Worldfocus: A Kurdish sanctuary ages in Brooklyn

September 2, 2009

This year, Worldfocus producers have been working on a multimedia project called Stateless to Statehood. The project focuses on the relationship between individuals, ethnic groups and states — from the 12 million people without any citizenship to the tens of millions yearning to form entirely new nations. Worldfocus producer Ben Piven wrote for Inside THIRTEEN about a Kurdish refuge in Brooklyn.

Flowing headdresses and silver amulets from Kurdistan fill the dusty glass cases of the exhibition room. Over 2,000 erudite books fill the shelves. Faded photographs of Kurdish peasants cover the walls.

A stately corner brownstone in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights contains a most unlikely collection of Kurdish items. Vera Beaudin Saeedpour’s Kurdish Museum and Library has amazed curious Brooklynites since she launched the museum in 1988. And her center, strangely enough, remains the only Kurdish museum in North America.

The entrance to the Kurdish Museum and Library.

Saeedpour’s phone rings off the hook, as Kurdish scholars from Istanbul to London search for facts and figures. The irony is that Saeedpour is not a Kurd.

Her obsession with the Kurdish people and their quest for international recognition began in 1973, after she fell for a young Kurdish engineering student from Sanandaj, Iran. But Homayoun Saeedpour died of leukemia in 1981. The widowed Saeedpour was in love with the Kurds so much that the center, established five years later, became a tribute to her Kurdish second husband.

At 79, Vera Beaudin Saeedpour (nee Fine) is still a zealous liaison with Kurdish VIPs all over the globe – even though she never learned their language. Activities involving her adopted people take up most of her free time — when she’s not nursing her back or making sure her two mischievous cats don’t get out.

A Kurdish headdress that belonged to Homayoun Saaedpour.

Vera’s introduction to Kurdistan happened late in life. But her immersion in all things Middle Eastern began in 1968, during a trip to Israel and its Gaza territory — acquired one year prior — with four of her five children from her first marriage. In that fateful year, Vera, a secular Jew passionately committed to her ideal of Jewish justice, began to take a keen interest in the non-Jewish cultures of the Middle East.

Homayoun Saeedpour, whose last name Vera continues to use, inspired a journey to pursue advanced knowledge of Kurdish history and culture. Initially, with zero knowledge of what a Kurd was, Vera found the entry in Oxford Concise Dictionary describing Kurds as “tall, predatory, and pastoral.”

“But Homayoun was neither tall nor predatory,” she said.

Some of the library's books about the most famous Kurd in history.

Vera also likes to talk about her other favorite Kurd, Saladin, who famously repelled the Crusaders. “Legacy of Saladin” and “Color Me Kurdish” are among her museum’s notable past exhibitions.

Vera takes credit for arranging the first American trip itinerary — in the late 1980’s — for Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, who is of Kurdish origin. She likes to mention her frequent trips to meet with presidential aides in Washington D.C. throughout the 1980’s.

Out of her home office, Vera publishes the quarterly “International Journal of Kurdish Studies” and a newsletter, “Kurdish Life.”

“My goal is to do research that adds to the truth and avoids ideology,” said Vera, whose publications contain her often prickly perspectives and her unfailingly critical eye for current events. She offers comprehensive, if scathing, analysis of Kurdish politics.

A chess set with Kurdish pieces.

In her own words, she became “an equal opportunity scholar” in 1991, after repudiating the ideals of Kurdish nationalism. After a decade-long commitment to the establishment of a Kurdish state, she observed how Turkish Kurds began making shifty deals with Turkey to support increased autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perceiving these particular Kurds as traitorous to their cause, she bemoans their willingness to sell out their brothers.

“But the quest for nationalism is not worthwhile. Groups that believe their own state is best are tribally-oriented and narrow-minded. This has resulted in bloodshed and endless pursuit of narrow objectives,” said Vera.

Vera enjoys talking about being a pugnacious scholar.

“My relatives pulled oxcarts. We aren’t class acts,” said Vera, whose irreverence seems to increase with age.

– Ben Piven