CHAPTER 5 THE KURDS
The Gulf war and its aftermath have brought the plight of the Kurds forcibly to the attention of the world media. Although they are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own, they have been largely ignored by politicians, whilst often subjected to brutal oppression in the various states they live in.
The Kurds live concentrated in a defined geographical area - the eastern Taurus and the Zagros mountain ranges. Seven states meet in and near that area: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Georgia, Armenia and Azebaijan. In this highland area called Kurdistan they have lived for thousands of years. Their main centre lies between Lake Van in Turkey and Lake Urmia in Iran. There is also a Kurdish pocket in north eastern Iran (Khorasan) near Mashad.
The main towns of Kurdistan are: Erzurum, Malatya, Mardin, Urfa, Diyarbakir and Van in Turkey. Mosul, Kirkuk, Arbil, Zakhu, Dahuk and Sulaymaniyeh in Iraq. Mahabad, Saqqeh, Bijar, Sanandaj, Hamadan and Kermanshah in Iran.
Kurdistan includes the mountains of Ararat and the sources of the two great Biblical rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The region has great strategic value as it controls the main roads and passes between the Mediterranean lands and the Caucasus and Central Asia. Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Mongols and Russians passed through in their Empire building efforts, all leaving some mark on the local population who have also been influenced by the neighbouring Armenian and Georgian peoples.
Kurdistan is a beautiful land of high mountains, plateaus and valleys, with many rivers and lakes. The climate is continental and harsh - very cold with heavy snowfall in winter and very warm in summer. Potentially it is a country very rich in mineral deposits of which only a small part have so far being exploited. These include oil, coal, iron, copper, silver and uranium. It is also rich in water - a valuable commodity in the Middle East!
Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi'i school, a minority belong to various Shi'a groups. Many of both groups belong to Sufi orders.
Being a minority in all the states they live in, they are viewed as a threat to national unity. In this century especially, Kurds have often rebelled in an effort to establish local autonomy - only to be defeated again and again. The following cycle has often been repeated: When central governments seems weak and unstable the Kurds try to actively achieve their goals by rebelling and seizing their lands from government troops. As the governments get stronger, their armed forces with their very superior weaponry manage to crush the Kurds, and the goverments renege on any promises they may have given during their days of weakness.
Turkey, Iran and Iraq, the states with the largest Kurdish populations, have all followed policies of forced resettlement and cultural repression towards their Kurdish citizens.
Today there are over 22 million Kurds. In Turkey some 12 million, 5 million in Iran, 4 million in Iraq, 1 million in Syria, 0.6 million in western Europe, 0.25 million in the former USSR, and smaller communities in Lebanon and Jordan.
COUNTRY P.C.POP.(%) NO. KURDS (MILLION)
TURKEY 24 12
IRAN 10 5
IRAQ 22 4
SYRIA 10 1
USSR - 0.25
LEBANON - 0.07
W.EUROPE - 0.6
TOTAL - 22.92
Some experts put the total as high as 25 million.
ORIGINS AND HISTORY
It is thought that the Kurds are an ancient Iranian tribe that migrated westward from the Iranian plateau to the area they now inhabit some 4000 years ago. There they mingled with the indigenous Semitic and Armenian populations of the region.
They claim to be descendants of the ancient Medes. Some speculate that they are descended from the Elamites or from the ten lost tribes of Israel. Jews did settle there from Assyrian times onwards, forming one of the oldest existing Jewish communities. Most of them emigrated to Israel after 1948.
For many centuries the Kurds were part of the Persian Empire in its various mutations. The ethnic term "Kurd" was first applied to them at the beginning of the Arab period. They gradually converted to Islam following the Arab conquest of their territory in the 7th and 8th centuries. Kurds were known as a warlike and nomadic tribal people, famous for their fighting capabilities and they were valued mercenaries in the armies of the regional powers. They also became pawns in the struggles between the various power centres of the time.
The greatest Kurdish hero of all times was Salah ad-Din (Saladdin). He began his career as a Kurdish officer in the army of a Seljuk Turkish prince and later became the Sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty. He is famous all over the Muslim world for his victory over the Crusaders and for liberating Jerusalem. He is also noted for his chivalry and generosity.
In the "Golden Age" of Islam from the 8th to the 10th century there were autonomous Kurdish dynasties in parts of Kurdistan. The Shaddadids (951 - 1174) in the Ani and Ganja districts, the Marwanids (990 - 1096) in Diyarbakir, and the Hasanwaihids of Dinavar in the Kermanshah region (959 - 1015).
During the Mongol and Turkmen invasions (11th - 14th century) the Kurds suffered greatly from the invading hordes who criss-crossed their territory. They supported the Mamluks in their wars against the Mongols. Later they suffered from the two centuries (16th -18th) of struggle between the Ottoman Turkish and the Safavid Persian Empires, who both claimed the Kurdish region. Much of the fighting was in the Kurdish areas, and both sides used allied Kurdish forces. Both sides also recognised the noble Kurdish families as heads of their tribal confederations in an attempt to woo their support. Being mainly Sunnis the Kurds were better treated by the Sunni Ottoman Turks than by the Shi'a Safavids of Persia. During these wars several new Kurdish autonomous centres developed, some of them surviving into the first half of the nineteenth century: Bihtan, Hakari, Bahdinan, Soran and Baban in Turkey. Mukri and Ardelan in Persia.
When the borders between the two Empires were stabilised in 1736, most Kurds found themselves in the Ottoman area. The Turks encouraged the Kurdish feudal system, giving the Kurdish chiefs considerable autonomy. In the nineteenth century however, the central government in Istanbul tried to impose direct rule on the provinces, a policy that triggered a series of unsuccessful revolts and weakened the authority of the chiefs.
The vacuum caused by the declining power of the tribal chiefs was filled by the heads of the Sufi orders, especially of the Qadiriya and the Naqshbandiya, whose Sheikhs became extremely powerful religious and secular leaders.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century aroused nationalist aspirations and movements amongst its many minority groups. The idea of a Kurdish nation developed first amongst the urban elite and some of the noble families and it led to agitation for independence. The authorities responded by suppression and by instigating the Kurds against their Christian neighbours as a diversionary tactic. This resulted in inter-communal strife in which many Armenians and Nestorians living in Kurdish areas were repeatedly massacred (1831, 1843, 1846, 1895, 1905, 1909, 1915).
"THE KURDS HAVE NO FRIENDS EXCEPT THE MOUNTAINS"
This is an old Kurdish proverb. Despite the fact of being a distinct ethnic group of over 22 million people who have lived in their own territory for millenia and who speak their own distinctive language, the Kurds have never achieved nation-state status. Any important role they may have played in the troubled history of the Middle East was as individuals and tribes, not as a unified nation.
Kurdish nationalism developed with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rivalry of the great powers in the area. The first Kurdish newspaper was published in 1897 and the first Kurdish political club was founded in Istanbul in 1908 with the twin goals of encouraging Kurdish culture and attaining political independence.
The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I was followed by the signing of the treaty of Sevres in 1920 which provided for an independent Kurdistan (along with independent states in Armenia, Hejaz, Iraq and Syria). This treaty was however never ratified as the military revival of Turkey under Kemal Ataturk created a new situation. Another treaty, that of Lausanne, was signed in 1923 which confirmed the creation of the Arab states, but ignored Armenia and Kurdistan. The district of Mosul which should have been part of Kurdistan was given to Iraq. Ignored and betrayed by the great powers, the Kurds and their land were divided among the surrounding states.
This political injustice caused much unrest and repeated uprisings of the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Only in the USSR were they well treated and given cultural autonomy. This was the time when new central governments were making efforts to enforce national unity by imposing the majority language and culture on the minorities under their rule. The Kurds were viewed as a potential security risk, a divisive element that had to be repressed. At the same time these governments used the Kurds as pawns in their power games, usually repressing their own Kurdish population but encouraging Kurdish uprisings in neighbouring lands.
The Turks, obsessed with the idea of a modern unified secular nation state violently suppressed all Kurdish forms of separate identity. Repeated rebellions were ruthlessly crushed and the Kurdish language was outlawed. Similar repressions took place in Iran and Iraq in spite of recurrent promises of local autonomy. These repressions only served to further strengthen the Kurdish nationalist identity and movement.
Several nationalist parties emerged that function somewhat independently of each other in the various states. The main parties are The Kurdish Democratic Party (the KDP, today led by Massoud Barzani in Iraq) and The Patriotic Union Of Kurdistan (PUK, now led by Jalal Talabani also in Iraq). The most extreme is the Marxist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which is based in Syria and has been involved in terrorist attacks within Turkey. The parties operate underground or openly according to circumstances, and their coalition which is known as the Kurdish Front, controls the Kurdish freedom fighters, the Peshmergas (those who sacrifice themselves). For many years the acknowledged Kurdish leader was the famous Mullah Mustafa Barzani.
A weakness of the Kurdish national movement has been the continued tribal, territorial and ideological feuds between the various factions. Each party chief has his own organisational setup and acts like an autonomous tribal leader controlling his troops within the larger framework of the Peshmergas. Lack of unity has been a weakness of the Kurdish national movement, leading to fragmentation and to inter-Kurdish fighting that enables the central governments to play off the factions against each other.
In Turkey the Kurds are the only large minority group and live mainly in the south-eastern part of the land. Ataturk established modern secular Turkey by military force. The conservative Kurds initially supported him in the belief that they were fighting for a "Muslim Fatherland". However he soon abolished the Islamic Sultanate and Caliphate, and closed all Kurdish associations and schools. He then endeavoured to Turkify and secularise the minorities by a policy of harsh suppression and forced assimilation.
Since the 1920s the Turkish army brutally quashed all Kurdish revolts, the last one in 1937, with an estimated 250,000 casualties. A million Kurds were forcibly deported to other parts of Turkey and villages razed. Tribal leaders (Aghas) and leaders of Sufi orders (Sheikhs) were exiled in an effort to break the Kurdish leadership.
The Ankara government has consistently denied the Kurds their separate ethnic and linguistic identity whilst offering assimilated Kurds complete equality. From 1934 onwards there were officially no more Kurds in Turkey - they were designated "Mountain Turks". All expressions of Kurdish cultural life such as newspapers and music were suppressed, and the use of the Kurdish language and of the Kurdish national dress was forbidden. The security forces were given a free hand in the Kurdish villages of the remote eastern provinces to try and terrorise the population into submission.
The military coup of 1960 was followed by a more liberal constitution in which some cultural freedom was given to the Kurds, but in 1967 repression returned. Underground leftist Kurdish parties were founded and became active in terrorism in Turkey, the best known being the Kurdish Socialist Party Of Turkey (TKSP), and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK especially, based in Syria, spread its struggle into Turkey's big cities and is responsible for the death of over 5,000 people in the past decade.
A paradox of the situation in Turkey was that although assimilated Kurds became members of parliament and ministers, they were not allowed to identify themselves as Kurds. A prominent ex-minister was even sentenced to two years in jail for stating that in Turkey there were both Kurds and Turks!
Turkey continues to neglect the economic development of its Kurdish provinces. There have been some improvements in its policy since 1991 as a result of the Gulf War and of its efforts to improve its human rights record as it seeks entrance into the European Community. The GAP project on the Euphrates (including the giant Ataturk dam) could greatly benefit the Kurdish population of the area and help Turkey gain international respect by modernising its Kurdish provinces.
More recently Turkey has sent its troops into Iraqi Kurdistan in an attempt to quash the PKK. At the same time it is pursuing a dialogue with the main line Iraqi Kurdish parties in their safe haven, who are very dependent on Turkish goodwill for their security and economic survival. Turkish attitudes are thus mixed, but the basic premise is the adamant rejection of any independent Kurdish state which could lead to the dismemberment of Turkey as it now is.
In Iran the Kurds are only one of the several large minority communities. The central governments have generally been reluctant to give them autonomous status, but there have been many shifts in policy.
The Iranians recognise the racial and historical ties between Iranians and Kurds, and they do allow the Kurds some cultural expression. However, the religious differences between the Shi'a Iranians and the mainly Sunni Kurds are a cause for friction especially since the Islamic revolution.
During WW II Iranian central government authority collapsed in the northern areas. Shortly after WW II an independent Kurdish Republic of Mahabad was set up with Soviet help in 1946. It was strengthened by the arrival of Barzani with his supporters from Iraq. However it collapsed in less than a year when the Soviets withdrew their troops from Iranian soil. This short period of independence gave the Kurdish nationalist movement much needed practical political experience. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) was founded at that time and became the major Kurdish national movement. Most of the time it had to operate underground.
Later the Iranian government under the Shah wooed the Kurds by introducing social and economic reforms and by backing the Kurdish revolts in Iraq. However with the signing of the treaty between Iran and Iraq in 1975 relationships worsened and in the last years of the Shah's rule his secret police, the SAVAK, established a reign of terror in the Kurdish areas.
Following the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the rise of Ayatullah Khomeini, the Kurds took over some Kurdish areas from the Shah's troops and hoped for an autonomy agreement with the new regime. Negotiations however ended in failure, and the Iranian army recaptured the Kurdish controlled towns though the Kurdish forces controlled much of the countryside. This situation persisited until the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.
During the Iraq-Iran war the Kurds were caught between the two armies. Generally, they sided with Iran against Iraq and managed to control a large part of Iraqi Kurdistan for a while, later paying dearly for it when Iraq initiated a policy of genocide against them.
Following the Gulf war Iran has accepted some 1 million Kurdish refugees from Iraq and has treated them well. It sees the Kurds mainly as pawns it its struggle against its archenemy Iraq.
Iraq gained its independence in 1932. The promises of local autonomy given by Britain to the Kurds were not taken over by the new Iraqi Arabic state as it feared that similar concessions would also be demanded by the Shi'as of the South. This caused the first Kurdish revolts, which the Britain helped to quell by having the RAF bombard the tribes from the air. Mullah Mustafa Barzani emerged in the 30s as the focal point of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq, but he had to flee into exile in Iran in 1945 when Iraqi troops restored central government rule in the Kurdish provinces.
The overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 brought hope of a new deal for the Kurds. The new constitution stated that Arabs and Kurds were partners with recognised national rights. The legendary leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani returned from exile in the USSR and negotiated with the new president, Qassim, for Kurdish autonomy. By 1961 however it was clear that the goverment was not serious in its commitment to Kurdish autonomy. Kurdish newspapers were banned and several leaders arrested. Fighting broke out again in September 1961 and this cycle continued throughout the sixties and seventies as new regimes rose to power in Baghdad. They would usually at first negotiate with the Kurds, and once established would attack them.
In 1970 a new agreement was signed with the Ba'ath regime recognising the legitimacy of the Kurdish nationality and granting the Kurds limited autonomy. This was not fully implemented, mainly because the Kurds claimed the oil rich city of Kirkuk and the government started efforts at chenging the ethnic balance in Kirkuk and several other Kurdish districts. Fighting broke out again in 1974. The Shah of Iran who had supported the Kurds for a decade signed an agreement with Iraq in 1975 over the Shatt al-Arab frontline and withdrew his support from the Kurds. They were then easily overcome by the well equipped Iraqi army who forcibly deported many Kurds from their mountain areas, burning some 700 villages in an attempt to create an empty security strip along the borders with Iran and Turkey.
In 1976 Jalal Talabani founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). KDP and PUK often fought each other for hegemony of the Kurdish nationalist movement, but by the mid eighties they succeeded in establishing a belt of Kurdish controlled land in northern Iraq.
When Saddam Hussein came to power he turned to ethnic cleansing and genocide. He organised a special campaign called al-Anfal to totally subdue the Kurds. His forces sprayed Kurdish villages with chemicals, the climax being the poison gas attack on Halabja in 1988 in which 5000 Kurds were killed. The Iraqi army razed at least 4000 Kurdish villages and it is reckoned that at least 150,000 Kurdish men, women and children were massacred during that time and 250,000 refugees fled to Iran and Turkey.
This cycle of violence was seen at its worst immediately following the Gulf War when the Kurds thought they had a chance of finally realising their dream of an autonomous Kurdistan with the aid of the allies. The allies however held back, and the Kurds were invaded and massacred by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, leading to the mass flight of 1.5 million Kurdish refugees into the mountain passes towards Turkey and Iran and to the intervention of the allies to ensure safe havens for them in Iraq.
Talks about a new autonomy for the Kurdish areas are being held between the united Kurdish Front and Saddam Hussein. At the same time Iraqi forces imposed an embargo on all supplies into Kurdish areas and continue to plant mine fields in the border zones.
At this stage it is difficult to ascertain the outcome of these talks, and whether any agreement arrived at is likely to hold. What is clear is that Kurdish suffering is far from over, and that given the hostility of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria to any Kurdish autonomous or independent entity, there is still a long way to go before the dream of a Kurdish state is somehow realised.
There has always been a Kurdish belt in north-east Syria. As a result of Turkish repression in the 1920s and 1930s many Turkish Kurds migrated to Syria for safety. Syria encouraged extremist Kurdish groups in their terrorist activities in neighbouring Turkey. It has however firmly suppressed its own Kurdish population, especially in the sixties and early seventies. Arabicisation was enforced, and there was a large population transfer of Kurds from the border areas into the interior, their confiscated lands were given to Arab settlers. Kurdish books and music were forbidden and Kurds still suffer from constant surveillance by the security forces.
In Lebanon there is a large Kurdish minority living mainly as an impoverished proletariat in Beirut.
In the former USSR the Kurds were one of the one hundred recognised minorities, and as such were allowed full cultural expression. This led to a flowering of Kurdish literature and arts in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The impact of the fragmentisation of the USSR on the Kurds is yet to be seen.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds have emigrated to western Europe in the last decades, mainly to Germany, in search of employment and of political asylum.
The ancient Kurds were pagans who first worshipped the forces of nature and later various idols. They then accepted Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Persian Empire for centuries. From the 4th century to the Islamic conquest some Kurds were converted to Christianity by Syrian and later Armenian missionaries. At the beginning of the 5th century there were several bishops in Kurdistan, and several monasteries were built, some of which survived into the 14th century (until the Mongol invasion).
Shortly after their initial conversion to Sunni Islam, many Kurds joined Khariji revolts as a protest against Sunni Arab domination. Eventually the vast majority of Kurds reverted to Sunni Islam of the Shafi'i school. Some became Shi'a and several communities joined Ghulat (extreme Shi'a sects) that venerated 'Ali such as Ahl-i-Haqq, Yezidis and the Qizilbash order. Shi'a Kurds live in Turkey north-west of Diyarbakir and in Iran around Kermanshah (now Bakhtaran) and Khanaqin. Ahl-i-Haqq live in south-east Kurdistan between Kirkuk and Bakhtaran, and the Yazidis mainly in Jabal-Sinjar near Mosul in north-western Iraq. In Turkey all Shi'a groups, Kurdish and Turkish, are called Alevis and they were persecuted and massacred by the orthodox Sunni Ottomans and are still very much a despised and ignored group of some 8 million people in modern day Turkey.
From the 12th century onward, Sufism spread amongst the Kurds. The main Sufi orders amongst them are the Qadiriya who trace their origin to the Kurdish Sufi 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, 1088 - 1166) and the Naqshbandiya who follow Baha' al-Din of Bukhara (1317 - 1388).
The Qadiriyah are the oldest Sufi order in the world, and al-Jilani is revered as the greatest Islamic saint of all times. It is the most orthodox of the Sufi orders.
The Naqshbandiya expanded in Kurdistan especially in the 19th century at the expense of the older Qadiri order. It was originally influenced by Buddhism, and its Dhikr is recited silently as the members meditate on death and the judgement.
The Sheikhs of the Sufi orders were usually members of the noble families who held much spiritual, political and social power. They still retain some of their traditional power on the local level today. They were believed to posses supernatural powers and to be intermediaries between man and God. Sufi orders were often the nucleus for political and social unrest, giving rise to several Mahdis who headed rbellious movements. They have also supported the nationalist movement.
Sayyids, descended from the Prophet, are highly respected families who still form an influential segment of Kurdish society.
As in other Islamic societies, folk Islam is a powerful force. Belief in evil spirits who inhabit caves, wells and mountains and must be appeased is widespread. Protection from them is sought by amulets, magic and similar methods. There are many shrines of local saints who are regarded as intercessors, healers and dispensers of baraka. Pilgrimages to these shrines is still popular.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Kurdish is a West Iranian language related to Farsi and Pashto and it is the third largest Iranian language group after these two. Unlike Iranian, Turkish and Arabic it does not yet have a single systematised written and spoken language. There are many local dialects which can be broadly divided into three groups:
a. Northern Kurmanji, spoken in eastern Turkey, northern Iran and the former USSR. It is dominant north of a line roughly drawn from Mosul to Urmiya. It is written in the Latin script.
b. The central group called Kurdi or Sorani, spoken in a broad belt south of Urmiya in Iran to the southern borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is the major literary form of Kurdish, and is written in the Arabic script.
c. The south-eastern dialect group of which Kirmanshahi is the most important dialect. It is nearer to modern Persian than the other dialects and it also includes Leki and Gurani. These dialects are spoken in the southern part of Iranian Kurdistan between Kermanshah (Bakhtaran) and Sanandaj.
All Turkish Kurds speak Kurmanji, except for those near Dersim and Erzerum, where a local sub-dialect called Zaza is spoken. In Iraq the Kurds are divided between the first two major dialect groups (Kurmanji and Sorani). In Iran all three dialects are represented.
Illiteracy is a major problem amongst the Kurds due to neglect by the central governments. Except for the former Soviet Union, illiteracy amongst Kurds stands at over 70%. There is a chronic lack of schools in all Kurdish districts and the many wars have negatively affected efforts at education.
The Kurds have a rich folklore consisting of proverbs, riddles, fables and fairy tales which has been passed down orally by traditional story-tellers. The Kurds are especially fond of animal stories with a moral. There are many stories and poems about popular heroes and their exploits in war and love.
Much of this material has been collected and written down since the end of the First World War as a result of the Kurdish national and cultural awakening.
The 15th and 17th centuries were the classical age of Kurdish poetry. The Kurdish national epic, Memozin, was written by Ehmede Xani (1650-1706) who lived at Bayazid.
The Kurds love singing and music. Their festivals are accompanied by their distinctive Kurdish music, songs and dances which distinguish them from other neighbouring Islamic people.
Kurds in previous generations wrote in Persian, Arabic or Turkish. Since the end of WW I there has been a revival of Kurdish literature and culture in different centres. In the former Soviet Union where the authorities encouraged Kurdish culture there has been a flowering of literature in Soviet Armenia and other Soviet republics with a Kurdish population.
Hunting is very popular amongst the Kurds, as are some traditional games.
Kurdish society is traditionally tribal and patriarchal having been largely nomadic up to the end of the nineteenth century. Tribal society was based on the communal ownership of land and on blood relationship. Many Kurds today are detribalised economically and socially, yet retain strong tribal loyalties.
Historically, Kurdish tribes lived on the territory around the strongholds of their chiefs. Professional soldiers made up the chief's armed forces, whilst the bulk of the tribe were nomadic or semi-nomadic shepherds who herded sheep and goats in the highlands of Kurdistan, moving from the high summer pastures to the low winter ones across great distances.
Being mainly nomadic, Kurds until the beginning of this century were only marginally involved in settled farming. The establishment of national borders after World War I limited the scope of their seasonal migrations and forced many to settle in villages and farm the land. Others migrated to the larger towns in search of employment and became a landless proletariat. The rural population is still the largest group in Kurdish society, divided between nomads and settled farmers.
The peasants were oppressed by the old feudal system, and many efforts at land reform have been undertaken by the various governments of the region. However, due to the neglect of the Kurdish areas by these same central authorities and the lack of investment in infrastructure and agricultural expertise, Kurdish farmers are still relatively poor and Kurdistan faces acute problems of soil erosion and deforestation.
The principal unit of Kurdish society was the tribe, headed by a chief called Agha who was an autocratic ruler. He also represented his tribe to the central government. Through the political and economic upheavals of the 20th century tribal culture has been weakened, especially in the cities and in richer lowland villages, but it is still important in the rural highland areas.
The household consists of the nuclear family - father, mother and children. Monogamy is the rule and people marry young, traditionally boys at 20 and girls at 12, though this has changed with modernisation. Preferred marriages are with cousins. A group of related households forms the extended family (kinship group), and a cluster of kinship groups form the clan. The tribe is composed of various clans grouped together.
The nationalist movement has been trying to establish new democratic village councils and political lines of authority which however usually exist parallel to the traditional kinship ties.
Like most Middle Eastern cultures, Kurds value generosity and hospitality very highly. They always have time for friends and guests and will entertain them lavishly. Modesty is a must especially in relation to the other sex. Face saving is important, and it is also important to always behave in a dignified and respectful manner. The revenge motive and lasting feuds resulting from it are also a feature of Kurdish society.
Though a patriarchal society, Kurdish women are usually neither veiled nor secluded and enjoy more freedom than most Arabic and Iranian women.
EVANGELISM AMONGST KURDS
The Syriac (Aramaic) speaking Churches, Jacobite and Nestorian, evangelised the Kurds in the first centuries AD.
In the 3rd century Mar Mari of Edessa (Urfa) converted a Kurdish pagan king and his people at Shahgert between Dahuk and Arbil. In 485 Mar Saba converted some Kurds to Christianity. The Armenian church also had converts amongst the Kurds. Early Muslim documents mention Christian Kurds living near Mosul and Jabal al-Judi.
The Muslim conquest put an end to Christian mission, and the last Christian centres were wiped out by the Mongol invasions.
In modern times missionary activity was resumed in the first decades of this century. Christian missionaries have translated the Gospels into several Kurdish dialects, but we are still waiting for a full Bible translation.
In Iraq, Iran and Syria direct outreach to Muslims is forbidden, in Turkey it is extremely difficult. On top of that Kurdish areas are security sensitive in all states and under special surveillance by the security forces. It is often forbidden for foreigners to visit them without special permits. Open doors exist in western Europe and in the Soviet Union for direct evangelism and some Churches and individuals are making use of this opportunity, though often in the wider context of working amongst Turks or Muslims in general. There are very few known Kurdish believers in the world at present - most of them in the West.
The Gulf War and the Kurdish suffering in its aftermath have shaken Kurdish people and are causing them to ask questions about their Islamic faith and the behaviour of fellow Muslims towards them. "Has God forgotten the Kurds?" is a question often asked. Christian relief and aid workers in the safe haven area are now able to minister to Kurds and share the love of Jesus with them. Many more need to be specifically raised up to work amongst the Kurds, learning their language and culture, and living amongst them for as long as the doors are open. Much more must also be done in the way of Bible translation and literature production and distribution.
Bible translation projects have recently begun in the three dialects, and Luke's Gospel is available in Sorani. There are also Christian radio broadcasts in Sorani and some work has begun in cassettes and videos.