For some time now, I had been hoping to get my hands on a fictional visual narrative of the Kurdish YPJ/YPG (Women’s/People’s Protection Units) and their international volunteers fighting against ISIS in Northern Syria during the Syrian Civil War. And then came No Man’s Land.

The political researcher in me urged caution. Shows written by Israelis on politics and conflict in the Middle East have left a bad taste in my mouth in the past (I couldn’t get beyond the first season of Homeland).

Rather than a standard review of the show’s aesthetics and technical aspects, it is the politics (or lack thereof) in the show (which is currently streaming on Hulu) that I am going to talk about here. Identifying where No Man’s Land falters helped me think through the politics and representational tropes in popular media.

As someone from Assam, issues of self-determination movements, state repression, ethnic conflicts, gendered violence, anti-migrant sentiments and the likes have been of great interest to me. All of these issues animate the backdrop of No Man’s Land.

My personal emotional investment in the subject also stems from narrow classroom discussions where uninformed opinions – like “it’s all about the oil” – float, as though the YPJ are mere American puppets in a geopolitical theatre. 

The narrative is structured around its principal protagonists. Frenchman Antoine believes his sister Anna (long presumed dead) has joined the YPJ, and goes about looking for her in Syria. Sarya leads a group of YPJ fighters. Nasser, Iyad and Peter are recruits for ISIS/Daesh from the United Kingdom.

No Man’s Land‘s narrative switches back and forth between flashbacks of the protagonists in France, Kurdish Syria, UK, and their lives in 2014. The show does get a few things right. The diverse, international cast was rigorously schooled in Kurdish and the Arabic dialect spoken in Syria.

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The meticulous work put into the show shines in certain mundane moments, such as when the YPJ fighters and volunteers greet each other as Heval (friend/comrade, in Kurdish), or the brief scene of a few seconds where a male protagonist performs his duties by cleaning up and serving tea to YPJ fighters – pointing to the egalitarian, anti-hierarchical structure of these organisations, or the Kurdish nom-de-guerre given to the international volunteers (such as ‘Shamaran’).

Politics and history shape the mise-en-scène from which No Man’s Land draws. The show is focussed more on the emotional meanderings of its characters and the direction in which ‘fate’ or larger forces at play takes them. A few episodes in, it becomes clear that that the focus on the YPJ is limited to military engagement against the ISIS. Words like ‘freedom’, ‘revolution’ and the likes are thrown about without context.

Undoubtedly, these fighters have sacrificed and suffered much, sometimes to rescue other communities (such as the Yazidis). Their battles were against annihilation of their very bodies and way of life. However, we must remember what they were fighting for, not just fighting against.

The YPJ/YPG and other left-wing Kurdish organisations are influenced by the writings of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan. His guerrilla organisation Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK)’s focus shifted from establishing an independent Kurdish ethno-state to greater autonomy, direct democracy, decentralised power structures, feminism, equitable economics and inclusive multi-ethnic co-existence.

Sarya (Soheila Yacoub) planning an YPJ operation | Screenshot from the show

Ocalan’s ideological shift was influenced by anarchist thinker, Murray Bookchin. There is a lot of focus on establishing gender equality and removing hierarchical traditional structures in Kurdish society. The PKK has always had a large number of women cadres and this legacy continues in these leftist groups.

The neighbourhood-level self-government and political units in this region always have both men and women in positions of power as a rule. Volunteers and recruits of the YPJ/YPG take regular classes on these issues along with their military actions. In these classes, the YPJ also admit to Kurdish complicity in the persecution of minorities in the Ottoman empire.

All ethnic groups in the region – Kurds, Arabs, Syriac Christians/Assyrians, Armenians – also find representation in this political structure. However, in ‘No Man’s Land’ there seem to be a delineation between the Kurds as ‘good’ Western allies and Arab Muslims as ISIS. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), instrumental in the defeat of ISIS, has many Arab militias as well, along with Assyrians, Armenians and others. This political history is often forgotten in works based on Western media narratives, such as No Man’s Land.

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Further, Kurdish characters, such as YPJ commanders Adar and Gilia, do not get sufficient screen-time. There is a brief flash-back sequence where Sarya recollects her first days after moving to her ancestral Kurdish village, starkly pointing out the kitchen to which traditionally women are restricted. However, how Kurdish women have overcome this through political organisation remains absent.

Kurdish activist and sociologist Dilar Dirik argues that the YPJ fighters are often exoticised as ‘badass Amazons’ in the West. Western fashion retailers sold YPJ military fatigues as ‘empowerment’. This show, like others, are fascinated by ultra-masculine ISIS soldiers’ belief that they can’t achieve martyrdom and heaven if killed by a woman. The political project of equality and autonomy YPJ are defending is ignored.

There is a ghastly decapitation scene of a European YPJ volunteer’s dead body in the fourth episode. However, ISIS is not the first to do this. Turkish security forces (Turkey is a NATO ally), since the 1980s, have revelled in mutilation of dead bodies of female PKK cadres on camera. The military and fundamentalist proxies of Islamist-authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continue to use mutilation, sexual assault, torture, forced displacement as weapons of war against Kurds.

Joint American and Turkish forces holding out during a clash in Northeast Syria | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Anna, a Western volunteer, joining the YPJ gets No Man’s Land’s plot rolling. Again, except for the novelty of an all-female battalion fighting ISIS, the volunteers’ motivations remain unclear. Anna seems to do it as atonement for the death of her Kurdish colleague. But, why the American novelist Luke does it is never made clear.

The other female Western volunteers remain nameless soldiers and cannon fodder. In actuality, the Western volunteers (many of them women) joined this struggle as part of their Leftist-feminist convictions, which they saw manifested in this political project. Several of them, such as Anna Campbell and Ivanna Hoffman, died fighting ISIS, and later, the invading Turkish forces.

Stefan Bertram-Lee is another Briton, a queer non-binary digital activist, who joined the YPG and helped them make memes! Brace Belsen, an American volunteer with YPG, developed quite an online following with his tweets and pictures of life on the front-lines fighting the ISIS near Raqqa. A planned Hollywood flick based on his time there, supposed to Star Jake Gyllenhal, has not materialised yet.

Many of these volunteers, should they return home, would face prosecution. For many, this is a throwback to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) where international volunteers fought against Franco’s fascists (Hemingway and Orwell have written novels on this, and Land and Freedom is a film on the same).

The American ex-Marine sniper fighting with the YPJ in No Man’s Land was a shrewd addition, showing how US ex-military personnel have joined the conflict. However, many such vets bear Islamophobic sentiments. Others have also joined Syriac Christian militias to defend minority Christian populations.

The Kurdish population in the region is spread across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq – all countries with some involvement in the fight against ISIS. All of them are backing proxies in this conflict. Turkey has become the chief backer of the Free Syrian Army. Given the religious-authoritarian nature of the Erdogan regime, Salafists and other hard-line Islamist groups intent on establishing sharia law have the upper-hand in the FSA.

Turkey enjoys some leverage against the US and European nations as Erdogan threatens to allow refugees from the conflict to pass unhindered to the West. This is an unpleasant prospect for most in the West, given the widespread anti-migrant sentiments in the West. Thus, there is no international pressure on Turkey and its proxy fundamentalist militias when they invade Kurdish territories on the border, leading to displacement.

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For someone without much knowledge or interest in this complex and dizzying geopolitical theatre with so many different factions and interests, it is easy to overlook the significance of the YPJ/YPG.

Without this political backdrop, one might just as well find a Hindutva footsoldier praising the YPJ for fighting jihadis. A comparison to the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) wouldn’t be unusual in such a case either.

Politics and discourses mould emotions, especially in conflict zones. No Man’s Land seems to replace politics with generic sentimentality as the driving force, its characters oblivious to geopolitical currents. Moreover, the YPJ remains confined to acting like an anti-ISIS force.

Shows such as No Man’s Land may not do much in dispelling the belief that the YPJ are mere pawns in the Syrian geopolitical theatre. Here, one cannot help but be reminded of the infamous end credits frame from Rambo III, that has since then become a meme:

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image: Screenshot from trailer on YouTube.