Students attending classes Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy
Impressions on building revolutionary culture and education in northern Syria
Revolutionary culture is often thought of as the forging of something completely new in the process of radically transforming society. The old ideas of the establishment are thrown into the dustbin of history and replaced wholesale with ones that represent the formerly subjugated and downtrodden. Of course, it’s never been quite as easy or cut and dry as this in the practice of any revolution to date. Also, in societies that have seen indigenous cultures repressed by the powers that be, those marginalized and sometimes illegal forms of expression can by the virtue of their very antagonism with the state be revolutionary in character despite not being in any meaningful sense ‘new’. Such is the reality today in northern Syria, in which not only the Kurdish language and culture, but also those of the between 25 or 30 ethnic groups other than Arabs who reside there, are once again being analysed and practiced.
Nonetheless, the reality is that a ‘return to the old’ is full of immense contradictions. The Kurdish freedom movement often speaks of a ‘return to the natural society’, but this isn’t meant in a rigid fashion. If all elements of the colonized culture are practiced mechanically, this isn’t at all the same as bringing into being a revolutionary culture. It isn’t enough to the radicals in Rojava that ‘Kurdish culture’ in some abstract sense is reclaimed. The question becomes, what kind of Kurdish culture? There is indeed a profound difference between the culture of narrow and traditional nationalism that is the officialdom of the education system in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, and those of the internationalists who are the vanguard of change in northern Syria, for instance. It’s possible that elements of the reclaimed culture, especially if they represent feudal ideas, are reactionary and need to be replaced with something that makes a radical break from that past.
My background as a hip-hop artist from the west whose music contains a progressive, socialist message provoked serious interest in the way that the arts are being practiced today in Rojava five years after the so-called democratic self-administration took over the reigns of organizing society from the Syrian Arab state. I was fascinated to see what had become of the old schools that had only taught in the Arabic language, and beyond that only taught Arab culture in what is such an ethnically diverse region.
Entering the Shehid Yekta Herekol Academy
Situated just 30 kilometers east of Qamishlo, the de-facto capital of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria (DFSNS), is the town of Tirbespiye. It may not be easy to find on a map by its Kurdish name today, as it’s official name within the Syrian Arab Republic is still al-Qahtaniyah. Arriving in the town of about 16,000 residents, the group of internationalists that I’m traveling with first pulls up to a checkpoint of the Asayish. After being waved through, I can see a group of maybe a dozen teenagers preparing to greet our caravan at the front entrance of what is one of the region’s first revolutionary academies for the practice of the arts. As I step foot onto the sidewalk and walk up to the gates of the institution, a young man of not more than 18 reaches for my hand and says in English ‘Welcome to the Shehid Yekta Herekol Academy’.
The institution’s name, like so many others in northern Syria today, pays homage to a martyr of the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Yekta Herekol, born in Dersim in 1968, studied theatre in Ankara until the early 1990s when he was confronted with the discriminatory practices of the Turkish state toward his native culture. After deciding to join the PKK in the mountains, he was caught on two occasions by the Turkish authorities but managed to eventually travel abroad where he developed his artistic capabilities further. However, while free to practice his culture openly in Greece and Russia, he yearned for his home soil, and decided to return to Kurdistan. In 2003, he entered Rojava and joined demonstrations in Qamishlo on March 12, 2004. Two weeks later in Halab (Aleppo), he burned himself to death in a sign of protest, not only against the central government’s repression of Kurdish expression, but as a critique of the movement to ‘do its work properly and reinforce the struggle.’
Walking into the main hall of academy, it felt like I had entered into a museum of the future. There were beautiful paintings and sculptures to be seen everywhere, ones that made me question if it was possible that people as young as the those I had just met could really be responsible for such wondrous creations. As it turns out, all of the work that was to be seen here were the achievements of these incredibly talented students. Our group received a tour of the two floors of the academy, with room after room full of tools for the practice of the arts – costumes for theatre performances, musical instruments, brushes and easels for painting. In the courtyard, there was a green space that the students and the teachers plan on converting into a full garden in the near future. We were then led into the kitchen where a small group of students were preparing lunch, before being summoned to what seemed like an impromptu musical performance by another group of youths.
Hevalti (Comradeship) between student and teacher
It feels strange using the expressions ‘student’ or ‘teacher’ to refer to the roles of those who are receiving education at the academy and those who are responsible for instruction. Actually, the distinction is much more blurred than at institutions in capitalist societies, or perhaps even in some socialist ones. I very quickly realized that the relationship between students and teachers here doesn’t take on the kind of characteristics of subordination that I had grown up with. I recall going to school, being told what to think (as opposed to methods of how to think), cramming information into my brain, making sure I didn’t challenge my teachers too much, and taking exams that I felt were rather worthless the bulk of the time. Retaining information over the long-haul was barely even a thought. Here in Rojava, I encountered something radically different, a type of learning paradigm that reminded me of the ideas put forward in Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As I was told by one of the students, a 17 year old by the name of Gelhat: ‘we’re all students and teachers. That’s the way we are organized and how we have found that we learn best.’
That’s not to say there’s no official structure, of course. The academy has a Reverberi, roughly translated as leadership, but it isn’t an administration that is untouchable or unaccountable to those who are enrolled there. (As in all administrations in Rojava, fifty percent of the Reverberi must be women) There didn’t seem to be the kind of intimidating presence here on behalf the leadership that I remember so well in my schools. As I’m told by one of these ‘administrators’: We have a weekly tekmil (a criticism and self-criticism session) in which the students and us reflect together on what we are critical about in ourselves, what we could have done more effectively, and what suggestions we have moving forward. Also, this is where students can make criticisms of the reverberi. Our relationship is based on the concept of hevalti (comradeship). It is not hierarchical.’
To the foreign ear, these were shocking concepts on the one hand, but on the other they seemed to echo common sense. What better way to really get at the root of how to enhance a learning experience than to have a forum for how to make it more productive rather than repressing suggestions for improvement? This seemed to be a truly radical concept when coming out of the halls of ‘learning’ in the west. It seemed profoundly revolutionary to think that the teachers could be criticised in such a direct fashion and not take it personally, or to not respond by ‘disciplining’ the students. To break down the barrier of separation and the ‘untouchable’ teacher who was there to inorganically implant knowledge into the student was something I had long dreamt of, and here I was seeing it in action. I realized then though that it wasn’t just my foreign ears that this must have seemed strange to – at one point, these students must have felt exactly the same way.
I was deeply curious about just how much the education in this region of the country has transformed since the self-administration took control in 2012. As one of the members of the Reverberi tells me, ‘this academy itself used to be a cultural center of the state. But at that time, it was inconceivable that young people from the background of these students who are here today would have access to it. It was for the elites, and primarily for Arabs. We are now trying to build up the democratic nation, so our goal is to have students from all kinds of backgrounds, not just Kurds. Of course, because of the repression of the Kurdish culture, this has so far been our focus, as the students already know Arab culture very well from their previous instruction before the revolution.’ Adding to the words of this instructor was a young woman of 17, who spoke of just how different the learning environment was now as opposed to before 2012. ‘I remember at that time if a student was seen as not learning the official curriculum adequately, we would be beaten. Now we are teaching classes. It’s like night and day.’
Structure of the Academy
The teaching she was referring to is the fact that once a month, each student is responsible for creating a lesson and facilitating it for the rest of the class. At this academy, opened only in the fall of 2015, there are currently 35 students, as well as four from the previous term that have stayed on in a supportive role. Unlike the institutions I have been used to my entire life, the term of learning here isn’t for several years, but rather 15 months. This isn’t necessarily considered the ideal length of time that students should spend at the academy, but as I’m told ‘it’s sped up because of the war. We have urgent needs in society in general, so once students truly master their disciplines, they’re of course needed elsewhere to contribute their skills.’ The youngest of these students is 13, and the oldest are around 20. Unlike our western high schools or secondary schools, there is no grade or year distinction. The 13 year olds sit in the same lessons with their fellow students who are up to seven years older than they are. During the present term, there are five music teachers, four teaching cinema, and four for dance. Daily education consists of four hours of instruction in the morning and three in the afternoon, five days a week. This amounts to a total of 35 hours of instruction per week.
It’s telling that the day to day running of the academy is not only done by the students, but democratically planned by them in a collective fashion. In addition to the kitchen work, the logistics and cleaning of the center are all done in a communal fashion. This is a center in which the students not only learn during the day, but also sleep, so they are all entrusted with the responsibility for taking care of their learning and living environment.
Academies rather than universities
The idea of the free academy (there are of course no tuition fees here) was a suggestion of Kurdish Freedom Movement leader Abdullah Ocalan, who saw their establishment as a way of replacing the existing state university structure. As I’m told, there are similarities to traditional universities or schools in the sense that there are some examinations, but the difference is that if the student doesn’t succeed the first time around, they aren’t told they have failed or kicked out of the academy. In addition, although diplomas or certificates are issued, the primary focus is on really mastering subjects and disciplines rather than just having a piece of paper to prove that the academy was attended and using that to then gain ‘success’ in society by being able to earn more money than if one hadn’t attended the academy. As one student told me, ‘maybe to you it looks on the surface like a university, but the content is radically different.’
Perhaps in the context of our societies, we often think of art as being created simply for the purpose of the art itself. This isn’t necessarily true, as all art has an ideological orientation (including when art claims to be above ideology or non-ideological). At this academy, there is an emphasis on the history, philosophy, aesthetics, ideological, political, and social sides of art and culture. There are currently a total of thirty areas of study, which all aim to contribute to the motto put forward by the Reverberi: ‘We want to create an artist who is able to take off the mask of those in power; an artist who is creating the basis for destroying their power. This institution is taking our voice and our feelings back from our enemy and giving voice to all other peoples oppressed by the occupying system.’
Confronting problems and contradictions
As with every institution in Rojava, there are no lack of problems that confront the development of them. After all, how else could it be in a war situation? This revolution isn’t unfolding under ideal conditions, but in the midst of a scenario in which the literal survival of the population isn’t a foregone conclusion. Still, there is an atmosphere of humour and light-heartedness that is able to pervade the environment at the academy. When I ask one of the Reverberi what the main problem is confronting the academy, he says perhaps half jokingly, ‘You know the youth: they don’t want to sit in class, but run around and be playful all the time!’ I glance over at one of the students, who lets off a mischievous smile in my direction, the kind that my friends and I used to make when we were up to no good in class. Even here, in a cooperative and democratic learning environment, the youthful spirit of rebellion was inescapable.
Becoming more serious, the comrade from the Reverberi tells me, ‘Each student brings with them the influence of the occupying system, as well as the influence of the traditional Kurdish society. Our goal is to transform these ideologies. 10 percent of our fight is against an external enemy and 90 percent is internal.’ He also makes a fascinating point about the kind of discipline needed to overcome socialization from the old society. ‘When you tell these young people to go fight in the YPG, they are all for it, but when you say sit down and read, they say no. Study requires immense effort, perhaps much more effort than fighting.’
In addition to the problems of youth that were alluded to, it was pointed out that the culture of traditionalism still prevalent in society has prevented some students who have wanted to attend the academy from being able to due to their families. This underscores the importance of the work of the center, as what happens inside the halls of learning has a dialectical relationship with what takes place in the larger society, including the views held by mothers and fathers. It is hoped that in due time, attitudes among the older generation that prevent their sons and daughters from coming to such places of learning to live and study will gradually be eroded.
That gradual, yet very real, transformation of human beings was on full display in the students that I met. It was clear that they were developing revolutionary ethics and personalities. The academy is already sending some of its students to cities such as Derik, Qamishlo and Kobane for periods of two months with the task of educating ten people in the arts. They are entrusted with responsibility that our youth in the west wouldn’t dare to be given by administrators in any center of learning.
Dancing into the future
I confess that I’ve never quite been as embarrassed as I was the evening after the seminar that my internationalist group received on the history of the academy and the structure of learning being developed in Rojava had finished. We were going to spend the night at the academy with the students, and activities that transcend the language barrier are always the best ways of getting to know people on some level. The embarrassment had already begun hours earlier during a break in the program, when my ‘internationalist’ team had suffered what must have been among history’s worst volleyball losses. In fairness to us, the students of the academy probably practice on an almost daily basis since they have a net right in front of the school’s entrance, so miracles could not have been expected. However, I was later crying out for some sort of divine intervention when they dragged us onto the dancefloor that night to partake in traditional Kurdish dance. Unfortunately, there was no place to hide from either the eyes or the cameras of the students. They had a pretty hearty laugh at our expense – well, perhaps not at our expense, as we laughed off the embarrassment maybe even harder than they did.
As the amusement from the evening’s hours of bonding had started to wind down, we all came back to reality when we realized how late it was. By ten o’clock PM, generally the students are in their rooms preparing to rest, but it was nearly eleven and we were still drenched in sweat from hours of dancing (I use that word loosely in my case). Situated across the road from the main hall is where some of the male students live, in a setting comparable to a western university’s dormitories. We walked out into the brisk evening air and crossed the road. I couldn’t help but think back to my college experience about fifteen years earlier. I remember the countless times that I would head back to my dorm room after the seemingly never ending college parties, usually drunk and stumbling. Truth be told, I didn’t have much respect for my college experience because frankly I felt as if the institution didn’t have a great deal of respect for me. I couldn’t relate to the experience in which I felt like I wasn’t learning a great deal, never felt challenged, and where teachers acted as if they were generally untouchable. It didn’t speak to me whatsoever. The only real part of college that I truly enjoyed – and I guarantee this is the case for a huge amount of college and university students from the United States – were those parties on Friday and Saturday nights which were a reprieve from the boring, rigid instruction received during the week. The alienation I felt of being in school turned later to the alienation of the workforce. The only solace of mine was to be found in going out on a Friday night and in forgetting about the existence of my exploitation.
Yet, here I was in the middle of the Syrian war, and I found something remarkably different. I wished I could be the age of these students again so that I could attend a center of learning like the one I had just set foot in. There wouldn’t be the inclination to ‘get drunk’ or to try to find other exciting escapes from the mundane and stifling confines of the western university. Here was a pedagogy in development that respected the student as a master of his or her destiny, as a part of a greater whole and a movement toward human liberation. The example of what I had witnessed was powerful. Though in the west, I count myself as fortunate to be able to sleep peacefully each night with no worries about the approach of fascist forces on my doorstep, I simultaneously feel envious that the youth of Rojava have the luxury of getting to construct a brand new educational and cultural system. It’s a luxury that of course isn’t very luxurious at all, as the self-defence forces are paying for the defence of these students in blood each and every day. To quote Lincoln Steffens after he visited the Soviet Union in the early years of the revolution, ‘I have seen the future and it works.’ This time, however, let’s hope that future is written more beautifully and victoriously.
- Marcel Cartier
- Abdullah Ocalan
- Democratic Modernity
- Democratic Confederalism
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