Flavin’s Corner April 2003

Kurds in the Way?

Then the Lord descended to the holy land and commanded Gabriel to take earth from the four corners of the world: earth, air, fire and water. He made it man, and endowed it with a soul by His power. Then He commanded Gabriel to place Adam in Paradise, where he might eat of the fruit of every green herb, only of wheat should he not eat. After a hundred years Ta'us Melek said to God, "How shall Adam increase and multiply, and where is his offspring?" God said to him, "Into thy hand have I surrendered authority and administration". Then he came and said to Adam, "Hast thou eaten of the wheat?" He answered, "No, for God hath forbidden me so to do, and hath said, 'Thou shalt not eat of it'". Melek Ta'us said to him, "If you eat of it, all shall go better with thee". But, after he had eaten, his belly swelled up, and Ta'us Melek drove him forth from Paradise, and left him, and ascended into heaven. Then Adam suffered from the distention of his belly, because it had no outlet. But God sent a bird, which came and helped him, and made an outlet for it, and he was relieved. And Gabriel continued absent from him for a hundred years, and he was sad, and wept. Then God commanded Gabriel, and he came and created Eve from under Adam's left arm-pit.
From Meshaf Resh ("The Black Book"), quoted in Devil Worship: The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidiz by Isya Joseph (1919).

"Kurdistan" region.

Following the completion of The Chore of Babylon, the matter of the Kurds will again be before us.  It’s said the Kurds, at an estimated 20-25 million, are the largest ethnic group without a country.  Efforts to create a “Kurdistan” have failed several times since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire through the Clinton administration.  The Turkish government is understandably concerned about the future of the Kurds, as much of any hypothetical Kurdistan should be in eastern Turkey.  Syria, Iran, and Israel all have sizable Kurdish populations and closely monitor any movements toward autonomy and independence.  A UN-sponsored creation of Kurdistan after Operation Iraqi Freedom would seem to be the right thing to do.  However, give the Kurds their own country and the next thing we know the Palestinians, Basque, and other separatist groups might demand their own countries as well.  The breakup of the USSR and the recent Balkan crisis has shown that wherever you find an ethnic group with a few friends, you’ll also discover a desire to have an independent country and a nice new flag.  Are the Kurds in the way of peace?  No, of course not.  Kurdistan might upset its bigoted and covetous neighbors, but a long overdue homeland for such an ancient people as the Kurds would bring peace and security to deserving millions.

The history of the Kurdish people is difficult and much is speculation.  In a narrow sense, the history of  the ethnic group described as the Kurds began with various Greek mentions in the third century BCE, but associated terms occurred far earlier under the Assyrians and Akkadians. [Note: For a timeline, click here.]  This is a meager beginning and an earlier history begs much speculation and the later history is difficult because of the various agendas of politically and religiously motivated historians.

Following convention and beginning history with Sumer, just as the Sumerians were starting to enjoy civilization and their unique agglutinative language, they were conquered by the Akkadians, a Semitic-speaking people.  As the Sumerians had invented writing and the cuneiform script, the Akkadians opportunistically borrowed the script and began using it as their own.  To the northwest, during the early second millennium BCE in western Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Hittites stepped from the steppes into history as a recognizable power and used a hieroglyphic script to express their Indo-European language.  Soon, they too would take up the use of cuneiform.

Next to the Hittites, in eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, the Hurrians emerged as a non-Indo-European and non-Semitic people of significance.  It’s thought that the Hurrians, acting as intermediaries for others, introduced and popularized the use of the horse in the Near East.  Though possessing a language and literature of their own (some have suggested that at least three of the letters of the Ugarit cuneiform alphabet were invented for Hurrian), according to archaeological discoveries they were apparently classy enough to collect various copies of the Gilgamish epic.  The Hurrians will probably always remain a somewhat mysterious people, as their hold on history slipped away before 1000 BCE.  Fortunately, they had family that survived.

The Urartu (or Urartians) were kin to the Hurrians, first named as the Uruartri by the Assyrians c. 1274 BCE., adopted the cuneiform script by 900 BCE, and enjoyed an independent state until being conquered by the Indo-Aryan Medes, supported by Babylon, c. 609 BCE.  The Urartu are known from numerous historical texts and also from Hebrew scripture.  Yeah, scripture.  A Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew rrt as Ararat instead of Urartu has caused much misunderstanding and confusion, as has the Latin mistranslation of Ararat as Armenia.  Muddling matters further, some linguists refer to the Urartian language as Chaldean (see: Extinct Languages by Johannes Friedrich, 1957; New York: Philosophical Library; p. 81), which is more than a little ironic as the (Neo) Babylonians who encouraged the Medes in the destruction of Urartu fortresses are usually designated as the Chaldean kings of Babylon (626-539 BCE).

The Kurds hold that they are descendants of the Medes who conquered the Urartu, though more likely is a jump into a shared gene-pool by both. [Note: There are suggestions that current Kurdish tattoos share designs with Urartu motifs, but a clear argument has yet to be presented.]  With Alexander arrived a Greek take on civilization, subsequently wrestled away by the Romans, who then witnessed the rise and spread of Christendom and the conversion of the Armenians by St. Gregory in 301 CE.  The local population who lived in northern Mesopotamia, at the time, resisted Christianity and retained pagan beliefs from Urartian, Median (pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Aryan), and Zoroastrian and associated influences.  Pagans.  Good times.  All that changed under Islam.

With the arrival of Islam many Kurds died, some became Muslim and some remarkably stayed alive while remaining pagan.  The Yezidis are Kurds who practice a 'Cult of Angels' (perhaps from Ized "angels" and Yazata "worthy of worship," words found in the Pahlavi [Persian] version of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Zend-Avesta [from Zainti, Pahlavi for “explanation of” and Avesta, a collection of writings attributed to Zoroaster]).  There’s a single, impersonal god, and a heptad of seven angels (sometimes seven “light” angels and seven “dark” angels, suggesting the dualism of Zoroastrianism).  Well, that’s one origin for the Yezidis.  Many Muslims have another.

After Mohammed died, there was some deadly jostling for succession.  Abu Bakr, the father-in-law of Mohammed, was chosen over Ali, cousin and son-in-law to Mohammed, by marriage to Mohammed's daughter, Fatima.  Abu Bakr died after a couple of years and Umar, an early convert to Islam, was able to establish himself as caliph.  Umar was soon followed by Uthman, a rich aristocrat from Mecca.  Uthman was assassinated in 656 CE and Ali finally got his chance at the caliphate.  In a bloodless power struggle, Ali lost the caliphate to Muawiyah.  Islam was soon governed from Damascus and Ali was assassinated in 661 CE.  The only major schism in Islam then occurred, as the Shiite (shiat Ali, Arabic for "followers of Ali," who claim the caliphate should have passed to Ali’s heirs) split from the Sunni (sunna or "tradition"), the far more numerous rest of Islam.  At the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE, Hussein, the second son of Ali (being the grandson of Mohammed), was killed by the followers of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, the son of Muawiyah.  Many Muslims believe that the Yezidis worship Yazid for killing Hussein.  It’s not true, of course, but it’s been a convenient excuse for some Muslims to kill Kurds for a long time.  Hussein.  Kurds.  Bad times.  [Note: It remains cruel kismet that the most famous of all Kurds, Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub ("Saladin"), who took Jerusalem and provoked the Third Crusade, was born in Tikrît, also the birthplace and hometown of Saddam Hussein.]

Islamic scripture mandates the civilized treatment of the “People of the Book,” that is to say, Hebrews and Christians, but the Kurds in the early days of Islam had no scripture to examine, as their traditions were orally communicated and not written down, and they weren’t afforded “People of the Book” status.  Yet, they persevered in their pagan ways and stayed alive.  They adapted and stayed alive.  The Kurds absorbed exterior influences while strengthening an interior and distinct ethnic identity.  Some may regard the Kurds as practicing a syncretic system of various traditions (unknown indigenous Copper Age eastern Anatolian and northern Mesopotamian, Bronze Age Hurrian and Iron Age Urartian, Median (pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Aryan), Hebrew, Zoroastrianism and associated movements, Greek, Roman, Christian, and Islam), but a proper metaphor would be a stock-pot with the broth being enriched by new additions.  And, most importantly, they stayed alive.

However, as sometimes happens when exposed to the zealousness of the newly assuaged, even though the Kurds continued to stave off assimilation into Arabic and Persian Islam, after the Turks (a Hun people recently converted to Islam) invaded Anatolia and occupied Kurdish lands in 1071 CE, an extremely rough ride began for the Kurds which continues until this day.

Putting struggles aside for a moment, the pagan Kurds achieved more than simple survival.  Working within the mad dash and overview of this column, it’s too much at this time to detail all of the atrocities inflicted upon the Kurds.  Despite the horrors, they constituted an environment which was open enough to accept (and pass on) intellectual and spiritual contributions.  To wit, they were players on the same stage as all of us.

There is an uneven controversy surrounding the influence of the Islamic Sufi sect upon the Kurds.  Some argue that the Sufi way is an example of mystical Islam (as in Kabbalah to Judaism and gnostic sects to Christianity) and the Kurds were receptive to its teaching, or that fundamental Sufi tenets began with agreement of and reflections upon Yezidi Kurdish (pre-Zoroastrian and Zoroastrian) beliefs, and still others offer that the Kurds added the Sufi way to their stock-pot and celebrated a new component.  For whatever reasons, the Sufi have always felt safe with the Kurds.

Economic and military prowess are always easy expressions for braggarts with the means, but exercising with the god-game is most often reserved for extraordinary leadership in very special circumstances.  What does it take?  Divine inspiration?  Opportunity?  Luck?  Moses is said to have challenged a pagan Canaanite religion, Zoroaster rebelled against his Indo-Aryan traditions, as Buddha did against the Hindu, and (as is held) Jesus disagreed with the Hebrews and started something new.  Mohammed claimed priority over the Hebrews and Christians and added to the confusion.  But, the Kurds kept their heads (sic.) and defined themselves as different from their Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic neighbors.  Salute their right to be themselves!  And, again, so they can know you mean it... 

From a mixed Yezidi Kurdish and Persian Shiite community in southern Iran, Siyyid ‘Ali Muhammad (1819-1850) announced to the world that he was the Báb (the “gate”) and much like Baptist John, he was preparing the way for one greater than himself.  Also, like Baptist John, he was executed shortly after he began his mission.  The Báb (pronounced “Bob”) taught a  syncretic system which relied heavily upon Zoroastrianism, though unbridled enthusiasm was shown nearly every major religion and spiritual movement he was familiar with.

Husayn-`Alí (1817-1892), later known as Bahá'u'lláh, came from a mixed Yezidi Kurdish and Persian Shiite community in northern Iran, became a disciple of the Báb in 1844, was conveniently out of town during the Báb’s execution, came to the sudden realization that he was the one the Báb was preparing for thirteen years after the Báb’s execution, and with further unbridled enthusiasm embraced every minor religion and spiritual movement he encountered and founded the Bahai faith.  How wonderful for the Yezidi Kurds to assist in inspiring a new faith! [Note: The Mormon cult emerged in America at the same time and used newspapers, magazines and books in a similar fashion to get their message out.]

Kurdistan was ignored by the Lausanne Conference which created the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Russia already had control of Armenia, France oversaw the Levant States (Syria and Lebanon), Reza Khan became the Shah of Iran, and King Faisal I worked with the British and a League of Nations mandate, with a suggestion to be nice to the Kurds.  The Kurds spoke up for their independence, but no one cared, as the ink on the maps had already dried. 

I’m reminded of the Roma (Gypsy) saying: Prohasar man opre pirend - sa muro djiben semas opre chengende (“Bury me standing. I've been on my knees all my life.”).  The plight of the expendables in any society is an example of our inhumanity to ourselves.  Unlike the Roma, the Kurds were never (to my knowledge) auctioned at the slave blocks around Europe, though they too were often victims of ethnic cleansing.  It’s pointless to play a numbers game and attempt to classify various attempts at genocide based upon approximations of total losses, as all mass murders (Roma, Armenian, Hebrew, Cambodian, Rwandan, Balkan, etc.) are equal in grisly intent and outcome.  However, in these modern times the tools of death have changed and these tools have been used against the Kurds. 

 In April 1987, the entire population of Sheik Wasan was killed or injured by poison gas.  In June 1987, the marshlands of southern Iraq, where thousands had taken refuge, were bombarded by Iraqi jets dropping gas bombs.  On March 16, 1988, the Kurdish town of Halabja was gas bombed: leaving 5,000 dead and 10,000 wounded.  On the August 28, 1988, Iraq's government forces reportedly entered several villages near the town of Duhok and arrested 1,000 people, some of whom were suffering from wounds sustained in chemical weapon attacks.  Those detained were summarily executed and then buried in mass graves nearby.  Between August and September 1988, 55,000 Iraqi Kurds fled to Turkey from Northern Iraq to escape military attacks by Iraqi government forces.  The gas attacks against the Kurds were not the first case of Iraq's use of chemical weapons.  In 1983, Iraq was condemned for using chemical warfare against Iran. On April 15 and 16, 1987, the Iraqi government launched poisonous gas attacks on villages in Suleimanieh and Arbil Provinces in zones controlled by Kurdish rebels, leaving 300 dead and wounded.  Gas attacks continued in the May, June and September of the same year.  In November 1987, the Kurds were poisoned with thallium, a heavy metal used in rat  poison.  In June 1989, 2,000 Kurds were poisoned in Mardin.  In January 1990, 400 Kurdish refugees were poisoned in Diyarbakir.
From "Ethnic Cleansing and the Kurds." 

Operation Desert Storm (aka “The Gulf War”) was ostensibly about restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait.  Whether it was motivated by justice, oil, or that the Kuwaiti backers of a proposed sequel to Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984; Warner Bros.) withdrew their support, the mission was not concerned with overthrowing Hussein, liberating the Iraqi people, or protecting the Kurds.  Only after Hussein’s Republican Guard drove a million Kurds to a closed Turkish border did the international community acknowledge the Kurdish tragedy.  And, with a classic “too little, too late,” Operation Provide Comfort was initiated in 1991 to keep the skies above the Kurds clear so they wouldn’t be bombed from the air.  They could still be killed on the ground, however.

I’ve no doubt that Operation Iraqi Freedom will be successful in ending the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein.  Will Kurdistan finally become a reality?  We can only hope and pray.  Sadly, while the Kurds are not in the way of peace, an independent Kurdistan might be.

As Operation Iraqi Freedom may end up costing some several billions of dollars and unlike 1991's Gulf War there isn’t a long list of nations eager to take out their checkbooks and make donations to cover costs, the short-list “Coalition of the Willing” nations (i.e., America and Britain) will have to pay all bills incurred.  And some in America are already planning ahead to charge any new government in Iraq for their liberation.  If Kurdistan comes into existence, America would not be able to bill for costs and seize profits from the rich oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk.  It’s not about the oil; it’s about Ferengi profit no matter where it comes from.  Still, we can only hope and pray for an independent Kurdistan, and maybe that any new government in Iraq will be billed for the entire cost and the rich oil fields around Basra and Rumiela will just have to produce twice as much.

keeping arachnids away from the cottage cheese,

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