Daring to imagine a new society and a new world in Rojava and across the globe
Just over three years ago, I returned to the hustle and bustle of capitalist modernity in London after spending a week in what the mainstream press has often coined ‘the most insane place on the planet’ – North Korea. I joked with a close friend of mine about how the first thing I should do with all the photos I took out there was to run them through a filter to make them all black and white. After all, the perception in western society of socialist countries in general – not to mention this ‘hermit kingdom’ – is that they are backward, dreary places. Therefore, why not take it upon myself to give the people just what they expected? In some ways, that would make for a more fascinating story than the one that I actually uncovered, which was of a quite ‘normal’ society, albeit a much more communal one (this doesn’t mean that there aren’t profound contradictions in North Korean society, of course). In this sense, it was a lively place – and certainly anything but dull or grey.
Still, I have to confess that there was a certain feeling missing within me from my experience there that I had hoped I would have found in a socialist society. It was the same hope that I carried with me when I travelled to places like Cuba – with its half a century of transformation that raised it up from a neo-colony of the U.S. to a dignified country – or to Venezuela which has been experiencing a rapid shift from neoliberalism to people-centered governance. Yes, I have been in search of something more than just having my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed (which for many western radicals is unfortunately often just that the classics of Marx and Lenin are somehow being adhered to). I was also after a feeling, a spirit, the life and soul of revolution. This had always remained elusive.
Sensing the collective spirit
Yes, I understand that here I am – a self-proclaimed leftist radical, a materialist – speaking in terms of feelings. Yet, it was exactly this concept that I found not only resonated with other internationalists in Rojava, but with revolutionaries there, in general. After having spent my first week in northern Syria in Qamishlo, one of the hevals (comrades) who I had been with since day one turned to me and asked if I had any reflections on my first several days. I talked of the impressive structures I had seen set up so far, from the communes to the cooperatives, as well as the process of political and ideological education that I was also a part of. I was impressed with that fact that from the very beginning, I hadn’t been treated as a visitor or an outsider, despite the fact that my primary work there was journalistic in nature. From the moment I arrived, I was told ‘welcome to our revolution. This is also your revolution now.’ I was made to feel that I was an integral part of this, even if I struggled linguistically with just a few words of Kurmanji. There was something else, though, something that I couldn’t quite explain – but when trying my best to do so anyway, this heval simply looked at me and laughed. ‘I know what you mean. The comrades here will talk a lot about this with you in the time ahead. We all say the same thing – that this revolution has a certain feeling to it that you just can’t explain. It has a spirit.'
I apologize to my die-hard materialists who are probably full of disappointment at the very thought of such metaphysical conclusions! However, the reality is that for the first time in my political life, I found a struggle that resonated with me on more than just a ‘checking the box’ level. I felt it profoundly. As much as I can talk about the actual societal transformation that is ongoing in the Cizire and Kobane cantons (I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to witness Afrin), there will always be a part of my experience in these magnificent places that I won’t quite be able to put into words. It’s something that you have to be a part of it, something that draws people together and brings out the very best qualities of what it means to be human. No, this isn’t meant to romanticize or fetishize the revolution that’s now in its sixth year. There are certainly no lack of problems, of contradictions, and of possibilities and dangers that could mean that this process could be rolled back, curtailed, or even defeated. Such is the fluid nature of war, of struggle and of life.
Restoring hope and revolutionary optimism
If I was to explain what my overall thoughts were about having spent limited time in Rojava, it’s that it re-instilled a sense of hope into me that I have to confess that on some level I had lost. When I first embraced radical left-wing political ideas a decade and a half ago in my late teens, it was as if a light had been switched on. If reading The Communist Manifesto was something like the flicker of the lightbulb manifesting, Lenin’s State and Revolution was that light shining exceptionally brightly. However, over the many years of political practice and the coming of age in a capitalist society since then (in which Marxism was still going through a recovery period since the overthrow of ‘actually existing socialism’ in the 1989-91 era), staying the course with consistent revolutionary optimism and faith became no easy task. Some do it quite well, and many do it exceptionally better than I do or have done. Yet, there are also many who after a period of intense political struggle in their younger years in the western metropoles, become reclusive and retire into private life and the drudgery of the 9 to 5 grind. Personal responsibilities become primary responsibilities, and revolution becomes something more for bedtime reading and the occasional demonstration. I didn’t want that to be me – I urgently didn’t want that!
On some level though, I have to admit that the thought of revolution in my lifetime – even with the excitement of the seeming revival of socialist ideas in the U.S and Europe – still seemed quite distant. Perhaps the point was that we have been so long accustomed to losing – or at least to not really gaining – that I couldn’t dare to really imagine the prospect of the kind of radical experiment taking place that I always dreamt could sweep the streets of New York or the neighbourhoods of Berlin. Yet, here it was, in the midst of a war in the Middle East, twenty-six years after the supposed ‘end of history’ and the final victory of capitalism.
The Che Guavara of the United States?
There was a high level of interest in an American internationalist coming to Rojava from the United States. Everywhere I went, there was a keen curiosity in the question of how to characterize where the U.S. is heading under the Trump administration, and when, or if, a revolution is possible in the U.S. What I realized quite early on is that my politically correct answers about subjective conditions not being so favourable were never enough to please my Kurdish comrades (I would say ‘hosts’, but as I have already alluded to the mere idea that I was there as someone truly foreign went out of the window on day one).
For instance, one of the most powerful memories I have of the entire experience in Rojava was on an occasion I had to meet with a number of YPG commanders in Derik (in Arabic known officially as al-Malikiyah). There was one comrade in particular whose facial expression never showed the slightest hint of what he was actually thinking. I would speak, attempting to answer his questions at length and in full, and then a translator would put my words into Kurmanji. I did my best to express the fact that a revolution in the United States would of course take place, but perhaps it wouldn’t happen in the very near future or even in my lifetime. I explained that the sentiment of anti-communism and anti-socialism was still rather strong in the U.S, although it was now beginning to subside and young people were more favourable to these ideas. My five minute explanation of the subjective conditions was met with a simple, ‘well, it seems like you don’t really believe that the revolution will happen.’ I was caught off guard by that answer. I tried to rescue myself from looking foolish, or like an armchair revolutionary, or dare I say someting even worse! I stumbled through my response, and then ended with a paraphrase of quote from Che Guevara’s thoughts on revolution being the process of doing ‘the impossible’. To my frustration, this comrade was relentless. He didn’t look impressed when he hit me back with a simple ‘…and you don’t think you can be the Che Guevara of the U.S.?'
Of course, comparing myself to Che is something I had never dreamt of doing, and I was a bit uneasy at his question that would even put me in the same sentence as the world’s most well-known internationalist of the 20th century. Still, his point was well taken: no matter the odds stacked against you, nothing can hold back those with the willpower to actually succeed. It reminded me of the story of when Che met Fidel in Mexico City when the two planned the logistics of the Granma expedition. Fidel was said to have looked at Che during a conversation, saying ‘Do you think I’m crazy?’ to which Che replied ‘Maybe a little’. Fidel was unphased, ‘well, a little bit of craziness is good.’ Of course, both of these late revolutionaries were Marxists and materialists – but they still believed, against all odds and against the most adverse of conditions – that a handful of revolutionaries imbued with the spirit and the feeling of radically changing society, could overcome the most arduous of situations and claim victory. That’s revolutionary faith.
Seven funerals, zero words
The morning after this all too embarrassing conversation, it continued to play in my head. It’s not that I was upset in any way. Truthfully, part of my decision to come to Rojava was to re-invigorate my revolutionary zeal. I just didn’t fully expect it to happen so soon, so quickly, so profoundly -- or even at all, frankly. That’s what caught me off guard about the evening before, and about the entire experience across the region up until this point.
It soon became early afternoon in the city of Derik, and a car affixed with a loudspeaker travelled through the streets making an announcement that I couldn’t understand, but that one of the hevals mentioned was about a funeral that would be taking place in a few hours for 7 shehids (martyrs) who perished fighting on the Raqqa front. There was no question about whether we would or wouldn’t attend – it was our revolutionary duty to be there to see these comrades off.
So a few hours later, there I was -- standing in the middle of a crowd of maybe 500 people on the only rainy and overcast day I had experienced in Rojava thus far (weather, as you can imagine, that was suitable for such a somber occasion). I wished at that moment that my knowledge of Kurdish was at a much higher level, but notwithstanding that, I felt something profound stirring inside of me as I attended the funeral for those young men who fell fighting against the fascist threat of Daesh. Although I wasn’t in the YPG, although I had never met any of the fallen comrades, although I probably would never end up in Raqqa, although my life in the west was completely different to that of a Kurd in Syria, it wasn’t hard for me to feel what was taking place in front of my very eyes. Perhaps I said a word or two to the internationalists with me over the few hours we were there. If I did, I don’t recall. I was in a zone, in a trance, in another world entirely as I watched dozens of men and women shovel enough dirt to be able to place the coffins draped in red, yellow and green six feet deep. I thought once more about the immense sacrifice that the people here were paying in blood, a sacrifice can’t possibly go in vain.
Positivism – and positivity
Maybe three days later, I was back in Qamishlo where I would spend the majority of my time while in Rojava. I was receiving an educational about the history of the Kurdish freedom movement, and I became struck by a passage from Abdullah Ocalan from his ‘Ideological Foundations of the Nation-State’: ‘Positivism can be circumscribed as a philosophical approach that is strictly confined to the appearance of things, which it equates with reality itself. Since in positivism appearance is reality, nothing that has no appearance can be part of reality. We know from quantum physics, astronomy, some fields of biology and even the gist of thought itself that reality occurs in worlds that are beyond observable events. The truth, in the relationship between the observed and the observer, has mystified itself to the extent that it no longer fits any physical scale or definition. Positivism denies this and thus, to an extent, resembles the idol worshipping of ancient times, where the idol constitutes the image of reality.’
Now this was something that I could relate to in light of how I had been feeling for the past week and a half, but even more so in the previous few days. Certainly, it would be a concept that I would have a lot of trouble explaining to many of my western comrades. In fact, I’m almost certain that no matter what I write at this point, there will always be some first world armchair ‘revolutionist’ who will find more than enough to critique in my assessment. So be it. What I will say is that my access to the Rojava revolution, my participation (albeit so far for a short period), was enough to not only re-instil the most intense revolutionary vigour in me, but enough to confirm what was in my gut – that indeed revolution has to on some basic, spiritual level be felt.
Thus, I have to apologize for my writing. Honestly, it will never quite be good enough. I can attempt to say any number of things to get people to look into the Rojava revolution, but short of people actually making the journey there to not only see it for themselves, but to deeply and profoundly feel it, there’s nothing I can really say that will ever do justice to what I now hold deep within me. It’s in part a rekindling of the love for and faith in humanity and for the oppressed that has burned – and flickered – for a decade and a half. But it’s also something more, something that I’m sure I will attempt to explain until I’m no longer alive, but which unfortunately can’t be placed in mere words. It’s not that I’m keeping secrets, but maybe -- just maybe -- Rojava is holding secrets, or rather keys to the future. For that reason, those with an inkling toward social justice and the prospect of a better world coming to fruition should make the journey. I can’t promise anything other than that it will forever change your life.
***This article was written as an explanation and companion to the song ‘Serkeftin’ which was penned immediately after my return from northern Syria.
Listen to 'Serkeftin' - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ooge7Q5D_QI
- Marcel Cartier
- Rojava Revolution
- Abdullah Ocalan
- Che Guevara
- Fidel Castro
- Democratic Confederalism
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