A Tribute to the Sheikh of the Kurdish Diaspora, Talib Berzenji

By Dr. Amir Sharifi:

Talib Berzenji

Talib Berzenji

Talib Berzenji, more intimately known to the Kurds of Southern California as Sheik Talib, the veteran political and cultural activist, died at age 80 after suffering from heart failure in San Diego. He died on May 4th, 2014. Kurds of Southern California are in mourning for they have lost a genuine defender of Kurdish rights and a grandee whose void will be felt for years to come. His life story is the political history of Kurds and their national struggle for liberty.

Talib was born in Kirkuk, but spent part of his childhood and early youth in in Sulaimaniya. Because of his literate background and academic credentials in the English language, he became a high school English teacher. Later he joined the Kurdish insurrection under the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Like hundreds of thousands of fellow Kurds, he was forced into exile, first in Iran and subsequently in the U.S., after the fall of the insurrection in 1975.He came to the U.S in 1976. In the diaspora, although he was politically affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, he always positioned himself in broad-based political and cultural movements that shaped and defined his political identity.  Even during old age and despite his heart condition he continued to have positive thoughts and influences on political, cultural and civic activities in Southern California. For nearly half a century he made remarkable contributions to the Kurdish political and cultural cause in Southern California.

As a competent translator upon his arrival in the US, he had served as the representative of refugees, who had brought with them their painful history and journey of war and destruction; Talib helped them to settle down in their new homeland as he had done the same in Iran. From the outset, with full conviction he became involved in helping organize political and cultural entities, including Kurdistan Committee and Kurdish Community of Southern California in late 1970s and early 1980s. He was also one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the diaspora. Despite impressive academic credentials, including a degree in Islamic Studies, English, and Sociology, he led a very simple and humble life. Broken away from his family in Kurdistan and caught in the unfortunate circumstances and contradictions of exile, he formed a new family in exile before his two sons from the first marriage joined him years later. He is also survived by a daughter from his second marriage.

Kurds and non-Kurds would always remember his lively and vivacious speeches. His humorous language, and ability to easily code switch from one language to another impressed all those who came into contact with him. As a polyglot he had a love affair with languages. He knew eight languages; he was well versed in at least five languages, including Arabic, Turkish, Persian, English, and Spanish. I once asked him how he had come to acquire so many languages. He pensively cited in Kurdish, the German playwright Brecht, “I have changed more countries than shoes.”  Fellow Kurds saw his Kurdish tongue as enviable, reminding them of the fineness of their language. His way of speaking was fiery, fun, and funny.

As a teacher he had learned to cherish and promote the Kurdish language and culture. Because of his vast knowledge of the Kurdish language, he soon became the most vocal medium through whom Kurdishness was expressed in social and cultural venues and events.  More than anything else he was an advocate for the Kurdish language and literature.  He saw himself as a thoughtful man of letters, a poet. He put social chronicles, narratives, and heroic struggles, nostalgia for the homeland into classical Kurdish poetry, which he recited passionately to captive audiences. As a literate and an educated linguist, he tapped his vast knowledge of the Kurdish language and etymology, to assist Dr.Karadaghi, an old friend of his, in compiling lexical entries for his Azadi Dictionary, a contribution that Dr. Karadaghi has acknowledged in the preface of his work.  For some years he had also been working on compiling a new dictionary yet to be published. He also contributed to my translation of “The Small Mirrors” by Sherko Bekas.  He recognized and promoted the aesthetic values of Kurdish cultural expressions. As a skilful dancer, under his artistic direction, many students – Kurds and non-Kurds – learned a myriad of authentic Kurdish dances, which they performed on many stages or for their own pleasure in community events.

When I first met him, he impressed me the most for his knowledge of the Kurdish language and literature. During that time, most of us had only perfunctory knowledge of the Kurdish language, nor did we know how to read and write in Kurdish. He would often say effervescently, “I do not care what you say; they cannot wean you from your mother tongue.” When there were barbarities against Kurds, he resisted persecution, oppression, and war everywhere. When Kurdish activists were imprisoned, tortured, executed, assassinated, when Kurdish civilians were deported and displaced, when wholesale massacres were perpetrated, Talib was always in the forefront of protest rallies, often in his brown Kurdish costume, standing defiantly with a perpetual smile.

The great upheaval that brought Saddam Hussein down, filled him with immense joy and a sense of triumph; after all, as he often recalled, he had been a member of the select group of 65  who had left his homeland in the company of Mullah Mustafa Barazani himself after the defeat of the insurrection; however, after a visit to  Kurdistan, he could not hide his dismay and bitterness at the Kurdish Regional Government officials who had refused to process his request to claim retirement benefits for the teaching job that he had lost in order to join the movement. Although Talib was unacknowledged, he never gave up his devotion to his nation. He had celebrated his last Nawroz before the collapse of the insurrection in Kurdistan and celebrated his final one in Los Angeles in 2014 with his familiar spirit of vitality. Right before his last dance, I asked him what Kurdish New Year meant to him. He said, “To look ahead. That is what kept us going after the insurrection was crushed. We have to look ahead.”

Such was Talib Berzenji’s life. For several decades he was as an iconic figure of Kurdish struggle for liberty and against tyranny. He remained a revered and valiant member of the community to the end with an endless faith in the liberating vision and power of his people. His own life was a testimony and a universal appeal to humanity.

Dr. Amir Sharifi: President of the Kurdish American Education Society-Los Angeles


There are no comments yet. Be the first and leave a response!

Leave a Reply

Wanting to leave an <em>phasis on your comment?

Trackback URL https://kurdistantribune.com/tribute-sheikh-of-kurdish-diaspora-talib-berzenji/trackback/