Kurdish Thermopylae: Existential Hope in Hopeless Times
By Matt Broomfield
Not long ago, on the eve of battle against Turkey’s invading military, Kurdish fighters gathered around a smartphone, tarnished AK-47s slung back over their skinny shoulders. These men are not supposed to use phones, but they all have contraband Alcatels anyway, using them mostly to fill the long, dull interludes between combat by playing simulated combat games.
The clip they are watching is popular in Rojava. In a scene from the film 300, Zack Snyder’s incarnate comic strip of orgiastic, us-vs-them violence, we witness the run-up to the Spartan resistance to the Persian invasion at Thermopylae. Leonidas’ band of noble warriors beat their swords on their shields and prepare for sacrifice and certain death. After watching the clip, my Kurdish companions stamp their feet on the dusty ground and chant, wordlessly, in unison.
Within a week, I thought, some of these valiant men (and the women who battle beside them) will be dead .
I also wondered whether they knew that, in the film as in the historical legend, all the Spartans were slaughtered. Most likely they did. Ten plus years into their punishing struggle to resist ethnic cleansing and establish a particular form of democratic, women-led governance, fending off both ISIS and latterly the far-mightier Turkish war machine, it is little wonder the Kurdish People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) feel an affinity with the Spartan idea. In this conflict, Turkey has the war-planes, the tanks, and the second-largest army in NATO. The Kurdish movement have nothing save their rusty Serbian AK-47s and a handful of bleak myths, into which they choose to read cause for hope.
To fight as though there was a choice, when all choice is obviously gone. To willfully trick oneself into courage when everything calls for despair. To be perversely freed by the fact no compromise with the enemy is possible, and therefore to take up arms in pursuit of nothing less than utopia. These blind, human impulses are as ancient as Prometheus. As the Egyptiote poet Constantine Cavafy suggests in his own poem apostrophizing the Spartan resistance, the utmost honor is due to those who defend their own ‘Thermopylaes’, whatever and whenever they might be, in the full knowledge of their impending rout.
The Kurdish movement’s perennially-repeated slogan that ‘resistance is life’ (berxwedan jiyan e), their imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan’s admission that “hope is more worthy than victory”, do indeed mark an open confession of military, political, and pragmatic weakness. But in this confession, the movement also proves itself the inheritor of an embattled, defiant spirit with an ancient and rebellious pedigree. With nothing to fight for, we may as well fight for everything. Relatedly, the Kurdish movement embodies one response to Slavoj Zizek’s call, in his own review of 300, for the urgent need of the left to reclaim from fascism the unfashionable concepts of sacrifice and discipline.
This same capacity for willed resistance in the face of life’s self-evident cruelty is present throughout the liberated territories governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in Rojava. Indeed, a bloody-minded refusal to give in is most acute not where the revolution is most secure and well-established, but where it has suffered the worst setbacks.
Five years ago, the Kurdish region of Afrin was seized and ethnically cleansed by Turkey and its proxy jihadist militias. Many of the 300,000 Kurds displaced from Afrin chose to remain in an isolated exclave adjoining the frontline with the Turkish-occupied Afrin border, struggling on in the barren refugee camps of Shehba rather than accepting their displacement to safer, more prosperous cities elsewhere. In this barren scrap of land, more perhaps than anywhere else I visited in North and East Syria, the people’s stubborn revolutionary will was apparent.
When I asked one elderly camp resident if she was worried, given that her tent was within range of the shells which Turkish-backed militias regularly lobbed toward her refugee camp, she looked at me askance. “My tent isn’t close to the front-line,” she answered, “it’s close to Afrin.”
She wanted to at least smell the wind coming from the olive-groves of their occupied homeland, she said, a stock phrase I heard often repeated by other refugees. The cliché emboldened the grandmother – for what is a cliché but a way to reassure ourselves of truths we rely on, but worry may be false? And in turn her defiant presence, pointless in the sense that there currently remains no realistic hope of return to Afrin, was nonetheless able to create a real political impact, enabling the Kurdish movement to retain both a strategic military foothold and a vital ideological horizon to struggle toward.
This is not a question of the super-human proclivity for revolution which orientalist analyses ascribe to ‘the Kurds’ alone, defined as one monolithic, apolitical entity. Much the same mentality was present among the civilian Arab families I met on the trail of the war against ISIS, returning to bombed-out homes to hang up washed clothes between broken walls still dirtied with ash and blood, laying out packets of crisp and tinned tomato paste on broken pallets, willing community out of almost nothing. As in the Palestinian refugee camps throughout the Levant, people prefer to remain in limbo, clutching rusted keys handed down through generations as a mute symbol of their hope to one day open their own front doors again. Neither vanquished nor with hope of victory, they remain, like the Rebel in Albert Camus’ work of the same name, suspended in the active and productive tension of endless revolt and continued struggle. Resistance is life: life is resistance.
This political idea is not unique to the Kurdish movement, but has a long history in radical, anti-authoritarian, and existential thought. In Rojava, I saw Soren Kierkegaard’s theological concept of a ‘leap of faith’ beyond all rationality undertaken by the truly faithful reflected in the necessarily utopian political commitment of local and internationalist revolutionaries alike. This is no simple, secular theodicy, reasoning the necessity of good from the fact of evil, but a complex and grueling journey, not to be undertaken lightly. Kierkegaard’s paradoxical sense of faith, which can be reached only when one has the courage to admit any logical belief in God is absurd – “it is great to give up one’s wish, but it is greater to hold it fast after having given it up” – may be unfashionable in the West, but is alive among the revolutionary class in northern Syria.
A strange, backward hope explodes into the world at moments of historical crisis, as millennialist religious ecstasy, as revolutionary fervor indistinguishable from madness, as self-delusion and self-sacrifice, as the Promethean spit in the eye of the gods and Frantz Fanon’s ‘first bullet’ fired against the seemingly omnipotent master. This is what happened in Kobanê, when Kurdish forces’ dogged resistance in the face of apparently-inevitable defeat at ISIS’ hands won them unexpected, global support. Nor has its force been extinguished by the dead weight of contemporary mass culture, as the journey of the Sparta story shows, travelling around the world via the 300 blockbuster to return, two and a half millennia later, to a smartphone screen cracked like the fallen Leonidas’ shield.
Thus the very inevitability of Kurdish defeat below Turkish air-strikes in Afrin is cited by locals as proof of their heroism. If there is no point deluding ourselves that the YPG stood a chance against Turkey’s F-16s, still less is there any point wallowing in a chronic and equally stultifying defeatism – one charge among many the Kurdish movement levels at the Western left. It is in this sense, too, that the Kurdish movement’s valorization of its martyrs can be understood: they are seen as ‘walking into history’, a secular pantheon whose preservation in memory is proof of an embattled, defiant, maniacal conviction, so strong it could only have been produced in the white heat of the endless defeats, set-backs and deaths which mark the Kurdish movement’s history.
It is not hard to find historic accounts wary of hope’s narcotic, poisonous effect, always unfulfilled, always doomed to disappointment. From Plato’s Timaeus through Thomas Aquinas, to Friedrich Nietzsche, hope has always been an ambiguous value, best avoided by the wise. But a stubborn, sometimes unexamined, refusal to relinquish that hope also recurs again and again. The Norse concept of hope as the slobber dripping from the mouth of the grim wolf Fenrir is telling: as at Thermopylae, as in Afrin, their heroes were those who fought not only bravely, but cheerfully, in hope’s total absence.
This defiant, willed hope against hope is what Afrin – invaded, pillaged, ethnically-cleansed, still invoked daily by Kurdish grandmothers and political activists alike – represents five years after its occupation. Their home region, many Afrini IDPs repeated to me wistfully, was ‘heaven’, an Eden of olive-groves and Syria’s most fertile soil. Just as the metaphor suggests, Afrin remains ideal, unobtainable, and capable of motivating great personal sacrifice.
This tension is inherent in the very geography of the Shehba refugee camps, where canvas is slowly being surrounded by concrete supporting walls and dusty gardens, each home embodying the complex relationship between hard years in the wilderness and the enduring hope of return. For as long as these camps remain in situ, a hope as potent as it is unfulfilled will continue to spring up endlessly, its source somewhere out of sight, just beyond the line of contact.