What’s happening in Kurdistan?

This is what I asked myself earlier today when I passed a small group of men gathered at the GPO. Some were holding flags featuring a yellow sun on a backdrop of green, white and red stripes while others carried banners urging the Irish Government not to ignore Turkish war crimes in Kurdistan.

Kurdish flag (image via Wikipedia)

It was a tiny, peaceful demonstration that made its way down O’Connell Street and past Trinity College. A single man had a loud speaker and from it all that I could make out was the word “Kurdistan”.

The leaflet I took from one of the demonstrators is a double-sided photocopy and includes four photographs of dead bodies buried amongst rubble. One is of a 6-month old baby. The leaflet claims that “Turkish warplanes have been repeatedly bombing Kurdish villages since Wednesday 17th August” and that this is an example of “Turkish state terrorism against the Kurds which has been ignored by the international community and the European Union in particular”.

On the BBC website- updated just a few hours ago- a headline reads “Turkish airstrike campaign killed 160 Kurdish rebels”. According to the BBC, “The strikes follow a deadly attack by the separatists in mid-August that killed nine Turkish troops and injured 14 in the district of Cukurca, in Hakkari province close to the border.”

Kurdistan is wedged between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Armenia and is neither a politically independent state nor a clearly-defined region (though its geoographical description encompasses small parts of all the countries which surround it). Its people speak a distinct language (Kurdish, not Arabic) and consider themselves to have a separate identity from that of any of their neighbour states. While Iraqi Kurdistan gained the right to self-governance in 1970, the Iranian province of Kurdistan is not autonomous.

In Turkey, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has been waging war against Turkish rule for 26 years. To date, the conflict there has claimed over 40,000 lives.

Last May the Guardian reported that Sherko Moarefi, a member of a proscribed Kurdish group is at “imminent risk of execution” in Iran. A huge Amnesty International campaign is urgently calling for his release. I’ve been unable to find any up-to-date information about his condition or status online.

Sherko Moarefi

While I couldn’t find anything up-to-date on Aljazeera or the BBC, I did stumble upon this excellent Kurdish blog from last May, which describes how reporting of the death of Bin Laden overshadowed the case of Sherko Moarefi, whose execution happened to be postponed on the same day as the assassination.

I was inspired by this article by Dan Hind on Aljazeera English which calls for the media to prioritise explanation over emotion in its reporting, particularly in the case of humanitarian crises, where public contributions can make a huge difference, particularly when the sources of problems are adequately understood.

I’d like to thank the little group of men gathered at the Post Office for their double-sided photocopy and for the isses it has brought to my attention. Their voices resonated from a tinny megaphone and from two pages of broken, passionate English prose. I don’t know enough about the issue to make a judgement right now, but at least I’ve started to think.

Confessions of a teacher: Part 4 An Arab Gulf

In the course of my short teaching career, I have already learnt that you can make them do anything and that there’s nothing worse than a runny nose. My fourth confession is marginally more profound: you learn more than you teach.

Since I started working last February, it’s been the Arab students who have most fascinated and inspired me and of course it is they who have cemented my desire to learn Arabic and to visit the middle east.

Among Saudi and Omani students I have met with the most genuinely gallant and warm-hearted of gentlemen. “Teacher, let me carry your bags” “Teacher, I will help you clean board”, “Teacher, in Saudi Arabia; BIG respect for teacher”, “After you, teacher”.

Among Saudi women, I have noticed more than anything the expressiveness of their eyes. In many cases, along with the feet and hands, the eyes have been the only feature visible to me. They are often heavily made up. Their nails too are carefully painted and manicured. It’s surprising how little one needs to be identified: the shape of your eyes and the size of your head; the colour and pattern of a headscarf.

. Some months ago in class, I posed an open question: “Do you like Dublin?”

Generally, a mixed response: Ridiculous weather. Friendly people. Bad food. Not enough to do. Two Saudi women shook their heads. “Not good city” said the first. “Oh”, I said, interested. “Why not?” “Not big enough” the other answered: “No shops..”
“No SHOPS?!”, I asked incredulously. “But We’re right in the city!”.
“Not many shops”, they repeated.
“What about Dundrum?” I insisted. “That’s one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe”.
“Yeah; Europe“, they muttered and rolled their eyes.

And then there’s the unparalleled adulation for King Abdullah. Some time ago a student asked me what I thought of the uprisings in the middle east. I was uncomfortable in my answer and skirted about the subject by stressing the general importance of putting an end to corrupt regimes, but that I knew too little about the region. I did ask however whether King Abdullah was popular. “Oh yes”, he replied, his lips curling into a smile and his eyes wistful “I love him like my father”.

King Abdullah

And they really do. He is constantly nominated for the “greatest person in the world” contest, which I occasionally moderate for the purposes of fluency development. They tell me that he introduced a social welfare system a few months ago as part of his great reforms, which some say were a way of saying thanks for the no-show of protests following some facebook stirrings urging people to go to the streets.

Money has none of the moral associations that I am used to. One day I am practising opposite adjectives with an elementary class. The opposite of rich?” I prompt. They all know this one.
“In Saudi Arabia, no poor people”, a girl tells me.
“NONE?” I repeat
I put in on the board. “Poor people=0%??????”
“Yes!” another chips in. “Saudi Arabia lots of Oil”.
“I know”, I say “but I’m sure there are one or two poor people…”
Another time, we are practising modal verbs of obligation to respond to the problem pages of a magazine. A girl called Jenny is an unemployed shopaholic. Her habit is sustained by a foolish and ubergenerous grandmother, who keeps sending her money. “She should get a job” a French student says. “Yeah, and her grandmother should stop to give her money”, a Brazilian adds. “No problem in Saudi Arabia”, the girl from Riyhad chips in. “Family send money every day. No problem”.

Most of all, they enjoy shocking me with descriptions of the terrible consequences of committing minor offences in their country. “First time drunk on street” one tells me “name in book; second time, lashings” (he mimes a violent whipping action in case I have misunderstood) “Third time life prison”.

There is a sudden outburst of laughter from the whole class because they have  noticed the horrified expression I have been wearing unaware. He grins, adding in a conciliatory tone “Alcohol, in secret, no problem”, as if that had been my biggest concern.

LSB never fails to make an appearance either. One day, I got chatting to a class about my leprechaun-kraut heritage. The Saudi ladies seemed disproportionately impressed by my having a German mother, which makes a nice change from the inane references to Fascism to which I am accustomed.
“Boyfriend Irish or German?” they ask.
“Irish” I say.
“WHY Irish?” they gasp
“What do you mean?”, I enquire.
“Why you choose Irish man, not German. Germany better”.
I pause. “Because… because I like him”, I almost whine.
“Yes, I like LSB. And LSB is Irish.”
They shake their heads and raise their eyes.

A few days later LSB makes a re-appearance.
“Teacher how long you know boyfriend””
I sigh “Oh about 5 years” I answer.
“When you marry, teacher?”

It’s my turn to shock. “Oh I don’t know” I say with a sigh of casual self-indulgence.
“Maybe never”.

Katekatharina and LSB: No plans to marry soon

Bridging East and West: Katekatharina needs your help

Last weekend, LSB and I got the DART to Dalkey. We stumbled across a charming independent bookstore and I found just the title to assist me in my continuing quest to familiarise myself with the Arab world and its beautiful language. It’s called Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News challenged the World and is written by Hugh Miles, a young award-winning journalist who was born in Saudi Arabia and studied English Literature at Trinity College (there’s hope for us all!) and Arabic at Oxford.

I first mentioned Al-Jazeera in a column for Teen Times in The Irish Times five years ago. Then as of now, I knew very little about the network, but since we used to pick it up on our makeshift Satellite dish from Aldi, it became something I’d watch when in a curious mood. Part of the reason I want to learn Arabic so badly may be because I associate its sounds with Irish, or because learning it poses much more of a challenge than acquiring a European language. But I know a big part of it is my wanting to be able to understand more about the Middle East and to find out how ideology, the human brain and culture interact.

The first Arab person I got to know was a Syrian asylum seeker, whom I met when I was volunteering at Hatch Hall . His English was quite good and he was very kind. The differences between my worldview and his began to emerge over time though and the nature of these fundamental oppositions fascinated me. He once gave me some sweets, which he had bought with a large part of the €19 a week to which he was entitled. I accepted them gratefully but was perturbed to find later that my mere acceptance may have been an unintended indication of my special regard for him. Since then, I have come into daily contact with students from the Middle East, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. I have had some fascinating discussions with them and invariably these talks have left with the desire to find out more about this large area and its people.

I wish I had the time to devote myself to study but I feel these days that what tiny, little precious time I have left over from work and writing, I am inclined to spend with friends and with LSB rather than over a book or in front of a screen. I’m determined to fit it in though, and over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some of my attempts at learning more about the Middle East and the Arabic language. I need your help though. Would you prefer to join me in learning some basic Arabic or in learning more about the politics and geography of the region? What do you know about Islam? If you played Sporcle, could you name every country in the Middle East? What assumptions do you make about the Arab world and do you have any Arab friends? What about the Uprisings? Suggestions on a postcard, please or – alternatively – if I’m not worth the stamp, do post them below.