Reviewing ‘Kurdish Culture and Identity’

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

The book ‘Kurdish Culture and Identity’ edited by Philip Kreyenbroek and Christine Allison and published in 1996, is an important work in the repository of works written about Kurdish culture, history, and identity. It arose from the milieu of the 1990s, which proved to be one of the most important and productive periods in the production of texts around the Kurdish issue. Influenced by the devastation of the Saddam regime’s genocidal al-Anfal Campaign – that brought the horrors of Halabja’s chemical weapons attack on the Kurds to the world stage – works such as this aimed to fill the gap in Kurdish Studies at a time when the Kurdish people’s very existence was under assault.

The forced migrations, ethnic cleansing, and destruction of Kurdish history throughout Southern Kurdistan (north Iraq) by Saddam’s forces in the late 1980s, the Iranian regime’s fatwa and military attacks on the Kurds of Eastern Kurdistan (northwest Iran) following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the systematic destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages by the Turkish military across the border in Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) in the 1990s, created an urgency to fill the significant gap in literature on Kurdish identity, while it still existed. Indeed, in many ways the world was coming to know of the existence of the Kurds for the first time, albeit shrouded in a cloud of tragedy and intense human suffering, which has for better or worse continued to influence research on the Kurds ever since.

As the world began to ask the question “who are the Kurds?” and “why are they so deeply oppressed?” a number of important texts emerged, which I would label “recognition literature”. These works were produced with the aim of ‘humanizing’ the Kurds and presenting them as ‘unique’ and ’special’ – and indeed even existing in the first place – and hence worthy of international recognition and protection. For example, Mehrdad R. Izady’s 1992 seminal text The Kurds: A Concise Handbook helped to pave the way for a number of similar introductory texts to emerge on the Kurdish issue. ‘Kurdish Culture and Identity’ follows in a similar vein as Izady’s text in presenting a generalized analysis and introduction to a range of Kurdish topics to a newly emerging Western audience. Producing this book during such a difficult geopolitical terrain and period for the Kurds, and in an environment which lacked scholarly work to draw from, was an admirable job executed by the editors.

As noted, the text falls within the boundary of ‘generalist’ ethnographic manuscripts in which various aspects of Kurdish identity and culture are presented in generalized terms. The chapters range in focus from an introduction of Kurdish history, to an examination of Kurdish media culture (written and oral), to an analysis of various religions and sects, and an outline of Kurdish customs, rugs, and kilms. It therefore should be approached by the reader as a broad introductory text to the Kurdish issue. Considering the date of publication, the text also contains historical facts and details about the struggle of the Kurds across a range of issues and their endeavors to protect and preserve their unique identity.

Positively, the book presents a wealth of historical facts and information that will be relevant to students new to Kurdish studies. Having said that, there is also a sparseness to the content presented that could be a result of the lack of wider Kurdish scholarship and academics at the time. Another explanation could be that the majority of authors are not Kurds, and thus perhaps lacking in the esoteric common cultural knowledge that members of the Kurdish community acquire over years of being part of the community. For instance, ten chapters are presented, including the introduction by the editors. However, out of the eleven authors whose views are presented on a multitude of topics, only three are of Kurdish origin. And while it is true that one’s personal identity does not automatically confer authority or accuracy, the voices doing the speaking should be scrutinized within the wider historical context of Kurdish studies, which remains a heavily colonized and fetishized field of study.

The last three chapters in the book, including “Kurdish Costume: Regional Diversity and Divergence” by Maria T. O’Shea, “Kurdish Rugs and Kelims: An Introduction” by William Eagleton and “Kurdish Material Culture in Syria” by Karin Kren, present general information about various aspects of Kurdish existence and culture catered to new audiences who were only then coming to know of the Kurds. As a result, much of the knowledge presented in these last few chapters is material many Kurdish people would already be familiar with and add little to the Kurd’s own understanding of themselves and their culture. Incidentally, these are the weakest chapters in the book as they resort to descriptive presentation of issues such as Kurdish dress or rugs. There is little theoretical analysis of the cultural significance of various customs, geographical implications, or identity demarcating aspects of Kurdish kilms or rugs for instance. Izady’s ‘The Kurds’, in contrast presents a much more theoretical and anthropologically sound reflection of these issues and their implications.

The publishers note that for the Kurds, “their struggles for international recognition may ultimately depend on their ability to convince the world that they have their own valid and mature identity.” In this regard, this book falls under the “recognition” literature involved in attempting to humanize and introduce Kurds as worthy of recognition and statehood or at least basic human rights. Consequently, the chapters presented attempt to engage in this process, even by utilizing cultural tropes and elements such as the Kurds producing beautiful and unique cultural costumes or kilms. Though it should be said that the fine line between genuine appreciation and unintentional caricature can be tricky and can be in the eye of the beholder.

In the introduction, the editors Kreyenbroek and Allison note two important issues. Firstly, they highlight the importance of identifying the uniqueness of Kurdish culture as separate from those surrounding and often oppressing them. And secondly, there is a distinct lack of information about what this ‘culture’ entails. They note that: “the Western image of the Kurds focuses on the fact that they are fighting to preserve their identity, but ignores what is perhaps the most vital component of that identity, namely Kurdish culture.” They go on to highlight that this level of ignorance of Kurdish culture is unfortunate since it means that “they are living with a one-sided, distorted image of the Kurds and are denied the opportunity to learn more about an ancient, dynamic and fascinating civilization.” As is often the case with books on the Kurds, there is the explicit re-iteration of catering to a Western audience but also romanticizing of the Kurdish issue.

The above issue relates to and is deeply influenced by the tradition of erasure and silencing of Kurdish voices and identity by the surrounding occupying regimes, which the book itself strongly refers to. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strongest chapters in the book include that of the renowned Kurdish linguist and professor Amir Hassanpour’s in-depth presentation of the Kurd’s establishment of a media culture in his chapter “The Creation of Kurdish Media Culture”, in which historical developments are presented across all four parts of Greater Kurdistan.

Another Kurdish academic from Rojhilat, Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s chapter titled “Faith, Ritual and Culture among the Ahl-e Haqq” is deeply informative and enriching. It is easy to reduce this astonishing chapter into a discussion around Kurdish media culture. But there is so much more to the insightful breadth and range of knowledge Hassanpour so effortlessly presents, including that of the development of literary magazines, television, radio, cinema and the development of an atmosphere that enriched intellectual life across not only the four main parts of Kurdistan, but also the diaspora and the Soviet Union.

The third Kurd in the list, Kendal Nezan, the director of the prestigious Institute de Paris, presents a great sweeping chapter entitled “The Kurds: Current Positions and Historical Background”, which highlight the current political and nationalist struggle of the Kurds across Kurdistan. Nezan’s poetics in presenting the historical oppression of the Kurds and their heroic and unwavering struggle to resist violent assimilation policies of the regimes around them stand out especially. As an example, Nezan writes how:

“Kurdish culture has been assailed, banished and stifled. Yet it was able to survive a century of intolerant nationalisms and the wars, deportations and massacres they generated. Lacking freedom of public expression, persecuted in the towns, Kurdish culture took refuge in the privacy of family life and in the countryside, where it remained possible to preserve the language, music, religions and beliefs, oral literature, and those habits and customs which form the specific Kurdish cultural identity.”

He goes on to conclude his chapter beautifully by arguing that:

“As this century is coming to an end, Kurdish culture is in bad shape indeed. But there is no such thing as an inexorable fate, and not all illnesses are mortal- indeed, most can be cured with medical science. It is also a fact that the Kurds, being a mountain people, are known for their sturdy constitution, their endurance and vitality.”

I found his words to be a hopeful and powerful way to conclude a discussion around the wide range of violence and oppressions that the Kurds had suffered to date at the time of publishing, and that where there is hope and resistance there can only be a surmounting and an end to that oppressive state of existence.

Elsewhere, Kreyenbroek’s chapter “Religion and Religions in Kurdistan”, presents a comprehensive and detailed account of not only the multitude of religions and sects that exist across Kurdistan, but also spiritual practices, myths, customs, and social structures which are deeply enlightening. Finally, the chapter titled “Old and New Oral Traditions in Badinan” by Christine Allison is also illuminating and deeply educational. It should also be noted that the editors Philip Kreyenbroek and Christina Allison, of course, conduct a wonderfully thorough job of editing and pulling the whole text together.

Certainly, considering the complicated and multifaceted nature of the Kurdish people’s existence across the four borders of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria ensures that studying the complex and ancient people of Kurdistan is not an easy ethnographic task. Additionally, the era in which this text was produced ensured that Kurdish experts on the Kurdish issue were a rarity rather than the norm. And while this text presents some important analysis and information about the Kurds, the limitations which weaken it somewhat are still very much present in contemporary studies of Kurdish identity, politics, and culture. However, each work must be viewed within the nuance of when it was written, and 1996 was a different world in the realm of Kurdish Studies. Thankfully, monumental gains and shifts in how Kurdish stories are told have been made since then, which includes a new generation of Kurdish scholars who are now able to write about their own lived experiences, rather than observed phenomena as an outsider.

With all of that said however, despite its imperfections, Kurdish Studies must also recognize the early works such as this one which paved the way for the current canon of Kurdish scholarship which we now enjoy. A people’s history that has been subsumed for centuries cannot be recovered in a generation, and every early book such as this is and was another step on the ladder that the Kurds need to climb in order to rise out of the literary abyss that their occupiers have tried to bury them under.


  • 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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