Ignored, maligned and suppressed, the Kurds suffered greatly in the twentieth century. Undoubtedly losers in the carving up of the Middle East that followed the First World War, the Kurds have spent a century struggling to maintain common identity in spite of the state borders that now divide them.
The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group within the Middle East, and can claim to be the world’s largest stateless nation. There are over thirty million Kurds, occupying swathes of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Kurdish nationalists have for decades employed terminology that seeks to transcend the countries they inhabit, speaking instead of Greater Kurdistan as an entity that unites all Kurds. Such rhetoric, however, disregards the cultural, linguistic and political divergences that have repeatedly divided the Kurdish people. In addition to the physical borders that split their traditional homeland, the Kurds face growing internal divisions that threaten to erect further barriers to statehood.
The Kurds are currently experiencing a period of renewed attention on the global stage not accorded to them since the brutality of the genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign waged against them in Iraq in the 1980s. They are at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and are seen as a potential beneficiary of the conflict. They are experiencing increased legitimacy internationally as they are armed and aided by a number of foreign governments, strengthening their claims for autonomous statehood. Additionally, however, many Kurds have been displaced and are emigrating from their traditional homelands in the Middle East.
In the midst of this current upheaval, many Kurds are questioning what it means to be Kurdish and whether international borders will ever reflect their notion of Greater Kurdistan. A well-known Kurdish proverb attests that “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” and the Kurds have repeatedly found truth in this. Especially in the wake of oppression by host governments, Kurds have been forced to become self-reliant. This has not proved enough to unite the Kurds, and internal divisions are rife.
During the mid 1990s, Iraqi Kurdistan (an autonomous region since 1993 under the protection of an American no-fly zone) experienced a brutal civil war that exposed the deep fissures that divide Kurdish society. Political dispute between the two major parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) erupted into deadly violence, drawing in Kurdish factions from Iran and Turkey. Within living memory for most, this brutal period has resonated with Kurds, deepening and solidifying political divisions. Memory itself is a barrier to unity, and in Iraqi Kurdistan a repetitive narrative appears to be emerging. Some have suggested that Iraqi Kurdistan is once again near the point of irrevocable fracturing. Widespread strikes and sometimes violent protests marred the second half of 2015, with much of the public dissatisfied with delays in the payment of public servant salaries, a dire economic situation and a lack of infrastructure development. Serious political maneuvering is necessary to avert an internal crisis as wider Iraq struggles to contain the threat of the Islamic State.
The geography of the Kurdish homelands has also manifested itself in cultural and linguistic divisions. Much of the Kurdish homeland is mountainous. This has proved both a blessing and a curse to the Kurdish people; at times of extreme suffering, Kurds have fled to the mountains for sanctuary, and yet equally their immovable topography has, over the centuries, resulted in ethnically homogenous Kurds who are otherwise very different. The mountains that protect them also form a barrier to communication and collaboration. The most striking example of this is their language: Kurdish encompasses three main dialects – Kurmanji, Sorani and Pehlewani – which are all distinct and not always mutually intelligible. People from different regions who identify as Kurdish speaking may not always understand each other, which in turn reinforces cultural differences. Kurds from different areas maintain varying traditions of food, handicrafts and folklore, and in some cases struggle to find commonality.
Barriers have also been placed in the way of Kurdish social advancement. For many decades in Turkey, learning, speaking and publishing in Kurdish was outlawed, and official policy sought to deny the Kurds their distinct sense of ethnic identity by terming them “Mountain Turks.” In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime tried to completely eradicate the Kurds through a genocidal campaign that drew the condemnation of the global community. In Iran, the Kurds continue to be denied political agency, and are regularly harassed by state security services. The Kurds share a common narrative of oppression and discrimination, and yet nation building cannot be founded upon this alone.
There is a proverb in Kurdish that reads “dinya hemi neyare kewi ye kew ji neyare xwe ye.” Its English translation does not echo the poetic nature of its original language, but the sentiment remains the same, addressing the problem of disunity among the Kurds: “the world is the enemy of the partridge, but partridges are their own worst enemy.” In order to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of Kurdish nationhood, the Kurds must themselves seek unity and cohesion, lest they become their own worst enemy.