So one of the unforeseen but in retrospect obvious—and pleasant—side effects of a project like this is learning about some of the “local” culture.
In this case, while many different cultural elements come up given the diversity within Syria, Kurdish culture comes up a lot for obvious reasons, most notably because Old Man Erdogan is trying to get it off his lawn, which he defines expansively.
So some of this—a lot of it, really—is going to veer in and out of Rojava proper, but I think it offers an interesting lens into Kurdish culture and, by extension, the peoples of Rojava.
Some of the first cultural elements I saw were in trying to figure out the fighting; that was my Twitter entry into Rojava.
As per their norm, the people on the ground who wanted The West to understand as much as possible about what was going on were very helpful.
So clearly, they have an awareness of being watched and heard by the world. Which is what I initially attributed all the dancing videos to.
One of the striking features of this conflict has been the pronounced difference between the images of ISIS guys trying to look hard and tough and mean and hard and whatever, and those of the SDF who not only aren’t wearing the same kind of mercenary chic but have different styles in even combat dress, sometimes armed while in customary dress in fact, and are seen playing with dogs and kittehs, singing and dancing and so forth.
I initially chalked all the dancing videos up to them trying to present an attractive public face.
And it certainly, is that. And they often strategic, because they need to be; survival of the people and all.
But over time, I realized it was more than that. Or maybe less.
It seems that they just really, really like dancing.
And, like, there is meaning to a people that really just wants to dance—
—and the sentiment generally isn’t lost on people.
Now, that might seem superficial. But, like, take the point of view of this political anthropologist guy, Mike Aaronoff, who wrote this book years ago about the spy novels of John le Carre , the premise of which is:
If you only read sterile histories of the Cold War, you will never understand how crazy and intense it really was as experienced by the actual participants.
So to really get into a culture, read their stuff, listen to their music, try their food, and so forth. This isn’t breaking new ground, yeah?
I point this out because it’s not like America doesn’t have important myths that define us as well.
Some even involve dance.
So the dancing is emblematic of the people’s culture legacy of enduring through all the combat, the war, the economic collapse—all the bullshit We know this story well.
And so it goes.
There were some great images out of the Iraq protests of protesters proposing in Tahrir Square and weddings right in the middle of the protests and stuff.
And Rojava it is no different. They’re getting married and Erdogan sure is shit ain’t stopping them.
So this is the local news, but you also see in their own news and interests (as viewed through Twitter, darkly) all sorts of stuff that is strikingly fucking normal.
I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that Kurds do normal shit—hell, I found that Kurdish comedian before—but, like, when you’re introduction to a people and a place is combat, cities laid to waste, ISIS, Russians raising flags, US MRAPS rolling around apparently aimlessly, and town’s people throwing rocks, you can lose sight of some things.
Like that they play video games.
Or watch TV shows. [Looks like the Tweet of the guy asking for a link to The Mandalorian got deleted; dash cunning of him, the rogue.]
Or watch movies. Foreign films even.
So that’s just cool. That’s the guy from the helicopter again by the way, covering a bit of Kurdish appreciation of Korean culture.
I’m going to stick with “Korean” versus trying to delve into distinctions between South Korean and North Korean culture because that is way out beyond my depth. So I’m following the Kurdistan festival’s lead here.
Please forgive me if this… is somehow bad. ㅜㅜ
So yeah, cool: foreign film. Of course, I don’t know a lot about Korean culture, but I know it means at least two things.
The other is obviously K-pop, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
First, I’m interested in this festival in general, yeah?
So this has been going on for a bit. Time to dive into those links, which eventually lead here:
The Kurdistan Region held the 1st Korean Festival “Friends of Korea” on Saturday sponsored by the General Consulate of [South] Korea in Erbil and organized by The Center for Korean Studies in Kurdistan and the International University of Erbil. The event had a special guest speech by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Head of Foreign Relations Falah Mustafa and attendance by the Consulate of the Republic of Korea in Erbil, Mr. Park, Young-Kyu.
Many cultural activities took place such as youth talent shows featuring K-Pop singing and dance performances, a Tae Kwon Do demonstration, Korean name writing, music performances of traditional Korean instruments along with showing of Korean costumes and face painting.
The event was held at the Public Library of Hawler-Zaytun at Sami Abdulrahman Park which includes the Zaytun Dispatch Memorial Hall, the name of the Korean Army unit present in Kurdistan to carry out peacekeeping and reconstruction-related tasks between 2004 and 2008 along with the Korean Culture and Information Center.
Aw-yeah. I’m not saying that K-Pop makes a festival like this authentic, but it’s probably safe to say that without K-Pop, it is not authentic. Not based on the people I’ve met anyway, although there may some selection bias there.
Now, you gotta understand the awesome that is K-Pop. It is like, the most rarefied form of pop music in the world today, in my opinion. It’s a lot like J-Pop, but then taken to the nth degree.
Now, J-Pop is pretty refined pop music in its own right, and certainly has its own aesthetic. But it’s wild, and po-mo as all heck.
As in, one of my favorite tunes sorta in the genre isn’t actually Japanese but initially recorded by a Swedish group. Only some musical mastermind figured out it sounded just like J-Pop if you nightcore edited the remix to speed it up to make a meme out of it.
I can’t find my favorite K-Pop video and it’s probably lost to the sands of time as there are a lot of K-Pop videos and asking Lord Google about “k-pop mega mashup 2010” doesn’t do a lot.
So I’ll use one of the favorite videos from a friend of mine who, as he says, shares my unabashed love for this… stuff. But he lives there and knows way more about it, so now I’ll follow his lead.
Now, if you watch that, you’ll understand the whole mash-up thing.
Like, this is a wild over-generalization, but a lot of Korean culture is about innovating and mixing and matching from other cultures.
This melding is the happy side effect of being a trading crossroads and the unhappy side effect of being invaded all the fucking time.
As per the last, Korean culture may be also at least in part be defined by its culture of resistance.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Nearly every culture has lore of resistance. Cultures and peoples that aren’t able to do the resistance thing tend to not to last very long, the world being such as it is, thus far anyway.
So it’s natural for such a tradition to exist in most if not all cultures, at least in some form. America has the Revolution and then the frontier. You’d think that would problematize the resistance narrative since the frontiersmen were resisting the people who lived there, but it’s really about scrapping to live.
And, anyway, that new frontier thing has a long history too. English history has people fighting fiercely for what really in many cases isn’t very good land, but it’s their land, dammit. And they became an empire, whether some of them wanted to or not.
Hell, ancient Rome has a founding myth of past greatness, but a ruined city in Troy, escaping and migrating (something of an odyssey, oddly enough), fundamentally enduring, and ultimately reaching the Italian peninsula where they aggressively resisted the tribes living there and there you have it:
Rome: Scrappy underdog.
Other countries might have arguably stronger claims to this tradition than Rome, but, bracketing some real serious grievances—especially those that require remedy—that sort of superior cultural justification debate is something I personally find to be of limited use.
Now, circling back, the Korean culture of resistance can be seen in their national martial art, taekwondo. So it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the fighting style is associated with resistance, yeah?
But the martial arts—here I go generalizing again; please suffer my limitations here, as I swear there is a point to all this—the martial arts in Asia hold a special place in culture.
Specifically, while the arts certainly involve fighting, the art tends to have a lore of how it embodies the virtue of the people—that which they value and which makes a person—and by extension, a people—good.
Kung fu, for example isn’t a fighting style, but rather a way of life; wu shu is the name of the fighting style that is folded into the way of life.
Which makes sense that there would be one, as the good man (It’s gendered. Not my fault. We’ll see why this matters in a sec.), to do justice, must at times project force.
So fighting is a virtue. It’s about the judicious use of force that is inextricably linked to virtue.
This is fundamental to martial arts movies and what they embody. Check out this clip from The Forbidden Kingdom, which is essentially a primer on kung fu films put together by two legends of the genre: Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
As the immortal says:
Kung fu, hard work over time to accomplish skill.
Now, my understanding is that “kung fu” literally in Chinese means, “virtuous man.” So the key insight here is something like this.
Or, insofar as work can be done poorly and virtue depends upon doing good and doing it well, it makes more sense to think of it as a function of time and work.
In other words, to really have the virtue of a good man, you have to work at it for a long fucking time.
Now, most martial arts traditions have something like this, some lore that teaches the value of work and learning and what that gets you and how a strong people needs it.
But there is also some more fundamental sense of moral power. This is why so many movies in this tradition have examples where an older, purer form of the art defeats one corrupted by evil—as in The Karate Kid where the student learns a more ancient, traditional, familial, and hence more effective karate.
The idea here is that, for anyone who spends significant time on learning, if that person is still evil—uses their kung fu to pursue selfish ends—then this is a person who has learned nothing through the struggle and ought justly to be reviled.
Shooting people is no less a martial science than punching someone in the face; indeed, the pistol’s nickname in American westerns, at once “equalizer” and “peacemaker,” symbolizes a nation navigating the tensions of liberal (small L) democracy.
And it’s no accident that The Magnificent Seven is based on The Seven Samurai, which is in turn based on the much more ancient Seven Against Thebes.
So in the traditions with which I am most familiar, we’ve been writing these versions of this story for at least 2,500 years.
We’ve been telling them to each other for even longer—even before the advent of writing.
Now, obviously any culture values good things—has things they consider good—but may not value them equally, or there may be different priorities in the hierarchy of the elements of justice for that culture. And those values—and virtues—permeate the culture.
I mean, that’s arguably what culture is.
So it will also permeate the art. Or, rather, arts.
So, without elaborating on the legends too much (where I would undoubtedly get myself in trouble), Chinese gong fu has things like the Buddha visiting the Shaolin temple to teach the pious but unhealthy monks (all they did was pray and meditate all day) this physical art which also allowed them to project their moral strength. And there’s the Boxer Rebellion where kung fu became emblematic of the power of a people to rise up and assert itself as a collective body—not coincidentally a narrative of resistance.
Similarly, Japanese martial arts have traditions such as that in Okinawan karate of regular farmer type plain folk learning to defend themselves, but also Bushido and the Samurai code of honor emphasizing discipline, responsibility, and loyalty.
I think that’s right, anyway. If not, it’s something like that. I hope.
I would be remiss if I didn’t here note that Japanese swordsmanship has it’s own version of the American western quick draw; it’s called iaido.
The disciplines and their associated life curricula are similar, and different, and each constitutes an attempt to orient people towards the good.
And so each tradition of course has their own literature. China has Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Japan has Miyomoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings.
A taekwondo book is likely to be a manual of how to kick someone in the throat.
And it would probably then include a discussion of why that takes too long and leaves your defense open to riposte, so a back-kick, often considered taekwondo’s unique and powerful contribution to martial arts, is a better choice.
So, while not doing justice to the cultures involved (I decided not to include Ong Bak, for example, as this has gone on too long already—to say nothing of the ancient admonishment never to use the power of Yoga to oppress) this is a super long and involved way, of saying:
Taekwondo has an important place in Korean culture
Moreover, much of its history, including its consolidation (although also schism) in its nationalized form, it’s establishment as the fighting style of the nation’s military, and its acceptance as a combat sport in the Olympics all speak to a tradition of cultivating a true fighting art, one strongly related to their culture of resistance.
So this surprised me not at all.
Zero surprise. None.
So Kurds, it turns out, besides football, are kinda into taekwondo. And, as per above, taekwondo as embedded into an interest in Korean culture writ large.
Now this is interesting. Let’s re-check out this year’s festival in Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Friends of Korea, The Center For Korean Studies, and the University of Kurdistan – Hewler (UKH) organized the third Korean Festival on Saturday to introduce Korean culture to people in the region as well as strengthen ties between the Kurdistan Region and South Korea.
The UKH campus was host to the cultural festival with a large attendance of mainly young people.
Various activities and competitions were organized at the festival, including a youth talent show, comprising of Korean pop music (K-pop) dance performances, face painting, name drawing in Korean, and Korean instruments and customs.
The event also showcased Korean artwork and a Taekwondo performance by the Kurdish Taekwondo Tigers.
BTS , by the way, was in Saudi Arabia in October around the same time I wanted to look up something that had happened there on Twitter and my phone nearly blew up from the sheer power of K-Pop fandom. It’s real.
So anyway, in general, one should not generalize about cultures in certain ways; appreciation is one thing, but one shouldn’t take that to mean a conflation of cultures.
On the other hand:
Rangin, 27, a volunteer with the Friends of Korea, dressed in traditional Korean clothes. She told Kurdistan 24 that she had loved South Korean culture since she was young.
“South Korea and Kurdistan are very close in their culture,” she said. “That’s why I think all Kurds love South Korea.”
While cultural appropriation is a thing and a concern for a lot of people, it’s interesting to see here expressed this notion of a cultural resonance.
So how did this begin?
Sruud Yassin, 28, another volunteer, told Kurdistan 24 that South Korea has been “helpful to the Kurdistan Region.”
Relations were developed between the two nations when South Korea began to provide humanitarian assistance to the autonomous Kurdish region in the education, health, infrastructure, and economic sector since 2004.
Furthermore, the Korean Zaytun Army Division was based in the Kurdistan Region for over five years. South Korea had also previously built the Zaytun Library in the Sami Abdulrahman Park as a gift to the Kurds, with thousands of books available in different languages.
According to Yassin, the Kurdish people and South Koreans “have been friends” since then.
So the South Koreans came to Iraq to help the Kurds fight ISIS and, given their histories, traditions, and how they shaped their cultures, well, sounds like:
Game recognize Game.
However, the political and military relationship between the Kurdistan Region and South Korea is not the only reason Korean culture has become popular in Kurdistan.
Historical Korean drama series such as the “Korean Kingdom of Wings” and “Dong Yi” have become huge hits on Kurdish TV stations for years.
Through “listening to music and watching series,” Kurdish appreciation has grown for Korean culture, Yassin said.
Mohammed Sirwan, 20, another volunteer, told Kurdistan 24 he learned about South Korea through drama series on television.
“I was watching their drama [series], like many other Kurds,” Sirwan said.
“I have been learning Korean, Korean writing, and Korean language for a long time,” he added.
So Kurds are way into South Korean shows, specifically period pieces, much like Americans watching the various flavors of “British” period pieces (i.e. the crown and colonized peoples, also embedded in their respective narratives, as with the Irish, the Scotties, etc. I don’t know anything about the Welsh but I would bet on it.) and the royal courts thereof.
So it’s similar. But here it’s Kurds with Korean culture, so same, yet different.
But it definitely makes sense. And it makes sense that there would be reciprocation.
If all this makes sense already that there is a cultural resonance, then consider their respective relationships to the dominant power: the U. S. of A.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria amid a Turkish onslaught is being watched closely in South Korea, where Trump has long hinted at a major military realignment.
Trump has been accused of abandoning the Kurds, who helped the United States fight against Islamic State, by removing 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria as Turkey carried out a long-planned offensive against Kurdish fighters.
Trump insists he is only trying to fulfill a campaign promise to remove U.S. troops from overseas entanglements, framing the Syria decision as a pushback against U.S. officials and pundits who support what he calls “endless wars.”
That kind of talk is especially relevant for South Korea, which has been in a technical state of war with North Korea since the 1950s and hosts over 28,000 U.S. troops.
Trump has criticized the U.S.-South Korea alliance for decades, but the relationship has grown more tense as Trump’s negotiators engage in talks aimed at getting Seoul to pay substantially more for the cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
Though there are significant differences in the situations facing the Kurds and the South Koreans, some in Seoul fear Trump’s Syria decision could offer a preview of what he intends to eventually do in Korea.
“It certainly sends a message to South Korea regarding cost-sharing talks: past loyalty means nothing,” said Jeffrey Robertson, a professor who specializes in South Korean diplomacy at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
Yup. That just makes too much fucking sense.
And this is why it makes so much fucking sense that Erdogan, if he wants to be rid of these turbulent Kurds, a people in many ways defined by perseverance—Dare I say, indomitable spirit?—then he would focus, among other things, on trying to stomp their culture into oblivion.
And so it goes. I mean, he even goes after the potential propagation of their culture internationally—and I guess NATO is there to help, as per usual.
So yeah, Erdogan wants to destroy Kurdish culture.
In fairness, he’s kinda indifferent to elements of Turkish history and cultural legacy that don’t serve his purposes too.
HASANKEYF, Turkey — The time had finally come for Ramsiz Alcin to leave, generations after her ancestors settled in this ancient town on the Tigris, decades after the state proposed building a dam down river and after years of protests that had ultimately failed to stop it.
The dam would leave Hasankeyf almost totally submerged.
Now, granted, the plan has been in place for ages. But it was put in place back when many peoples were enthralled with modernity and there less value came to be placed on historical legacies and their artifacts. There were even cultural purges of benighted pasts by many regimes around the world.
Since then, we’ve discovered that that was a bit like Bart Simpson trying to get a new and improved dog and realizing the experience of dogness with the “better” dog was not superior; there is value in connection. Burke and Oakeshott were right about that.
Of course, theirs is not a politics for a people in crisis. And lots of peoples find themselves in crisis. From time to time.
So it’s pretty clear Erdogan doesn’t give a shit about Turkish culture except when he’s manipulating it for popular support.
So it makes sense, as per all of the above, that he would want to extinguish a culture so defined by resistance—and let’s not forget:
But I expect that Erdogan is more concerned with the resistance part with the Kurds. And I dare say the rest of the people of Rojava at this point; I mean, they’ve managed to still be there after all. Cultures of resistance tend to survive or, at least, have the proverbial puncher’s chance; the concepts sorta go hand in hand.
So, I saw something on Twitter, something in Rojava—not Kurdish, but of Rojava. And, in keeping with the cultural trends I’ve noticed that extend beyond ethnicity (nobody has a monopoly on resistance), various people seemed to think was funny and cool.
I didn’t get it. And I couldn’t figure out why.
Once it was explained to me, though, I thought of all this.
Not to put too fine a point on it, it just reminded me of some of the stylized hyper-modern-tech with post-modernity-on-overdrive thematic elements and innovative twists or something exceedingly complicated like that.
It’s some late stage, advanced stuff. And lots of Korean culture is kinda a lot like that.
Which brings us to Tik-Tok.
I saw some videos on Twitter and I didn’t get why there were supposed to be funny or cool or, really, different and special.
The one defining feature that stood out as different from other videos was that it was this Tik-Tok thing. I googled it and really couldn’t figure out why anyone would use a video app on a smart phone that already had video.
So I asked the message board—the same one this blog originated on and where it still continues. And so I started a thread: Tik-Tok: Why??
If you’re still reading, just bear with me a tiny bit longer: The information comes, but the board has a communicative style all it’s own.
This will make sense, I swear. Here’s how the conservation went.
Why did people need a new video app for smart phones that already do video?
I honestly can’t figure out why people are using it. Or what it offers people such that they use it, or any certain types of people use it. Or any of it really.
I thought this was about Ke$ha
It is now, brother.
It’s instagram for videos. Kinda.
Then what the fuck is InstaGram?
I feel old. Like I’m about to turn to dust or something.
OK, boomer… or something.
It’s Tik Tok for pictures.
You used the cocktail stick, didn’t you?
Every damn time.
Why are people using it? Just because it’s new? To migrate away to a new platform that doesn’t have their parents? Etc.?
Yes. Kids show each other something funny on their phones, look cool to their peers, ask where they got it, and download that app so they can use it themselves. It’s not any more complicated than that. They don’t care what the older kids or parents have installed on their phones, or whether they already have something installed that could accomplish that same task. They just want the funny thing their cooler friend showed them. You want to start a new Facebook clone, just write features for following and sharing, get some critical mass of 13-year-olds to try it simultaneously, and make some content they find amusing to show each other. Social media platforms are only as sticky, it turns out, as the extent to which they are the originating point for the most viral content on the web. If 4chan or SomethingAwful were profit-maximizing businesses, they’d rule the internets.
Thank you. Lots. This makes sense.
It’s funny because it’s China very likely stealing everyone’s info.
Tangled Up In Red
It also allows kids a lot of freedom of expression, just from its ethos. It isn’t rooted in ‘curated’ perfection, it is based on experimentation – with humor, dance comedy, copy-cat, etc. It is a platform that seemingly affords many the ability to be ‘viral’, as follower count isn’t a requisite to being seen. You can be in anyone’s feed (permissions, of course), so long as the alogorthim selects your content.
My dog has 200 views on a video and has no followers.
Reverend (“cross-posting to another thread on the message board)
OK, other posters were kind enough to explain Tik-Tok to me, which I needed to know to understand why this was funny.
Thanks again. Seriously—I was really confused because I only saw the video on Twitter and didn’t know why it was significant. War is hell, clearly.
barbed wire Bob
You have a weird definition of the word “funny.”
Technically, I’m using their working definition. But people seem to love their social media game.
I guess being the hip edgy militia is their thing? Way more punk rock than those other fuddy duddy counterinsurgency forces.
And that’s how I came to think: This is an over-generalization, but damn, I bet a lot of Koreans would really enjoy that video.