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The Mastery of Non-Mastery – A report and reflections from Kobane

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As I write, the plug is being pulled on the steady-state.

Violence and tragedy take revenge on humanity through routinization. Sooner or later we become immune.

But is there a reverse process, such as Freud writes about in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where the nightmare recurs so as to provide the anxiety that would have defended you against the worst excesses of shock?

Talking in Istanbul in the Kurdish restaurant (where I was never allowed to pay), where once he knew I was born in Sydney, the waiter showed me his cell phone photo of Ashley Johnston, a young Australian who had died fighting in the siege of Kobane; or dining with Nazan and Deniz outside at night with a sea breeze in my face; or in the seminar room in the anthropology and sociology department of Bogazici university, I was de-immunized — not only by the recurrence of the nightmare but by its counter-wave of sensitivity and friendship, and by what I discerned as a specific warp to Turkish culture provided by Kurdish Being, that ever-desired enemy within. It was as if Turkish culture, or at least its Stately essence, was utterly dependent on that which it had to deny and destroy and thus make spectral, every day more powerful.

This warp is a sick state of affairs, predisposed to surreal twists — as with Nazan’s story of the drone and the black umbrellas. A PKK woman combatant in the mountains in eastern Turkey unfurled her umbrella when a drone passed overhead. All the other women were killed. So the guerrillas ordered black umbrellas from Russia. But the trucks were intercepted by the Turkish army expecting arms, only to find . . . black umbrellas.

Then there was the video of a woman dancing in the ruins of Kobane. As the film stopped, lo and behold, that same woman emerged from the darkness to dance in the audience there in Istanbul. Kobane is everywhere! And we are dancing. Right?

Like the ships in the Bosphorous that from my window seemed to be passing through the forest I was being re-scaled, alive with the turbulence of internal relations; of the Other within.

II

That was when I went, re-scaled like that, for three days late May 2015 to pay homage to the smashed city of Kobane in Kurdish Syria, along with a veteran student of the Kurdish struggle, Nazan Ustundag, and Kurdish-speaking Bulent Kucuk, both professors of sociology at Bogazici.

The 120-day siege of the city by ISIS [1], ending with their retreat late February 2015, has been compared with the 1936 siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War because of the David vs. Goliath disproportion of forces and because of the startling principles involved, Kobane being characterized as a feminist and anarchist enclave along with two other cantons in Kurdish Syria that the Kurds call Rojava, pressed up against the border with Turkey, but separated from each other by non-Kurdish settlements in between.

Sometimes words fail you. Names are not enough. Anarchist? Feminist?

You have to be kidding!

And Oh! I forgot the absolutely fundamental environmental/ecological concern and, wonder of wonders, disinterest if not visceral distaste for the very idea of fighting for and possessing a nation-state (spoiled goods).

In the midst of its upheaval and beginnings of recovery, I found Kobane in a time out of time, in the calm that comes after the storm when everything seems fresh and sparkling with renewed life. There was no end to the encounters with voluble, warm people, slightly dazed, I would say, or curiously pensive, perhaps like people learning to talk again; maybe “gentle” is the word I’m after, and a bit like museum guides as well.

But then, like the pulse moving under the sea that makes the waves, there was also that quiet confidence which, looking back, I suppose has everything to do with continuous warfare against the state, enlivened now by the new vision.

“Welcome! This town is yours! It belongs to humanity. We make life. That’s how we are able to go on!”

But we three are without words. We have yet to learn to speak. The eastern half of the city is a gigantic ruin shrouded in heat and silence thanks to ISIS and the steady US bombing changing the tide of war (for which an elderly man tearfully thanked me!). No metaphors or historic frames of reference suffice but I keep trying; Max Ernst’s paintings come to mind: The Eye of Silence and After the Rain. Perfect titles. A man carries a pail of cement to add to a low wall of what was his house; a patient man, worked in Turkey a few months and with the money bought the cement. Reconstruction. At a snail’s pace, brick by brick, with the scaldingly bright orange of pomegranate trees in full bloom. He won’t use the bricks scattered in the ruins around as they belong to others, although there is not a soul in sight. Fifty kilometers away ISIS is fighting. Maybe closer. Rumors. Fifty thousand olive trees burnt by ISIS this week. Kurdish combatants killed yesterday. Mines a huge problem. Water? An old pump for pumping water out of a well, powered by gasoline (smuggled in from Turkey at a large markup). A young man displays his two billiard tables thirty years old, the green felt saturated in the dust of destruction. ISIS took the balls. You seize on absurd details like the ISIS graffiti of a sniper’s rifle, that and billiard balls.

Dependent on translators, meaning mainly the inexhaustibly patient Bulent, and caught up in fast-moving situations and the complexity of the on-going wars, I scribbled furiously in my notebook, overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all; by the openness of people, their crazy generosity, and the splendor of their cause, a first in the Middle East if not in world history (as I will explain).

In Kobane, the men’s insignia on the left upper arm of their camouflage uniform was a star on a yellow background; the women’s, however, is green — “for the environment,” a woman combatant told me flashing a smile some 15 km from the front with ISIS near the other side of the Euphrates. Around the waist, female and male, there is often a traditional Kurdish eight inch high waistband of patterned material which, in a striking way, draws the body in, a body ready for action every inch. But there is also this narrow waist band over that, carrying grenades, each with its big loop of steel that I guess is the pin you pull to set it off. A serene woman aged about thirty with rimless glasses told us how they kill themselves when death from ISIS seems certain.

How?

With her finger she extracted a grenade from her belt.

I noted a lot of “techniques of the body”; the thinness of the men; how we slept, male and female separate; shoes off on entering a house; the toilet at floor level shaped like a large keyhole over which you had to squat (this is a “culture of the squat”; such hips!); the food, especially the large rounds of wheat flatbread which serve as food, spoon, and plate (wheat and rye were first domesticated in eastern Turkey, meaning Kurdistan); eating on the floor with legs bent flat like the bread (ouch!); the insane amount of cigarettes smoked by the visiting health workers and Turkish surgeon (who was operating during the siege); absence of alcohol and the absence of the call for prayer; but that wide waist band with or without grenades, together with that technique of the body known as celibacy (more later), is what sticks in mind.

Was I, a nice suburban boy from white Australia, seduced by these women fighters with their aura of celibacy and suicide? (I hear Genet in my ear as I write that sentence.)

Please note: The suicide is not suicide-bombing. That’s for ISIS.

They were a tight bunch and much attention by visitors has been paid them, inevitably so; for women warriors are, in this day and age, not exactly commonplace outside of salacious photo-ops. Indeed, female guerrilla units in any part of the world arouse all manner of questions, fear, adoration, and mythologies.

The women spoke of collective suicide when ISIS surrounded them. They spoke of lying down to die on the body of a comrade dying on the battlefield, awaiting death with them; of apologizing on one’s phone when dying while disposing of one’s cell phone, codes, and weapons.

The emphasis on self-immolation struck me as strange and made me anxious, all the more so because the women were so calm and confident.

They also spoke of ISIS people whom they hear on their cell phones, speaking mainly English or Russian (Chechnyans), not Arabic, and they related conversations with them. “We will behead you!” they say. “You are infidels and pigs,” they say. Yet ISIS is frightened by these women, a visceral, mystical, fear, like what Bataille and Kristeva call “abjection.” “If killed by a woman they will not go to heaven.” [2]

Cell phones! Thanks to Turkcell (Turkey’s Verizon), like the smugglers roaming free across the border. More important than a Kalashnikov.

Is any of the fighting video-taped? I asked, leaning forward.

“Tons. On YouTube.”

I could have seen the siege on YouTube rather than here in the shadows of history talking in clipped translation to these women! What is presence? Is there any anymore? What of the circle of steel on the grenade she pulls out? Does that conform to the “age of the world picture”?

We were sitting around a table, ten of us, four women and six men under a tree in the garden of a two story, concrete-brick farmhouse thirty kilometers from Kobane in orchards and fields full of thistles hiding ISIS mines and booby-traps, as close to the front with ISIS as was deemed safe for us. We passed through a deserted town called Sexlere, which freaked me out more than the ruins of Kobane, and I wondered: why? Was it the absence of people? Was it because there were no ruins? Was it because “the front” is so indeterminate? There was a stationary cart loaded with a mattress and furniture. What was its story? The windows throughout the town were shattered. Doors flapped in the wind. A shadow moved. A slender guerrilla fighter detached him or herself from a doorway and waved on our pencil-thin, dark driver with his black hair combed forward over his forehead (I never saw a female driver). He was aged nineteen, very serious, with a pistol in his shoulder holster, a Kalashnikov on his lap, and an M-16 by the gear stick, driving like the wind. The Kalashnikov is for bursts of fire, Ismet explained. The M-16 is the sniper’s weapon. (Sniping was ubiquitous in the siege of Kobane.) He had cheap sneakers with thin black socks with holes in them. “Forty-five days’ training with weapons is the routine,” Ismet told me.

A wood fire was boiling the water for tea, its smoke blending with the smoke of endless cigarettes. A minaret — the first I had seen in Kurdish Syria — poked above the wall against which was stacked a bunch of car tires. This was one of the rather rare “mixed” groups of men and women. An astonishing sheep lay as if dead to the world in the corner, its wool orange-tinted and black, a creature from another world. The combatants were in their thirties, all in fatigues, the women doing all the talking, dressed in baggy pants called Salvar from the mountains of northern (Turkish) Kurdistan. One woman spoke English and had two brothers studying electrical engineering in Ivy League universities in the US. “What do they think of their crazy sister?” I asked, but before she answered Nazan had a more pointed question, addressed to one of the silent men whose face I drew because of its deep furrows, more furrows than face, you could say. Lines of history. Lines of sun. Lines of questioning.

The man with the furrowed face © Michael Taussig | Courtesy of the author

“How have women affected your morale?” Nazan asked him, direct and feisty, as is her way, and the response, in abbreviated shorthand-translation (which must make his answer seem a bunch of slogans), was to the effect that: the men are trying to see the world through women’s eyes, to be like them. Women see the world differently. We feel stronger with them. We always fight together. Sometimes we have a woman commander. They can be bad-arse cruel. Other times a man. Everyday tasks are carried out equally. Women are half of society. They are no longer slaves to men. [3]

Slogans? Maybe. But not the kind you get to hear elsewhere.

They expressed sadness at their losses, joy at the return of the farmers all around, hampered nevertheless by mines. It would be at least a year before they could cultivate.

Obviously there was a huge need for mine-detection experts. I could not understand why there were not some at work and why all the people with whom I spoke seemed non-committal. It was as if mines had become part of nature, commonplace and inevitable. But in an office in Kobane I bumped into four bewildered, hump-backed, leprechaun figures, stout of build with huge backpacks. They were just-arrived ex-Army demolition experts from New Zealand, the UK, and France, commissioned by a Danish NGO. It was the home-made booby traps that worried them, they said. Still and all, four seemed woefully insufficient and it was a relief to hear them say that teaching demolition was one of their tasks as well.

Some women combatants in the Women’s House in Kobane showed us a video on a laptop. They said they used it as a training film mixed with footage from ISIS videos so as to learn from their mistakes because, so they said, they were too impulsive and inexperienced in urban warfare. “We are mountain people used to fighting in Turkish Kurdistan,” one explained (a struggle which has over thirty years left 40,000 dead and thousands of villages destroyed by the Turkish army). But for all the vividness of the video, it soon paled, like the portrait on the wall of a smiling Ocalan in a landscape of snow.

For me, at least, Kobane resisted the image. Was this because it shattered representational codes on account of the siege, the evidence of the ruins, and, above all, the wonder of the new cultural order?

One thing seemed clear and that was the stated role of women changing men and changing war; not only to create “gender equality” (such an anodyne phrase), but with the changing of men and the hence the very idea of government, shifting it to a non-hierarchical model based on rotating, bi-gendered administrative positions and popular councils open to non-Kurds as well. [4]

III

I got the feeling in Kobane that I was in the midst not so much of an ideological as a cosmological shift, something seismic.

I asked myself, but what of ISIS? Is that not seismic, too?

Are we facing an “Hegelian moment” in which two symmetrically opposed contenders have erupted onto the stage of history? Is the Hegelian Aufhebung being replayed with the Middle East at the center of History’s great drama?

As for anarchism and feminism, I so much want to place quotation marks about these terms in a vain effort to re-invigorate their power and strangeness. I want to ask how far do these ideas spread to “ordinary” people in Kobane or in the other two cantons in free (Kurdish) Syria, also called Rojava (meaning “west” as in Western Kurdistan). But it is hard for me to know or make claims, especially on account of the trauma of the siege. The few married couples I encountered, for instance, seemed pretty patriarchal to me, with men doing the talking.

Walking through the dust of the wind-blown ruins, I was greeted enthusiastically like the Pied Piper by well-dressed, well-fed, happy kids attached to a women in her forties in a long yellow gown who spoke effusively about resistance to the siege without once pausing for breath. It seemed like she really wanted to — had to – talk, and the kids hung on every word as well as teased us a little. One ten year old had a toy camera with which, held upside down and back to front, he would photograph us photographing Kobane. She related stories, dry and factual (at least in translation), like Herodotus as described by Benjamin in his essay on the storyteller or Heidegger on “the plenitude and particularity of facts.” This girl always slept with her shoes on. Over there was a splendid store of gold jewelry torn apart by ISIS. When the owner saw that, he went crazy. On and on. But once we met up with her wounded husband in their half-shattered large concrete-brick home, she sat silent as a clam in the corner with the girls on the balcony surrounded by pink oleander flowers, while he spoke until a ten-year-old girl interrupted him with wildly beautiful Kurdish revolutionary war songs, sung with a pealing cry like wind through high tension wires.

Oleander: so beautiful this dash of pink everywhere at this time of the year, wild and domestic and now poking out of ruins. I read that the incense from burning oleander was used by the Sybil to get high in the oracle at Delphi.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs joined us in his car at that moment and he sat quietly, a handsome, elegant man of thoughtful mien in his early fifties who had had investments in Somalia, I believe, in oil, but abandoned or sold all that to return to his home town of Kobane to fight ISIS.

The ministers are called vezir, Bulent tells me, an Arabic word used by Kurds to mean minister. Although all administrative positions in Kurdish Syria are said to have bi-gendered and rotating representation, and although I met confident, smiling, women combatants, I never met a woman co-president in Kobane, although I did encounter one woman English translator (not that skillful) and women secretaries. There was no woman in the smart black car full of Kobani ministers being whisked through the border on their way to Turkey when we went through. And for all the celebration of women, it is always a man, Ocalan, whose portrait adorns “official” spaces; Ocalan, who insists on feminism and confederalism, and a feminism, no less, that asks for more than a focus on women; it is underlined as re-making men. [5]

My traveling companion, Bulent, writes me after our trip that what he calls “the paradox” in all three Syrian Kurdish cantons is that they perform as if there is a state even if there is not and even though they are against the idea of state. He asks what pushes them to “represent the state” like this?

Thorny issues. What does it mean to “represent” the state? Does that imply a Brechtian state as much as a Brechtian state of affairs, “showing showing,” by which I mean a revolution in the culture of the state and its magic?

That would go a long way to explaining my thinking of the ministers, or should I say “ministers,” as cuddly teddy bears rather uncomfortable with their position. Some degree of command was essential, especially during war, but always subject to and in compliance with the anti-patriarchal thrust and with the rotation of positions of authority. (The ease with which disguised ISIS suicide bombers were able to penetrate Kobane after we left and kill many people offers testimony to the dilemma of being at once open yet vulnerable.)

Thus the two ministers I met were, as the ambiguous phrase has it, “first among equals,” embodying in their demeanor what the women fighters made a point of: that this is a fight for humanity carried out in daily practice. I dare say it was auratic.

Same with Ismet, the middle-aged minister of defense who was a wheat trader before, imprisoned and tortured many times by the Syrian government and a key figure in forcing the Syrian government out of Syrian Kurdistan. Humble to a fault, he spoke rarely and then in a subdued voice. He wore civilian clothes, not a uniform, except when he visited the front, and I never saw him armed. His wife’s darting eyes were ever alert with the most mischievous smile. Their sons were combatants. His daughters washed my trousers and he gave me a pair of his to sleep in the night we slept at their home.

Nazan told me the story that when, after a century of Syrian oppression, the Syrian Kurds were able to carve out some freedom because of the current civil war, there was a mass demonstration in front of the police station. Ismet walked up front and asked the police to go. A policeman cried. Ismet gave him a drink of water. And they left.

I was shocked when I first met Ismet. It was early evening when we were driven by a soldier to the two story defense headquarters building on a slight hill (the landscape for hundreds or miles is a flat plain with little hills). We paused briefly to look at two scarred US armored vehicles captured from ISIS, being restored in front. The minister greeted us behind a big desk with a backdrop of crimson and yellow curtains. On either side of the room flush against the wall were armchairs. It was very ceremonial, reminding me of the Turkish Governor’s office I had left the day before in the border town of Suruc which, to give you a sense of Turkish history, was Armenian, so I was told, until the Armenians were killed by Kurds in the wake of the Turkish genocide. The Kurds in turn were then driven out by Turks who, once they made money, left for more attractive places, leaving it Kurdish once again. But of course this is history in broad brush-strokes.

Present to greet us were two middle-aged men in military fatigues in their early forties. One was from Kurdish Iran, lithe and slim; he spoke pretty good English he had picked up living in London and seemed to like nothing more than to talk about the epic Gilgamesh as the ur-text for the feminist, environmental cause. ISIS might have their caliph, but these guys went back a lot further and spoke of Sumer and Mesopotamia and — believe it or not — of undoing the colonization of women seen as the first colony in history. A day later, watering his incipient garden in front of the Ministry of Defense, he told me he was assistant to the woman president. “Men and women are equal here,” he said.

He suspects ISIS plans to get into Turkey from Kobane, first the city of Sanliurfa, then Eastern Europe! He told Nazan of his fear at being a sniper, losing that fear, and then becoming even more fearful at his lack of fear. “I have over 4,000 books on my e-book,” he told me.

The other man, sitting opposite, was a solidly built German with a blonde crew-cut, ex-Army, served in Yugoslavia and the Congo, here as a trainer. “Aren’t the Kurds worried about spies?” I asked Bulent the next day. “Well, yes,” he replied, “but they also have a policy of openness.”

Opposite the minister, who spoke not a word in this (somewhat strained) atmosphere, was a color photo about six feet by four of Ocalan looking pretty serious, not unlike the minister. Beneath Ocalan was a large TV set playing a Hollywood movie with scenes of fighting in World War I and amorous close-ups of a man and woman. The sound was audible.

IV

As a foreigner I could pass the border into Kobane but, without permission from the Ankara-appointed governor of Suruc (a largely Kurdish, PKK-sympathetic, border town), I would be refused re-entry and would have to be smuggled across. In the Suruc Cultural Center, a chain-smoking, ever-alert expert on the border and smuggling laid out the risks of smuggling. There’s a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting arrested on the way back into Turkey, he opined, made another phone call under the pines, and returned to say, “No! It’s one in a hundred.”

Cell phone calls are made and received all the time, like a bunch of birds singing different songs. You get the feeling nobody really knows anything for sure but has to act as if they do know and, on top of that, things are continuously changing in a tea-drinking frenzy. Such is the Nervous System of the Turkish/Kurdish borderlands.

Two months later this Cultural Center was the target of an ISIS suicide bomber killing many young volunteers on their way to Kobane. With perverse logic, this precipitated the resumption of war against the Kurds by the Turkish government, with what seems like the tacit approval of the US in return for use against ISIS of a Turkish base on this border.

Waiting at Suruc we would drive out to the border where so many people had stood watch during the siege trying to prevent ISIS people from crossing into Kobane from Turkey. (There were Kurds among these ISIS recruits as well.) With hungry eyes we gazed at Korbane, a stone’s throw away.

Two old railway carriages stood there, reminders of the Ottoman railway built by Germans in the early twentieth century to connect Baghdad with Berlin (imagine!). A spiffy tank stood guard along with a huge Turkish flag dwarfing a shepherd following black goats, while the harvesting of winter wheat proceeded on the Turkish side of the border at a leisurely pace oblivious to war.

Eventually we were given permission to cross the border into Kobane, being classified as “human rights workers” by the Governor searching for a loophole, perhaps because of the prestige of Bogazici, the university from which we came. He admonished us, saying journalists were not granted permission. A police “stamp” was necessary. I dozed on a bench at the police station waiting. A man came with a torn-off piece of paper the size of a finger asking me to write down the name of my father. He left. I slept some more. What seemed like hours passed. He returned with another tiny slip of paper wanting the name of my mother. Slept again. Suddenly it was done — allegedly punched into the cell phones of officialdom.

Only days later when I listened to Deniz Boyraz in Istanbul did it dawn on me how important smuggling was for this part of Turkey and for the theater of war. It was there staring me in the face but I was too taken up with international politics and tales of the siege of Kobane to see it. After all Kurdistan (a largely taboo word in Turkey, like the name Palestine in Israel) extends into four of those blessed entities called nation-states and thus smuggling can be a profitable way of life, if not a necessity. (Taboos — or can we say borders — are meant to broken, said ethnology’s Ocalan, name Marcel Mauss.) I very much liked the names of Kurdistan, matter of fact without overt symbolism but loaded with charisma; the north (Bakur), east, south, and west (Rojava).

The father or grandfather of Deniz had done a fair bit of smuggling of tobacco using donkeys into Syria, and when people joked with me about coming back across the border illegally if I failed to get the Governor’s permission, they mentioned how the smuggler would send a donkey on ahead to check for land mines. I had images of splattered donkeys for days after. The Kurdish head of a teachers’ union in Suruc told me his uncle was a famed smuggler of cattle from Syria into Turkey, adding with some exaggeration, I presume, that most men over fifty were legless because of mines (which were first planted in the 1950s).

Deniz painted a picture for me of an entire cultural formation built on out-maneuvering the state; a picture of Syrian Kurds being woken at night by Turkish Kurds needing a place for themselves and their donkeys. “Just a knock on the door,” he told me, “and it would be opened, no questions asked, no money either, although you might leave a gift.” In the morning you left, empowered by a great moral plenitude, if I read it right, arising from the magic of the gift transmuting the magic of the state.

Karl Marx laid his money on the proletarian uprising and on capitalist rationality out-doing itself. But what of these “pre-capitalist” ways of the gift and Bataillian, Bakhtinian-Rabelaisian, and Maussian generosity? Does not the Revolution require (and promote) this spirit, the spirit of the gift?

In the Guest House I never paid for the yogurt and honey and fruit in the morning, for the vegetables at night, for the innumerable glasses of chai or the mattress and the thick, heavy, blanket. There was a stout middle-aged man provisioning the kitchen and a nineteen year old cherub would every morning hose down the tables laden with the dust of the ruins and the cigarette ash of the guests who were themselves a model of mutual aid.

“How much do I owe you?”

“No! Nothing. The government pays.”

And where does it (this nebulous entity) get its money?

From the other two cantons.

Wolfgang, a sixty-seven year old Marxist-Leninist engineer (according to his freshly washed tee shirt), who hopes to build a health clinic, and young Luigi, from Turino, about twenty eight years old, making videos, both here to do good works, were out-gifted by the locals, especially the kids, who would give them ice-creams and candies, even flowers. “No one accepts payment,” complained Luigi. “You go to the store and they won’t take money.” (He wore shorts. Deniz told me not to wear shorts under any circumstances.)

Both Wolfgang and Luigi were waiting to cross the border. “Can’t wait for an espresso,” sighed Luigi. The border fence was three meters high with electronic surveillance, mines, and soldiers shooting on sight, Wolfgang said. He waited till midnight that night, the crossing being about 3:00 AM, but was told it was too risky. He must have gotten across soon after, though, because I received an email from him from Germany about loading up a truck with construction equipment for Kobane.

V

The battlefield dead are brought to the House of the Martyrs, the body washed, the wounds stitched, then the family comes and the corpse is buried.

I see the journalist Robert Fisk in his articles on Kurds puts “martyrs” in quotes. This word makes Westerners uneasy. Martyrs died out at the end of the Middle Ages, along with old views of the dead, the sacred, and sacrifice. The quote marks around “martyrs” are like a protective fence, like Derrida’s cross through a word, signifying under erasure.

I was taken into a high-ceilinged room the size of a small soccer field with nothing but a bare wooden table in the center for receiving the body. It was beyond sparse, like the Colombian Doris Salcedo’s art-work trying to speak to the violence in Colombia and the USA these past three decades (on show at the NYC Guggenheim, as I write).

In the middle of this immense nothing, a plain wooden table, carrying the weight of all those that came before and those to come.

Way high almost out of sight were portraits of martyrs and one of Ocalan, lower down, also quite small.

There is a family allowance of $200 USD, depending on the needs of the family, paid every month and forever. Relatives and concerned people form support groups that meet every week. In addition, two women and two men from the House visit every home of the dead once a week, asking about problems, which they try to fix.

What of a memorial?

At first it was suggested that three heavily bombed areas should be retained just as they are, along with re-naming certain areas with the names of martyrs. The buildings and areas would be chosen for the heroism of the fighting there, not for aesthetics.

Terrifying and sublime, the ruins are indeed monumental. Yet is it not strange to deny the hand of the artist in favor of the hand of history?

But now the owners of those places want their property restored.

Then there are the dogs, anti-monuments that make your blood freeze. They would come out of nowhere, we were told, these dogs of war, and eat the corpses. They got fat. They went crazy, and they were killed. What sort of crazy? They went wild.

People would repeat this story. It seemed like the only story. It was as if it was meant to sum up the siege but in fact it resisted interpretation. You scratched your head, wallowing in the pathos. It was overwhelming. Dogs. Man’s best friend.

There was another monster story. “Something Is Coming!”

Beyond desperate when faced with ISIS armed vehicles and tanks, “made in the USA,” the Kobane combatants fashioned back-hoes into tanks by welding 3/4 inch steel around them. Mad Max outfits. On their cell phones they heard incredulous ISIS voices (as the story goes); “Something is coming!”

In Kobane it was said you could still smell the bodies of ISIS fighters coming from the ruins at night, but I never did and I wondered, later on, re-reading my notes, whether this expressed the convergence of history with natural history that Benjamin points to in his essay on the storyteller. He writes the same idea in his musings on allegory, a convergence that becomes supernatural along with death passing into the petrified, timeless landscape. [6]

Drawings of the ruins as seen in camera view-finder at different magnifications © Michael Taussig | Courtesy of the author

VI

In conversation with a man crossing the border whose two daughters were combatants, I wondered what it must be like “losing” your daughters to the guerrillas. They say when someone joins the defense forces of the Syrian Kurds or the Turkish PKK guerrillas, they are unlikely to see their family again and have to be celibate, which means, among other things, not having children. I assume this applies as much to men as to women.

My mind goes back to those stories of the woman’s umbrella and the woman dancing in the ruins of Kobane, initially solo actions, which then multiplied (one umbrella becomes a truck-load, the dancer weaves in and out of the audience making a multitude). Are these not stories of birth and death, or rather of death and birth, with “celibacy” transformed through humor and pathos? The umbrellas and the audience are the substitute children, transmuted by art; by a funny story, by a dance.

So what is celibacy here? Is it a taboo on heterosexuality, on homosexuality, on auto-eroticism? Is it the entire body transformed thanks to a wondrous re-arrangement of Foucault’s celebrated opposition between “blood” and “life” in which, far from being divorced, they unite?

Who would dare ask these questions that dig into the sanctuaries of one’s being, questioner and questioned alike?

Celibacy is a sexual force.

Ocalan is celibate too. More than celibate, he inhabits a tomb.

The legend is all here: solitary confinement on a prison island for seventeen years since his 1998 capture in Kenya by the CIA and Turkey (with rumored Mossad support); an imprisonment that seems to have greatly boosted his charisma and power and, be it noted, given him the time to write and read widely; his quasi-religious conversion in prison from the Stalinist model of the hierarchical party to the anarchist idea of horizontal structures of democratic governance; the underlying, all-encompassing effulgence of feminism as not simply gender equality but as a cultural revolution in the meaning of maleness; plus a pronounced emphasis on care for the environment with all the heebie-jeebies of nationalism and ethnicity cast to the winds along with the hocus-pocus of the nation-state.

To top it off, such an ordinary looking anti-charismatic fellow, Ocalan — a face in the crowd — as in the portraits hung everywhere; a little plump, sober and serious, no beard, no moustache, no pony-tail, no Cuban cigar, dull clothing like an accountant or like ex-wheat trader Ismet. Age 68. A Santa Claus with a set of great ideas in his sleigh.

The irony is searing. Even feminized anarchists need or create a leader of (anti) heroic proportions, in this case not a wit with literary and Althusserian tastes like (sub) comandante Marcos in the Lacandon forests of lowland Chiapas, but instead a clear-minded, straight-speaking, neutered man in the nether-sphere of angels, who are celibate creatures, too.

Nazan tells me that one of the reasons for creating female PKK guerrilla units in Turkish Kurdistan in the early nineties was to destroy the Kurdish war-lords emerging from the PKK guerrilla forces into banditry.

It was however more than war-lordism that was the problem. It was the whole shebang of hierarchical organization that had to go, along with the culture of the male-headed family, seen as crucial in reproducing statist ideology bound to patriarchy. [7]

In the Women’s House in Kobane, I got to thinking that the issue in play amounts to a re-working of Hegel’s famous Master-Slave chapter, such that a new concept emerges: “the mastery of non-mastery.” It was not that women replaced men by becoming masters.

Mastery of non-mastery would very much include a new magic, transforming the way by which the magic of the state is spliced into forms of kinship and sentiment that bind women into stately forms as well as familial ones. (“Women! The first colony!” Back to Gilgamesh.)

By “magic of the state” I am referring to the religious impulse underpinning the state that Ocalan, for instance, sees as an essential part of what he calls the “modern capitalist state,” non-secular no less than secular. [8]

If this takes us into “political theology,” then what are the implications for the “state of exception”?

As the largest stateless people in the world, does not Kurdistan itself exist as a permanent state of exception, both as regards the states of which it is baneful part and as regards modern history?

Benjamin asked us to think what a history based on the state of exception would look and feel like. Does the anarcho-feminism of the PKK suggest one answer? And might not this stimulate dazzling possibilities for the conversion of the magic of the master into the “mastery of non-mastery”?

The task is alchemical.

VII

After all, it is another story that is being woven now in Kurdistan which, so it seems, does best with armed women being celibate.

A justification of celibacy was proffered: that celibacy eases the anxieties of the women’s families, the honor of their girls is intact; that romantic involvements get in the way of doing your job; and that your capacity for love gets transmuted into love for the group (which brings to mind the polemic concerning sex and repression between Wilhelm Reich and Freud, let alone the quite different attitudes regarding male-female sexual relationships amongst the Colombian FARC guerrillas). [9]

Do the Kurdish guerrillas therefore provide their women and men with a new “family,” merging something like a nation-state that is also an anti-state with something like a family that is not a family but an anti-family?

Are the guerrilla forces castes of beings serenely distant from the flesh, like nuns and monks in the Christian Church, but with M-16s and rocket launchers? Does celibacy ensure a type of sacred purity and a mythical status of magical power?

Is celibacy the initiation rite into the secret society of warriors, female or male, parallel to what the anthropologist Pierre Clastres (famous for his collection of essays, Society against the State) saw as the role of torture of young men as reported in the mid-nineteenth century among the Mandan Indians of Missouri, this torture (if that’s the word) instituting a block, if not a guarantee, against the coagulation of power and the formation of a state? [10]

In any event the formation of female guerrilla combatants (some 40% of the Kurdish force) is a unique phenomenon both in the Middle East and the world at large. In Israel, much-cited with regard to female soldiers, the corresponding figure for women in combat roles is three percent, the majority of women in the IDF serving in traditional female roles as clerks, nurses, and drivers — alongside attractive women cuddling machine guns in photographs on the internet.

All guerrilla armies, hidden in forests and mountains and the jungle of the cities of the Middle East, exist physically but not spiritually outside of society and are thus endowed with great auratic potential (with which the epithet “terrorist” unwittingly connives). But here in Kurdistan that aura is augmented with sexual characteristics that stem from the negative magical power long associated with women under patriarchy as “the second sex”; the sex of the left hand and evil eye, of the horror of menstruation and black magic, and therefore hedged in by taboos (honor, the veil, etc.). Not for nothing do Mauss and Hubert single out women and death as the outstanding sources of highly dangerous magical power in human history. [11]

The genius move, the alchemical move, is to flip this from a negative to a positive, while retaining the negative as a threatening, hidden power (that becomes overt with the gun and grenade). Now patriarchy trembles, so to speak, as the demon it has created rises from the ashes and ISIS fears more than anything else to be killed by a woman.

I am strongly reminded of the magical power of Indian shamans with whom I lived in southwest Colombia, despised by non-Indians as like animals yet feared for their magical powers and sought after for healing from sorcery.

What this suggests, to me, ignorant of the Middle East and Asia Minor, is that many fundamental axioms of the family, gender, and sexuality, are maintained, not overthrown. But they also are overthrown, in what can only be called an ongoing dialectic of the mastery of non-mastery.

Confusing?

Who knows what peace, equality, and justice could bring forth from this bouquet of contradiction marking time?

VIII

Which brings me to the tantalizing issue of truth, hakikat, as it was uttered like some sort of talisman; pronounced, chewed over, and proffered like a bird flying where it might; hakikat that played with the light of the sun on the horizon through the dust of the ruins of Kobane.

I am thinking of the women combatants in the Women’s House telling us with painful conviction that one cannot represent the siege. “It was so terrible. It was not only we who were fighting but the whole world was with us. Truth – hakikat – is so hard here. It is not reducible to war. Soldiers can’t give the truth. If you talk with them you see what ISIS did to humanity. This is a moment in history. I cannot tell you what happened. But I can tell you we were connected to each other and to the land, which is the land of humanity.”

It seems that as with revelation, uncovering the deeper meaning of the struggle conceals it, and hakikat is the tenderness of that admission no less than the labor of uncovering. Yet hakikat also means God, law, and justice where politics, gender, and the mystique of redemption concur.

Like mana, the basis of magic for Mauss and Hubert, hakikat is a representation yet also a force that flows between things. All ritual is invested with mana, including the ritual of greeting visitors such as ourselves and the ritual of bearing witness, which is when, as with these notes of mine, the inside becomes outside and one falls through the space of the nightmare.

“Welcome! This town is yours! It belongs to humanity. We make life. That’s how we are able to go on!”

She shows us the video, but it is a forlorn attempt to get across the magnificence of the vision that, in ways I have tried to describe, grows organically, if unexpectedly, out of the gendered nature of the state so as to democratize the Middle East and the world.

IX

When, after three days I walked through the silence of “No Man’s Land” back into Turkey, I felt I was being observed by many eyes. Kobane was slipping away and I felt less of a person. It was physiological, as if my body had become another body there in the ruins of Kobane stretching like entrails into the sky. No wonder there was a move afoot to retain many of the ruins as monuments to the siege. “The next biennale,” I said to myself.

I was walking free across the threshold while ISIS with the help of Turkey was drawing a noose around Kobane. Every step you took was momentous, heightening the absurdity of the very idea of nation-states and the bloody histories that brought them into being. That empty space with eyes watching us slowly walk the walk was more eloquent than all the flags of all the states in the universe, past, present, and future.

Ahead of us by a gateway, two Turkish guards with cell phones and purple sunglasses. “I take what comes my way,” one said in English when complemented on his glasses. Behind us a mild chaos of nothingness; no gateway, no guards, some women milling around and a green sun umbrella like at the beach. It was as if Kobane had no border to ritualize or guard and had effortlessly let go of the terrible burden of the nation-state.

A bombshell. What happens when the rules are changed all of a sudden? What sort of world beckons? Then you recall, these are the people who are out to change the face of the Middle East and humanity itself, beginning with gender. This does not happen every day.

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Nazan Usterdag and Bulent Kucuk for taking him to Kobane and without whom this essay could not have been written; the faculty of the Sociology and Anthropology Department of Bogazici University in Istanbul for hosting him for three extraordinary weeks; Deniz Boyraz for filling in the gaps; and Peter Lamborn Wilson for critical comments on the first draft.

POSTSCRIPT

On June 25, 2015, three weeks after we left, ISIS suicide bombers disguised as YPG or Syrian Free Army entered Kobane before dawn and killed some 230 civilians and 37 combatants before being controlled. It has been described as the second largest massacre by ISIS since it declared itself a caliphate in 2014. Reports suggest a motive of revenge and/or an attempt to gain control of this passage to Turkey. In any event, since then ISIS has crumpled in northern Syria, being driven back by Kurdish forces, surrendering, at least for a moment, what was supposed to be their capital of Al-Raqqah or areas close to it.

This success in turn has caused the Turkish government to bomb Kurdish forces in Iraq and break the two-year cease-fire while the US looks the other way, having received permission from Turkey to use a Turkish airfield to bomb ISIS.

NOTES

[1] People give different times for the duration of the siege if only because ISIS hung on in the surrounding villages long after being forced out of the town proper.

[2] See Ocalan’s concept and book (in Turkish) of “killing the man within” and the various Kurdish women’s movements aimed at transforming the mentality of men; See also “Feminicide” by Havin Guneser in Stateless Democracy, p. 62, and Nukhet Sirman (of Bogazici University’s Anthropology Department), “When Antigone Is a Man: Feminist Trouble in the Late Colony,” to be published in Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay (eds.), Vulnerability in Resistance: Politics, Feminism, Theory (Duke University Press).

[3] This is a staple item, that women were the first colony in world history. Ocalan presented the figure of the sword and the fist; the sword of state and the fist of the male head of household.

[4] Again see Ocalan’s Democratic Confederalism as well as essays forthcoming in the South Atlantic Quarterly (January 2016) by Nazan Üstündağ, Ceren Özselçuk, Bulent Kucuk, and Yaha Madra . Also see a succinct summary of the political “structure” in Jonas Staal, “Theater of the Stateless,” pp 230-44 inStateless Democracy.

[5] The situation in the other two, more established, cantons, which were not subjected to an ISIS siege, is presumably more established in terms of bi-gendering and rotation, women’s assemblies and academies, etc. See [4].

[6] I am referring to Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama.

[7] See Nazan Ustundag at [4] and Abdullah Ocalan, Democratic Confederalism, pp. 15-16. All very curious given that Turkish Kurdistan is often portrayed as being until recently “feudal” and even “tribal.” So the question is how the modern Turkish state idea meshes with patriarchal kinship in such situations, and how the re-vamped PKK vision intercepts this and transforms it.

[8] See also my Magic of the State, Routledge, 1997.

[9] Put schematically, Reich was of the opinion that (a) sexual repression favored authoritarian states and (b) that sex and creative work went hand in hand, as opposed to Freud in Civilization and Its Discontentswho (with bitterness) saw sexual repression as essential for what he called civilization. On the FARC (and the guerrillas in Peru and El Salvador) in relation to sex and gender little is written. For an exception see Luisa María Dietrich Ortega, “La ‘compañera politica’: mujeres militantes en espacios de ‘agencia’ en insurgentes latinoamericanas,” in Colombia Internacional, 80, 2014, pp. 83-113. Also the tale of a woman lawyer kidnapped by the FARC who gave birth to a baby boy fathered by one of her captors, Clara Rojas, Cautiva (Bogota: Norma), 2009.

[10] I believe Clastres is an important author for the Kurdish movement, certainly for Nazan.

[11] Marcel Mauss (and Henri Hubert), A General Theory of Magic (NY: Norton), 1972 [1902].

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Publishes articles related to Kurdish issue, from different sources around the world.

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This entry was posted on 2015-08-08 by in News Articles.
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