Who are the Kurds, and where do they live?
The Kurds are an ethnically distinct group of people inhabiting the geographic region known as Kurdistan. The Kurdish people have no nation or acknowledged statehood of their own. Their homeland is situated at the intersection of four different Middle Eastern countries, all of which have historically used and abused their Kurdish population, and regard their presence as a nuisance: northern Iraq, western Iran, northern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. The Kurds are native to the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges; they have lived in the harsh mountains for as long as four millennia, and are markedly different from their Persian, Arab, and Turkish neighbors in the surrounding plains linguistically, ethnically, and culturally. The Kurdish people are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation.
The term Kurd has many speculative origins, just like their ethnic background. One of the first recorded used of the name was in the third century BC, when the Sassanid dynasty was founded. Ardeshir, the Persian king, listed Kurdan Shahi Madrig (Madrig, King of the Kurds) as one of the rivals he had to subjugate.
Another myth suggests that Melik Kurdim, of the tribe of Noah, invented a new language called Kurdim when Noah’s ark landed atop Mount Cudi in Iraq.
In any case, the word ‘Kurd’ has historically denoted not a group of people with a colorful and unique identity, but a ‘problem’ for the despotic regimes that look down and disregard them. In Turkey, they are called ‘Mountain Turks’; in Iran, they are considered to be Iranian with no deserved acknowledgment as a separate people. In Iraq, the word ‘Kurd’ has oft been used as a slur for an uncivilized and uneducated nomad.
Today, there are between 30 and 40 million Kurds living not only in Kurdistan but also in significant Kurdish communities throughout the world, especially eastern Europe. There is a sizeable Kurdish diaspora, growing in tandem with increasing violence in the Middle East. Because of the efforts to ban and wipe out Kurdish culture through State repression of their language and customs, a more accurate estimate of their numbers are shrouded in mystery.
Industry & Agriculture
The Kurdish people, who have wrongly been promoted as nomadic by their host states, have been settled in the mountains for centuries. There, the primary mode of subsistence is pastoralism—mainly sheep and goats. Kurdish shepherds come down from their communities to buy and sell animals and their products at the market.
More recently, oil and gas has become a Kurdish export, though prior to the 20th century there were little resources for other nations to exploit but tobacco—States used the Kurds themselves as pawns and mercenaries in their geopolitical games instead.
The origins of the Kurds are the subject of much speculation amongst historians and ethnographers. Because of state suppression of Kurdish culture and forced assimilation by neighboring powers, little research has been conducted on their exact lineage. It is generally accepted that the Kurds descended from the Iranian Medes who settled in the Zagros mountains in the twelfth century BC. Based on the linguistic similarities between Persian, Baluchi, and the Kurdish dialects, the theory of a relationship between Kurds and Iranians is even more plausible. However, modern anthropological studies have hypothesized that the Kurds are of indigenous decent, stemming from the Aryan Guti tribe (which would explain the fair complexion, hair, and blue and green eyes prevalent in many Kurds) and later Indo-European tribes that flocked to the region, such as the Scythians who established a kingdom in Iranian Kurdistan in the eighth century BC. Although it is clear that the Kurds are of mixed origins, racial purity does not an identity make; the Kurdish people have a long and rich history, cultural customs, their own language, and a unique racial mix that separate them as a people from Persians, Arabs, and Turks.
There are many myths and legends that seek to explain the origins of the Kurds. The story that the Kurds themselves prefer is one of the many ancient threads of Newruz, their new year’s celebration coinciding with the Spring Equinox that marks the anniversary of the overthrow of the tyrant Zahhāk in the year of the Kurdish calendar 2603, 1000 years before the coming of Islam. According the Kurdish tale (as told by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris in No Friends But The Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds),
the tyrant had snakes growing from his shoulders, a deformity which the court physicians were unable to cure. Satan came to the tyrant and told him that he would be cured if he fed the snakes each day with the brains of two young people. The executioner appointed to the task of providing the brains took pity on his victims, and each day spared one of them and substituted the brains of a sheep. The survivors were smuggled to the safety of the mountains, where they became the founders of a new people, the forefathers of the Kurds. Zahhāk himself was overthrown when one of the tyrant’s intended victims rebelled against his fate and killed him. (50)
Less savory legends have been proliferated by the various enemies of the Kurds to demonize them, which include accusations of mass rape and the Kurdish people being direct descendants of the devil.
The Kurds have their own unique language, known as Kurdish. Kurdish is related to Persian and belongs to a group of northwestern Iranian languages along with those of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Tajikistan. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Kurdish and Persian were once mutually intelligible. Kurdish is also related to many European languages, including English, and Sanskrit. Many English words are closely related to Kurdish, such as new (‘new’), erd (‘earth’), dlop (‘drop’), bru (‘eyebrow’), and ruber (‘river’).
There are several Kurdish dialects that are varied in vocabulary and grammar, and are as closely related as Portuguese and Spanish. The two main dialects are Kurmanji (spoken in northwestern Iraq, Turkey, and northwestern Iran), and Sorani (spoken in southwestern Iranian Kurdistan and southern Iraqi Kurdistan). Kurmanji uses a Latin alphabet known as Hawar, and Sorani is written in a variation of the Arabic alphabet.
Two less-spoken Kurdish dialects are Zaza (spoken alongside Kurmanji in Turkey) and Gurani, which is mainly used by the Shia minority in southern Iran. Gurani is closer to Persian than the other Kurdish dialects.
The diversity of distinct dialects spoken by the Kurds has been used to deny their identity as a unified ethnic group, much like their mixed racial origins; however, the Kurdish dialects are more closely related than the many different languages spoken in China.
About three-quarters of Kurds today are Sunni Muslims of the Shafite school, which is a more liberal sect of Islam than the Hanafite school, practiced by the majority of their Turkish and Arab neighbors. The southernmost region of Iranian Kurdistan practices Shia Islam. However, before the rise of Islam in Kurdistan, Zoroastrianism dominated the region. Many customs still exist in Kurdish culture from their Zoroastrian roots, such as the celebration of Newruz. The spread of Islam among the Kurdish people may be attributed to the tax imposed on non-Muslims by the Islamic Arabs; the Kurdish people resisted the invasion of Arabic culture more vehemently than most, and succumbed to their domination eventually after several uprisings. Nonetheless, Islam gained a foothold in Kurdistan, and pan-Islamism was a binding factor in the Kurdish identity until the European idea of nationalism was instilled in the Kurdish consciousness. The Kurdish converts became the most vigorous devotees of Islam, although even in the realm of faith the Kurdish people were put down by their neighbors; there is a Turkish proverb that states, ‘Compared to an infidel, the Kurd is a good Muslim’. Another legend from Kurdish folklore elaborates on the Islamic Kurd’s explanation for their age-old oppression:
It tells how, when the Prophet called on the princes of the world to embrace the new religion, all hurried to submit to him. Oguz Khan, the prince of Turkestan, sent a Kurd, Zemin, to represent him. The Prophet was said to have been so impressed by this giant of a man with piercing eyes that he asked about his origins. On learning that Zemin was a Kurd, Mohamed prayed to God that such a terrifying people should never unite as a single nation. (Bulloch & Morris, p 60)
The Yezidis, whom are closely related to the Kurds but are in fact a separate Kurdish-speaking people, practice the highly misunderstood religion of Yezidism, which purports the dualism of God and Malak Taus, or Satan, and reject the binary of good and evil. The Yezidi people, who are indigenous to northern Iraq, have been doubly persecuted for their mistaken identity as ‘Kurds’ and devil-worshippers.
There are also a small minority of Christian and Jewish Kurds throughout Kurdistan.
Bulloch, John, and Harvey Morris. No Friends but the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.
Chaliand, Gérard. A People without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan. New York: Olive Branch, 1993. Print.
Kashi, Ed, and Christopher Hitchens. When the Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds. New York: Pantheon, 1994. Print.
McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I.B. Tauris, 1996. Print.
McKiernan, Kevin. The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland. New York: St. Martin's, 2006. Print.
Wagner, Heather Lehr. The Kurds. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2003. Print.