My Beginner’s Mind
I’ve recently returned from six days in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, which you’ll find in eastern Turkey if you look at a contemporary geo-political map of the world. Six days is nowhere near enough time to make sense of a place, especially when everything is changing so quickly in the Near and Middle East. But I acknowledge that for every person who becomes well-versed on a particular topic or in a particular region, there was a moment when they arrived for the first time with a beginner’s mind. So these are some of my beginner’s thoughts! (I’ll have different kinds of information that’s related to the bicycle advocates that I met with in Diyarbakir soon, but these are my rambling and only tangentially-related thoughts).
A Few Contextual Statements
It’s probably useful to contextualize some of my questions by starting with a few basic sentences about Kurdistan. Disclaimer- I do not claim to speak authoritatively on these matters.
With an estimated 30 million people across the world, the Kurds are the largest stateless nation in the world. Kurds live in exile in many parts of the world, and they come from land that’s split between four modern-day countries – Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Kurdish name for Diyarbakir (where I was visiting) is ‘Amed.’ I’ve been told that city would be the capital of Kurdistan if it existed as it’s own nation-state. Some scholars have called the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq a “model for rational governance in the Middle East.” This is particularly interesting since Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed relative autonomy, but not independence. Most, if not all, living Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, or Syria (I know even less about the story of Kurds in Iran) have faced torture and/or death, environmental destruction, oppression, politics, and war. There are also numerous stories of resilience and hope for the future. Life does go on.
In light of this, my journal entry on the plane out of Diyarbakir took on a very particular form – almost every sentence that rippled out from my pen ended in a question mark. It’s a long list, but below are a few questions I don’t know the answers to.
What are the factors that enable one person to have control over the life of another? What are the full ramifications of death and how do a people – how does a person – recover psychologically from war? Did the US somehow help start ISIS, like so many people there believe? Is there any escaping the game-playing and side-switching that nation-state governments play with each other? What is freedom, and how different is it for different people? What is meaningful autonomy? How many nation-states would there be if all ethnicities who desire a state had a state? Do nation-states always make enemies – ie is it a safer or better bet to stay nestled within another nation and just work toward autonomy? Is nationalism always dangerous? Dangerous in what way and for whom? What impact does war have on the environment, and how does the environment recover from war? Why was the Kurdish situation in Turkey framed as terrorism crisis instead of a humanitarian crisis? If framing something as ‘human rights’ victimizes the people we speak about, what is a more empowering framework? How to remedy raciscm and pervasive stereotypes of a whole ethnicity labeled as terrorists? How can regular people effectively fight against illogical policies of their governments? For example, electric power in the east of Turkey goes west before it comes east again, thus make it more expensive in the place the power originates. What, really, are all the effects of a dam? Why are there so few jobs here, and how do people survive without jobs? (ie how often do families support each other?) Is Ocalan a future Mandela? How will Erdogan shifting the role of the presidency in Turkey affect everyone everywhere in the country? What effect will it have that Kurds from all four countries are fighting together for the first time in history to stop the ISIS massacre of the Yezedi people? (Kurds have told me that the Yezedi are Kurds who practice the “original” Kurdish religion) What specific impacts are there on a stateless nation when international governments refuse to work directly with that group of people? How many stateless nations of people are there in the world? For every person who feels at home, how many people are displaced? What makes a nation versus an ethnicity? What are the qualities of a nation, anyway? And what does the existence of so many stateless people in the world say about the existence of nation-states and our world order?
Why am I hesitant to speak the truths I observe? Is it just because I acknowledge these truths are much more complicated than I understand? Is it because I’m afraid of criticism or of negative ramifications on both me and the people’s whose stories I share? How do I deal with the fact that the truths I observe are, at the very least, incomplete, and at the very most, simultaneously untrue? How do I get over my visceral feeling that, as an outsider, my thoughts are somehow less valuable and my truths are somehow less true? How much ‘truth’ can I fairly say I have gotten in my short six days, especially with my limited relevant-language ability? Are my truths about a foreign place that I see for only five days less true because of how much I miss? Or do I fairly bring a different lens to the table? Is there any truth that is complete? What is my role in these types of places, anyway? America, like it or not, is influential in the world, so I believe that ignoring the situation is not my place. But acknowledging where I don’t want to be ignorant doesn’t tell me how I should move forth in the world. Not directly, at least.
And so the journey continues.