Those who die first

Those Who Die First

Colin McGuire explores the complex past of a Kurdish Freedom fighter, now living in Glasgow

‘Hatred bounces’ – E.E Cummings

‘I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.’ - Abraham Lincoln

I am in the suburbs of Glasgow and its just turning 5:30 p.m. I knock on the door of Peri Ibrahims house and wait for an answer. A few minutes later he welcomes me gladly inviting me to sit in his spacious front living room while he and his wife tend to their daughters. He is a family man now his days as a Kurdish freedom fighter in the mountains of Kurdistan is a distant reality and ever further memory. I take a seat in the room and look around stuck to the wall is a traditional Kurdish guitar the Tar and to the left of the fire place there is a traditional Nargile smoking pipe, not in use he assures me, simply an ornament. These are signs of a man that still his country culture and people close on his mind. There are stacks of books ‘A History of the Kurds’ and an ‘Encyclopaedia’. Indeed this homely situation and scenario are unremarkable in the suburbs but how and why Peri Ibrahim came to where he is today, from fighting in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan with his Kalashnikov to the pleasant passivity of suburban life is a story that most Scottish suburbanites could never and would never experience.

Since WWI, Kurdistan has been divided between southeast Turkey, northeast Iraq and northwest Iran, with smaller sections in Syria and Armenia, in all of which Kurds are minorities. Many Kurds have campaigned for independence or autonomy, often through force of arms. However, there has been no support by any of the regional governments or by outside powers for changes in regional boundaries. Subsequently a sizable Kurdish diaspora exists in Western Europe that participates in agitation for Kurdish issues. Most of the governments in the Middle East have historically banned open Kurdish activism because in many Arab eyes Kurdistan does not exist; it is not officially recognised by the majority of the Middle Eastern countries that surround it. Indeed the area that comprises Kurdistan is in itself an area of controversy. It been broken down into pieces and put in the pockets of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria amongst others. Indeed, alongside the Palestinian/Israeli conflict the existence of Kurdistan and its fight for independence is one of the most important issues facing the Middle East today. It should also be reminded the in terms of natural resources Kurdistan has them in large supply, oil, gas, forestry, water, fisheries, other mineral resources. Having such potential economic capital it is understandable why Kurdistan is the cause of so much political wrangling –could function as a autonomous state quite strongly.

The Kurdish independence movement sought a free and independent Kurdistan through activism and violence. Kurds have been unsuccessful in attaining a Kurdish state but not without a lot of bloodshed and violence. Indeed a large chunk of Kurdish history is a history of occupation, where the Kurds fight to defend their own land, tribes and townships. The suffering of the Kurdish people should not go unacknowledged. Under the former Ba’athist regime which ruled Iraq from 1968 until 2003, Kurds were initially granted limited autonomy in 1970 and given high-level political representation in Baghdad in 1961. However, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s the regime implemented anti-Kurdish policies and a de facto civil war broke out. Iraq was widely-condemned for its action but was never punished or held accountable for the oppressive measures (even to this day Saddam Hussein dodges accountability), including the use of chemical weapons and cluster bombs against the Kurds, which resulted in thousands of deaths. This campaign was called the Al-Anfal Campaign, which constituted a systematic genocide of the Kurdish people in Iraq. From March 29th, 1987 until April 23rd, 1989, the Iraq army under the command of Ali Hassan al-Majid carried out a genocidal campaign against the Kurds in pursuit of the Arabisation of that area.

Of course, the Kurds did not sit by passively under these conditions of historic injustice and conflict, indeed since the advent of the Kurdish independence movement in the early 1920s, following the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires which had jointly ruled over the area always known as Kurdistan the Peshmerga forces have been active. The Peshmerga, meaning ‘Those who die first’ or ‘Those who face death’, are a Kurdish militia force often affiliated to prominent personalities such as Sheikh Mahmud or are affiliated to political parties such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), though they are primarily an independent force. Peshmerga forces fought to defend the Kurdish people land and resources against the Iraqi Arab occupation and exploitation. The Peshmerga even fought side by side with American troops in the 2003 Iraq War in Northern Iraq. Since that time the Peshmerga have assumed a role in the security of the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq. The Peshmerga play a vital, though controversial role in continuing the Kurdish Independence movement and fighting against occupying Arab forces. It is from this background that we must understand the Kurdistan situation and the life of Peri Ibrahim, who was a member of the Peshmerga until 1989.

The Kurdish conflict is perhaps comparable with Scottish history, where Kurds have tribes and tribal conflict, Scotland has clans and clan warfare, albeit many centuries ago, were Kurds experience racial and ethnic conflict in the Kurdish-Arabic divide, the Scots have an illness of sectarianism and Protestant/Catholic antagonism, of course this is a superficial comparison, but the point should be clear. Ever present in many cultures is a cultural conflict as a result of cultural difference, and we are well acquainted with the bloody quagmire that such bitter clashes leave a people, a culture and a state languishing amidst.

A man who is ever aware of the impact the Kurdish situation is Peri. With the current Kurdistan situation as a background this is an account of his personal life and experience as a Kurdish Freedom Fighter who later sought Asylum in the U.K. He is now a Father, an active member of council and leader of the Scottish Kurdish Association.

He was born in 1965 in the City of Duhok were he was raised alongside his Brother by his Mother who was Catholic and his Father who was Jewish, he was educated at both primary and secondary level, later attending University, graduating in Media Studies. Peri’s Father, Ranand Ibrahim, was a long term member of the Peshmerga militia forces throughout Peris childhood and later life; this had an influence on Peri’s decision to join the Peshmerga, as well as, having an understanding of the ideological principles of communism, Kurdistan and surrounding Arab Nations being steeped in Communist ideas during and after the Cold War. Peri was involved in direct armed combat, he even fought against the Iraqi Army, indeed in the mountainous regions in which he fought he fired many rounds and the use of rocket launchers was not uncommon, he even took a couple of bullets without fatal wounding. You see the Peshermerga are a well armed group and they are usually armed with AK-47s and AK-74s, RPKs (light Soviet machine guns) and DShKs (heavy Soviet machine guns). They fought for defence only Peri assures me. Against the oppression of maybe of the Iraqi and Turkish Arab forces that sought the rule the Kurdistan areas. Indeed, Peri was once threatened by a Muslim cleric with beheading because of his Kurdish ethnicity and his allegiance with the Peshmerga. Indeed, in certain part of the Middle East Peri Ibrahim life would be in grave jeopardy. I mention this not to scandalise but to bring home the reality of the conditions in the Peris life experience and personal legacy.

Speaking with Peri now it is apparent that he no longer holds to quite such radical political dogma, and that, if anything he fought for his people, against poverty oppression and for the principles of independence. Peri fought for almost a decade with the Peshmerga forces witnessing the horrors inflicted on the civilian population. Bearing witness to the causalities of war and its futility as well as the ‘short tempered Muslims’ led Peri to question his actions and beliefs and revolutionary state of mind. He decided to leave Kurdistan. As he put it, ‘I had to leave my country because of my beliefs… and from here (Scotland) I could do something for my beliefs…’

Before Peri took to the mountains to find a way of out Kurdistan, his best friend, Jalal -----, was killed by Iraqi forces, this situation confirmed for Peri the need to ‘bury his Kalashnikov’ literally and symbolically and leave Kurdistan for exile. Peri left for Canada but was stopped in the U.K. for having a forged passport and, rather than suffer deportation back to Kurdistan Peri sought Asylum in the U.K. living in London for six months then moving up to Scotland. Living first in Aberdeen followed by Edinburgh, Peri then travelled down to Glasgow. As he recalls it, upon arriving, with clear skies and a bright horizon he went to a pub and was greeted by a local man who bought him a pint by means of introduction, how typical and fitting a Glaswegian experience. And it was in Glasgow that Peri gradually felt comfortable and came to build his life.

Peri has gone from being one of the very first Kurdish asylum seekers in Glasgow (before the term became so popular in 2001), arriving in 1990. And he has gone from the modest beginnings to become one of the central translators of Kurdish for the Home Office and the Immigration Courts. Peri Ibrahim is a man trying to build cultural bridges…and cross over them. Central to all his work is a love for his people a continued awareness of their plight and willing to try and deal with the situation. He has made various documentaries and worked with the BBC, with several projects on his schedule that document the experience of a Kurdish/Glaswegian exile. Peri is a man with an interesting life and even more interesting history, having lived a life that most Scots witness half fragmented, half disassociated through television, newspaper and the media. Peri embodies a reality that we are unimaginably removed from.

At present, there are roughly 2000 Kurds in Scotland, it’s important to note that not all are Asylum Seekers. Peri Ibrahim runs the Scottish Kurdish Association and works at integrating the Kurdish Community with the Scottish life. Relations are improving but there is much work to be done. Perhaps readers will recall the uproar in Glasgow in 2001 surrounding the issue of Asylum in Glasgow after an influx of refugees into the Sighthill area. The situation provoked much local dissent and was marked even more dramatically with the stabbing of young Kurdish man Firsat Dag. This murder came to embody for many Asylum Seekers a climate of intolerance and xenophobia at that time, and feelings that the issue of asylum was not being dealt with properly by the authorities. Days later members of the Scottish Kurdish Association marched in protest to George Square and the City Chambers, not only riled by the murder of Firsat Dag but also at ‘second class’ treatment many refugees felt they were victim to. Indeed the protesters threw a collection of 400 hundred flat keys at the Glasgow City Council building rejecting the housing they had been given and seeking improvement. At least these Kurdish Protesters lived in a society that tolerated such open displays of dissatisfaction and indeed Peri agrees that, despite some of the police state tactics in use in the U.K., there is a strongly developed sense of civil society and open discussion.

Peri Ibrahim is a bastion for the Kurdistan people and place. He highlights the importance of cross-cultural understanding as well as the continual pursuit of a cause for ones state and culture. He is a flag that spreads the message, releases the energy of the Kurdish people, and brings the issue up for air and discourse. From life in a Kurdish village to fighting in the Peshmerga and now living as an active citizen and ever enduring Father, Peri stands as a grand sign of the possibilities of civility and sincerity as well as the capabilities that can arise if initiative and passion are put to greater social use.

Sites of relevance:
Kurdish Culture and Heritage:
Kurdish Democratic Party:

That was interesting.

Can you elaborate on that Dan?

I am beginning to think this piece is a bit jumbled up and lacks a coherent flow. Any readers have any constructive or destructive comments?