Rojava as Mesopotamia: Building Solidarity through Mythology

By Katia Lloyd Jones

In the shadows of the global media, the Kurdish freedom struggle continues. Muted by mainstream narratives that favour more palatable resistance movements, the extremity of Turkish violence goes on without condemnation from world leaders. While the steadfast and unwavering resilience of the Kurdish people is undeniable, it may not be enough against NATO’s second-largest army. With daily drone strikes, bombings, and assassinations occurring in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), hereon referred to as Rojava, it is becoming increasingly important for the Kurdish movement to find its way back into the spotlight and reignite international solidarity.

There is an extensive amount of literature that has been published about the emergence of Rojava, and the nature of its Democratic Confederalist political ideology. This is accompanied by detailed analyses of the re-emergence of Kurdish nationalism following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the decades of armed struggle by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) against Turkish occupation. However, since the West largely deems the threat of ISIS as over, the media and academia have largely abandoned Rojava. As such, little attention has been placed on the emerging discourse of Kurdish indigeneity and the strategic imperatives such a claim has for the contemporary Kurdish resistance movement, nor has attention been granted to the escalation in violence being employed by Turkey.

The Orientalist tendencies of the West in its attempts to sympathise with the Kurdish cause have thus contributed to their ongoing marginalization, as there is a sizeable gap in the discussion of what motivates the decades-long Kurdish resistance and how they are dealing with new pressures. For many Western audiences, the Kurdish fighters of the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) and YPG  (People’s Protection Units) emerged out of nowhere, and their attempts to promote their radical political experiment in Rojava have been overwhelmed by celebrating only their military prowess. Therefore, it is up to the political leaders in Rojava to successfully export a new image of Rojava.

For decades the regimes of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria have framed their occupied Kurdish minority communities as direct threats to stability through the dissemination of national mythologies which posit them as “barbaric killers or radicalised terrorists.” Turkey’s racist myth that the Kurdish people are nothing more than ‘Mountain Turks’, also referred to as the ‘narrative of denial’, has similarly been employed as a means of eradicating Kurdish identity. However, utilizing the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan’s written guidance, this same tactic of purposefully promoting certain historic narratives and mythologies has become an important part of Rojava’s ‘rebrand’. Showcasing the antiquity of Kurdish culture and the paramount role the community has had in regional peacekeeping allows the political elite in Rojava to prove that to be Kurdish is to be distinctly different to the Arab, Persian and Turkish neighbours that surround them. In particular, the Kurdish cultural institutions of Rojava have begun emphasizing their historic presence in Mesopotamia, framing mythological Mesopotamian figures as Kurdish and drawing parallels between these heroes and the martyrs of the contemporary Kurdish freedom movement.

The Arab Spring and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, alongside the subsequent Western intervention, has seen the Middle East become a hotbed for non-state armed actors. However, given the multitude of groups seeking to exploit the resultant power vacuums, it is crucial that Rojava receives international support to ensure its survival. Thus, great attention has been placed on reforming the Kurdish reputation of separatism and situating Democratic Autonomy as the best solution to the ongoing instability, despite its radical nature.

As a result, the Kurdish armed resistance against ISIS has been transformed by the West as an asset in its ongoing involvement in the Middle East. But this evolution has created an awkward hypocrisy from Western states, where the same Kurdish fighters are celebrated for defeating jihadist terror, but then allowed to be struck by NATO-member Turkey’s armed drones without much protest. In this way, Western leaders rarely push back against the framing of ‘Kurdishness’ as synonymous with terrorism when it is done by the Turkish state – despite the fact that Rojava’s Kurdish fighters have been the most trusted and reliable allies of the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS. For their part, the recent emphasis by Rojava’s political leaders on the peacekeeping and protectionist nature of YPG and YPJ Kurdish fighters has come to improve their international standing greatly and they have received significant support from the US as well as a far larger network of global solidarity.

The Yezidi community have also been central in this attempt to reform perceptions of the Kurdish armed resistance. The narrative of how the ancient Kurdish-speaking Yezidis (most of whom consider themselves ethnic Kurds) were rescued from ISIS genocide by Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK and YPG in August of 2014, serves to frame this relationship as a brotherhood in existence for thousands of years.

While it may initially seem merely logical that the Kurdish freedom movement perceives the Yezidi community, another heavily oppressed group, as intrinsic to their cause, it has incredibly pertinent strategic political objectives. The Yezidis are deemed one of the oldest religious groups in the Middle East, with connections to Zoroastrianism. By situating themselves as the oldest allies to the Yezidis, the Kurdish movement has been able to place their defensive capabilities as evidence of them being the ancient caretakers and protectors of the land. This is an extremely potent storyline and the recent attempts to highlight this relationship are indicative of Rojava’s commitment to shifting the media’s perception of Kurdishness.

Kurdish Women YPJ fighters stand at attention overlooking the Euphrates River separating Rojava from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Another key example of the Kurdish use of mythology as a political tool can be seen in the evolving symbolism of Ishtar. Ishtar is the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war and she was considered one of the most formidable of the Mesopotamian deities. In Rojava today, she is shown to be a representation of traditional Kurdish values by associating the sacrifices of the YPJ with her legacy of the divine feminine. The exportation of the Kurdish female as a ‘mother-goddess’ narrative was highly successful, revolutionising gender dynamics within Kurdish society and achieving international applause for the movement. Through the promotion of this ancient figure as central to the Kurdish culture, Öcalan was able to present the Kurds as both an ancient ethnic group and a matriarchal society, fundamentally different from its patriarchal neighbours. This perception of the Kurdish community as a feminist utopia in a heavily patriarchal region then put Rojava in a position of being an acceptable ally in the eyes of the international community post 2014, despite female fighters having existed within the PKK since the 1980s and various  other Kurdish armed groups since the 1960s and 1970s.

While Ishtar acts as the female emancipatory figure for the YPJ, Kawa the Blacksmith can be perceived as representing the other half of Kurdish liberation. In the legend of Kawa, he leads a rebellion against the tyrannical King Zuhak, in response to his genocidal attacks against the Kurdish people. Prior to the defeat of the tyrannical King, the children of the village had retreated to the mountains and according to the legend became the first Kurds. Once the King was killed, Kawa lit a bonfire to show the newly liberated Kingdom it had been freed, this gave way to the tradition of Newroz, an event still celebrated today that symbolises freedom from oppression and hope for Kurdish self-determination. The legend of Kawa has become one of the key foundational myths of the Kurdish self-determination movement, representing sacrifice and loyalty to the Kurdish cause, but similarly marking a sense of pan-Kurdish unity. Like the myth of Ishtar, the story has been modernised by the Kurdish political leadership by comparing the martyrs of the PKK (such as Mazlum Doğan) who have participated in self-immolation on Newroz to Kawa, the provider of Kurdish freedom. The legend of Kawa is now jointly relied upon with the story of the goddess Ishtar as key examples of Kurdish antiquity, Kurdish rejection of patriarchy, and the Kurdish ability to bring peace when freed from the bonds of oppression.

While Mesopotamian folklore is being utilised to improve the Kurdish reputation and to encourage reform within the Kurdish community in regard to the social ideals of Democratic Confederalism, it is similarly relied upon to allow for the Rojavan rejection of a nation-state to be seen as logical and viable. The rejection of the Westphalian nation-state model is a significant part of the theory of Democratic Autonomy, yet the centrality prescribed to the nation-state in international relations places this rejection as a threat to regional stability. In order to ensure international support is maintained in the face of such radical politics, Mesopotamian mythology can be seen as being used to present contemporary Kurdish ideals as a return to traditional values, rather than a radical re-articulation of societal norms. In a sense, it shows the Kurds as pre-dating the idea of a nation-state, hence why autonomy is the more logical solution to the Kurdish question.

Furthermore, the notion of sovereignty and the nation-state was imported to the Middle East through European imperialism, yet the division of the land without consideration of the complex geopolitical relationships between ethnic groups has meant its foundations have always been vulnerable. What we have seen in the Arab Spring and subsequent Rojava Revolution is the rejection of these European ideas. The international framing of Syria as ‘weakened’ allowed for the Kurdish leadership of Rojava to showcase how the infancy of the nation-state system was incompatible with the geopolitical realities of the region. They were then able to situate Democratic Autonomy’s rejection of the nation-state as a return to the Mesopotamian social system which had allowed for peace across the region. In addition, through the emphasis on Democratic Autonomy as being an ancient, and therefore a more natural system, the Rojava Administration is able to present the movement as less radical than the other challenges to the nation-state in the region, such as the formation of an Islamic caliphate.

Through the dissemination of Kurdish myths, Rojava has been able to explain the history of the Kurdish community in a far more relatable way, increasing solidarity by humanising the movement. Furthermore, the recognition of the Kurdish people as indigenous to the lands of former Mesopotamia that is beginning to occur has the potential to fundamentally transform the way the international community mitigates conflict in the Middle East. Art, literature, music, and other forms of cultural expression serve as bridges that connect the world, and leaders in Rojava should continue to use their mythology and folklore to provide insight into the essence of the Kurdish struggle. By showcasing the rich heritage, vibrant traditions, and creative endeavours of the Kurdish people, the Kurdistan freedom movement can not only counteract misrepresentations but also foster a deeper appreciation for its aspirations.

Recognising the depth of Kurdish culture is not just a matter of acknowledging their historical precedence but also a testament to the enduring quest for self-determination, cultural preservation, and the affirmation of their right to freedom. This strategic use of national myths is representative of a significant shift towards pragmatism by Kurdish leaders. And, despite the lack of critical engagement with these narratives of resistance from the rest of the world, the curated dissemination of national myths situating the Kurds as protectors, victims, and supporters of gender equality since the Mesopotamian era, has allowed the movement to subtly generate broad international solidarity.

The Kurdish resistance is not defined solely by the ebb and flow of media coverage. It is sustained by the courage of its people, the power of their stories, and the strength of their determination. Yet, a concerted effort to publicise the stories of Kurdish mythology, history, and culture is needed by leaders in Rojava because unfortunately, the global media will only elevate the Kurdish movement if they see it as a story that will capture attention for their organisations. We are living in a digital age, where winning wars are dependent on which side gets the support and sympathy of the masses. The leaders of Rojava need to ensure they continue to utilise this tool and plant Rojava firmly back into the humanitarian spotlight.

Author

  • Katia Lloyd Jones

    Katia Lloyd Jones is a photojournalist originally from Sydney, Australia. In 2021 she completed an Honours Thesis at the University of New South Wales that focused on the use of national mythology and folklore for political strategizing in the context of Rojava. Following this, she travelled to Basur in 2022 to take part in the second Rojavan Working Brigade where she assisted with the production of a documentary on the program. Upon returning back to Australia, Katia and her colleagues held an exhibition showcasing images and video from their time in Basur, this exhibition raised over $2000 to send to Kurdish communities struggling in the aftermath of the Syrian-Turkey earthquake. She remains passionate about the Kurdish cause and is dedicated to encouraging conversations about the Kurdish question to the world.

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