It seems easiest to begin to answer the question of who the Kurds are by “seeing,” as best we can where they are. We also need to gain a clearer sense of the Kurdish past, in as many dimensions as we can digest, in order to understand their present circumstances.
Kurds actually live in Turkey, concentrated in the southeast primarily, as well as in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and even portions of Armenia an elsewhere. Within the Kurdish “group,” many different cultural and religious distinctions emerge. For example, there are Arab enclaves within traditionally Kurdish areas in Turkey and Turkomen groups in Kurdistan in Iraq. And, religious divides occur across Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. According to Martin von Bruinessen, the Kurds represent an “ethno-religious mosaic.” A very helpful phrase. We also need to keep in mind the relationships with each country where the Kurds reside, as well as the diplomatic activities occurring across the national borders. Ok? Ready for more?
Let’s go back, way back, then come forward. As far back as the 10th and 11th centuries, we can chart a political history that shows the Kurds existing in a collection of either semi-independent or independent states in this same basic region. By the second half of the 17th century, when British colonists were establishing holdings in eastern North America, writers like Ahmad Khani were composing the basic ideas of Kurdish nationalism. Further, neither the Persian or Ottoman empires were able to successfully control all of what some claim to be Kurdistan. By the 1880s, then through about 1930, Kurdish nationalism became even more energized, as repression of Kurdish religious and ethnic expressions increased. Not an easy past. In 1945, at the San Francisco Peace Conference, a Kurdish delegation proposed consideration of a formal acceptance of then current Kurdish holdings that would officially comprise a Kurdish state. Fast way forward to the 1990s, then to now, to see how Kurdish difficulties continue. In the 1990s, the Turkish government established paramilitary groups to combat Kurdish challenges to Turkish governmental authority. That violence continues. In 1995 alone, the Turkish government spent approximately $6 billion in suppressing Kurdish forces. While we were in Van, we heard a report of the deaths of three Kurdish militants at the hands of the Turkish army. Also in 1992, Iraqi Kurdistan emerged at the end of the first Gulf War. This creation meant that there was an autonomous political entity with its own local government and parliament within the state of Iraq. Still with me?
As these events developed, there are additional considerations to recall. For example, why can we assume that all Kurds, no matter where they live, all have the same objectives, political or otherwise? Obviously, we can’t. The various Kurdish political groups, the PKK, the KDP, and the PUK, do not agree, and have had violent conflict with each other across national boundaries (Turkey, Iran, Iraq). Also, the relationship between Turkey and Iran, Turkey and Iraq, and especially now, Turkey and Syria, have added to an unhealthy energy that has fueled intra-Kurdish and really, inter-Kurdish concerns. Now with the massive and potentially game-changing progress made by the Turkish government in the GAP project, the enormous set of dams being constructed on the Euphrates River in the country’s southeastern region, economic and political factors my de- and re-stabilize yet again.
We must assume that a situation such as that involving understanding who and where the Kurds are, and have been, is multi-sided and really hard to understand. So what about the Coca Cola sign? On the way from Mardin to Sanliurfa I happened to glance out the window just in time to see a sign advertising Coca Cola at a small Turkish market. Does this sign “mean” that I now see how American culture has come to this small town we were passing? Does the sign “mean” that I can take in all the features of this engagement with the global community? Well, no. So…I and we have a very long way to go to see all of the rich and complicated dimensions of the Kurds’ past lives and future prospects. As a teacher and a global citizen, it is my responsibility to keep at it. We’ll all stay informed, pass on to each other what we find out, continue to challenge our own assumptions, and continue to appreciate just how rich and intense our world really is. Watch. Listen.