God bless the Kurds!

THERE APPEARS, at present, to be little light at the end of the tunnel that is Iraq. The thugs of ISIS are proving to be much nastier than anyone anticipated, and more successful, having pushed further east from the recently conquered city of Mosul. And what had been considered a sure thing, the Kurdish peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government, turned out to be not as effective a fighting force as they have long been held up to be.

The very viability of the Kurdish autonomous region appeared to be called into question, as peshmerga, apparently heavily outgunned, yielded to ISIS gangs who came within cooee of Erbil, the Kurdish capital. This was terrifying enough because until then the peshmerga had been thought of as an effective bulwark against the ISIS fanatics.

More immediately horrific was the prospect of mass slaughter unfolding with the world in attendance – via social media. ISIS rolled Sinjar, a town that has been home to the heterodox Yazidis since time immemorial. In their ignorant and blinkered ideology – which they claim is a version of Islam – the ISIS hoods saw the diverse threads that make up Yazidi belief as reason to put them to the sword. As is well documented now, thousands of Yazidis who fled the ISIS onslaught were stranded without supplies on Mt Sinjar. A place of mystical significance for the Yazidis, Mt Sinjar is also remote and shelterless. Refugees huddled here at the mercy of the elements during the height of an Iraqi summer.


Mt. Sinjar

Fortunately, a public switched on via social media raised an outcry that galvanised action. As beleaguered Kurdish peshmerga sought to beat a path to the stranded Yezidis, Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish President appealed for military support. In the meantime, the US rallied support for a humanitarian mission to deliver supplies to the Yazidis atop Mt Sinjar (see some dramatic footage here of supplies being dropped, and the mad scramble to escape for some of the trapped refugees) and provided air cover for Kurdish forces. After the woes visited on Iraq’s Christians, Türkmens and Shi’ite by ISIS in recent weeks, something had to be done. The Guardian rightly pointed out that it was imperative that the US and UK take decisive action because they “have a humanitarian duty to the endangered minorities, and a debt of honour to the Kurds”.

The plight of the benighted Yazidis on Mt Sinjar touched a nerve. Yazidi communities in Georgia and Armenia raised their voices in support of their stranded brethren and in Israel the Holocaust Museum added its voice condemning the genocidal behaviour of ISIS. Disgust with ISIS is clearly widespread and communities across the region are stepping up to support the victims of its gratuitous evil – Najaf, the city of Shi’ite pilgrimage in southern Iraq, has opened its doors to Christian refugees expelled from Mosul, while Iran has also pledged to help Iraqi Christian refugees.

For an Aussie, with little to be proud of as regards our government’s conduct on the world stage at present, it was pleasing to see that Australian troops were involved in the humanitarian mission carried out on Mt Sinjar. An Iraqi photolibrary Metrography has some startling images of the Yazidis as they left Mt Sinjar and sought shelter in Syria and Kurdish-held areas of Iraq. (It is a measure of the desperation of their plight that they have trekked across an unforgiving desert to find refuge in Syria, of all places.) I’ve ‘borrowed’ one of the images from Metrography, here. Looking at this image I have only one word: respect! To me it exemplifies the strength, the resilience, the love, the humanity of the Yazidis.

Image: Zmnako Ismael,  via Metrography

Image: Zmnako Ismael, via Metrography

Perhaps the most important thing to emerge out of this whole sorry tale is that the Kurds exhibit these very qualities: strength, resilience, love, humanity. Kurdish elements from across borders came together to rescue the Yazidis, to take on the ISIS murderers . A quick glance at the history books indicates that the Kurds have long been divided and have been hung out to dry by outside powers many a time. But here, the Kurds came together to confront an evil challenge.

Of course, the Syrian Kurds have been fighting ISIS for some time, entirely unheralded and unsupported. It is the YPG militia (People’s Defence Units) of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Unity Party) that has fended off ISIS and prevented it extending its reach to the Turkish border. The enclave of Kobanê, one of three that makes up the Rojava autonomous zone, in particular has come under concerted attack, but local Kurds have held their own, and then some. The Rojava Kurds are credited with much of the heavy lifting involved in rescuing the Yazidis.

It seems that it was not just Rojava Kurds involved in the rescue mission, however. In effect, the Kurdish cavalry arrived. German MP Ulla Jelpke was in Rojava to observe goings on and she remarked that (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK fighters – listed as terrorists by Turkey, the US and the EU – also rallied to the cause and effectively amounted to a “guarantee of life” for the Yazidis.

The Kurdish cavalry – in days of yore...

The Kurdish cavalry – in days of yore…

PKK units had also made their way to Kurdish-held Kirkuk, apparently receiving a hero’s welcome as they went. It was also PKK fighters who were instrumental in reclaiming Mahmour, just on the outskirts of the Kurdish capital Erbil, that had earlier fallen to the ISIS thugs. And it seems that the Iranian Kurdish militia of the KDP-I (yes, there are a lot of acronyms in Kurdish affairs!) also joined the fray at the shoulders of their cross-border compatriots.

There is now serious talk that the US State Department and the EU should remove the PKK from their lists of designated terrorists. (A petition to that effect is awaiting signatures.) Whatever outrages the PKK perpetrated in Turkey in decades past – and outrages there certainly were – do not necessarily reflect the ambitions or potentials of the group now, nor do they necessarily impugn fighters who are now rallying to a worthwhile cause and acting not only in the interests of Kurds, but other peoples in Iraq and Syria, and more broadly in the interests of the West. I think it’s time to bring the PKK into the fold.

So while an anti-ISIS front might have been formed by disparate Kurdish groups, there are still petty rivalries at play and proverbial roosters are jousting. But for now, the Kurds continue to be a resilient, resourceful and honourable presence, people of valour, generosity of spirit and immense humanity in the benighted lands of Iraq and Syria. Long may they prosper.


Kurdistan dreaming: a homeland, not just for Kurds?

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.

Image via: jamesdale10
Image via: jamesdale10

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.








Iran and the West: old struggles, new opportunities

EARLIER THIS MONTH, renowned chef and author Anthony Bourdain Tweeted* enthusiastically of the great treatment he received from total strangers while he was in Iran, ‘of all the countries in the world’.

Such a reception took him by surprise, but anyone who is familiar with the reality of Iran and Iranians would most likely say ‘well, derr’ (to use a standard Australian response to a statement of the blindingly obvious).

In the popular imagination, Iran remains unpopular, regarded with suspicion, if not active dislike, by many. A survey conducted earlier this year in over 20 countries shows that it is the world’s most negatively viewed country.

Yet as Bourdain’s Tweet bears out, those who travel to Iran are generally overwhelmed by the friendliness and hospitality of Iranians, by the richness of their culture, art and cuisine, and the physical beauty of Iranian landscapes and architecture. For those in the know, Iran is diverse, challenging and intriguing in equal measure, but above all welcoming.

Iranians, for their part, are aware that their country is not particularly fondly regarded. During my time in Iran I was constantly asked if I was not concerned about Axis of Evil rhetoric. The whole ‘axis’ notion is utter tosh, of course, but that’s not to say that the regime that runs Iran isn’t very savoury. And there’s the rub: the government – and the hardliners who prop it up, and profit from its various dealings – is not truly representative of the people, of their interests, material, artistic or otherwise.

chehel-sotun-frescoIranian art boasts a depth of tradition and history that may well be unsurpassed, and the modern art scene, despite tight censorship and curmudgeonly official oversight, is vibrant and engaged in global dialogue. Iranians are eager consumers of culture from the – supposedly decadent – West. This can incur the wrath of regime Grinchs as was seen recently with the arrest of several young Iranians who had posted online a video of themselves singing and dancing along to Pharrell Williams’ Happy.

Official killjoys, labelling the video as ‘obscene’, detained six young people before releasing them on bail and making them recant on state-run TV. These actions speak volumes about the disconnect between the regime and the people. They reveal, yet again, an official paranoia about Western influence, and a lack of understanding on the part of the regime of Iranian youth’s hunger for engagement, of their aspirations and interests. Most of all, the arrests had the effect of bringing the video – obscene dancing or not – to a wider audience that would never had been reached if it was left as just another video upload amongst untold millions.

The arrests prompted a huge outcry on social media, including an apparent defence of the dancers from the Twitter account of no less a personality than President Hassan Rouhani. It’s ironic that the president should have a Twitter account, when it is officially banned in Iran. But this in itself is indicative of an ongoing struggle within the Islamic Republic between conservative and progressive, or reformist, forces.

The Iranian political arena has been locked in a conservative-progressive see-sawing stoush for decades, whereby progressive political forces assume power, on the basis of popular approval won at elections, then as they attempt to create a more open society, conservative elements in the judiciary, media and within the political apparatus hinder, hobble and obstruct them. This was most clearly apparent during the Khatami presidency from 1997-2005, and it’s odds-on that the same will occur during President Rouhani’s incumbency.

That said, the arrival of Rouhani in the presidential palace presents an opportunity for rapprochement between Iran and the West. He is noted for his liberal disposition and has stated that he seeks better relations globally. In fact, as has been argued by Stephen Kinzer, Iran has many attributes that make it a natural ally for the West in the Middle East.

iran-night-streetI would wager that a majority of Iranians want improved relations with the West, too. I’d also punt that the majority of the Iranian populace does not want to be ruled by the Islamic regime, or at least not in the strict, rigid and unforgiving form that it currently assumes. Iranians of all stripes hanker for greater opportunities and freedoms; they find sly and subtle ways to subvert the strictures that hover over them, a recent example being the My Stealthy Freedom campaign whereby Iranian women post images of themselves online sans hijab.

My encounters with Iranians in Iran certainly indicate both a desire to engage more broadly and a displeasure with the conditions under which they continue to live. Interactions within academic and institutional forums also lend weight to the argument that Iranians wish to be done with an isolationist position. Years of sanctions and being cast as pariahs do not sit well with a well-educated, cultured, literate, engaged population. Better relations would be welcomed by many segments of Iranian society – youth, intelligentsia, artists – but whether regime hardliners/power-holders would entertain such a prospect remains to be seen.

Happily, recent developments mean that rapprochement is looking possible in some shape or form. With some progress in nuclear negotiations early this year and subsequent easing of trade restrictions, Western companies are looking to Iran for business opportunities. Meanwhile, following the shenanigans in Ukraine and Russia’s erratic behaviour, Iran, and its gas reserves, may emerge as a solution to Europe’s energy woes should Russia withhold gas supplies to the West. And with the rapid advance of the thoroughly nasty ISIS/ISIL in Iraq, it appears that Iran is in a position where it is willing to , or in fact needs to, engage with the US, and the West, more broadly and more productively.

So will Iran open up and unclench its fist? Let’s watch this space.

*Technical incompetence prevents me from embedding the actual Tweet into the page. Yes, it is frustrating…




The interminable, unfulfilled spring: is it Bosnia’s turn?

sebilj-may-2008CLICHÉS ABOUT POLITICAL SPRINGS are looking a bit shopworn at the moment; recent events in Ukraine and Crimea show how so-called springs can go spectacularly off track and with entirely unforeseen consequences.

Of late, talk of springs, of the political kind, if not of seasonal shifts, has been associated with popular protest. The last year or so in Mediterranean Europe has seen protests in GreeceSpain and France and of course the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in June last year.

Popular disaffection with the political status quo isn’t just confined to these EU-member or EU-aspirant parts of Europe.  Recent years have also seen protests and mobilisations in the Balkans, but these have been protests that haven’t attracted the spotlight of international media attention.

The Balkans are, generally speaking, stuck in the recesses of the popular imagination as an unstable region of ‘ancient hatreds’, so perhaps uprisings here are seen as unremarkable – after all, as received wisdom has it, this is a region prone to gratuitous violence.

That said, this rugged, mountainous corner of Europe is slowly gaining recognition as a place not just seething with inter-communal tensions and not solely physically riddled with 1990s-vintage bullet holes. Even Bosnia & Hercegovina, the country most closely tainted by this sort of thinking, has recently won some kudos, gaining a star rating from National Geographic Traveler, no less.

Nat Geo coverage doesn’t automatically foster a happy political arena, however. In February protests erupted in the northeastern city of Tuzla, said to be one of the powerhouses (all things are relative!) of the Bosnian economy. It also happens to be one of its most ethnically diverse cities: it retains an Orthodox cathedral and Franciscan monastery amidst it mosques, as well as an active Jewish community.

Protests in Tuzla were triggered by public discontent, disillusionment and frustration at political shenanigans that have bedevilled the country and forestalled reform and economic development since the peace accords of 1995. After three days, protests had spread to more than 30 cities and towns across the country, with Sarajevo becoming the epicentre of protest and public displeasure. As if to live up to Western (mis)conceptions of the region, protests in many instances became violent, with public offices torched and phalanxes of police bringing in tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.

Three months on protests may have cooled, yet popular mobilisation and the voicing of political complaints and demands are ongoing. The political arena in Bosnia is fiendishly complex: where else is there such a small state that entertains two distinct political entities, five presidents, 10 cantons and a mind-boggling array of political parties and bureaucratic organs? Getting anything done in such circumstances is a tall order indeed.

Aside from the resulting stupefying political inertia, what appears to have finally sparked your average Bosnian-on-the-street is mounting frustration with the political framework put in place after the peace negotiations of the mid-90s, one that has worked to the advantage of political elites and their cronies, but done nothing for aforementioned average Bosnian Joes. The upshot of the protests, and a direct response to this democratic quicksand, has been the formations of ‘plenums’ across Bosnia. These are public forums where people gather to enunciate concerns and articulate demands, which may then be addressed to administrative bodies. ‘Plenums’ have been lauded as a mechanism that will demonstrate to Bosnians how democracy *really* works.

Giving the people a voice may generally be applauded, and it appears that there are many voices wishing to be heard. Top-down, elite-driven political development is often fraught. James C. Scott, the noted political scientist from Yale, argues that the standard top-down approach to instituting ‘high modernism’ involves enforcing legibility – that is administrability(!) – on society; such a process is feasible, but comes at the cost of local knowledge, Scott contends. And without taking account of local conditions and building on local knowledge, he continues, attempts to improve societal conditions are bound to fail. This is all the more so in Bosnia, where it appears that political actors have demonstrated few aspirations to the more enlightened aspects of high modernism, but plenty of aptitude for shoring up their own positions and feathering their own nests.

library-night-may-2008In many regards the internecine killing in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s was a top-down initiative. Rogers Brubaker in his landmark collection of essays, Ethnicity without Groups, speaks of ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’, ie those who manipulate – indeed, in some instances manufacture – ethnic tensions and conflicts to their own advantage, to serve their own usually political agendas. Brubaker’s model describes with pin-point precision the circumstances of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Such manipulation of circumstances can have very real implications, in this case serious episodes of inter-communal blood letting. So significant were these that the political quandaries of Bosnia continue to be viewed by many solely through an ethnic prism. ‘Ethnic  hatreds’ are taken to be part of the very landscape, thus creating an environment where said ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’ can play on fears of new wars breaking out, manipulating events to their advantage, thus extending the political doldrums that Bosnia has languished in for so long. Indeed, it has been remarked that various Bosnian politicians tried to put an ethnonationalist spin on the protests as they broke out earlier this year, blaming, of course, *other* ethnic groups for fomenting the troubles.

In fact, without downplaying the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, there is a long history of intercommunal fraternity at a workaday level across Bosnia, and other parts of the Balkans. Cooperation, despite religious and ethnic diversity, has been the modus operandi for a long time in the region, even during the horrors of the 1990s, as recounted by Svetlana Broz. This continues to the present, an example being the village of Ustibar in Republika Srpska, where townspeople of all faiths come together to work on building projects in concert. As reported in SE Times, locals remark that, ‘For us in Bosnia, this is so normal. We live together, indeed.’

Perhaps on the ground it is apparent to adherents of different faiths that they share a great deal of history and have much in common. Indeed in the early days of the Bosnian protests, Serbs across the border went out in sympathy with their Bosnian neighbours, gathering in Belgrade and chanting ‘Brave Bosnia, we are with you.’ Such an expression of solidarity is perhaps recognition that the peoples of the region may be connected by issues other than ethnicity.

In the last few days, both Serbia and Bosnia have been beset by disastrous floods. (Too much spring rain, perhaps…) It is to be hoped that in the face of such a natural disaster that the two peoples can be a support to each other, that they can cast aside earlier differences and work through the mire together. Already, the plucky Macedonians are mucking in to bring supplies and succour their neighbours.

Meanwhile, a significant event in recent weeks little noticed in the mainstream press was the reopening of Sarajevo’s City Hall. Destroyed by Serb artillery fire in 1992, the building’s decrepit and bombed out appearance seemed to symbolise Bosnia’s troubled plight. It is now fully refurbished, revelling in all of its neo-Moorish glory – could this possibly be a harbinger of spring for Bosnia?








The last of the Ashiqs: the Sufi troubadours of Xinjiang

Yengisar-streetLAST WEEK I was fortunate to attend a seminar at the Monash Asia Institute focusing on the influence and persistence of Sufism and shamanism in modern Xinjiang. For this event two visitors from Xinjiang Normal University in Urumqi, Liu Xiangchen, Professor of Visual Anthropology, and Dilmurat Omar, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology, came to Monash to discuss their work.

The Monash Asia Institute has for several years been running a project to document the significant cultural sites and spaces of Kashgar, the spiritutal capital for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, so to have experts visiting from Xinjiang was a great thrill. All the more so for me because I got to meet both professors beforehand and to impress (!?!) them with my few words of Uyghur (and some perhaps not entirely relevant Turkish…)

Incidentally, the Monash Kashgar project has resulted in a fabulous book, published by Frances Lincoln.

Discussions at the seminar highlighted Xinjiang as a realm of overlapping and intersecting cultural traditions and practices, perfect grist for the mill for this blog. In the first session of the seminar, Professor Dilmurat outlined the persistence in Xinjiang of shamanistic practices amongst the Kirghiz minority, an ostensibly Muslim people; the second session included a screening of Ashiq: the Last Troubadours, a documentary detailing the life of Sufi musicians/mystics on the south-western fringes of the Taklamakan Desert.

Aside from the day-to-day rhythm of the life of the ashiq, the film presented a compelling portrait – in miniature – of oasis towns and cities including Kashgar, Yarkand, Yengisar and Hotan. The incidental detail – distinctive Xinjiang vernacular architecture, remote mazars (tombs), pencil-slim poplar trees rippling in the breeze, the curious melding of Chinese design motifs with Turkic (or Persianate), the gregariousness and endless good cheer of the Uyghurs, the great comings-together of people, sitting cross legged on carpeted floors – were so redolent of my brief time in Xinjiang that I could almost smell mutton kebabs and feel talcumy dust on my fingers.

Uighur-homeThe film detailed the role that the ashiq play in the spiritual life of the Uyghurs and how that may be diminishing in the face of the modernity and other forces that are brought to bear in western China. The ashiq tradition stretches back into the mists of time, with its origin somewhere amongst Turkic and/or Central Asian peoples. It has had a pervasive influence. Moving westward with the great Turkic migrations it was notable amongst Turkish and Azerbaijanis dynasties (distant, Muslim, cousins of the Uyghurs). It continues to be popular in modern Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan, and, as aşıklık, it is deemed by UNESCO to be part of Turkey’s intangible cultural heritage.

It also appeared amongst Christian peoples. As the Turks encountered the Armenians and Georgians of the Caucasus so the tradition was adopted by them. Armenian poets and minstrels from around the 16th century assumed the title of ashuq, the most famous, Sayat Nova, is Armenia’s favourite bard and is sometimes said to be the greatest ashiq of the Caucasus. Apparently the tradition also made it to Greece (ασίκης), and it is tempting to draw parallels between recurring themes in the ashiq canon and notions of courtly love that were popular amongst the bards and minstrels of Medieval Europe.

In fact, at its most basic the message conveyed by the ashiq is all about love. It seems clear that the very terminology comes from “eshq” (عشق ), the Persian word for love, from which we get the Turkish (aşk). In the Christian milieu, medieval bards (certainly in the case of Sayat Nova) sang of romantic love (often of a star-crossed, unrequited, doomed-to-tragedy variety), but in the Islamic ashiq tradition love was spiritual, desire not for a worldly coupling but for union with the Divine.

This is the case in the performances of the ashiq and lay people in Liu Xiangchen’s film showing modern practice in Xinjiang. The songs, chants and genuflections were an aspiration to some sort of heavenly consummation, although that is not to say that they were without elements of aforementioned star-crossedness or the torment of unrequitedness. It was not unusual to see Uyghur singers and observers, their hands upturned in an attitude of prayer, moved to tears.

Liu Xiangchen, from Xinjiang Normal University, has made a string of films about the peoples and cultures of Xinjiang. At the Monash seminar he explained how his interest in the ashiq was aroused when he was appointed by the Chinese government to film muqam performances in Xinjiang as part of an application to install the Uyghur musical form on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. (Muqam itself dates back into the early history of the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang, although Ammanisa Khan is credited with formalising the musical form in 16th century Yarkand. Much of the poetry that accompanies muqam shares imagery and themes with Sufi poetry, particularly themes of spiritual longing for the Divine.)

For Ashiq, Liu spent around 400 days filming, having met with and won the confidences of his subjects in locations on the southern fringe of the Taklamakan. He remarked that he found it extremely hard to edit the film as he had to leave so much valuable footage on the cutting-room floor. As it turns out the film now stands at around 122 minutes, but he has a longer, director’s cut version at around four hours.

Uighur-girlsLiu explained that the ashiq see themselves as marginalised, both by the forces of modernisation and by the wider Uyghur community. The ashiqs and their Sufi followers captured in the movie appeared to be on the fringes of society, both physically and figuratively. They tended to be blacksmiths, barbers and beggars living in cramped and humble surrounds. One memorable quote describes the tradition as “700 years of marginalisation and vagabond life”. In some regards, this is a source of strength and may be a part of its appeal. Underdog status may well be a point of pride from some ashiq, tenacity in the face of adversity may be seen as a noble quality and even the fact that Divine spiritual union must remain unconsummated (at least until death, hypothetically) lends a degree of delicious longing to the life of the ashiq and to Sufis of all stripes.

The film revealed the diversity and intensity of the Sufi experience. Communal practice at times was shown to be hypnotic and intoxicating, hordes of men bobbing together in unison and chanting. Individual devotions could be powerfully moving. Sitting at a mazar on a windswept dune, a circle of women, their cheeks streaked with tears.

For all the material poverty and gritty circumstances that were on show, it was evident that ashiq performance and Sufi ritual is hugely enriching for the participants. It put me in mind of a memorable description from The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s wonderful account of a walk into Dolpo, on the Tibetan plateau. Matthiessen recounts happening on a local acquaintance who appears “as enchanted as ever with his meagre life”. And so it is with the Uyghur Sufis: despite a difficult existence on the fringes of the severe Taklamakan, despite marginalisation, despite lack of material comforts, for them life is a fulfilling journey, one that may promise rewards in the hereafter, but also one in which every step is acknowledged, appreciated and relished in that very moment.

The Circassian Olympics: dark history on the Black Sea

IT IS SOMETHING of a sport amongst journalists to write of problems and controversies in the lead up to any Olympic Games. The shortcomings – and down-to-the-wire preparation dramas – of said games are usually manifestly apparent, so journalists don’t have to dig too deep to unearth them.

This is no less the case as we approach the Winter Olympics set to begin in Sochi, Russia, later this week. Sochi 2014 has been bedevilled by complaints of environmental destruction and exploitation of workers in the scramble to prepare. Writer Arnold van Bruggen, who has been visiting Sochi for years, highlights in The Sochi Project the remarkable disparity between the purported glamour of the event and the plight of the region surrounding the new Olympic venues.

Beyond that, the contentious human rights situation in Putin’s Russia has prompted many to wonder why the International Olympic Committee, an organisation whose charter speaks loftily of ‘the harmonious development of man’, promoting ‘a peaceful society’ and ‘the preservation of human dignity’, should have awarded them to Russia in the first place.

Most remarkable is the crassness of the IOC in choosing to overlook the symbolism of the timing of the games. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Russia’s smothering of the Circassians, the indigenous people of Sochi and the north-eastern Black Sea littoral. Circassians claim that the military onslaught visited on their people by Imperial Russia constitutes a genocide. Journalist Oliver Bullough details the background and mournful details of this ‘squalid campaign of attrition and slaughter’ in his terrific Let Our Fame Be Great. (See a brief review I wrote of the book here). Circassian activists continue to rally for the recognition by Russia of the reality of those events and decry the celebration of the games in that particular location at this particular time, marking May 21 in particular as a memorial day.

Pyotr_Nikolayevich_Gruzinsky_-_The_mountaineers_leave_the_aul-1872Circassian comes to us from the Turkish Çerkez (pron: Cher-kez), but they refer to themselves as Adyghe, a name which in their own language is said to denote them as a people who dwelt between the mountains and the sea, making them coastal Caucasian highlanders(!). It is thanks to the reputed beauty of Circassian women that ethnographer Johann Blumenbach classified Indo-European peoples as ‘Caucasian’ in his now discredited hierarchy of races.

Like many indigenous peoples of the north Caucasus, the Circassians are adherents of Sunni Islam, which was introduced to them by the Crimean Tatars and the Ottomans, who were nominal rulers over the Circassian realm from the mid-16th century until the 1820s. Prior to conversion to Islam they had their own ethnic religion, Habze, which was a monotheistic world view shot through with elements of Greek mythology and which has undergone something of a resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The final stanza of Russia’s monstering of the Circassians was the exodus across the Black Sea of large numbers of refugees who fetched up in Ottoman territory. Today there are sizeable Circassian communities in Turkey (anywhere between 2 and 5 million, depending on how you do the counting) as well as in Israel, Jordan and Syria. The descendants of the Circassian refugees are well integrated into Turkish society and are highly regarded for their martial virtues, having a long tradition of serving in the Turkish military.

My first encounter with Circassians was when hearing of them from my students in İzmir in the mid-90s. They spoke of the reputation for beauty of Çerkez women, their propensity to keep scrupulously clean homes and a dish called Çerkez chicken (poached with a ground-walnut sauce). I was intrigued that at a time when ethnicity was such a hot topic (this was the peak of the PKK campaign against the Turkish army) that the Circassians’ cultural distinctiveness was so openly discussed. But then, the Circassians, like many other peoples who arrived in Turkey from the Balkans and the Caucasus at the encroachment of European powers in the late 19th and early 20th century, willingly assumed a Turkish national identity, something many Kurds refused to do. (A great irony here is that the Circassian language is all but lost in Turkey, the country that gave them safe harbour, but in Russia, where they were monstered, it is still spoken.) For all the sympathy in Turkey for the Circassian cause, the Turkish government, for fear of upsetting Russia, a major power supplier, has been unwilling to heed calls to boycott the games.

Sobranie_cherkesskikh_knyazey-gregoire-gagarinRussia is certainly touchy about the Circassian issue being pushed into the spotlight and anxious to forestall any Circassian agitation during the games. Several Circassian activists were rounded up late last year, presumably to scare them into silence, while a Turkish journalist who specialises in Caucasian issues, Fehim Taştekin, has fallen foul of authorities and has been banned from entering Russia for five years. Still, anyone with a particular axe to grind about Caucasus affairs shouldn’t feel singled out: it appears Russia doesn’t want any disturbance in any form during the games.

There is considerable concern from many quarters, Russian and others alike, at the prospect of terrorism at the games. The north Caucasus has been a troubled region for decades (if you read Bullough’s Let Our Fame be Great you may see why certain peoples bear such ill will towards Russia) with several unsavoury terrorist groups at large and operational there. But Circassian advocacy groups have denounced the recent terrorist bombings and Volgograd and have repudiated all terror tactics, remarking that they seek to pursue “the unity, preservation and development of the Circassian people” through legitimate means. The No Sochi 2014 campaign highlights that the expulsion of the Circassians from Sochi in the 1860s was an act of violence and terrorism, and perpetrating the same in response cannot redress past wrongs.

One positive that has arisen out of the furore directed at the Sochi games is the reawakening of Circassian political identity in Turkey and elsewhere. As reported on Al Monitor, where once Circassian associations in Turkey were all about ‘folklore’, the thought that Russia should attain the international spotlight hosting a games upon the very ground where the Caucasian highlanders were massacred has catalysed Circassians to demand recognition of the horrors visited upon their ancestors. With mobilisation has come a sense of unity, of identity; perhaps also a chance to acknowledge some of the agonies of the past and, in so doing, salve them.

The ‘colour revolutions’ continue: Tbilisi, Kiev and beyond

IT IS WELL documented that Georgians love a drink, and it appears that they’re pretty keen on a demonstration, too. Georgia saw a peaceful transition of power with the Rose Revolution in 2003, the first civilian uprising that led to the downfall of an authoritarian and undemocratic regime in the 21st century. Here was an example of popular resistance – citizens brandishing roses, no less – to an out-of-touch regime leading to the ouster of said regime and the bloodless shifting of power and a, seemingly, bright new era of democracy, political openness and development.

Sadly, things didn’t quite turn out that way. Putative wunderkind-president Mikheil Saakashvili grew increasingly autocratic during his years in power, spurring Georgians to returned to the streets and squares in 2009, 2011 and 2012 to remonstrate against his despotic ways. Georgia might now get a chance for a fresh start after the electoral victory of new president Georgi Margvelashvili in October this year.

Georgia was the first of the ‘colour’ revolutions to have unfurled over the last 10 years, first starting in the post-Soviet realm, other notable ones being the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and the Tulip Revolution in Kirghizstan (2005). This penchant for mobilisation amongst diverse and predominantly youthful segments of society was also apparent in the Green Movement that arose in Iran after the disputed presidential election of 2009 and which, to my mind, despite its lack of success in bringing about positive political change, provided template and inspiration for the uprisings across the Middle East since 2011 that have been characterised as the Arab Spring.

tbilisi-squareBut the dream that these revolutions fostered and fed on was greater and brighter and sunnier than the everyday realities that eventuated. Despite successful removal of regimes in Ukraine and Kirghizstan, most of the uprisings haven’t yet amounted to lasting, substantive change. Political change is a gradual process, on a road strewn with pitfalls and unforeseen backtracks, particularly so when institutions are arthritic and when those calling for change come from diverse backgrounds, with often radically different agenda and divergent ideas of how a political future should be constructed, and when new political stakeholders fall into the same traps that befell their predecessors. So it is that Foreign Policy rated the outcomes of the colour revolutions as ‘terribly disappointing’.

The reasons for such ‘terribly disappointing’ results could bear some intense scrutiny and in-depth analysis (looking for a PhD research topic, anyone?) but a quick and dirty analysis might put them down to a lack of robust civil society organs, inability to construct robust democratic institutions, a lack of an educated middle class. Perhaps most telling has been a propensity for the victors to not heed the rule of law, or, alternatively, to appropriate the revolution to their own ends, riding into the presidential palace on a wave of populist enthusiasm which they then ignore or override, pushing through their own agenda once ensconced in the corridors of power. No doubt there is many an Iranian who would describe the events and aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran in just those terms.

Things went awry in a similar way in Ukraine in 2004. The Orange Revolution had a popular momentum. It was seen as evidence of Ukraine’s determination to ‘return’ to the European fold, however this westward lilt was derailed and aspirations to a new, open political arena were never realised. Many Ukrainians have, however, recently decided that they disapprove of the direction that the government of Viktor Yanukovych is taking. Ukrainians have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure. And it seems that a number of Georgians are joining them. Perhaps having recently experienced a peaceful election and a change of government, these Georgians are hankering after a street protest…

All glib remarks aside, it would seem that there are grounds for solidarity between Georgians and Ukrainians, and it is not just a penchant for rabble-rousing that brings people from Tbilisi to join the EuroMaidan protest in Kiev. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been cosseted and smothered by their overbearing neighbour Russia, Georgia depicted by many Russians rather patronisingly as a playground where they may enjoy the beauty of the landscape and tap into a primal spirituality, Ukraine depicted as a bread basket. Georgians bristle as such a characterisation and have shown themselves eager to throw off Russia’s jealous embrace. Georgians are keen to assert their European credentials (a categorisation which in their idiom does not include anything Russian). It would appear that many, if not a majority of, Ukrainians are similarly inclined.

It’s apparent that Yanukovych in his recent (re)turning to the embrace of Russia overstepped the mark, assuming that his own authority allowed him to do what he felt best for the country, despite what the masses wanted. The gatherings in EuroMaidan would suggest an (apparent) majority of the populace would prefer Europe. This was hubris on Yanukovych’s part, a miscalculation as to the weight of his authority. I’m tempted to draw parallels with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan response to the protests in Gezi Park earlier this year. Erdoğan’s hubris, his inflated sense of self-importance, clouded his judgement and fomented a political crisis that might have been avoided if he had paid more attention and given more credence to what punters on the street were saying.

In fact, apart from both being responses to the domineering posturing of Russia, the ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine shared other parallels. An inspiration for many participants in both uprisings was the OTPOR movement that arose in Serbia in the late 1990s as a civic youth movement that used non-violent means to protest against the regime of Slobodan Milošević and that is credited with playing a pivotal role in his eventual downfall. After their success in Serbia OTPOR members provided inspiration and training in methods of non-violent resistance for like-minded groups in the ‘colour revolutions’ that broke out in the former-Soviet realm. OTPOR also inspired activists in the early 2000s in Albania, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and more recently, having morphed into an organisation called CANVAS. Under the direction of Srdja Popovic who was central to the genesis of OTPOR, the same activists and strategies were involved in protests in countries including Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

twitter-graffitiOf course, it’s a favoured tactic of un-democratic or authoritarian regimes to espy foreign plots in any instance of local resistance or dissent. Lazily dismissing discontent as the work of pernicious outside forces is a convenient way of avoiding the hard work of addressing bothersome social and political issues or admitting shortcomings in one’s own administration; it also has the benefit of rallying loyalists to the cause. Russia saw only foreign hands manipulating the ‘colour revolutions’ in the early 2000s, rather than acknowledging that free-thinking citizens of newly independent nations might actually want to strike out on their own. (Indeed, Russia remains convinced that Western governments continue to meddle in the former-Soviet realm.) And in Turkey earlier this year, Prime Minister Erdoğan pointed the finger at unspecified and ill-defined foreign lobby groups, accusing them of fomenting large demonstrations that went on for several weeks. Whether he believed his own cant or if it was a way of galvanising his supporters is difficult to discern, but during my time in Turkey in June I certainly encountered punters who parroted his lines. (I don’t know that Erdoğan is much of a student of local geopolitics, so I’m not sure he’d be that familiar with the ‘colour revolutions’, but he was certainly aware that, at the time that the Gezi protests were continuing, people power removed his buddy Mohammed Mursi from power in Egypt.)

In fact, seeing civic movements of this nature effectively removing unpopular regimes from power only makes unrepresentative governments more stridently blame external agents and foreign governments for all sorts of problems. Such assertions may grow louder as the political equilibrium is shifted. In the various ‘colour revolutions’ and beyond, it is undeniable that foreign nationals have participated and in some instances actively facilitated and organised popular resistance, but that is not to say that foreign governments have worked to undermine rival or neighbouring states on the geopolitical stage. Rather it appears that common aspirations, shared across borders by citizens of many nations, an empathy with others suffering under heavy-handed regimes, is at work and is prompting common people to action.

Neo-Ottomanism hanging in the balance

NEVER ONE alert to treading on toes, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while visiting Prizren  recently, caused a minor diplomatic furor by remarking that ‘Kosovo is Turkey’.

It’s a curious comment, to say the least, but in a region still beset by nationalist sensitivities, and in a territory that the Serbs still see as rightfully theirs, it displays a remarkable lack of diplomatic nouse. Serbia duly demanded an apology for the ‘scandal’ and declared its intention to pull out of tri-partite talks with Turkey and Bosnia, which began to great fanfare in 2010 with the aim of dispelling long-running hostility in the region.

Perhaps on some level Erdoğan has a point. To my interloper’s eye (not having ever visited Kosovo, mind), there are many similarities in landscape, architecture, artistic traditions and modes of everyday life across the Balkans/Turkey/the Caucasus.  In my experience as a visitor, the vibe(s) in Albania/Bosnia/Republika Srpska/Macedonia/northern Greece/Armenia/Georgia is/are not unlike that in Turkey. There may be more lamb and less pork on the grill in certain places, more church spires or minarets in others, but, as I see it, the pace of life, traditions of hospitality, the levels of gregariousness, neighbourliness and conviviality are remarkably consistent.

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Erdoğan riffing on affinities and/or commonalities – however clumsily – doesn’t necessarily equate to aggressive intent (which is how the Serbs have construed his comments), but it’s hardly statesmanlike talk, particularly given the traumatic history and tense geopolitics of Kosovo. Who knows if Erdoğan’s was an off-the-cuff remark, or if is just more evidence of a lack of strategic thinking, and an unhealthy degree of hubris (and thinking that he can say whatever comes into his head without repercussions).

The comment was another hiccup in Turkey’s efforts to buddy up to its neighbours, a policy begun under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and efforts to assume a leadership role in southeastern Europe. Davutoğlu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy began with what appeared self-generating momentum back in the day but has been scuppered in recent years as the Arab Spring has gone haywire. As one Turkish journalist points out, Davutoğlu can rightly claim that events beyond his control, particularly in the Arab world, have meant his aspirations are all but unattainable, but it’s also true that Erdoğan, and his bluntness, have made things less tenable in the case of Syria and now Serbia.

Whether Turkey’s ambitions to be a regional leader were ever realistic is difficult to say. As has been noted, at one time its brisk economic growth and the relative stability of its political arena certainly meant it was well placed, but it appears that any window of opportunity is now firmly slammed shut (or perhaps shattered). Some may breathe a sigh of relief at this, but ambitions on the part of Turkey in its near-abroad need not have been sinister. There has been much talk of neo-Ottomanism as either some post-modern form of imperialism, or at least a desire on the part of the Turks to exact some sort of revenge for earlier territorial and military retreats.

Implicit in such interpretations lies a degree of Islamophobia that construes any proactive Muslim-majority state to be intrinsically hegemonic or expansionary (with missionary intent). But it may be more reasonable to see that at its heart the zero-problems-with-neighbours policy is only neo-Ottoman in the sense that it involves rekindling relations with the states within what was once the Ottoman realm. These are Turkey’s immediate neighbours, so it only makes sense that Turkey enjoys good relations, cooperates on strategic issues and trades with them.

For all of the fallout from Erdoğan’s inopportune comments and the traumas in Syria and Egypt, Turkey maintains good relations with Georgia, and these look set to continue under newly incumbent President Georgy Margvelashvili. Turkey also continues to be a country of opportunity for Greeks fleeing the economic malaise in their own homeland. In recent weeks, Ankara has opened the doors for Greek doctors to practice in Turkey, and in fact it is well documented that increasing numbers of Greeks, many of whom have studied the Turkish language, are finding work in Istanbul and Izmir.

Meanwhile, in a recent diplomatic flurry, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has started patching up relations with Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the stage is now set for neo-neo-Ottomanism.