By Amir Sharifi
Dr. VERA BEAUDIN SAEEDPOUR, whom we now dearly know as Vera Saeedpour, passed away on May the 30th May 30 would be indeed a sad day for the Kurds everywhere, particularly in diaspora, as we gather to remember one of the greatest figures in the true history and representation of Kurds in the Western hemisphere.. Born to a Jewish family in 1930, Vera raised five children in a New York house, designed by her first husband, architect Marcel Beaudin. Later on deeply influenced by a family friend, Bernard Barney she embarked on searching for and discovering her Jewish roots. Intellectual inquisitiveness and curiosity took her to higher education as she began to attend the University of Vermont when she was 40, and proved to be an exemplary student with diverse academic interests and research capability that defied compartmentalization. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology; she earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy in 1973, and finally received her Ph.D in Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1976. The quest for truth and justice was her constant preoccupation when she met Homayoun Saeedpour, her second husband in 1976, a Kurdish scholar from Sanandaj. The very word Kurd hardly had an auspicious mention even in the most prestigious dictionaries as she eloquently has put it “On an ordinary day in October 1976, I was busy writing my doctoral dissertation on architecture when my Kurdish husband Homayoun asked the meaning of ‘predatory.’ "A lion is a predator," I replied. "No, it says Kurd," he insisted, handing me the Oxford Concise Dictionary of the English Language. In Oxford was this definition: "Kurd - one of a tall, pastoral and predatory people." But Homayoun, the only Kurd I knew, was neither tall nor predatory. Indeed, from then on Vera awakened to a cruel reality; she wrote a research paper titled “Killing Them Softly” challenging and forcing Oxford and other dictionaries to correct their misrepresentation and discriminatory characterization of Kurds. This was only the beginning of a tireless struggle. After the death of Homayoun, Dr. Saeedpour established the Kurdish Program in 1981 to raise awareness of Kurdish culture; her work was recognized by the Cultural Survival of Harvard dedicated to preserving threatened cultures. She subsequently established the Kurdish library in 1986, whose rare collections increased gradually, now amounting to 2000 books. This was and continues to be, the first Kurdish library in the Western Hemisphere. Dr. Vera Saeedpour opened the Kurdish Museum in 1988, which like the Library served as guardian of the Kurdish culture and a milestone in raising awareness among the public and academic community about the Kurdish plight and aspirations. Her library gradually became a habitat for journalists, scholars, students of Kurdish culture and language, politicians and and more importantly nostalgic and exiled Kurds, who according to Dr.Saeedpour “remain prisoners of their country of origin” because of the brutal regimes that govern them. Dr. Saeedpour wrote letters to editors, published articles in main stream newspapers such as New York Times. Journalists from major publications such as The Christian Science Monitor and New York Times sought her views on Kurdish issues. She was frequently published and cited by the New York Times, and most recently an article about the Kurdish Library had appeared in the "Habitats" section of the Times entitled "The Home as Cultural Refuge.”
Although many may see her as a scholar, those who have followed her life, know that she was also a social activist, passionately committed to discovering truth and awakening the general public about the plight and aspirations of our people. As a humanist she took it upon herself to bring home the complexity of the Kurdish world in its politics and cultural identity with altruism and sacrifice. In her own words “I won’t take any money from any vested interest," she said. "I would rather starve. I do this because I care about the truth." Her work provides an insight into the dual objectives she pursued both as a researcher and an activist, the scientific and the humanistic. One can only admire her ingenuity and resourcefulness in starting the Kurdish Program, which heralded the Kurdish library and the Journal in the same year in 1986 and subsequently Kurdish life in 1991; Dr. Vera Saeedpour began publishing the International Journal of Kurdish Studies in 1997 to collect, preserve, present and represent and disseminate a microcosm of Kurdish language, literature, place names, maps, cultural artifacts-“the stuff of which a culture is made”.. Her abiding interest in discovering the truth and disseminating the Kurdish cultural heritage sought and found scholars both Kurdish and non-Kurdish whose diverse cover a wide spectrum of Kurdish issues in a wide variety of contexts.
As an activist she was an outspoken critic to reckon with, uncompromising, an acute observer in documenting chronicles of policies and practices pertaining to the behavior of politicians and their apologists ;as she had put it “ not a world class scholar‘ but one whose relatives pulled oxcarts” vividly and forcefully, in an insightful and scathing article “Ties that Bind” “ she revealed the repressive policies and practices of the successive Turkish governments and the opportunism of the West and Israel in their selective and reductive policy with respect to Kurds.
It is our intention tο remember and revisit tһе truе history and legacies left in our care, not just for the students of Kurdish history and culture but for the generations that follow in the future. This memorial will not be successful unless it reestablishes the history, legacy and lineage of Dr.Vera Saeedpour as her work is symbolic of our work , arising from a an unabashed Kurdish bias. As a result of her indefatigable work, there are now more students and scholars who were not even aware of the existence, importance, and influence of the Kurdish history and culture let alone the pervasive stereotypical images that existed about Kurds during that time; now they have a keener and deeper understanding of the Kurdish origins and history and their contributions to the human civilization, a proud history that we should pass on to our children in Dr Vera Saeedpour’s words “without a shroud of secrecy and shame.”
Although Dr. Vera Saeedpour had a love affair with the Kurdish culture, as critical thinker , she always clung to her own independent and free views as she became the face and voice of Kurds ; she stood for and called for radical changes in the hearts and minds of her readers while sparking new probing questions about their conscience and consciousness.
Dr.Saeedpour taught her students how to follow a modern, ethical and yet scientifically rigorous approach to the Kurdish issues. Nevertheless she was not always popular with some because she challenged uncritical, flimsy and opportunistic renditions of the Kurdish culture and politics; for this reason she has left an indelible mark on most those who studied with her; her readers even the most critical can not help but admire her tenacity and moral integrity. For kurds, in diaspora she will have an epic aura.
Now, our friend, Vera whose name sounds like the Kurdish word, “Verya “awake” is gone. She is no longer busy, helping visitors with their inquiries; she is not receiving people from all over the world; she is not showing Kurdish intellectuals and politicians around in the Kurdish library and museum any more, she is not answering phone calls, she is not writing anymore., she is not quarrelling with politicians; but as one of the Kurdish proverbs she helped compile in the Kurdish Times says “when the mountain was given death she did not accept it; man did.” And indeed Vera was as formidable and invincible as our mountains; her words have the veracity, authority, and authenticity of a life born of wholehearted dedication to the Kurdish cause…The momentum she has created and our enemies have repeatedly tried to crush, should be continued vigilantly with the knowledge and courage as she has taught us as a teacher. Let us not just hope but follow her path by recognizing and appreciating our common goals and ideals that represent her mission and vision to show the world what the Kurdish buried and distorted history can reveal about human history. Having said what Dr.Vera Saeepour has done for us, let us continue her path.
Amir Sharifi is the president of KAES President.