Kurdistan: Crafting of National Selves

November 20, 2008

This book is not so much about how Kurds imagine their nation and construct their identities as members of it, but more about how the nation-states where Kurds live mould the national identities to which Kurds are expected to conform. And a very chilly, top-down power dynamic it looks too, despite the author's commendable insistence on the plurality of Kurdish communities, the dimension of gender (rarely seen in writings on Kurds) and issues of individual agency and negotiation. There is relatively little treatment or analysis of the canonical Kurdish texts and voices in the discourse, but a great deal on the environment in which this discourse functions.

Coming from a straightforward "Turkish studies" standpoint, Christopher Houston considers Kurdish historical discourse within the framework of Ottoman heritage. The first chapter explains very effectively why the discussion of origins is still considered necessary in the historiography of this region, and why history is such a politicised activity in Turkey. The second focuses on the independence of the Kurdish principalities of the Ottoman Empire, their fall, and subsequent revolts led by sheikhs and tribal leaders and the question of when exactly they ceased to be "local" and became nationalist.

As the author notes, underlying nationalist concerns have allowed such questions to dominate the discourse. He also notes that some Kurdish writers, like their Turkish counterparts, underestimate the area's diversity, for example underplaying the Armenians' role in history. This is true although, as Maria O'Shea noted in 2004, others give a Utopian view of past ethnic harmony in Eastern Anatolia. Moreover, Kurds in Iraq make much of their efforts to foster pluralism and protect their minority communities. The third chapter usefully characterises some of the best-known works of ethnography on the Kurds. All suffered from shortcomings associated with their time, or the circumstances of their production - Edmund Leach's work cut short by war and Martin van Bruinessen having to make the virtue of breadth out of the necessity of not having permission to remain and work in depth on any one area.

The second part of the book takes a bold approach - as the author says, it shifts its focus to identify a transnational state political practice in which Kurds may be contextualised. Kurdish studies normally look at transnational structures and practices on the part of the Kurds, but not on the part of the states; indeed, we are taught that both ideology and practice in the management of Kurds is different in the various nation-states. Such a challenge to traditional wisdom is very stimulating and merits a hearing. Houston follows Bobby Sayyid in calling this type of secular nationalist state practice "Kemalism", which is rather shocking to those of us reared on the gentle shores of Iranian studies, especially when it appears to be implied that Iran is an "Ottoman successor state".

However, Houston's discussion of Kemalism is more nuanced than that of Sayyid, who makes a much more brutal opposition between "Islamist" and "Kemalist" state - for instance, Houston notes that the Islamic Republic of Iran follows the Kemalist model in some respects. However, he upholds Sayyid's argument that "the work of Mustafa Kemal in Turkey is generative of a new political paradigm for the wider Muslim world", and shows convincing links across the states concerned, for instance occasions where Reza Shah Pahlavi followed his friend Ataturk's example on such matters as modernist reforms, and the links between Sati al-Husri, who presided over the creation of the Iraqi school curriculum, and the great ideologue of Kemalism, Ziya Gokalp.

There is no doubt that these nationalisms and their enactment - Turkey, Iran and Iraq are the states under consideration - show some great similarities, but ultimately I remained unconvinced on two points. Is the loaded term "Kemalism" useful, given that many of its policies predated Ataturk and were continuations of the model of modernism used by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and in some cases by Iranian constitutionalists? And despite the similarities of the overbearing state, the differences for the Kurdish experience were enormous between Turkey and, say, Iraq, where despite such atrocities as the 1988 Anfal massacres there also existed limited Kurdish-language schooling, faculty teaching of Kurdish, Kurdish literary output and media - as Amir Hassanpour might put it, the difference between "ethnocide" and "genocide".

Nevertheless, there is much to appreciate in these chapters, which contain nuanced discussions of projections of modernity and relationships with Western discourse that tie in very well with other work being done on Turkey's treatment of its "underdeveloped" areas. The role of music and folklore in nation-building is not overlooked, and there is a whole chapter on the Kemalist city in the three states concerned - a discussion of the role of the built environment in these processes is rare and precious indeed. The conclusion is also nuanced, looking at prospects for de-Kemalisation, not by abolition of existing government policy, but by giving more space to civil life. Overall, however, the book leaves us hungry for more on how the Kurds themselves have constructed their nation and its history in these adverse circumstances.

Kurdistan: Crafting of National Selves.

By Christopher Houston. Berg, 256pp, £60.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781845202682 and 02699. Published 1 June 2008

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