Poetry and silence: Iran's Kurds tread the line between art and activism
In a sleepy town in Iranian Kurdistan, people take off their winter coats. It is evening, and outside one can just about discern the silhouettes of the mountains that lead to the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Inside, some 60 people fill the small community centre with a clammy heat. But it is not just warmth they are after. They have come for poetry.
For several hours, old ladies, moustached students and intellectuals share their latest compositions. With the guttural grace of Sôrani Kurdish, they evoke the smell of the homeland, its ragged mountaintops, and the wanderings of the lone peshmerga fighter. People hold their breath as friends approach their last lines.
Poetry is alive in Iranian Kurdistan. New statues of old literary masters arise on busy roundabouts, melodious verses echo from crackling radios and youngsters haggle over the latest slim volumes on crowded street markets.
“It’s a form of resistance to us,” explains one attendee. “But it has to be ambiguous, in the way poetry can be. When I write about Kurdistan, I make sure the images I use can just as well refer to a woman. That way I don’t get into trouble, I just say it’s all about love.”Others tread the line between art and activism less carefully. As the meeting progresses, concerned parents condemn the ‘brainwashing’ of their children in Farsi-only schools, an old woman reads out her poem on soldiers burning children’s toys, and a few youngsters call attention to the bravery of their ‘brothers and sisters’ fighting the Islamic State group (Isis) in Syria. Perhaps not everyone realises that a handful of basijis are sitting at the back.
In many ways, the situation of Iranian Kurds is as ambiguous as their poetry meetings. Estimates vary as to their numbers, but at up to 8 million, Iran’s Kurdish population is second in size only to the Kurds in Turkey and probably larger than the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish populations combined. But while Kurdistan at large is in turmoil and stands at the centre of attention, Iran’s Kurds seem to bathe in silence.
Underneath the surface, frustration is simmering. Hoping to improve their plight, 71% of voters in Kurdistan province – which is smaller than Iran’s mainly Kurdish areas – opted for Hassan Rouhani during the 2013 presidential election, comfortably above his Iran-wide tally of 51%. On the eve of yet another election and nearly three years of disappointments later, however, the Kurds face the question not just of who to vote for but of whether they will ever be included in any type of reform.
Abbas Vali, professor of modern social and political theory at the department of sociology, Bogaziçi University, Istanbul, and author of several books on the Iranian Kurds, says the Kurds’ “suffering” in Iran is different to elsewhere: “We are talking about entirely different histories. In Turkey, for instance, the modernising discourse of Kemalism has long marked the Kurds as the essential opposite of ‘civilised’ Turks. But in Iran, Kurds were never really seen as outsiders. Rather, they were portrayed as ‘pure’ Persians, a brave mountain people defending the homeland.”
For Vali, the marginalisation of Iran’s Kurds stems from quite recent political decisions and has two dimensions. The first is religious. “It’s ironic. The Islamic Republic has recently condemned Saudi Arabia for its sectarianism, but in reality it is doing very much the same thing to its own people. It has been successful in institutionalising religious discrimination against Sunnis and other religious minorities...Sunni institutions throughout Kurdistan operate under harsh conditions.”Second, Iranian Kurdistan is treated as a security zone. This was most obvious during the Iran-Iraq war, when the Kurds were squeezed between Saddam’s chemical attacks and Iranian counteroffensives. But, says Vali, the logic of military rule has never disappeared. “It’s something engraved in the mindset of government officials: when they smell trouble, they first turn to the Kurds. This became very clear during the ‘green movement’ protests in 2009. Even though Kurdistan didn’t take part in the protests anywhere near as much as other regions, it still saw the largest number of executions.”According to a 2008 Amnesty International report, a variety of abuses faced by Iranian Kurds rose under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Sunnis were excluded from employment and education, the Kurdish language and clothing became targets of policing, and the numbers of Kurdish political prisoners rose.
One notorious case was Farzad Kamangar, a teacher whose shocking letter from prison was published by Amnesty. “When I said I was Kurdish,” Kamangar wrote, “they would flog me all over my body with a hose-like device…They flogged me to a pulp because of the Kurdish ring tone I had on my mobile phone. They would handcuff me and tie me to a chair and put pressure on my sensitive spots, and they would strip me naked, threatening to violate me sexually.”
After a hunger strike and several suicide attempts, Kamangar was executed on 9 May 2010. Under Ahmadinejad, notes Amnesty, the Kurds merited nothing but repression.
This changed in 2013 with the election of Rouhani, who promised in his campaign to “remove the stain of discrimination and inequality from the face of the religious and ethnic minorities in Iran”. In a country where these minorities make up half the population – and votes – the language of minority rights can be tactical business. Rouhani’s victory showed this could work, but has he transformed his words into realities?
In some respects, the answer is yes. At the University of Kurdistan in Sanandaj, the campus buildings are still clad with the faces of Islamic martyrs, but inside a group of students are debating their own identities.
One of them gets out his laptop and shows a promotion video he has made for a conference on Kurdish culture. Slides of famous Kurdish writers and singers interleave with quant villages and mighty mountaintops to the epic tune of what sounds like a Kurdish version of Star Wars’ Imperial March. The students are visibly excited, aware that they are among the pioneers of the newly established faculty for Kurdish language and literature.
“For 15 years we fought for this department”, one of them exclaims. “And now, with Rouhani as president, it is finally there.” There are 39 students on the programme, with the number expected to increase to 60 next year.When asked about the contents of the course, they stress its apolitical nature. “We focus only on literature and poetry. That merits study in itself! Kurdish authors use stylistic forms that do not exist in any other language. And there is an enormous folkloric heritage. Did you know that in Iranian Kurdistan alone there are 6000 different folk songs?”Mardin, a former journalist, couldn’t care less. As he chain-smokes behind his desk, his face is set with the grin of someone who has seen it all. “It’s cosmetic. Why do you think they opened this so-called Kurdish faculty? Not to have any actual discussions on things that matter, I can assure you. It’s not a coincidence there’s no history, sociology or politics taught. They just want to control what these students are doing. Literature of course can be a weapon, I’m not against that, but only if you are holding the pen yourself.”
According to Mardin, the Iranian Kurds’ main problem is isolation. “People think we are doing fine, simply because we have no one to turn to. There’s no free press in Iran as a whole, let alone in Kurdistan. And we don’t have the powerful international connections that other Kurds do.”
In this respect, he argues, the Iranian Kurds are worse off than their cousins elsewhere. “Of course, the Kurds in Turkey find themselves in a terrible situation. But at least they can turn to the media, to international organisations or to civil society. Here, we live in a dictatorship.” Having embraced Sufism after spending a year in prison, Mardin is aware how deep the effects of this go. “Dictatorships operate by isolating their citizens from the world and from each other, to the point that we simply can’t see beyond anything but our own individual survival. We have given up on grand causes.”Not everyone has. Sitting in a local teahouse, Sirwan does not stop smiling. He has spent several years in prison and is a respected figure. People walk up to him to exchange quick handshakes in tribute to his courage. When asked about his permanent smile, he smiles even more. “It used to bother the prison guards, too. They tortured me, but I would always try to keep my head up high. I used to ask them: ‘Who’s the free one here? You, who are paid a couple of tomans to pull my nails out, or me, who can think freely and smile at you despite your cruelty?’”
He sips from his tea, and laughs: “It drove them mad”.
Having suffered torture under the Rouhani administration, Sirwan is not impressed by its promises. “The largest group of political prisoners is still Kurdish. You should see the prisons, they are like universities. Journalists, professors, activists, students – nearly everyone is there for political reasons. They throw 40 men in a small room with no facilities and submit them to systematic beatings. But the worst are the isolation cells. Months of loneliness, it drives you mad.”
Despite such abuses, Sirwan is most worried about more subtle attempts to marginalise the Kurds. “It’s the small things that turn our life into a continuous fight. We can’t teach our language to our children, have no right to publish about our history, and must always be careful not to stand out as a Kurd. For instance, if you have an obviously Kurdish or Sunni name, you will never get into public office. This means that nearly all high officials in Kurdistan are non-Kurdish, and they simply refuse to invest in the region.”
Many Kurds says the effects of this are obvious in a shortage of jobs, houses and infrastructure. “It’s outrageous,” says Sirwan. “While the rest of the country is celebrating a nuclear deal and preparing itself for an economic opening, we will remain stuck in poverty.”
Sirwan realises these are structural problems that won’t be solved overnight. “It would be wrong to expect too much from the reformists,” he admits. “All this talk about Rouhani is counterproductive. Of course we need to welcome a new rhetoric on minority rights, but it doesn’t end there. We should look at the long term.”
Above all, he thinks, this requires reform from below. “There really is a lot going on beneath the surface. Young people especially are organising themselves in ways that no government will be able to contain in the long run.”
According to Vali, the real question is what this new generation aims for. Will they claim their rights as Kurds, or fight for the democratisation of Iran as a whole?
Since the nuclear deal, he argues, the answer to this question has changed. “For a long time, organisations such as the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) or the Marxist Komala [both outlawed parties] did not think it necessary to reform the Islamic Republic. After all, their aim was to get rid of it...But now that Iran is again becoming part of the international community, they realise the Islamic Republic may be here to stay.”To change it, then, one has to work from within. Ethnic politics alone, Vali argues, may not be the most effective in this respect. “Kurdish democratic parties are at their strongest when they build bridges between Kurdish and non-Kurdish groups in society. This is what the successes of the Kurdish HDP in Turkey teach us.”Vali argues that initiatives for similar alliances are unlikely to come from the KDPI or Komala: “After years of exile in Iraq, these parties have lost touch with Iranian society, especially with the younger generation...[who] are looking for a new framework through which to express themselves.”
Back in Kurdistan, it is precisely this search that stirs the minds of young people. Sitting on an enormous Persian carpet in a small flat with no furniture, a group of students chat and smoke deep into the night. They are well-read, idealist and political.
“Resistance is life!” one of them shouts, using a Kurdish political slogan. Part of it is self-mockery. After all, what options are there really? “Some of my friends are in the Pejak,” he says, referring to the Free Life of Kurdistan Party, which is linked to the Turkey-based PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and which has been waging an armed struggle against the Iranian government since 2004. “They keep asking me to join, but I’m not into violence. It’s not my kind of thing.”
Asked what is, he fetches his laptop. On it, Selahattin Demirtaş, co-leader of the Kurdish HDP in Turkey, is singing a revolutionary folk song.
“What a man! Did you see his speech after the Ankara bombings? How he dares to stand up against the Turkish government? That’s what I call leadership.”
The other students huddle around the screen as they flick through endless images: of the de facto autonomous Kurdish region of ‘Rojava’ in Syria, the peaceful campaigners of the HDP in Turkey, and the solidarity marches of Kurdish organisations in European cities. They are clearly longing to break out of their isolation and into the new forms of politics emerging throughout the region. For the moment, however, these realities can only be summoned on a laptop screen.
That, or in poetry. In the community centre, the meeting is coming to its end, but most people seem unwilling to leave. As they hang about to enjoy the last moments of their weekly catharsis, the club’s principal suddenly pulls them back into reality: “I forgot to remind you! Please do come to next week’s meeting, but be aware that we are receiving some guests from Tehran.”
A resignation takes hold of the room, for people know what this means. There will be no politics, no discussion and no creativity – just silence. Far more than Friday’s elections, it will be the making or breaking of this silence that will shape the future of Iran’s Kurds.