Desperately Seeking Full-Time Kurdologists

By Prof. Mehrdad Izady

A most important first step in launching the field of Kurdish studies is the creation of a cadre of area studies scholars and academics whose primary interests are Kurds. Thus far it has been the Turkologist, Arabist, Armeniologist or Iranist who touches the Kurds only insomuch as they impact on his or her primary focus. This is neither unusual nor wrong. One’s research interest must be just that: the focal point of one’s universe of research and academic concern, perhaps even of one’s personal affection.

Why then is the field of Kurdology lacking such dedicated individuals, and what are the ramifications of their absence? To answer these questions, we must first analyze the process through which an area-study scholar develops bonds of interest with a given group.

Most scholars develop an interest in an area or a group of people in their undergraduate years, move on to learn their language, and then to produce advanced research papers and doctoral theses focused precisely on them. Commonly they establish bonds of personal friendship with members of the ethnic group, who may well be among their college classmates. Unfailingly they spend time in the group’s country, enjoying their culture and often their hospitality. Understandably this exposure generates affection for and attachment to the people with whom they share so many fond memories of youth. They come to sympathize with their national concerns and empathize on local issues. These grass-root area studies scholars generally scrutinize neighboring ethnic groups only insomuch as the adopted group interacts with them. There is little impetus to do otherwise.

Thus far, the Kurds have been unable to furnish such crucial early experiences to potential Western Kurdologists for several reasons: l) Lacking an independent state, ethnic Kurds in the West were, until very recently, non-entities to nearly everyone else. They were identified by others, and readily presented themselves, as Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians or Turks, not as Kurds. (To the average American student, even country names such as Iran, Iraq or Turkey are still barely recognized. And still many spell ‘Kurd’ with a “c.”) Thus obliged to misrepresent themselves, Kurds tended not to generate those bonds of affection in the name of the Kurd with Western students whom they befriended; 2) Utter absence of Kurdish language courses and Kurdish curricula precluded the creation of professional bonds rendering Kurds and Kurdistan a centerpiece of academic concern for an area studies student. Even today no such opportunity exists in the United States, and rarely in Europe; 3) Lack of readily available, or rather identifiable research material and literature in local university and public libraries as compared with neighboring ethnic groups, discouraged and continues to delimit the choice of Kurds as topics of academic papers and theses- 4) There is no viable philanthropic, self-aware Kurdish community to financially support and personally entertain future scholars of Kurdish studies.

For these reasons, a Western student body has not formed to independently press for the establishment of a college-level field of Kurdology at American and European schools. This is changing. The Kurdish presence in Europe is at a respectable size now and is growing fast in the United States.

Potential Western Kurdologists are befriending Kurds and enjoying their hospitality. Kurds are now less reluctant to identify themselves as Kurds, not simply as Iranian, Iraqi, Turk or Syrian. Irrespective of the reasons behind it. Kurds are found frequently in Western news media now. Fewer and fewer students spell Kurd with a “c.” The single element that remains unchanged in this picture is the apathy of the Kurdish community and Kurdish organizations towards higher education.

Unlike the Armenians, who until a few years ago were also a stateless diaspora, Kurdish communities remain unsympathetic to any educational contribution that could establish a venerable field of Kurdish studies in the West. Many simply consider such philanthropy equal to alms giving. They fail to see such support as fostering their own rapidly eroding heritage.

Many major universities in the United States and Europe would willingly sponsor chairs for Kurdish studies were supporting funds available from Kurdish individuals, the Kurdish community, or Kurdish organizations. The majority of chairs in Armenian studies in American universities have been donated by Armenian philanthropists such as Kevorkian and Zohrab. No Kurdish university chairs exist because no Kurdish philanthropists exist.

In the absence of a bona fide university-level field of Kurdish studies directed by credible, first-rate scholars, Kurds will continue to be treated as footnotes, albeit very large footnotes, to the history of others. They will remain sidelined by the experience and interest of more dynamic and sophisticated ethnic neighbors. Presently there are virtually no dedicated, full-time Western Kurdologists pooling their talents to withstand and to challenge the astonishingly dismissive attitude regarding Kurdish heritage and history. Lacking this base, Kurds do not feel it intellectually fashionable or academically safe to confront the current outrageous status quo.

The most tangible consequence of the absence of “grass roots” Kurdologists has of course been the sidelining and downsizing of Kurdish history, human and cultural contributions, by scholars who confess to “part-time” interest in Kurdish topics. And because thus far only they are available, these “insiders” are first to be consulted by academia, news media and governments to provide information on Kurdish topics. Most have proven to be first to pull the rug from under current Kurdish national demands in support of other ethnic or political groups in which they have a full-time interest and with whom they identify. A sad reality is that Kurds have been more than willing to dance on these lopsided grounds.

To endear himself, to avoid being dismissed as a Kurdish “nationalist,” the fledgling Kurdish scholar tends to wholeheartedly support the belittling of his national heritage to that of a marginal nomadic culture. Such Kurds willingly parcel out their own nation’s contribution to those ethnic groups fortunate enough to have established fields of area studies and scholar advocates already in place in the West. Under the circumstances, it is no surprise that in the past few years alone, articles have appeared attributing all the silver work in Kurdistan to the Kurdish Jews, all the stoneworks to the Assyrians, all the fine rugs to the Persians, all the architectural monuments to the Armenians, and most vestiges of Kurdish ethnicity to the Turks.

At just about any conference dedicated to Middle Eastern topics, Kurdish students and scholars have therefore to show two sides. In the presence of the part-time Western Kurdologist, they swim with the current, racing to be ever more dismissive of their own heritage. But when talking privately to fellow Kurdish scholars, they become exasperated and indignant, convinced that their heritage is being given short shrift. This, for example, is in marked contrast to the Western Turkologist, who races to outdo the Turkish scholar in praising ever-expanding contributions of the Turks to human civilization. Were an Iranist to present a conference paper declaring that Montezuma was a Persian, there is little doubt that a goodly number of scholars present would agree that it is a topic worthy of discussion. But if a scholar were to identify as Kurdish an unattributed archaeological piece excavated from under the Kurds, he would raise eyebrows if not jeers – and from the Kurds, too. Prominent authors who have published extensively in the U.S. on Kurdish politics have produced pieces implying that Kurds are somehow genetically defective a people naturally inclined to quarrel and therefore racially incapable of political order. Such blatant bigotry vis a vis any other ethnic group would of course precipitate civil rights litigation in the United States and public demonstrations in Europe. But “occasional” Kurdologists have largely been getting away with murder – academic and political murder of the Kurds.

As Armenians will readily tell you, generous financial support from the community is the essential first step in remedying this sorry situation. Such monies would provide for activities and programs to attract college students and inspire them to become full-time Kurdologists. Kurds must be the primary concern of those intending to enter the field. Issues pertaining to the ethnic neighbors of the Kurds should be of secondary concern to the Kurdologist. The Kurdologist’s point of departure must be the production of research pieces focused solely on Kurdistan and the Kurdish heritage. When writing history, that of other cultures and peoples should be relevant only insofar as they interact with Kurds – never more. In political or economic analysis, the Kurdish point of view should be the centerpiece, and not as is currently the case, the afterthought.

Obviously, all will remain a pipe dream unless career and financial opportunity is generated to support such a body of Kurdologists. To take a last lesson from the ancient neighbors of the Kurds, the Armenians, self-help is the only help. All communities support only those activities which they knew as promoting their communal agendas. If Kurds need a dedicated body of full-time Kurdologists, they need to give. The choices are clear: with Kurdish funds establish and support institutions and academic chairs that treat you first class; or, while waiting for Godo, take what little the “part-time” Kurdologists are willing to give – biased or not.

-What can’t academic advocates do for you! Want the Turks to be the originators of human civilization, or the progenitors of all languages – including Indo-European? No problem. Don’t let amateurs like Kemal Ataturk and his “Sun Language” theory make you a laughing stock. Sponsor people in academia with big names. They’ll do it for you.

Colin Renfrew, an archaeologist at Cambridge University, proposed in 1987 that Indo-European speaking people originated in Turkey, and only later did they spread into Europe and Asia. The impetus for such an historic expansion, he claimed, was the invention of agriculture in western Turkey “eight thousand years ago.” It does not bother Professor Renfrew that agriculture was already in full bloom in Kurdistan for four thousand years prior to that date. Nor does it matter that everyone in Kurdistan and Anatolia spoke dialects of Hurrian. There were no Indo-European speaking people in that area before the coming of the Hittites and Mittanis forty-five hundred years ago. If Turkey, better yet Turkish dominated western Turkey, could be established through the prestige of the Cambridge University Department of Archaeology as the cradle of Indo-European languages and home to the first agriculture, then only the details would remain open to debate, but not the theory itself. Well, it worked.

Now, in 1995, major scientific journals are taking Renfrew’s shambolic reasoning as fact and presenting it alongside major historical linguistic theories. To this they add only “most recent” or “most intriguing.”

Then came the inevitable: to “prove” that Turkish itself is an Indo-European language. This task fell on linguist Johanna Nichols of the University of California at Berkeley. Five years after the publication of Renfrew’s theory, Nichols has come up with the proposition that Indo-European speaking people originated in Mongolia, as did the Turks. In an article in the weekly “Science News” (February 25, 1995), a publication of the oldest continuing American foundation dedicated to reporting new scientific discoveries, Nichols is paraphrased: “Four successive spreads of Indo-European language families followed (out of Mongolia): proto-Indo-European around 5,500 years ago, Iranian about 4,000 years ago, Turkic nearly 2,000 years ago, and Mongolian between 1,500 and 1,000 years ago.” Congratulations” What Ataturk discovered sixty years ago, based on dogma, is now “proven” by Renfrew and Nichols based on “data.”

A conference is scheduled for April 1996 at the University of Pennsylvania to bring together scientists from around the world to discuss the origins of Indo-European people. Stay tuned for more wondrous discoveries to support Ataturk’s Sun-Language theory.

All these developments are taking place at a time when historical records crediting anything of value directly to the people called Kurds are immediately challenged by academics who ask: “But how can we be sure that the term ‘Kurd’ meant an ethnic Kurd? Didn’t ‘Kurd’ mean a shepherd — any shepherd?”

Wake up, Kurds. You are being stripped naked of your history and cultural heritage. And without your history and cultural heritage your claim to your land isn’t worth a dime.


Source: M. Izady, “Desperately Seeking Full-Time Kurdologists”, the Kurdish Life, Number 13, Winter 1995,

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