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 An Encounter with Massoud Barzani

  Opinion — Analysis  
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


An Encounter with Massoud Barzani  10.4.2012  
By Kani Xulam Washington, DC

Kani Xulam, an ethnic Kurd living in America, founder of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) Kani is a native of Kurdistan. He has studied international relations at the University of Toronto and holds a BA in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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Mr. Barzani has become a peace activist. He doesn’t believe wars can win the Kurds anything. I wanted to see what my President was going to say about his meeting with the President of the United States.

April 10
, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC, —  The announcement arrived via Facebook and email. It said: President of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), His Excellency Massoud Barzani, would address a gathering of Kurds at Marriott Hotel in Tysons Corner. The meeting was going to take place on Saturday, and the President had been in the Washington, DC area since Monday, April 2, 2012. I marked my calendar accordingly. I wanted to see what my President was going to say about his meeting with the President of the United States.

Because the President of Kurdistan uses some Arabic words in his Kurdish, and because I use some Turkish ones in mine, I can’t say I understood him fully. Suffice it to note that when I left the hotel I thought I had understood him at least 80 percent. I need to get rid of the Turkish words from my Kurdish and start watching Kurdistan TV to better understand Berez Barzani. In the meantime, I want to, with these musings of mine, give you a sense of what transpired at the Kurdish gathering.

Berez Barzani is much more forceful in Kurdish than when he talks to foreigners through his able translator. In Kurdish, you see him raising his voice when it is needed and lowering it when that is appropriate. Gracious, compassionate, kind, animated and direct were some of the descriptions that crossed my mind when I saw him interacting with the Kurds. He had a piece of paper in front of him. He was apparently following some talking points, but the occasional use of his glasses to see the written word made me feel sad for the old Peshmerga. Historians tell us George Washington did the same when he talked to his soldiers and later colleagues.

The overall news was good from the little Kurdistan, but not so from the countries surrounding it. In 2003, the income of an average Kurdish family was 275 dollars per year. Today, it is 5,000.00. In the year of Saddam’s toppling, our illiteracy rate was at 56 percent. Today, we have reduced it to 16 percent. And right after saying so, President Barzani raised his voice, and added: our goal is 0 percent illiteracy in Kurdistan. Needless to say, I was reminded of an encomium to a teacher by Cicero in his beautiful address, Pro Archia. It was the most sublime use of a raised voice I had ever witnessed in my entire life. And I am an old man by Kurdish standards.

There were other tidbits about little Kurdistan, but I am going to be picky for the purposes of this report. In America, he said, he was happy to meet with the likes of President Obama and conveyed to him our people’s unswerving commitment to the constitution of Iraq, which recognizes Kurdistan as a federal state. But, he added, there were unmistakable signs of trouble in the city on the Tigris. The source of that concern was Nouri Maliki. He was concentrating power in his hands, he was like five ministers at once, and now, again, Mr. Barzani raised his voice: “He also wants to be head of the Central Bank of Iraq.”

I like it when politicians speak from the heart. But when deceit is the coin of the realm, especially in the Middle East, I worry and become very protective of truth. The region is full of politicians who will sell their mothers for power and dealing with them is not exactly a game of logic. I guess, what I am saying is this: Kak Massoud Barzani, you have to work with the likes of Nouri Maliki. He, after all, represents 80 percent of Arab Iraq compared to your 20 percent Kurds in little Kurdistan. The one time seller of worry-beads is not exactly a Kurdish farmer who, even if he tried, wouldn’t know how to lie. Had I been asked, I would have cautioned Berez Barzani to be a bit more circumspect for the sake of the Kurds and Kurdistan.

The best part of the gathering was the Q&A session. Kurds were alone with their leader. They talked to him as a friend. They appealed to him as a leader. They tickled him with words of reverence. They questioned him about the unfolding struggle in Syria, the ongoing war of Turks on Kurds everywhere, and the ceasefire between PJAK and Iran. Yours truly joined the questioners as well and asked him about term limits. Suffice it to note, I was surprised by his answer. You will have to read a bit more to find out what he said.

Mr. Barzani has become a peace activist. He doesn’t believe wars can win the Kurds anything. When I fought, or my dad did, ours was to assert our very existence. The existential war is won now. No one, not even the most implacable Turk, questions the existence of the Kurds. What we need to do from now on is to sharpen our pens and our tongues, and make use of all the tools of forensic science to win the world to our side. A genuinely fearless and proud Peshmarga paying homage to peace is beyond me to put into words. You should have been there to witness it, or perhaps called on Shakespeare to write it out for you.

I told you about the Kurds who wanted to tickle Kak Massoud. One stood next to me where I was sitting and waited patiently for his turn. I had a chance to study his demeanor. He was like a Buddha. Peaceful within and without. “What is he going to ask a wartime president?” I murmured to myself. His question was as good as his disposition. He said he was from a village called Rezan inside Iranian Kurdistan. He had seen Kak Massoud as a small child. Upon hearing the news that he was in Washington, he drove here to see him again and thank him for his leadership. If you were President Barzani, what could you possibly say to this fellow? While I was thinking of that, Kak Massoud said, “Thank you. Next time you talk to the folks in Rezan, please tell them I greet them all, warmly, through you.” It was a presidential response. He knew how to tickle back. I was impressed.

Then there was another fellow, a bit on the melancholic side. Very slowly and very politely, he told Kak Massoud of his late father’s death wish. The old man had been a Peshmarga. The room went into total silence. It was that the son should kiss Kak Massoud on the eye, as we say in Kurdish, when fate brought them together. I was witnessing live drama at a political event. Again, Kak Massoud handled the situation well. First, you could tell, his facial expressions said that he knew of the old fighter and ached after the remembrance of his memory. He then told the son, your dad was a great man. The room went electric. It was, again, an unforgettable moment.

Then I caused a bit of a stir as well, even though that was the last thing on my mind. I introduced myself like other Kurds and added: I was asking my question as a Kurdish intellectual. I said Americans, those who pass as our friends, often complain about one thing about the Middle Eastern leaders and I wanted to express it today. George Washington, I went on, was the first president of the United States. He served eight years. He strengthened the national institutions of his country and relinquished power voluntarily. Boris Yeltsin of Russia did the same. “Kurdistan,” I said, “I know, is not exactly free. Dark clouds still hover over its skies, but if it were and its institutions strong, would you, Berez Barzani, be willing to tell this Kurdish audience that you too would consider relinquishing power voluntarily, just like they did?”

“You have to put up with me for a year and a half more,” he said. At least 500 hundred Kurds were in the room. I am hoping he will not renege on his word.

But my question apparently did not sit well with everybody in the room. A Kurd from Iranian Kurdistan used his time to criticize me and another Kurd -- instead of asking his question -- for voicing impertinent concerns. He wanted to know if I would dare to ask other, some useless, Kurdish leaders the same question? To his credit, Kak Massoud said the questions should be voiced.

After the gathering, I got a few more Barzani loyalists telling me I had overstepped the boundaries of what was proper. This time, I wanted to act like a Buddha myself and patiently listened to the elaboration of their views. But many other Kurds approached me as well and thought I had asked a fair question, some called it a right one, but added, the practice in the Middle East was that those who hold onto power often go through the motions of wanting to grow cabbages like Cincinnatus, but use every ounce of their energy to stay in the presidential palace, just like Bashar Assad.

I will end these musings with an email that I received from a friend who was also at the meeting. Although I don’t like to blow my own horn, this email speaks of a longing for transparency, for accountability, and for fairness. It also sums up the sentiments of those who thanked me for my question. Author’s permission granted, I am submitting to your perusal as a sample of what our youth are thinking about term limits.

“Sir, today, you did something few people have the guts to even think about doing. Those who oppose President Barzani go on the streets and use signs and demand what they want, but they would never have the guts to speak to him face to face... Not that I think you oppose him; I'm sure you're a supporter of the KRG. But I just want to commend your courage in standing up in front of a political figure and icon and respectfully asking him how much longer he plans on staying in the office. Like I said before, there was a lot of opposition to what you said at the hall and that, as you know, is because there were a lot of brown-nosers, Barzani worshipers and KDP loyalists. But don't be daunted, the other speaker's response, to your comment and question, was out of place and completely disrespectful, and as you saw even President Barzani didn't agree with his comments… Keep your head up and remember that today you did something that most are too afraid to even imagine doing.”

I thanked the fellow Kurd for his kind words. Competing in bravery with a battle-tested Peshmerga was not my motivation; inviting him to measure himself next to the other great leaders of the world was. 235 years later, George Washington is honored in America voluntarily. In three hundred years, will Kurds equate Kak Massoud to Boris Yeltsin or Hosni Mubarak? I want to be proud of my leader(s). I want my American friends to feel good about associating with the Kurds and Kurdistan. Please, Kak Barzani, drink from a cup called humility; it will add luster to your family name and elevate us, as a people, for introducing a new concept, term limits, at the highest levels of the government, in the Middle East.

* Kani Xulam is a political activist based in Washington D.C. He is the founder of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN)

Kani is a native of Kurdistan. He has studied international relations at the University of Toronto and holds a BA in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was recently awarded an MA by the International Service Program at American University. At the University of Toronto, he represented Kurdistan at the Model United Nations. In 1993, at the urging of Kurdish community leaders in America, he left his family business in California to establish the American Kurdish Information Network in the nation’s capital. He is the founder of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN)

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