Alumni Weekend

The hype for my forty-fifth college reunion this past June started months in advance. The school, one of those that “changes lives,” is the archetypal small liberal arts college. It was the place, my parents promised, that would prepare me for life.

As newsletter editor, I needed to rev up my classmates to attend. The goal of the reunion is to keep us connected to the school so that we’ll (1) give money and (2) send our sons, daughters, and grandchildren or recruit others to do the same. The economics are grim. Full-fare-paying students can be counted on two hands, and the endowment is not large. Faculty (90 percent of whom are tenured or tenure-track) haven’t received raises in three years.

Late adolescence is a rough time, and not all are prepared to revisit it, especially, it seems, not most of the people I was close to. Thus, the reunions have become times to get to know the people I barely talked to then, either because I was too shy and awkward and they too popular and poised or because our majors were different and our paths rarely crossed.

The campus of memory no longer exists. The grubby student union, the shabby gym, the antiquated science labs, the theater that doubled as a lecture hall and convocation center—all have been re-placed by state-of-the-art facilities. Still, the chief selling point of the school remains: that its liberal arts education equips you for anything. “Six months after graduation,” the president beams, “95 percent of our graduates are either employed or in grad school.”

In my time, we had two core curriculum courses, one during our first year, in which we studied the literature, history, and art of major epochs, and a synthesizing one our senior year in which we wrapped up “art, knowledge, and conduct.” They disappeared in the seventies. The last retired pro-fessor from that course was available to speak to us. E-mails flew across the country as our planning committee mined the collective memory for what we’d actually read and done. He unearthed a partial syllabus: Albert Camus, André Malraux, Kenneth and Elise Boulding, C.P. Snow, Harvey Cox, Martin Buber. What about my memories of a mimeographed paper by Todd Gitlin from SDS, a pamphlet with a gleaming black panther on it, Erich Fromm’s book on the humanism of the young Marx? Not on the radar.

“What writers would you include in this course if you were teaching it today?” we asked the prof. “You couldn’t teach it today,” he countered. “It was about Western civilization, and now we live in a multicultural society.” I looked around at my white classmates, only one of whom I knew for sure to be Jewish. Had the core courses prepared us for the world that broke open so soon after we left in 1967, the year before “it” all changed?

“You all thought these courses were so useful,” complained a biologist. “I never needed them.” An economist chimed in, “I didn’t know an...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.