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Kurds: Fighting for Civil Rights

Kurds have no physical nation, but could they still be unified?

January 31, 2005

Kurds have no physical nation, but could they still be unified?

The question of an independent Kurdish state remains open. For the most part, Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria today are not talking about independence, but rather about equal civil rights and the need to establish federated political states.

Yet, floating in the back of many Kurdish minds — how could it be otherwise? — are dreams of complete independence, with some regarding it as only a dream and others viewing the federated states as a stepping stone to the larger goal.

Many impediments stand in the way of Kurdish independence. None of their nations would let them go without a fierce struggle. That is ironic, considering the way Kurds are mistreated and looked down upon by their respective compatriots.

After 80 years of separation by international borders, the Kurds have also become considerably estranged from one another — each group has taken on some of the characteristics of their nation.

And the divide between the Iranian Kurds and those in Iraq, Syria and Turkey dates back far earlier — to the days of the Ottoman-Safavids and, before that, the Ardalans.

A large number of Kurds, especially in Turkey, are well integrated into mainstream society and no longer live in predominantly Kurdish areas or speak Kurdish.

The Kurds also lack a strong military, adequate financial and economic resources, organization, education and — perhaps most important — a unified, Pan-Kurdish leadership.

The Kurds remain a fractured people on many levels — torn between countries, regions, political parties, tribes, families, dialects, outlooks, the old and the new.

The dividing line between the two main dialects of the Kurdish language is marked by the Greater Zab River. In northern Iraqi Kurdistan and much of Turkey, Kurds speak Kermanji. In southern Iraqi Kurdistan and much of Iran, they speak Sorani.

Lacking a standard language has been yet another barrier to Kurdish political and social unification.

War and upheaval has also meant more intermingling between speakers of Kermanji and Sorani — both within Kurdistan and the diaspora.

Complications remain, most notably that of written Kurdish. Iraqi and Iranian Kurds, like their compatriots, use the Arabic alphabet, while Kurds in Turkey, like the Turks, use the Roman.

In the safe haven, Kurdish was the primary language being taught in the schools, where a "Kurdicized" curriculum was also being developed. Parents who learned their lessons in Arabic were delighting in children learning theirs in Kurdish.

But the practice has dangers. Many of today's younger generation cannot speak Arabic, a considerable liability in a land with many Arabic-speaking neighbors.

And yet, modern technology, coupled with oppression, has changed everything. Through satellite communications and the Internet, the Kurds have their own television shows, radio broadcasts, publications and websites — all of which are theoretically available to every Kurd anywhere in the world.

Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, forced out of their homelands by politics, now live in Europe or the United States, where they are steadily gaining advanced degrees, power and influence.

The Kurds may not have their own physical nation, but they do have an international cyberspace state. This, along with a quickening sense of national identity that, decades from now, may yet give rise to Pan-Kurdish unification — perhaps in the forum of a federated Kurdish nation-state.

I do believe that the time of armed Kurdish conflict is over, at least for the foreseeable future. The Iraqi peshmerga — which refers to freedom fighters or "those who face death" — are not what they once were, while the Kurds of Iran and Turkey are ineffably weary.

The Kurds are also a smart, pragmatic, industrious and increasingly modernized people. They know that there is more than one way to win a war.

Whenever I think about the Kurds' future, I think back to my last stop in Kurdistan — Doguhayazit, Turkey, situated at the northern edge of Kurdish territory.

Beyond the castle was a mosque and tile tomb of Ahmad-i Khani (circa 1650 to 1706), the most famous of all Kurdish poets.

He writes of his people's subjugation, dispossession, divisiveness, independence and courage. His words resonate as much today as they did 300 years ago:
Look! Our misfortune has reached its zenith,
Has it started to come down do you think?
Or will it remain so,
Until comes upon us the end of time?
Is it possible, I wonder, that for us too,
A star will emerge out of the firmament?
Let luck be on our side for once.

With that in mind, I thought back to the many questions I had had at the beginning of my journey. How had the Kurds kept going after all they had suffered? They kept going because they had no other choice.
How were they juggling the old and the new? With two steps forward, one step back. Were they still their own worst enemy? At times. Had they reinvented themselves? Yes.

Adapted from "A Thousand Sighs, a Thousand Revolts" by Christiane Bird. Copyright © 2004 by Christiane Bird. By arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.