Kurdistan - Between past and future

Over the past three decades, we have witnessed important changes in the political, cultural and constitutional frameworks of Middle Eastern societies. On the one hand, from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to the 'Arab Spring' of 2011, the rise of political Islam has drawn attention to Islam, regional political upheavals, and the interaction between religion and politics in both Northern Africa and the Middle East.


On the other hand, the collapse Saddam Hussein’s regime has drawn international attention to the position of oppressed ethnic and national minorities in general and the Kurds in particular.

Therefore, social theorists, historians, journalists, and political scientists of different opinions have begun to show interest in the region.

This is combined with a growing number of Kurds and non-Kurds in Diasporas interested in studying various aspects of Kurdish history, politics, society, and culture at both the undergraduate and post-graduate levels.

As a result, Kurdish Studies has emerged as an increasingly vibrant sub-discipline of Middle Eastern Studies.

To welcome this new development and in concert with many conferences and academic gatherings in recent years, the Department of Sociology of Soran University joins hands with the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies of Lund University to organize a joint conference entitled Kurdistan- Between past and future. The conference was held on April 15-17, 2013, at the Pank Resort of Rawanduz.

In this timely and academically well-organised conference, delegates in the fields of Middle Eastern and Kurdish Studies from Europe, North America, Turkey and Kurdistan addressed the issues pivotal to both academic theorizing about the Kurds and Kurdistan and as well as the future development of ‘culturally diverse’ societies of this part of the Middle East.

The conference provided the delegates with a platform to report on their research, to illustrate recent developments, academic achievements and emerging trends.

It was a trans-disciplinary exchange of ideas and discussion which aimed at identifying and mapping out the conflicting forces and political realities that bear upon identity formation, economic progress, development and governance in Kurdistan and the region.

Day One: Monday 15th, April

The Presidency’s staff and students from the Faculty of Arts of Soran University provided assistance for the delegates and guests, making a colourful backdrop to the hall at Pank Resort where the conference was held.

Guests were greeted and given packs and programmes, shown to their seats and assisted in any way they needed. The panellists ranged from professors, who are expert in their field, to postgraduate students at the beginning of their research.

This provided an array of papers that looked at historical and contemporary discourse on the Kurdish question.

Day one opened with speeches from Mr Nawzad Hadi, Governor of Erbil and special representative of the Prime Minster Nechirvan Barzani, followed by a presentation from Soran University that was prepared by Dr Howri Mansurbeg, Vice President for Scientific Affairs, a brief welcome by Dr Muslih Mustafa, President of Soran University and last but not least, a speech by Dr Amanj A Saeed, Advisor to the Minister of Higher Education and head of the Human Capacity Development Programme (HCDP).

Dr Amanj Saeed congratulated Soran University for organising this international conference and he added that Soran University has set a new record by organising this event and he paid tribute to conference co-organisers for their dedication, hard work and professionalism to accomplish this task.

This session was broadcast live on Kurdistan TV and Zagros TV.

This set the tone for what was to become an interesting, thought provoking, landmark conference in Soran.

After a short break, the first session of the Conference entitled “Culture, Language and Communication” started at 11.15.

The session was moderated and opened by Associate Professor Said Shams, Soran University; the keynote speaker for this session was Professor Philip Kreyenbroek from University of Goetteingen. In his paper, Professor Kreyenbroek explored Kurdish culture and how and why it should be studied.

He discussed how Kurdish studies should come from Kurdish scholars and not adhere to Western style studies.

Associate Professor Michiel Leezenberg from the University of Amsterdam followed this with his discussion of the works of Mulla Mahmûdê Bayazîdî (1797-1859) as a key moment in the development of the Kurdish vernacular.

He concluded with a brief discussion of how a greater attention to the vernacular tradition of learning may help acquire a historically more adequate appreciation of Kurdish as a ‘language of civilization’. He advocated learning about oral traditions and the importance to Kurdish culture.

Professor Kamal Yusuf from Soran University presented his paper, ‘Travelogues as records of socio-cultural and micro-historical instances’.

He began by asking what binds us to history and land and answered this with the idea that it is collective memory.

Once more there was an emphasis on oral tradition and the importance for understanding history that this offers. The next panellist was Dr Jaffer Sheyholislami, Visiting Professor at Soran University (Associate Professor at Carleton University).

His paper, ‘Reimagining the unimaginable: Language, Communication and Nationhood’, explored the fragile state of language management in south Kurdistan, and called for a more proactive and explicit language policy and planning for the region.

The final two papers by Sacha Alsancakli, from La Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris and Elif Inal from Koc University in Turkey completed the panel with papers on ‘Manuscripts in the 21st century: an overview of problems and solutions’ and ‘Linguistic capital in monolingual education system: Linguistic capital of Kurdish and Turkish in Turkey’ respectively.

Day Two: Tuesday, 16th April

The first session of the second day, “Kurdish Society: Realities, Challenges and Promises” was moderated by Visiting Professor Jaffer Sheyholislami of Soran University starting at 9.00 am.

The keynote speaker for this session was Professor Hamit Bozarslan from Ecole des Hautes en Sciences Sociales, Paris who presented a paper entitled “1980s and 2010s: Middle East’s states of violence and the evolution of the Kurdish Issue”, a timely paper considering current events in the region.

Professor Bozarslan outlined the history of conflict and violence within the region. He considered the Kurdish question and suggested that today there is a de facto Kurdish entity.

The panel continued with a paper from Professor Heidy Margrit Muller from Vrije Universiteit, Brussels. She explored the world of Kurdistan created by Karl May in his blockbuster novel, ‘Through Wild Kurdistan’ published in the 1800s.

This imagined community of May was explored further in later papers on the panel, notably Associate Professor Said Shams from Soran University who presented a paper entitled, ‘The State of Kurdish nation as an imagined community: Who imagines what, when and how?’ Highlighting rapid changes in all aspects of Kurdish societies, Associate Professor Shams invited academics in Kurdish studies to pursue interdisciplinary research approaches in order to come to terms with recent economic, cultural and socio-political changes throughout Kurdistan.

He emphasized the need for generating innovative potential for productive new areas of research. For that, he called upon researchers to embark on critical reviews of both existing paradigms and allegedly definitive certainties in order to develop new, productive and unique theoretical and methodological orientations.

Then Associate Professor Lory Dance from Lund University looked at commonalities of the disenfranchised throughout the world and surprised us with an impromptu song in the middle of her talk.

Dr Barzoo Eliassi, also from Lund University discussed Kurds in the shadow of Iranian Citizenship and considered how minority equals deficiency and yet Kurds are the majority in the region of Iranian Kurdistan.

Khalegh Yaghoobi from University of Cihan brought the panel to a close with his paper on Iraqi Kurdistan and the problem of its autonomy in the process of transition to democracy.

Each paper was deeply interesting and opened up the debate around the challenges that face Kurdistan in its current historical space.

Session three, ‘Identity, Minorities and Diaspora’ began after lunch and was moderated by Dr Muli Amaye from Soran University.

The panel was opened by Dr Mahir Aziz from the University of Salahaddin, with a discussion on Kurdish historical writing and the construction of Kurdish history and identity.

An important start to the session in which he explored what it is that makes up Kurdish national identity and advocated the importance of learning about history through education.

Associate Professor Reza Arjmand from Lund University looked at ‘Human capital and educational reforms in the Kurdistan region’.

He gave a critical examination of the educational system and looked at the style of schools. Chalak Kaveh from University of Oslo presented a paper on ‘Comparative perspectives on the Anfal Campaigns’ and discussed how labelling feeds into identity, how it is part of history and opens the question of national identity.

Following a short break Mohtahsham Tatai from University of Ottawa opened with a discussion of the Kurdish diaspora communities and ethnic identity crisis.

He brought to light the question of a collective identity in the diaspora and the impact of capitalism and imperialism on the Kurdish identity.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg brought the panel to a close with his paper, ‘Failed (or aborted) Arab Spring in Iraq: A study of the political mobilization of Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk’.

Once more this paper leaned towards the creation of identity within one’s own space with reference to the Kurds in Kirkuk.

With a strong bias towards national identity this was a remarkable panel that posed more questions than it answered, all of which are necessary within the national discourse.

Day Three: Wednesday 17th April, 2013

The final session, ‘Diversity and Social Movements’ took place on the morning of 17th April and was moderated by Associate Professor Reza Arjmand from Lund University.

The first paper read by Dr Barzoo Eliassi was sent by Saladdin Ahmed from the University of Ottawa.

This opened an important discussion on ‘The question of class and the Kurdish struggle for liberation’.

Parvin Aradalan, an independent researcher from Lund University, continued with her paper on Kurdish women’s movements and debates over gender equity and equality.

Using Iranian Kurdistan as an example, Parvin began the ‘women’ debate.

Following the break Assistant Professor Edith Szanto from the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani presented her paper ‘Preaching piety in Sulaimani,’ which examined the role of religion within the region.

Associate Professor Lory Dance then read a paper on behalf of Melissa Seelye, an independent researcher from Ottawa, ‘Writing on Kurdish women: Pitfalls and blind spots’.

This initiated a debate on how Kurdish women are presented within literature from the West and from within.

Dr Muli Amaye continued the women’s discourse with a presentation on ‘Women and Nation – imagined communities and the voices of women’.

This looked at the research project initiated within the English Department at Soran University to collect women’s stories, which led us straight back to the opening papers of the conference with reference to oral tradition and the preservation of history.

The final paper of the conference was delivered by Dr Nahro Zagros and considered Armenian music and the Yezidi.

Overall the conference offered an array of research, debate and discussion which highlighted the title: ‘Kurdistan – Between past and future’ and which opened discourse and offered insight into what is being discussed throughout the world about Kurdistan and the Kurdish people.