Kurds: a valiant people

By Anwar Syed


THE ruling elites in Iran and Turkey have for several centuries perceived and treated the Kurdish element in their populations as an irritant. In more recent times, let us say since the 1920s, the rulers in Iraq and Syria have felt and acted the same way.

I have lately been reading about the Kurds and my initial feeling is that, other than wishing to maintain their own distinct identity and striving for a measure of self-determination, they haven’t really caused others any real cause for grievance. I propose to look at their situation in pre-modern times.

The Kurdish sense of identity goes back seven to eight thousand years, which is probably longer than anything along the same lines that any of their traditional oppressors (Iranians, Turks, Arabs) can claim. They are an ethno-linguistic group, inhabiting the Zagros and Taurus mountain regions in the Middle East. The Kurds occupy areas in northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southwestern Iran, and southeastern Turkey. Smaller numbers of them may also be found in enclaves in Azerbaijan and northern Iran (Khorasan).

Ethnically, the Kurds think of themselves as a mix of Indo-European and several other groups who came to live in their areas. The first trickle of the Indo-Europeans began some four thousand years ago. A thousand years later the trickle became a flood and the Kurds began to be predominantly Aryanised. But the earlier legacy (Hurrian) did not disappear; it mingled with the newer influences and made for a composite Kurdish culture.

The Kurds are among those few nations in history whose aspiration, and striving, for political independence have been thwarted by larger states in their proximity for several hundred years. They have also been the object of rivalry and conflict between those larger states. They came under the sway of Cyrus (over 500 years BC), and then under that of the Macedonians, Parthians, and Sassanids.

Now and then a Kurdish chieftain set up an independent principality or kingdom, but it did not last long. We see reference in Firdousi’s Shahnama to a fierce battle between a Kurdish lord of the name of Madig and Ardeshir I in the third century. Other sources tell us that nearly a thousand Kurds were killed in this battle while many more, including their lord and his family, were taken prisoners and driven to Pars. In 360 AD a large body of Kurdish archers, defending the fortress of Phoenica on the east bank of the Tigris, against the invading army of Shapur, were eventually vanquished and killed.

As the Sassanid and Byzantine empires declined, and later as the Arab caliphate in Baghdad weakened, the Kurds were able to set up principalities that were in effect independent even though they were nominally Baghdad’s vassals; the more notable of them being the Shaddadis in Armenia (951-1174), Hasanwayhids (959-1015) and the Annazid (880-1117) around Kirmanshah and Khanaqin, and the Marwanid (990-1096) in Diyarbakir. It should be noted that, here and there, the Kurds mounted formidable, but unsuccessful, insurrections against the caliph’s overlordship as, for instance, in 838 and 905.

Having conquered Iran and subdued the caliph in Baghdad, the Seljuk Turks annexed the Kurdish principalities. About 1156 Ahmad Sanjjar, the last of the great Seljuk kings, consolidated these territories into a province and named it Kurdistan, with Bahar (near Hamadan) as its capital.

The Kurds gained a good deal of prominence during the twelfth century when Salahuddin (Saladin), a Kurd who belonged to the Rawendi branch of the Hadabavi tribe, founded the Ayubi dynasty that ruled Syria and Egypt (1171-1250). He appointed a number of Kurdish notables as governors, and Kurdish chieftainships emerged in places to the east and west of the Kurdistan mountains, and to Khorasan on one side and Egypt and Yemen on the other. More of them came up in the post-Mongol period. An account of some of them may be found in Sharafnamah, a work written by Sharafal Din Biltisi, a Safavid prince, in 1597. One of them, Ardalan, founded in the early 14th century, continued to exist until 1867, when Nasseruddin Qajar, the Persian king (r. 1848-1896) at the time, ended it.

Yazidi Kurds fought Shah Ismail’s forces for four years (1506-10). They were eventually defeated, their leader, Shir Sarim, captured along with many others, all of whom were tortured and then killed. In 1514 Selim I, the Ottoman sultan, defeated Shah Ismail, and annexed Armenia and Kurdistan. He appointed one of his own Kurdish officers, Idris, to administer the Kurdish territories. Idris reorganised them into districts and installed local chieftains as governors. He also settled Kurds on the fertile lands between Erzerum and Erivan which had lain waste since Timur’s devastations. This may have been an interlude of some relief for the Kurdish population,

The Safavids wanted to pull unfriendly populations away from their borders with the Ottoman empire. Thus, they moved hundreds of thousands of Kurds, along with some Armenians, Azeris, and Turkomans, and resettled them in the interior of Persia. During the rule of Shah Tehmasp (1524-1576) certain Kurdish regions in Anatolia suffered pillage and deportations (1534-35). Retreating before an Ottoman army, he ordered destruction of Kurdish towns and the countryside, drove the population into Azerbaijan and then a thousand miles east to Khorasan. His successors, notably Shah Abbas I, continued to oppress the Kurds. As a court historian, Iskander Bayg Munshi, wrote, their resistance was met with massacres and wholesale destruction of Kurdish homes and crops, mosques and churches.

Kurdish historians, poets, and transmitters of folklore recall the battle of Dim Dim (1609-10) between Kurdish patriots and the Safavids as a glorious example of their struggle against alien rule. The battle was fought to defend a fortress (called Dim Dim) in the Beradost region in northern Iran. Emir Xan Lepzerin, led the Kurdish force, and several Kurdish chieftains in the neighbourhood rallied to his support. In the end, as in many other such instances, they lost. Shah Abbas ordered a general massacre in Beradost and Mukriyan and deportation of those who had somehow survived.

Let us now turn to the traditional Kurdish cultural personality. Needless to say, Kurdish culture has developed over several thousand years and, like most others, it is a mix of indigenous characteristics and influences received from other peoples and places with whom the Kurds came into contact; notably Mesopotamia and Iran. For instance, the Kurdish New Year Day is the same as the Iranian (Nauruz) which falls on March 21.

A quest for social justice and equality, deference for age, and hospitality to the foreigner are among the more notable aspects of the Kurdish psyche. Kurdish music and dance are lively; in one of the more popular ones men and women, holding hands, move in a circle with a couple, singing and dancing in the middle, directing them. Singing and dancing are common on all festive occasions, including weddings and birthday celebrations.

The Kurdish language belongs to the Indo-Iranian (Aryan) family. It was a spoken, not written, language in the very old days, but following the advent of Islam and Arab impact, it came to be written in modified Arabic alphabet, which remains the case in Iran and Iraq, but currently it is written in the Latin alphabet in Turkey and Syria.

There is no evidence of any Kurdish literature in antiquity. There is a fair amount of poetry beginning with the late Middle Ages. Ali Hariri (1424-1490) is reputed to have been one of the better-known earlier poets. Several of them wrote of the persecution the Kurds had suffered and the tragedies that had befallen them over time. One of them, Salim Salman, produced “Yusif & Zuleyxa” (a classic tale) in 1585. There was a bit of prose, mostly in the area of theology; literary forms such as novel, short story, drama, essay and writing on serious academic subjects would come later. Ismail Bayazidi (1654-1710) composed a Kurdish-Arabic-Persian dictionary. It may be noted in passing that the Kurdish language has had to suffer a good deal of discrimination. While it is one of the official languages in Iraq, its use has been forbidden in Syria, excluded from schools and the media in Turkey, and limited to the local media and a few schools in Iran.

Speaking of their traditional dress, that which Kurdish men wear is fairly simple. It consists of a long shirt that is open at the neck, a sleeveless jacket (something like a vest) over it, and a pair of baggy pants that go down to the ankles. Men cover their heads with a rather short turban. Women’s clothing, on the other hand, is a lot more elaborate.

Many a Kurdish woman wears flamboyant costumes in gay. almost riotous, colours. She wears two shirts (more like gowns), one on top of the other, called ‘gambaz.’ The outer one has a low neckline that shows off the high neckline of the inner garment. Below this double-shirt she wears a pair of trousers (pantaloons) that start out being baggy and then hug the legs from the knees to the ankles. The “gambaz” has two free strips in the front that can be pulled and tied at the back to lend additional flourish to the costume. An important part of a womans dress is the girdle, which is usually a hand-woven wool scarf, folded diagonally, and tied around her hips to give her belly both warmth and support. A bright apron is tied above the girdle.

She covers her head with a turban, which is really no more than a scarf, placed at an angle on the brow and tied at the back of the head. It is accompanied by a veil, made of sheer white cotton fabric and often decorated with beads. It falls on the sides of the face but does not cover it. Kurdish jewelry is made of gold and silver studded with amber and turquoise.

The Kurds have had their share of eminent warriors and rulers, theologians, and men of letters. Foremost among the warriors and rulers was Salahuddin (Saladin) whose career we will explore next Sunday.

The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US.

Email: anwarsyed@cox.net

Agony of justice delayed

By Kunwar Idris


THE number of cases pending in the Supreme Court of Pakistan has been brought down in the last one year from 30,000 to 16,000. Even in the limited context of disposal, this can hardly be described as “writing the judicial history of the country”.

But the chief justice of the Peshawar High Court chose to describe it as such in a public tribute to the chief justice of Pakistan.

The number of cases pending in the Supreme Court is just the tip of the iceberg of pendancy in the lower courts. Even a drastic reduction in it at the apex is, therefore, hardly an occasion for self-congratulations when justice is being delayed, and thus denied, to millions by the lower courts. Nevertheless, the country’s Chief Justice has set a new pace and precedence which the judges and magistrates in the lower judiciary can ignore only at their peril.

The quality of justice apart, the undisputed fact is that the cases in courts at all levels take a long time to decide. It is not unusual for a criminal case to linger on for a decade and a civil suit for a generation. Just one instance: in four years our courts have not been able to determine whether Mukhtaran Mai was gang-raped or not.

It would be inappropriate to blame either the judges or the prosecutors or the investigators for the delay. Nor does the remedy lie in increasing their numbers or wages. The plain truth is that the very system of dispensation of justice in Pakistan is unable to cope with the number and variety of disputes that it is called upon to settle. The process of adjudication is, then, aggravating discontent among the people instead of reducing it.

The ends of justice are defeated twice over, first by the delay and cost of litigation and then by its negative impact on the contending parties and society as a whole. A fundamental change that the system needs is to involve the community in conciliation and also in adjudication (barring, of course, heinous crimes and large civil disputes) before the police, lawyers and judges take over. That is what many countries — both advanced and backward — do.

In England and Wales 90 per cent of criminal cases are tried and determined by justices of peace, numbering around 30,000 (all unpaid layperson) and by less than 100 stipendiary (paid) magistrates who are trained lawyers. The sheer number of justices of peace shows that most cases are heard by them and only the more serious crimes come to magisterial courts in their initial stage.

The second instance, more relevant to us, is taken from India. To reduce the mounting backlog of cases, India introduced the system of lok adalats (people’s courts) about a quarter of a century ago with wide jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters. India is at present engaged in reviving them. According to this system, a legal aid committee headed by the district judge selects the civil, revenue or criminal cases pending in courts which may be referred to conciliators and later, if a settlement appears possible, to a panel which typically consists of a retired judge or civil servant and two or three social workers to hear the parties and instantly pass a decree. The claims settled may be trivial but their number is large. The efficacy of the system has varied from state to state. Reports suggest it is faltering but still working.

Pakistan’s Local Government Ordinance of 2001 which represents Gen. Musharraf’s much hyped devolution plan and is uniformly followed in all the four provinces contains a chapter on ‘Musalihat Anjuman’ (conciliation council) which has hardly ever found mention in presidential speeches or official reports. The National Reconstruction Bureau and the nazims have not shown any interest in the scheme either. It is a badly worded law and, unlike India, the district judge or any other official does not head its supervisory committee.

For the settlement of disputes the ordinance relies entirely on the encouragement of the union nazims and councillors who are interested only in politics or in demanding pay for themselves and funds for their territories. The ‘Musalihat Anjuman’ is thus still-born.

The settlement of disputes by respected village elders is an old tradition of the plains and hills. That is how local communities managed their own affairs giving no chance to the central authority to subjugate them. Sadly, the elders are now viewed as feudal oppressors, many among them indeed are, and the chiefs of hill clans still resist state intervention in their affairs. In both cases, they have ceased to be conciliators or arbitrators for their people.

They can be made to assume that role again to spare their people the expense and agony of seeking justice through the institutions of the state and its paid officials when recourse to it can be found locally. An informal system for punishing crime and resolving civil disputes, however, would succeed only if it is established under the auspices of the judicial arm of the state and is supervised by a judge in each district.

Over the years, new and tough laws have been enacted, punishments have been enhanced, special investigative agencies and courts (shariat, speedy, anti-corruption, anti-terrorist), ombudsmen and tribunals of all sorts have been created. The cost of administering justice has vastly increased but the cases are taking even longer to decide. Expanding the laws and courts would only cause more expense and longer delays.

The chief justice and the prime minister (the present incumbents of both offices have, as they say, an out-of-the-box approach) together must review the whole system to make the dispensation of justice expeditious and inexpensive even if it cannot always be even-handed. A good beginning can be made with the Supreme Court itself which has 19 judges. India with seven times the population, no less criminal or litigious than ours, has only 26 but the cases on its roster are fewer.

An opportunity on oil

A FUNNY thing happened while policymakers hemmed and hawed about an energy policy: Price signals created one. The current oil spike may have an effect similar to the last one in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which drove a two-thirds gain in US vehicle efficiency and huge advances in energy conservation by businesses.

But the success of the coming energy transition will depend on how well policy complements price signals. On that, the omens are not good.

In the five years since Vice President Cheney convened his energy task force, oil prices have jumped from around $22 per barrel to a bit over $70. Energy companies now have ample incentive to bring new supplies to market: The three major US oil companies are projected to increase spending on exploration and development by 30 percent this year.

Consumers have ample incentive to drive less and buy more-efficient vehicles: Last year they bought a record 200,000 vehicles powered by clean diesel or hybrid motors. Anyone who remembers the furious arguments of the 1990s, when Congress resisted an energy tax that would have raised gas prices by a few cents per gallon, can only marvel at the can-do spirit of the market. While politicians dithered, the invisible hand worked.

But the politicians are not off the hook. The worst kind of policy actually smothers price signals. Both President Bush and Congress are promising to rescue consumers from $3 gasoline — by investigating companies for alleged price gouging, by sending out $100 checks as though government were some kind of fairy godmother, or by suspending the tax on gasoline or shipments to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Encouraging consumers to believe that they will be protected from high gas prices only discourages them from adapting. Families are less likely to carpool or buy an efficient vehicle; companies are less likely to search for ways to save fuel.

Another kind of error is to underestimate the environmental dimension of the energy crisis. Mr. Bush is a convert to the idea that the nation’s oil addiction is a problem, and in a speech last week he repeated that oil purchases fill the coffers of governments that threaten U.S. interests. If this were the only danger posed by oil, then drilling in friendlier territories might address it — and oil companies are doing that.

But oil is also dangerous because of global warming, a subject entirely absent from Mr. Bush’s recent energy speech. To ensure that the main response to high oil prices is something other than just more oil production, government needs to act.

Mr Bush’s idea of action is flawed. He touts a range of government investments in alternative energies: electric cars, hydrogen cars, ethanol that’s made from waste products or grass. This approach assumes that government knows which technologies are worth backing.

It assumes that if government researches a new technology, the private sector will see a business case for bringing it to market. And it neglects the fact that government research into alternative energy is engaged in an arms race with private research into oil extraction. The president’s budget proposes $150 million next year for ethanol research, but private investment in new technology for extracting hydrocarbons comes to about $18 billion annually.

To boost less carbon-intensive fuels, Mr. Bush needs to focus less on how the government spends its small research budget and more on how companies spend their enormous ones. That means changing company incentives by making oil less profitable. One tool for achieving change is regulation that restricts oil consumption — notably stricter fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, which the president embraces only half-heartedly. Another tool is taxation.

Nobody is going to advocate a carbon tax that would push fuel prices higher than they are already. But it would make sense to adopt a sliding-scale tax that would kick in when oil prices fell below a certain level. For the next year or two, it is likely that this tax would inflict no pain; it’s the sort of policy that short-termist politicians ought to love. But by guaranteeing that $20 oil is not coming back, this tax would encourage producers and consumers to switch to fuels that aren’t so dangerous — to U.S. security interests or to the climate.

—The Washington Post



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