Everything You Ever Wanted to Know but Were Too Afraid to Ask #32: Kurdistan

Time for another random geography lesson. Although it probably doesn’t actually cover everything you ever wanted to know…
What do I know about Kurds? Actually a fair bit as many of my customers hail from there, and my husband’s family is originally from Kermanshah, a largely Kurdish town in Western Iran. Although the family are not Kurdish, inevitably there are many aspects of Kurdish culture and dialect which have crept into their lifestyle: gaily embroidered house-slippers, a wealth of mountain-lore, baggy Kurdish house trousers, odd words here and there which are quite different from mainstream Farsi.
Grain cultivation, and sheep farming, and eventually civilisation: they all began in Kurdistan. It is a bitter geo-political irony that the Kurds are now the world’s biggest race without a home: there are around forty million of them living in pockets of Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq, Syria and Western Iran. They are the fourth largest racial group in the Middle East after the Arabs, the Turks and the Iranians. And yet no-one officially recognises that they exist.
Although they are officially regarded as being of Iranian stock, their origins are something of a mystery. They are (like the best of us) a conglomeration of ancient tribes spreading back 8000 years: the Halaf culture came first, followed by the Ubaidians from the south, and then the Hurrians. The latter, who were prolific potters, had a huge impact on the region and hung around for a bit longer than your average ancient dynasty: we know because they left a lot of helpful debris for us to find. They were eventually overrun by marauders from the East: the Hittites and the Mittanis and the Kassites, who swarmed into the region bringing Indo-European language with them. In Classical times (500BC ish) the Scythians and the Medes also came and camped out in the region, adding even further to the gene pool. The actual term ‘Kurd’ is a bit of a linguistic puzzle: I reckon it has a bit to do with those Hurrians, although ancient historians do refer to a people known as the Karda or Qurda.
Anyway, if we hit fast forward… The Kurds fell to the Muslim Caliphate, along with the most of the rest of Veggiestan, and many Kurds adopted Islam (the great Saladin, star of the crusades, was a Kurd). A period of relative peace ensued, and the Kurdish tribes flourished. Marco Polo wrote of the place when he popped by in the thirteenth century, although he seems to have found the residents rather scary.
From the beginning of the sixteenth century, Kurdistan became entangled in various imperial games of tug-of-war. The Ottomans suppressed the Kurds and tried to control them, whilst the Persian Safavids went for the divide and conquer approach, shipping them all over the place. The Kurds occupied the borderlands of these empires, and I guess this made the leaders therein kind of nervous.
Fast forward again to the twentieth century, when the Kurds actually got a pop at self-governance when the Treaty of Sèvres recognised them as a separate nation. This lasted all of two years (from 1922-1924): Ataturk had just gotten rid of the Ottomans and feared it would undermine his shiny new state, and so began a nearly a century of oppression of the Turkish Kurds. The Kurdish language (which actually comprises several dialects, most common of which are Kurmanji and Sorani) was suppressed, and the wearing of traditional Kurdish clothing forbidden. The PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party) and their kamikaze fighters, the peshmerga, have been physically fighting for independence since 1978, and is now generally classified as a terrorist outfit on account of their extreme tactics: it has to be said that most Kurds decry their actions. The Iraqi Kurds were also persecuted: their support of Iran during the Iran/Iraq war led to terrible repercussions at the hands of Saddam Hussein. I have heard many gruelling first-hand accounts from my Kurdish customers, and many of the Kurds in the UK today bear terrible scars.
Therein lies the other great irony facing the Kurdish nation: suppression sits heavy on a people famed for their brightly coloured clothing, fabulous woven kelims and exuberant, wild dance music. These guys are naturally full of joie de vivre.
It is hard not to admire the tenacity of a people that have hung together for nearly 10,000 years in the face of such overwhelming odds. It is also sometimes hard to work out what binds them together. They are not held together by blood, per se: they are of varying descent, speak many different languages, and even follow different religions. The one common factor is their mountainous homeland: they are people of the mountains, Taurus and Zagros, the two huge ranges that run from Iran through to the Black Sea. A well-endowed, strategically sound, natural fort sitting right in the middle of the Middle East. And therein (uh, in my very humble opinion: historian I am not) lies the key to it all: the Kurds were thrown together initially by the terrain, and are drawn together still by it, and it is their feeling for the land and knowledge of its power that unsettles the surrounding countries. There is a poignant saying: the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.
Kurdish cuisine has naturally absorbed much from its various enforced host nations – but they remain wheat eaters, and many of the recipes in Chapter Six of the book are of Kurdish origin.

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