Honourable Minister of Culture, Honourable President of Salahadin University, Honourable President of Kurdish Institute of Paris, Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests
In this part of the conference that deals with the role of the diaspora, I am going to focus on the diaspora in Britain. First, I will give a brief history of the different diaspora groups in the UK. Then, I will talk about how the diaspora changed and how we learned to practice democracy in a microcosm of Kurdistan in London. I will also touch on the importance of Nawroz as an expression of politics and free speech. I will conclude by telling you the successes and problems that the diaspora is facing in trying to practice democracy, and how this has affected Kurdistan itself.
From the 1950s to the 70s, the Kurdish diaspora in the UK was made up mainly of students. Inspired by the very strong British student movement and by the democratic parliamentary system that we were living under, Kurdish students organised democratic elections, committees and division of responsibility for their own student movement. By the mid-70s, there was healthy competition between the two biggest Kurdish student societies in Europe, with each society working harder than the other to organise conferences and demonstrations.
From 1980, the diaspora started to change. There were more Kurdish refugees rather than just students, and this time the Kurdish community had new demands that the student societies could not fulfil. Inspired by the Kurdish Institute of Paris, and encouraged by the new acceptance by British society of minority rights, a group of Kurdish intellectuals, including film-maker Gwynne Roberts and myself, established the Kurdish Cultural Centre in London. The British local authorities who helped us establish the centre had heard about the diversity of the Kurds. Therefore they made it a condition of our funding that every single Kurdish organisation or society in London had to sign the request for a cultural centre. This made us discover quite suddenly that there were in fact more than 30 organisations already in London alone. All 30 organisations signed the request. This was an incredible achievement: in a democratic fashion, Kurds from all parts of Kurdistan put aside their differences for the common good and achieved something worthwhile.
From 1986, over the course of five years, the Kurdish Cultural Centre managed to provide a space for the Kurdish community to openly talk and disagree about the political situation in Kurdistan. The centre published newsletters, held cultural and political seminars and showed Kurdish films and plays. But one of its most important achievements was changing the Newroz celebration into a key political and cultural event. For the Kurdish Cultural Centre in London, Nawroz was not about families having picnics. We wanted Nawroz to showcase our identity and free spirit, so we professionally videoed our one-week long festival of plays, films, music and art. These Nawroz videos, which were widely copied and shared by Kurds, became the one of the connections between the diaspora and Kurds in Kurdistan.
In the five years from 1986, different Kurdish political forces came together and took part in democratic elections for membership of the centre’s management committee. As the number of refugees living in the sprawling city of London increased, other Kurdish community centres were formed. These centres gave Kurds living abroad the opportunity to put into practice their particular skills and knowledge. For example, I trained as a director and actor of English theatre. At the Kurdish Cultural Centre, I could use my training to put on political plays in my own language and teach actors from all parts of Kurdistan. So these diaspora organisations helped us to keep in touch with our nation and introduce it to new ideas. Eventually, some of these individuals came back to Kurdistan to share their knowledge with their countrymen. Thanks to my own experiences in the Kurdish community in London, when I was working in Japan for six years, in the absence of a Kurdish community I created an international theatre company of Japanese and Western actors. We had our own international community with a Kurdish director as its leader. Sometimes, the process of learning and practicing democracy in the diaspora was derailed by the diaspora itself.
Intellectuals who had been in the West long enough to fully absorb democratic values and habits found that newer refugees could not adjust easily. These refugees had only seen dictatorship and war, so their way of practicing democracy was to win power through sheer numbers and without a clear goal, and then hang on to power only for their self-interest. The diaspora today is very different from what it was in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. Up to then, the Kurds that I met in Britain were eager to learn about democracy and new ideas from their host country. Now, many Kurds in Britain are more preoccupied with financial interests and have few democratic goals. This has brought problems of Kurds becoming involved in criminal activities or being unable to fit into Western society.
The veterans of the Kurdish community in London have returned and continue to return to Kurdistan to play important roles in politics and society. This is crucial to the development of tolerance and free speech in the heart of the Middle East. Paradoxically, these returnees have left a vacuum back in the diaspora in the UK.
In conclusion, therefore, we need to once again create spaces for Kurds in Britain to absorb the positive aspects of the Western society that they are living in. That is because more and more Kurds will return to Kurdistan, and what Kurdistan needs is for them to bring ideas of tolerance, free speech and political engagement back with them. In today’s global village, it is more important than ever that democracy is an idea that is embedded firmly in the diaspora as well as at home.
(*) Journalist and dramatist
Founder and former director of the Kurdish Cultural Centre in London
Learning Democracy in London:
The Kurdish Cultural Centre and the Diaspora in Britain