issue 223 - September 1991
A Palestinian voice
Anguish and the shared experience of homelessness bind the
Kurds and the Palestinians together. Khalil Hindi remembers.
The time: 1948. The place: Tantura, a tiny Palestinian village on the shore of the Mediterranean, somewhere between Haifa and Jaffa. The nightmare-memory: I, a small boy of three, clinging with terror to the tails of my grandmother’s peasant robes, staring into the barrel of a gun. The agitated soldiers shout their orders: ‘Sit down. Hands on heads. Silence.’ The crowd cowers: old, middle-aged and young, women and children, bewildered, distraught, hysterical. Silence is enforced by a torrent of abuse: ‘Idiots. Don’t you understand Arabic? We said do not move.’
A woman whispers: ‘What happened to the men?’
Another: ‘They rounded them up and took them away’.
The first: ‘Will they kill them?’
The second: ‘Shut up, do not say things like that, mentioning evil brings forth evil’. Deadly silence.
A woman: ‘Will they dump us behind the lines?’
Another: ‘Who knows?’
A third: ‘I heard the Jews of Kibbutz Zommarine have put in a good word for us’. Deadly silence again.
A woman: ‘My man used to tell me resistance was futile’.
Another: ‘Shut up. This is no time for that’.
Vehicles arrive in a storm of sand. The soldiers shout: ‘Come on. Move. Get on board.’
An old woman pleads: ‘Please Mister, don’t split the families’.
A soldier: ‘No matter. You are all going to the same place.’
The herding becomes more energetic: pushing, shoving and occasional furious use of rifle butts. Some women start crying loudly; the cries become louder and louder until the whole crowd joins in wailing frantically: ‘We are lost. We are doomed.’ A few shots in the air fail to restore calm.
Then the vehicles start moving. I am held tight by my grandmother and look around for my aunts. They are in the same vehicle, Amena, Buthaina and Regina. (Years after, I used to say to my grandfather: ‘Regina! What a funny name for a Palestinian peasant woman.’ He would gaze into the distance and say dreamily: ‘Those were the days when you could call your children any name you fancied: Moslem, Christian, Jewish. We wanted to call your other aunt Rachel, but the troubles broke out before she was born and we called her Amena instead.’ My grandmother would then say: ‘Old man, why do you keep making up these stories. I never wanted to call her Rachel. I never liked the Jews.’ He would retort: ‘But you always preferred to see the Jewish doctor, Rappaport’. And she would laugh a short, almost coquettish laugh and say: ‘Yes, but damn him, he was very good.’ I close my eyes and bury my head in my grandmother’s bosom. The exodus begins.
‘Do you really remember all this?’ I ask myself. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I wove it together from the yarns told and retold during long winter nights while we huddled for warmth around the embers burning in an open metal stove, reminiscing about the lost paradise of Palestine, the sad land of oranges. Anyway what does it matter? The collective memory of my people is made up of many such harrowing nightmares.
Another time: 1991. Another place: somewhere in Kurdistan. The nightmare this time traverses a television screen. Thousands upon thousands of hapless Kurds, men, women and children, some bare-foot, some in slippers, clinging to a snow-covered mountain, driven by a fear which few have known, encountering slow death while fleeing for their lives. The camera draws nearer. A man faces it holding his dead infant and cries out with a broken voice: ‘Why? Why? Why has the world abandoned us?’
I choke with pain. The faces are familiar. This man could easily have been my grandfather, that woman, my grandmother, the other my aunt. The tormented children’s faces are so like those thronging the narrow alleyways of our refugee camps in Gaza and elsewhere. And the familiarity does not stop there. The anguish (why has the world abandoned us?) is one that we Palestinians have been living with for more than four decades. We have a special relationship with it: we nurse it, feed it our dreams, give it the best years of our lives and cherish it to our death beds. And if the world were suddenly to take notice of our suffering, we would, I fear, remain tenaciously devoted to it and ask: ‘Why has it taken the world so long?’
Do the Kurds have the same special relationship with anguish? It would be surprising if they did not. One people (Israel) denies our existence and asks: what Palestinians? Four peoples (Arab, Iranian, Turks and Syrians) deny theirs and ask: what Kurds?
I am suddenly filled with shame. Comparisons are odious. What am I doing, using the suffering of the Kurds to recall my own and my people’s? If comparisons are to be made, I will say that the immediate suffering caused by the exodus I experienced in 1948 pales in comparison with that inflicted on the Kurds. Measuring human suffering on a scale is at best indecent.
But why not? Kurdistan-Palestine comparisons may at least bring home the point that, if we are not careful, 43 years after the Kurdish exodus, the problem of Kurdish refugees will remain, as does that of the Palestinians.
Shame refuses obstinately to leave me – shame at belonging to the oppressors, the Arabs. How can a people that suffered so much turn into such brutal oppressors? This question, usually asked in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict, can be equally (justifiably or unjustifiably) asked in relation to the Arab-Kurdish conflict. In both cases I answer that brutality and indecency are not the monopoly of any one people.
But I note with heavy heart that very few Arab intellectuals have defended the rights of the Kurds. So I will write it: ‘Establishing democratic traditions cannot be confined to calling for democratic forms of government, but must also extend to acknowledging the existence of non-Arab peoples in the midst of the Arabs and upholding their right to self-determination up to and including secession.’ This is sorely needed, particularly in relation to the long-suffering Kurds.
The Arabs of Iraq have entered, perhaps despite the best wishes of their majority, into a power relation with the Kurds in which they have been brutal oppressors. Hence it is the moral duty of all Arab democrats unreservedly to defend the rights of the Kurds, including their right to have a homeland of their own, if they so wish. The Kurds may decide that it is in their best interests to be content with autonomy inside a democratic Iraq. But this is for them to determine, not for Arabs, no matter how well intentioned. This perhaps is the only basis for restoring solidarity between the two peoples.
I get a plethora of objections from my Arab friends: ‘Why apply standards to us that no other people applies to itself?’ I reply: ‘Why not? Why shouldn’t the Arabs be a just people even if other peoples are not?’ Besides, most Arabs including these friends justifiably feel morally outraged when apologists for the Israeli occupation use similar arguments.
The pain of homelessness that Palestinians suffer daily should make Arab intellectuals immune to the temptation of denying other peoples a homeland. But unfortunately it does not.
Will the world go on considering the Kurds and Palestinians dispensable? Will it continue to regard them as mere pawns in some global strategic game? Who knows? What is certain is that, for any one related to the Middle East, the only tenable position to take is to be a Palestinian Kurd or a Kurdish Palestinian; any other is woefully inconsistent and unjust.
Khalil Hindi is Palestinian and British. He teaches and researches in computing at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.