New Horizons in Kurdish History Lecture Series

July 18, 2022
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In the last decade, Kurdish history has become an exciting arena of scholarly inquiry in Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies. Showcasing this emerging literature was the main goal of the New Horizons in Kurdish History lecture series that Cemal Kafadar, Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies, and I organized for spring 2022. Professor Kafadar and I initially formed the idea in his basement office at Robinson Hall during one of our regular meetings in fall 2021, when I worked as a Teaching Fellow for his Ottoman history survey course. Over the course of the semester, we brainstormed about who to invite and the format of the series. Once we had a better sense of how we wanted the series to go, we solicited the know-how of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies' indispensable Jesse Howell. With his help, and support from Liz Flanagan, Eric Edstam, and Lauren Montague, the series took off.

Deren Ertas and Cemal Kafadar
Cemal Kafadar and Deren Ertas

The series opened with a lecture by Yavuz Aykan (École d'Histoire de la Sorbonne, Université Paris 1 - Panthéon-Sorbonne), author of Rendre la justice à Amid (Brill, 2016). His talk, "Beyond the Frontier Paradigm: Kurdistan(s) in Space and Time (16th–19th Century)," offered a novel analysis of Kurdistan's cultural geography from the period of its initial conquest by Sultan Selim I, in the 1510s, to the establishment of the Province of Kurdistan, in 1847. How did Ottoman intellectuals – from Kurdistan or other parts of the empire – imagine the space of Kurdistan? Through Aykan's lecture, we learned that early modern Kurdistan was less a territorial and more a cultural-linguistic landscape that he characterized as a "scattered geography.”

The second event hosted three scholars who edited The Cambridge History of the Kurds, published in 2021. The volume brings together over twenty essays representing diverse disciplinary inquiries. It examines the cultural, political, and economic developments that shaped Kurdish spaces and peoples from the sixteenth century to the present day. The book launch brought us together with Cengiz Güneş (The Open University, Milton Keynes), who introduced the book. He ended his opening remarks by summarizing his research on the decline of religious nationalism and the rise of leftist politics among the Kurds in the 1970s. Next, Veli Yadırgı's (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) presentation focused on his chapter in the edited volume and book, The Political Economy of the Kurds in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Yadırgı creatively uses Sara Roy's notion of de-development to explain the political economy of Kurdistan from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. One of the consequences of de-development, according to Yadırgı, is the late development of national consciousness among the Kurds and the forestalling of independence. The event's final speaker was Hamit Bozarslan (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris), one of the foremost scholars of Kurdish studies in Europe. He spoke about a forthcoming edited volume that takes a longue-durée perspective and traces the genealogy of ethnonational solidarities among the Kurds.

The majority of the world's Kurdish population lives at the intersection of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The area they inhabit is shaped by the complex interaction of mountains, valleys, rivers, and arid plains. In recent years, scholars have become increasingly attentive to the environmental history of Kurdistan. One of the rising voices in this field is Zozan Pehlivan (University of Minnesota), whose book A Climate of Violence: Environmental Crises in the Late Ottoman Empire will be published in 2023. She was the third speaker in the New Horizons in Kurdish History series. Her talk, "Writing the History of Kurdistan from an Environmental Perspective," shed light on the intertwinement of the economy and environment in nineteenth-century Ottoman Kurdistan. Shaped by a close cooperative relationship between towns, peasants, and nomads and at the center of a vibrant animal trade, she showed that Ottoman Kurdistan was an important part of the global economy. However, she also explained how the region's political economy suffered due to the Russo-Ottoman War of 1878–79 and the years of famine that enveloped the region. The fifth talk of the series, Faisal Husain's (Pennsylvania State University) "The Tigris and the Euphrates in Kurdish History," examined the interaction between Kurdistan’s mountainous ecosystem and the region's two major rivers. Looking at the agricultural economy, pastoral economy, and communication networks across the area, he showed that in comparison to southern Mesopotamia, the Kurds only minimally relied on the river system.

Our series was enriched by the participation of anthropologist Marlene Schäfers (University of Utrecht), whose book Voices That Matter: Kurdish Women at the Limits of Representation in Contemporary Turkey will come out with the University of Chicago Press in December 2022. Her talk, "Voicing Kurdish History," focused on her ethnographic research on Kurdish women dengbêj singers. She showed how history gets inscribed in their narrative songs, as well as the new vulnerabilities and opportunities that contemporary politics in Turkey afford their self-expression. The final talk of the series, Cevat Dargın's (Pennsylvania State University) "Rebellion as Myth in State Building and State Evasion," showed how the 1938 massacre in Dersim was the last phase of a decades-long process of internal colonization. Following the centralized state's relationship with the province of Dersim from the late Ottoman Empire to the early years of the Turkish Republic, Dargın showed how the two states employed the myth of rebellion to colonize and dominate the mountainous region.

Scholars hailing from different disciplines and fields have found the Kurdish spaces of the Middle East fruitful sites of cutting-edge research. Their works are beginning to illuminate new aspects of the past and revise existing narratives written from the perspective of hegemonic institutions and identity positions. In addition to contributing to the depth and breadth of historical knowledge on the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East, new Kurdish histories present the region as a site of theory-making from the margins. Taking on approaches informed by cultural history, environmental history, and political economy, they represent the future of their subfields in ways that will contribute to scholarship far and wide. From state-formation to the peripheral incorporation of the Middle East into the world economy, these scholars offer field-changing perspectives on a region of the Middle East that has been neglected in existing scholarship. They move us beyond existing paradigms into terrains of research that will inspire further investigations.

—Deren Ertas, PhD candidate in History and Middle Eastern Studies