Published November 24, 2015
One of the safer crossings into Syria is at a small town called Fishkhabour, in the far northwestern corner of Iraq. In a whitewashed shack on the shore of the Tigris River, an official from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government pointed out the window toward a pontoon bridge that bobbed in the cola-colored water. A year ago, 30,000 refugees fleeing an Islamic State massacre in Syria walked for 30 hours before crossing it in the opposite direction, half-starved, half-dead, terrorized. The official told me and my interpreter, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, that a few days before we arrived, an Italian volunteer was arrested by a border patrolman while trying to swim back toward Iraq. ‘‘Don’t change your mind,’’ he said, wagging a finger.
Our destination was a sliver of land in the far north of Syria: Rojava, or ‘‘land where the sun sets.’’ The regime of President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t officially recognize Rojava’s autonomous status, nor does the United Nations or NATO — it is, in this way, just as illicit as the Islamic State. But if the reports I heard from the region were to be believed, within its borders the rules of the neighboring ISIS caliphate had been inverted. In accordance with a philosophy laid out by a leftist revolutionary named Abdullah Ocalan, Rojavan women had been championed as leaders, defense of the environment enshrined in law and radical direct democracy enacted in the streets.
But much of the information emerging from Rojava seemed contradictory and almost fantastical. To the Turkish government, the territory, which is now the size of Connecticut and has an estimated 4.6 million inhabitants, was nothing more than a front for a Turkish group known as the P.K.K., or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Since its founding in 1978, the P.K.K., led by Ocalan, had been fighting for independence from Turkey, hoping to establish a homeland for the country’s 14 million Kurds. The effort had caused the deaths of 40,000 people, thousands of them civilians, and led to the imprisonment of Ocalan. The American State Department designated the P.K.K. a terrorist organization in 1997. Having failed in Turkey, officials claimed, the P.K.K. was trying to create a Kurdish homeland amid the disruption of war. ‘‘We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south,’’ President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said in June. ‘‘We will continue to fight in this regard no matter what it costs.’’
But to sympathetic Western visitors, Rojava was something else entirely: a place where the seeds of the Arab Spring promised to blossom into utopia. ‘‘What you are doing,’’ said Raymond Joliffe, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, during a trip in May 2015, ‘‘is a unique experiment that deserves to succeed.’’ A Dutch professor named Jan Best de Vries arrived in December 2014 and donated $10,000 to help buy books for Kurdish university students. David Graeber, a founder of Occupy Wall Street, visited that same month and wrote before his trip that ‘‘the autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots — albeit a very bright one — to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution.’’
In May, I saw an announcement on Facebook for the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy, a new, coed university in Rojava’s de facto capital, Qamishli. This in itself was revolutionary. For years, Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, forbade many Syrian Kurds to study. In ISIS territory just 15 miles away, Kurdish girls were routinely tortured for being Westernized heretics — sometimes tied by their ponytails to car bumpers and dragged to their deaths. In Rojava, they were being educated.
When I sent a message to the academy’s Facebook page, requesting more information, I received a reply from Yasin Duman, a Kurdish graduate student living in Turkey. He had taught several courses there, he said, and when he found out I was a writer and professor in New York, we discussed a journalism class. Duman explained that Rojava’s youth had little experience with the idea of free speech. Perhaps I could teach them: ‘‘A free people has to have freedom of speech,’’ he said. It would be a cultural exchange. I would teach writing, and my students would show me what life was like in Rojava. We decided that I would spend a week in July giving a crash course in journalism basics: how to report, how to interview and how to document the war raging around them.
Now, after three months and at least as many logistical hiccups, I was about to see this strange political experiment for myself. The official led us out of the office and onto a ramshackle skiff. We were technically entering a failed state. Yet when we came ashore on the other side of the river and passed a brick guard tower staffed with armed men, I saw a red, green and yellow tricolor banner — the flag of Rojava.
If Rojava succeeds, it will be the second partial homeland for the Kurds (the first is the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, though the two administrations are unaffiliated). The modern quest for a homeland began in part as a response to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, when Britain and France divvied up the Middle East into spheres of influence. Within years, millions of Kurds, who previously occupied a wild terrain surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers known as Kurdistan, found themselves subjects of the new nations of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In Turkey, where Kurds make up nearly a fifth of the population, the state sought to solve demands for recognition of Kurdish independence by denying the ethnic group’s existence. Laws have removed any trace of Kurdish identity from history books, banned speaking Kurdish in public and punished violators with long prison sentences. It wasn’t until 2013 that the government repealed a law banning the use of the letters Q, W and X, which appear in the Kurdish alphabet but not the Turkish one. In Syria, where roughly 10 percent of the population is Kurdish, similar policies were enacted by a police chief named Mohammed Talib Hilal, who in 1963 likened his country’s ‘‘Kurdish question’’ to a ‘‘malignant tumor.’’
The chaos of war has made Rojava possible but also rendered its survival tenuous. The territory is governed by a P.K.K. affiliate called the Partiya Yekita Demokrat, which maintains a military called the Y.P.G., or People’s Protection Units, and an all-female force called the Y.P.J., or Female Protection Units. These forces have become key American allies in the region. Since last September, American airstrikes have supported Y.P.G. fighters, and in November, President Obama sent 50 elite Special Operations troops to Rojava to assist and advise the Kurds. Yet the Turkish government, which has allowed the United States to use Incirlik Air Base on the Syrian-Turkish border to coordinate airstrikes against ISIS, has increasingly targeted the Kurds rather than ISIS; since August 2014, Turkey has bombed Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria 300 times, and ISIS targets only three.
As I rode down a rutted road accompanied by Agid, my Kalashnikov-toting escort, we traversed a landscape of parched brown hills and fields of oil derricks — the region produces 15,000 barrels of oil a day, which is sold to locals and the Assad administration to fund some of the war effort against ISIS. Every dozen or so miles, we were stopped at checkpoints by men and women in green fatigues: members of the Asayis, the police force that the P.Y.D. established in 2012. They number roughly 6,000 officers, all of them elected; a women-only force deals with sexual assault and rape. (All recruits receive their weapons only after ‘‘two weeks of feminist instruction,’’ according to Cengidar Mikail, the director of the Qamishli police.)
In the downtown of a small city called Rmeilan, we found the first real sign of war: hundreds of martyr flags hung from lampposts. The streets were absent of young people, who were all at the front lines; the flags commemorated the soldiers who never returned, several thousand since 2012. They gave the streets the feel of a dance floor after a prom. Tumbleweeds skittered across the pavement. The spectral ensigns flapped overhead, hundreds and hundreds of them blowing as we drove past.
After four hours, we arrived in Qamishli, Rojava’s largest city, in a district of about 400,000 people. There were few young people here, either, save for some maimed soldiers crutching their way down crowded sidewalks. Beyond downtown, where paved roads turned to dirt, an armed guard waved from behind a six-foot-tall hill of sand, an improvised barricade in front of the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy. Behind him loomed a two-story concrete fortress horseshoed around a courtyard and a sagging volleyball net.
One of the academy’s teachers, a 23-year-old named Reshan Shaker, ushered us in and explained one of the many contradictions of the war: The Assad regime, he said, occupied a high school on the first floor, while the academy was housed on the second. Sometimes the two sets of students played each other in volleyball. Downtown, we had passed an intersection where Assad’s regime still controlled several buildings guarded by armed men in sunglasses and black muscle T-shirts. A month before, a temporary calm between the regime and the P.Y.D. collapsed, and gunfire spilled into the street.
My accommodations for the next week were a spare room on the upper level with a mat on the tile floor. Shaker turned on the fluorescent overhead light. ‘‘It’s austere,’’ he said, ‘‘but we are at war. For us, studying is the same thing as holding a gun and fighting, so a little discomfort isn’t so bad, right?’’
At 8 that evening, I walked into my classroom. Twenty-three young men and women sitting in rows of black plastic desks stood at attention when I entered, stiff as soldiers. On a wall, a poster said, ‘‘The society that doesn’t elevate itself will decay.’’ Should this experiment succeed, some of these 18-to-29-year-olds would become the future intellectual leaders of Rojava. No one looked at a cellphone; no one gazed out the window. They were as attentive as stenographers.
I introduced myself, told them to sit and asked them to do an exercise — a sort of instructional icebreaker. Interviews, I said, are the building blocks of journalism. I requested that they interview one another about the most important thing that happened to them in the past year. They were confused — the Syrian educational model is lecture-oriented, and Ocalan himself would infamously lecture his followers for eight or nine hours without stopping. But once the students understood that I merely wanted them to talk to one another, I had a hard time quieting them down.
Nariman Hesso, 22 and wearing a green military-surplus coat, presented first, introducing the student seated beside her: Fidan Ahmed, 20, with a crown of curly black hair pulled back with a headband. She was in 10th grade when the Syrian civil war started, Hesso said. ‘‘The most significant thing to happen to her in the last year is that she was not very social and didn’t have many friends. But in the academy she has made friends and found her place.’’
‘‘The most important thing in the past year for Kawa was that he experienced the revolution in Syria and the revolt against Assad,’’ Mahmood Morad, 21, said, introducing Kawa Omer, 27. ‘‘And now he has gotten to know the philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan.’’
‘‘The most important thing that happened to Mohmmad is that he joined the revolution in Rojava,’’ offered Walid Haj Ali, introducing an 18-year-old named Mohmmad Dle. Ali placed a hand over his heart. ‘‘Here, Mohmmad says, he is becoming a new person.’’
After class, the students took me to the cafeteria. It was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, but I had seen students eating throughout the day, and now they prepared tea and ate from a plate of soft cheese. Though about 90 percent of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, ISIS considers them to be kafir, infidels. In May 2014, ISIS fighters kidnapped 186 Kurdish college students on their way home to Rojava after an exam in Aleppo, then forced them to attend a jihadist religious school; escapees were threatened with beheading.
‘‘I’m an atheist,’’ said Ramah, an 18-year-old student with a neatly trimmed goatee. A crowd of students had circled around, curious about who I was, what music I liked, how I had ended up here. None of them had ever heard of Bob Dylan or Edward Snowden or Brooklyn, where I lived. They asked if Obama really was a Muslim. They asked if everyone in America was an atheist, like Ramah. I told them there were many Christians, Muslims and Jews, though I said I didn’t believe in God.
‘‘Were you afraid when you discovered that God didn’t exist?’’ Ramah asked, imploring me with earnest, walnut-brown eyes.
‘‘Why would I be afraid?’’ I said.
‘‘In a world where there’s no God,’’ he said, ‘‘how do you deal with the constant fear of dying?’’
The next morning, I met with a student named Sami Saeed Mirza. I had barely slept, kept up by the intermittent swoosh of fighter jets and a series of loud thuds, whether distant bombs or the innocuous din of street life, I couldn’t tell. At one point, I went onto the rooftop and looked out at the horizon, a squiggly line of undulating sand spotted with a few stone huts. It was beautiful, in its way, a whole world painted with a single brush stroke of brown. Somewhere out there was the front line.
Mirza, 29, had sad, drowsy eyes and wore thick spectacles perched low on his nose. He hadn’t noticed the commotion. ‘‘I’m used to the sound,’’ he said. Unlike other students at the academy, Mirza grew up outside Syria in a small village in western Iraq. He is not a Muslim or an atheist but a Yazidi, part of an ethnic and religious minority that practices a modern form of Zoroastrianism. He hadn’t heard of Abdullah Ocalan until recently. In August 2014, ISIS extremists attacked his village, near the city of Sinjar, and butchered as many as 5,000 of his neighbors. While Mirza and his family were trapped on a mountain for four days, waiting to die, a battalion of women — Y.P.J. soldiers — fought through the ISIS lines and created a path for them to escape. Mirza, severely dehydrated and on the verge of collapse, fled.
‘‘The battle made me think of women differently,’’ he told me. ‘‘Women fighters — they saved us. My society, Yazidi society, is more, let’s say, traditional. I’d never thought of women as leaders, as heroes, before.’’
Mirza heard about the academy at a refugee camp, and here his education in feminism had continued. He and his fellow students studied a text that Ocalan wrote on gender equality called ‘‘Liberating Life.’’ In it, Ocalan argues that problems of bad governance, corruption and weak democratic institutions in Middle Eastern societies can’t be solved without achieving full equality for women. He once told P.K.K. militants in Turkey, ‘‘You don’t need to be [men] now. You need to think like a woman, for men only fight for power. But women love nature, trees, the mountains. … That is how you can become a true patriot.’’
‘‘I’ve learned the truth,’’ Mirza said. ‘‘The leader has shown us the correct interpretation of society.’’ Rojava’s Constitution — its ‘‘social contract’’ — was ratified on Jan. 9, 2014, and it enshrines gender equality and freedom of religion as inviolable rights for all residents. The Sinjar massacre gave Rojavan authorities an opportunity to show that they were deadly serious about protecting these rights. Still, I wondered if the rescue of Yazidis like Mirza wasn’t also strategic, a way to enlist the minority group in the defense of Rojava.
‘‘Why do you think the Y.P.G. and Y.P.J. saved you?’’ I asked.
‘‘Maybe I know, maybe I don’t,’’ he said. ‘‘But they are the only ones who came to help us. America didn’t come. The pesh merga’’ — Iraqi Kurdistan’s military — ‘‘didn’t come.’’ Now he wanted to devote his life to the teachings of Ocalan. ‘‘I was nothing before coming to the academy,’’ he said.
Despite his imprisonment nearly a thousand miles away, Abdullah Ocalan, who is now 66 or 67 (he has no birth certificate), looms as a Wizard-of-Oz-like presence in Rojava. His avuncular visage — broad, bushy eyebrows; a gregarious, toothy grin obscured by a cartoonishly lush mustache — appears everywhere: in the halls and classrooms of the academy, in government buildings, in community centers, in police stations and on pins and patches on the chests of soldiers. This strange founding-fatherhood is the culmination of an unlikely political career that began in November 1978, when Ocalan first gathered six Kurdish revolutionaries at a teahouse in the town of Fis, in southeastern Turkey. His co-conspirators called him Uncle, or Apo in Kurdish, and called themselves the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K.
Ocalan’s initial impulse wasn’t to fashion himself as a philosopher-politician. The P.K.K. members were unabashed Maoists, who used spectacular acts of violence against rival organizations and government soldiers to destabilize and delegitimize Turkey’s authority in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. In 1980, Ocalan fled to Syria, where he was offered shelter by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. For the next 20 years, he led the struggle remotely — from a seaside villa, from which he issued orders to his commanders via messenger, letter and telephone. But in 1998, under pressure from Turkey, Assad kicked Ocalan out of the country. He escaped through Europe before he was captured in Kenya with the help of the C.I.A., which by then considered the P.K.K. a terrorist organization. Ocalan’s lawyers claimed that he was drugged and tortured by Turkish security forces while in custody. He was then paraded in front of TV cameras looking frail and confused, like a grandpa who had just woken from a nap, and he did the unthinkable: He renounced the P.K.K.’s effort to create an independent Kurdish homeland.
Ocalan was remanded to Imrali prison, on an island off the coast of Istanbul. This is when his conversion began — what one academic would describe as a transition from ‘‘Stalinist caterpillar to libertarian butterfly.’’ He was the island’s only prisoner, surrounded by 1,000 soldiers there to ensure he could not escape before his execution (a death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment). The government allowed him to meet with senior P.K.K. commanders and lawyers to communicate to his followers the details of a cease-fire. He was also permitted books, finding inspiration in Western texts like Michel Foucault’s ‘‘Society Must Be Defended’’ and Benedict Anderson’s ‘‘Imagined Communities.’’ Soon, one of his supporters gave Ocalan his first book by an obscure Vermont-based philosopher named Murray Bookchin. After Ocalan read it, he requested everything Bookchin had ever written. Oliver Kontny, a translator and P.K.K. sympathizer who was working for Ocalan’s lawyers at the time, told me that Ocalan let ‘‘all of us know that he was working on a paradigm change based on what he learned from Bookchin.’’
Bookchin, a mustachioed octogenarian who lived in Burlington, Vt., and typically wore suspenders and pocket protectors, had no idea Ocalan was reading his work — in fact, he thought hardly anyone was. Born in 1921 in the Bronx, Bookchin joined the Communist Party’s Young Pioneers organization at age 9. But by the 1950s, he had sworn off Marxism-Leninism and pioneered a radical ideology he called ‘‘social ecology,’’ which argued that all environmental problems stemmed from social issues like racism, sexism and inequality. While Bookchin enjoyed some notoriety in the 1960s and ’70s (the academic Russell Jacoby once compared his influence on the American left with Noam Chomsky’s), by the 1990s Bookchin was little known in America, save by a faction of prominent environmentalists who ostracized him for his attacks on those he deemed not revolutionary enough. Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer-winning poet, said that Bookchin ‘‘wrote like a Stalinist thug,’’ and the writer Edward Abbey called him a ‘‘fat old lady.’’ An entire volume was published to denounce his work (‘‘Beyond Bookchin’’), and others lambasted him as a hypocrite because of, among other things, his love of Twinkies and Dunkin’ Donuts.
By the time Ocalan was discovering Bookchin’s writing, Bookchin was depressed and spent his days in a wheelchair, according to his partner and assistant Janet Biehl’s recently published biography, ‘‘Ecology or Catastrophe.’’ ‘‘I feel very much like a stranger in a strange world,’’ Biehl recounts Bookchin telling her one night. A society without a vibrant revolutionary leftist movement, he said, ‘‘is not a world in which I … want to live.’’
In solitary confinement, Ocalan studied Bookchin’s magnum opus, ‘‘The Ecology of Freedom,’’ at once a sweeping account of world history and a reimagining of Marx’s ‘‘Das Kapital.’’ In it, Bookchin argues that hierarchical relationships, not capitalism, are our original sin. Humankind’s destruction of the natural world, he argues, is a product of our domination of other people, and only by doing away with all hierarchies — man over woman, old over young, white over black, rich over poor — can we solve the global ecological crisis.
In another work, ‘‘Urbanization Without Cities,’’ Bookchin proposed an alternative to the modern nation-state that he called ‘‘libertarian municipalism.’’ Bookchin believed that the lesson of both Marxist and liberal governments was that the state was an inevitably corrupting influence and antithetical to human freedom. Bookchin favored what he called the ‘‘Hellenic model’’ of democracy, the type of direct, face-to-face government once practiced in ancient Greece. He argued that only by recovering this system could humanity address injustice, and only in this way could radical movements avoid reproducing the same inequalities they had initially set out to defeat.
It was, needless to say, pretty dreamy stuff. But Ocalan saw in it a path toward a new type of revolution. Bookchin’s proposal for achieving independence through ‘‘municipal assemblies’’ suggested to Ocalan a way of finally achieving the elusive Kurdish dream. Maybe the P.K.K. didn’t have to take state power. Maybe it could obtain Kurdish rights by creating its own separate communities inside existing countries, resorting to violence only if attacked. Maybe all along, Ocalan had been mistaken to think that liberation could be achieved by creating a Kurdish-run nation-state, Marxist or otherwise.
Enthralled and seeking guidance, Ocalan had his lawyers send an email to Bookchin. Biehl was sitting at their computer one morning in April 2004, spring snow still covering the streets of Burlington outside, when it popped up in Bookchin’s inbox. Bookchin was lying nearby on a day bed, unable to sit up because of his joint pain. He and Biehl had watched Ocalan’s arrest on television, but Bookchin dismissed him as ‘‘just another third-world Leninist.’’ Now, as Biehl read the email aloud, Bookchin discovered that Ocalan considered himself Bookchin’s ‘‘student,’’ and ‘‘had acquired a good understanding of his work, and was eager to make the ideas applicable to Middle Eastern societies.’’
A few weeks later, Bookchin replied, expressing reluctance to engage in a dialogue. ‘‘You should know that I am quite an elderly man … who is virtually incapable of walking because of osteoarthritis and heart problems,’’ Bookchin wrote. ‘‘Much remains to be explored, which my health and age prohibit me from doing. If you care to write to me further, I ask you to please be patient with an old radical.’’
In March 2005, Ocalan issued the ‘‘Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan.’’ By then, Bookchin had cut off communication. (‘‘Bookchin was heartbroken,’’ Biehl told me. ‘‘He was devastated that the revolution had never happened, and he didn’t trust anybody.’’) The manifesto called on all P.K.K. supporters to implement a version of Bookchin’s ideas; Ocalan urged all guerrilla fighters to read ‘‘The Ecology of Freedom.’’ He instructed his followers to stop attacking the government and instead create municipal assemblies, which he called ‘‘democracy without the state.’’ These assemblies would form a grand confederation that would extend across all Kurdish regions of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran and would be united by a common set of values based on defending the environment; respecting religious, political and cultural pluralism; and self-defense. He insisted that women be made equal leaders at all levels of society. ‘‘The worldview for which I stand,’’ Ocalan told his lawyers privately, ‘‘is very close to that of Bookchin.’’
When news spread throughout the P.K.K. of Ocalan’s conversion, some were naturally hesitant to abandon the old model of Marxist-Leninist terrorism. ‘‘Who cares about some marginal anarchist with 50 followers?’’ one P.K.K. commander supposedly complained. But in the end, they followed orders. The female leadership, in particular, embraced the new ideology. The P.K.K. set about forming clandestine assemblies immediately in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, waiting for the opportunity to expand. Bookchin ‘‘was the greatest social scientist of the 20th century,’’ according to a P.K.K. tribute sent to Biehl after Bookchin’s death in July 2006. ‘‘Bookchin has not died. … We undertake to make [him] live in our struggle.’’
If a version of Bookchin’s dream is taking root now, it’s in a context he never imagined. ‘‘Rojava is something beyond the nation-state,’’ said Hediye Yusuf, co-president of Jazeera canton, the local municipality of which Qamishli is part. ‘‘It’s a place where all people, all minorities and all genders are equally represented.’’
I met with Yusuf at her office in Rmeilan, at the former headquarters of the state-owned Syrian Petroleum Company, where she and her fellow politicians do business behind rows of blast walls and barricades. Yusuf, a solemn woman who spent much of her 20s imprisoned by the Assad regime, sat at her desk and explained the policy of ‘‘co-governance.’’ Every position at every level of government in Rojava, she said, includes a female equivalent of equal authority. Just as Yusuf was co-governor of Jazeera, Salih Muslim, the chairman of the P.Y.D., had a female counterpart, a woman named Asya Abdullah.
Yusuf shared power with an Arab tribal leader named Sheikh Humeydi Daham al-Hadi. At the start of the civil war, Hadi, who controls a fighting force of 3,000 soldiers, was allied with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Since joining the P.Y.D.’s coalition government, he has embraced Ocalan’s ideology, and his soldiers have been incorporated into the Y.P.G. ‘‘Hadi is certainly not a feminist,’’ Yusuf said, ‘‘but he supports us because we offer a new, functional society that respects everyone, unlike Assad, unlike ISIS, unlike Erdogan.’’ My interpreter spoke briefly on the phone with Hadi, but we were told it wasn’t safe to visit him. He joked about his new codependent relationship with an interviewer in 2014. ‘‘I didn’t ask to share power with a woman,’’ he said, seated alongside Yusuf. ‘‘They made me do it.’’
I visited a sweltering building in downtown Qamishli where 46 members of the Martyr Ramsi commune had assembled to discuss security in the region. Theirs was one of 97 neighborhood-based communes in Qamishli. There are hundreds of others in Afrin and Kobani, Rojava’s other two cantons. The communes are Bookchin’s utopian idea materialized — municipal assemblies, enshrined in the social contract as the building blocks of society. The 46 people in attendance were seated on plastic chairs, fanning themselves with cardboard; the glowering, olive-pitted eyes of Ocalan watched over the room from a poster.
‘‘We have had several recent close calls with ISIS sympathizers,’’ a woman said, standing up. Jihadists had been coming to town, posing as refugees and then planning attacks on the city. ‘‘What are we going to do?’’
‘‘Let’s set up an extra patrol,’’ said a man, resting his hands on his enormous potbelly.
‘‘Who wants to volunteer first?’’ asked another woman, who wore a long polka-dot abaya and a matching head scarf.
A withered woman raised a hand. ‘‘Me,’’ she said. The thought of her patrolling with an AK-47 was improbable, but no one questioned her.
Chenar Salih, a representative for the Movement for a Democratic Society, or Tev-Dem — a coalition of six political parties that the P.Y.D. has formed to help govern Rojava — marveled at how rapidly locals had taken to the new system, though she explained that some tribal leaders have had a hard time relinquishing authority. ‘‘We were not expecting this,’’ she told me at her office downtown, a few blocks from the Martyr Ramsi commune. She believed that Turkey or Iraq would be liberated first, but ‘‘since the Arab Spring, Rojava has become the center of the Kurdish revolution.’’
To ensure that a Kurdish majority doesn’t dominate, Salih claims the P.Y.D. has implemented checks on its own power. ‘‘As a repressed minority in Turkey,’’ she said, ‘‘we know the importance of giving everyone an equal role in government.’’ On March 13, cantonwide elections were held in Jazeera. Out of 565 candidates, there were 237 women, 39 Assyrians and 28 Arabs, from a multitude of political parties.
But some say the P.Y.D.’s claims of inclusiveness are a ruse. According to Jian Omar, the spokesman for the Future Party, an opposition Kurdish group in Syria, the P.Y.D. is a ‘‘dictatorship’’ whose ‘‘arbitrary practices against the Kurdish people in Syria’’ include ‘‘repression, assassinations and detentions for those who oppose P.Y.D. policies.’’
Human Rights Watch has also raised some serious concerns about the P.Y.D.’s rule. In February, after a three-week visit, the group released a report on ‘‘Abuses in P.Y.D.-Run Enclaves in Northern Syria,’’ detailing how soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilian protesters in 2013; how 13-year-old boys and girls were serving in its military; and how a 36-year-old drug addict was beaten to death by the police, supposedly for cursing the name of Ocalan. In October, Amnesty International published even more troubling concerns, accusing the Y.P.G. of committing ‘‘war crimes’’ by razing entire Arab villages as punishment for harboring ISIS fighters — a tactic once used by the Turkish government against the P.K.K.
‘‘We have evidence they were cooperating with ISIS,’’ Hediye Yusuf told me when I asked about allegations of forced displacements, and she denied the claim that homes of civilians were ever purposefully destroyed. But she admitted that ‘‘we are in the middle of a war and a revolution, and we’ve made mistakes.’’ She pointed out that the P.Y.D. had fully cooperated with the Human Rights Watch investigation, and the perpetrators had been punished — one with a life sentence in prison. A Human Rights Watch adviser, Fred Abrahams, even applauded the P.Y.D. for its response to the report, which included a new law prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 from enlisting in the Y.P.G. or Y.P.J. Since then, underage fighters have returned to the battlefield. (During my visit, I attended a martyr’s funeral in Qamishli for a 16-year-old Y.P.G. fighter.)
Also troubling is the cult of Ocalan. Today, according to several sources, the P.Y.D. co-chairman, Salih Muslim, a Syrian engineer who was trained by the P.K.K., is making some key decisions in Rojava. But even he describes his role as mainly implementing the ideas Ocalan communicates from prison. ‘‘There is a reason that we apply Apo’s philosophy and ideology to Syria,’’ Muslim told an interviewer in November 2011. ‘‘It offers the best solution to Kurdish problems.’’ When I asked Yusuf in her office if she thought such reverence for a leader contradicted efforts to create a society based on radical grass-roots democracy, she echoed Muslim. ‘‘I don’t know why the West always vilifies Ocalan,’’ she said. ‘‘We love him and follow his philosophies, put quite simply, because they are correct.’’
During my time at the academy, it was easy to forget about my students’ uncertain futures. Their curiosity seemed somehow amplified, not exhausted, by the violence surrounding them. I settled into something of a routine — sleeping on the floor and sharing meals and jokes with them, playing volleyball during midday breaks.
One evening, during a discussion about the relationship between war and a free press, they asked me about Murray Bookchin. The academy’s library housed several of his books, but my pupils knew nothing about the details of his life. ‘‘Was he thrown in prison, too?’’ asked Sipan Syr, a towering, bearded man in a white polo shirt with the collar up. ‘‘Is there a movement to carry out his ideas? Did they lock him up like Ocalan because they feared his power?’’
‘‘No,’’ I said. ‘‘People have mostly forgotten about him.’’
Silence lingered. Another student asked if he was still alive. No, I said, he died nearly a decade ago.
Our only real conflict involved how much they were willing to reveal about their own lives. I had asked my students to write a short essay about where they were four years earlier, when the war started, and where they hoped to be in another four years. The mood shifted. ‘‘Why are you asking us about our personal lives?’’ said Malk Ali, a student with owlish, obsidian eyes, giving him more than a passing resemblance to a young Ocalan. ‘‘Why do you need to know where we were four years ago?’’
‘‘They’re getting a bit suspicious,’’ Rasool, my interpreter, warned me. I realized that my question — about their whereabouts at the beginning of the revolution, which was largely started by young people — smacked of the kind of interrogations Kurds endured under Assad.
I assured them that I was genuinely interested about their lives. Sami Saeed Mirza, the Yazidi man, covered his face with his hands. Other students stared back coldly. Malk Ali asked me to leave. The students held a private meeting in our classroom, and I stood in the hall, briefly listening through the door before going to my room. The muffled sounds of shouting lasted until midnight. I worried they were going to throw me out of the school, in which case I imagined I could flee across the Turkish border, about five miles away, which had been officially closed since 2013. As I struggled to sleep, curled up in my sleeping bag, I was more saddened than scared.
At class time the next evening, I waited in our room, the faint pop of what sounded like distant gunshots punctuating the evening’s calm. Rasool and I were the only ones there. ‘‘Dude,’’ he said, ‘‘no one’s going to show up.’’
But then they did: Sami, Nariman, Mahmour, Walid and even Malk Ali, who had challenged me. Without waiting for me to say anything, he stood up and explained that their education encouraged them to challenge their teachers.
‘‘We reject the master-and-slave relationship as a model for the teacher-and-student relationship,’’ Ali said. ‘‘But we’ve decided that you’re welcome to continue teaching us.’’
Ramah, the atheist, stood up and said, ‘‘I’m so happy you’re here.’’ They all approached my desk and turned in their assignments.
Four years ago ...
I applied for a job as an engineer, and as soon as they learned that I was Kurdish, I was not accepted for the job.
When the civil war started, I was living in Afrin. At that time, we were deprived of everything. … If there was a small argument between an Arab and a Kurd, the Arab would protect the Arab, and the Kurd would protect the Kurd, even if the Kurd was in the wrong. … I experienced a lot of racism.
I had just entered [university] and was studying electrical sciences. My dream was to become an electrical engineer, and I passed, but I had to stop studying because the whole world collapsed.
I was: a zero, a joker.
Rojava started educating the Kurdish people, and here I am now at Mesopotamia Institute. … Honestly my happiness is indescribable.
I can now say that I am committing suicide in order to be resurrected.
The academy’s rector asked me to leave the school four days into what was supposed to be a five-day course. A battalion of several hundred new recruits was being moved to the front lines, and the academy would be a temporary shelter. It was a fitting metaphor: the ivory tower turned into barracks.
‘‘We’ll take you somewhere else,’’ said Reshan Shaker, the young teacher who had first shown me my room at the academy. He was going to be my escort, and he grabbed a Kalashnikov for protection. ‘‘This is the last safe place the soldiers will sleep in for a while, so I’m happy to give it up.’’
A few days later, we followed the soldiers’ route to the front. Shaker, who wore skinny jeans and a plaid button-down, accompanied me to Tel Brak, a village 15 miles south of Qamishli that then served as an outpost against ISIS, whose fighters were encamped less than a mile away. Three days earlier, they had tried to retake the village. Parts of downtown were so ruined they looked more like an archaeological dig than a town. In one of the still-standing homes, we met Deniz Derik, a 24-year-old Y.P.J. commander who wore pink socks and a calculator watch, her coal-black hair pulled into a ponytail tucked beneath a backward camo cap. Derik was in charge of 23 girls who lived with her at the house. Her troops were aged 14 to 21, though she claimed the youngest ones were ‘‘in training.’’ The house’s parlor, where I first met her, was decorated with two teddy bears — one pink, one yellow. In the breast pocket of her camo shirt, she kept a bullet and a cyanide pill, for suicide in case of capture. Her young cadets called her ‘‘Smiles,’’ because even under fire, she grins.
Outside, the signs of the recent ISIS occupation were everywhere. Theocratic graffiti read, ‘‘The gates of paradise lie in the shadow of the sword.’’ In an alleyway so full of rubble it resembled a dry riverbed, a blindfolded ISIS prisoner led by a Y.P.G. soldier shambled past, trying not to fall.
‘‘Why are you in school and these kids are in the military?’’ I asked Shaker, who was walking beside Derik and me.
‘‘Anyone who wants to can come to the school,’’ he said, ‘‘as long as they prove they are serious.’’
‘‘Would you want to study?’’ I asked Derik.
She explained that even soldiers studied Ocalan’s theories for two hours per day. ‘‘This is my classroom,’’ she said, sweeping her arms out across the devastated village. ‘‘World history.’’
We passed a martyr flag hanging from a lamppost, celebrating a dead Y.P.G. soldier. ‘‘He was my friend from high school,’’ Shaker said. He told us how he fought Assad’s regime in 2012 in his hometown, Tel Abyad, and he said that all the students at the academy were trained in combat as well as Kurdish history and Ocalan’s philosophy.
It occurred to me then that his generation, a whole lost segment of Syria’s youth, has been forced to become either refugees or warriors. And for those who choose the latter, their only options are different flavors of militancy: the Islamic State, Assad’s regime, the Kurdish revolution. Syrians have endured an endless cycle of extreme conditions over the past four years, and so, perhaps, it should be no surprise that only the most extreme ideologies, no matter how brutal or utopian, are thriving.
‘‘I didn’t know he had been martyred,’’ Shaker said, sighing. He snapped a photo with his cellphone, to send to the boy’s mother.
Derik led us to a mangled storefront, its plate-glass windows smashed and serrated. Inside, she had stashed a blanket that she sometimes used for naps. Y.P.J. fighters aren’t allowed to marry, and I asked if she had ever wanted a husband.
‘‘Are you proposing?’’ she said, punching me on the arm and smiling.
‘‘Are you afraid of dying?’’ I asked her a few moments later.
‘‘Afraid?’’ she said. ‘‘Why should I be afraid? Being a martyr is the best thing possible. … Fighting is ugly,’’ she added. ‘‘But fighting for this is beautiful. Fear is for your Western women in their kitchens.’’
We ventured into a bombed-out schoolhouse to drink water in the shade. It was 110 degrees outside, but cool in the dusky building. The abandoned classrooms were filled with spent ammunition casings, extinguished campfires, the walls Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes. In one classroom, I found an ISIS lesson still chalked on the board. Just a few months earlier, this room was filled with pupils of the Islamic State, most likely Syrian kids not so different from Shaker and Derik, but imbibing drastically different lessons. ‘‘Allah the mighty revealed the Revelation to his people,’’ the chalkboard read.
‘‘Everyone has to choose a side now,’’ Derik said. ‘‘ISIS has chosen the side of slavery. We’ve chosen the side of freedom.’’
‘‘We’re fighting for our ideas,’’ Shaker said. ‘‘Ideas, like people, die if we don’t fight for them.’’