Historians battle to save the remnants of Kurdish culture
When Mazhar Khaleghi was arrested by Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in 1980, he says his only crime was being himself. A sitar player and singer of Kurdish folk songs, Khaleghi was something of a pop star among Kurds. He was also general manager of the Kurdish-language service of Iranian Radio and Television in the western Iranian city of Kermanshah. This made him an influential, and apparently a dangerous figure for the new order, which showed little tolerance for minority ethnic and religious groups.
Khaleghi spent 66 days in Tehran’s Qaser Prison. Upon his release, he fled across the joint border with Iraq, aided by Kurdish Peshmerga.
Thirty-six years later, Khaleghi is a man on a mission. He wants to preserve traditional Kurdish culture before it is entirely forgotten — or erased by the invading hordes. Today, the invader is Daesh. Yesterday it was Saddam Hussein’s Baathist forces and the IRGC. Before that, it was the British and the Ottomans.
Scattered across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, Kurdish culture and folklore has been slipping away slowly due to wars, oppressive regimes and migration from the homeland. “We have lost our lands—they’re gone, and we’re probably never going to get those back,” says Khaleghi, 79. “But we have to fight to save what is left of our culture, our music, our traditions, essentially what makes us Kurds. If we lose that, we have lost everything.”
The Kurdish Heritage Institute was established in the Iraqi Kurdish City of Sulaimania in 2003, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Funded by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as well as private donors, the institute was tasked with gathering, preserving and developing Kurdish oral culture. Today, as some 150,000 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fight against Daesh, Khaleghi’s team — made up of about a dozen ethnomusicologists, anthropologists and historians — is fighting to save the Kurdish identity.
Sense of Urgency
There is a heightened sense of urgency now, says Khaleghi, as Daesh continues to push closer to the Kurdish-administered areas of northern Iraq, and Turkey tightens the noose around its Kurdish population.
In April 2015, Daesh made headlines when videos emerged showing fighters using sledgehammers and automatic weapons to destroy ancient sculptures in Hatra, Nineveh and Mosul. UNESCO head Irina Bokova declared it “an appalling strategy of cultural cleansing.” And several reports have alluded to Daesh’s reliance on the sale of antiquities to fund its operations, which has raked in somewhere between $4 million and $7 billion.
“People are less inclined to talk, to share,” says Khaleghi. “They are afraid. And it is also dangerous for me and my staff to travel to those rural areas where Kurdish culture has been kept alive.” Further complicating the matter is the region’s stagnating economy which has hit the institute hard.
They had an initial budget of 50 million Iraqi Dinars [then about $41,000], which was slashed in half two years ago when the battle with Daesh began. “This is no longer a priority for the Kurdish regional government,” laments Khaleghi. “Our budget cut meant layoffs, and I don’t have the staff I used to have. This has taken a toll on our work, too.”
Still, the work at the institute continues. Its state-of-the-art in-house recording studio has restored hundreds of Kurdish folkloric songs from damaged and decaying vinyl discs, and produced hundreds of CDs of the Iraqi Kurdish orchestra performing Kurdish music in their original format of acapella or with traditional sitar and daff (drums).
Most Kurdish villages had their own distinct songs, which with the mass destruction of villages across all parts of Kurdistan through ethnic cleansing campaigns, were at serious risk of extinction. There is also an ongoing project to record the testimonies of Yazidis who survived the siege of Sinjar in August 2014.
Nearing completion is another project—compiling a dictionary for the Macho dialect of the Kurdish language, the first form of Kurdish used for writing over a century ago. With more than 35,000 words in this Macho dictionary, Khaleghi hopes it will be a step toward keeping the language alive. Also known as Hawrami, the dialect is mainly spoken in the Hawraman area past Halabja, close to the Iranian border and in pockets across the southern fringes of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Both the Kakai and Shabaks speak a form of Macho.
So it is Written
Not too far down the road from the Kurdish Heritage Institute, there is a large concrete complex which houses the Zheen Archive. Zheen is Kurdish for life.
There, two brothers have committed themselves to the collection and preservation of ancient Kurdish manuscripts, documents and images that serve as testament to the contribution of Kurdish intellectuals in the greater Middle East. These include newspaper clippings about Kurds or poetry written by Kurds, or foreign language books on Kurds penned by foreigners.
The bookshelves are lined with items that would make any Arabist salivate, such as Dar-ul-Islam, a travel-memoir by Mark Sykes of Sykes-Picot fame, dated 1908; or another one titled To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise by Major Ely Banister Soane. Soane served as a political officer of Great Britain in northern Iraq from 1919 to 1921, and is sometimes referred to as Kurdistan’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“In the Ottoman days, people tended to identify themselves according to the village they came from, and not their ethnicity — all this changed after World War I,” explains Rafiq Salih, director of the Zheen Archive. “So for example, Osman bin Dawoud Al Erzerumi, who was an intellectual from the city of Erzerum [now part of Turkey], wrote in Arabic, but he was a Kurd.”
In that period, Salih explains, learned men wrote in Arabic, Persian or Ottoman Turkish, “Writing in Kurdish on academic issues, on Islam or history, was looked down upon. It was seen as backward. Only poetry was written in Kurdish and that only became fashionable in the latter half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries.”
A book authored by Erzerumi — dated about 300 years ago — is currently among the oldest documents at Zheen Archives. It was obtained in a village somewhere in Iran’s Kurdistan, but its original provenance was the city of Kars in Turkey. Salih shows scans of the 254-page book, titled Tafsir Al Mushkilat Wa Kashif Al Ughlutat (Explaining problems and revealing misconceptions), which points out the perils of some authors misinterpreting the Quran. Written in the calligraphy style of the period, it is special in that it references 400-500 other sources.
Three handwritten copies exist of this book; one is currently in Saudi Arabia, and the other in Turkey. Anything dating before the 1920s was handwritten, explains Salih, as the printing press was only brought to Iraq’s Kurdistan region in 1919 by Major Soane. “We have now digitized every Kurdish-language document that we have in our possession up to 1975–newspapers, books, and letters,” he says. “These documents are treated like a patient who goes to the hospital. We make sure they are restored and preserved.” “We have items in this library that money cannot buy. If anything were to happen, and these books were gone, that means Kurdish history is gone,” says Salih.
Zheen Archives emerged as a private initiative, not a government project, in 2004, when Rafiq and Sadiq Salih decided to work on establishing a Kurdish national archive. “Every country should have a national library and archive—that is the duty of the government,” explains Rafiq. But [Iraq’s] Kurdistan region has had a government since 1992 and until now they haven’t done it. So after the fall of Saddam, my brother and I felt somebody needed to work on it or else it would never get done.”
With more than 40,000 historical documents, this ambitious endeavor has resulted in what Salih calls “the richest library of its kind in this area.” They have printed more than 176 books, and all items are categorized according to language…Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, French or English.
Salih’s brother, Sadiq, is in charge of collecting and managing the Archives’ department for photographs and images.
The archive has amassed thousands of images, with some prominent families donating rare collections. It also has rare photos of the ill-fated Kurdish Republic of Mahabad (1946-1947).
But like the Kurdish Heritage Institute, the regional government’s budget cuts have also hit the archive hard. As a non-governmental organization, they receive some funding but, since the cuts, most of the staff has been working on a volunteer basis. “I think we — as Kurds — are going in the wrong direction,” laments Sadiq Salih. “All remnants of our past are getting damaged day by day, and will be lost forever if we don’t take this work seriously now. The new generations are not aware either, and they are not very concerned. This is the duty of our government, because frankly if they fail to provide adequate support to protect and preserve Kurdish history and culture, then they will become responsible for its loss.”