“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself,” said Albert Einstein once famously.
It is what crosses my mind after Janet Biehl asks me to review a German book she has translated into English, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan.
I hope I understand it well enough to explain it.
The author is Tatort Kurdistan, which turns out to be a pen name. Tatort is German, meaning “Crime Scene Kurdistan” in English.
The book is amply titled, since Kurdistan remains a crime scene of atrocities that continue to haunt the collective psyche of social Kurds. It records the findings of ten German peace activists who interviewed numerous Kurdish revolutionaries in the fall of 2011.
These Kurds are working hard to cement just foundations for a Kurdish society that prevents exploitation, rejects domination, respects the environment and cultivates true equality and enduring friendship for all.
High on the list of role models for these angel-wannabe Kurds is Abdullah Ocalan. Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollontai and Plato get honorable mentions.
But leaping powerfully from the footnotes is Murray Bookchin, an American libertarian-anarchist who founded the Institute of Social Ecology in the United States.
Mr. Ocalan read Mr. Bookchin’s writings in captivity on the island of Imrali. He tried to contact Mr. Bookchin through intermediaries, but the American author already lay on his deathbed.
But his death didn’t end the matter. Janet Biehl, Mr. Bookchin’s companion, never forgot the Kurdish request. After Mr. Bookchin’s death in 2006, she befriended the Kurds and adopted their heroic struggle. That noble bond shows in this new book.
Mr. Bookchin wrote with easy-to-understand simplicity, whereas far too much of PKK literature tediously throws around way too many “imported” phrases such as “democratic autonomy, capitalist modernity, ecological industry and liberatory society.”
To be blunt: What the hell do they really mean?
“The writer who aims at producing platitudes which are ‘not for an age but for all time,’ has his reward in being unreadable for all ages,” said English writer George Bernard Shaw.
Of course, translations can sometimes muddy the waters. As an Arabic saying puts it: “Translators are traitors.” So, with all due respect to Ms. Biehl, read books in their originals if you possibly can.
I am curious as to why Mr. Ocalan is tying his “Kurdish mule” to Mr. Bookchin to paraphrase the colorful language of a hadith attributed to Prophet Mohammed. I also know that Mr. Bookchin had once been a Stalinist and had compared Mr. Ocalan to Stalin.
Mr. Bookchin clung to his ideal that humans could do good, even if Stalin didn’t. He moved to Vermont to develop his belief in establishing an ethical society one city at a time, beginning in Burlington.
Many have written beautiful manifestos only to be disappointed in their underlings who failed to carry out their blueprints. Mr. Bookchin, Janet Biehl tells us, considered himself a failure on his deathbed.
Americans rejected his social prescription, but Kurdish followers of Abdullah Ocalan can’t get enough of him. The German team wanted to see how the American ideas and the Kurdish revolutionaries were interacting with one another.
If there is a hero of this social experiment, it is Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Sur Municipality in Amed, who has been chronicled in the New York Times Magazine. But in this book, you see him closer and want to say, “Thank you for your service, brother Abdullah.”
Take, for example, his work on an avenue called Culture Street, where he emphasized “the diversity of religions and belief systems… we have begun to restore a mosque, a Chaldean-Aramaic catholic church, an orthodox Armenian Church, and a Jewish Synagogue. …”
Then look at how the Women’s Council of the same municipality addresses domestic violence. When a husband beats his wife—if he works for the city—his salary is given to his battered spouse. In Gewer, if a husband takes a second wife, half of his estate goes to his first.
Unless you are a male chauvinist, and hate women, you wish this experiment well. But all that glitters is not gold. Next to these precious nuggets lie some unsavory concoctions. One of them, “[we] stay away from nationalism,” says a Kurdish revolutionary. His reason, it comes with something called, “hierarchy.”
Staying away from nationalism may ennoble a peace activist from Germany or a libertarian from America, but can a Kurd practice the same indifference to the unfolding and still incomplete national struggle of Kurds for a place of their own under the sun?
The Bible says, “You cannot keep a clay pot next to an iron kettle; the pot will break if it hits the kettle.”
When Murray Bookchin disdains nationalism, the iron shield of American freedom protects him.
We Kurds have no such security.
When we do—when Kurdistan is safe like America is—sign me up for “Democratic Autonomy.”
But not before. Because I want to live to see freedom in reality—not just floating aimlessly in the ether of pious platitudes.