Cover Photo: Commune meeting in Afrin.
It is cities like Kobane or Qamishlo which are best known outside of Rojava as strongholds of the revolution, strung out along the heavily-mined border wall separating them from their sister cities in Turkish-occupied Kurdistan.
But these cities are relatively new, colonial creations – Kobane was only built up during the construction of the infamous Bagdadbahn railway line in 1912, for example. The city’s name itself is simply a bastardisation of ‘company.’
“WE PASS INHABITED HOUSES WHOSE ROOFS ARE GROWN OVER WITH GRASS AND FRESH YELLOW FLOWERS, AND OTHER HOMES ABANDONED WHEN JIHADI GROUPS SWEPT UP THROUGH THE REGION, NOW SLUMPED AND BROKEN BY THIS YEAR’S HEAVY RAINS.”
You do not have to drive far from these rapidly-expanding cities to feel you are entering an older Kurdistan, one built of ‘kerpîç’ mud bricks rather than pale grey cement. The real basis of the Kurdish liberation movement has always been in the ‘gundewar,’ or village-land.
Driving to a village called Girê Bilind*, we pass inhabited houses whose roofs are grown over with grass and fresh yellow flowers, and other homes abandoned when jihadi groups swept up through the region, now slumped and broken by this year’s heavy rains.
The local people resisted the jihadi attacks, and for some years now this region has known peace as part of the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES). Based on the philosophy of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the Autonomous Administration is trying to re-organise society on a grassroots, direct-democratic basis.
Ocalan hearkens back what he terms the ‘natural society’, before the rise of the city-state, patriarchy and capitalism thereafter. 5,000 years ago, Ocalan writes, people lived communally in small egalitarian communities not yet torn apart by the masculine ego which finds its greatest expression in the nation-state. It is this ‘jiyana komînal’ – communal life – which the Autonomous Administration is trying to rebuild in Rojava.
Something of this communal life still remains in Girê Bilind. One 40-something man who has lived all his life in the village was born deaf and mute, and speaks no formal sign language. Nonetheless, his neighbours understand the personal sign language he has developed absolutely, translating our questions and jokes about politics into his self-devised language of points, gestures and waggles of the head. (‘Angela Merkel’ is indicated by two frowning lines traced down from the mouth.)
“When one of us is sick, we all visit the house and give a little money so they can afford the operation,” one resident says. On wedding days and in times of crisis, the village comes together.
“ON THE OTHER HAND, CONSERVATIVE AND REACTIONARY WAYS OF THINKING RUN ESPECIALLY DEEP…THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE WITH REGARDS TO WOMEN AND THEIR PLACE IN SOCIETY. SO-CALLED HONOUR KILLINGS OF WOMEN HAVE TAKEN PLACE…IN LIVING MEMORY, AND WHEN WE ARRIVE IN THE VILLAGE THE WOMEN WHO PREPARED DINNER FOR US WILL NOT BE PERSUADED TO SIT DOWN AND EAT.”
On the other hand, conservative and reactionary ways of thinking run especially deep in the gundewar. (I’ve visited another tiny hamlet home to just three families, two of whom don’t speak to each other thanks to a squabble over land dating back three generations.) This is especially true with regards to women and their place in society. So-called honour killings of women have taken place in Girê bilind in living memory, and when we arrive in the village the women who prepared dinner for us will not be persuaded to sit down and eat.
To get to the point where this evening’s commune meeting was even possible, then, took time. The first step the Autonomous Administration took was to organize a litter-pick in the village. Kurdish culture marries a fastidious cleanliness with regards to one’s own home and personal hygiene on the one hand, and a cavalier attitude towards litter on the other.
A member of the Autonomous Administration named Hevkar is working to build up the communes in Gire Sor and two neighbouring villages. Through the litter-pick, he explains, the people were brought together out of their homes, feeling a certain social pressure to participate and seeing a tangible change in their immediate environment as a result.
“THE NEXT STEP WAS THREE WEEKS GOING DOOR-TO-DOOR IN THE VILLAGE AND INVITING THEM TO PARTICIPATE IN [THE] FIRST COMMUNE MEETING – ATTENDED BY A GRAND TOTAL OF FIVE PEOPLE…BUT THE WORK CONTINUED.”
The next step was three weeks going door-to-door in the village, drinking endless chai, hearing the people’s problems, and inviting them to participate in Gire Sor’s first commune meeting. Once all 80 families had been visited, the first meeting took place – attended by a grand total of five people, two of whom, Hevkar says, only showed up to complain that the whole enterprise was pointless. He left the meeting feeling disheartened, even afraid.
But the work continued. Particularly at the time of Turkey’s threatened invasion of Rojava last year, men and women came together for self-defense training with their battered old AK-47s. Political discussions have taken place, as well as education on natural medicine, with driving lessons for women next up in the programme, and the same houses have been visited over and over again.
“Now, when the children see me, they run to me and hug me,” says Hevkar. “For a revolutionary, that’s very important.”
This evening’s meeting is the best-attended yet. Four women, 21 men and two children turn up, representing about a quarter of the village’s families. In neighbouring villages with stronger ties to the Kurdish movement, turn-out might reach 80 per cent: in Girê Bilind, though, there is a strong base of support for the self-serving Barzani clan who have a grip on power in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In a village like this, on a stormy night like tonight with heavy hail drumming on the tin roof, it’s a small victory.
Everyone in attendance has the chance to speak, and almost all do. Some are clearly convinced by the benefits this local, collective decision-making can have for their community. Others speak only to complain. Most are somewhere in between, but none save the children are hesitant about making their voices heard.
“HEVKAR OPENS THE MEETING. THIS REVOLUTION IS NOT JUST ABOUT THE WAR AGAINST ISIS, HE SAYS…IT NEEDS TO BE BUILT UP AGAIN, THROUGH COMMUNAL WORK AND DECISION-MAKING. PEOPLE NEED TO THINK OF THE WHOLE VILLAGE AS THEIR HOME, NOT JUST THEIR OWN HOUSE AND YARD.”
The few women are voluble and forthright, and when they speak the men listen seriously. One of their number is the co-chair of the commune, and takes an equal part in running the discussion along with her male counterpart. (“It’s true, Girê Bilind is a traditional village,” I am told afterward. “But the women here are strong, stronger than in other villages. You saw how they spoke. Here, no-one can tell his sister to stop talking to boys on Whatsapp.”)
Hevkar opens the meeting. This revolution is not just about the war against ISIS, he says, “meetings like this are the honour of the revolution.” But there is a problem here in Girê Bilind: there is a ‘gund’, a village, yes. But the ‘gundatî’, the village-ness, has largely been lost. It needs to be built up again, through communal work and decision-making. People need to think of the whole village as their home, not just their own house and yard.
Perhaps as Hevkar intended, there is some contention about this, men rallying to the defense of their village and listing the ways in which a communal spirit still endures here, while others point out how much has been lost.
With these questions in mind, the discussion moves on to a number of practical proposals and questions: cleaning up the whole village again on a larger scale, finding a communal solution to the heavy rains which are damaging the houses, pooling money for sheets of nylon and bin-bags to this end.
The main topic for the evening is finding a use for some of the fallow common land in the village. Should it be used to grow food? Should they plant a garden for the children to play in? Should they build a new hall for guests and common meetings? Can they afford these things? Do they have time? Should everyone at the meeting be asked to give a little money, or should it be voluntary?
The discussion goes around and everyone has their say, even the eight-year-old. At the end it is agreed that 30 dunums (3 hectares) will be put to common use: 25 for shared food crops, and the rest for the garden and a hall for guests, with the construction of the hall put on hold until more money is available.
A committee is set up to take practical charge of the project – two women, four men and one child, with the women responsible for finding two more female members. The local municipality will be able to put up some of the modest sum needed to make the project a reality, but the responsibility for finding the rest of the money, settling a location for the common land and bringing the project to life lies on the villagers.
Perhaps most significantly, the labor and the produce of the garden will be shared between the villagers, in a step toward the socialist economic base which is needed if life here is going to be truly revolutionized for working people, like the women still washing dishes at home while their men talk politics at the commune.
“THE LABOR AND THE PRODUCE OF THE GARDEN WILL BE SHARED BETWEEN THE VILLAGERS, IN A STEP TOWARD THE SOCIALIST ECONOMIC BASE WHICH IS NEEDED IF LIFE HERE IS GOING TO BE TRULY REVOLUTIONIZED FOR WORKING PEOPLE, LIKE THE WOMEN STILL WASHING DISHES AT HOME WHILE THEIR MEN TALK POLITICS AT THE COMMUNE.”
It does not feel as though the villagers are sharing their deepest concerns and needs in the meeting: not yet. Some of these issues will be discussed elsewhere, perhaps in the women’s houses to which any woman may go and ask for help leaving her husband, overcoming abuse, or solving any other problems she faces: or perhaps in the reconciliation committees, where two individuals or families in dispute may go and settle their grievances through the mediation of respected community figures. Others, certainly, remain unspoken and unsolved in the private home.
It feels a little as though those few who are participating whole-heartedly in the commune project have set a problem before their community to solve, proposing the common-land project as a way to bring people together and see the democratic project in action.
This is not the acme of direct democracy in action, but another step toward it, the people feeling more free now to air their grievances and hopes, more invested in their land and communal life.
A friend of mine was working in the communes in Qamishlo at the end of last year, when Turkey’s threatened invasion was expected to materialize with each night that came. At this time, she said, you could feel the urgency, the pride, the people’s insistence on coming together, old women brandishing weapons in packed meeting-halls in poor neighbourhoods and daring Erdogan to defy them, demanding self-defense education, offering up their meagre yards for the construction of earthwork berms to hold off the tanks.
But this urgency cannot last always. Building a new political system in the gentle way that the Kurdish liberation movement has chosen takes time. Hevkar has been working in just three villages for a year now, and other people tasked with the same project have much larger areas to cover.
In ‘Arabistan’, as Kurds sometimes refer to Arab-majority areas like Raqqa, Deir Ez-Zor and Manbij which have become part of the AANES since their liberation from ISIS in recent years, the task is exponentially harder.
Building this kind of trust, both between the Autonomous Administration and often-suspicious local populations and between neighbours themselves, is door-to-door, month-on-month, chai-by-chai work.
Those Turkish tanks haven’t rolled into Rojava yet, and so Hevkar’s patient work can continue. For now, America has its own reasons for staying here in Rojava, an uninvited guarantor against Turkey’s preferred outcome of occupation, slaughter and forced demographic change.
“YOU COULD FEEL THE URGENCY, THE PRIDE, THE PEOPLE’S INSISTENCE ON COMING TOGETHER, OLD WOMEN BRANDISHING WEAPONS IN PACKED MEETING-HALLS IN POOR NEIGHBOURHOODS AND DARING ERDOGAN TO DEFY THEM.”
But whether tomorrow or in ten years, a day will come when what is being built in Rojava and what the Americans want for the region come into conflict, when America sees no more reason to stay here or is frustrated in its own imperialist designs.
In this unstable interregnum, it is hard for the villagers to put time and trust into any new system, and it is hard for revolutionaries to continue their painstaking work in the knowledge that all this may well be flattened by warplanes, and a Turkish-backed jihadist kleptocracy installed in its place.
But chai by chai, village by village, the work goes on.