It’s easy and perhaps tempting to put the current political dissent in Syria down to the desire of its people to throw off the shackles of tyranny and the Kurds to break off into their own state, as the British liberal media is trying to do. Conversely it’s important, especially in the polyglot and culturally rich Middle East, to resist superficial readings of events leading to one overarching teleology: instead we ought to understand that much of the time in such an extraordinarily heterogeneous state as Syria the threads of political dissent pull in various different directions, lacking the unity of purpose which we might wish to stamp on them.
Thus the Syrian Kurdish question. Kurds had inhabited the Middle East for centuries before the Islamic conquests, plying the transhumance routes through the Zagros mountains and the highlands of Anatolia from the Cilician plain all the way to Fars in the south of modern Iran. Early Arab geographers, in fact, often referred to these pastoralists as the Persian Bedouin. We might conjecture that prior to their eviction from the southern Zagros by the influx of the Ghuzz Turkmen in the eleventh century, the Kurdish and Persian languages were indeed more similar than they are today; but it was this separation of the old Persian and new Kurdish heartlands which left the latter a race apart from the rest of the Iranic world.
Although interesting in itself from an academic point of view, this history of the Kurds is crucially important in determining their future. Linguistically and, to an extent, culturally, there are strong similarities between sedentary Arabs and the Bedouin, or their recently-settled descendants of the Syrian Jazira. But the Kurds have a completely different language, culture and history, shaped by these past events. Having had Kurdish friends during
my semester abroad in Syria, the story of their people’s history is familiar. On the various occasions when I was given different slants on Kurdish history and the Kurdish position in modern societies, I pondered what it would be like to be a Kurd in Syria.
Higher education in the country is focussed in the west, in cities like Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia, all of which have Arab majorities, but even then it can be difficult for Kurds to travel freely, and it is certainly impossible for them to access any serious education in their own language. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds have been treated by the government as foreigners after a hugely controversial 1962 census which determined that they and their descendents were illegal immigrants from Turkey, and are thus without citizenship of any country – although those Kurds who do have Syrian citizenship never fail to provide a bizarre sight in cities like Aleppo, as these moustachioed redheads roam the streets drinking Efes. Heavy restrictions are in place on the use of Kurdish in the media, as well as the registration of children with Kurdish names.
Linguistic restrictions on Kurdish raise a particularly important point. The formal name of Syria, the Syrian Arab Republic, reveals who the government thinks is the dominant community. Some opponents of the al-Asad government seek an end to the government-enforced Arab dominance of the country, a hangover partially from the Nasserite era of anti-colonialist reaction. But what the Syrian and Egyptian protests definitely have had in common, though, is an opportunity for ethnic and cultural minorities to reassert their positions – perhaps even to delete the ‘al-arabiyya’ from the names of their respective republics.
You could call it a difficult situation. How people are trying to negotiate it now, though, is complex, as has been adumbrated above. Do Kurds protest in favour of regime change (something of a scare-phrase among British broadsheet journalists), or for a new state of their own? The cultural difference between Arab and Kurd, however, has brought in some fields the sort of cultural intercourse almost unthinkable in Britain between mainstream society and immigrant communities. The fashion for a fusion of modern and traditional elements in contemporary Kurdish music over the past thirty years or so has productively influenced Arab musicians in Syria. Ciwan Haco is one of my favourite Kurdish artists, and indeed probably the most famous exponent of the Kurmanji dialect in song, whose style has undeniably brought new and useful ideas to the Arab music scene in Syria.
Examples like this, the reports of protests in Qamishli and Hassake, and recollections of drunken political conversations in Syria, all lead me to wonder how many Kurds really want to break away from Syria. Is this ‘al-Arabiyya’ and the attitude that comes with it the only stumbling block to their full participation in society? Despite some discrepancies, Arab and Kurd have got along for a millennium, give or take. From the cooperation of the Uqayli Bedouin and Marwanid Kurds in defending northern Mesopotamia from the Turks to the cosmopolitan attitudes of today’s Aleppines, to wipe clean this venerable legacy would be a sad loss.