Who will write the Kurdish epic?

Michael Rubin

By Michael Rubin: 

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.

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.

Copyright © 2011 Kurdistantribune.com

7 Responses to Who will write the Kurdish epic?
  1. Butan Amedi
    January 22, 2012 | 07:06

    Herman Wouk’s two volumes of the Wind of War is a great go-by for Kudish historians write Kurdish political novels!

  2. Hakim
    January 22, 2012 | 12:00

    Amazingly written. Really sets you in the mood for pondering. Thank you, Mr. Rubin :)

  3. Rizgar Khoshnaw
    January 22, 2012 | 23:40

    Dear Dr. Rubin,

    I read just about everything that you have been writing about Kurdish issues for the past ten year and I must say that you truly have shined the light on the Kurdish subject internationally. It is great to see/hear that someone, not a Kurd, take so much time and effort in order to educate and advice the Kurds on how to improve and expose their cause.

    In his article that you have published, I can only talk about one section you wrote that I am very familiar with and have been working/involved in for the past 14 years and I am able to comment on it. The section I am referring to in your article is this:

    “Iraqi Kurdistan’s greatest achievement is neither democracy nor economic development—these are too marred by corruption and mismanagement”

    You are 100% correct here. I have seen so much corruption and mismanagement in Kurdistan for the past 14 years that I have been working there that I can literally write/publish one article a day and not be finished with all that I have seen/know about corruption and mismanagement for another year!!

    My investigation regarding corruption in Kurdistan goes back since the oil-fro-food program. As a matter of fact, I have written a book about it and published it 12 years ago. You can see and read much more about what I have written on http://www.ekurd.net or you can go to my newly created facebook which is: Iraqi Kurdistan issues, Rizgar Xoshnaw. I have even included pictures to show the true colors of Kurdistan “economic prosperity!”

    I have said for so long that if the Kurdish leaders do not act fast and stop corruption, they will lose not only the support of their own Kurdish citizens, but the Americans (politicians and business people) as well. I think for this reason we are now witnessing the new party in Kurdistan, Gorran, is making headway and becoming more popular and accepted by the Kurds much more than the current two dominant parties; the KDP and PUK.

    Rizgar Khoshnaw
    Washington,DC

  4. Kuvan Bamarny
    January 24, 2012 | 02:53

    Kak Rizgar Dr Rubin is our special guest who is always welcomed in our Kurdish community.I always appreciate his sincere efforts ,help and participation in our debated and discussion about kurdistan.He truly share great knowledge ,inspiration and great ideas….

    • Rizgar Khoshnaw
      January 24, 2012 | 15:50

      KaK Kuvan,

      I totally agree with you. I wish we had more people like Dr. Rubin around!

      Rizgar

  5. Miran of Shaqlawa
    July 12, 2012 | 06:26

    This is an incredible article. It is a shame that only a foreigner is able to make such points, for fear of the reaction of the ruling families.

    They can buy everything they wish, apart from history. The last 70 years has been marred by critical errors and mistakes, and our successes have only come through foreign intervention, not our own endeavors. The “liberation movement” as it has been termed, although brave and bold, was lead by a small percentage of the Kurds, for which all of them had to pay the price.

    And now, only those few reap the rewards; the self proclaimed royal family.

    Our day will come, and we will up-rise, like the Egyptians and Libyans, and knock them from their perch.

    Then the world will see what Kurdish history really is. Thousands of years of stories to tell, yet the ruling families only tell the world one; their own.

    As I said to one member of the B-family recently, “when my family were living in palaces and riding white horses, you were sleeping in mud huts”

  6. hawre
    October 31, 2012 | 15:57

    i could not get why do exactly people find Barzani family an easy target for everthing!
    is this a new fashion or something?

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