Self-Improvement, Self-Blame And Internalised Kurdophobia
“It’s a lot easier to go out for a meal and avoid the bread basket than it is to go out into the world and avoid anti-Kurdish discrimination.”
It was a humorous comment on a forum for people recovering from disordered eating, but it was also a metaphor for the rest of my life. Since I was in my mid-teens, I’ve been searching for protocols, programmes and plans to make me more palatable in a world where hundreds of millions of people view my ethnicity as a lack of character. I would fail miserably, self-flagellate in a way that makes medieval monks look as happy as Larry, and then get back on the wagon and carry on with the quest for the next big thing to release the middle-class neoliberal white woman within.
I went through a phase where I made myself eat fried eggs every day, on the premise that their nutritional composition would “rewire my brain” to submit to my Kurdophobic overlords. While I remain quite partial to the taste of fried eggs, I find the experience of making them veritably traumatising.
I analysed the pros and cons of restrictive diets. Keto, Paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, anything-eaten-by-people-like-me-free, since it was all a way to isolate myself from events and social interactions where my cuisine might be served. I believed in “food is mood” and even more in “food is conformity”, because a decent number of my peers prided themselves on having a “way of eating” but I’ve met plenty of Kurds and not a single one had food rules. They became a way to present myself as a cut above. None of mine materialised much, but they gave me a sense of control characteristic of disordered eating, which I still struggle with.
I committed to a standing order of supplements, also to “rewire my brain”, that did nothing but make me less averse to swallowing pills. I took them religiously back then, but nowadays, I often forget to take my vitamin D (for general health), and this might be why.
I joined a swim team, which only made exercise feel like a punishment for something out of my control and completely unrelated. This may even be the reason why I find it difficult to enjoy exercising — because I associate it with the loss of an identity. In my mind, there was no such thing as a Kurdish athlete — it was either-or.
I made a few attempts to go tech-free. I was paranoid that the Kurdish independence movement was hijacking my brain through subliminal messages in Youtube videos, which I now know is ridiculous. While my classmates bonded over Instagram photos and Snapchat streaks, I forced myself to text and even considered buying a flip phone to avoid the “temptation” of my own race. I had an online friend called Zilan, whom I dropped off the grid from at least six times. Even God isn’t quite sure how I managed to “unplug” in the second half of the 21st century, or how Zilan and I have stayed friends. Although I suppose my latent ability to go without Wifi would be a useful skill if I were to end up in a Turkish prison.
I made laundry lists of activities that were “good” and “bad” because I supposedly needed “hard no’s”. All that did was lead me to come up with ways to work-around the draconian rules I’d imposed upon myself. What counted as a transgression? Why was writing in general verboten, but journalling about feelings encouraged? Was I “allowed to” wear Rastafarian jewellery as a stand-in for Kurdish jewellery? The colours are the same! Again, printing out a copy of the Turkish constitution and memorising the lot would have been a more constructive activity (surely that makes it “good”), as I’d have learned about law and politics.
The worst part was that I was congratulated for all this. I can’t remember anyone stopping to ask me how it was affecting my wellbeing, or what else I was willing to sacrifice for the greater goal of “fitting in” with insecure adolescents who don’t even know what a Kurdish Flag looks like.
No, I was changing deck chairs on the Titanic and everyone was calling it an impressive feat of marine engineering. Changing myself because attempting to change society, even talking about being disadvantaged in society, was on the “bad” side of the list. Greta Thunberg had permission to change society, and Malala Yousafzai gave it to herself, but somehow that permission didn’t apply to me.
I was only introduced to the idea that there was another way when I went to university. I thought it was sacrilege. I didn’t know how my hevals could see their ethnicity as something neutral, but I wanted to try to understand them. So I decided on a “fresh start”, not in the usual sense of yet another new set of rules, but in the sense of abandoning every rule I’d made, all in one go.
Coincidentally, the academic year started at the same time that the Turkish government launched a military invasion of Western Kurdistan (under the Syrian jurisdiction). I went protesting against this multiple times a week, developing a sore throat from shouting slogans. I went to the community centre for meetings, which were held in a dimly lit room and started with a salutation to our martyrs. I wore a red, yellow and green scarf to seminars and started an impromptu debate with a lecturer who insisted that “Brexit is the most important issue in the world”, piping up, “What about genocide?”. I was even interviewed on a Kurdish news channel, for a few seconds. I’m not crazy about comparisons given how they’ve been used against me, but I acted like a 7-year-old left to their own devices in Disneyland with a stolen credit card. It was a totally terrifying free-for-all.
I learned that there’s a reason Kurds in Turkey are more nationalistic and emotionally attached to their culture than Kurds in Iraq — because of how much more they’ve been deprived of agency. You can’t willpower your way out of who you belong with. I’m privileged enough that my experiences of racism are essentially “first world problems”, but I can relate. I’d held my breath until I turned blue, and now I was hyperventilating. I’d trekked through a desert, and now I was drinking enough water to give a T-Rex an electrolyte imbalance. There were only so many photogenic portions of baked oats I could curb my appetite with, before I ceremonially said “screw it” and polished off a dozen Krispy Kreme’s.
I got an extremely Kurdish tattoo, mainly as something to celebrate. But in hindsight, I wonder if it was also a subconscious way of branding myself as broken and irreparable. Someone for whom nothing had worked. Treatment-resistant. Non-compliant. Clearly not even trying. It’s quite discreet. Could that have been because I thought it was embarrassing?
I’d reverted to a few old habits during the lockdowns. I was trying to pick myself back up from them when I noticed that a man in his thirties was looking at my tattoo. He was following me, but not in a way that made me uncomfortable. In fact, he made me very comfortable, like he’d found me through echolocation — but his perspective on all this was one I wasn’t familiar with.
The first time he told me he wasn’t trying to change, I was shocked. I wondered if he, too, had given up on himself. Unlike the glamorous, ethnically ambiguous girls I’d met at student union events, the ones I classed as “not completely beyond redemption”, this is a man who looks like a caricature of a Kurd in a Turkish satire magazine. He faces a boatload of discrimination, far more than I ever will, because of intersecting factors like immigration status, education level and disability, and he just…gets on with it? He can distance himself from people who expect him to go above and beyond to accommodate their anti-Kurdish beliefs…without feeling guilty? What do you mean, he’s never shaved his unibrow?
I realised that the constant pursuit of “lifestyle changes” isn’t even that different from shaving a unibrow. The more you shave your unibrow, the thicker it grows back. You put in more and more effort for less and less reward. By the time you realise you’re not getting anywhere with your shaving regimen, your unibrow is substantially thicker than it would have been had you left it alone. So surely the answer is to learn to love your unibrow.
I still get thoughts of irrational things I can do to maximise my privilege. One thing I’ve tried to do is to ask myself, “Would I give this advice to my partner?”. Would I say that cleaning his room is a magic method for guaranteeing financial success? That he just has a persecution complex, that’s all in his head, that he can get rid of by spending more time at the gym? That all he needs to do to be a happy man is to give up social media and count the number of days he’s gone without it? No, of course not. I’m not Kurdophobic. To others.
Besides, his favourite breakfast is a veg omelette and his exercise method of choice is swimming. In case I needed any more evidence that my “methods” were ineffective, there it is. I’ve tried to talk to him about this, but I’m always concerned that he’ll interpret it as, “Here’s everything I’m doing to avoid thinking, feeling and looking like you. You can do it too, but you won’t, so it’s your fault you’ve faced oppression, you loser.”
These days, a meme is making the rounds, and it’s called “that girl”. “That girl” is a young female individual, usually a white one, of average height with blonde hair and small boobs. She promotes whiteness and Eurocentric beauty standards — none of the arm hair and weird moles that set us Kurdish girls apart. She gets up obscenely early, makes her bed, has a routine. She relies on yoga and meditation as magical solutions to even the most complex of problems. All the things that earn virtue points under the Protestant work ethic. All the “good” things on my laundry lists. The hamster wheel of atonement has become trendy.
She does it effortlessly, whereas for me, it was a full-time job. I could have used some of that time to have an actual job, and I didn’t, because I was self-employed in the field of trying to take up less space.
I hate to say it, but it pains me to see my agemates trying to replicate the “that girl” way of being, or even to talk about things like New Year’s Resolutions or self-help guides, and to see it bringing them happiness, simply because of how much misery it caused me. This was one of the few Januaries where I didn’t make any resolutions. Even innocuous-sounding ones like “be more productive” hit too close to home. Yes, I could have resolved to “accept myself as I am”…and imply that I wasn’t able to do that at any other point in my life.
It makes me wonder, if a “lifestyle change” is really that life-changing, how much changing did your life need to begin with? As I contemplate whether it’s yoga, cupping or Bulletproof Coffee that should be my next overly simplistic solution to a complex, systemic issue, I would imagine not a lot.
(Art by Elif.Illustrations on Instagram)