Hevaltî – Revolutionary friendship as radical care

Elif Sarican & Dilar Dirik

Despite growing up, in different parts of Europe, we have both been struck by the friendship and the camaraderie amongst those active in the Kurdistan freedom movement. Early on in our political activism, we both came to see these qualities both as the basis for how our communities should be organised, as well as prefiguring a new society based on the Kurdish freedom movement’s revolutionary values.

As many more people engage with the movement’s ideas, principles and values, we believe that the bond of solidarity underpinning its ideology and practice – hevaltî – must also be understood. In its simple terms, hevaltî, refers to the unbreakable bond of comradeship connecting members of the movement to one another, a profound spiritual and personal commitment. Even in the midst of intense bombardment, Kurdish guerrillas describe how this hevaltî gives them the determination to continue the fight against the otherwise overwhelming might of the second largest NATO army.

It is perhaps difficult, for those living under capitalist modernity, to imagine the reality of such bonds. Numerous attempts to build communities based on solidarity, mutual aid, and care, often collapse under the weight of capitalism’s fragmenting and individualising logics. Initiatives, therefore, often remain small in scale or survive at the margins of society, as the unacknowledged values of love and care which even the most alienating social system cannot eradicate. However, the marginality of these values in the public sphere forces individuals to turn to individualist solutions to their social, economic, emotional and psychological problems. How else to deal with a social and environmental reality to which no collective solution seems possible?

The contours of hevaltî are not hard to understand for anyone who has watched a Hollywood war movie in which an American G.I. sacrifices himself for his war buddies. However, while Hollywood glorifies and commodifies this idea of individual self-sacrifice in imperialist militaries, it derides those very same values as ‘terrorism’ or mental illness amongst movements offering radical, democratic solutions to global capitalism. Yet it is precisely in such revolutionary contexts that such values acquire their force as the seeds of an alternative society.

The Kurdish word heval means friend but, used in the revolutionary context, it also means comrade, although these two meanings are intertwined. Militants of the Kurdistan freedom movement will often refer to each other as “rêheval” meaning a “friend on the path”, capturing the sense of common purpose the term denotes. In this anti-colonial mass liberation struggle against capitalism, patriarchy and the nation-state, the notion of hevaltî has obtained a wide set of meanings over the course of four decades of collective political resistance and organisation.

The movement refers to its internal culture as a “moral-political culture” and has set it as an aspirational core for the revolutionary transformation of the Kurdish nation and beyond. This has, over time, created an environment in which intense, sometimes harsh criticism and self-criticism coexist alongside the willingness of people to die for each other.

During the prison resistance in the 1980s, revolutionary Kurdish women and men drew their power to struggle against the state’s brutal and deadly torture and assimilation policies primarily from their ability to stick together, even when the atmosphere of mistrust and collaboration generated by the Turkish state made it difficult to believe and trust one’s comrades. Many leaders sacrificed themselves and left behind letters stating that they trusted their comrades to mobilise people and carry their revolutionary cause to victory.

Among Kurdish guerrillas, friendship is so crucial for everyone’s survival and everyday shared living that it can be described as the art of loving and caring for the self and others equally and simultaneously. This, of course, as guerrillas frequently describe, demands a constant challenge of patriarchal and individualist mentalities based on power within each person.

In the civilian sphere, the movement has managed to transcend and transform divisions based on religion, tribe, gender, language, class etc by forming a solidarity and comradeship based movement that formulates new social contracts. Hevaltî as radical care is precisely this, it is supporting each other in duty of social transformation – to transform ourselves individually and internationally, to transform our hevals, to transform society all at the same time. The need to remain a conscious and political society outside of the state system is particularly vital in Europe, where states’ surveillance and policing concepts capitalise on individual interests and anxieties that break up communities and movements.

Hevaltî also structures the internationalist work the Kurdish movement is engaged in – against a nation-state-based idea of solidarity, the hevaltî of women, peoples, movements beyond borders is primarily framed as a common front against fascism, one that should be based on tenderness, love, and care, as opposed to state-centric alliances, driven by economic or geostrategic interests. Again, such solidarity is based on criticism and self-criticism to develop and advance each other on equal and democratic terms and to equip one another for the many fights ahead. As radical care, this means preparing simultaneously for the fight within ourselves and the fight against the enemies of humanity.

Hevaltî is not incidental to the way the Kurdish movement organises itself, but rather is an essential foundation and a self-defence mechanism for any organising structure to function. For this reason we believe there is much to learn from hevaltî as a revolutionary method of radical care. The liberal notion of ‘tolerance’ that “we don’t have to like each other, we just have to be able to get the work done” is a damaging one that opens up communities to infiltration and attacks from the state. Of course, no method or mechanism is inherently impenetrable – but we wonder whether community and organising structures were based on an understanding that “if we are fighting together, we need to try and like, in fact, love each other, too”, they would be safer and more sustainable.

This is not a naivety about human behaviour in our current world, especially considering that people bring individualistic, patriarchal, capitalist mentalities to the collective. Rather, it means that we treat each other with a base level of humanity and trust in everyone’s potential ability to transform, and, if all else fails, we have autonomous accountability mechanisms. Building our structures and mechanisms assuming that we are already free means that we become less and less reliant on state mechanisms and are able to organise ourselves based on our own principles. As the enemies of life continue to destroy our personalities, our communities, and our world, hevaltî as radical care becomes essential for survival.