Every year, Kurdish journalists and people across the four regions of Greater Kurdistan celebrate Kurdish Journalism Day on the 22nd of April to commemorate the publication of the first Kurdish newspaper, ‘Kurdistan’. Such celebrations are important, because one of the major forms of repression that the Kurds have experienced across Kurdistan has involved suppression of language – both in the spoken and written form. This repression has had significant impacts on the capacity of the Kurds to articulate their nationalist and liberationist aspirations, organize protests or popular uprisings, and raise awareness of the plight of their people. Consequently, previous and shocking events such as genocides, ethnic cleansing, or the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds were either unknown outside the colonial borders imposed upon them, or spoken about through external voices who never understood the true pain of the Kurdish experience.
The first issue of the Kurdish newspaper ‘Kurdistan’ was published on April 22nd, 1898 in Cairo, Egypt 125 years ago. ‘Kurdistan’ marked a watershed moment in the Kurd’s expression of their nationalist aspirations, and their desire to prepare for the possibility of the emergence of a Kurdish state. This publication heralded a new era, in which efforts across the four parts of Kurdistan were made for decades to come articulating the cause of Kurdish liberation. The publishing of ‘Kurdistan’, therefore, can be seen as the singular moment in modern Kurdish history where existing nationalist sentiments were coordinated and presented to a wider Kurdish and international audience for the first time, and aided in sustaining the narrative of a separate Kurdish identity, maintaining cultural and linguistic distinctiveness as well as stimulating nationalist consciousness. Predictably, Ottoman forces ensured that the publication was eventually not only stopped, but also forced into exile; first from Cairo to Geneva, then to London, and later to Folkstone, England.
Nevertheless, the commencement of print press revolutionized Kurdish society from a traditional, feudal and tribal one, to a modern political party model where organized structures and systems came into place to articulate a coherent and an increasingly more sophisticated expression of the Kurd’s aspirations for freedom. Therefore, the celebrations of April 22nd each year are a triumphant commemoration of overcoming decades of struggle, erasure, and resistance on behalf of Kurdish identity and voices.
Why the Lag in Kurdish Publications?
According to Kurdish scholars, even though the Kurds originate from and still reside in the region where writing itself was established, the historical lack of a written culture of their own has exponentially affected their capacity to express themselves, present their nationalist and collectivist aspirations, or even preserve their language. Historically, the Kurds were often educated in, and wrote in the dominant languages of the region, including Persian, Arabic, or Turkish. A number of prominent Kurdish poets and scholars were crucial in noticing the absence of Kurdish printing presses and publications. According to the preeminent Kurdish linguist Amir Hassanpour :
“Castigating domination by the Ottoman, Persian and Arab states, the two apostates of Kurdish nationalism, the mullahs and poets Ehmede Khani (1651-1706) and Haji Wadiri Koyi (1817?-97), argued that the Kurds could achieve sovereignty only if they possessed both a literate tradition, the pen, and state power, the sword: Nevertheless, the oral traditional continued to dominate and remain authentically the major form of Kurdish poetic and literary self-expression.”
By the 19th century, the Kurds trailed significantly behind the Persians, Arabs, and Turks in the scope of their written literary traditions. Many of the Kurds remained peasant farmers, nomads, or pastoralists which meant that they had a relatively lower rates of literacy. According to Hassanpour, in 1927 the rates of illiteracy for Kurds in Bakur (Northern Kurdistan) was as high as 97% – almost total illiteracy. Additionally, the small class of literate people, including a small number of women, came predominantly from the clerical groups, as well as the landed nobility or scribes. This indicates that not only that education was extremely limited, but education and literacy only extended to the upper echelons of Kurdish society. The peasant class continued to rely on the oral traditional to convey poetry or bayt / qewl (ballads), such as Mem u Zin, Dim Dim or Khej u Siyamend in translated Persian, and Arabic ballads such as Shekhi Sen’an, Leyli u Mejnun, Yusif u Zilekha, and Mihr u Wefa amongst others.
When the Kurdish newspaper ‘Kurdistan’ was published 125 years ago, the first foundation of the Kurdish media was laid. The four-page Kurdish newspaper, published by Mîqdat Mîdhat Bedirxan in Cairo, Egypt, would go on to publish a total of 31 issues over the next four-years until 1902. It was printed at the time when Cairo was still part of the Ottoman Empire and launched a new era of Kurdish struggle for political and cultural freedom. Importantly, the newspaper was also free to its readers, allowing it to reach anyone interested. Yet the tragic end of the publication is also indicative of the challenges that Kurdish media would continue to face for the next century under the repressive centralized states that control and occupy the Kurds.
The Rise of the State
With the fall of the Ottoman and Persian principalities and the rise of nation-states in the region, the capacity of governments to control and limit the growth of a written tradition across occupied Kurdistan increased exponentially. In Turkey from the 1920’s onwards, Iran from the 1920s and 1930s, and Syria from the 1960s, heavy repression of the Kurdish language was enacted both in the written and oral traditions.
The respective governments saw all print presses and machinery as dangerous tools that could empower the Kurds into greater levels of self-representation and unity. All efforts were made to prevent the Kurds from acquiring printing press machines, through regular house searches, late night raids, and arrests of individuals and journalists. Worse, the readers were often even more persecuted than the publishers. In ‘Kurdistan’, no. 13, p.2 a reader is quoted as saying that: “government officials do not let it be read freely; they search to find it with a person and put him in jail and harass him; in spite of this, Kurds like the journal very much and do not want to miss it.” The case of ‘Kurdistan’ demonstrates the challenges and barriers that self-expressions of Kurdish identity presented to the colonial powers in the region, well before the fateful signing of the Sykes-Picot (1916) or Treaty of Lausanne (1923).
The creation of a print tradition also required extensive funding, equipment, technology, capital, and human resources amongst a vast number of other needs – something that was nearly impossible for the Kurds without the support of a central government. Likewise, besides the significant cost of publishing, the distribution processes also faced significant problems as the only method relied on government postal and delivery systems, which were heavily controlled by the occupying states. Often, essential supplies such as printing papers or other tools would need replacing, leading to extensive months-long delays and setbacks. Additionally, the illegalization of all representations of the Kurdish language including “the right to read, to print, to publish, to own print material, to listen to the radio, to watch television”, ensured that there was a lack of awareness of the publications even existing. This significantly reduced demand for Kurdish printed content, as many Kurds also legally feared having copies of Kurdish newspapers and periodicals in their possessions, even if they did wish to become regular readers.
The first Kurdish press in Kurdistan was established by the British Mandate in the city of Sulaymaniyah (Silêmanî) in 1920. According to Hassanpour:
“The old hand-operated letterpress called the Government Press printed six books, 118 issues of the weekly Peshkewtin (‘Progress’), fourteen issues of Bangi Kurdistan (‘The Voice of Kurdistan’), and sixteen of Rozhi Kurdistan (‘The Day of Kurdistan’) between 1920-1923. Together with two schools, the press was the most important intellectual possession of the autonomous government of Sheykh Mahmud, who rebelled against Baghdad several times and declared himself King of Kurdistan.”
Considering the decades of deliberate impoverishment across Greater Kurdistan and lacking the social and economic development required (such as wide literacy levels), it is no wonder that there is such a relative lag. Where the appropriate print presses existed in Kurdish regions, they belonged to the governments in charge, who obviously utilized them to publish propaganda justifying their rule and in their own dominant national languages. For example, print presses existed in the Kurdish cities of Sanandaj and Mahabad in Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan) in 1920 and the 1950s respectively, but they were not permitted to publish in Kurdish (with the exception of a few religious texts).
For this reason, from Cairo to Istanbul to Baghdad, the first Kurdish publications resided outside of the boundaries of Kurdistan, because the mechanisms for publishing only existed in the major cities. A number of reasons were responsible for this trend, including lax censorship in major cities and the utilization of printing presses by Kurdish nationalists in exile with support from wealthy Kurdish merchants.
In Iran, the first Kurdish text was a Kurdish-Persian dictionary that appeared in 1885, using the lithographic method. However, it was not until the Kurdish leader Simko Shikak (1887-1930), seized a printing machine in Ûrmiye in 1921, that Kurdish material began to appear more widely. However, Imperial Iran would eventually ban all non-Persian (Kurdish, Baluch, Arabic, and Turkish) publications. Following the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, the atmosphere relaxed somewhat. But not for the Kurds, with Kurdish political parties publishing in secret, mainly in Tabriz. By the time Qazi Muhammad declared the Mahabad Republic in 1946, there were literally no printing press capacities in any of the Kurdish regions. Hassanpour notes that, “The Iranian government officially protested to the Soviet Union for providing the Kurds with ‘one printing press and a great deal of newssheet paper.’” From that period on, many challenges were faced by the Rojhilati Kurd’s efforts at printing news, articles, nationalist thoughts, and aspirations. Despite this, the first Kurdish book was still published in Bokan in early 1946. Both presses were used extensively to publish periodicals to inform, educate, and unite the Kurds across Rojhilat. The Kurds of Bashur (Southern Kurdistan) in north Iraq are noted to have supported and aided in the process by operating the machinery.
Yet, it was not until the 1979 revolution that the Kurds of Rojhilat seized access to printing presses. By the 1980s, several Kurdish cities had acquired the machines, through people donating to relevant parties or groups. Sadly, soon after this process would come to a brutal end under the Islamic Iranian regime, and all Kurdish publications would be banned.
In Turkey, soon after the establishment of the duplicitous Turkish state in 1923, all representations of Kurdish language and culture were banned, including not only in its oral form – speaking Kurdish in the street, school, public places – but also in all its written forms. It has only been in the last decade or so that there has been a slight relaxation of the repression of Kurdish language in its written and oral form – though regular murder and violent beatings of Kurds unlucky enough to be heard speaking Kurdish occurs far too regularly.
Additionally, the revolutionary struggles of individuals and nationalists’ efforts to continue to print content that would aid in uniting the people is of significance here. The example of Sheykh Mahmoud is a case in point. After declaring himself the King of Kurdistan, tensions between the region and the central government resulted in the sheikh being exiled from the city into the mountainous countryside. The single precious printing machine given by the British to the city was taken with him and kept in the infamous caves of Jasana in the Surdash mountains. Astonishingly, this allowed three issues of the journal Bangi Haq (‘the Voice of Truth) to be printed. Following the end of the revolt, the sheikh moved back to the city, again carrying the machine with him – which had sustained damage in the move. Soon after the machine was repaired, a new weekly newspaper called Umedi Istiqbal (‘Hope for Independence’) was published in 1923. Such publications were crucial in promoting the nationalist aspirations of the Kurds, as well as organizing armed resistance against the central government.
Individuals were also responsible for spreading printed books and magazines as private enterprises funded and organized by themselves. In 1926 for example, the Kurdish nationalist Huzni Mukriyani, apparently bought an outdated press machine and transferred it by mule from Syria to Rewandiz. Along with his brother, Mukriyani printed 23 books, which at the time totaled 24% of the total “ninety-five Kurdish books published in Iraq by 1938.” They also published a magazine titled Zari Kurmanji (‘The Kurdish Language’) between 1926-30. The efforts of the brilliant Kurdish nationalist poet and journalist Piramerd are also worthy of note. Piramerd personally purchased an ancient hand-held press and began publishing the weekly magazine Zhin (‘life’) from September 1937, which was not only popular but also deeply influential.
Kurdish Nationalism and the Press
It is interesting to lightly detour towards some relevant theory – specifically that of three men: Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Benedict Anderson. When Ernest Gellner in his book Nations and Nationalism argued that ‘nationalism’ created the ‘nation’, the overall implication of nationalism was one of artificiality. To Gellner, nationalism is a false, alienating, and constructed concept – although many Kurds may have a totally different perspective. The other major theorist in the field, Eric Hobsbawm, author of The Invention of Tradition, sees nationalism as simply another constructed tradition and downplays the notion of the nation and nationalism. Both scholars agreed that nationalism was essentially over or well on its way towards being over. This is where Anderson differs.
Benedict Anderson’s remarkable contribution to the theory of nationalism in his seminal work Imagined Communities, saw nationalism as dynamic, evolving, and unpredictable phenomena that is far from extinct. Moreover, Anderson explicitly notes the importance of a printing culture in creating, promoting, and maintaining a common identity. This is the interesting part that relates closest to our case of the publication of ‘Kurdistan’ at hand. Anderson defined nationalism as a community like any religious or ideological affiliated group, and hence implied that nationalism is a political community. A community in which changes, say in the establishment of print culture, can have significant and profound impacts in uniting and merging a community even further. As a result:
“Print capitalism, even in largely illiterate communities, allows for a record to be kept and mythology to be created for the posterity of the nation. It also allows for a wider transmission of nationalistic ideas and the greater sense of community spread over great distances.”
Authors Mehran Tamadonfar and Roman Lewis, in their book Kurds and Their Struggle for Autonomy: Enduring Identity and Clientelism (2022), back this statement, when they argue that the importance of the media cannot be underestimated for preserving Kurdish identity and nationalism. They note that Kurdish mass media:
“Served as an important and effective tool of political mobilization. As in the past, even today they continue to frame, nurture, and maintain the boundaries of Kurdish national identity…they help connect Kurds of the region and greater diaspora to shared cultural symbols, practices, and political orientations. In fact, Kurdish mass media and modern communication technologies have played a crucial role in facilitating the nationalist movements of the twentieth century and successive uprisings in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.”
The Kurds are the largest nation in the world without a state of their own. Further, the division of the Kurds across the four states of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey ensures that they do not adhere to classical and traditional views of nationalism. In other words, the notion of “one people, one consciousness and culture, one territory, one movement.” Returning to Hassanpour, he argues that: “Since the appearance of the first Kurdish newspaper in 1898, the Kurds have experienced a transition from a predominantly oral and scribal tradition to a print, audio-visual, and electronic culture.” In other words, a crucial transformation occurred in the way in which Kurds viewed themselves. In light of the rising trends of nationalism and the influence of the French and British’s end in sight, the Kurdish nationalists knew they had to take a significant step forward in presenting their case for a nation-state of their own. It is no surprise then that in the very first publication of ‘Kurdistan’, Miqdad Badirkhan astutely wrote that:
“The Kurdish people, unfortunately, are not as literate and rich as other nations. They are unaware of what is happening around them…In this newspaper, the benefits of science and information are discussed: from where people learn, in which place there is war, the stance of world powers and how they fight, and how trades are done, will all be published here.”
Since then, the treatment of Kurdish newspapers, journals, periodicals, literature, and poetry, as well as the journalists, academics, scholars, writers, and poets producing them – has been one of intense repression, exile, imprisonment, and outright murder. It takes great courage to this day to be a Kurdish academic and writer, coming from the long legacy of oppressive erasure of Kurdish voices. Many Kurdish journalists such as Mikdad Mithad Bedirxan, Gurbetelli Ersöz, Deniz Fırat, Nujiyan, Apê Mûsa, and Cengiz Altun, have been imprisoned, tortured, or killed for their work. Moreover, even Kurdish teachers have died, or been imprisoned and tortured across Kurdistan in order to preserve the written and oral forms of the language.
The emergence of ‘Kurdistan’, and the subsequent challenges faced in the Kurdish press, publishing, news, and literary spheres demonstrates challenges the Kurds have faced in presenting their own political aspirations within their community. But it also highlights the resilience of Kurdish academics, journalists, and scholars to promote the voice of Kurds, and unite them across Greater Kurdistan to continue to resist the repressive and colonial forces which strive to silence their identity.
Yet, at the time of writing, the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan still resides in solitary confinement, where he has languished for the past two+ decades on the Turkish Island of Imrali. His articulation of an internationalist and sophisticated vision for Kurdish liberation under the banner of democratic confederalism was created under intense duress, and smuggled documents out of his prison cell. Much of the Kurdish media remains unfree in Iran and Turkey, while Kurdish activists and teachers such as Zara Mohammadi were sentenced to five years in Iranian prison (freed suddenly after a year); and Kurdish singer Nudem Durak is currently sentenced to 10 years in a Turkish jail. In October 2022, nine journalists were jailed in Turkey from the Mezopotamya Agency (MA) and Jin News in Bakur. As a result, the extensive list of journalists and Kurds in jail for the crime of speaking, writing, or even singing about Kurdishness in Iran and Turkey cannot be fully counted.
In Rojava, since the establishment of the AANES, their self-administration has allowed press freedoms not seen elsewhere in Kurdistan, so a significant amount of Kurdish media outlets are allowed the space to exist and thrive. There are still contentious issues however, in relation to allowing all kinds of voices to be represented, including proxy factions openly allied with Turkey who is constantly carrying out attacks on Rojava and occupying Afrin. This is a question that the AANES needs to resolve as democratically as possible. However, the situation in Bashur remains worrying, with press freedom limited, and journalists and writers routinely threatened, jailed, and in some cases murdered. Nevertheless, with the rise of the internet, sophisticated phone technologies, wide availability of VPNs and so on, most news articles can be accessed by readers in even the most remote villages.
What is clear is that similar to the Kurdish nationalist struggle, many challenges have been imposed and surmounted by revolutionary Kurds, who have heroically endeavored to raise the voice of the Kurds in print internally and externally. For this reason, protecting journalistic integrity, the safety of journalists, and allowing a plethora of voices and ideas to be presented is the best way to honor the struggles and those voices of Kurds who have sacrificed across the decades. Journalists also have an ethical duty to adhere to journalistic integrity and ethics, while ensuring that the truth takes paramount importance above all other factors. Kurdish journalists still retain significant influence over the opinions and nationalist sentiments of Kurds. For this reason, ensuring their safety but also the fulfillment of their moral and ethical duties to the people is vital.
The first action a human does when born is announce their voice by crying. Likewise, the Kurdish people 125 years ago rang out the first printed demand for freedom, a plea which is still echoing throughout Bakur, Bashur, Rojava, and Rojhilat – where 40+ million Kurds remain occupied and often silenced. But they will not be able to silence the Kurdistan forever.
- Hassanpour, A. (1996). “The Creation of Kurdish Media Culture” in Kurdish Culture and Identity. Eds: Kreyenbroek, P., & Allison Christine. Biddles Ltd: United Kingdom. p. 49
- Ibid. p.57. ↑
- Ibid. 59. ↑
- Ibid. 52. ↑
- Ibid. 55. ↑
- Ibid. 53. ↑
- Halliday, F. (2006). “Can we Write a Modernist History of Kurdish Nationalism?”, in The Kurds: Nationalism and Politics. Eds: Faleh, A. Jabar & Hosham Dawod, p. 19). ↑