An Ethnology of the Kurdish People

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An Ethnology of the Kurdish People

The Kurds are a Sunni Muslim people of Indo-European origin and speech who inhabit the mountainous region where the frontiers of Iraq, Iran, Russia, Syria and Turkey come together. Kurdish communities can also be found in Lebanon, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (Etheridge 2009). It is difficult to conclusively determine the exact number of Kurdish people in the world, however, it is estimated that 30-35 million live in various countries around the world (Houston 2009).

In recent decades, Kurds have migrated to European countries and the United States, and a significant Jewish Kurdish community has migrated to Israel. In the United States, there are large Kurdish communities in Tennessee, California, Texas, and New York State (Broadaway 2006: 1). This paper presents a thorough review of major aspects of Kurdish studies including etymology, history, lifestyle, and health of Kurds around the world. The precise origins of the name Kurd are generally unclear.

However, as is well-known, the term Kurd had a rather indiscriminate use in the early medieval Arab-Persian historiography and literature, with an explicit social connotation, meaning “nomad, tent-dweller, shepherd” in the last centuries preceding the Christian Era (Minorsky 1931: 294; Asatrian 2001: 47), as well as “robber, highwayman, oppressor of the weak and treacherer” by the eigth through eleventh centuries A. D. (Driver 1922: 498ff; Asatrian 2009: 22ff). Kurds speak several varieties of Kurdish, an Iranian-Branch Indo-European language. The language itself is very different from Arabic and Turkish languages.

The Kurdish language is sometimes considered to be a language “family” itself because of the linguistic distance between the different dialects, and different branches or tribes of Kurd peoples such as Dimli and Qizilbashi are sometimes treated as separate peoples. Interestingly, the Kurdish language is also a means of tracing kinship and “peoplehood” or clanhood. As Kurds have been geographically separated and subject to different regimes, it is difficult to know which of these dialects and language differences if any are due to splitting off from a common root, and which might reflect migrations of separate peoples.

Major Kurdish language or dialect groups reflect either the major Kurdish peoples or tribes, depending on one’s outlook, and may include some who are not Kurds by definition. The language is written with Latin characters in Turkey and present-day Iraq, and in an adapted Arabic alphabet in Iran and parts of Iraq. Kurds living in Russia and the former Soviet satellite countries use the Cyrillic alphabet. There are many different classifications of Kurdish peoples and languages (Khanem 2005).

The roots of the Kurdish culture can be traced back 8,000 years to the region known as Mesopotamia, often referred as the “cradle of humanity” (Asatrian 2001). Arch? ologists have traced the development of agriculture, domestication of animals, metallurgy, weaving, fired pottery, and development of a record keeping system to the Kurdish who inhabited the region. Kurds have generally lived in about the same region since ancient times. Xenophon noted the fierce resistance of the Kurds to his retreating troops in the Anabasis (Asatrian 2009: 6-8).

Kurds themselves have a long history as a people, including a more or less independent political life that waxed and waned with the fortunes of battle and war (Houston 2009). However, it is clear that throughout most of recorded history, an indigenous Kurdish people has gone through periods of more or less independent rule in various independent and unassociated principalities (Jwaideh 2006: 12-14), called emirates and ruled by sultans or emirs, as well as persecuted life as a minority under other regimes.

The national status of Kurds could at no period be likened to that of ancient peoples like the Hebrews, Egyptians or Romans who had nation states, or even to medieval Poland or England, which were not modern nation states but were usually ruled by more or less cohesive feudal dynasties (Driver 1922). It could be similar to that of Germany prior to its unification in the mid-19th century, however, or comparable to the status of Bohemia prior to World War I (Broadaway & Hamil 2006: 4ff).

During the medieval era, the Kurdish people established independent Kurdish principalities, often times based on clans or tribes. They steadily gained power and influence during the Sassanian period from 224-651 A. D. (Driver 1922). Toward the end of this period, they expanded into the most of the mountainous borderlands of western Persia and succeeded in consolidating their power in these areas (Jwaideh 2006: 13). The emergence of native Kurdish dynasties in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries A. D. s part of a general phenomenon that manifested itself throughout the Iranian lands of the eastern caliphate (Minorsky 1931). This sudden expansion of Iranian energy, which brought Kurds, as well as Khurasanians and Daylamites, to the seats of power, created a pattern that, for all its different local colouring, was similar in stimulation and configuration (Asatrian 2009: 9; Jwaideh 2006: 14). This era produced a great number of powerful Dynasties including the Shaddadid, Marwanid, Hasanwayhid, and ‘Annazids.

However the greatest and most renowned of all the Kurdish dynasties was that of the Ayyubids, founded by Saladin, Muslim sultan and the most famous of Muslim heroes and best known to the Western world for exploits in the Crusades, ruling areas of the Middle East and Africa over Egypt, Northern Iraq, a majority of Syria, and Yemen (Etheridge 2008; 2009). The local Ayyubid dynasts survived with particular longevity following the Mongol invasion in 1260 A. D. and continued to govern under Il Khanid and later Turkmen suzerainty until the Ak Koyunlu conquest in the late fifteenth century (Etheridge 2008). The Mongol invasion, mentioned above, probably created greater destruction and dislocation of the Kurdish people than the Turkish invasions, although its effects were not as permanent (Jwaideh 2006: 16; Driver 1922, 501), although the Mongols appeared to have known of the Kurds’ warlike character even before reaching Kurdistan (Driver 1922, 502).

The havoc wrought by the Mongols was of such a character that many sections of the area were depopulated by massacres and migrations. After a while, Mongol influences ceased as the rise of the Ottoman Empire came to power in the sixteenth century, and the Kurds were deported and the principalities were broken up. The Ottoman centralist policies in the beginning of the 19th century aimed to remove power from the principalities and localities, which directly affected the Kurdish emirs.

Bedirhan Bey, the last emir of the Cizre Bohtan Emirate, initiated an uprising around 1850 against the Ottomans to protect the current structures of the Kurdish principalities. This sparked a string of Kurdish nationalist uprisings throughout the next century, including a movement emerging in 1880 led by Sheik Ubeydullah, who demanded political autonomy or outright independence for Kurds as well as recognition of a Kurdistan state without interference from Turkish or Persian authorities. This uprising was also ultimately suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, and Ubeydullah was exiled to Istanbul.

Kurdish nationalism continued to emerge after World War I after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. This ethno-nationalist resurgence was largely reactionary to the changes taking place in mainstream Turkey, primarily radical secularization with the strongly Muslim Kurds disliked, centralization of power which threatened the power of local chieftains and Kurdish self-sufficiency, and widespread Turkish nationalism in the new Turkish Republic who clearly threatened to marginalize them (Etheridge 2009; Jwaideh 2006).

Some of the Kurdish groups sought self-determination and the championing in the Treaty of Sevres of Kurdish autonomy in the aftermath of World War I, Kemal Ataturk, the leader of Turkey, prevented such a result. On at least one occasion, however, they succeeded and formed the Kingdom of Kurdistan, which lasted from September 1922 until July 1924 (McDowell 1996: 155-163, 194-196). Another self-proclaimed semi-independent Kurdish state was the Republic of Arafat, founded in 1927 and reclaimed by Turkey in September 1930 (Jwaideh 2006: 211).

During the 1920s and 1930s, several large scale Kurdish revolts took place. Following these rebellions, the area of Turkish Kurdistan was put under martial law and a large number of the Kurds were displaced yet again. During the relatively open government of the 1950s, Kurds gained political office and started working within the framework of the Turkish Republic to further their interests by this move towards integration was halted by the Turkish coup d’etat in 1960 (Laciner & Bal 2004: 475-480).

The 1970s saw an evolution in Kurdish nationalism as Marxist political thoughts influenced a new generation of Kurdish nationalists opposed to the feudal authorities who had been a traditional source of opposition to authority, eventually they would form the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, eventually being listed as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, European Union, and NATO (Etheridge 2009; Jwaideh 2006; Houston 2009). By the beginning of 1990, PKK had set up its own local administration in some rural areas.

It had also supposedly changed its goals from Kurdish independence to a negotiated autonomy settlement. Nevertheless, the Turkish army intensified attacks on PKK bases, and isolated PKK from civilians and reduced it to a guerrilla band operating in the mountains. In recent years, Turkey has supposedly relaxed some of its anti-Kurd national policy in order to respond to EU requirements for democratization. However, the Turkish army has been pursuing the PKK into their alleged sanctuaries in northern Iraq, invading Iraq by air as well as by land, with the open approval of the United States (Houston 2009: 28-29).

This, along with many other attacks on Kurdish nationalism by state authorities has maintained its prevalence in the area. R. Khanam tells how in 1931 Ariens Kappers explains explicitly and admittingly that the Kurds, despite their anthropological differences, constitute a truly distinct race compared to other ethnic groups in the region. He summarizes a portrayal of the Kurd of Iraq: “The Kurd is of medium height (1. 66 m. ) with a relatively long body and short limbs. The forehead is wide and the head wide and round. The barchycephalics predominate.

The height of the face is medium. The nose is quite often convex. The Kurd is more hirsute than the Arab. His hair, rather wavy and pliant, is normally dark brown and the eyes black. But Blond hair and blue eyes are also to be encountered, especially in the western regions. The colour of the skin is [clearer] than that of the Arabs, but less fine than that of the Assyrians. The teeth are normal and well-placed. The musculature is good, as is the health, in general, of those who have been observed. ” (Khanam 2005: 481)

Before the spread of Islam in the seventh century A. D. the majority of Kurds practised their own indigenous religions, which today are referred to as Yazdanism (Khanam 2005: 475), which may have stemmed from and eventually replaced those religions, and are still practised among some Kurds. Also, before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century A. D. a large part of the Kurdish population practised Christianity. Kurdish Christians can still be found in small numbers, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish kingdom of Adiabene, together with a large number of its Kurdish citizens, converted Judaism during the first century B. C. (Broadaway 2006).

In the seventh century A. D. Arabs conquered the Kurdish regions and most Kurds were in large part converted to Islam (Etheridge 2009). Today, religious affiliation largely depends in part the clan and language groups of the Kurds. The majority of Kurds (about 60%) are Sunni Muslims of Shafi rite (Meho 1997: 259-280), and this apparently true of almost all Kurmanji Kurds. About a half million or more of the Kurds (five to seven percent) are Shi’ite Muslims, primarily in Iranian Kurdistan. The five pillars of the Islamic faith are: testimony of faith, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Ramadan takes place in the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and lasts for one month. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daylight hours and eat in the evening while visiting with family and friends. There are, however, special rules around children, pregnant women, the sick, and elderly that allows them to eat during this time. The pilgrimage to Mecca is required for every Muslim male and female who is in good health and can afford to travel to the holy city and must do so at least once in their lifetime. Their faith also prohibits the consumption of pork.

There are also Kurdish agnostics, however most Kurds have moderate tendencies toward religion (Broadaway 2006: 4ff). Kurdish music has a long and eventful history like that of the Kurdish people themselves. Traditionally, there are three types of Kurdish classical performers: storytellers, minstrels, and bards. There was no specific music related to the Kurdish princely courts, and instead music performed at night gatherings is considered classical. Several musical forms are found in this genre. Many of these songs are epic in nature and tell stories of Kurdish pastimes, recounting the tales of Kurdish heroes of the past like Saladin.

Story-telling is a highly valued form of communication within Kurd communities. Kurdish dance is a group of traditional hand-holding dances similar to those from the Balkans, Lebanon, and to Iraq. It is a form of round dancing, with a single or a couple of figure dancers often added to the geometrical centre of the dancing circle. According to the Encyclop? dia of Islam, Kurds sing and dance in all of their festivals, birthdays, and marriage ceremonies. These folkloric dances are one of the main factors in distinguishing Kurds from neighbouring Muslim populations (Etheridge 2009).

In Kurdish culture, men and women are treated fairly equally, and women are usually unveiled. Traditional dress for women includes long, colourful and loose-fitting dresses along with headdresses. Gold jewellery is a very popular accessory among women. Traditional headdresses for men is limited to rural areas and very traditional older men. In the United States and parts of Europe, interestingly enough, Kurdish individuals dress in “western” style clothing. In some Kurdish communities in the United States, individuals will wear traditional dress for special holidays, events, or religious ceremonies (Broadaway 2006).

In Kurdish households, family relationships and roles are fairly traditional from a western standpoint. Extended family is extremely important and the Kurdish people are very group-oriented. Kurds believe in marriage and practise monogamy. Muslim Kurds do not believe in Islamic fundamentalism and men and women are not separated for meals, holidays, or special events. Children and the elderly are also highly valued within the family, and the elderly often help take care of the children (Broadaway 2006: 5). Farming is a very important factor for Kurdish communities, and the role of farmer usually pertains to men.

Kurdish women weave rugs, kilims and baskets. There is a lot of socializing and visiting in Kurdish communities (Khanam 2005: 468). Throughout their tumultuous history, Kurdish groups have essentially remained close to their heritage. For instance, the village medicine man is a very important figure in the Kurdish culture, and alternative medicines are highly valued. Western medicine, too, is present but is new to many Kurdish populations in Kurdistan. In the last quarter-century, there has been a huge increase in Kurdish refugees moving to the United States and Europe. This has met complications as of recently.

These refugees are more apt to be sceptical of western medicine and language difference may cause mis-communications. Interactions between western medicines and traditional alternative medicines may be dangerous for those who mix the two. Finally, the Kurdish people do not segregate their women and men; however, men and women may be more comfortable if a practitioner of the same gender treats them. Several suggestions for Healthcare providers include awareness for special dietary needs for Kurds based on their religion, and at the same time know that not all Kurds are Muslim.

Healthcare providers need to recognize and acknowledge the importance of family within the Kurdish culture and should use a qualified interpreter when needed. Healthcare providers should also seek to use a combination of alternative and modern medicines in treatment. Kurdish refugees who come to the United States from the Middle East may need to be screened for symptoms of Hepatitis A and B, Malaria, Meningitis, Stomach or Intestinal parasites, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and Post-traumatic stress disorder as many Kurdish refugees immigrate from countries affected by war and/or violence (Broadaway 2006: 2-4).

This thorough review of nearly all major relevant aspects of Kurdish studies interprets a number of important issues concerning the ethnic history, identity, religion, language, and literature of the Kurds. The present data creates a solid base for defining the relative chronology and facts of the reputable Kurdish civilization.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 12 November 2016

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