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From Diyarbakir to Paris, Kendal Nezan the man who have initiated french socialists to the kurdish issue

From Diyarbakir to Paris, Kendal Nezan the man who have initiated french socialists to the kurdish issue

22.02.2016 • France •

As a Kurd from Turkey, with a discreet and secretive personality, Kendal Nezan has been playing a key role in the elaboration of France’s Kurdish policy thanks to the long time support and complicity he enjoyed from former First Lady Danielle Mitterrand. 

It all started in 1976, Boulevard Saint Germain, in Paris: “François Mitterrand was buying the newspapers, I wanted to tell him about the situation of Kurdish people, so I went up to him and we had a cup of coffee together right here” recalls Kendal Nezan as we walk into the Village Ronsard café where he still is a regular.

On that occasion, France’s future president confesses to the 27 year old young man that Kurdish writer Yasar Kemal is one of his best authors: “A few years later, when I had the opportunity to have a look at his personal library, I saw that what he had said was true”, confirms Kendal Nezan.

At the time, more than any other issues, Iran and the struggle against the Shah is the topic that keeps the Socialist Party busy. Sent over by François Mitterrand, “Kendal came to see us with a group of Iranian Kurds for whom he was working as a translator. He wore long, curly hair, with this bright blue gaze that he still has”, remembers Alain Chenal, who used to be adviser to then Socialist Party third world issues secretary Lionel Jospin. “Kendal talked about the Kurds in a clear, practical and yet sophisticated way, without resorting to the “anti-imperialist” jargon made of verbose stereotypes that is so frequent in the Middle East”.

A well-mannered and cultured man, Kendal Nezan has both a warm and elusive personality. Despite a long time companionship, those who met him in the various corridors of power of the French Socialists know very little about him. “I have been working with him for many years and I do not even know where he lives” exclaims one of them. Is it out of a sense of privacy, a taste for secrecy, or just caution, that Kendal Nezan speaks so little about himself? “It is a life guide line that may seem a bit old fashioned but it fits with my life choices” he explains, as he is not quite enthusiastic, to say the least, at the thought seeing a story on his life in the media.

A family secret

Travelling to Turkey is key to gaining more understanding into his life. Kendal Nezan grew up in Silvan, a town less than 100kms away from Diyarbakir, the capital of “Northern Kurdistan”. A learned reader of the Koran, his father was working for the Turkish state and supervised road infrastructure works.

But Kendal Nezan’s big secret has to do with one of his grandmothers. The latter is not a Kurd but an Armenian and a survivor of the 1915 genocide. Whereas other members of the family are killed (“burnt alive”, according to a cousin), she and her sister are saved and adopted into a Kurdish family from Turkey. Far from being exceptional, this fate was shared by several thousand children, and young Christian Armenian girls were forcibly converted to Islam, sometimes working as servants, before being married off to Turks.

“I have been working with him for years, and I do not even know where he lives!” – an associate

If Kendal Nezan never spoke publicly about this grandmother, and only rarely did so in private, it is because he knew such an information could be used against him and his family – his 2 brothers live in Sweden but his mother still lives in Diyarbakir. At times, for example, the Turkish authorities have denounced the presumed complicity of Asala’s “Armenian terrorists” with PKK’s “Kurdish terrorists”.

Nowadays, the silence that once surrounded the existence of these Armenian grandmothers has been partly lifted. Claiming such a filiation has almost become “fashionable” in the Kurdish South Eastern part of Turkey – though being called an Armenian may feel like an insult amongst ultra-nationalist Turks.

Rather Maoism than Marxism-Leninism

Young Kendal enters the only high school in Diyarbakir right at the time of the 1960 military coup: “My literature teacher was an artillery officer”, he recalls. He then leaves “Northern Kurdistan” for the Turkish capital Ankara to study medicine.

At the time, in Turkey as in France, the far-left is split between various currents and obediences. One of Kendal Nezan’s cousin heads the student group that Abdullah Öcalan, future leader of the PKK (Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party, founded later, in 1978), will join. Very soon, his struggle comrades suspect Öcalan of being an informer for the Turkish services. Kendal Nezan’s cousin himself is said to have expelled him.

But young Kendal is more attracted by China than by the Soviet Union. “If I am not mistaken, in the 1970’s, Kendal had more Maoist leanings; my husband and him had vigorous discussions on that” recalls writer Gilberte Favre-Zaza, a Swiss writer and author of a dozen of books, married to another famous Kurdish exile, Nourredine Zaza, who died in 1988.

“May 68, Paris and the Revolution…”

One year after the death of his father in 1967, Kendal Nezan decides to go and study physics at the University of California, Berkeley, in the US. The Turkish authorities grant him a scholarship. The young man stops over in France. He will never leave the country. “May 68 was happening, Paris, the revolution…” he says, with an unexpected movement of enthusiasm, his eyes still filled with memories. In those days, there were “at the very most, 12 Kurds in Paris…

The young man is broke, all the more so that the Turkish State wants to get back the money of the scholarship it gave this young student from whom, very clearly, nothing good should be expected. Kendal Nezan survives on odd jobs. “One day, during one of our walks along the banks of the River Seine, our young son makes a remark about tramps. Kendal, who has always been very attentive to children, turns towards him and explains to him that tramps are those who welcomed him under the bridges when he had nowhere to sleep” recalls Gilberte Favre-Zara.


During the 70’s, the main liberation movements Kendal Nezan joins are the South African, Latin American and Vietnamese ones, that mobilize a small group of communist and anti-colonialist activists gathered around Henri Curiel.

At the same time, the young man gets his doctorate in nuclear physics and would sometimes love to bring down the frontiers between his activist commitments and his scientific researches: “He sent us the Turkish translation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and suggested we should publish it in our far-left political magazine”, his friend Umit Firat in Istanbul recalls with a sense of humour.

In 1974, Kendal takes the opportunity of Bülent Ercevit’s government’s recently declared amnesty to travel to Turkey. Quite the wrong move: he is immediately detained by Turkish authorities and can only thank French officials for his release.

These are the days when poet, physicist and Nobel Prize Alfred Kastler introduces him to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In 1976, along with Claude Bourdet, Françoise Giroud, Maxime Rodinson, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Bernard Dorin and Edgar Morin, they will found the France-Kurdistan Organisation.

The first meetings take place at artist Remzi’s workshop, in the14th arrondissement of Paris, near Alésia metro station. With Gérard Chaliand, Kendal Nezan is the linchpin of the organization. The two men edit the collective book “The Kurds and the Kurdistan-The Issue of Kurdish Nationalism in the Middle-East” (“Les Kurdes et le Kurdistan-La question nationale kurde au Proche-Orient”, Maspero, 1978, re-published in 1981). They do radio broadcasts and produce traditional Kurdish songs that Kendal, his recorder slung on his shoulders, collected thousands of kilometres away from Paris, in the Caucasus region and Soviet Central Asia.

All right”, Mitterrand told me, “but now, it is up to you to explain things to Danielle and get her on board!”- Kendal Nezan

By now, the Kurdish community in France has got bigger, sustained by the influx of political refugees, either communists or from the far-left, who fled the 1971 military coup. Kendal rents a basement rue Chappe, in the vicinity of the Sacred-Heart, in order to make it possible for these students and activists to hold meetings.

In 1978, after his meeting with François Mitterrand at the Village Ronsard café, Kendal Nezan convinces several Socialists towns, including Nantes, Clermont-Ferrand, Grenoble and Rennes, to give about thirty rearranged buses and former dump trucks to improve the local transports in the town of Diyarbakir, then facing reprisals from worried Turkish authorities after the election of a Kurd Mayor, Mehdi Zana, from the Labour Party. Nezan’s initiative will cost him his Turkish citizenship.

During the 70’s and 80’s, Paris also welcomes two men who are going to be immensely important for Kendal Nezan. First, Iranian Kurd Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou. He is an economist, who studied in Prague, and an outstanding political leader who had to flee from Iran, and who spends his life between France and the Iraqi mountains where he set up his wine cellar and his library. In 1989, he will be assassinated in Vienna, probably by the Iranian secret services. And then comes Turkish filmmaker of Kurdish origins, Yilmaz Güney, whose film Yol is rewarded with the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1982. With Yilmaz Güney, Kendal Nezan shares the dream of a “Turkish-Kurdish federation », and the feeling that « as Kurds, we do not have much in common with the Arabs, particularly in terms of mindset”.

In 1981, François Mitterrand gets elected into office. In Turkey, the repression against the Kurds gets worse. Yilmaz Güney often comes along when Kendal Nezan goes and tries to convince Foreign Affairs minister Claude Cheysson’s chief of staff to grant as many visas as possible: “Most of these refugees and asylum seekers had been detained in the same jail as Yilmaz, they all knew him and he knew many of them” underlines Kendal Nezan who roughly estimates at 8000 the total number of visas granted by France to date to Kurds.

Danielle Mitterrand’s support

With Yilmaz Güney at his side, Kendal Nezan is also going to start dreaming about an Institute that would be dedicated to Kurds. The Swedes are willing to welcome him and fully finance his project. But Kendal prefers Paris. After all, doesn’t he enjoy Danielle Mitterrand’s sympathetic attention, as she relays the project to then Minister of Culture Jack Lang? Today, a former ministerial adviser explains: “of course, questioning the relevance of the project was out of the question, as the “suggestion” came from the wife of the President”. Indeed, this project filled in a gap.

Inaugurated in February 1983, the Institute, located at 106 Rue de Lafayette, serves all at once as a social aid and business creation office, and as the Kurdish Cultural Centre. In the absence of an independent Kurdistan, it is up to the Kurdish Institute of Paris (IKP) and its director Kendal Nezan, to allocate the grants from the Ministry of Cooperation. This will lead Kendal Nezan to create a whole network of obliged people, something that will also generate much jealousy and resentment. As for the French intelligence services, they may, at times, have been led to question the criteria presiding over the attribution of those grants.

You’re causing us too many problems, don’t expect us to give you more visas, it is over, for the next 6 months, at the very least!”- Roland Dumas to Kendal Nezan and Danielle Mitterrand

All I wanted to do” explains Kendal Nezan “was to embark on long term actions, work towards the creation of a Kurdish elite, as well as making it easier for Kurds, whether fast-food vendors or tailors, to open their businesses and get down to work”. Somehow, he will achieve this with a certain amount of success.

Former beneficiaries of such grants end up with high-powered posts: in academia, but also in the fashion world, or even in the banking sector, for example. The director of the IKP prides himself, with a touch of facetiousness, on having “trained the handful of educated cadres” of the opposite side, the PKK. Thus, the man who worked as Abdullah Öcalan’s interpreter during his escape to Italy in 1999 is said to have been at 106 rue de Lafayette.

With the Socialists in power, the influence and ambitions of Kendal Nezan take on a bigger scale.

Kendal-Nezan-Jospin-Kouchner-Juillet-1989 (Photo 1)

In October 1989 in Paris, he organizes an international conference on Kurds in partnership with Danielle Mitterrand’s Fondation France-Liberté and the French government. Thirty-two delegations take part, including a US delegation and a Soviet one. This conference is a first and a landmark in rising international awareness of what Kurds are living through.

Two weeks later, Danielle Mitterrand and Kendal Nezan take off for the US in order to present the conclusions of this conference to the Congress. In 1991, it is the US Senate’s turn to put together an International Conference on the Kurdish question, in partnership with the Kurdish Institute of Paris.

Danielle Mitterrand’s “Kurdish” reputation crosses the Atlantic. “Madame, would you like to tell me more about the Kurds? I would be most grateful to benefit from your knowledge on this people and its history”, President Bill Clinton is said to have asked, while sitting next to her on the occasion of an official supper.

The First Lady’s commitment is anything but easy to handle for the Quai d’Orsay French Foreign Affairs.

Target of a car bomb

In 1992, Danielle Mitterrand travels to Iraqi Kurdistan via Turkey. In Süleymaniye, Northern Iraq, she is the target of a car bomb that kills 4 people.  Twenty-three years later, Kendal Nezan is still convinced that “this would never have happened, had I been able to travel with her”.

On another occasion, Danielle Mitterrand travels to Ankara, unaware that the interpreter, whom she brought along from Paris, has actually got an arrest warrant issued against him by the Turkish police. Still, he indulges in challenging Turkish authorities, to the greatest embarrassment of the French ambassador then posted in Ankara.

On several occasions, Roland Dumas, then Foreign Affairs minister, tears his hair out when faced with Danielle Mitterrand and Kendal Nezan’s political initiatives, which clash with Iran and neighbouring Arab regimes. “You are creating too many problems”, he is said to have told this couple of irrepressible militants, “don’t expect to get more visas, it is over for the next 6 months, at the very least!

But Kendal Nezan, always one step ahead, bets on the Socialist young guard: in 1994, Segolène Royal (former President François Hollande wife and a State minister in the current French government)  is sent to Ankara to convey support for the Kurdish MPs stuck in the Turkish Parliament. A few months later, a delegation close to the Socialist Party – including Segolène Royal again and Harlem Désir for SOS Racisme – attends the trial of 5 Kurdish MPs, amongst whom Leyla Zana, who will all eventually get a 15 year jail sentence.

Still, sometimes Kendal Nezan misses his mark: in 1999, while attending a debate on the Kurdish question at the European Parliament, he manages to wind his way into a very private supper that Michel Rocard, Bernard Kouchner and Dany Cohn-Bendit traditionally enjoy in a restaurant in Strasburg. Kendal Nezan plans to convince the political trio that they should give priority to the Kurdish issue as Abdullah Öcalan, head of the PKK, has just been detained in Nairobi by the Turkish secret services. But hardly have they sat down at the table that Michel Rocard turns to their Kurd guest and declares, not without a touch of maliciousness: “We may have forgotten to tell you, Kendal, but we ban any talk of politics and religion during our suppers

Today, Kendal Nezan still laughs at his disappointment.

A more serious source of regret has to do with having had to put an end on 31st December 2012, to the broadcast of the Kurd TV channel he had put on air four years earlier, hoping to counterbalance the overwhelming presence of the PKK TV and promote Kurdish culture.

Kendal Nezan’s frail looks are deceptive: the man is as solid as a rock. He has been through “a lot”, as people say. He is one of those men and women from the Middle East, whose political commitment was born from denied or humiliated identities, and who bear the memories of close ones who fell under the bullets of the police forces, of comrades who died under torture at the hand of “anti-terrorist units”, and of friends, forcibly disappeared or assassinated.

Yet, at times, there is a crack in the wall, such as, for instance, when Kendal Nezan recalls the rumours that echoed within the ranks of the Socialist Party itself, and according to which Danielle Mitterrand was being “manipulated”. He most probably felt hurt, not so much because he was suspected of being manipulative, rather than because the sincerity of his struggle companion was being questioned.

A certain influence over the First Lady

Kendal Nezan does not deny he had a certain influence over the First Lady – a situation that François Mitterrand sometimes knew how to capitalize on.

kendal-nezan-danielle-mitterrand-_francois-xavier-lovat_0 (Photo 2) 

For instance, Nezan explains that in 1992 The Quai d’Orsay was pushing for the President to travel to Turkey. Danielle was totally opposed to such a visit, as about a hundred Kurds had been murdered in Cizre. Mitterrand then calls me in, to ask for my opinion. It seemed to me that an empty-chair policy might not be the best solution, and that he had to go to Turkey as long as he raised the issue of the Kurds. “All right” Mitterrand told me, “but now, it is up to you to explain this to Danielle and have her change her mind”

It is said that the Kurdish friend was the only close person – apart from the relatives – to keep vigil over Danielle Mitterrand on her deathbed and to have remained at her side right to the end in November 2011. He paid homage to her in a beautiful text which can be found on the website of the Institut François Mitterrand.

This couple of “problem activists” may have given headaches to some of the established Quai d’Orsay leaders, but it is undeniable that they inspired France with a Kurdish policy that the country somehow follows today.

“President Hollande still benefits from the good relations that were established with the Kurds by Danielle Mitterrand and Kendal Nezan, particularly in Iraq”, confirms Didier Billion, assistant director of the French Institute for International Relations IRIS. His policy fits within a certain continuity: the idea according to which, for the past 25 years, the Socialists have considered that the Kurds must be unconditionally supported, because they are endowed with some innate progressivism. The fact that all the states where they live give them blows is a good enough reason to defend them.”

Early in September 2014, Kendal Nezan writes a “Call in Support of the Kurdistan”, and succeeds in getting the signatures of 2 former Prime Ministers and 2 former Foreign Affairs Ministers, all from the Left.  It is rumoured that one of his friends laughingly said that Kendal Nezan achieved “what François Hollande himself cannot get, that is, rallying the signatures of Jospin, Kouchner, Rocard and Védrine around the same text”. He most certainly owes this success to over 40 years of companionship within the first circles of power of the French Socialists, from which he actually initiated several leading personalities to the Kurdish Cause.

But the media and political U-turn that took place over the past few months towards the PKK could destabilize Kendal Nezan.

“François Hollande still benefits from the good relations that Danielle Mitterrand and Kendal Nezan established with the Kurds” – Didier Billion, assistant director of the French Institute for International studies IRIS

Though still on the EU and US lists of terror organizations, the PKK is gaining in legitimacy because of the war it is waging against ISIS jihadist savagery – particularly since the 26th January 2015 “liberation” of Kobanî, and thanks to a very clever public relation policy.

But Kendal Nezan never hid his distrust of the authoritarian methods of the PKK, although he put in a lot of efforts to convince the latter, along with the BDP, the Kurdish political party from Turkey, to enter into a peace process with Ankara. The former child from Silvan is closer to the Barzani Kurdish clan, who is more conservative and traditional, and runs the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

It must be noticed that, in October 2014, he was not invited at the supper given by his friend Bernard Kouchner to honour Salih Muslim, leader of the PYD-PKK, then visiting Paris.

Nevertheless, when on 9th November 2014, at the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris, at the end of the performance of his play “Hôtel Europe” performed for the benefit of the Kurdish Institute of Paris, Bernard-Henry Lévy climbs on stage to praise the commitment of Kurdish fighters in Kobanî, and calls for the PKK to be removed from the list of terror organizations, Kendal Nezan, at his side, makes no objection.

Is it in order to spare the Kurdish world from any more divisions, as it is traditionally deeply divided between enemy brothers? Actually on the beginning of 2016,  kurdish unity is more than ever his main concern.

Kendal’s strong point is his relationship to institutional personalities”, analyses a civil society leader. “But he is now finding himself in competition with the PKK as it is becoming a legitimate interlocutor – even if this is already hard to accept for many of us who suffered from the ideological domination of the PKK. But Kendal Nezan, at least publicly, does not want to choose any other side than this one”.

What is sure is that Kendal Nezan has been developing for the past 40 years an outstanding political and tactical flair. And, if France has had a Kurdish policy since the 1980’s, it is by and large thanks to this discreet man who dedicated his life to this cause.

Ariane Bonzon

Photos: DR

Photo 1: Kendal Nezan with Lionel Jospin and Bernard Kouchner, at the funerals in Paris of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, assassinated on 13th July 1989. The photograph was taken by one of the members of the Kurdish Institute of Paris. Ghassemlou is buried at the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

Photo 2 : Around Danielle Mitterrand: on the right, Massoud Barzani, on the left, Jalal Talabani. Kendal Nezan, on the far left, recalls: “In October 2002, we (Danielle Mitterrand and him) “illegally” crossed the Syria-Iraq border, which is in fact the border between the Kurdish territories of Syria and Iraq, so as to attend the opening of the reunited Kurdish Parliament and inaugurate the François-Mitterrand square in Erbil ” Photo: François-Xavier Lovat.

Translation: Laurence Mazure 

Original french version: Kendal Nezan, l’homme qui parle kurde aux socialistes français (dates back to 29.01.2015)


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