Problems In Kurdish Historiography

By Prof. Mehrdad Izady

Compilation and organization of Kurdish history is a time consuming task. Happily, the cause is the sheer volume of available primary sources of information, and not the dearth. Located as they have been in the geographical heartland of the greater Middle East, and commanding vast natural and human resources, the ancestors of Kurds have been inevitably and amply recorded in man's earliest experimentations with writing. After all, Kurds do share their past with all the other Middle Eastern peoples who constitute the oldest literate societies on this planet.

Even if the Kurds had meticulously rejected the idea of recording their own history, they could not have escaped being recorded by all the myriad literate peoples in Mesopotamia and beyond with whom they were in sustained contact and interaction. Luckily, Kurds have neither abstained from writing history themselves, nor have they been ignored by the historians and chroniclers of the neighboring cultures. It is simply the lack of research not research material that lies at the root of the current undeveloped state of Kurdish historiography. The business and military records of these inter- regional transactions on clay tablets richly supplement the wealth of surviving classical and medieval histories and chronicles to assist the compilation of Kurdish history. In these sources, Kurdish history is already recorded in detail and already can be found in place in almost every major university and public library in the world. One might properly ask, why then is the Kurdish history in need of compilation and writing if it is already there?

In all of these pre-modern sources, Kurdish history is recorded and written inasmuch as it has constituted a part of the greater human experience of the Middle East. In those earliest civilized parts of the world, history was only rarely compartmentalized and apportioned to bolster or demean various ethno-linguistic groups. Only when a new group of people emerged from obscurity to dominate the Middle Eastern scene, (as the Arabs in the 7th century or the Mongols in the 13th), did an exception to this trend emerge, and then for a short time. It is foolhardy, therefore, to apply the contemporary sociopolitical connotations attached to ethnicity to the pre-modern societies of the Middle East. For those earlier peoples religious persuasion followed by economic life-style surpassed other factors in forming their group feelings. The element of language, which mattered more to the Europeans (from the ancient Greeks to the modern French) often seemed irrelevant to the pre-modern Middle Easterners. And paradoxically, it is on this single factor that modern, European-devised and internationally accepted definitions of ethnicity dwell.

To extract from these sources that portion of the Middle Eastern history and human legacy which belongs specifically to the speakers of Kurdish (both of the current Indo-European and earlier Hurrian type), is a Herculean task indeed. It is a task more suitable to an entire state-sponsored apparatus than the undertaking of an individual or single group. State-sponsored endeavor is precisely how other ethno-linguistic groups who possess an independent state in the region have compiled and written their own ethnic history. By founding and funding state-sponsored academies and grants to universities' liberal arts departments committed to the task, ethnic-oriented compartments of history have been established and popularized.

By the advent of "nation-statism" in the 19th-century Europe-a notion fully dedicated to the altar of languagebased ethnicity-ethnic histories began to be written to bolster the legitimacy of the linguistically demarcated nation-states. They became the sine quo non among the priorities of the new ' national ' governments both to legitimize their ethnic authenticity and legalize their claim to the territory they called their ethnic home. Old general histories were combed for information on a specific ethno-linguistic group, and what was missing was filled in by interpolation, extrapolation or simple fabrication. Bernard Lewis provides eye-opening examples of how Middle Eastern "nation-" states achieved this in his work aptly titled, History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented.

Lacking the power of state apparatus and funding, or from an organized non-governmental philanthropic class, the "ethnic" history of the stateless Kurd is yet to be compiled from the mass of disparate sources. The world is no longer satisfied with the account of general, collective achievements of peoples. It desires and values the specificity of compartmentalized history and the division of human achievements among its contributors: those who cannot delineate their specific share, are declared historically marginal, their culture primitive, and even their claim to their homeland tenuous. Thus ranked inferior, the heritage of any such people is exhibited in natural history museums not art or archaeology museums. Their history and human experience becomes subject of study by anthropologists, but not sociologists or historians. They will occupy the gray areas separating raw nature from civilization, one that is currently labeled as "primitive cultures," and exhibited at natural history museums alongside minerals, plants and animals. Their claim to self governance is similarly discounted in favor of the "enlightening" patronage of an imperial sovereign or annexation to an existing "orderly" modern state as hedge against "instability." Rank-speculation born to ignorance of the speculator has condemned many illustrious culture of past to marginality, not just that of the Kurds. The brilliant civilization of Meso-America is still struggling to shed its image of "primitiveness." The Mayans and Inkas, like the Kurds lack well-paid academic lobbyists and advocates to fend for their rich cultural legacy.

Lacking ready-to-use textbooks on their heritage, these cannot even convince their own young of the value of their heritage, let alone jaded outside professionals. Like the Kurds, the Inka, Maya and Aztec cultures are still displayed at natural history museums and defined by anthropologists.

Similar rank-speculation has been at work in regard to the ancient Hurrian ancestors of the Kurds. Writing of the Hurrians, G. Wilhelm notes this illogic and tries to pinpoint its source.

"The Hurrians were one of the most important ancient"

Eastern civilizations, and yet we have far less information, linguistic as well as historical and cultural, about them than we do about the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Hittites, or [even] the Canaanites." He then laments "the very contradiction between the obvious importance of the Hurrians' role in the ancient Eastern world and the fragmentary evidence about it has given rise to a variety of assessments and even to rank speculation."

Oddly, this is exactly what should be said of the state of thescholarly endeavor dedicated to the study of the historical role and cultural contribution of the descendents of the Hurrians: the Kurds. In fact the odious "rank speculation" vis-à-vis the Kurds is also fully operational. The image of Kurds as "simple tribal nomads" (if not mention predator, bandit or barbarian) lurking by the wayside of history and cultural currents, is espoused even by those who profess Kurdology as their scholarly focus.

In 1965 Thomas Bois, the contributor of the entry "Kurd" in the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, wrote a well known general book on the Kurds, which he named, Connasissance des kurdes ("Knowing the Kurds"). It was translated into English the following year, and titled The Kurds. In the introduction to his book, Bois repeats Vladimir Minorsky's account of the archaic existence of the Kurds and their heavy interaction with Mesopotamia-an account originally published in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia in 1913. Having repeated, but hardly grasped Minorsky's pioneering work, one would be hard pressed to find any more demeaning and disparaging adjectives than those chosen by Bois to describe the society and civilization in Kurdistan with which he intends to acquaint the reader.

"While [the Assyrian king] Sennacherib was engaged in organizing the provinces of Babylon," Bois informs his readers, "the Medes, the highlanders of Zagros, who up to that time had been only one of many barbarous mountain tribes leading a nomadic life or settling in miserable villages…" Of course the reader is never informed by Bois of the source or sources that led him to determine the "barbarous" nature of the mountain tribes of Kurdistan or the "miserable" state of their villages. And this, by the way, is from a friend of the Kurds and a putative "Kurdologist."

It is nothing new that by nature man ranks lowest in importance what he knows the least about. He is most resistant to relinquish the comfort of what is known for the uncertainty and effort of learning the unknown, even if the known is manifestly wrong. I have written at length for the Kurdish public on the manifestations of this dismissive attitude by scrutinizing the conclusions drawn from the archaeological excavations at the ancient mound of Godin east of Dinawar in southeastern Kurdistan, Iran. There, the archaeologist have now found the earliest physical proofs for existence of grape wine and barley beer. Who were the inventors?

Overlooking the fact that grapes and barely are natives of the Zagros-Taurus mountains and first domesticated there; that grapes don't grow in the hot marshlands and saline soils of the southern Mesopotamian plains in Iraq, the archaeologists involved in the excavation at Godin bypassed the indigenous cultures of the Kurdish mountains and squarely attributed the invention of both commodities to-the Sumerians of southern Iraq! At Godin the beer vats were found in a room also stocked with what appeared to be clay balls for use by military slingers. Classical Graeco-Roman historians have consistently ascribed this form of warfare to the peoples of the Zagros, and particularly those whom they call the Kurti, i.e., the Kurds. What can sling balls do to change the historical convention when even the irrefutable facts of geography and botany cannot? How can the Hurrian ancestors of the Kurds claim credit for what is dug up from their ancient home towns for the first time anywhere in world, without upsetting what G. Wilhelm properly calls the current "rank-speculation"? In a paper read to American Anthropological Association in December 1994, Dr. Virginia Badler of the University of Toronto, who now heads the ongoing excavations at Godin, struggles to maintain the status quo by explaining away the physical evidence that refutes it. Thus she explains the existence of the sling balls as another "evidence" that the Sumerians were the inventors of beer and wine. To amplify this manifest subterfuge, she states that "at that time, clay sling balls were weapons of war everywhere." We, of course, are never informed of the provenance of these "some" reports, and how they compare to ubiquitous reports in the ancient and classical sources that slings were the weapon of choice of the Kurds.

To the delight of common sense-and Kurds-in the past four years, other archaeological mounds in Kurdistan like Haji Firuz, northwest of Mahabad and Titris, southwest of Adiyaman have provided further evidence for invention of grape wine in Kurdistan, pre-dating Godin by 2500 years. One wonders how the evidence from Haji Firuz and Titris are going to be explained away by the dogmatist such as V. Badler.

The resistance among the scholars of ancient history to give credit to the Hurrians for their fundamental role in evolution and enrichment of the Middle Eastern-Mediterranean civilization, is precisely that which denies the development and reconstruction of the rest of Kurdish history, from the time of the Hurrians to the opening of the 20th century. In neither case has the dearth of source-material been the problem. What has been, is the apprehension against the opening of the proverbial Pandora's box. This could, as it has now begun in the case of the Hurrian history, call for a major revision of our current standard texts and curricula on historical and cultural evolution of the Middle East and the Mediterranean world, requiring a re-ranking of its traditional contributors.

Setting aside the limitations deriving from the established rank-speculations, one might properly ask: "but have the Kurds contributed anything worth recovering or reporting?" Let us use cold logic one more time. By virtue of their geographical centrality in the greater Middle East-home of the oldest continuous civilizations on earth-Kurds should have inevitably contributed to its formation and transmission in some appreciable level. Then how is one to explain at the face of this logic the fact that no archaeology museum in the world at present exhibits an artifact identified as Kurdish? The answer lies both in deliberate and in faulty misidentification; and it does not stop at artifacts. Allow me to give an example.

This year marks the 1,100th anniversary of one the greatest minds in the history of the Kurds and the Islamic civilization, Abu-Hanifa Ahmad Dinawari. In the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam in 1913, Abu-Hanifa is identified by C. Brockelmann as "Arabic philologist and scientist." Now, "Arabic" in the academic circles is held to mean one who writes his works in Arabic languages, and thus belongs to the Arabic language tradition. This is as misleading as identifying all those people who today write their works in English as "British," and then expecting the readers not to draw the wrong ethnic and national connection from the term. In reality, however, the confusion between the two was hoped for rather than feared, as can presently be seen.

At the beginning of the 20th century, various ethnic histories had begun to be written, and ethnic groups were clamoring to appropriate for their own respective history and heritage whatever could be appropriated. The Encyclopaedia was just helping along with the process. But if there was tongue-incheek double talk in identifying Abu-Hanifa as "Arabic," in 1913, it was eliminated when the second edition of the Encyclopaedia was issued in 1968. B. Lewin in this new edition begins the biography of Abu-Hanifa by straightforwardly calling him an "Arab scholar of the 3rd/9th century." This unmistakable pronouncement by Lewin of Abu- Hanifa 's ethnic affiliation is made despite the fact he then proceeds to relate all of the traditions regarding the strong Iranic personality and sentiments manifest in the works of Abu-Hanifa - feelings which brought him into disfavored in Arab circles at the time.

Lewin relates the fact that Abu-Hanifa had no Arab blood in his ancestry, that his grandfather Wanand was still a non-Muslim, that Abu-Hanifa was born and died in Dinawar in southeastern Kurdistan, that… And despite knowing and relating all these, he finds it not strange to begin his piece by unabashedly calling Abu-Hanifa the "Arab scholar of the 3rd/9th century"! Such blatant misidentification as this is not rejected by the editors of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, simply because to them all Muslims are Arabs until proven otherwise. One would naturally expect from the editors of a work published in Holland to completely leave out the question of the nationality of the personages they include in the Encyclopaedia, a question that should be immaterial to the station of a great scholar. But if the question of nationality is not deemed trivial by the editors, they are bound to accuracy and impartiality in making it. The fact that not a single scholar is ever identified as Kurdish in the thousands of pages of that encyclopaedia, while myriad of manifestly non-Arab scholars like Abu-Hanifa are called straightforwardly "Arab," is evidence that: 1) the question of nationality is not immaterial to the editors of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, and 2) Arabs are their ethnic group of choice. Childish? Yes. But also true.

But it is not just the Arabs and their advocates who take from Kurds. Here is how the entry on Abu-Hanifa begins in the new Encyclopaedia Iranica: "Abu-Hanifa Dinavari, grammarian, lexicographer, astronomer, mathematician, and Islamic traditionalist of Persian origin…" Kurds have not yet thought of claiming the legacy of their own prestigious native son, and Arabs and Persians are clamoring over his appropriation. This open theft is certainly an inadvertent tribute to the high scientific station of Abu-Hanifa that so many alien peoples go through so much trouble to claim him for their own heritage.

Since there is no clear share yet cut out from the common Middle Eastern historical and cultural heritage for the Kurdish nation, the editors of the Encyclopaedia of Islam and Encyclopaedia Iranica, like most modern authors, are loathe to give to a people-the Kurds-what that people have not yet claimed themselves. Why rock the safe boat of the status quo, if the only injured party still has his head in the sand? At a time when even the living Kurds have to "prove" they are Kurds, how can an 1,100-year-old first rate scientist and historian be identified as a Kurd? Abu-Hanifa wrote in Arabic and was a Muslim, he must have been an Arab-an ethnic Arab, in the infinite wisdom of the editors of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the New Edition. Likewise, because Dinawar is within the political borders of modern Iran, Abu-Hanifa can only be a Persian in the minds the editors of the Encyclopaedia Iranica. Let us contrast the importance and yet obscurity of Abu-Hanifa with the unimportance and yet fame of the Turkish traveller Evliya Celebi, to perhaps understand the mechanism involved in fostering pride in a national history and culture.

The 17th-century Eveliya Celebi, whose lifetime achievement was restricted to keeping a very good diary, is now hailed as a world champion of knowledge. This is as much from Ankara as from America and Holland. He has been fawned upon as a supremely keen mind; every bit of his travel diary made subject of doctoral dissertations, translations and intense commentaries, and published in fancy editions, all out of proportions to the merit of his "I came, I saw, I wrote" diary. As if this is insufficient, a foundation has now been dedicated to Evliya Celebi at a major university in United States. All lovers of knowledge should delight in works of this magnitude lavished on a mere traveller and hope that even more will be lavished on men of the scope and substance of Abu-Hanifa.

But this is not likely to occur. The reason? These accolades and honors have little to do with the achievements of Evliya Celebi. It is the Turkish people and history that is being celebrated and ranked-a first-rate Evliya Celebi for the first-rate Turkish culture. By contrast, the Kurd, Abu-Hanifa Ahmad Dinawari, one of the stars of Islamic and world civilization, languishes in obscurity on his 1,100th anniversary, because his tutelary nation, the Kurds, are rank-speculated as lowly and second-rate.

The low esteem currently ascribed to the historical role of the Kurds is also pervasive among the modern Kurds themselves. This is true or they would have strived to alter it. There is of course a reason for this, and that is lack of eduction of Kurds in Kurdish history. Kurds grow up studying highly politicized and historically doctored texts prepared by local state education ministries, and aimed at nothing remotely conducive to learning of Kurdish past or present. They grow up boasting of the grandeur of the Persian Cyrus, the Ottoman Süleyman and the Arab Gamal Abdul Nasser, more or less with the same zeal as a Persian, Turk or Arab. The Kurd is subjected to the same indoctrination as these others; they read the same texts; they listen to the same broadcasts; they see the same propaganda billboards. Why not the same zeal? And when the prestigious Encyclopaedia of Islam unreservedly pronounces Abu- Hanifa an Arab, while Encyclopaedia Iranica calls him a Persian, how would a Kurds identify with him, let alone celebrating his anniversary? There are no "Encyclopaedia of Kurds" to come to his rescue-yet.

Barred from studying their own history and heritage in their schools as students, Kurds naturally find only a few political figures around whose prestige to converge and strengthen their threatened patriotism. Consequently, the modern Kurdish intellectuals end up exulting dead and dubious political figures and tribal chiefs like Simko and Yezdanshir, instead of taking immense pride, which they can rightly take, in the likes of Abu-Hanifa Dinawari. Were the Kurds able to treat Abu-Hanifa as the Turks treat Evliya Celebi, a befitting, world-class Kurdish national hero would be born.

And Abu-Hanifa would not be alone. Every year marks some anniversary of the lives and achievements of Kurdish intellectuals and luminaries of the past. Last year marked the 300th anniversary of Ahmad Khani's writing of the national epic of Mem o Zin; This year the 1,100 anniversary of Abu-Hanifa; 1997 ushers in the 400th anniversary of the writing of the Sharafnama-the first-known pan-Kurdish history by Sharafiddin Bitlisi. And 1998 is the 1800th anniversary of Lucian, one of the greatest epistemologists, rhetoricians and satirists of the Graeco-Roman world.

Lucian, one of the star of classical Greek literature, a Kurd? Born an raised in Samsat, southeast of Adiyaman, Lucian in his writings takes pride in being able to speak and compose in various Greek dialects, so well, he reports, that in Antioch he passed as an Ionian; in Athens as an Antiochian. Lucian is amused that none suspected that Greek was not his native language, and that he was in fact a Soran Kurd. He learned Greek when hired as a boy to do household chores for a local Roman administrator in whose household Greek served as the lingua franca. Like a true Kurd, Lucian often writes of his preference for his mountainous homeland of Kurdistan over the bountiful plains of the others.

Hopefully there will be greater Kurdish enthusiasm in 1998 to mark the 1800th anniversary of Lucian than that exhibited in 1990 when his beloved and oft-serenaded home town of Samsat and its archaeological heritage was drowned beneath the Ataturk Dam reservoir.

The list of anniversaries commemorating the legacy of Kurdish culture and history continues; the richness of that legacy is no accident. If a nation possesses a long and illustrious history, it should be able to produce anniversaries of this magnitude annually. The fact that the Kurds can rightly celebrate several such events every year is a good yardstick by which to measure the richness of their heritage.

All individuals or organizations attempting at remedying this undervaluation and deliberate degradation of Kurdish heritage can in the interim count on facing a hostile world, as hostile in the halls of academe as in the political arena. This is only to be expected, since any new claim to a portion of the human heritage must come at the expense of some other group's claim. Abu-Hanifa Dinawari is already claimed by the Arabs (because he wrote in Arabic) and Persians (because Dinawar is in Iran/Persia). A Kurdish claim to its native son must detach and retrieve him from the Persian and Arabian pantheons. And this loss no one would permit without a struggle. Any pioneering effort, therefore, to collect and organize in one place the history of the Kurds is bound to raise hostility and to generate controversy, regardless of the meticulousness of the research or the charity of intention.

But why have national histories become so contentious? Why are people fighting-literarily-over its apportionment, sale or otherwise appropriation? And why are they stilling luminaries from one another?

Buying history is the most economic way of buying international acceptance, legitimacy of rule and claim to a land, no matter how outlandish the claim. No other branch of the social sciences and humanities has been consequently more intertwined with politics, questions of legitimacy and claim to land than history. Only now are Kurds discovering the optimum importance of history to any claim they may make to their homeland. And this is not a moment too soon. Need one mention how Israel's claim to Zion was buttressed by land allocation ascribed to the Bible? It matters not if the Bible contains such; the fact that history was used as the deed to the land by that state, is precisely what has prompted all states and aspirants to statehood to employ an army of historians.

Writing of national histories requires considerable and continuing public and private support. Such a feat doubtlessly requires the facilities of an academy of dedicated, ethical-and native-Kurdologists, of whom there are still precious few. They face the challenge of altering a status quo that belittles the Kurdish national heritage to one of a marginal nomadic culture not too far removed from the "barbarous mountain tribes and miserable villagers" which the "Kurdologist" Thomas Bois called the ancestors of the Kurds, with which the modern Western guru of Kurdology, Martin van Bruinessen would heartily concurs. This denigration has done much to demoralize the Kurds, both lay and intellectual, in the past 70 years. Much of this belittling is not accidental or even a by-product of the bazaar mentality of area-study scholars who grab for their own discipline what is there to grab. The biased treatment of the Encyclopaedia of Islam and the Encyclopaedia Iranica of the question of the nationality of the scholars they describe has already been reviewed; no "accidents" were found to be responsible for their respectively pro-Arab and pro-Persian falsification of history. And this occurs in a West that boasts "impartiality. "

In the not-so-impartial Middle East, the organs of states are understandably dismissive of the Kurdish heritage, and work to undercut the Kurds' attachment to their national uniqueness and pride in their identity. Even upon leaving the Middle East for the West to study, the Kurd finds in conversation with Western scholars that he is being required to "prove" that there is a Kurdish nation or even an ethnic group. Yet no other group hailing from the Middle East or anywhere else in the world is required to "prove" their identity. Both the Kurd and those who would study him are customarily dispatched to write something on "Kurdish nationalism," a topic on which every college and university library holds a few well-worn titles to offer students of political science-and the curious Kurd. As a good "tribal" person, he might even be delegated to write his college papers or graduate thesis on which Kurdish tribal chief and iter- tribal feud, a petty political dispute or who marries whom in a Kurdish tribe. Never history, least of which, ancient, classical or medieval Kurdish history.

Confused and resentful and beleaguered by their current desperate economic and cultural conditions, many Kurds become the unconscious instrument of their own denigration. W. R .Hay accordingly observed in 1921:

    "The Kurd has a curious habit of disparaging himself and his brethren-probably inculcated by the Turks, who were bent on Ottomanising him, and stamping out all racial feeling. He will continually refer to himself as "zahirbin," one who sees the exterior only, "tamakar" or avaricious, and "wahshi" (barbarian)."

Summary & Conclusion

The primary sources of information on Kurdish history-from antiquity to present time-are plentiful and readily available in all major libraries around the world. What has been preventing the compilation of Kurish history is dearth of research not research material. Development of Kurdish historiography has suffered as much from the state-sponsored discouragement as by Kurds' own lack of endeavor. The absence of Kurdish schools and academic bodies, dedicated to research and compilation of their national history has compounded the current bewilderment over the nation's share of human history and civilization.

It is encouraging to find Kurds discovering the paramount importance of historical education at home and outside in order to replace the present demoralizing atmosphere that denigrate the Kurds and Kurdish share of Middle Eastern and human civilization. They are awakening to the need to retrieve their own past and preserve their own culture without seeking or caring about the approval of the outsiders. The editors of the Encyclopaedia of Islam or Encyclopaedia Iranica, for example, are unlikely to approve of this development because such is bound to result in their having to rewrite large portions of their defective product to make room for the Kurdish share of Middle Eastern history.

Kurdish history must be written first by the Kurds' own historians, if they hope to ever gain parity with their neighbors on historiographyical grounds. Western authors have so far proven themselves neither capable nor interested in treating Kurdish history with dedication, impartiality or fairness. Further, due to lack of financial reward, Kurdish historiography has attracted only second- or third-rate Western historians and non-historians (like anthropologists or political scientist) to produce superficial, often biased accounts of Kurdish past.

Once Kurdish history is written, it would need to also be popularized. All nations must connect to their past by popular celebrations and the pride that attends them. National heroes and proud histories emerge with depiction and description to a larger public. It does not matter how important are individual Kurdish luminaries like Abu-Hanifa Ahmad Dinawari, and how well they are described in dusty encyclopaedias. It does matter how they are related to the Kurds' national heritage and perceived by the man in the street. National historical heroes literally must be trumpeted as such on the streets. Without trumpets there are no heroes. This is patently evident in the example of Evliya Celebi in Turkey reviewed above.

The Kurds are fortunate that the writing of their national history and the study of their specific achievements requires no fabrication or outlandish claims. They need not buy a history. Their job is to strive to resurrect and to popularize their past and their contributions. The overwhelming body of primary historical documents and archaeological evidence necessitate only time and not speculation to do so. Once a Kurdish historian has overcome his fear of upsetting the status quo and survived the inevitable dismissal, if not hostility, of the traditionalist historians and advocates of neighboring ethnic groups, the history and human legacy of the Kurds will be properly understood-and ranked.

 Source: M. Izady, "The Current State of Kurdish Historiography", the Kurdish Life, Number 16, Fall 1995,