Harold Pinter — Friend of the Kurds, Citizen of the World

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It is gratifying to see the attention given to Harold Pinter, prominent British playwright who struggled for a better world and has just left us on the brink of an economic and political disaster that smacks of the 1930s.  I do not intend to add to the flood of obituaries coming from the media all over the world.  I offer, instead, reflections on how the mainstream media present his politics.  There is much to reflect upon in the brilliant life of Pinter.  I will focus on his connection with the Kurds.  A Kurdish website has written: “Kurdistan Loses a Friend.”

Many obituaries mention Pinter’s leftist politics and cite his short 1988 play Mountain Language as evidence of his “controversial” politics.  This play was inspired by his trip to Turkey, and his opposition to the repression of authors, journalists, and others, including the Kurdish people, who were denied basic rights such as speaking in their own language.  Although the play does not allude to any geographic location or mention the Kurdish language, it shows prison guards banning the prisoners’ use of their native language.  This was, in fact, happening in Turkey when Pinter visited the country in 1985.  In the wake of the military coup of 1980, Kurdish political prisoners were not allowed to talk to visiting family members in their native tongue, and many visitors, especially the elderly and those from rural areas, were not familiar with the official state language, i.e., Turkish.  Pinter noted that the play was inspired by the Kurdish experience but it was not about that particular context.  The suppression of language rights was universal, he said.  Actually, when Pinter decided to finish the writing of Mountain Language in 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government had just banned the broadcasting of the voice of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein.

Kurdish intellectuals welcomed Mountain Language and used it as a conduit for exposing the linguicidal policies of Turkey.  It is, thus, not difficult to understand why mainstream media see the play as a piece of leftist politics.  This play is leftist in part because many conservative and liberal politicians in the West have defended Turkey’s anti-Kurdish politics while leftists have resisted it.  Much of the academe, including the majority of linguists working on the Kurdish language, have not raised their voice against the killing of the object of their study.

The mainstream media persistently label Pinter’s politics as “controversial.”  Far from being an innocent word, it carries, in this context, a densely ideological load.  When an idea is interpreted as “controversial,” it says more about the politics of the interpreters than the targeted idea.  The purpose is to discredit the targeted idea by suggesting that it is not acceptable to the majority.  But why should it be “controversial” to oppose, as Pinter did, Turkey’s policy of linguicide, Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian people, or US and UK war crimes in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan?

The obituaries emphasize, disapprovingly, that Pinter radicalized rather than moderated as he became older.  They fail to mention, however, that oppression, poverty, and war increased rather than decreased in the last decades of his life and he tried to reverse the trend.  Pinter’s Nobel Prize reception speech showed the potential of a human being to revolt against injustice in the midst of timid intellectualism.  From his wheelchair in the hospital, he denounced the 2003 American and British war against Iraq in transparent language: “We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’.”  He also noted that the US had supported “every right-wing military dictatorship in the world. . .” and its crimes “have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless. . . .”

Pinter saw himself as “a citizen of the world.”  This is one more reason why the obituaries identify his politics as leftist.  Conservatism and liberalism celebrate the globalization of the capitalist market but are not hospitable to the idea and practice of global citizenship, even in the sense of equality of all the inhabitants of the planet.  Contrary to the obituaries, Pinter was not alone and is by no means the last member of the generation of intellectuals opposed to war, poverty, and destruction.  Even during his lifetime, there was a long list from Jean-Paul Sartre to Noam Chomsky.  Still, the question remains: why the majority of Turkish intellectuals do not follow their fellow-citizens such as Ismail Besikci, Orhan Pamuk, or Yasar Kemal who refuse to be bystanders and oppose the suppression of the Kurdish people?  Why Kurdish nationalists applaud Mountain Language but are far from appreciating Pinter’s denunciation of the US war on Iraq and the rest of the world?  Why Pinter opposed US-UK imperialist wars and Kurdish nationalists continue to support it?

I do not find it difficult to make sense of these contradictions.  The struggles of the twentieth century for building an alternative to the world capitalist system failed, in spite of their initial successes.  Rather than implying the end of history, these defeats call for a new era of history, new struggles, and new efforts to build a new world.  The world has been, in the last three decades, in the grip of nationalism and religion.  Fascism and neo-Nazism, which thrive under conditions of economic crisis, are lurking in the corner.  If, in the 1930s, there were many social movements including an international communist movement struggling for a united front against fascism, today there are only isolated, local, and spontaneous protests.  Not that there is no vision or potential for internationalist politics any more.  The people of the world expressed their vision and will on February 15, 2003 when millions poured into the streets in opposition to the US-UK war on Iraq.  Bush and Blair had to take refuge into the seclusion of the Azores islands in order to declare their war.

We have seen unceasing wars since the end of the Cold War.  Today, in addition to states as major sources of organized violence, fundamentalist ethnic and religious groups, both non-state and state-sponsored, launch local, regional, and international wars.  Imperialism and fundamentalism are devastating the lives of people throughout the world.  Having lived in the academic environment of three continents since the 1960s, I am deeply disturbed by the theoretical climate prevalent in academia in the last two decades.  The poststructuralist frame of mind, which equates universalism with totalitarianism, plays into the hands of patriarchal, tribal, religious, ethnic, and nationalist particularisms.  Cultural relativism, a venue of struggle against eugenics and fascism in the first half of the twentieth century, turned, by the end of the century, into a weapon against universal rights and internationalism.  Pinter was not persuaded by this trend of politics.  His 2005 Nobel Prize reception speech acted like the Bertrand Russell tribunals of the 1960s, which tried the US for committing war crimes and genocide in Vietnam.  Today, annual military spending is over a trillion dollars, and old and new military blocs — NATO, Russia, China, and India — are taking shape, threatening wars far more devastating than the two world wars.  A reversal of the tragic situation we live in may be conceivable if Pinter’s politics turns mainstream and when conservative/liberal politics becomes controversial in the eyes of the majority of citizens.

Amir Hassanpour is Associate Professor at the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto, where he teaches courses on nationalism in the Middle East, mass media, social movements and theory and method in Middle Eastern studies. He studied literature and linguistics at University of Tehran, and communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has taught media studies at the University of Windsor and Concordia University.  He is author of Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan, 1918-1985 (San Francisco, 1992), and has contributed articles to academic journals and Encyclopedia of Television, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Encyclopedia of Modern Middle East, Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, and Encyclopedia of Diasporas.