An Open Letter to the President of the United States
By Kani Xulam:
“We are the ones we have been waiting for”, Barack Hussein Obama
Dear President Obama,
Like the sudden fall of Berlin Wall you showed up unannounced in my life.
Like most Americans, I was not prepared for your spectacular entrance— exploding upon the national scene as the star-studded keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. I watched in amazement at the mesmerizing power of your stunning rhetoric, catapulting convention delegates to their feet, some in tears, many in awe, all in enthusiastic applause, and the whole scene inspiring even former Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev to offer his heartfelt congratulations.
Studying the trajectory of your life, however, I can’t believe your good luck. Call me simpleminded if you will, but I am beginning to see you not a person—or even the president—but as “transformational” agent whose likes come around once in a thousand years. I am thinking, If Ralph Waldo Emerson were alive, he would revise his observation about “events are in the saddle and ride mankind,” to “Barack Hussein Obama is in the saddle and rides humanity.”
The triumphant, Caesar-like depiction of you by a rather sympathetic press obviously is not news to you. Graciously, you have even joked about it. In fact, there is so much material out there that it was really hard for me to work a bit of originality into this letter of mine. But your late father and I have at least one thing in common. We were both goat herders at one time in our lives. Maybe this little detail is my ticket to your attention! By the way, I like how you honored your Old Man with the title of your first book, Dreams From My Father.
Let me make one thing abundantly clear at the outset: vindictiveness is not in my nature; like you, I am all for cultivating the good. But a lot has happened since your presidency and some of it has not been good. I want to touch on a few of your blind spots. Mine will be the goal to raise my palm as high as I can for the cause of freedom and liberty. There will be lessons, for Kurdish patriots, on the side. Your own reward will be a request, it is a strange one at that, that you will not just hear, but also feel, your own very words, “How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?”
I’ll begin with this incisive disclaimer from Edward Gibbon: “Persuasion is the resource of the feeble; and the feeble can seldom persuade,” the incomparable historian said in his epic Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, a theme that I will take up at the end of my letter as well. It rightly describes the present calamitous plight of the feeble Kurds before our powerful and homicidal adversaries, be they Turks, Persians or Arabs.
Although you describe yourself as a friend of Turks and wannabe pal of Persians and the Arabs who control some of our lands, I don’t buy the argument, as some Kurds unfortunately do, that ipso facto you are an enemy of our people, minus the five million, who live in a limbo of sort, in Iraqi Kurdistan. But I find you wanting, derelict some would say, considering your expressed ideals and acknowledged role models.
You heroes were perhaps best described by David Remnick, a reporter with The New Yorker, when he gave us an indelible account of what he saw on your office wall when he visited you in your Senate office building: “A portrait of Gandhi at his spinning wheel; Thurgood Marshall in his judicial robes; Nelson Mandela reclining in a gold armchair, his cane at his side; Martin Luther King, Jr., at the microphone; Alexander Gardner’s photograph of a war-weary Lincoln; [and] a framed cover of Life magazine from March, 1965 [showing] a long line of demonstrators, led by John Lewis, [now a congressman] about to confront the Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.” Except for Malcolm X, all are honored, one way or the other, in your first book. Why did you, Mr. President, leave out Mr. X?
Despite that awkward omission, that is an impressive array of individuals who have done us a lot of good. I hope future generations will find you worthy of their company. I can’t say that you are there yet. Like Cornel West, I feel you need “Socratic” help. The Greek sage, as you know, went around and delighted in sowing the seeds of discomfort. Mrs. Obama was spot-on when she observed, “Real change came from making people uncomfortable.”
Count yourself blessed for having someone of her caliber by your side. My two cents worth, in the course of this letter, is offered in the same vein. If I could distance you from the politician that you have become, and nudge you more in the direction of the leaders that you said you wanted to emulate, I will sleep better—but more importantly, the innocent Kurdish children and adults who are being slaughtered on the mountains of Kurdistan and brutalized in and out of Turkish jails may get a break.
Before I attempt to wrench you away from the dark, devious and treacherous quicksand of despots, and onto freedom’s bright, firm, sun-crowned bedrock, let me pay some homage to a story of your life—my Kurdish readers, please pay close attention here—that has to do with weather.
Yes, that’s right—weather.
Most Kurds have an uneasy relationship with weather, especially winter, and I found your solution to the “unwanted friend of Kurds” the best I have ever seen in print. Your early life was spent in Hawaii, Indonesia and Los Angeles. In your sophomore year, while still at Occidental College, you decided to transfer to Columbia University in New York.
Years later, when fortune had cast its full smile on you—turning your mere acquaintances into minor celebrities—a few were asked, why did Barack leave the Golden state? One of them noted, “He wanted to go somewhere where the weather was cold and miserable so that he would be forced to spend his days indoors, reading.” For that, you and Kurdistan would get along really, really well. The place was made for you, and I hereby invite you to visit it in person!
Going back to the cold, as someone who moved in the opposite direction from Toronto to Los Angeles, around the same time, I now know yours truly should have stayed put. Fellow Kurds note this well and if need be, highlight and underline it too: If you live in Canada, don’t ever consider moving south; if Texas is your home, move up; Fargo, North Dakota is good, I mean cold.
It will enable you to cultivate your mind all right, and who knows, may even reward you with the presidency of the United States or Kurdistan, take your pick! Going through life with the choices of one’s parents is not good. We should all do what President Obama has done and move to places that can put us on a trajectory of the fastest and farthest rise in the history of humankind.
This business of cultivating one’s mind, as you later found out, Mr. President, on your maiden trip to Kenya, was a preoccupation of your grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, as well. He was the original traveler, a risk taker if you will, who would pick up English as a second language, cooking as a second profession and Islam as a second religion while wandering between Africa and Asia as an employee of the British Empire.
Eventually, he would go back to his ancestral village and marry Kezia, your grandmother, and sire your dad, Barack Sr. He would delight in teaching the young boy how to read and write, inspiring him and later you to go to Harvard. When you visited his village, your stepmother told you, “for him knowledge was the source of all the white man’s power, and he wanted to make sure that his son was as educated as any white man.”
I am sure glad you saved those precious sentiments of your grandfather, although secondhand, for posterity, Mr. President. They remind me of the wisdom of James Madison, a Founding Father of this country, who would have fully endorsed the old geezer. “Knowledge,” he too said, “will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
That love of learning is not—at least not yet—a passion in the Kurdish society. Young Kurds with guns on the mountains form a greater part of Kurdish discourse than young Kurds with books in the libraries. Unbeknown to your grandfather, you too had a bias for knowledge. It is the nicest thing about you, Mr. President. It gives me hope that you could still be a good role model even for Kurds.
As such, candor now compels me to indicate some of your blind spots. The Kurds and Kurdistan have never really been in your sights. If you were like Henry Kissinger or Slobodan Milosevic, I would not have bothered to write you this letter. If you had hanged the pictures of Machiavelli or Stalin on your office walls, ditto. But in your campaigns for votes, you would often make a reference to, “a belief in things not seen.”
It would automatically put me on a flight of fancy where I would see Kurdistan taking its rightful place among the community of nations, as I am sure it put you on a flight of fancy moving you right into the White House. But, apparently, although we gravitate towards common role models, the same, alas, cannot be said about our respective dreams. You are a better-read person than yours truly. Can you tell me why such discrepancy should exist between two people who stand on the shoulders of the same giants?
Mr. President, there is a moving passage in your first book about coming to terms with your own brown skin. It brought tears to my brown eyes seeing it black on white. It starts with your grandma asking your grandpa for a ride in Honolulu, Hawaii. Because grandma had always used the bus, grandpa tells her to do the same. When she insists on a ride, grandpa’s animadversions eventually wake you up.
You offer peace, peaceful fellow that you are, and volunteer to give grandma a ride. Grandpa tells you, quietly, and when the grandma is in another room, that a black man has accosted her the day before at the bus stop. He adds that she never asked him for rides when the accosting was done by whites.
“The words were like a fist in my stomach,” you write.
Later, by nightfall, your muse catches up with you and you become even more expressive, “I knew … for the first time that I was totally alone.” It is a feeling 40 million Kurds share with you, Mr. President. It is now clear to me that you were one of us at one time. I can’t believe that you have forgotten about us! Please don’t tell me, now that you are at the White House, your memory is a playing a trick on you? Have we been put in the category of Mr. X?
I hope you are counting your blessings today, as millions are lining up, more when you are abroad, just to get a glimpse of you. It took you a lot of reading, a lot of reflection, a lot of chutzpah, and a lot of good luck to be the person that you have become. It helped that you maintained your faith in the meritocracy and believed, “cream always rises to the top.”
It has both pleased me and shocked me to learn that a mere reference by you can turn a book, for example, Team of Rivals, into a best seller. The world has been beguiled with the stories of Mrs. Obama’s dresses generating as much as $14 million in revenue, each, for the lucky designer. The one ready-to-wear dress that she bought for $34.95 at H&M sold out immediately.
That’s a lot of power.
I can think of a lot of forsaken places in the world that could use even a fraction of that immense influence.
But I want to go back to your unforgettable night in Hawaii. That one lonely night you felt in Honolulu is nothing compared to the endless, intolerable lonesome nights we Kurds degradingly suffer and suffer and suffer—and keep on suffering. And there is more: Our loneliness precedes our criminality at birth. A clique of Turkish despots has declared 20 million Kurds illegal in our homes, on our lands.
James Baldwin knew a thing or two about this. “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious,” he said, “is to be in rage almost all the time.” You could easily substitute the word “Kurd” for “Negro” throughout the Middle East. But if you are not up to date with your Baldwin, I’ll give you a story from our own times—one, sadly, with your own fingerprints on it.
This heart-rending tragedy happened when two Turkish fighter planes callously bombed a caravan of Kurds on December 28, 2011, with no warnings, while they were on a trading mission. Nearly three dozen people were killed, 19 in their teens and 27 carrying the same last names.
What caused such a heartbreaking calamity?
As it turns out, you answered it, Mr. President, with my opening quote from your own lips:
“We are the ones…”
It pains me to say it, but American drones, leased to Turkey by your administration, triggered this violent orgy of death and destruction—whose horrors are still being felt in many Kurdistan villages, with silent empty places at the table where fathers and brothers once sat.
And worst of all, the tattered, bomb-scorched clothing, once worn by innocent Kurdish children who fruitlessly perished in this disastrous holocaust, remain in lifeless, endless and everlasting horror—a mute monument to unbridled tyranny and oppression.
I am sure you were informed of this grim harvest in human cargo right away.
What did you make of it?
Did you feel any responsibility for it?
Did you want to stop it?
Do you even care?
Mr. President, you call yourself a disciple of Martin and Malcolm, Gandhi and Mandela, Lincoln and Marshall. All of your heroes would have surely said, if you have to use force, follow, at the minimum, the Hippocratic rule: “Do no harm.”
In Turkey, you are doing the exact opposite.
You are emboldening its bigoted leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to engage in his satanic dance of death—gleefully stomping on the blood-spattered graves of martyred Kurds, those human beings who longed to breathe the simple air of freedom, like the slaves whose pitiless lash Lincoln felt on his back, like that punishing fist in your stomach you felt for your grandmother’s painful abuse.
Have you ever seen, heard or read about Prime Minister Erdogan’s disgusting Nazi originals, “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer,” in Turkish? Does your embassy ever tell you of his rants, “one People, one Flag, one Religion, one Homeland”?
I can almost hear you say, “Kani, help me understand this madman. I am real. I am post-racial. I am all for sensible progress. And didn’t you read my interview in the Turkish daily, Milliyet, that I stand for peace, yes, peace, between Kurds and Turks?”
I did read it, Mr. President. That’s what prompted me to write you this letter. Your deference to peace is superficial, unfortunately, compared to your impassionate support of Turkey, which is thoroughgoing, unwavering and as good as the U.S. treasury bonds in China’s Central Bank. In your own words, “We have provided significant assistance to our Turkish friends, including advanced technology.”
On the same day that your interview appeared in the Turkish daily, a protesting high school senior, Sahin Oner, was heartlessly run over, and brutally murdered, by a Turkish armored vehicle in my hometown of Amed.
His senseless death infuriated Kurds the way Emmett Till’s outraged the black folks in Chicago. The 14-year-old Till was a Windy City native, but was murdered in Mississippi; the Kurdish teenager Oner was getting ready to go to college and now lies six feet under.
Turks initially tried to cover up the ghastly murder of the Kurdish boy by saying that a bomb had exploded in his hands. But when his lifeless body was picked up from the morgue, his hands were intact, sparking furious a population to attack Turkish establishments at a moment’s notice.
Would you like to see Kurds with pitchforks on CNN? Don’t you think the Middle East would be better off without the added, Turkish-propagated violence against Kurds?
Notwithstanding the so-called peace overtures of the Turkish government or better yet its cloak and dagger intelligence chief—as if reconciliation is a dirty thing, as if only spooks with gloves can handle amity—a war is being fed by the reddest, most rancid meat of bigotry.
The prime minister of Turkey is all smiles when he says, “My friend, Barack HUSSEIN Obama.” What he’s really saying is: “I’m dying to get my hands on more of your Kurd-killing drones, not just to gather intelligence, but to also fire missiles.”
There is no weapon that he doesn’t like; there is no deal that he wouldn’t sign; there is no friend that he wouldn’t discard or adopt if they could guarantee him one thing: The absolute domination of Turks over Kurds, and of Erdogan over both.
This is your shameless “partner” in peace in at least one corner of the world. And if you are not scratching your head already, let me add a few more tidbits.
His opinions of the world are the opinions of a child. The people who share his table are the people who agree with him all the time. His knowledge of history comes not from studying it, or conversing with those who have, but by mindlessly repeating rote-generated slogans that he and his classmates were forced to memorize as a teenager.
The man has never heard of the word philosophy, the principle of proportionality, and goes ballistic if someone dares to criticize him. In his world, the colors are stark and his opinions, defended stubbornly, are always right. Grandstanding passes as his public policy.
Just ask Valerie Jarrett, your aide, how he raged like a toddler in Davos, Switzerland, not for the rights of minorities in his own backyard, but in distant lands. And do you know what his opinion of Africa is? It is, apparently, as “dirty” as cash-starving municipality of Colamerg, Kurdistan, inside the borders that pass as Turkey.
The man lives on flattery the way a horse lives on hay, or fish nibble on plankton. If you doubt me, consider this: His talk at his party’s convention lasted 2 hours and 25 minutes and most of it was hot air! If Turks have bladder problems, they just have to wet their pants. That is not his concern! His business is how to make life hell for Kurds!
To deal with Erdogan, one needs not only the traditional tools of diplomacy, but also, more importantly, a lot of psychology and a lot more good luck. For example, in Islam, there is no apostasy, and because your grandfather was a Muslim, he thinks, ipso facto, you are a Muslim too.
Do not ever second-guess him. And don’t ever tell him that you have a nickname, Renegade, even if it was issued to you by U.S. Secret Service! Every time you talk to him, remind him that Ezan, the Muslim call to prayer, is one of your favorite sounds, as you have done on other occasions.
Some creatures are born in the dark and, and unless nudged toward the light, want to keep living in the dark. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of them. He could never do what Lincoln did, emancipate the slaves, without your helpful push, or see the truth of Gandhi’s observation, without your gentle prodding: “I oppose violence. The good it does is temporary; the damage it causes is permanent.”
Now, you may say, “But, Kani, how about my own violence in Afghanistan?”
That’s quite different, Mr. President—the enormous difference between violent war and tranquil peace. The war-loving Taliban in Afghanistan have defiantly boasted that they will, if not defeat you, at least outlast you. By contrast, the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, seeks to avoid war, and is earnestly asking for peace. That’s quite a contrast.
Going on with making the best of one’s interlocutor, your first book has a nugget worth remembering, about a meeting of yours with a pale Englishman who had worked for international aid organizations in Africa and Asia. Of all peoples that he had met, he had found the Dik people of Sudan the strangest. After spending a year with them, he had confided in you, “They remained utterly alien to me. They laughed at the things that drove me to despair. What I thought was funny seemed to leave them stone cold.”
You were raised too polite to tell him that on your father side you were a Luo from Kenya, the direct descendants of Dik people from Sudan. But by the time you wrote your book, you were beside yourself with joy that a “distant cousin” of yours had confounded the hapless Albion.
Please, Mr. President, use those same tactics of your “distant cousins” to baffle Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a destroyer of human family. The children of your ancestors were having fun in Sudan with the pale Englishman. In a world bleeding from the hideous jackboots of Turks, you will have to forgo your need for instant gratification and engage Turks the way Lincoln engaged the slave masters: Break their infatuation with evil and free their subjects the way God intended for them to live.
I have already seen you outfox McCain and Romney, both for the sake of winning an election. I will be disappointed in you if you do not do the same with Erdogan, this time for the sake of freedom.
“Freedom to be free,” Nelson Mandela rightly said, “is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Speaking of outfoxing your interlocutor, you could also try the less travelled road, for as Lincoln reminded us: “Towering genius disdains a beaten path.”
For example, Mrs. Obama is on record saying: “Barack was raised by wolves.” This observation of the First Lady is priceless. Turks think they were raised by a she-wolf as well. This legend unfortunately, like a good wine, has gone directly to their head. They have internalized the predatory characteristics of the beast of prey.
Just visit the ruins of churches that once echoed harmoniously with the serene sound of Christian apostles in the native country of Homer. Search the pages of history, Mr. President, and you will never find one solitary example of a peaceful withdrawal by Turks from the lands they have occupied through brute force.
Russians helped Bulgarians to kick out their Turkish overlords. The British helped the Arabs to do the same. When our own Kurdish liberation struggle kicked in, the balance of power shifted, in midstream as it were, in favor of our adversaries.
But we aren’t in the habit of following a schedule. Our staying power has outlasted the enemies of freedom before. Our children are preparing for battles yet unseen.
“The pursuit of peace,” former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold wisely told the world, “with its trials and its errors, its successes and its setbacks, can never be relaxed and never abandoned.”
Like the stars in their vast appointed paths, the unquenchable thirst of the longsuffering Kurds for freedom knows no haste, and no delay.
But going back to Michelle’s inimitable observation, it offers a silver lining, Mr. President. In your monthly telephone conversations with the Turkish prime minister, ask him how Mrs. Erdogan is and tell him to convey to her your gratitude for visiting the families of 34 Kurdish villagers who were unmercifully roasted alive, courtesy of joint American-Turkish cooperation.
Once that courtesy is out of the way, drop Michelle’s observation like a bomb on him and say, Mrs. Obama thinks we are cousins. Get ready for a deafening laughter here. And when he is able to talk again, he may call you, “Ulan Huso,” from joy. Don’t mind him, that is an endearing term, like saying, “Brother Hussein” in Turkish. Continue regaling him with another story of Mrs. Obama, this time from Princeton, and how she was wronged in the country of her birth.
This is a sensitive topic in Turkey as well. A lot of Kurds face indignities that the First Lady faced when she was in college, but by highlighting the example of your own wife, you would be generating some needed empathy on his part. Do it, Mr. President, for the sake of Malcolm X, towards the end of his life a pious Muslim, and put a big smile on his face.
Michelle’s story from Princeton, as you know, is heart-wrenching considering she was only 17. She was assigned a white roommate who upon discovering Michelle’s race promptly requested that she be given another room. Asked about her experience on campus, Michelle would say, “I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong.”
The same would happen to Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman ever elected to the Turkish parliament. When asked how she had fared in the parliament of Turks, she had said, “I feel like a stranger in this place.”
Going back to your telephone conversation with Mr. Erdogan, tell him Michelle Obama no longer feels like “a visitor” in America and has become a leading “fashionista” besides. Tell him there is no reason Turkey cannot be like the United States and suggest a get-together between Mrs. Erdogan and Mrs. Zana and say you will send Mrs. Obama unannounced as a peace ambassador to their house in Kecioren to raise the profile of the event.
It could even be called a Summit of Firsts, Emine being the First Lady of Turks and Leyla being the first Kurdish woman with a seat in the parliament. Gestures like these, tell Mr. Erdogan, would go a long way to engender more tolerance between the races.
Although it is not on your playlist, you could even suggest a song by Sting, “If you love someone, set them free,” as a soundtrack for the get-together. It will definitely perk up a lot of ears. And if it becomes a best seller, Marshall will wink at you from his room in heaven!
Speaking of recruiting Sting for the cause of liberty, I noticed that you and the word freedom do not mix that well. The word that you like is dignity. The latter favors the first and so I am not going to make an issue of it. But I want to remind you a story out of Team of Rivals, a book that I know you admire.
In it, the author relates a story of Tolstoy, a favorite of Gandhi’s, who had visited the Caucasus as a young man and regaled a tribal chief and his subjects with the stories of famous people such as Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great and Napoleon. But the villagers were unimpressed. They wanted to hear about Lincoln. When Lincoln was dished out to them, the Russian writer was rewarded with a fine Arabian horse.
This story has double, actually triple, use. First, I hope fifty years from now, people in remote corners of the world or maybe on Jupiter will be as anxious to hear your story, as they were of Lincoln’s when the Russian writer was alive.
Here is a question: Will your story be worth an Arabian horse?
Mrs. Obama’s family ultimately has Lincoln to thank for her new role as the First Lady of America. Will some future Kurdish First Lady count you among her benefactors? Mr. Erdogan’s family comes from the Caucasus. He is a Georgian by birth, and a Turk by conversion. Don’t tell him this, but the converts are often the worst of bigots. But do tell him how his ancestors, suffering from vile Russian domination, expressed their gratitude for an American emancipator with the gift of a horse to the storyteller. Just as bigotry feeds on bigotry, so does freedom feed on freedom. Leaven him up with tales of dignity, Mr. President. Make Gandhi proud of your stewardship!
One more thing on tactics: Mr. President. You surprised the world by granting your first presidential interview, not to an American, not to a European, not to an African, but to an Arab journalist, Hisham Melhem, of Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite television station. America is at war in a corner of a Muslim world and you wanted to reach out to the faithful by sounding the call of peace. It was a brilliant move. I follow the press of the region and I can tell you that your stock went up.
But if you would like to see it go even higher, why not grant an interview to a Kurdish journalist? You may say, “Kani, America is not at war with Kurds, so why should I do such a thing?” Here’s why: Turks, your “steadfast” allies, (I put the word steadfast in quotation marks, because they would not even hand over a well-known Al Qaeda operative, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, to you), are at war with the Kurds, and as a recipient of Nobel Peace Prize, you should not let a war go to waste—to paraphrase your former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel—should you?
I hope you will consider it. If you do, I have a perfect candidate for you: Ozlem Galip, a bright and articulate student journalist with a good command of the English language.
In your interview with the Turkish journalist in Milliyet, you spoke of your desire to host the Turkish leader and his wife, at your earliest convenience, at the White House. Please do so. This could be your wonderful opportunity to seal a deal for peace for 20 million Kurds inside the borders that pass as Turkey.
Erdogan and his ilk pose the greatest existential threat to Kurds. Freeing 20 million Kurds from Turkish bullies would end the need for Kurdish youth with guns in the mountains. Since our cold is as severe as New York’s, it could also mean the beginning of at least some Kurdish youth with books in the libraries.
Our children could then start unleashing their passions on ways to end HIV/AIDS, cancer, tuberculosis and the deadliest of them all: Ignorance. All this and more could be your grand, humanitarian gift to the Kurds and Kurdistan.
Kurds are your friends. They love you.
Nothing better illustrated that love than when a group of Kurdish farmers sacrificed 44 sheep in your honor to symbolize your accession to the White House as the 44th president of the United States. Like the villagers of Tolstoy’s tale, they were using animals to make a political statement.
Lincoln, of course, was dead when his tale began earning goodies for others.
You are alive, as are the Kurdish farmers. Already you have an established reputation for kindness, as was noted in the press when you wrote a note to Phoebe, Bill Gates’ daughter. The computer mogul had confided in you that his six-year-old was praying for you. Feeling the power of her prayer, you had sent her a handwritten message. It was the right thing to do. Lincoln would have approved it. He had said, “No man is so tall as when he stoops to help a child.”
Do the same for the Kurdish farmers, Mr. President. Thank them for their sacrifice for you. And use the visit of the Erdogans to the White House to express it. Have one of your speechwriters bone up on Kurds and Turks and draft you a brief address for a State Dinner. If you say, “Kani, my staff is busy with the sequester, you are a Kurd, you know the Turks, perhaps you could draft me something and salt it with a bit of Dik humor too, and I would be happy to do my best to make myself an instrument of peace between your people and the Turks.”
I would be honored to help you navigate your way to peace that could stand the test of time. Knowing what I know of your heroes, your remarks would be something like this:
I warmly welcome the Erdogans to the White House. They are the first openly Muslim couple running Turkey just as Michelle and I are the first black couple running this country. (Sorry Bill Clinton, notwithstanding the testimony of Toni Morrison, you are not the first black president.)
Although the Erdogans beat us by five years, I would like to note that the better test for Turkey would have been if the country had its first openly Kurdish couple at the Cankaya Palace or at Kecioren where the Erdogans presently reside.
I see that I only got applause from the Americans in the audience. Our Turkish guests do not drink alcohol, but I have told the White House chef to prepare a meal that will do what alcohol does, to put our visitors at ease (laughter). I am sure we are in for festive mood, pleasing not just our palates, but also our minds.
But getting back to the serious business at hand, in my Nobel address in Oslo, Norway, I spoke of our need for the expansion of our moral imagination to solve our seminal challenges. This moment calls for the resolution of one such challenge. Peace is needed between the Kurds and Turks.
To drive home my point, I have opened the Lincoln Bedroom for our guests tonight. Mr. and Mrs. Erdogan will spend the night with the ghost of our esteemed president. A Turkish translation of the Emancipation Proclamation will be provided to them. It will help put them in the right frame of mind. The times call for radical solutions.
Those who know me will tell you that I firmly believe there is no conflict between security and liberty. When our 16th president freed the ancestors of Michelle, Americans were no worse off for it; they were freed of a moral hazard.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson improved that work, with the help of what we in the black community call the Moses generation, it opened the way for the likes of me, a member of Joshua generation, to further refine it.
Historical narrative is clear: Whites brought blacks here and natives were disenfranchised and murdered over the years. The same has happened elsewhere, and the people our guests represent are the authors of a similar sad deed in Anatolia.
But that can change.
Just as America overcame its past transgressions, so can Turkey.
During my last trip to Turkey, I visited Hagia Sophia, at one time the largest house of worship in Christendom. But, alas, it is a museum today. Mr. Erdogan, in the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who on another occasion called on his partner for peace, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall,” I urge you to let prayers be heard in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
If you help Christians in Turkey, you will help Muslims in this country. By generously weaving together unselfish, ever-growing strands of goodwill between Christians and Muslims, the fertile looms of peace will produce a tapestry of reconciliation, a model of harmony, an uplifting restoration of compassionate humanity to dazzle the world.
In Turkish, there is a saying: “Dost aci soyler,” which translates “True friend says bitter things.” I consider myself a true friend of the Erdogans and the Turkish people. But honesty compels me to speak of 20 million Kurds, although officially called Turks, the descendants of the original inhabitants of what impartial historians and geographers call Kurdistan, presently, predominantly, under the occupation, however well-intentioned, of Turkish troops.
Those Kurds, like the rest of us, deserve their full rights as enshrined by such documents as the English Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory.
But even before the last document was put together with the able help of Eleanor Roosevelt, President Lincoln had noted, “Self-government is better than good government.” If Kurds would like to practice that right, we should lift all the impediments from their path, and that includes the United States.
That right of freedom was exquisitely expressed by the Persian poet Saadi, some 800 years ago: “The best loved by God are those that are rich, yet have the humility of the poor, and those that are poor and have the magnanimity of the rich.”
And long before that, the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah proclaimed, nearly 3,000 years ago: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1, KJV).
Isaiah may have been wondering among flocks of sheep when he uttered those prophetic words. So I want to sincerely pay tribute to that loving group of Kurdish farmers who sacrificed 44 sheep in my honor when I was inaugurated as the 44th president.
Thank you for that wonderful gesture, which touched my heart. As the son of a goat herder, as a grandson of a Muslim, I understand the place of sacrifice in Islamic tradition and want to say thank you in Kurdish: “Spas.”
I understand that goat herding has a gloried tradition in Kurdish society. I am sorry to learn that the recent war between Kurds and Turks has disrupted that way of life due to bombings by our planes and helicopters flown by Turkish pilots. We cannot allow Muslim on Muslim oppression to go on. I will do everything in my power to help restore you to your habitat.
America has honored me as its president, but they did not do so to exalt me personally, I’m sure, but rather to further extol that grand ideal dating from our nation’s cherished infancy—the noble belief incubated by our Pilgrim fathers that America would gleam as a “Shining City on a Hill,” a resplendent beacon of hope for the world, broadcasting the warmhearted promise that America was something far different from Europe and the rest of the tyranny-ravaged world.
That splendid belief has continued, filtering through many refinements—until a Alabama minister exquisitely distilled the essence of freedom and equality with his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, trusting that America would glisten as an oasis of freedom for all, magnificently magnifying our Declaration of Independence’s self-evident “all men are created equal” creed, and that his four children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
America’s majestic “Shining City on a Hill” ideal, is still evolving, of course.
The whole world did not instantly embrace it, any more than all of America did. Progress always has its ups and downs. As Dr. King eloquently reminded us: “Truth pressed to the earth will rise again.”
Then he added, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
I am so fond of the latter statement by Dr. King that I had it embroidered into the Oval Office carpet. I want a group photo with the Erdogans in front of that quote for my presidential library.
I started my political journey for elected office on September 19, 1995, surrounded with family and friends, just like tonight. I said then, “I want to inspire a renewal of morality in politics.”
Now that I am president of the United States, I still believe in my original promise. That promise implies universality, and I gladly embrace its global reach tonight.
When I moved to Chicago and adopted it as my hometown, I learned a phrase that had a bitter history in black neighborhoods: “Urban Renewal is Negro Removal.” It was a bad blockbusting experiment. I took it as a lesson from history, but never thought I would ever need it to make a moral statement.
I now do so. I have come to realize that Turkish armed removal from Kurdistan will mean Kurdish civil revival in the Middle East. This will be a good justice-bringing experience. And beginning tonight, this is the official policy of my administration and Insallah forever that of the United States.
Thank you—and God bless America, God bless Turkey and God bless Kurdistan.
I know Mr. President, the noble sentiments expressed in this make-believe speech and the views expressed in Gibbon’s quote, at the beginning of my letter, do not exactly dovetail with one another. Up until 1776, the year that saw the publication of the English historian’s work, the ruling classes owed their authority to naked swords or the better use of their muskets and mortars. Today, some, you and I among them, think that we have advanced a bit. The humankind has given birth to harmless giants like Gandhi and Dr. King. Our common belief in them, I held, would usher us—in the course of your presidency—into a new era where an abiding love for our battered humanity would be your guiding principle. The record, at least on the mountains of Kurdistan, thus far, belies my presumption. But perhaps you will surprise me. I mean, 40 million Kurds.
If you do, you will be fathering something extraordinary, something worthy of all your heroes, especially Lincoln, including Mr. X, which I am sure will win not just your storytellers, but also you, many, many fine Arabian horses. You can be sure of one other thing: The world will hail your courageous step as the “Obama Doctrine” and history as a turning point.
Only then, what Jon Favreau, your speechwriter, feared most about your presidency would come to pass as an irrelevancy. For he had said, “The most dangerous thing [for Mr. Obama] would be anything that starts exposing hypocrisy in him.”
The choice is yours, Mr. President.
I remain guardedly yours,
17 March 2013