Kobane is a city of about 40,000 people in northern Syria; it is the administrative capital of Rojava, a multi-ethnic self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish nationalists claim as part of a greater Kurdistan. The city was besieged by ISIS militants in July 2014 and liberated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their all-woman forces, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), six months later. The YPG/YPJ are closely associated with the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist movement that has been classified as a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. In 2014 and 2015 the Italian cartoonist Zerocalcare traveled in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and visited Kobane (most English-language sources render the town’s name as Kobanî, but I will stick with Zerocalcare’s preferred spelling) to document the struggles of Kurds and the Turks and Arabs who support them to create a new type of society in what they hope will one day be an independent Kurdish republic. The book Zerocalcare wrote about his experience, Kobane Calling: Greetings from Northern Syria, (Lion Forge Press) is one of the most outstanding works of graphic journalism that I have ever read.
What drew Zerocalcare to Kobane is not a story about national liberation, but one about a revolution seeking to create a just and egalitarian society. The people fighting for Rojava govern their society according to a social contract built on the empowerment of women, ethnic and religious plurality, socialist economics, and environmental protection. These are not values that we in the West typically associate with Middle Eastern political movements in the age of Islamic fundamentalism. Zerocalcare wants to “defend … a model of peaceful coexistence for the entire Middle East, if not the world” and makes no secret of his belief in the Kurdish cause. He sees the people of Kobane as “a beacon for humanity” whose struggle “should be aided, defended, [and] supported.”
Witnessing the suffering and struggles of the people of Rojava as they confront the Turkish government on the one hand and ISIS on the other, Zerocalcare comes to understand that “even the guy who seems like some boring old accountant … has had a life that makes Die Hard look like a kid’s party. And makes you feel like the village idiot.” We have grown numb to the horrific crimes committed by ISIS, a movement we think of as a horde of “sadistic savage bloodthirsty marauders.” This perception not only reduces a complex regional conflict to a simple tale of good versus evil, it obscures important political dynamics. ISIS commits mass atrocities informed by their particular brand of fascistic, fundamentalist Islamism; they also destabilize strategic regions to the advantage of other powers, notably Turkey, a country that, as Zerocalcare documents, may work selectively with ISIS in order to strike at the Kurds.
Many of the YPG/YPJ fighters that we meet joined the movement to seek refuge from and strike back against violence and oppression. However, it was not ISIS terrorism that had shaped their lives: in fact, much of the horror Zerocalcare reports on was inflicted not by ISIS, but by Turkey, a NATO country and a key partner in the campaign against ISIS. Ezel, Zerocalcare’s principal contact with the YPJ, was imprisoned at age thirteen for protesting laws that banned people from speaking Kurdish in public. Three years later, she witnessed a friend being shot dead by Turkish police. Another young woman fled to join the PKK after being sentenced to ninety-eight years in prison for attending a protest against a plan to develop a green space. Other women fled to the YPJ to flee gender-based violence and the patriarchal structures that traditionally dictate their lives, as in the case of one young woman who joined the movement to escape being forced into an arranged marriage.
The space in the Venn diagram where Turkey’s geopolitical position overlaps with gender informs what Zerocalcare calls the “Great Mesopotamian Hoax,” an intellectual move that allows the West to separate the “good Kurds” – women fighting ISIS in Syria – from the “bad Kurds” – bearded “terrorists” fighting Turkey. Zerocalcare’s main goal in writing this book is to debunk that hoax and reveal how the Kurdish struggle has, as a foundational value, the the liberation of women, and men, from the political, social, and cultural forces that oppress them, whether that oppression comes from the Turkish state, ISIS, or the internal dynamics of Kurdish society.
The PKK’s focus on female emancipation and empowerment not only informs structures of daily life like work and marriage; broadly feminist values also inform their approach to politics, war-making and community relations. Lessons about gender equality and female empowerment are as much a part of the soldiers’ training as learning to clean a mortar. As Commander Nasrin, head of the YPJ says, each trainee has to “learn how to kill the domineering male inside us and others … and challenge age-old relations between men and women.” This is “the foundation of the revolution.” Moreover, the movement prioritizes protecting civilians – women and children – from the effects of the conflict. They have a strict policy of avoiding civilian targets; one YPJ fighter tells Zerocalcare that soldiers won’t pick fruit from civilian-owned trees so as to protect civilians from Turkish retribution for supporting fighters.
The woman-centric aspects of the Kurdish movement complicate standard Western narratives about women and Islam in the Middle East, narratives which have little room to account for women exercising political and social agency. From women being driven out of the public sphere by the Taliban in Afghanistan to women being taken as sexual slaves by ISIS, protecting women has been a key part of the discourse justifying Western aggression in the Muslim world. Yet in Kurdistan it’s Muslim women who have made many of the sacrifices to remake their world as they see fit. “What,” Zerocalcare wonders as he learns more about the role of women in the Kurdish revolution, “do we have to teach them again?”
I read Kobane Calling after reading Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts, another work of graphic journalism that covers developments in the Middle East in the years after the formal end of the Iraq war. While the two books have different points of focus – Glidden’s principal concern is Iraqi refugees and the journalists who document their stories – they both shed light on the widespread regional instability that developed in the wake of the illegal and failed American invasion of Iraq. Read together, both speak to the vast possibilities of graphic journalism. Stylistically, the two artists occupy very different spaces. Unlike Glidden, whose drawing and text are are subtle and understated, Zerocalcare takes full advantage of the reality-bending aspects of comics art. By using a bold, cartoon-y style that highlights comic exaggeration, asides to the reader, and pop-culture references, Zerocalcare conveys the fear, excitement, dread, uncertainty and occasional joy that he and his subjects feel in an an immediate and dynamic way and encapsulates complex political, social and historical dynamics in a way that lets him move the narrative forward without having it bog down in background information.
While Zerocalcare’s stylistic approach is very different from Glidden’s, Kobane Calling, like Rolling Blackouts, blurs the line between journalism and memoir by making the creator of the book a central character. Like Glidden, Zerocalcare documents the fear, self-doubt and occasional joy that he experiences travelling through unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous settings and interrogates his motives, skills, and methodology. He also acknowledges the imitations posed by the comics medium, which does not favour text-heavy explanations, and is open about how he had to engage in “exercises in narrative synthesis” that alter [the book’s] fidelity to reality.” Moreover, both writers, in a direct and self-conscious way, document their struggles to overcome the ignorance that shapes our shared understanding of the people, cultures, and history of the Middle East. Neither of these writers position themselves as experts on the people and events they are covering. Rather, with both books, the reader feels as though they and the creator are on a shared learning curve, both figuring things out as they move through the story. Zerocalcare’s humorous style in particular lends itself to this sort of self-examination; throughout the book, he pokes fun at himself for his lack of skills and knowledge as well as for fore endearing qualities such as his addiction to Kurdish chai and his inability to develop a taste for Kurdish food, notably the fact that they eat olives or lentils for breakfast, a true affront to his Italian culinary sensibilities.
Yet as he jokes about lacking some of the skills that more conventional journalists might take for granted, Zerocalcare is sharply aware that by reporting on the YPG/YPJ, he is taking on a weighty responsibility, in that a screw-up on his part could well endanger the lives of his subjects. The Kurdish movement faces formidable opponents, and information about Kurdish fighters and activists falling into the wrong hands could place them in peril. When Zerocalcare and his travel partners enter Turkey, their carelessness leads to a list of contacts within the Kurdish movement being seized by border authorities. He draws on his imaginative style as a way to circumvent unintentionally identifying people who are potential targets of the Turkish state: in one sequence, contacts are rendered as a hunk of goat cheese and some olives, “glorious symbols of Kurdish identity and how the Kurds don’t know how to have breakfast.”
As he blurs the line between journalism and memoir, Zerocalcare also blurs the line between journalism and advocacy. He is asking for two things: one for the Kurds, and one for us.
For the Kurds, Zerocalcare is calling for the international community to follow through on the often empty commitments that Western voices make regarding our expressed desire to see women in the Islamic world live better, freer lives. While nightmarish visions of ISIS, concerns for women’s welfare, and heroic images of Kurdish women fighters all shape Western discourse about the region, we are doing precious little to support the Kurdish women fighting ISIS. At a Rojava graveyard we see Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis grieve for loved ones who died fighting ISIS, a movement that we call an existential threat to our values and security. Absent from the scene are those who scream the loudest about religious wars in the Middle East: us.
Zerocalcare is also urging us to open our minds to the possibilities being articulated and made real by the YPG and the YPJ. Faced with war and massive bloodshed, the Kurds nonetheless actively expand spaces in which community and democracy may take root and thrive. Meanwhile, we in the West have, since the attacks of 2001 made Islamist terrorism a global concern, only become more atomized and have lessened our own commitments to freedom and democracy in the face of challenging times.
What do we have to teach them again?
If you’re at all interested in better understanding the Syrian crisis, are a fan of comics journalism, or a lover of comics art and good storytelling, take the time to read this book.