WITH EVENTS aswirl in Iraq in recent months, there has been much talk of the Kurds and the likelihood of their striking out alone to establish, once and for all, an independent Kurdish state, a so-called Kurdistan. It seems that pundits far and wide have something to say on the topic…
So what is this Kurdistan?
The Greek cartographers of old had called the region where the Kurds lived Media, referring to the ancient kingdom of the Medes; when the Arabs arrived in the seventh century, bringing Islam with them, they called the region Djibal (from the Arabic for ‘mountain’). It was Sanjar, the last sultan of the Great Seljuks, a Turco-Persian dynasty, who, in 1150, first delineated a province as Kurdistan, literally the ‘land of the Kurds’.
It took centuries for a distinctly Kurdish consciousness to begin emerging, however. Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi, poet and emir of Bitlis (in what is now Turkey), wrote his Sharafnama in 1597. This was a history of the Kurds, tracking back through history highlighting and documenting the exploits of Kurdish dynasties. Almost a century later Ahmad Khani wrote the epic love story, Mem û Zîn, the Kurdish equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, a tale of doomed lovers separated by fate and heartless outsiders. Khani called on Kurds to rally; his was the first attempt to galvanise a sense of common identity and common destiny amongst the Kurds.
Kurdistan has always been marginal territory, in the geopolitical sense. It made up the borderland between the (Turkish) Ottoman and (Persian) Safavid empires, seeing mêlées, military campaigns and marauding throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. It was later riven by the borders of modern Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria in the 1920s, relegating its Kurdish residents to minority status in four nation-states.
For all that it enjoys startling richness. The French Kurdologist Thomas Bois in his classic tome, The Kurds, noted it as ‘picturesque’, being ‘as prosperous as it is charming’. He recorded its plenty: ‘apples, pears, peaches and apricots, not to mention the vines.’
But there is not just diversity in its orchards. The Kurdish people themselves display diversity in language, cultural practice, religious adherence and observance. There is no single cultural, linguistic or religious pole to which all Kurds adhere. The great anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen remarks on this diversity in his academic writing to the point that he argues we should not speak of a Kurdish people, but perhaps peoples. What unites them is that they consider themselves to be Kurdish and clearly delineate how they differ from the peoples – Turks, Arabs, Persians et al – living around them.
Van Bruinessen notes that the Kurds appear to have absorbed heterogeneous ethnic elements, and that they subscribe to a diversity of religious beliefs and traditions, not only Sunni Islam but also Alevism (in Turkey) as well as the Yezidi and Ahl-i Haqq traditions, both of which emerged in Kurdistan. Syncretism appears to be the order of the day, a melding of rituals, practices and doctrines that is only possible where rigid orthodoxy is not imposed.
As well as confessional variety, Van Bruinessen notes an ethnic fluidity amongst the Kurds and the peoples they live amongst. He cites examples of Kurdish tribes who in the 19th century became Turkified; similarly there were nomadic Turkish tribes that became Kurdified. The presence of Armenians and Syriacs who spoke Kurdish as their mother tongue suggests shifts across both ethnic and religious divides were not unheard of, he argues. (Indeed, as detailed in Fethiye Çetin’s wonderful memoir My Grandmother, conversion of Armenians to Kurdishness happened, during the horrors of 1915 and afterwards, to a degree perhaps significantly underestimated.)
There should be no surprises in such a turn of events, really. Much of the Middle East is a region of ethnic and confessional diversity despite it being fun for bigots and others ill-informed to say that Islam is a smothering and homogenising influence. Look at Syria, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Islamic countries all that conform (or have, through history, conformed) to Van Bruinessen’s’ characterisation of the Middle East as ‘an ethnic and religious mosaic, in which nomads, peasants and townspeople, speakers of various languages and numerous dialects, adherents of Islam, Christianity and Judaism and a plethora of syncretistic religious communities lived side by side.’
Kurdistan is squarely a part of this. Within the historical extent of the area defined as Kurdistan still live, aside from Kurds, Shia Turkmen, Syriacs (Catholic and Orthodox), Chaldeans, Yezidis, Ahl-i Haqq, Alevis, Azaris and some remaining Armenians.
There is much discussion of the likelihood of an independent Kurdistan emerging as a free-standing state. Some would argue that at present the circumstances are not ideal for such a turn of events [there is more punditry to this effect!!], but sovereign state or not the Kurdish region of Iraq is proving to be the last redoubt of the ethnic diversity that once characterised Iraq.
The thoroughly reprehensible goons of ISIS in their mediocrity and ignorance have attempted to ‘cleanse’ the territory that they have captured across the Syria-Iraq border, including in Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul. This has involved the trashing of centuries-old shrines and the persecution and ultimately expulsion of a Christian community that has been present for somewhere around 2000 years . Not content with such outrages, ISIS has also gone after the Turkmen of Tel Afar, who in fleeing have received little support from their Turkish kin across the border, as well as the Yezidi Kurds of Sinjar.
Through this mayhem, the Kurdish Autonomous Region, the would-be Kurdistan, emerges as a haven for those displaced by the ISIS thugs. Meanwhile, Kurdish peşmerga (literally, ‘those who face death’) are fending off ISIS advances in Iraq, as well as in the Kurdish territory of Rojava in northern Syria. In fact, Syriac militias are fighting alongside the peşmerga, thus far with some success, sufficient to imagine that greater collaboration is possible.
Broadly speaking, the Kurds appear more willing and able to tolerate and encourage pluralism than the nation-states of the region. Perhaps due to their underdog status during the era of nation-states, a period where they were generally subjected to homogenising projects, they are now better able to empathise with the minorities groups who live alongside and amongst them. Certainly in Turkey it has been Kurdish politicians who have made greatest steps to acknowledge and to redress the injustices inflicted on the Armenians almost a century ago and to rekindle the diversity that gives the country much of its richness.
I recall some years ago hearing a Melbourne Kurd remarking that it would be the Kurds who would bring democracy to the Middle East. At the time I thought it sounded like high-minded waffle, but perhaps he was unduly prescient. The Kurds appear to be living up to such an aspiration and in doing so in some small way protecting the region’s ethnic diversity that has persisted for centuries. More power to them, I say.