A country can’t be free unless the women are free.
—Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK, recognized as a terrorist organization by the US, NATO, and the EU.
Mountains outside Siirt, Turkey
12:40 p.m. GMT−8, May 1, 2021
“He didn’t die in vain, Zara.”
Two dark-haired women stand high, overlooking a green valley, beyond which there is another mountain, and another behind that. These are the northernmost peaks of the Zagros Fold, a 1500-kilometer creation of the Arabic tectonic plate smashing into the Eurasian plate twenty million years ago. They form a crown around the lands known today as the Fertile Crescent, extending from southern Turkey through northern Iraq, along the border with Iran and down to the Red Sea.
But for these two women, the only importance of these mountains is the safe haven they have provided for the people known as Kurds, who have found shelter and safety in these alpines for thousands upon thousands of years. Who until two years ago were the largest ethnic group in the world without a country.
The taller of the two women wears a grey outer gown over a full-length purple dress, black belt, sandals, and headscarf, the latter decorated with colorful embroidered flowers and carefully wrapped around her oval face, tucking away her shoulder-length dark brown hair. On her wrist is a simple wind-up watch. Her almond-shaped dark eyes are fixed on the horizon, where she still sees the village.
“Didn’t he? Die in vain?” replies Zara. “I told my little boy brother not to join the PKK. We needed him at home. He was the last man left in my family. And now, there is only me, my mother, my grandmother, and thank Xwedê, still my great-grandmother.”
Putting her hand around Zara to comfort her is Peri, who in contrast wears a formfitting red cotton top covered by a loose beige sweater, black cotton capri pants, and tan sandals with sequins matching the ones on her sweater. Her shoulder-length dark brown hair is pulled into a ponytail, with two stylish twists on each side of her face. And on her wrist, at the adamant request of her friend, nothing. No MoxWorld devices at all.
“He died while trying to get the women and children of that village, the one you imagine seeing on the horizon, up into the mountains as government troops searched for the PKK,” Peri states calmly. “He died a hero.”
“And what good are heroes?” Zara laments. “Especially when they are dead.”
Zara walks along the mountainside through the lush green vegetation of spring. Patches of red, purple, blue, and yellow flowers litter the landscape. She bends over to pick a number of red ones.
“My mother lined his room with poppies of this color after his death. The color of the blood shed by the men of our family.”
Following her best friend as she walks, as she always has, Peri asks, “Then why did you insist we meet here, if his memory brings back such pain?”
“Because you want me to help the Anatolian Kurdish separatists. There is a price one pays. My little boy brother did,” the taller woman replies, her long earlobes peeking out from her headscarf in the gust of wind. “I don’t agree with separatism. I believe we should work out a peaceful solution. One that would better the lives of Kurdish women. Equality for all as we saw in Rojava. Women and men governed together as equals. I want you to think about the consequences of what you ask of me now.”
“They only want your advice. You do not have to take up arms.”
“They want my connection to him,” Zara replies, pulling her silk scarf closer around her oval face. She throws her poppies with the wind gust, which sends them flying a hundred meters as if they were little balloons.
Silence as they walk by a more crimson-red set of poppies. Peri bends down and picks some and hands them to Zara.
“I do not like that shade of red,” Zara says as she drops the crimson reminders of “him” and crushes them under her sandal.
“Why do I follow you, Zara?” asks the disturbed Peri. “You are so complicated. Poppies are poppies.”
“Why did you follow me?” retorts her friend.
“You were the only woman to beat me in the Peshmerga training camp,” says Peri, slapping Zara’s shoulder with the back of her hand. “You were the best. The American military advisors knew that too. You were only second to me in attracting men of all sorts…mostly the wrong sort, unfortunately.”
Zara winces. “Don’t mention that American. He’s history to me.”
Peri slaps her shoulder again. “And when you punched out that boy you followed into the Peshmerga, you were my hero.”
And that gets Zara to stop. She stamps her feet. Her hands form fists by her sides. “He should have told me rather than hide his deceit. Men. Their failed promises. Their lies. Chlamydia is not something you hide. Nor is a family and an adorable wife safe at home away from the war zone where you have seduced an unwitting local girl into thinking she would marry you after the next campaign, and the next, and the next.”
Rubbing her finger across her teeth, Peri smiles. “I’m sure Mr. Chlamydia still remembers you too, with his two front false teeth.”
She takes Zara’s hand, looking at the scars across her knuckles. “And this one here is from the teeth that you knocked out from that Daesh ape who grabbed me when we were on patrol outside Kobanî.”
Taking her hand back, rubbing across her knuckles, Zara says, “They kidnapped women in the villages they took to make them their so-called ‘wives.’ As your commanding officer, I couldn’t let them take you.”
“As my friend, you couldn’t,” Peri replies as she punches her friend’s left shoulder. “Does it still hurt where you took the bullet instead of me?”
Zara pretends to wince and smiles as she replies, “Well, you did the same for me.”
“Yeah, but that one missed me as I shoved you aside.” Peri punches Zara again in the same spot. “That’s why I followed you into your YPJ unit. We were there to save the Rojovan Kurds in Syria, like we did the Bashur Kurds back home in Iraq. And now, after the non-Kurdish Syrian and Iraqi factions united to form the AC, the Arabic Confederation, the Kurds finally have won their nation. At least the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds.”
Stopping to gaze upon the horizon again, but this time looking southeast, Zara says, “I miss my mountains back in Duhok Province.”
“Well, I miss my mountains east of Hewler. And they are prettier than the ones in Duhok.”
And that is what best friends are for. Getting you to smile when you talk yourself into a slump. And Zara smiles. “Don’t tell me about pretty and Hewler. I had a bad dress day there when I was a teen.” She pulls her scarf tight around her head again. “My grandmother made sure I was appropriately corrected.” And she laughs.
With a sly look on her face, Peri says, “If you help the nearly fifteen million Kurds here in Turkey, they can unite with the other Kurds, including our friends in Duhok and Hewler, in the New Kurdistan. One nation of twenty-three million who can freely speak, teach, and practice their Kurdish traditions without prosecution.”
She turns Zara to face her and with a very somber visage she states, “But that can only happen if you talk with the big man. What do you call him? Sasha?”
Eyes closed, a big sigh, and a series of little breaths. Finally, Zara replies, “It’s been nearly three years. He knows I want nothing to do with him.”
“He wants to talk with you. He’ll get the Russians to back the Anatolian Kurds. Come on, the Chinese backed the moderate factions in old Syria and Iraq, which led to the formation of the Arabic Confederation. Rumor is, after the Americans backed out, your Sasha got his Russian buddies to back the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, which allowed them to form New Kurdistan. With your word in his ear, he’ll do it again for the Kurds here in Turkey.”
The proverbial lightbulb goes off, and Zara squints and peers into her eyes. She opens up Peri’s loose sweater to get a better look at the tight fit of her red cotton top. And she sighs again.
“You saw him, didn’t you? What did he ask you to do? You didn’t? Did you?”
“What do you mean?” Peri gasps, closing her sweater around her bust. “He was a gentleman. A little lecherous in the way he looks you over…and where he put his hands when he said goodbye.” She pauses. “Come to think of it, maybe he was not such a gentleman.”
“Peri, don’t be naïve,” yells Zara. “Monstrous men like him have only two purposes for women. And if you’re lucky, you’re only a sexual object to him. I wasn’t so lucky.”
Silence again. Zara takes Peri’s hand. “If you promise me you will never meet with him again, I will consult for those who wish to form the Anatolian Kurdish State. Stay away from Sasha.”
Arms folded, covering her bust, Peri pleads, “With the AC forces threatening Turkey’s border this morning, the time is perfect for the Kurds in this region to declare independence. The Turkish army will be split between chasing us and defending the southern flank.”
Clasping Zara’s hands in hers, Peri adds, “You know full well without the advanced weaponry from MoxWorld Defense Industries and the Russians, the Anatolian Kurds will be crushed within months of their declaration of independence. The slaughter will be worse than Kobanî in every one of our cities. Remember what Saddam did to our families, our villages? Was that all in vain, what we fought for?”
Zara looks afar. Adjusts her scarf again. Drapes her grey outer gown tightly around her body. “It’s one thing to have your body taken away from you to do with what they wish. It’s another when they own your soul. I have taken both back. I live in complete submission to Xwedê and only serve Him now.”
“And Xwedê will watch the Kurds be slaughtered once again,” Peri insists as she pushes Zara’s headscarf off her head. “Unless Xwedê offers better military technology than Alexander Murometz, all the mothers of this region will be putting poppies on the graves of their sons, their husbands, their uncles, and now, their daughters.”
Her piercing eyes darken, like the grey clouds above that now blot out sun. The grounds go dark. The winds pick up. Silence as the two women stare at each other, neither one willing to give ground as the winds swirls around them, lifting the edges of Zara’s scarf into the air.
With pure black circles for eyes, Zara pulls the black cloth back around her head and asserts, “Tell the regional commander of your new Anatolian Kurdish State to give this message to Mr. Murometz. If the great giant will not protect them, I will hunt him down and shoot him.” She pokes Peri’s forehead with her index finger. “In the head. One shot. In those words, exactly. Sasha will recognize those as my words.”
And Peri pokes Zara back in the forehead several times and then laughs. “You need to lighten up. You promised you would shop with me for our jelli eidi, our end of Ramadan dresses.” She pulls open her sweater and pulls down her top, giving a salacious smile. “And you are going to get something that will make men’s tongues drop out this year, yes? You know we are not getting any younger. Two unmarried women in their midthirties. What’s our chance of finding a good man to share the better part of our lives with?”
“None,” Zara affirms as she looks at Peri’s feet, then at hers. Peri now has soft feet with pedicured nails and gloss. Hers? Weathered skin, natural nails. And scars. The worst on the bottom. It took her months to learn to walk again with the littlest of hints of what happened. But it took her years to cover the scars within her.
“Since when did you do that to your feet?” asks a worried Zara. “What happened with you and that giant man?”
“He had me meet Rhonda, who gave me a fashion makeover,” says Peri, pointing to the gloss on her lips. “I can do the same for you when we get our drop-dead gorgeous holiday dresses.”
Zara’s alarm goes off. One p.m. “Time for Dhuhr prayer. Will you join me?”
“You know I am not as devout as you,” Peri states as she looks at the rough rocky ground. “Well, there’s that time you asked the whole unit to pray before the assault on Tell Abyad. We didn’t lose anyone through the whole campaign. Maybe your prayers saved them.”
As she looks for a mat of grass to pad her knees, Zara replies, “I only wanted the more religious members of our unit to understand that when we liberated the women in the Daesh-held villages, when we abolished the parts of the Sharia law that oppressed women, we were not acting against Xwedê or the words of the Prophet.”
“That’s why I followed you and still do. You made tangible, made real for our soldiers the teachings we learned in our Peshmerga training. Were we not told that a country cannot be free unless the women are free? Under Kurdish rule, women have equal say in political rule.”
Watching Zara as she searches for a soft place she can pray, Peri taps her on the head to get her full attention. “Remember our Peshmerga training about Jineology? ‘Without the freedom of women within society and without a real consciousness surrounding women, no society can call itself free.’ You made us recite this each morning. You made that idea come alive in your unit.”
A stretch of arms upwards, a gaze up into the sky, and Zara finally replies. “And the other principle I asked everyone to recite. ‘Woman’s true freedom is only possible if the enslaving emotions, needs and desires of husband, father, lover, brother, friend and son can all be removed. The deepest love constitutes the most dangerous bonds of ownership.’”
She shakes her head and laments, “And what has that done for us? Forty percent of Kurdish women in Anatolia still cannot read. I tell you the solution is not political, not religious, certainly not military technology, but simple economics. History is all about the power of economics. Our people have been suppressed due to economics. The lands we grew up in are rich in resources others want. Economics aside, most of our unit joined to escape the patriarchal traditions of rural Kurdistan.”
Nodding her head in agreement, Peri affirms, “Firya escaped an arraigned marriage, Beri and Sana evaded honor killings. Me, I ran from my abusive husband who was thirty years older than me. Being sold at thirteen for dowry and a box of gold is not an honor.”
She stops, peering deep into her friend’s eyes. “And you, Zara. What were you running from?”
Alone higher up the mountain, Zara seeks respite from that question. She is still running.
She misses her mountains in Duhok Province, formerly northern Iraq, now part of the country of New Kurdistan. Who is she fooling? She misses her walks in her mountains with her father. Who is she fooling again? She misses her father. Peace for her was found in those mountains, walking hand in hand with her father.
“Why did he have to kill himself? He had peace with me,” said the little Zara, the girl deep inside the big Zara, a memory she fights so hard to repress.
She cannot fault Peri for asking. As her second-in-command, Peri always asked the right questions, and on her watch, they brought the unit through the war with only a few nonfatal wounds. Including hers.
Atop the mountain, she finds a modicum of solace in the high air, the blue sky, the early moon rising on the horizon. The purest silence. The essence of her inner peace.
She looks around for the impolite intruder upon her peace. Scan and scan.
And she finally sees them. Two newborn lambs, near a crushed crate down near a ravine. A few minutes down a treacherous rocky precipice, she sees their problem. Their mother recently died in the crate. Their sibling also died, likely shortly after birth. She sits down near the precious babies. A black one, a white one. They come to her, and she takes them into her lap, warming them with her body heat. It does not take much more than a minute before they have decisively adopted her. Maryam, Zara’s mother, will be very pleased. For Zara is now a mother.
Licks to her face, nature’s biology, genetic destiny come forth as her warrior façade, brought forth by her meeting with Peri, subsides, leaving but a warmth and a glow. And their eyes. Those of utter innocence. Simply heartwarming. After what seems to go on for hours, the mountain girl in her recognizes she needs to head home before nightfall enwraps the high terrain. Looking at the climb needed to get out of the ravine, she sees that her two little ones cannot make it out without her help. What can she do? She needs both hands to climb. And there are two. She removes her scarf, which forms a makeshift baby carrier on her back. Lucky lambs are not only adorable, but little enough to fit.
Atop the mountain again under blue skies, she looks at them more closely. Two little girls. If they were older, she would make them walk all the way home, like her father did to her. But getting home by Asr prayer takes priority. And she double-times it down the mountain as only a girl who grew up in the Kurdish alpines could.
As she gets to the edge of her great-grandmother’s home village, she puts her new baby girls on the ground so they can learn to walk with her. She gives them their first motherly lesson. “Don’t go chasing after the first boy lamb that wags his you-know-what at you. He’ll make promises that fill your heart and soul. But they’re only promises. And promises are only there to be broken. Like your heart. And if you are lucky, only your heart.”
On the way back through the village, they come upon a house with a woman crying hysterically outside the entry steps. A little older than Zara, Kilda, once a girl who Zara’s grandmother babysat, points into the house, screaming away in machine-gun Kurdish. Kilda’s daughter, Waja, thirteen years old, had been betrothed to a man twenty-five years older. Kilda explains, “Waja escaped from her tormentor, the man who paid her father for her body as his third wife. And this man wanted his property back.”
Zara reflects. Waja is about the same age as her aunt Leyla and Peri when they were essentially sold off by their families. None of these marriages worked, and the poor girls were left suffering and traumatized by their supposed husbands.
Screams of a young woman come from within the house. The kinds of screams Zara knows all too well.
Zara’s eyes darken. Piercing black. She turns to Kilda and hands her her new furry daughters. Now with two lambs in her care, Kilda quivers at the sight of Zara’s burning eyes. Even fiercer than those of the incensed brute inside, who is physically beating a lesson into her daughter for fleeing their lawful marriage.
Before the crying woman can stop her, Zara rushes into the house. Crashes and thuds precede a bloodcurdling scream, and running out of the house comes a naked man in his forties, with a purple eye and a bloodied nose, holding his hands over his even more blued genitals. He turns and yells Kurdish obscenities back into the house, which results in Zara throwing his pants onto his head. As Zara comes out of the house, he goes running, trying to get his legs into his pants.
Zara comes back out and sits on the doorstep with Kilda. Her knuckles bloodied, she winces as she holds her right pinky, which hurts like it might be broken. She says to a bewildered Kilda, “You should tend to Waja. She needs her mother at this moment.”
She holds her little lambs to her rapidly pulsing chest, careful not to get her blood on them. “You are fortunate. You are born with innocence and submission to Xwedê. Do not stray. I know. Do not stray.”