Danish author: Kurds lack a Gandhi


The Danish author Adil Erdem both rebukes and celebrates the Kurdish identity when he is interviewed in a new series on Danish-Kurdish portraits, “KURDISH PROFILE,” as he answers personal questions about his Kurdish origin.

Published first on the left-wing web portal MODKRAFT.dk, translated into English below for the Alliance for Kurdish Rights:

Adil Erdem, 48 years old. Danish writer with Kurdish roots and member of the Danish PEN. He has just published his first fiction book “BENNY”, about the typical democrats confusion over the many immigrants and their way of life in Denmark. Debuted in 1992 with the short story collection “As a drop in the North”. He has published poetry collections, educational books and children’s and youth books, including “The Journey out of Darkness” which won School Libraries Author Prize in 2002.

In addition to his authorship Adil Erdem also is a teacher on High-Taastrup Language Center and gives a portion lectures and workshops around Denmark.

How is the perfect Kurdish life for you, if you could build it?
The perfect Kurdish life is very anarchic put together, very liberal, limitless, where everything is possible. You can retire, rest and relax without having to work on their projects.
The perfect kurdish life is when both invited and not invited guests show up, demand a cup of tea and joins the company. You can tell stories to entertain each other, and you can take the piss out of those in power in a satirical way without always being irritated.
And songs are a very important part of the perfect life, where everyone can sing a song and contribute to an atmosphere with a story, one that a person usually invents.

Kurds have an oral tradition, perhaps because they have not had the opportunity to write their own language, tell their own stories in writing, which is not comparable with Danish or Turkish. Thus there is a history of wandering around, being told on and on and creates a form of literature that may not necessarily be found in a book, but lives in oral form.

The perfect Kurdish entertainment is represented by colorful dresses. It is many love stories, which at times may exceed the limits. It is the mountains, it’s urban legends, it is the girl who could not marry him because he had not enough money, but ran away in the middle of the night with a tiny lunch. It is not to plan a weekend, as it is done in Danish, because you do not know basically what tomorrow will bring. Should we pack up and leave, because the village is under attack, or do you stay and meet the challenges of the neighbouring rulers.
Should we keep the wedding feast, even if the spies reminds one of the helicopters are on their way with poison gas in Halabja? Yet the wedding is held, as you die, and you do that then.

But it’s so also to stand up again. Already hours after to continue and continue to fight for survival, put additional stories to the existing stories ….

Which Kurdish event would you not want to miss?
It is when the sun goes down during a wedding party, where the music is silent, and women takes over, or men, and you put an ear to texts that can have an entertaining song, but actually tells an event, a massacre, the unforgettable.

The political circumstances have made that Kurds not only have love in his love songs, well, you sing about a loved one you lost in an unfortunate way. It’s songs about villages that are closed and off and burned. It is the story of her dear son who never came home again, it goes on and on.
You cannot expect these songs to contain a lot of romance and American and Danish sounds, I think this is fantastic. And then arrives the alcohol, and thus the authentic entertainment.
Women are also there – if not the Arab country have succeeded to Islamize the environment, but most times, at least in the circles I come in, you will not be able to imagine a chain dance without women, so it is the event I most want to see when I’m around.

Can you name some Kurdish personalities you admire?
I admire my grandmother, who was illiterate, mother of 35 children and grandchildren who could entertain her family out of nothing. And who could make magical food in a very primitive kitchen, without necessarily requiring a trip to the supermarket to pick up supplies.

She could both sing and tell stories, and so I admired her also that she never told a Turkish, or for that matter a Kurdish adventure twice.
I admire, too, my father, who dared to take flight from Anatolia to Denmark. He could not even read a sign that he is illiterate, he can barely slice his own name. He has managed to find a new life and fight and remain in employment for 25 years and retire in this country without in any way, use one or the other form of social assistance. I think that is very large, in a way.

Which Kurdish action are you the least proud of?
Unfortunately, there are no Kurdish acts as such, I admire because they were not allowed to turn their acts together and implement them. They have been under dictators into power. Either they were under Arab rule, or the Turks, or under someone else’s rule.
In these situations, it is extremely difficult to build a movement together, one that Kurds can be proud of, can identify with and rally around and build on. And the last thing I say underlines perhaps the overarching issue in relation to Kurds, how much they disagree in political issues. They are very fragmented, and it’s not them as such, it is the political circumstances through 7000 years in Mesopotamia, where the divide has been a reality, about the Armenian, Persian, Arab and later Turkish, so I have hard times to tell my own children where we stand.
The Turks had the Ottomans and then had Atatürk. Whether you like him or not, he created modern Turkey and nationalism. As a Kurd, I am envious.

The Danes got a Grundtvig, for better or worse (Danish poet, priest, historian, politician, educator and philologist. Grundtvig is next to Soren Kierkegaard the most important personality in 1800s Danish intellectual life. )
I am envious of India who had Gandhi, it is not managed Kurds to put up with some personalities who have been able to work for the Kurdish case on an equal footing as the other nations.

We have some political actions, we have some movement, but they don’t represent’s everybody. And basically it can go on like this, but it just does not helps.
We’ll have to put a frame up, where all agree and disagree, can identify with certain actions before we can operate between some political actions that people can choose from.

Which Kurdish event has last touched you?
When a group of democratically minded Kurds in Turkey are trying to organize themselves, without having to follow the PKK line, I think they should be allowed to show what they can do. They should be allowed to develop their attitudes and opinions and play an important role in the political arena Turkish, which thus might have a dialogue through between the Turkish state and the Kurds.

But what I hear, unfortunately, is that they get whacked one by one. Many of them are in jail today (several mayors have recently been arrested in Turkey because of their political beliefs).
Basically, there is political repression. In virtually all countries, human rights are suppressed to some extent, but there is just someone who transcends all boundaries. Imagine, we have elected representatives in Turkey who are in prison.

Elected representatives, journalists, lawyers and others. I cannot understand what the problem is by a journalist or an ordinary citizen on the street, can stand up and say, “I think the generals were more Democrats than Erdogan’s government”.

Why should people go to jail for that, if you are so stupid to claim that the generals were better. That’s his problem. You cannot detain and arrest people on the basis of some political statements.

You can also look at the political statements in Denmark, how Pia Kjaersgaard (a nationalistic politician) has been playing cat and mouse with us, and what this has meant. You have read “Benny” (the author’s newly published book), where there is someone who does it in a different way, which fits into the democratic lines.

I miss the artists, but when has the Kurds succeeded to create a common organization where they gather writers, visual artists, musicians, sculptors?
If we look at the Israelis, who were the oppressed peoples of Europe for 2000 years, they contributed to literature. They taught Europeans how to write novels and make music; Carl Nielsen, Arne Jacobsen, etc., there was Jewish support.

Everyone in the U.S knew that Denmark had an Arne Jacobsen, but the Kurds lack this kind of recognition, and we need that culture. We must ignore what others think of the Kurdish case, if one even claims he is Kurdish writer, musician, so he must be treated with respect.
But if you come and will give the writer a certain attire to represent a particular ideology or political line, it goes wrong.

Best Kurdish memory from your childhood?
It was the day I was told that I should not speak Kurdish with my friends in the schoolyard. We were all Kurds, there was not a single Turk. And the teachers who taught us, were the extended arm of the state. They could kill us without getting into trouble. At that time I was in the fifth grade.

One day, the teacher is near, I take up the challenge and speak Kurdish to my buddy so he can hear it. And I was thus punished.
I think that is cool in one way, I was not afraid of his beatings, I was not afraid that he would discharge me. I grew so much in the moment when I looked at the teacher and spoke Kurdish with a buddy.

What’s the Kurds missing at the moment?
Unity. Self-Understanding. Organizing. And peace between the different factions. Spirit of literature, art, all politicians got to know that you do not get anywhere with the idea without your writers and other artists. That’s what creates culture.
It is not the political opinions; those, we can change tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. We need a voice that speaks to people based on their background. It is through words, literature, poetry, sculpture, music that we achieve unity.

Can you recommend a Kurdish art piece?
Mehmed Uzun makes an impression on me. He lived in exile in Sweden, was a very committed writer, wrote a lot of books that he even published in Kurdish in Istanbul. I think he obtained a lot, he was boundless. Today we can sit and discuss his literature. As he managed to create an authorship in Kurdish, and on top of it obtained to be published in Kurdish in Istanbul, I take my hat off for him.

Will there be some Kurdish habits or rituals that you do not want to be caught doing?
See what we have in Denmark is the gossip magazine “See & Hear”. We also have “Billedbladet” with gossip stories many people can gain insight in.
But when you cannot read or write, it is the oral tradition that counts. Among the Kurds gossip is on the march, and I think that is a little annoying.
Some might think the opposite of me, it is amazing that you can sit in the shade of a wall in a Kurdish village and sort out all sorts of cases. It is also what my grandmother did.
It is laziness. Word of mouth tradition, instead of even reading a book, then you can just give me a summary. So “he fell off the bike, and there was actually no harm done”, but when you’ve told me the story, I’ll tell on that “he fell off the bike and got blood nose” and the next goes on to say that “he fell off bike, got a bloody nose and fractured his left arm “, etc., etc. ….
It may be fun, but we cannot live from this as a people.

How did you perceive your Kurdish identity as a child?
I myself believe that I am fortunate to have grown up in a village where there were Kurdish cuisine and general Kurdish behavior. I had a mother who was Kurdish, like my family and a lots of friends. That’s what does that I can sit here today and call myself a Kurd. Identity formation is based on what you hear from music, sounds, moods, taste, and what you see. In this way it is very simple.
But now one can see that the Kurds who live in Istanbul, which is totally surrounded by a Turkish majority, they can choose to see and hear and taste what they want. Over four generations they still insist also to have their Kurdish identity.

This is what I have said to some of my Turkish friends: to be Kurdish is about taking care of themselves and not end up as an alcoholic or a drug addict. You cannot just kind of say, “I invite you to a reception on Friday, when I step back from my Kurdish identity and must behave Danish on Monday.”
You cannot do that, identity is something you are. It’s something you have in your body. You can add something, but not change. It is people around you, which reminds one of what one is.

For example, when the teacher tells me that I should not speak Kurdish, I understand who I am. If the Turks had treated us equally, as Kurds, then we would have not had problems with being Kurdish, so we had been both identities.

Can you give three pieces of advice to the young Kurds, growing up in Denmark?
I think they need really to do an effort to be some super good Danish boys and girls based on their Kurdish roots. By not betraying their own Kurdish roots, they will grow into some perfect Danish citizens.
They should not be afraid that they end up between two cultures. It’s laziness that makes you experience pain when lying and resting between two cultures. They need to do something to be part of both identities by building on top of the Kurdish. Such a super good mixing. They should feel Kurdish when they are in a Kurdish environment and Danish, more Danish than the Danes, when they are in a Danish environment.
A Dane is not as fortunate, for they have only one identity. A Dane can add some English, some American, here and there. But Kurds are lucky that they can operate with two identities. I’ll take that as an advantage.

I think it is unfortunate that Danes are a kind of Kurds, Arabs, Americans, so they must be content to be Americanized through film and music. The Kurds get successful easily, precisely because they have two very different ways of understanding themselves and their surroundings.
A Dane can only say FUCK YOU one way. The Kurds can say it in two ways.

Lillian is a journalist based in Denmark, and translated this piece from Danish to English. All the photo credits can be found on MODKRAFT.dk