LOCATION: Turkey; Iraq; Syria; Iran; Lebanon; Armenia; Azerbaijan; Germany
POPULATION: 5–22 million
Kurds have almost never had a country of their own. "Kurdistan" is the mountainous area where the borders of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey meet. The average altitude is 6,000 feet (1,950 meters) and much of the land is inaccessible (difficult to reach). For most of their history Kurds have been a part of the Persian and Ottoman empires. (The Persian Empire became modern Iran. The Ottoman Empire became modern Turkey.)
From 1920 to 1923, an independent Kurdistan existed. In 1923, Kurdistan was divided between the two countries that are Iraq and Turkey today. Since then, the Kurds have been divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They have struggled to build an independent nation. Guerrilla fighters called peshmerga (one who faces death) fight to win territory for Kurdistan. The long years of war and hostility between Iran and Iraq have put the Kurds in a very difficult position. They have large communities in both countries and are constantly caught in the fighting between the two countries. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a radical group that campaigns for Kurdish independence. The PKK is a terrorist organization. Sometimes they resort to killing of civilians to further their cause. Because of this, many Kurds oppose them.
Population estimates for the Kurds range from 5 million to 22 million. More Kurds live in Turkey than anywhere else. They are the second-largest ethnic group in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. They are the third-largest group (after Azerbaijanis) in Iran. Kurds also live in Lebanon, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Germany, and other places across Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Although they live among them, Kurds are ethnically unrelated to Turks, Arabs, and Iranians.
The Kurdish language is related to Persian (or Farsi), the language spoken in Iran. Kurdish, like Persian, has also borrowed many words from the Arabic language. Until 1991, it was illegal to speak Kurdish in Turkey except at home. The skillful use of language is highly valued by Kurds. Cleverness and a command of poetry are considered important skills.
Modern Kurdish names are mostly Arabic or Persian. The mother usually names her child. Kurds did not traditionally use surnames (last names), so most modern surnames are tribal designations or geographic locations.
Modern-day Kurds are descendants of ancient Indo-European peoples known as the Medes. They moved into the Middle East 4,000 years ago. The Muslim hero Saladin (Salah Ad-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, AD 1137–93) was a Kurd, as were many of his soldiers. Saladin became the sultan (king) of Egypt and Syria in 1174.
A well-known folktale, "Kawe the Blacksmith and Zohak," explains the origin of Nawruz, the Persian New Year celebration. According to the story, Zohak was an evil king who enslaved the Kurds. One year, on the first day of spring, Kawe the Blacksmith led the Kurds in a revolt against Zohak. They surrounded Zohak's palace, and Kawe charged past the guards. He grabbed Zohak by the neck with a powerful blacksmith's hand, and struck Zohak on the head with his hammer. The Kurds set bonfires on the mountaintops to announce their freedom from Zohak. The event is said to have taken place around 700 BC .
The Kurds at first resisted the Islamic invasion during the seventh century AD . They gave in after the Islamic victory near the modern-day Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya in AD 643. Most Kurds are now Sunni Muslims (a branch of Islam). About one-fifth are Shi'ite Muslims, most of whom live in Iran.
Many Kurds belong to Sufi (Islam mystic) brotherhoods. They meet to chant and dance together to worship Allah. The Sufi brotherhoods are very important in Kurdish village life. There are about 1 million Kurdish 'Alawis (a secretive faith based on and distinct from Islam) in Turkey, and 40,000 to 70,000 Yazidis mostly in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yazidism is a small religion that combines aspects of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. A very few Kurds are Christian.
The most important Kurdish holiday is the Nawruz , or Persian New Year. It is celebrated at the time of the spring equinox, or first day of spring (March 21). There are special foods, fireworks, dancing, singing, and poetry recitations. Spring flowers (such as tulips, hyacinths, and pussy willows) are cut, new clothes are worn, and pottery is smashed for good luck. Families spend the day in the country, enjoying nature and the fresh growth of spring. During the thirteen days after Nawruz, families visit each other and visit the graves of dead relatives. Everyone tries to resolve any conflicts or misunderstandings that may be carried from the year before.
Even though most Kurds are longer nomads, they continue to celebrate important dates associated with that way of life. These include lambing time, celebration before moving the herds to summer pastures, shearing time, and the time of return to the village in the fall. Islamic holidays vary in importance among individual Kurds.
The greatest occasion for celebration in a Kurd's life is marriage. Kurds marry young, at about seventeen or eighteen. The bride is dressed in gold bracelets, earrings and necklaces, and a new dress and shoes. The highlight of the wedding is the public procession from the home of the bride to the home of the groom.
After they reach the groom's home, the veiled bride enters the house and sits quietly in a corner of the room while the guests feast and dance outside. In some areas, there are horse-riding displays.
Parents and relatives hold a feast for the birth of a child, especially the birth of a first son. Most boys are circumcised during the first week after birth. In some more traditional Kurdish communities, boys are circumcised at age ten, followed by a huge party.
The Kurds are very family oriented. Family lines are patriarhcal—traced along the father's ancestry. Marriage between first cousins is common. A man often marries the daughter of one of his father's brothers. This practice is common among many cultures.
Tribal leadership among the Kurds is inherited. However, local leaders are chosen for their personal qualities, including integrity, generosity, and skill at dealing with government officials.
Most Kurds live in small villages in remote mountain regions. A typical Kurdish house is made of mud-brick with a wooden roof. In the summer, Kurds sleep on the roof where it is cooler. Some homes have under-ground rooms to use in the winter to escape the cold. There is rarely indoor plumbing. Water is carried into the house in jars and cans from a central village well. There is no central heating.
The few remaining nomadic Kurds live in tents made of blackened hides. Extended family members cluster their tents together in small communities.
There are only a few Kurdish towns: Diyarbakir (a sort of capital for Kurds) and Van in Turkey; Erbil and Kirkuk in Iraq; and Mahabad in Iran.
Few Kurds marry non-Kurds. Couples may live with one or the other's family after marrying, but they have rooms of their own and separate housekeeping arrangements. Men and women both work in the fields, and boys and girls start helping at an early age.
Kurdish women were traditionally not veiled except during parts of the marriage ceremony. They freely associated with men in most gatherings. If there was no qualified male heir, a woman could become a tribal leader. Even today, living in countries with conservative Islamic governments, many Kurdish women fight alongside the men as peshmerga (guerilla fighters). More than 1,000 peshmerga are women. The radical Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) encourages freedom for women.
Traditionally, Kurdish women wore colorful skirts and blouses. Men wore baggy, colorful pants with a plain shirt having very full sleeves, which were tied at the elbow. Bright-colored vests and sashes (often red) were worn over the shirt. A man wore a blue silk turban on his head, and often completed his costume with a dagger worn at the waist. Traditionally, nomadic Kurdish men shaved their heads and wore long moustaches. Women wore bright, colorful, heavily embroidered clothing.
Traditional dress is becoming rare. Kurds generally dress like the people of the countries where they live. In Iran, women must wear a cloth covering their hair and clothes. In Turkey, on the other hand, the government has banned women from covering their hair in universities and public jobs. Women there are required to wear more Western-style clothing. In Iraq, men wear woolen coats and vests, checkered head-scarves, and baggy pants. Women wear the Muslim-style dress, often with baggy trousers underneath. The traditional Kurdish shoe, the klash, is a soft crocheted mocassin with a flexible sole.
Bulghur (cracked wheat) used to be the staple food for Kurds. Rice is becoming more popular. The Kurdish diet includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Cucumbers are especially common. In the valleys where grapes are grown, raisins and grape jam are common. Meat is only eaten on special occasions. The usual beverage is tea. Kurdish specialties include a type of wafer bread eaten for breakfast, and any kind of grain cooked in whey.
A recipe for a flatbread appears on the next page.
Note: For crispier bread, increase baking time until the bread is spotted with brown all over.
Wrap the baked bread in a clean kitchen towel to keep warm while rolling out and baking the rest of the dough. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 loaves.
Adapted from Alford, Jeffrey, and Naomi Duguid. Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker's Atlas . New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995, p. 175–76.
Schools are not widely available. When they are, classes are not taught in Kurdish, and so many children find school too difficult and drop out. The Kurdish literacy (the ability to read and write) rate is very low. Girls often do not attend school at all. Tradition holds that they are needed at home.
Kurdish culture has a rich oral tradition. Most popular are epic poems called lawj . These often tell of adventure in love or battle.
Kurdish literature first appeared in the seventh century AD . In 1596, Sharaf Khan, Emir of Bitlis, composed a history of the Kurds in Persian called the Sharafnama . Almost one hundred years later, in 1695, a great national epic called the Memozin was written in Kurdish by Ahmed Khani.
Traditional music is played on flute, drums, and the ut-ut (similar to a guitar). The music of Sivan Perwar, a Kurdish pop music performer, was banned in Turkey and Iraq in the 1980s, so he left the region to live and work in Sweden.
Most Kurds are farmers and sheep-and goat-herders. They sell products from their flocks such as leather, goat cheese, and wool. Women make carpets and cloth to sell at market. Some Kurds grow tobacco. Turkish Kurds grow cotton. A few mountain Kurds are still nomadic herders.
In towns, Kurds work as shopkeepers, plumbers, teachers, bankers, and so on. Kurds work as unskilled laborers in large Turkish cities, as well as in Baghdad and Mosul in Iraq, and Tehran in Iran. Some urban Kurds work as bricklayers, butchers, cattle dealers, and small traders. The oil fields in Turkey and Iraq have attracted many Kurdish workers in recent times. Those Kurds who are able to go abroad find a variety of jobs and send the money back home.
Popular sports include soccer, wrestling, hunting and shooting, and cirit , a traditional sport that involves throwing a javelin while mounted on horseback. Camel-and horse-racing are popular in rural areas.
Only men go out at night. They often sit at tea houses and cafes and play backgammon or dominoes. A favorite pastime is to listen to tapes or live singers at cafes. Singers have only recently been allowed to sing publicly in Kurdish.
Carpet-weaving is by far the most significant Kurdish folk art. Other crafts are embroidery, leather-working, and metal ornamentation. Kurds are especially known for copper-working.
The greatest problem for the Kurds is the unwillingness of the nations in which they live to give them cultural independence. Kurds do not currently want an independent state. They only wish to be allowed to maintain their own language and culture.
During the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), the government of Iraq engaged in genocide to stop the Kurds from fighting for Iran. Thousands of villages were destroyed and tens of thousands of Kurds were murdered and buried in mass graves. The Iraqi government also used nerve gas (purchased from European governments) against Kurdish civilians and Iranian troops. These horrible attacks killed thousands of civilians.
One of the worst massacres occurred in the Iraqi Kurd town of Halabja. The entire population of the town was killed. After the Persian Gulf War (1991), thousands more Kurds were forced into refugee camps. Some of these areas are now protected by the United Nations (UN).
Since 1991, the government of Turkey has attacked Kurdish civilian centers inside the UN-protected areas. Many thousands of Kurds have now fled to Iran. The government there is less hostile, but it has trouble supporting millions of refugees. To make matters worse, there is fighting even among Kurds. Two rival Kurdish groups have fought small wars over who truly represents the Kurdish people. Meanwhile, the Kurdish civilians continue to suffer.
Alford, Jeffrey, and Naomi Duguid. Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker's Atlas . New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995.
Bulloch, John, and Harvey Morris. No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds. New York: Viking, 1992.
King, John. Kurds. New York: Thomson Learning, 1994.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: The Middle East and North Africa , 1st ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
Embassy of Turkey, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.turkey.org/turkey/ , 1998.
Human Rights. The Kurds. [Online] Available http://www.humanrights.de/~kurdweb/children , 1998.
Kurds. [Online] Available http://www.itlink.se/lasse/Sol/Library/Struggle/kurds.html , 1998.
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