Popular Culture

Kurds are fortunate to have some of the most visible aspects of their popular culture authenticated to remote antiquity. Some sections of well-known pieces of ancient literature read like compendiums to a lost encyclopaedia of the Kurdish ethnic character and culture, as soon as one has identified the site of the events and the characters involved. The most interesting evidence of the unusual antiquity of the Kurdish popular culture is in fact the oldest. Digging for the paleolithic remains at the Shanidar Caves of central Kurdistan, the archaeologist R. Solecki complains throughout the first few chapters of his excavation report book, Shanidar: The First Flower People (1971), of the preoccupation of his local Kurdish manual workers with wild flowers. He watches in exasperation while the Kurds continue attaching flower bouquets to their axes and picks, the water trucks, caves’ walls, and of course to their already riotously colored costumes. He fascinates his readers when he reports laboratory results showing that a 56,000-year-old Neanderthal man, uncovered from the cave by his flower-bedecked Kurdish workers, was buried in a bed of flowers of many kinds. Old habits die hard.

This national preoccupation with flowers, or rather their colors, is one of the strongest traits of the Kurdish national culture, consistent in every niche and corner of the land and in every segment of the society—more uniform and pervasive than any other single national characteristic or trait.

This may well go back to the roots of Kurds’ way of treating nature as she inhabits the mountains, like a loving treatment of one’s living mate, or more: one’s own doppelgänger. The rocks, the waterfalls, the animals, plants, the spirits, and the person¬ages who inhabit them are each a constituent part of nature’s whole that in its totality a Kurd seeks to simulate as a mirror image—an authentic doppelgänger. Many of these elements are revered and held in religious respect. Almost any large solitary tree growing by a spring or a natural pond is heavy with pieces of colorful cloth and ribbons fastened to its branches as a sign of vigil for a wish. The tree, the pond, and the animals living in and around them are all important elements in the picture of nature as a whole, one that is just a material reflection of the ethereal Universal Spirit. These entities often house lesser spirits, including the souls of human beings on their evolutionary passage up to the station of “human,” or conversely, the spirit of those humans who are demoted to receive punishment for their previous evil lives. As such, they must be respected and kept from being needlessly defiled. The most important of the nature spirits is by far Khidir, “the living green man of the ponds”.

The rich colors of the landscape: rocks, lichens, flowers, the varied nature of the plant and animal life all have been combined and used by this people to create a taste known pejoratively or complimentarily as “Kurdish.” But any traditional Kurd will find this a compliment, a recognition of an important national trait most readily discerned by outsiders. Riotous and gaudy colors, many of them, thrown together seemingly haphazardly, with absolutely no control or care to match them is the trademark of the Kurdish taste. It makes a Kurd stand out made any of this colorfulness when singling out in the ancient times as now. Plutarch made note of this colorfulness when singling out the costumes of the cosort of the Potain Mithridates V (Lives: Prompey).

Source: M. Izady, “The Kurds: A Concise Handbook”, Harvard University, USA, 1992

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