglu is a curator and writer based in Berlin and Istanbul. Durmusoglu was the curator of the international contemporary art festival Sofia Contemporary 2013 titled 'Near, Closer, Together: Exercises for a Common Ground'. She organized different programs and events as a Goethe Institute fellow at Maybe Education and Public Programs for dOCUMENTA (13). She  recently acted as Public Program Curator for the Moving Museum Istanbul. Working on a long term research project to take place between Mexico and Turkey, she is also the artistic director of YAMA Public Screen Project in Istanbul.

Models stage a fake demonstration with designer Karl Lagerfeld, as part of Chanel's Spring/Summer 2015 ready-to-wear fashion collection presented in Paris, France, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. (Hollandse Hoogte/Francois Mori).

Power of imagination to rule.
—Suphi Nejat Ağırnaslı aka Paramaz Kızılbaş (from a 2014 letter, before departing for Rojava)

 

The surreal cleft between the reality of war and its virtual manifestations grows nearer, yet it becomes disjointed every day. Take Harun Farocki’s Serious Games (2009–10), a multiscreen video installation in which Farocki examines the use of images in psychological warfare, now on view in Berlin. In this installation, which investigates the use of video-game technology to train military forces, impoverished characterizations concerning ‘the enemy’ are continuously generated and advanced in a simulated landscape. In one scene, a US Marine tries to prompt a conversation by asking a middle-aged Afghani man about kids and a love interest; the forced interaction is terse and helps to explain how this ‘democracy’ project was stillborn from the beginning. At a recent Saturday screening of the film, the Berlin audience stayed a long while after watching the piece. How many of them would draw a link between Farocki’s sharp observations of and their current questions, like: Where did Daesh—known in Western media as ISIS—come from? How did the migrant population increase in Europe? Or, how did the populist right-wing pegidas movement against non-Muslims and immigrants in Germany, started in Dresden, draw thousands of participants in 2014?

Serious Games could be an apt metaphor for the recent history of Mesopotamia. It can be argued that the borders and state formations that followed the Sykes-Picot agreement did not correspond to the actual material reality of the region, namely its geography and the complicated history of its ethnic groups. The formation of Israel and its declaration as an independent Jewish state in 1948, followed by the forced Palestinian flight from the land, added layers to the unrest. Today it is clear that the colonialist map drawn up to divide Mesopotamia, to further British and French interests in the post-Ottoman period, does not work anymore. The opening of the Suez Canal was the first symptom of this crisis. Today, the historical centers of Arab civilization—Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad—have disappeared. Most of their people are refugees; there is a “double-Palestinianization,” as Yassin Al Haj Saleh, a Syrian activist who escaped to Turkey, calls it. At the moment, all we can do is speculate on how things will be reshaped in the coming years. Serious Games shows how the game has revealed itself. After the recent US occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the constructed imagination of these places through the use of a computerized war game, where people “appear without their shadows,” to quote Farocki, has created more battlefields in the region. To some, everything looks like a video-game fantasy. A widely quoted English youth nicknamed Ebu Sümeyye El-Britanifrom Daesh has supposedly said that, “fighting on the frontline in Syria is much better than playing the computer game Call of Duty.” 1Özgür Amed, interview by Dr. Dylan Murphy, “Journalist and Researcher Özgür Amed On Understanding Events In Rojava,” Rojava Report, https://rojavareport.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/journalist-and-researcher-ozgur-amed-on-understanding-events-in-rojava/ (accessed 6 January 2015).  *Visual ReferencePhoto by Övül Ö. Durmusoglu.Photo by Övül Ö. Durmusoglu.

When the war between Kurdish guerillas and Daesh intensified in Kobanê in September 2014, foreign mythologies of an anti-fascist resistance abounded. At the time this article was written, the good news had arrived that Kobanê was completely saved from a possible Daesh invasion. However, before this was certain, the American activist and anthropologist David Graeber equated the Kobanê struggle with the Spanish Civil War and the fight against Franco. In particular, he warned of a potential paradox: How can an autonomous movement first be asked to surrender its autonomy in order to then be ‘helped’ by others? The international call for arms and solidarity turned Kobanê into a romantic landscape, where artists could join in the struggle for a better world (like Ernest Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War or Lord Byron fighting in the Greek War of Independence). What was branded as the “Arab Spring” did not produce the democratic outcomes that had been hoped for. The Rojava Cantons, of which Kobanê is part, stand not only as a symbol of the Kurdish independence that has been long dreamed of—differing from the US-backed dependent provincial project of more conservative officials in South Kurdistan of Northern Iraq—but also as a symbol for stateless autonomous existence in the world today. They were also the only ones to strongly resist the possibility of an international military operation in Syria. The Rojava Cantons declared a stateless, non-capitalist constitution of equalities predicated on direct democracy. Through citizen councils, the Rojava Cantons model a new form of government that protects itself from statist power hierarchies fed by the spoils of capitalism. Looking at Mesopotamia today, Rojava stands as the sole place to respond to the texture of communities living side by side for centuries and to promise cohabitation not only for the Kurdish but for all the communities existing within it—Armenians, Yezidis, and Turkmens—while resisting a division according to ethnicity or religion especially enacted through the inhuman agency of Daesh. Social hierarchies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood privileging of Salafist Muslims above all, are seen as analogues to the oppressive neoliberal hand drumming the beat of war. With its border on Turkey’s Suruç, Kobanê has been the sparkplug for communication and help for the cantons in the middle of ongoing, borderless violent chaos. Many Kurdish and Turkish activists ran to the border to join the YPG/YPA ranks, to provide support, disregarding the Turkish forces who have been protecting Daesh.

The social contract proposed in 2012 in the Rojava Cantons, stands out as the sole democratic proposal coming from the peoples of the region and is a clear break with the traditional government structures that have failed there in the past. The Kurdish Supreme Committee (Desteya Bilind a Kurd, DBK) was established by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) as the governing body of Syrian Kurdistan in July 2012. In November 2013, the PYD announced an interim government divided into three non-contiguous autonomous areas, or cantons: Afrin, Jazira, and Kobanê. As described by Errol Babacan and Murat Çakır in their article “False Friends of Kobanê,” 2Originally published in German, a translation was published in Jacobin, see: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/01/the-battle-for-kobane/ (accessed 4 February 2015). Rojava’s democratic autonomy model functions as an example to the Kurdish population within Turkey. The cantons have declared that the natural resources of Rojava will remain the collective property of the region’s people, and any potential revenues will be equally invested back in the people in the forms of a commons. The egalitarian council structures and the collectivization of resources stand in opposite to the confessional conservatism of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its heavily corporatist politics. This movement responds to what the PKK (Kurdistan Communist Party) leader Abdullah Öcalan initiated in his 2004 book Defending a People, after he had been arrested and imprisoned by the Turkish government. In the most recent municipal elections in Turkey, in 2014, the only hopeful results, alongside some members of the LGBTI community running for city councils in Istanbul, came from the southeastern Kurdish region. There, the HDP, known to be the official policy making face of the PKK, acquired many municipalities that were cochaired by women from different walks of life and from existing historical ethnicities, the aforementioned Armenians, Yezidis, and Turkmens, as well as Orthodox Syrians. For the ones following the way Öcalan’s democratic confederalism project developed, this can be interpreted as a result of adopting American anarchist Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalisms, which aim to create citizens’ assemblies in towns and urban areas, which join together in confederation to replace the centralized state apparatus with a set of local and bottom-up, direct-democracy councils. For Öcalan’s prison curriculum spread from what is offered by eco-feminism, new readings of Marx, such as Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique, and Bookchin’s new anarchist models as described above. The neighborhood assemblies that took place after the Gezi uprising in different parks around Turkey are in clear connection with the social ecology movement that had been going on inside the Kurdish movement in Turkey for some time.

An important digression: Can these connections be interpreted as a break with a leader-oriented and hierarchical Kurdish nationalism? It is not easy to be a fatherless daughter or a daughter that can break free from a father figure in this geography; it goes without saying that Atatürk is the ultimate father figure for secular republicans, as Erdoğan is for neoliberal fundamentalists, and Öcalan for the Kurdish independence movement in Turkey. The figure of the independent Kurdish women guerilla quickly became a public rebranding campaign, the face of Kobanê, the height of war with Daesh, especially in the diametrically opposed approach to women explicated above. French Elle editor-in-chief Valérie Toranian penned a farewell letter titled “Résiste!” on 26 September 2014, accompanied by a photoshopped photo series depicting Kurdish women guerillas from Kobanê, advocating for the area but from a pseudo-feminist position. It is worth noting that this attitude is quite in line with portraying women in headscarves or burkas as vulnerable victims of Islamic ideology, similarly to the computerized enemy stereotypes of US Marines in Farocki’s work.

The image of the vulnerable woman in a burka—as opposed to a ‘modern’ symbol, like Marianne standing for the French nation—has always been used as both justification of and case for the war for democracy. This time the women guerillas were stamped and lionized to fight for their lives against Daesh the monster. Pointing to the phenomenon of ‘resistance chic’, the fashion world has taken these links further to, say, a particular pair of green overalls designed by H&M for their summer 2014 season that directly referenced a peshmerga uniform. 3Tom Wyke, “H&M apologizes after being accused of modeling £15 khaki outfit on uniform worn by Kurdish female fighters battling ISIS,” MailOnline, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2782418/H-M-apologises-Peshmerga-chic-jumpsuit-Clothing-chain-embarrassed-accused-modelling-15-khaki-outfit-uniform-worn-Kurdish-female-fighters-battling-ISIS.html (accessed 31 January 2015). In this respect, an unforgettable image comes from Karl Lagerfeld who performed a faux-feminist protest on Chanel’s catwalk for the closing of Paris fashion week in 2014. Another good example of such feminist populism was performed by the imprisoned members of the Russian band Pussy Riot wearing colorful balaclavas, which clearly allude to Zapatistas. After being worn in such a context, the balaclava could not help but become a pop object, just like the Che Guevara profile. Not coincidentally, one of their balaclavas was auctioned online for a Kobanê fundraising campaign as a “collectible contemporary art object.”Fortunately, the Kurdish female guerrillas’ place in the independence movement is more deeply historically rooted. The PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga have had women’s brigades in their guerrilla forces for decades. For many women, “going to the mountains” (directly translated from the Turkish phrase commonly used for joining the PKK) meant education, confidence, and a sense of solidarity lacking for women in the very hierarchical, traditional Kurdish society. Shahrzad Mojab, who edited Women of a Non-State Nation: The Kurds (2001), is known to be one of the early names to work on women’s subject position in the Kurdish independence movement. She also points to the lack of focus in ‘Western’ women’s studies programs on Kurdish women in this struggle. For her, one of the precedents for women fighting in Kobanê clearly comes from Kurdish women guerrillas who went to the Kurdish mountains on the Iranian border in the 1970s to resist the Iranian revolution. Western feminists were not able to position themselves in solidarity with these fighters, and thus the feminism of photoshopped pictures cannot be translated into a feminism discussing subject positions in real terms.  *Visual ReferenceMala jin, the houses where women fight against violence and abuse.Mala jin, the houses where women fight against violence and abuse.

Hito Steyerl’s recent performance lecture, Is the Museum a Battleground?, opens with her investigating remains on an actual battlefield—not a computer-generated one—where a childhood friend, Andrea Wolf or Sehît Rohanî (the name she adopted when joining the PKK), was killed in an ambush by the Turkish army. This work is connected to Steyerl’s earlier video November (2004), which tells the story of Wolf as she drifts from B movie kung-fu fighter to martyr of the Kurdish liberation movement. Going back to the question of what the Kurdish women guerrilla fighters may signify in magazines such as Elle, this work is helpful in that it analyzes the many roles assigned to Wolf: an ‘attractive’ woman and a friend; a female fighter in a fictional story who uses martial arts, and an armed revolutionary who also teaches martial arts to her fellow female fighters; a martyr for the Kurdish cause; and a terrorist in hiding, according to the Turkish and German governments.

Rather than their subject positions, the faces and torsos of Kurdish female guerrillas are probably necessary to generate sympathy in the West by rendering the women in a language that the West can understand, a language similar to nineteenth-century postcards of exotic colonized women. At the end of the day, the West has a lot to fear from the new autonomous bodies coming together in Rojava, bodies that can set the control models loose and render them useless.

The critic Tom Wolfe coined the term “Radical Chic” in his 1970 satirical essay penned for New York magazine “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.” Here, Wolfe highlights the absurdity of  Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and his friends hosting fundraising parties for the Black Panthers. 4Tom Wolfe, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” New York magazine, 8 June 1970, see: http://nymag.com/news/features/46170/ (accessed 31 January 2015). Are new resistance movements being normalized as an image of the radical yet again? Is this yet another cycle of “Radical Chic,” as fighters reappear as fashionable topics and attitudes? The same images of people behind barricades and in balaclavas throwing stones at the police are repeated in newspaper coverage ad infinitum. Like Hong Kong’s yellow umbrellas, they may be tagged as popularized imagery too. This resistance chic even appears as a competition in some art scenes: “Who has the most radical street cred?” The spread of artists protesting at biennials one after the other can be unfortunately read as part of such a competition as well, without underestimating particular contextual sensitivities. Resistance as a norm or as an artistic project has become a very sensitive topic in Turkey after Gezi—the questions of what people could do and contribute to the uprising without capitalizing for artistic purposes were discussed over and over again in many forms by the Istanbul-based artists’ and art worker’s solidarity group Orange Tent, which naturally formed during the hot days of Gezi. Orange Tent has grown larger in the aftermath, from working to orient itself toward how artists organized themselves within Gezi to thinking about how to solve the urgent questions within the contemporary art scene through the lens of solidarity that brought many together in June 2013. Orange Tent’s work also led to a larger meeting for self-organization in the contemporary arts in 2014. Thinking long term, it is important to highlight that we all benefit from the fashion of resistance in terms of the different ways it can contribute to the cause of an egalitarian, emancipatory politics. In the case of the biennial discussions, for example, protests will surely make possible more imaginative forms for biennial/large-scale exhibition making.

Suphi Nejat Ağırnaslı, a young sociology scholar, joined the fight in Kobanê without telling anyone close to him. In the early days of the democratic confederation model, also publicly known as KCK (Koma Civakane Kurdistan), he was among those taken into custody in Istanbul in 2011, and his notes from classes in Bogazici University were shown as proof of his affiliation. In an interview after being in custody and appearing in court, Ağırnaslı stated that those in the Turkish Left did not desire to ally themselves with the Kurdish independence movement. He died among many as Paramaz Kizilbas. He chose a nom de guerre that refers to both an Armenian and an Alewite background (neither of which he came from). Today, after the release of Kobanê from Daesh militants on January 26 of this year, Ağırnaslı, along with many others, has left us with the question of martyrdom, the ultimate form of self-sacrifice in the history of this geography colonized under the name of the Middle East. If the rebranding of Kurdish independence addressed above is to take root here, it should happen more through life and solidarity, instead of the death and discord that we all know too well. History will show which; I hope it opts for a new form of life in freedom.