I went to a wedding in Qamişlo this week, but the groom was not there. He is in Germany, and following the arranged marriage his bride will travel out to join him. I know something about the difficulties of securing visas for foreign partners of EU residents, but the family of the bride assured me all necessary arrangements were in place.
It was a surreal experience. The bride walked up the aisle to be greeted by nobody, satsolo on a dais in the scruffy hall looking solemn in heavy make-up and frothy purple dress, even danced her first dance alone and somewhat awkwardly before the throngs of camera-phones.
“However, the movement believes the family to be the “cell” of patriarchal reproduction, and as such it’s reforming the marriage institution: newly-legalised divorces have skyrocketed, multiple marriages are banned, and child marriages have been outlawed.”
The Kurdish liberation movement does not object to weddings per se. They are the most important social event in the calendar for ordinary people in Rojava, a chance for families to show off their modest wealth by laying on cans of Pepsi and fluffy cake and for communities to dress up, dance and chat together for a few hours. (Both of the weddings I’ve attended here brought together Arabic and Kurdish communities, something unusual enough outside of formal marches, protests and events organized by the revolutionary movement.)
However, the movement believes the family to be the “cell” of patriarchal reproduction, and as such it’s reforming the marriage institution: newly-legalized divorces have skyrocketed, multiple marriages are banned, and child marriages have been outlawed. When I was working with the revolutionary youth in the small town TilTemir, our autonomous women’s group joined a Rojava-wide information campaign under the slogan Ezbiçûkim, eznabûkim – I am a child, I am not a bride.
On the other hand, the youth organizer elected to oversee his small Arab village told us he couldn’t attend a two weeks’ education camp because he’d be leaving his wife home alone. When asked why this presented a problem, he admitted she was 13. Though the policies have changed, the drive to engage society in educational reform in which women’s voices are heard goes on.
But the movement also criticizes weddings in Rojava on a second front: namely, that we are in a condition of war, that our comrades are being martyred daily by Turkish cross-border shelling, that now is no time for celebrations.
“If the people really want to get married,” my senior Kurdish comrade in TilTemir said, “They should do so without a big party. We will celebrate when Rojava is free from fascist attacks.”
One of the first questions I’m asked by civilians here is whether I am or wish to be married, and I usually respond by repeating the party line. “The first wedding I will go to is the union of the four parts of Kurdistan,” I joke, or more seriously explain that like active members of the Kurdish movement I have made a commitment not to engage in romantic or sexual relationships. In their case, yes, until the liberation of Kurdistan – in my case, at least for my time in Rojava.
Rather, the Kurdish movement aims to develop what Abullah Öcalan calls hevjiyanaazad, “joint free life.” We remake ourselves as militants joined by bonds of hevaltî (comradeship-friendship).
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A question for you: When the Turkish military ransack your village, confiscate your belongings, brutally murder your husbands and wives one after another, raped girls and women, and then condemn them to death in caves, put the babies into homes, and for adoption releases. If you had managed to escape this cruel suffering, would not you also take a weapon in hand and go to the mountains to resist? #Gerilla #guerilla #resistance #kurdistand #independentkurdistan
This rejection of romantic relationships as at best a liberal indulgence and at worst a destructive patriarchal institution and distraction from revolutionary work, and the subsequent recognition of comradeship as the real engine of revolutionary change, has always struck me as one of the most appealing, radical and necessary ideological tenets of the movement.
I am queer, at home with radical leftist discourses against patriarchal institutions yet also suspicious of liberal sex-positivity, and the institution of monogamy itself – let alone marriage – holds little appeal for me. Indeed, the concept of hevaltî reminds me of what Foucault writes about queer relationships becoming radical at the point where sex ends and we start to find new ways to live together.
But I have found other habits rather harder to give up. For the reasons stated above, members of the movement do not typically attend weddings. But when I was in TilTemir my senior comrade gave me permission to attend the wedding of the brother of my good friend Renas – “it will be good for you, you can see the culture of the Middle East,” he said. “But remember you are representing the movement there.”
I went to the wedding and of course everyone was very excited to have an ecnebî (foreigner) there, particularly one who knows the steps to traditional Kurdish dances. I danced the traditional dances and I talked to a lot of people and recruited a couple of new youth members. But towards the end of the night, pumped up on testosterone and Pepsi, Renas and his gaggle of brothers broke into a little disco dancing. And I like disco dancing very much, so of course I joined in, and of course there was a video which went modestly viral around TilTemir, and a couple of days later my senior comrade called me over to him, half-laughing, half-serious.
“What’s this video, HevalRojhat?” he asked. “What were you thinking? Are you trying to bring European culture to Kurdistan? Really, it’s not good.”
“It can’t be revolution all the time,” Renas hollered in my ear as we pogoed around the wedding-hall, “sometimes we have to celebrate as well.”
I protested that my Kurdish friends had started the dancing, that I just joined in, admitting that perhaps things had got a little out of hand as we stomped and boogied around. But in the movement we are also taught to take all criticism seriously, and when I reflected on it afterward I could see that the comrade had a point.
Unlike many Westerners, I didn’t come to Rojava looking for an anarchist utopia. Rather, I’ve always been a communist on paper, but driven to organize with anarchists since they actually do stuff with and for the people, while British Marxist-Leninists sit around in pubs talking to one another and organizing cranky protests for an audience of none. I came here looking for militant discipline, for experience of working in a serious and organized revolutionary organization.
In practice, I have found this hard. Confronted with the un-militant aspects of my own personality – frivolity, a weakness for drugs and alcohol, a tendency to solitude – I have struggled to overcome them. In some ways my personality has developed greatly here, but without access to drugs or booze I have not been able to find a new way to draw close to people.
I have found myself seizing greedily on rare opportunities to be alone, to read and to write, and giving less meaning to opportunities to work and struggle and speak together with my Kurdish comrades. “It can’t be revolution all the time,” Renas hollered in my ear as we pogoed around the wedding-hall, “sometimes we have to celebrate as well.” Against my better judgement, my heart agreed.
Because this is the thing, the great challenge facing the still-young Rojava revolution: the people are tired. This war has gone on close to another decade and every family has given a martyr or martyrs and a fresh assault from the fascist Turkish state is upon us, and sometimes the people just want to dance.
It is easy to forget this, as an outsider or full-time revolutionary, and look critically at this long-battered people. One comrade – a driver – at the commune where I am currently staying has long grated on my nerves, his attitude by turns frivolous and self-pitying. I considered him unserious and no revolutionary, getting irritated if he interrupted me while I was reading my book. Then, almost in passing, he mentioned the tortures he received at the hands of Assad’s forces when the Kurdish movement was still underground here, baring his chest to show livid burn scars.
I was shocked: I had no idea: but of course I should have learned by now never to assume. What place has any Westerner to sneer at any Kurd here?
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Our members in action on the streets of Til Temir, joining a protest to mark 19 years since #abdullahöcalan was kidnapped through the complicity of the Turkish, American, Israeli and European states. Since then he's been confined alone on the prison island Imrali, facing daily abuses in solitude. #freeöcalan now! #öcalan #kurd #kurdistan #rojava #freedom #protest
One issue you are constantly asked to comment on as an internationalist in Rojava is the torrent of refugees streaming from Syria and Kurdistan to Europe. One is held up as an example, “Heval Rojhat came here from England to join the revolution and you are thinking of running away to Europe? For shame.” But of course it is in no way comparable. Just as it is not my place to tell young Syrians they should not flee their war-ravaged country, I do not think it is my place to tell them they should not disco-dance at weddings if they want to.
But it is our responsibility as internationalists to model a different way of life as best we can. After that conversation with the driver, I resolved to renew my efforts to be a 24/7 militant here in the commune, rather than seeing my revolutionary responsibilities as finished when my formal work is done for the day.
Some previous internationalists in Rojava have done much damage to the revolution’s reputation by failing to understand the importance of traditional culture and values. By approaching Syria as a playground for them to live out their leftist fantasies in, they have allowed the movement’s enemies to portray the revolution as the intrusion of Western culture and liberalizing influences. We can and do dance, of course: but we must think hard about how, where and why.
More generally, the movement must draw a clear distinction between the expectations placed on militants of the party, and the organization of society at large. We cannot lecture people out of leaping on a visa-marriage ticket and fleeing to Europe. But by our example as internationalists and militants, we can show that there was something missing in the West which we find here in Rojava, something harder, larger and more important than the jiyana luxe (luxury life) in Europe – or a mere evening of disco-dancing.