An Interview with a Kurdish Icon: Former Radio Anchor Khalaf Zebari*
By Sirwan Kajjo
I remember it as though it happened yesterday. His moments of excitement were known only when his ancient radio would release an unclear sound in Kurdish! My father was complaining about the bad quality of the Kurdish broadcast of Voice of America (VOA). He would fearlessly curse the Syrian government for jamming the only Kurdish news outlet we were getting at the time. 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.
This is how I first came to know of Khalaf Zebari, one of the most prominent radio broadcasters in the history of Kurdish journalism. I visited him at his house last month. He lives, along with his small family, in Springfield, Virginia. He retired from VOA earlier this year after his health deteriorated. While he runs down to the basement, his son tells me he still smokes two packs of cigarettes every day. Doctors have already warned him about the danger of smoking but Khalaf remains an avid smoker.
Born in 1948 in Zebar region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Khalaf grew up loving nature. You can easily tell that from the various types of trees he has in his backyard. Nature drove Khalaf to poetry at an early age. Who doesn’t know about “Nesrin”? He wrote the famous poem in 1967. Eight years later, Mihemed Şêxo, a legend of Kurdish music made Nesrin into a song. Ever since, the song has become a symbol of love among all Kurds.
He brings me an album that only has old pictures from back home. He tells me about the story of each picture with precise details. His memory functions outstandingly when to comes to the old days. While checking out the photos, he also narrates his years in Mosul, where his studied economics and met “Nesrin”, the girl whom he wrote about in his most known poem.
In 1974, Sabri Botani, another Kurdish poet, called Khalaf to ask him to work for Voice of Kurdistan radio (Dengê Kurdistan). In April 1974 the Voice of Kurdistan broadcast its first program in Kurdish to become a mouthpiece of the Kurdish revolution in Iraqi Kurdistan. Khalaf says the radio was functioning underground. But the broadcast didn’t last for long. In March 1975 the Algiers Agreement was signed between Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran. The infamous agreement ended the Kurdish revolution, and with that, the Kurdish dream of freedom was postponed. Consequently, the Voice of Kurdistan team, including Khalaf Zebari, fled the country to Iran. After staying two years as a refugee in Iran, Zebari finally made it to the US in 1977. In America, Nashville, TN was his first stop.
In 1992, the US Congress decided to a Kurdish Service at Voice of America. The VOA’s first show in Kurdish was aired from its headquarters in Washington D.C. on April 26, 1992. Khalaf Zebari and Homer Diyezi were the first anchors in the Kurdish service. In the beginning, they only had 15 minutes. Presently, VOA broadcasts three hours daily, one of them is also aired on TV. Shortly after its 20th anniversary, Khalaf announced his retirement.
I ask him what he has given and gained in these 20 years of experience. He says he has met great people from different parts of Kurdistan, shed light on unrepresented Kurds, especially those in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Lebanon and even in Syria and Turkey, and learned so much about the world.
But these long years didn’t take Khalaf Zebari away from poetry. On the contrary, being away from back home pushed him to write extensively about his beloved Kurdistan. His poetry collection Lion’s Den (Warê Şêran in Kurdish) was published in 1999 in Stockholm, Sweden. He also has enormous numbers of unpublished poems. These too will one day find their ways to a publishing house.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of all of this living legend is after living in the United States for 35 years, Khalaf’s heart still leaps from his chest when he hears the word Kurdistan.
*Republished here at the request of the original author. This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Kurdish Review.