No Shelter from the Storm: on Sukkot , Rojava, and the Kurdish Diaspora
In this season of Sukkot –the festival of booths, of harvesting and gathering in –thousands of Kurds face displacement from their temporary homeland in Rojava, in Northern Syria. Those who are lucky enough flee the disaster created by the U.S. decision to leave the area. They gather their families, take what they can and depart, seeking shelter abroad.
The establishment of Kurdish Rojava constituted a gathering in of a diasporic people. A stateless group like Jews were before the establishment of the state of Israel, and still are in many places outside of it, the Kurds in Northeastern Syria created a place for themselves in Rojava, a radical social experiment that turned out to be only temporary.
I should say that I am no expert on Kurdish history. I write about human migration, its causes and consequences. Recently, in trying to prepare myself for the creation of yet another homegrown yet international refugee cohort, I have been reading up on Kurdish history and tRojava. Questions of displacement and homeland are familiar to me; as a Jew and as a historian. This essay emanates from a solidarity born of metaphor and suggestion, as well as historical analysis.
Invariably, sukkahs reference what it would feel like to dwell without the benefit of the thin roof and walls of their temporary quarters. In the northern hemisphere where I live, Sukkot takes place as fall really takes hold. It makes sitting in a sukkah more intense when it’s been chilly outside, the weather a reminder of the value of coming inside, the necessity of shelter. In warmer climes, sukkahs may be symbolic places to have a meal; in the north country, we huddle inside them, grateful for their minimal wind break.
Many of the Kurds and others leaving Rojava will join the migrant stream: across the Mediterranean, perhaps overland through Turkey or Greece or Eastern Europe. They are likely to experience arrest and detention, to inhabit refugee camps and transient shelters. There will be little shelter for them, as refugees everywhere are reviled as unwanted, as desperate people.
This most recent phase of the Kurdish diaspora is deeply connected to U.S. global militarism. Members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria since 2014 and have served as proxy fighters for the U.S. in the region. As ISIS left the region, Kurds occupied Rojava and created a home.
Founded by Abdullah Ocalan and other radical Kurdish students in the late 1970s, the PKK waged an initially militant struggle for cultural and political sovereignty, at a time of genocidal attacks against Kurds in the Turkey and Iraq, a time when when speaking Kurdish or mentioning the word Kurd was illegal in Turkey. At first, the PKK asserted the need of Kurds for their own nation.
But, by the early 1990s, the PKK focused on the civil struggle for democracy in the nations where most Kurds reside: Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Kurdish liberation forces have signed eight ceasefires since 1993. Influenced by the “communialist” philosophy of Jewish American theorist Murray Bookchin, the PKK advocated for locally controlledpolitical units: the area, not the state. The PKK fought for local autonomy and full recognition of Kurdish rights in the nations where they live.
The non-national, temporary autonomous zone of Rojava constituted a realization of this Kurdish project: a shelter for a stateless people. The recognition of such shelter is a key aspect of Sukkot, a central part of diasporic Judaism in general.
According to historian Kamran Matin, Turkey advocated for the United States and Europe to list the PKK as a terrorist organization long after its most militant period. In lieu of evidence of subversion, war on terror thinking demands preemptive vigilance against potential enemies of the state. Those struggling for democracy and sovereignty –shelter from the relenteless storm of colonialism and history –often fall into that category.
(In 1999, when Ocalan was captured and tried in Turkey for terrorist activities, he appeared in court in a plastic box. This cage created a scene of monstrosity, implying that its inhabitant could not be safely seated in court like an ordinary person, that the others present in court needed him to be contained in that shelter. The plastic box was like a nightmare version of a Sukkah.)
A recent letter from the PKK to the American people inveighs against the broad castigation of the organization, explaining: “Turkish leaders believed, like so many tyrants throughout history, that they could crush the basic human desire for a free life with violence and terror. They branded us as terrorists and criminals and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get other countries like the United States of America to do so too, even as their forces committed unspeakable atrocities in violation of all principles of international law.”
Castigation of stateless and displaced people is a familiar theme in the current era. Those fleeing violence and corruption in Central America originating in U.S. intervention are branded by the current regime “criminal aliens” and denied their rights under international law. People like No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren who aid border crossers face prosecution as smugglers. In Europe, aid to migrants at sea is criminalized as human trafficking.
Winter approaches the northern hemisphere. That’s what holidays like Sukkot are about: getting the harvest inside, shoring up for the lean months ahead. For the many people who remain outside, these months will be cold and lean. Themes of diaspora and displacement are familiar to us as Jews; they call us to solidarity with Kurds and with all those forced to live outside the walls.