Orientalism’s Historical Impact on Kurdish Studies

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

Historically, research in Kurdistan and about the Kurds entailed outsiders who have presented Kurdish identity and history to fit within the margins of their Eurocentric worldview and interests. The literature that emerged including travelogues, reports, diaries, novels, and historical writings emerged from the perspective of legitimizing Western imperial objectives and justifying its cultural hegemony, while at the same time endeavoring to teach natives the necessity of accepting Western civilization and culture as superior. In relation to the Kurds, especially around the 19th century, a plethora of scholars, missionaries, cartographers, travelers, diplomats, and anthropologists produced a limited yet highly influential body of literature which profoundly impacted the lived reality, agency, and socio-political status of the Kurds in the Middle East as well as the level of recognition and human rights awarded to them.

Indeed, texts which emerged on the Kurdish question from the 18th, 19th and early 20th century were often written from an orientalist and imperialist lens involving foreign travelers, missionaries, and diplomats who habitually analyzed and presented their understanding of Kurdish culture and identity from a western perspective for western audiences. In fact, this dynamic reflects the ongoing struggle facing Kurdish studies and efforts to de-colonize a field heavily influenced by external views and ‘outside experts’ whose assumptions – and at times outright incorrect conclusions – have profoundly damaged Kurdish studies and contributed to a calcification of harmful and orientalist views of Kurdish history and identity with regards to their nationalist struggle.

As such, the majority of experts have historically been outsiders – speaking in a repetitively similar tone – on the plight and existence of the Kurds to Western audiences, rather than to the Kurds themselves. Post-colonial researchers have argued that much of the body of literature produced in this early period tended to either romanticize, essentialize, exoticize, and over use aesthetic strategies resulting “in the removal of voice and their subaltern positions.” The tropes underscore how the Kurds are “inferior, subservient, and in need of saving.” Yet, these views are more than mere harmful tropes and myths, and indeed have resulted in the production of institutions, policies, and ideas by the Western world towards the Middle East, such as those of the French and the British colonial rule and their disastrous impacts on the Kurds.

Many of these writers, who were often people in positions of power and policy decision making held racist and erroneous views towards the Kurds, plus their identity, aspirations, and hopes. For instance, Major Soane in his 1922 text writes of the Kurds that “with all their backwardness and ignorance, it stands to their credit that in the widespread rising in Mesopotamia of the summer of 1920 it was these people who remained quiet, continued paying their taxes, and even offered assistance against their turbulent neighbours.” In other words, the Kurds are backwards but useful and cooperative to the interests of the British Empire. C.J. Edmond, in his travels calls the Kurds “simple peasants” and applauds the civilizational tactics of the British empire, including but not limited to raining bombs down on the protesting Kurds when they went against those interests. Captain Hay, another British officer in Hewlêr (Erbil) and Rewandiz argued in 1922 that:

“The more I see of the Kurds the more convinced I am that neither do they want nor are they fit for self government… There must be some force present from outside to maintain the balance. The Kurd has the mind of a schoolboy, but not without a schoolboy’s innate cruelty. He requires a beating one day and a sugar plum the next… too much severity or too much spoiling renders him unmanageable… if he sees his master has a cane, he will behave. If he sees two companies of infinitary in Rowanduz, he will become as obedient as you can wish.”

Rosita Forbes, a popular travel writer in early 20th century presents a romanticized yet uncivilized image of Kurdish womanhood when she writes that “the Kurds, whose women seemed all to carry babies on their backs and rifles in their hands, appeared to regard the fighting more as an amusement than anything else.” Likewise, in Kurds, Arabs & Britons: The Memoir of Wallace Lyon in Iraq 1918-44, Major Lyon’s view of the various ethnographic-religious locals is often derogatory and patronizing. Even more recent texts such as Jonathan C. Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters With Kurdistan (1998), argues that “although, the Kurds are unpredictably violent but their sense of humor, brave-ness, and cordiality have made them lovely people.” A combination of stereotypes around the uncivilized native combined with surprised observations around positive traits of the Kurds abound in such texts.

Unsurprisingly, crucial reports on the Kurds which emerged from the Ottoman empire about the Kurds involved analysis which shaped and directly argued for the infantile nature of Kurdish nationalism and for the denial of statehood. For instance, Francis Maunsell’s Kurdistan (1894), Fredrick Millingen’s Wild Life among the Koords (1870) and of course, Mark Syke’s The Kurdish Tribes of the Ottoman Empire (1908), all presented the Kurds as backward, tribal, and primitive – whose existence was rife with intertribal feuding and ceaseless wars with other communities including the Christians and thereby had a negative effect on regional stability and security.

A range of other titles, randomly noted here include The Yezidis: A Strange Survival (1904), Feast of the Devil Worshippers (1943), The Devil Worshippers (1946), The Sheep and the Chevrolet: A Journey through Kurdistan (1947), Through Wild Kurdistan (1962), The Kurdish War (1964), and Children of the Jinn: In Search of the Kurds and Their Country (1980) – which according to Jalil Karimi, Ahmad Mohammadpur, and Karim Mahmoodi in their article Dismantling Kurdish Texts: An Orientalist Approach, promote generalizations and stereotypes which continues to depersonalize and dehumanize the colonized.

The father of Orientalism, Edward Said who produced the ground breaking texts Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993), identified how orientalist writings and texts actively shaped and produced the world and the people that they described, and highlighted the flawed scientific methods and research processes utilized by the orientalist writers on the Middle East. These flawed and stereotyped world views were then used to justify Western imperialism, civilizational projects, and wars, which continue to adversely shape the Middle East and its people. Said also spoke of his unique position as both an insider and an outsider to the Orient in his writings, having been exiled from Palestine in the 1948 Nabka, and then living in Lebanon, Egypt, and finally the United States – through which he had access to elite, British Colonial schools and universities in each country. Ironically, Said has been known for his unfriendly views towards the non-Arab Kurds, who appear to have less of a claim on human rights, justice, and agency as the Arab orient he writes about. For instance, Said, in the early 1990’s advocated support for Saddam’s brutal regime, denying the increasing evidence of his use of chemical weapons on the Kurds, by stating that the Ba’athist use of chemical weapons against the Kurds was “at best…uncertain.” Later, he retracted by arguing that the U.S. “actually supported [Saddam] during the Ba’ath genocide of the Kurds,” displacing blame onto the U.S. and reducing the culpability and responsibility of the Ba’athist regime for its internal policies towards the Kurds.

Of course, despite these issues there are still a number of great works and Western academics who have written profoundly and passionately about the Kurdish issue, without being a Kurd. The following is by no means a comprehensive list nor intended to suggest that the works of these authors are entirely free of issues; nevertheless, the writings of David Mcdowall, Martin Van Bruinessen, Michael M. Gunter, Michael Eppel, Thomas Jeffrey Miley, and Thomas Schmidinger amongst many more present a diversity of issues and concepts discussed around the Kurds.

Returning to the problem at hand, Kurdish researchers are beginning to fill the long-established gap in knowledge about themselves and are increasingly vocal in critiquing the predominance of external voices in Kurdish studies. Kurdish scholars, Bahman Bayangani and Sahar Faeghi in their 2019 article present an astute reflection of the orientalization of Kurdish studies when they posit that:

“One of the important ways of studying of the personality and character of ethnics, nations and cultures is mainly accomplished via the opinions others formed about them. Since the onset of modernity, the West has been always a major other that explored every corner of the world. Along with colonial domination, the West has always tried to study and fathom other cultures in order to establish its domination and hegemony in every respect. Hence, the Kurds, like other Eastern cultures and important cultural groups in the Middle East, have always been the focus of the oriental studies.”

The authors go on to study a number of texts including Claudius James Rich’s Narrative of a Residence in Kurdistan (1836), and conclude that external voices writing about the Kurds often engage in a number of orientalist research practices, including stereotyping. Because of this, methods of “idealization, rituals of degradation, misrecognizing difference and exoticism” were consistently used by early researchers of Kurdish identity.

Other Kurdish researchers, such as Zeynap Kaya in her 2021 book chapter entitled Orientalist Views of Kurds and Kurdistan, have maintained a similar position, arguing that:

“Western conception of national identity was based on views that for a community to be considered as a nation, it needs to have a certain level of development, unified political leadership and a sense of shared identity and interest. However, Kurds were seen as a tribalistic, divided and underdeveloped society… such views exhibit uncanny resemblances to the Turkish views of the Kurds in the early 21st century.”

The study of harmful contribution and impact of orientalist perspectives and research practices in Kurdish studies is a still newly emerging field of research. The early researchers in the field of Kurdish studies, their biases and assumptions, and their objectivity and research integrity have influenced the ways in which knowledge is constructed and presented to the Western audience about Kurdishness. That is not to say that insider researchers embedded in their own culture are also not affected by “over-identification” subjectivity and biased approaches of course. Here critical reflections on ‘positionality’ and ‘insider-outsider’ theory on research in the field of Kurdish studies is quite pertinent.

Outsider views of Kurdistan and the Kurds have often been harmful and detrimental to the rights, identity, culture, and nationalist aspirations of the Kurds. They have served the empire and civilizational objectives of the Western world with little to no thought to the reality and the needs of the colonized. The disastrous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and Lausanne Treaty of 1922 were the outcomes of the racist and colonial agendas of the British and French rulers and overseers who determined the future and very humanity of the Kurds with an ignorant, entitled, and racist brushstroke which continues to terrorize and massacre the Kurds decades later.

As a Kurdish woman and academic, I cannot help but be influenced by a deep desire to see more scholarship on the Kurds from the perspective of fellow Kurds, including most essentially that of Kurdish women’s voices along with other intra-minority groups such as the Yazidis. Undoubtedly, expert non-Kurdish voices and academics have contributed profoundly to Kurdish studies – yet it is undeniable that the dominance of external experts and scholars does have an impact on the field. The research on positionality and insider vs. outsider research favors the more scholarly and less naïve nature of external researchers imbedded within a culture. Yet, we must question the inherent basis that is tacitly or implicitly reproduced within Kurdish studies, when its foundations are so profoundly orientalist as well as the ongoing heavy dominance of external voices and reflections on the Kurds.

Considering this long history of erasure, state-imposed silence, and violent assimilationist policies towards the Kurds, academic spaces that provide platforms to present and amplify the voices of Kurdish academics are important to avoid some of the past mistakes in research into Kurdish studies. For example, a few weeks ago a seminal Kurdish studies conference was held at the London School of Economics, where over 100 predominantly Kurdish academics, including many young and women researchers, were able to present their research, network, connect, share ideas, and organize future research projects. Such platforms are integral in allowing Kurdish voices, views, and subjectivities to emerge to fill the long-established silence that has predominated Kurdish studies.

It is time that the Kurds reclaimed and re-analyzed their colonized history and engaged in an urgently required and morally necessary revision of their past. It is time that the Kurds spoke of their own oppression, but also their resistance in their own terms, analyzing their lived history and culture with all of its limitations and mistakes. This reckoning must occur and be done by the Kurds in their own words, their own tongues, and their own vision. Their scars are testaments to their validity, and nobody understands a pain better than the ones who suffered through it. Like other colonized communities, they are dismantling the internalized need to have a prominent privileged outsider speak for them and of them, and thereby continue the historical practice of erasure and silencing. The subaltern must speak, and she is ready and willing if only the world would just listen.


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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