Kurdish Culture Takes the Spotlight

(Edited and condensed before publishing on Centretown News Friday November 28, below find my original feature-length piece)

By Clare Bonnyman

It’s a story for the ages: a young Canadian travels to Turkey, falls in love, and finds herself married to a Kurdish freedom fighter.

That is the story of Laurie Fraser, an Ottawa-based writer whose novel The Words Not Spoken – based off her real life – was featured in a recent celebration of Kurdish culture at the Main branch of the Ottawa Public Library.

It was Laurie’s marriage to a member of a Kurdish militant organization in 1994 that moved her to the small Turkish village of Gorema.

Fraser was on hand to share her story on Nov. 15 at the library’s first ”Words and Kurds” cultural event.

“Hopefully the lines between my actual experiences and pure fiction are seamless,” says Fraser. “The fiction is believable, and the truth is sometimes outrageous.”

 

The afternoon featured Fraser alongside Carleton University professor Jaffer Sheyholislami, sharing literature inspired by the culture of Kurdistan, an area that straddles Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, with a population of approximately 28 million.

Since 1983, continued acts of political violence overrun Kurdistan.

Kurdish nationalist organizations seek to establish an independent nation state of Kurdistan, while other groups campaign for Kurdish autonomy.

“We said we should look at the lighter side of things and shed some light on what else Kurds do,” says Sheyholislami. “Like any other people they live, they have music, they have poetry.”

The event was designed to open a “dialogue on current issues, and to share past experiences,” says event organizer and master of ceremonies Jeghir Jahangir, of the Kurdish Youth Association of Canada.

The KYAC coordinates events to celebrate Kurdish identity and freedom. While most events take a political stance, this event was designed to celebrate and share Kurdish culture.

“It’s not about news, it’s not about politics,” says Fraser. “Let’s just share stories.”

 

But the political struggle of the Kurdish people was recognized throughout the afternoon.

Sheyholislami introduced his poetry readings with a nod to the current Kobane resistance, where “sons and fathers, daughters and mothers, side by side have been defending their town against the onslaught of ISIS for the past two months.”

The event was held only a day after news broke that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau – the gunman involved in the Ottawa shootings on October 22 – was surfing the Web in the same Metcalfe Street library branch in the days leading up to his attack on Parliament.

The Canadian government has claimed that Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions were ideologically motivated, and that he was inspired by ISIS. Recent reports state that he was radicalized as far back as 2009.

But the crowd looked to the future when Sardar Saadi — a University of Toronto PhD student — tuned in via Skype to share information about the Rojava Media Project.

 

The project aims at assisting youth in the Rojava region of Kurdish Syria, empowering them in a “multi-religious, multi-ethnic region that has been exploited by so many powers,” said Saadi.

The event closed with footage from Saadi’s visit to Rojava this past August. He spent two weeks with nine students, training and equipping them to produce documentaries.

For many, it was their first time holding a camera.

Saadi hopes to return to Rojava, but in the meantime is sharing his work at Kurdish events across Canada, working closely with organizations like the KYAC and activists like Jahangir.

“While there is a political resistance side,” says Jahangir, “there is also a cultural resistance side.”

Voter turnout continues to fall: My piece in Centretown News

View the original story published on the Centretown News website here.

Friday November 14.

Somerset Ward’s voter turnout rate continued its decline in the October election, a problem forcing newly elected Catherine McKenney to confront the ward’s growing transient population.

The wide-open election race featured 11 candidates, with mainstay Diane Holmes retiring after years in municipal politics.

Average voter turnout this year was 39.82 per cent, putting Centretown just below the city average. Voter turnout across Ottawa has been in rapid decline since 2006, with rates plunging from 54 per cent to 40 and dropping.

Somerset Ward fell from 50 to 43 per cent from 2006 to 2010 and now to under 40 per cent in 2014.

Somerset was one of only two of the city’s 23 wards with 11 candidates, the highest number in this year’s election.

The diversity of urban Centretown are one explanation for declining voter turnout.

Carleton University political sciencist Conrad Winn suggests voter turnout is directly related to how “consequential” an election seems. When individuals feel that all the options on the ballot offer them the same thing, they are not as likely to vote than if candidates vary in platforms, he says.

“There aren’t a lot of radical things that politicians at any level of government can do,” says Winn. “When you look at where turnout is high, it’s because the election is consequential. Voter turnout is lowest at the local level because the consequences are smallest.”

Somerset’s young population, 40 per cent of which is between the ages of 15 and 29, may also explain the result.

Winn says low voter turnout is a result of the growing “social youth” demographic, a group finding less motivation to engage in municipal politics.

“People are staying young longer and longer. They’re getting married really late, they’re having children really late,” he says. “They don’t have the same pressing reasons to follow municipal politics and vote.”

These pressing reasons, Winn suggests, can include having a child, owning property or land, or having a long-term job. The “social youth” demographic is waiting longer before settling down and in doing so prolongs their period of non-committal involvement with local politics.

“People aren’t going to vote when they don’t understand what’s happening,” he says. “Municipal and ward politics are hard to understand unless you have lived in that ward for a long time.”