On Kurdish Culture

Interview with Goran Sabah (Novelist and PhD Student):

Goran Sabah

Goran Sabah

Interviewed By Aras Ahmed Mhamad

AAM: What is the most notable change in Kurdish society in recent years?

GS: It depends on how you define the word “recent” here. Do we mean the last five, eight or ten years? I’d go for the last five years. I can realize that Kurdish society has witnessed many changes. To be specific and clearer, I’d like to categorize the changes as follows:

Economic change: It’s booming! The change is so vast and includes dozens of giant companies from all the continents operating in various sectors in Kurdistan, such as education, health, transpiration, nutrition, agriculture, construction, and above them all oil and gas.

Out of five giant oil firms three of them are in Kurdistan. There is over 20 billion dollars Turkish investment and over 10 billion dollars of Iranian investment in the country, making it the most dynamic business hub ever for the neighboring countries. German, Swede, Dutch, Chinese, South Korean, French and British companies seek suitable grounds to start investing in the region. There are now 34,000 Westerners working in Kurdistan alone as well as numerous of Turkish, Iranian, Arab workers.

Diplomatic changes: There are now over 20 official missions, most of which are consulates, some are commercial offices. And more seek to open an office soon. The US consulate opened last year and besides other missions it issues visas to the Kurdish people. Kurdish leaders’ level of diplomatic relations has witnessed great progress and more countries want to deal with them nationwide. The KRG has more than a dozen of representative offices in those countries that have longstanding relationships with Kurdistan.

Tourism change: In the last five years more than four million tourists visited Kurdistan, including Arabs from the south and middle of Iraq. There are 897 hotels in Kurdistan and hundreds more still need to be built. Erbil, being chosen as the capital city of tourism in the Middle East, is another proof of the big change. Lack of services in the resorts, sites and attractions in Kurdistan limits the number of visitors. If the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is wise enough, tourism in Kurdistan can be no less significant than the oil and gas business.

Social change: The rate of divorce has drastically increased. Gambling is everywhere. Prostitution houses, night clubs, bars, classy and high standard cafes and casinos are rife. The social fabric is disrupting. The Kurdish society is being stripped from its typical way of life and there is an unnecessary imitation of the west. The Kurdish society is westernized, better to say Americanized, modernized on the wrong path and that leads the society to a dangerous arena.

The Kurdish local NGOs are more effective and can put some pressure on the government on many issues. For instance, Kurdistan Volunteer Organization (KVO), headed by Hemin Farid, launched a campaign against the poor standard of internet services. The KRG was shaken and took action against the internet companies.

Political change: The landmark 9/22 legislative elections wiped the political equation in the region. The main opposition came second, winning 24 seats out of 111, making Gorran (Change) movement stronger and things can change more in the next cabinet. Islamists went backward. This tells a lot. The new generation, which is digital savvy, cannot be easily deceived by the politicized Islamic agendas. The authority is trying in every way possible to grab power for ever, and more and more people have realized this and got fed up. It even sometimes goes extreme and uses nefarious ways to hold power!

Mindset: The Kurdish individual mindset is changing at a very slow pace. The mindset towards civil society, lifestyle, and women’s participation in media, politics, cultural activities and so forth is still in its baby steps. The Kurdish individual mindset needs a revolutionary enlightenment, without which Kurdistan would never have a civil society. And that enlightenment never happens if Kurdish book circulation does not exceed 1000 copies. I mean, Kurdish individuals need to read, read and read, but unfortunately I don’t see that in Kurdish society. Reading is the last thing that comes to the mind of an individual, though there are a handful of bookworm people.

AAM: How would you observe the impacts of technology on culture, especially Kurdish culture?

GS: Since the word culture is broad and has many different meanings, I’d like first to define culture here and then answer your question accordingly. Culture is a way of life, better to say, a learned way of life shared by a group of people. You learn it by doing it; it does not come from nature. So according to this definition, culture includes languages, food, celebrations, artistic expression, the arts, sports, government, social activities, and the media.

As usual the impact of technology, emerging media and digital era could be negative and positive, not only on cultures but on all walks of life. The impact is big in some areas like the media. People can read and get access to information and news at home on their laptops. They can reach info very fast. Through applications, one can access TVs and online news wires everywhere. And ironically this has not opened the Kurdish mindset positively!

However, it’s very effective in revealing the dead cultural acts and beliefs such as honor killing. For example, through the media we all saw what happened to Duha, the Yazidi girl who was stoned and beaten by blocks to death. The scene stirred and rocked the public and as a result parliament passed a law to fight violence against women. Just a quick step aside, I have to say that the Kurdish media is not professional yet and is stifled by the iron fist of authority, but I see a little change in that too.

NGOs are more active in making use of technology. The way we celebrate has changed dramatically. However, the government has not taken benefit from technology. The project of a Kurdish e-government failed. The ministries websites’ services are very poor. Data analysis and collections in government offices do not exist. Files and folders of all government offices are still hand written on paper.

The public banking system service is not promising. Health, education and agriculture sectors are not developed and served by tech-goodies. Technology has not yet benefited sports, artistic expression and art. In brief: The Kurds have not utilized technology well to provide a better life for themselves.

AAM: One of the most identifiable characteristics of Kurdish society is hospitability and warm greetings. What is your sense of this?

GS: I’m proud of them, but I have some notes about this. Hospitality and warm greetings in the Kurdish culture are two most prominent and bright sides. I lived for a while in Germany and now for three years in the US and I have travelled much of the world. I really miss them. I miss having guests at home, to serve them and have great chats.

However, we exaggerate about this. Things lose their taste and aroma when they are exaggerated and specifically when they become a source of invading others’ autonomy.  I agree neither with the way we greet and host people nor the way the westerners do. The former as I said is exaggerated and the latter is very cold. And that stems from the collectivism and individualism of East and West.  In order to prove that we love our guests and have so much respect for them, we push them very hard to eat more and more. We kill others’ time when we call and greet them for the first five minutes. We might repeat “how are you and how is it going?” questions several times.

AAM: Which aspects of Kurdish culture are you proud of and which do you dislike?

GS: I’m proud of some and would  like to see other slightly change. For instance, I’m proud of the spirit of healing each other. I’m proud of these: the great and rich Kurdish cuisine, the typical Kurdish clothes, Klash (Kurdish shoes), village plain life, strong family relations and solid familial fabric, the social interaction, visiting and helping each other, greetings (but without kissing), local markets, strolling in the downtown areas like Erbil, Slemani and Duhok, tea houses,  the old neighborhoods when neighbors come out chat and socialize, picnics and outings, the way we celebrate Newroz, the two religious feasts (Ramadan and Eid al-Adha) and the typical Kurdish wedding .

The ways that I dislike to about our culture and think need to be changed, are: preparation for wedding (big bigheads face people), putting a heavy burden on the bridegroom to buy gold and pay for everything, funeral (it should be only in the cemetery and one day in a mosque), the life of couples (it’s very hard for dating and I dated the lady who is my wife now three times secretly), invading privacy (so that everyone wants to know how much is your monthly payment, they like to know everything about you, even if you are not a celebrity),  changing cars every year, changing mobiles every month, classy clothes even if you go out for shopping (simply, you have to live for others not for yourself), the way we do window shopping at the malls, and the way we imitate each other for nothing!

Above them all is the mental patriarchy, in which men are dominant in almost every walk of life.

AAM: What is the relationship or difference between culture and civilization on one hand, and culture and heritage on the other?

GS: To define civilization first would help me to answer you better. Civilization means an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry and government has been reached.

The Kurdish society has a high level and rich culture; therefore, in that perspective we have a great civilization. However, we are not there in terms of science, industry and government. Therefore, we have zero civilization in those. We are also way behind when it comes of the process of civilizing or being civilized. The Kurdish society is not civilized yet.

NGOs are not as effective as necessary. Political parties are not systematic; they are based on tribal mentality. Democracy in Kurdistan has no legs yet! Institutionalization does not exist in Kurdistan. I can say we are slowly going towards building the cornerstones of a civil society.

AAM: How would you evaluate the role of culture in determining the status of women in Kurdish society? How would you compare it to western society?

GS: The Kurdish patriarchal mentality deprives women of self-expression and personal autonomy and violates their basic rights. In the last five years, women activists, NGOs, feminists and the media played a little role in shaking the stalemate of women’s status in Kurdistan, but a lot remains to be done.

Many believe that it’s Islam that puts limits on women’s movements and life, but that’s a big mistake they are making. It’s the Kurdish culture, not Islam, which belittles women and violates their rights every day. For instance, Islam has not ordered female circumcision, but the Kurdish culture has been doing it in the name of Islam. Islam never tells you that if your daughter, sister, mother or wife had an affair with someone, then kill her. It’s the Kurdish man’s mentality that decides to kill a woman to safe his face in society: an act notoriously known as “honor killing”.

Of course, many Kurdish Mullas (religious preachers) played a negative role by not clarifying Islamic principles well for people and they were the ones who first practiced circumcision and other heinous acts against women. Marrying four wives in Islam, you know, involves many rules and moral requirements, but no one – and I mean no man – who has more than one wife has never met even a single rule for the idea of polygamy. The basic rule is that the wives should be treated equal, and no man has done that in the Kurdish society. Men don’t treat one wife properly, how about two or three!

Obedience has a big space in the Kurdish culture, forcing women to obey men all the time and everywhere. That’s false. In many parts of Kurdistan arranged marriage is still practised so that women have no say in choosing the one to live with for all her life. Back in the mind of Kurdish men, women are still considered as servants and looked upon as an object like chairs, beds or stones. I’m surprised that there are Kurdish men who are not committed to Islam, but who strongly impose Hijab on their wives, sisters and daughters. This is a dirty dualism!

The aspects I mentioned above are nowhere to be accepted in the western cultures. However, I have to say that the western societies were once worse than this, specifically before and during the medieval age. And there are many big reasons behind the change of women status in the west: renaissance through the 16th century, industrial revolution through the 17th and 18th centuries, enlightenment through the 18th and 19th centuries, technological and social revolution and emerging media through the 20th century.

We should also not forget about the French, British and American revolutions that added a lot to women status improvement. So, the Kurdish society was not a part of these big steps, but rather, it has been always a part of war and it has been always under a dirty hand!

The process of educating our daughters is way different that the same process in the west. We tell our daughters: don’t befriend boys, don’t laugh, don’t talk, don’t go out, don’t look, don’t smell, don’t hang around, don’t think, and don’t move!

We imprison them at home, lock their minds and ruin the sense of their imagination.  We crush them from an early age, but the west builds them; we rebuke them every day, they respect them and so on and so forth. All the same, there are still men in the western societies who violate women’s rights, persecute them, beat them and rape them. Thugs against women are everywhere all the time, but the law can defend women in the west, while our law can only defend men!

AAM: How significant is culture is for the development of art, music and human communication? 

GS: Cultures and culture differences are big concerns nowadays and this is being academically studied in most parts of the world. Nations do everything to promote their culture. The Kurdish authority does everything to wreck our culture. Of course the status of art and Kurdish music is much developed, compared to the last five years, but it could’ve been much better.

The Kurdish government started late to promote the rich Kurdish music and art. Kurdish music and art have no owner! I mean no one feels responsible to introduce them to the world. And those who do that job are far away from the world of music and art. For instance, a group of illiterate musicians run the Kurdistan Orchestra. That group violates the rights of the best musicians of Kurdistan, always fights them and sidelines them.

The lobby to develop and promote Kurdish culture is weak and is under the hands of a number of irresponsible people. If you look at the powerful countries like China, US, France, Turkey, and Iran (and many others of course), they all have a special budget to promote their language, literature, art and music.

The Kurdish authority has not been able to use the rich Kurdish music and art to communicate with the world. It should provide a one billion budget for that. Then I’d be worried again because who guarantees that those who take the responsibility would not steal all the money. We have seen that a lot in Kurdish history.

Goran Sabah is a Kurdish novelist and journalist. He writes in both Kurdish and English. He is the author of ‘Iraqi Fulbrighter’,’Leader Aorter’ and ‘Heart 2’. He is a doctoral/GTA student at the University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Lawrence, KS, USA. He is also a prominent freelance columnist and media trainer.

Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelancer. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART magazine, an independent English magazine that focuses on ‘Literature, Language, Society’. He is the Top Student of College of Languages at the Department of English/ University of Human Development, 2012. He is a columnist for the Kurdistan Tribune and a contributing writer for the ekurd.net and doznews.com. He is the Cultural Analyst at the Kurdish Review Newspaper, the only Kurdish-American newspaper in print. He is also the Editor in Chief of the Sorani section at the doznews.com

Copyright © 2013 Kurdistantribune.com

One Response to On Kurdish Culture
  1. Bamo
    November 18, 2013 | 10:16

    Amazing interview, bitter sweet information, inspirational pushes, and very useful terminology.

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