Rojava: Between City and Village, Between War and Ecology

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The Rojava Revolution is an event deeply rooted in a specific place; a place that exists on a scale that’s both personal and dauntingly immense. Rojava, or western Kurdistan, is part of the fertile crescent, the region where humanity developed agriculture and the other precursors of contemporary western civilization. This history goes back thousands of years, with evidence (both physical and social) surrounding the people that make their lives here and can be found in contemporary village life (jiyana gund) despite the existence of urban centers like Qamişlo and Kobanî.

Both Rojava’s social landscape and the mythology it’s writing about itself is deeply rooted in these gunds. Many villages are organized around a ‘gir,’ which is a type of hill rising up like a dusty volcanic cone, houses clustered around the base. Beneath the surface there are thousands of years of history, dating back to the time when goddesses were worshipped. Between the houses are narrow streets flanked by traditional mud-brick walls that are built of straw and Rojava’s mud. The streets are traversed by children, adults and livestock as they go about their work or tend to the outlying wheat fields. There are modern adaptations, too, like the use of cinder blocks and a resulting creative, free-from style of architecture.

I’ve had the chance to visit a number of villages, but have spent the most time in Carûdî, pronounced “Jaroodey.” It’s an example of village life and functional democratic confederalism at it’s most fully functional. There are about 50 multi-generational families, primarily Kurdish, in the village, each with a small compound containing a house, outbuildings, trees, vines, flowers, and animals. It’s about a fifteen minute drive from the closest city. In this village people wander freely into other homes to visit neighbors and relatives. Last time I was in Carûdî, I asked about how old the village was. I didn’t get an exact answer, just kevn, which translates to “old” or “ancient”.

The first time I went to Carûdî, we were sitting in a garden made by the villagers. On our side of the Turkish border there was a raging fire and dengê keleş (sounds of a Kalashnikov) from a wedding. From behind the fire we could see the distinctively uniform bright white lights of the border. We got there by hitchhiking, which generally takes about ten minutes or less to find a ride. We can hitch from the side of the road, but it’s generally safer from the asayiş (security) checkpoint. There, kalashnikov toting asayiş are stopping cars and shortly waving them through, occasionally pulling people over for a more detailed check.

We drove down a long dirt road to reach the village, which has a school, communal garden, a park, and most remarkably a forest. Trees are scarce and rather expensive. Carûdî has a forest big enough to get a little lost in, part of which is occasionally harvested for timber by the families that own the trees. Each family owns and maintains a little section of distinctive straight-trunked trees that you often see being used in construction elsewhere in Rojava. In spite of the communal character of the village, the trees are organized on a by-family basis. There’s a communal vegetable garden that the village works collectively, but at the time I was there everything had been harvested.

After arriving, we sat and drank chai and ate with one of the families. Much of the food is produced in the village, including cheese and yogurt from the herds of sheep and goats. The embargo and staggeringly high prices on consumer goods encourage these traditions. A reasonably high monthly income ends up being about $125 in US dollars. Things that can be produced in Rojava are fairly cheap, but imports are expensive and consumer goods often poorly made. Trees and other plants are expensive, too. For example, baby palm trees are something like $60 for a knee-high growth. So the choice to produce jam from fig trees in one’s backyard is both a way of opting out of capitalist modes of production and a natural reaction to the economic realities.

I haven’t spent enough time in Rojava to have a deep understanding of the way family structures work, but I have been struck by the numbers of strong women. Being in the village, we’re meeting mothers and other women who are the acting in the social life of the village, with strong opinions and actions to match. For example, the women in HPC-Jin (Force for the Protection of Society – Women) are older, and spend their days and nights patrolling the city to keep it safe and secure. At the same time, women who aren’t supportive of revolutionary activities can limit the rest of the family. For example, when a young woman gets traditionally married she moves into her mother-in-law’s house. If the mother says she needs more help with the family, cooking and home, it’s very unlikely that the new woman end up taking a career working in society (for example, as asayiş).

One of the women we know in Carûdî was wounded in a Turkish bombing, another is the parent of a şehîd (martyr). The village has six şehîds, one of whom died at a base a few hundred meters from the village, back in the days when running across the Turkish border was a possible, if risky, form of crossing. Now, a 564 km wall spans the border, fortified by guard towers and snipers.

“Transferring ideas about community and ecology to cities will be more of a challenge, but the closeness of village life and urban life in Rojava makes it seem eminently possible.”

From the 50 families (which include parents, children and possibly grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc.) one commune is formed. There are meetings every two weeks to discuss village life, which nearly all families attend. This total participation isn’t everywhere in Rojava – most places have partial participation, with some villages almost totally unorganized. Carûdî’s deep roots and close-knit social fabric may be one of the reasons there’s so much involvement. It also seems more middle class than other villages, with trees, well organized homes and social structures. It’s deeply invested in the revolution, often hosting visitors who are dedicating themselves to the struggle here in either a military or civil way.

The garden the village built over the course of three years is the center of evening social life, a place where the communal spirit can thrive. The open garden that faces the road into the village fits the welcoming atmosphere of the gund. It has a blank wall to project movies, two fountains, and a small playground. After about eleven or ten at night, when people are finished with work and dinner, they come here to relax and talk. When I visited, we sat while the kids used the swing. One of them taught me a game to play throwing pebbles in the air and then ruthlessly defeated me over and over. I’ve seen other communal garden projects, but the one in Carûdî is one of the nicest. A lot of gardens have tables and menus; although you can be in the garden for free, the focus is on consumption of snacks and beverages rather than relaxing with friends.

The forest has sections that are similarly communal, with an area around a spring that kids can swim in. It’s one of the few places in Rojava where you can go to hear the sound of wind in the trees. In most places, if you plant trees they need care and watering until their roots are able to reach water, then they can grow on their own. Unfortunately, climate change and Turkish water policies are rapidly lowering the water table. Longer-term environmental concerns like this are present in people’s minds, but the insecurity created by war is a more pressing concern.

Across the reservoir there’s a public forest and Hayaka natural reserve, an area that’s set aside for public use. Hunting, grazing, overfishing and other private actions that damage the environment are prohibited. On Fridays, peoples’ day off, the area is crowded with families picnicking, fishing and socializing. At one time in a nearby place I saw a family drag tables, chairs, the whole set into the water and sit there. The rare green places draw people to them. Rojava as whole used to be forested, before thousands of years of human habitation, before a repressive Syrian regime, before war and embargo. *subsidized vegetables to encourage wheat*

Slowly, things are changing. From existing trees, people are able to cut saplings. Environmental awareness is growing, even if the ecological situation has been a secondary goal during the time of war. One of the things that’s striking to me is that, although difficulties exist, there are a lot of concrete problems that have clear steps we can make to solving them. For example, by growing multiple crops people can overcome the mono-cropping of wheat that ties farmers to cash-crop economy and makes them especially vulnerable to climate change. Most people don’t have constant electricity, so finding replacement solar or wind power is conceivable. The ways we can do this will involve working together, sharing ideas and resources on a person-to-person level.

One of the goals of the international commune is to demonstrate some of these projects, so other villages can see how it would look to have, for example, a greywater system or a small windmill. Carûdî is doing something similar, by demonstrating how a strongly organized village can improve the quality of life. Ocalan’s philosophy juxtaposes city life with village life, linking cities with the historical growth of capitalism and village life with a more communal, ecological lifestyle. In villages like Carûdî, one can see how this rings true and how village life opens up communal social possibility. Carûdî’s gardens, forest, and democratic participation are all models that visitors can see and take back to their own homes. Villages are a closer part of the social fabric of Rojava than they are in the US – most urban residents here have some family in a village, and visit them from time to time.

The future of urban spaces in Rojava is hazy. There’s a lot of multi-story apartments getting built, something that was banned under the Baath regime. Consequently, there’s a slew of looming half-finished structures in every city. How the cities will change as they get filled isn’t clear – when I’ve asked people, answers are uncertain. There’s the expectation that people will want to return to Syria from abroad, and there are many refugees who might opt to live in a new city. However, long-term visions of the city are still in progress. The people who will live in these cities haven’t arrived, and projects like communal gardens are a new idea even to those who have remained. One gets a sense that urban residents are holding their breath until the war is over. In Kobanî, the overwhelming concept I heard when I asked about the future was “when the war returns.” In Qamişlo, sandbags mark locations of anticipated conflict, and unfinished construction work leaves certain blocks looking almost war-torn. Transferring ideas about community and ecology to cities will be more of a challenge, but the closeness of village life and urban life in Rojava makes it seem eminently possible.


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