Who will write the Kurdish epic?

Kurdistan Regional Government

Prime Minister Barham Salih

Article Highlights

  • Despite claims of its ruling family, Iraqi Kurdistan's greatest achievement is solidifying a safe place for the expression of Kurdish culture

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  • Kurdistan's history is far deeper than Saddam Hussein's ethnic cleansing or the Kurdish struggle in Turkey

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  • The Kurds may have no friends but the mountains, but what they have witnessed over centuries and millennium is truly amazing

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In one of his last acts as prime minister, Barham Salih symbolically launched the Aras Publishing House’s book fair in Erbil. The event featured important Kurdish classics, translations of Western works, as well as children’s books. Book fairs are important. Despite the claims of its ruling family, Iraqi Kurdistan’s greatest achievement is neither democracy nor economic development—these are too marred by corruption and mismanagement—but rather solidifying a safe place for the expression of Kurdish culture.

While Kurdistan boasts some fine historians—most prominently Nuri Talabani and the more meticulous but under-appreciated Akram Salih Rasha—it lacks a mechanism to transmit the Kurdish narrative to the broader public. History remains poorly taught throughout the Middle East, but especially in Iraq. Teachers recite litanies of names and dates. Treatment of political leaders often has less to do with history and more to do with hagiography. Kurdish officials may swear fealty to their leaders, but such allegiance does not cross cultures. To outside eyes, Kurdish praise of the Barzani family sounds suspiciously like Syrian praise of the Assads, Egyptians extolling the Mubaraks, or Libyans embracing the Qadhafis. Indeed, the more Kurds glorify the Barzanis, the less hope they have to encourage a true appreciation of Kurdish culture.

"The Barzanis and Talabanis are important historical figures, but they represent only a single chapter in a much larger tale."--Michael Rubin

For most Americans and Europeans, the Kurdish narrative revolves around two issues: Either Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing and the Anfal; or the Kurdish struggle in Turkey. Yet, Kurdish history is far deeper. Few driving past Dokan toward Sulaymani, for example, realize that the half-destroyed fortress along the river dates back to the Soran Emirate, nor do even Kurds who visit Amadiya realize that in the valley between that mountaintop town and Sulav Spring lays the remains of a centuries-old madrasa hidden under decades of vegetation. While Kurdish authorities seek to preserve the citadel in Erbil, they have turned a blind eye as bulldozers destroy the old Jewish quarter between the Erbil ‘Sheraton’ and the bazaar behind the old fruit market. Corrupt authorities in Sulaymani have allowed much of that city’s cultural heritage to be razed in an orgy of unregulated property development. The Kurdish administration is not alone in allowing the loss of its heritage, During the UN’s Oil-for-Food, European UN workers looted archaeological mounds and walked away with Seljuq-era artifacts; the UN has refused to compel the return of property its employees stole.

Too many Kurds assume that non-Kurds recognize the diversity and depth of their culture. Few outside Kurdistan do, however. For socio-economic and linguistic reasons, many Kurdish communities in Europe self-segregate. European racism compounds the problem. Kurdish missions abroad also do not educate. In Washington, for example, the Danish, Finnish, and Hungarian embassies all sponsor exhibits highlighting their culture and history, and transform their national days into celebrations of culture which transcend politics. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s office in Washington, in contrast, limits its outreach to the broader public when it treats Nowruz festivities as a mechanism to make money rather than to celebrate and educate.

Historical and cultural education, however, need not be government directed. Popular literature is a prime means to explore history, both to the subject population itself and to the wider world. During World War II, a 30-something U.S. Navy lieutenant named James Michener was assigned to the South Pacific theater of operations. He visited many islands, and kept copious notes as he explored the local culture. In 1947, he published Tales of the South Pacific, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year. Thus began a storied writing career which took Michener across the globe, from Afghanistan to Alaska, and from Colorado to the Caribbean. His style was to pick a single location and to use it as a backdrop for a historical epic. The Source, for example, took as its inspiration Tel Makor, a fictional but composite archaeological site in modern day Israel. Chapters explored each period in the settlement’s history, from the stone age to the pre-monotheistic period, and then from the Kingdom of David through the Greek and Roman Empires, and then from the Crusades to the Mamluk period and Palestine as part of the Ottoman Empire, before moving onto the modern day. The stories are linked because the families of the central characters are constant, rising and falling through time according to the circumstances. The granddaughter in one story might be the great grandmother in the next.

Other authors have replicated Michener’s style. Edward Rutherford has used the same formula to pen epics set in England, Ireland, Russia, and New York.  Herman Wouk, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952, in the early 1990s penned a two volume history of Israel tracing the fortunes of fictional characters attached as aides to famous historical figures. Alex Haley’s Roots, also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, told a generation-by-generation story of his family from the time his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte was seized in West Africa through generations of slavery in the United States, emancipation, and subsequent life. Aired as a television miniseries in 1977, Roots won nine Emmy Awards, and sparked not only an interest in genealogy which continues in America to the present day, but also a tourism boom in West Africa.

The Kurds may have no friends but the mountains, but what the mountains have witnessed over centuries and millennium is truly amazing. From the Median Empire through the Assyrian and Babylonian periods, the area now called Kurdistan has been a melting pot and a battlefield for history. Arabs, Persians, and Turks all swept through the region. The Turkmen today are descendants of Ottoman governors, military officers, and administrators who received land grants as pay. Whereas Iraqis and Westerners both know about Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s uprisings against Iraqi officials, few know the stories associated with Sheikh Ubaydullah’s raids in both Ottoman and Persian territory in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Barzanis and Talabanis are important historical figures, but they represent only a single chapter in a much larger tale. Until that tale is told through literature and not simply sterile history books, the Kurdish narrative will remain something about which only Kurds really know, inaccessible to the outside world.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI

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