Embraced by the mountains: Not Arab, not Persian, not Turk, but Kurdish

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Friday 18 Oct 2019

Who are the Kurds? Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian has the answer

Embraced by the mountains
photo: AFP

A video went viral on social media of a Kurdish woman cradling her daughter’s dead body, grieving, as she fled the Turkish bombardement in southern Syria. “I left my husband behind not knowing if he is alive or dead. What does [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan want from us? I fled holding my daughter’s corpse, what does he want from us? The United States just betrayed us, Turkey is killing us, it is killing our children, where are the human rights organisations? We want our rights. Aren’t we human beings? Is it a sin that we communicate in Kurdish? Look at this child I am holding, this is my daughter’s body. I don’t have a place to live, where should I go now? Turks will occupy Kobane. What does Erdogan want from the Kurds? Why didn’t he react when IS attacked Kobane and killed our children?”

Death, destruction, exile and tears: the blood flows from a so-called “peace” fountain on a day in Autumn directed to a stateless nation, the Kurds. Some 104 years ago, Armenians, too, were subject to ethnic cleansing, though that time on a day in spring. Author is the same, the one that has a criminal record: Turkey.

The Kurds have never had a state, and today they are spread across four nations. The majority of the Kurds are Sunni Muslims and are members of an ethnic minority of 25 to 35 million people who inhabit the mountainous regions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The Kurds are people of Indo-European descent originating from the Median tribes that settled in ancient Persia and first founded an empire in the 7th century BCE.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the dream of Kurdistan, a homeland for the Kurds, was the dream of the Kurdish nation. The Western allies tried to make Kurdish dreams come true through the Treaty of Sèvres signed in 1920 at the Paris Peace Conference that provided for Kurdish self-determination and the formation of a state in Eastern Anatolia and around Mosul.

Three years later, the Kurdish hopes were dashed when the Treaty of Lausanne was introduced, putting the Kurdish people under the control of Turkey and Iran, as well as Britain and France, which were given League of Nations mandates over the new states of Iraq and Syria.

According to this treaty, modern Turkey’s boundaries were settled, and the Kurds were left as a minority living in the countries of the region.

Syria’s Kurds, who form seven to 10 per cent of the population, are the largest ethnic minority in the country. As of 2011, they numbered between 1.6 to 2.5 million and mostly live in certain districts in Damascus and Aleppo, the Jarabulus region and areas around Kobane, and in Afrin and Qamishli in the Hassake governorate.

The Kurds of Syria have long been denied basic rights, including equal citizenship. In the context of the Syrian Civil War and the Rojava conflict, the Kurds have established a self-governing region known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and commonly known as “Rojava” or Western Kurdistan.

Last week, Turkey launched a military operation against the Kurds inhabiting north-east Syria and aimed at US-backed Kurdish forces that control the region. The International Rescue Committee, an aid organisation, has said that 64,000 people have already fled their homes as a result. The UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has given a similar figure. It is possible that the number will rise to 300,000 if the offensive continues.

In Iraq, the Kurds enjoy more rights than in neighbouring states. They form 15 to 20 per cent of the Iraqi population, or five to six million people. Much of the geographical and cultural region of Iraqi Kurdistan is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, an autonomous authority recognised by the Iraqi Constitution.

The mountainous nature of Iraqi Kurdistan, the difference in climate of its various parts, and its wealth of water make it a land of agriculture and tourism.

The Kurds of Iran form nine to 10 per cent of the population, or around six million people. They are the third-largest ethnic group in Iran and inhabit the four major provinces of West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Kurdistan and Ilhan. 

Most Kurds today live in Turkey, however, making up a total population of between 12 and 15 million people or about 20 per cent of the population of Turkey as a whole. The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in the country and live mostly in the provinces of Igdir, Tunceli, Bingol, Mus, Agn, Diyarbakir, Siirt, Bitlis, Van, Mardin and Hakkari.


The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has a long history, with the Turkish government categorising the Kurds as “mountain Turks” and for a time even banning the words Kurds, Kurdistan or Kurdish.

The crackdown on Turkey’s Kurds has escalated since Turkish President Erdogan came to power, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is listed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey. Over the past few months, newly elected Kurdish mayors have been removed by the government in the country.

Like the Armenians, the Kurds, too, have been subject to massacres under Turkish rule. “The Alevi Kurds experienced genocide in 1938. Since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, the Sunni Kurds have suffered many massacres. The Kurds in other parts have also experienced massacres. The chemical attacks and the Halabja Massacre in southern Kurdistan (northern Iraq) in 1988 under the leadership of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein are among the most painful ones. However, since the 1990s Kurds living under Turkish rule have been subjected to massacres as well, all the time in full view of the international community,” commented a researcher of Kurdish origin working for an NGO in Istanbul who preferred to remain anonymous in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

It is not a secret that “many Kurds in northern Kurdistan (western Armenia) living under Turkish rule took part in massacring the Armenians in 1915. Today, the Kurds do not deny this truth and are ashamed of it. Some Kurds in northern Kurdistan think that the Kurds suffered a lot after the Armenian Genocide because of the sins their ancestors committed during the genocide,” the Kurdish researcher said.

Will the Kurds face the same fate as the Armenians did in the past? “We Kurds are aware of the fact that stateless people are open to genocide. For instance, we know that if you don’t have a state, you cannot control your airspace and can’t protect yourself. Therefore, any state can bomb you at any time. The fact that the Turkish state can easily enter Rojava airspace is related to the statelessness of the Kurds,” she said.

“The armed resistance of stateless nations can also easily be called ‘terrorism’. Therefore, the means of violence are a monopoly in the hands of a nation-state, and while nation-states can carry out genocide and call it ‘security’, the self-defence of stateless people can easily be called terrorism. We Kurds continue to live under the possibility that we could be subjected to genocide at any moment,” she told the Weekly.

Many Kurds still harbour the dream of a homeland that will unite them in one state. Is that a distant dream?

“Many nation-states and nationalist ideologies implement racist policies against the stateless people they dominate. Kurds living under Turkish, Persian or Arab rule are the victims of such racist policies,” the researcher said.

She is convinced that ethnic groups without a state of their own are disregarded by those that have states. “Stateless people are almost not considered as human beings, and killing them is almost thought of as legitimate. In a world system composed of nation-states, the establishment of a Kurdish nation-state is the only way for the Kurds to be treated as human beings. This is a painful truth,” she said.

She said the reason the Kurds have not been able to establish a state was because they had been subjected to multiple invasions. “Following the establishment of the nation-state system in the Middle East, Kurdistan was divided into four parts between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. These four nation-states have committed crimes to eliminate the will of the Kurds and to capture their land. They have been the allies of Russia or the United States or the EU. The stateless Kurds have been deprived of such international alliances.”

“Therefore, the necessary conditions for the establishment of a Kurdish nation-state appear to be the establishment of Kurdish national unity in the four parts of Kurdistan, the weakening of the Persian, Turkish and Arab racism against the Kurds, and the emergence of political pressure on the Persian, Arab and Turkish peoples to support the freedom of the Kurds.”


The geography of the mountainous Kurdish regions, with no access to the sea, has made it easier for the Kurds to preserve their language in different dialects, along with their customs, traditions and community organisation.

The Kurdish culture shares commonalities with many other regional cultures.

The Kurds are united through their culture, race and language, although they do not possess a standard dialect of the latter. It is broken into several main groups: Kurmanji is written using Latin and Russian script and is spoken in Turkey, Syria and Russia; and Sorani is written using Arabic script and is widely spoken in Iraq and Iran.

Gullistan, a Kurd of 38 years old, thinks that being Kurdish means being constantly reminded of being controlled by dominant groups. “For us, Kurdishness is not a norm. It is a state of emergency that we experience every day. The ordinary citizens of many nations forget their ethnicities in their everyday lives. They enjoy their culture, music, TV channels, films and art exhibitions freely. But our culture has been destroyed or insulted for years by the Turkish, Persian and Arab states. Reading Kurdish books, watching Kurdish films or speaking Kurdish are not ordinary activities for us. They are forms of resistance,” Gullistan told the Weekly.

However, forgetting Kurdish culture, music and art would mean annihilation for the Kurds. “I am doing my best to maintain my Kurdish culture in my everyday life. Despite the oppression and strong assimilation policies in place, I go to Kurdish concerts, read Kurdish books and navigate in Kurdish on the Web. I try to maintain my Kurdishness as a form of resistance that restores my dignity and integrity,” Gullistan, whose name means “garden of roses,” told the Weekly.

Large numbers of Kurds also live in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Lebanon, as well as in Europe, especially in Germany. In the regions they inhabit, they have faced campaigns against their survival. They have been forbidden to speak their language in public, and they have had to change their names. Books, music and traditional clothes have had to be hidden in homes to avoid imprisonment by the authorities.

The Kurds are known for their copper crafts. Other crafts include embroidery, leather-work and metal ornamentation. Carpet-weaving is the most significant Kurdish folk art. Traditional Kurdish music is very similar to, yet also distinctive from, Arabic, Turkish and Armenian music. Of melancholic, dramatic and elegiac character, Kurdish songs are long and have developed upbeat and joyous melodies over the years.

Despite being secondary to the vocal line, Kurdish music uses many instruments, such as the tembur (a six-string lute), duduk (an ancient Armenian double-reed woodwind instrument), kemenche (a three-stringed bowed instrument brought to Anatolia by Macedonian gypsies), zurna (a woodwind instrument believed to have its origins in China) and def (a large Persian and Arabic drum).

The repertoire of Kurdish music includes songs dedicated for use at weddings or celebrations over the birth of lambs or the shearing of wool and nature in general.

The earliest study of Kurdish music was done by the founder and father of Armenian music, the composer and priest Komitas when he published his work Chansons Kurdes transcrites par le père Komitas consisting of 12 Kurdish melodies he had collected.

Kurdish music and the performing and recording of Kurdish songs is banned in both Iraq and Turkey. In 2018, the Turkish police arrested German-Kurdish singer Saide Inac, better known by her stage name Hozan Cane, accusing her of membership of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which Turkey sees as a terrorist organisation.

The accusations were based on her songs, activities and pictures posted on social media. Cane was visiting Turkey to sing at rallies for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the run-up to the presidential elections in Turkey at the time, and a Turkish court sentenced her to six years in prison.

In December 2011, a Kurdish citizen was brutally murdered in a bar in Izmir for requesting a folksong from the musicians in his native language.

Kurdish traditional dance is part of a group of hand-holding dances that include men and women and is similar to those from the other Middle Eastern and Caucasian countries. It takes the form of a circle, semi-circle or a straight line, with a single or couple of dancers performing at the centre of the circle, usually rhythmic and elegant movements.

Some prominent Kurds have impacted the societies they touched while some did not.

 Examples included Nadia Murad, a Yazidi activist, Suleiman Al-Halabi an Al-Azhar student who assassinated the French general Kleber during the 1798 French occupation of Egypt, Walid Jumblatt, the veteran Lebanese politician, Yitzhak Mordechai, an Israeli general, Taha Yassin Ramadan, a former Iraqi vice-president, Halil Turgut Ozal, the eighth president of Turkey, Mahmoud Al-Meligui, an Egyptian actor, Saladdin Al-Ayoubi, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria who founded the Ayyubid Dynasty, Iraqi politicians Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, and Turkish-Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

“I am proud of my execution. Even at the moment when my body is hanging from the rope, my shoes are higher than my enemy’s head,” Qazi Mohamed, an Iranian-Kurdish leader of the Republic of Mahabad who was hanged by the shah of Iran in 1947 for working for his nation’s rights, said before he was executed.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: