By Dr. Amir Sharifi:
While Jewish Kurds in Washington DC celebrated Hanukkah, the festival of light on Dec 31, in the West Coast, there were two New Year venues: one held by the Kurdish Community of Southern California on Dec 30 and the other by Niroj Kurdish Cuisine on the New Year’s Eve. Both events were well received and spectacular in saying farewell to 2016 by reaffirming Kurdish historical and cultural tradition of celebrating diversity and resilience. Kurdish celebrants, many of whom were dressed in colorful Kurdish costumes indulged in a night of music, food, and fun. I attended the Dec 30th event where I briefly spoke about the Kurdish culture of embracing religious diversity.
The program commenced with the Kurdish national anthem sung by Mrs. Soraya Fallah and Mr. Azad Moradian against a backdrop of Kurdish flags. For entertainment there were a classical singer and performer, Rahman from Rojava, and Zerevan Zaxoyi a vocalist from southern Kurdistan; while the former played and sang mostly meditative and classical Kurdish music, the latter enhanced his singing with rhythmic dance music from different regions of Kurdistan; women and men old and young and children held hands in colorful and vibrant processions and danced along all night except for short intervals.
The celebrants were provided with a brief background on the antiquity of Christianity in Kurdistan and the fact that Christian communities have ancient roots in Kurdistan whose religious heterogeneity arises from its celebration of diversity of faiths and belief systems, the presence and confluence of both pre-monotheistic religions such as Mithraism and Zoroastrianism and monotheistic practices such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the words of professor Yona Sabar, a Jewish Kurdish scholar “Judeo-Christians, or Nazrani (apparently derived from Nazareth), have inhabited the territory of today’s Kurdistan since, perhaps, the second century. Mar Matti (St. Matthew) Monastery about an hour and a half drive from Erbil is an impressive religious structure high up on a mountainside that began in the fourth century and continues to function today.” Another evidence about the ancient roots of these communities according to Sabar can be found in “ … dozens of active Christian communities still speaking Neo-Aramaic dialects, derivatives of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus Christ. Christians are taught Neo-Aramaic in certain public (government) schools fully funded by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Similarly, Armenian Christians in certain public schools are taught the Armenian language.”
The audience was reminded how Saddam Hussein’s Al-Anfal (the Spoils) genocidal campaign had destroyed and displaced many communities of Christians, Ezidis, and Shabaks in 1990’s only to be reconstructed under the auspices of the Kurdish Regional Government in 2003. The audience also recalled how like Ezidis, Christians after the onslaught of ISIS, were subjected to unprecedented massacres, massive destructions of their communities, and displacements as a result of which out of 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, only 400000 remain, most of whom are now under the protection of the Kurdish region. Thousands are in refugee camps, waiting for resettlements in European countries.
Similarly in Turkey in 2016, religious intolerance and oppression was resumed as a new wave of violence, hatred, and persecutions against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities escalated; mobs attacked churches and Alevi places of worship, often provoked by the ruling party and religious leaders, trampling what had been gained under the local governance of the Kurdish municipalities in which Armenian communities once again had found a place and voice as Kurdish officials helped to rebuild and renovate churches and reconnect with Armenians.
The diverse audience was reminded that despite the fact that hard and painful life of Christians in 2016 had marred the festive mood in Kurdistan, Christian communities, in towns and villages celebrated Christmas and New Year. Haseeb Saleem, a 65 year old Christian from the Mosul area who had left more than two years ago and now lives in the Kurdish city of Erbil, in an interview with New York Times (For Liberated Iraqi Christians, Still a Bleak Christmas, Dec 23) had captured the plight of Christians and the existential threat they have faced, “There is no guarantee that we can go back and be safe.” However, a nun from Qaraqosh in an interview with New York Times in the same report sounded more hopeful about the survival of the community “They can destroy our houses, our things, but not our souls.” The celebrants of different belief systems found what the nun had said reassuring, reflecting the spirit of resilience that has helped the ancient land of Kurdistan and its diverse inhabitants to survive such crises. The night ended the hope for a better year in 2017 as the musicians and singers continued to excite the celebrants who had filled the floor to dance till midnight.
Dr. Amir Sharifi – President of the Kurdish American Education Society Los Angeles