Khalaf Zebari: In Memoriam

A giant, speaking for the Kurdish people, Khalaf Zebari, passed away last week, and a memorial service was held for him on Sunday, in Virgina, just outside Washington DC.
author_image Laurie Mylroie
kurdistan24.net

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – A giant, speaking for the Kurdish people, Khalaf Zebari, passed away last week, and a memorial service was held for him on Sunday, in Virgina, just outside Washington DC.

Zebari was a life-long spokesman for the Kurdish people: a Kurdish broadcaster; an avid promoter of Kurdish culture and literature; and, himself, a Kurdish poet.

Born in Iraqi Kurdistan under the rule of Saddam Hussein, Zebari joined the Kurdish liberation movement in 1973, when he was 25-years-old and soon became a broadcaster for the Voice of Kurdistan radio.

However, the 1975 agreement between Saddam and the Shah of Iran—the Algiers accord—precipitated the collapse of the Kurdish struggle. Zebari fled to Iran, along with 200,000 fellow Kurds.

Two years later, he arrived in the United States, with his wife, Chiman, whom he had met in an Iranian refugee camp, and their infant daughter. They settled in Nashville, Tennessee.

At Zebari’s memorial service, Kurdistan 24 spoke with his son, Jvan, who described the hard life in Nashville.

My father “worked multiple jobs, whether it was at a donut factory” or whatever. They were “multiple, different kinds of jobs, just to support his family.”

“He was a great father,” Jvan affirmed.

In 1992, following the inconclusive results of the 1991 Gulf War—which ended with Saddam still in power—Kurdish language programming was added to the official schedule of the Voice of America.

President George H.W. Bush believed that after Saddam had presided over such a stunning defeat, the Iraqi military would overthrow him. That was the view of US intelligence.

That did not happen, of course, and the US then began to cultivate ties with Saddam’s opposition, including the Kurds.

In April 1992, the Voice of America (VOA) formally began its Kurdish broadcasting and enlisted Zebari for the new programming. He moved with this family to Washington DC to become the co-anchor, along with the famous Kurdish singer, Homer Dizeyee, of the first regularly scheduled Kurdish broadcasts by the US government.

It may be difficult to recall now—in the age of ubiquitous cell phones and the internet—how much radio broadcasts could mean.

Sirwan Kajjo, a Syrian Kurd, recalled his father cursing the Syrian regime for jamming the only Kurdish news outlet they could receive.

“But when the deep, manly voice would come out of the radio, the whole household had to be in dead silence. ‘Hush, Khalaf is starting!’ my father would announce,” Kajjo wrote in The Kurdish Review in late 2012.

Earlier that year, his health failing, Zebari had retired from the VOA. But he remained, throughout his lifetime, dedicated to the Kurdish people and their cause.

“He always instilled love, education, compassion in all of us,” Jvan told Kurdistan 24. “He loved his friends, family, and that is obvious from the outpouring of support from all the people who have come to his funeral.”

“He was just a great man,” his son recalled sadly.