Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Jordi TEJEL GORGAS


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Constructions of the Kurdish Identity
under the Influence of Orientalism, 1920-1945


This paper is concerned with the efforts made by the Kurdish elite to construct a viable concept of Kurdish identity around which a we-group could be consolidated, which in turn, would support secular and religious leaders in their ambitions. This task of the construction of an “imagined community” took place notably in Syria under the influence of France, which had become a mandatory power. We will see that the collaboration between French actors and Kurdish intellectuals brought about textual representations which could potentially both inspire an internal Kurdish identity and enhance the image of Kurds as they were perceived in the West. As my research on Iraq is still in progress, I shall focus primarily on Syria and the French case.


The search for a Kurdish identity


Scholars of nationalism point to the crucial distinction between ethnic and national identity. It is one thing for a group to be aware of the ways in which objective criteria, such as language and religion, differentiate them from other groups, and quite another for members of this group to base their social identity primarily upon the basis of this distinction. The shift from the more or less tangible collectivities of family, clan and tribe as the basis of social and moral significance requires a leap of the imagination, and it is this leap that identity-markers must chart.

Fundamental to this process of defining an ethnic identity is the construction of the we-group. “We” is opposed by an inimical “Other” that adversely affects the development, welfare or historic mission of the we-group. The imagined community acquires its shape by defining itself in contrast to other groups. That is to say, the imagined community is defined as much by asserting who they are not, as by asserting who they are. I argue that not until the Wilson Points were proclaimed in 1919, did Kurdish leaders gradually dispense with the notion of cultural development as a prerequisite for the right to be treated as a distinct entity. However, if “Kurdishness” had acquired by 1919 a political character, Kurdish leaders could not respond to many questions: Who were the Kurds? What were the borders of Kurdistan? How many Kurds were there?

Because of the dramatic developments in the Middle East, this task of the construction of the “imagined community” took place in two different countries and under the influence of both Great Britain and France, which became mandatory powers in Iraq and Syria, respectively. In effect, we can observe the rise of a new Kurdish movement in exile, mainly in Syria, where many of the Kurdish intellectuals took refuge, after being branded as traitors by the Kemalists. The failure of the Khoyboun-sponsored rebellion of Ararat and French pressure pushed Kurdish leaders, most notably Celadet and Kamuran Bedir Khan, to embark, with French support, on a project of cultural nation-building. They retained the Khoyboun image of the valiant, fighting Kurds, equipping them with the attributes that would allow them a place in the club of modern nations.


Orientalism during the interwar period


Until the twentieth century, orientalists had talked about the Orient. The orientalist was a foreign specialist charged with the task of explaining the Orient to his compatriots. Thus, orientalists remained outside the Orient, maintaining a cultural, temporal and geographical distance vis-à-vis their subject. However, colonialism and the First World War gradually diminished the distance between the Orient and its experts. The new orientalists were agents, specifically, French and British colonists, working for the Empire.

The consequences of this new development emerged dramatically when Great Britain and France systematically divided the Ottoman Empire. For instance, if Kurdish portraits drawn by European travellers and military agents before the XXth century were rather negative, British political ambitions in Mesopotamia and Persia prepared the terrain for a new perception of the Kurdish people. The Kurds were no longer considered to be wild human beings, but instead, were presented as a noble and courageous people.

The attention paid by the Western powers to Eastern peoples was maintained during the interwar period, the Middle East having become a concrete administrative priority. Thus, the British Mandate in Iraq commissioned several historical, linguistic and anthropological studies of the Kurdish people. By the same token, the application of the French Mandate in Syria, and especially the French economic projects in Jazira, compelled the French to pay more attention to the Kurdish community, notably through the French Institute of Damascus.

Among the French officers and administrators of Syria, there were a number with scholarly interests in Kurdish affairs. Roger Lescot and Pierre Rondot and Father Thomas Bois published extensively on Kurdish history, culture and literature until the 1960’s and 1970’s.


The basis of the French-Kurdish connection


The scientific interest of the first French and British kurdologists was combined with a strong administrative commitment, creating the conditions for the establishment of what has been called government anthropology. This concept is characterized by a political administration that is concerned with the indigenous inhabitants to the extent that it allows the administration to better control them, and to manipulate them from inside. Thus, towards the end of the Mandate, Pierre Rondot advises that “we retain our allies and inside sources, and that it is important to continue to study the Kurdish situation so as to conserve the means, if not for direct action, then at least to remain informed as to the actions of others, and on occasion, to communicate our point of view, and to play, all the same, our role, albeit a small one”.

Subsequently, French kurdologists were able to find Kurdish partners, informants, and allies willing to collaborate in their enterprise. This collaboration is based on two principles. Firstly, the “French-Kurdish connection” is only possible between individuals who share a common ground. French kurdologists were able to establish friendly links with the Westernized Kurdish elites, considered to be the “open-minded” circles within their society, and the only segments of Kurdish society with whom it was possible to establish and maintain a rich and long-standing relationship. As Kurdish elites and French kurdologists share the same faith in the assumed Western task of bringing civilization to the non-Western world, as well as the same discourse on orientalism, claiming the superiority of the Western world over the Eastern world, the collusion between these two agents in the construction of the Kurdish national identity is more understandable.

On the other hand, for Westernised Kurdish elites as well as French kurdologists, national independence, and the moral and material progress of Kurdish people can only be brought about by the Western powers. The reconstruction of a Kurdish social order was based on the metaphors and paradigms that hinge upon discursive colonial constructions that have existed for more than a century in North Africa : stunted development, the unchanging nature of the Orient, the repressive Orient, resisting Westernising tendencies, the spirit and mysticism of the Oriental race, etc. Geneticism is the primary metaphor of the dominant discursive construction that combines belief in the “progress” of the Enlightenment and the necessity of positivism. In short, in these paradigms we witness characteristics of an established and known discourse that casts the Orient as the antithesis of the West.

The Kurd must bring himself closer in moral and material terms to the West, at the same time, maintaining his ethnic qualities. In practical terms, there are three actors in this scenario : the West, the East and, caught between the two, the Kurd. In this scenario, the Kurd may preserve his ethnic identity intact, on the condition that he embraces Western values and progress, and by doing so avoid being classified with Arabs as part of what was referred to by Western powers as the “backward Orient”. According to this vision, the Kurds, in the fashion of the Berbers in Maghreb North Africa, constitute the ethnic group in the Middle-East that is the most apt for conversion to western civilization, by way of its Indo-European roots, its liberal adaptation of Islam, and its national character which closely resembles that of European nations. With the aid of a Western power, and of France in particular in this instance, the Kurds are capable of accessing occidental culture.

Therefore, Kurdish leaders are ready to work alongside French orientalists in order to encourage sympathy for the Kurds among civil servants in Paris, Damascus and Beyrouth, but also among the French public. The collaboration between, Roger Lescot with the Bedir Khan goes beyond this simple intellectual framework to enter into the practical. Lescot prepared a report in January of 1940 entitled Potential Bases for a Kurdish Politic wherein he proposes strengthening support for the Kurdiish cultural movement in order to neutralise the effects of Soviet propaganda in Kurdistan. Any cultural rights granted to the Kurds in soviet Armenia would be, according to Lescot, useful in evoking the sympathies of the Kurds of Levant, who were engaged since 1932 in their own cultural movement. Consequently, Lescot encouraged “the reopening of the classes taught during the pre-war era by the Jazira and Damas clubs, to encourage the publication of scholarly texts and, if possible, a newspaper or cultural review”. Only three months later, Kamuran Bedir Khan addressed a request to the High Commissioner, asking for French support for the Kurdish cultural movement in Levant using a similar argument. In these two parallel approaches, it is difficult not to see an agreement between Kamuran Bedir Khan and Roger Lescot as to a common strategy to advance the cultural movements of the Kurds.

Certainly, the report published by Lescot suggests a brand of assistance to the Kurds that was intended to facilitate their continued surveillance. In the style of Robert Montagne, Roger Lescot serves at the same time as a scholar and a faithful servant of the Mandatory programme. He doesn’t obstruct the Kurdish intellectuals from obtaining an affirmative response to their requests. Moreover, the “Kurdish informant” who is charged with infiltrating Kurdish domains, is none other than Roger Lescot himself. This new phase of activity afforded Roger Lescot the possibility to participate actively in the Kurdish cultural movement, publishing numerous articles in the cultural reviews Hawar, Ronahî et Roja Nû both under his own name and the pseudonyms Tawusparêz (“The Defender of the Paon Angel”), in reference to the religion of the Yazidis, and Robert Surieu. Therein, he translated proverbs, folktales and legends including Mamê Alan, the epic tale that is behind the story of Mem û Zîn written by Ahmed Khani.


The fruits of the French-Kurdish connexion


The collaboration of the French orientalists with Kurdish intellectuals was integral to a new phase of imaginative nation-building. By absorbing the findings and attitudes of European scholars and agents on folk traditions, Kurdish nationalists adopted a strategy that compensated for the lack of high culture with an equally respectable “low” culture as well as a code for presenting a more favourable image of the Kurds to the world.

Endeavours to delineate a Kurdish identity underwent a change in focus as these scholars overhauled and replenished the arsenal of cultural markers, seeking to map the terrain of the Kurdish soul that was supposedly manifested in their traditional culture. The Romantic glorification of the “Volk”, which had been the basis of German nationalism from its inception, offered the possibility of viewing Kurdish “primitiveness” differently, by seeing it as containing all the unadulterated, authentic and noble qualities which are no longer present in cosmopolitan culture.

John Hutchinson’s analysis of cultural nationalism may be useful in helping us understand the revival of the concept of « Volk » which was made by Bedir Khan starting in the 1930s. For Hutchinson, cultural nationalism plays a positive role in the process of modernization, and presents an evolutionist, as opposed to primitivist perspective of the community. This return to folklore does not constitute a simultaneous return to an isolated agrarian simplicity, but rather the opposite. Behind the evocation of tradition lies a dynamic vision of the nation as a sophisticated society, playing a unique role in human development. The return to folklore is therefore an attempt to find equilibrium in the tension between aspiring towards modernization and maintaining tradition.

In addition to the Romantic influence, “primitivism” was also linked to the colonial ideology. In this sense, the rise of “ruralism” in popular British discourse in the XIXth century and its great influence after World War I was the cultural precedent to, for instance, the harbouring by Colonial Office employees of a passionate distaste for urban Iraqis. The notion of the “noble savage” was equally present amongst French officers and orientalists in Syria. In effect, the influence of the ideology of Oriental Despotism on British and French colonial officials led them to see the Kurds as purer, stronger, more virile, and closer to European civilisation than the Turks and Arabs, due to their rural character and, of course, their Indo-Iranian stock.

In effect, the orientalism of the interwar period is influenced by the methodological trends in the human sciences like, for example, the study of “types”, as both an analytical process and a means of considering familiar entities from a new perspective. Consequently, orientalists of this period created notions such as the “Oriental type”, the “Arab type” or the “Kurdish type”. One seeks to identify the local colour, the specific and unique spirit of each people in order to facilitate their comparison. To this end, Robert Montagne, the Director of the F.I.D (French Institute of Damascus), encouraged the publication of monographs.

Among oriental subjects, preference was given to the minorities of the Muslim world (Christian, Jews, Muslim sects) provoking a certain “marginalisation of Islam in its own territory”. Pierre Rondot took interest in the Kurds, but also in Christian refugees that had settled in Jazira. Similarly, Roger Lescot studied the Yazidis Kurds in particular, a minority group among Kurdish populations, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims, and when Thomas Bois wrote about Kurds and religion, he dedicated a significant portion of his articles to religious minorities like the Yazidis and the Ahl-e Haqq (« The Followers of the Truth»).

In France, certain publishing houses published works on Kurdish poetry and folklore in the French language. In addition, Kamuran Bedir Khan published his Kurdish Proverbs, Roger Lescot edited two volumes of Kurdish proverbs, folktales and riddles. Additionally, another career soldier, André Brunel, wrote Gulusar, Tales and Legends from Kurdistan. Finally, Pierre Rondot wrote numerous articles in orientalist and French foreign policy reviews in which sympathy for the Kurds is manifest.


Paradoxes of the Construction of a Kurdish National Identity


Up until the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the study of the shaping of Kurdish identity had not been prioritised by Kurdish intellectuals. Proof of the construction of a Kurdish identity in contrast to that of the Turks is only evident following the foundation of the Kemalist Republic and, in particular, after the bloody repression of the revolt of Sheikh Said in 1925. The Khoyboun, with the aid of propaganda, participated in this effort to highlight the differences between the Kurds and their “eternal enemy”, the Turkish “barbarian”. In doing so, however, the Khoyboun does not define Kurdish identity. The Kurd is “a victim” of Turkish oppression, but beyond this image that seeks to evoke an emotional reaction, Kurdishness itself is not clearly explained.

On the other hand, the intellectual collaboration between the first modern French kurdologists and Kurdish intellectuals resulted in the increasing ethnicisation of Kurdish identity. It is therefore the task of the cultural movement organized by the Bedir Khan, in collaboration with French Kurdologists, to attempt to fill this gap by clearly defining the “Kurdish type” in contrast to the “Turkish type”, as well as the “Arab type”.

It is to this end that Thomas Bois revisited the works of the British agents who had worked closely with the Kurds in order to invalidate the negative stereotypes that are present in the dominant occidental perceptions of the “Kurdish type”: “If certain among them have proven themselves to be quite severe with regard to the Kurds, even going so far as to create a “failed race”, there are others, more numerous and no less objective, who recognize their virtues. Some who have studied them even more closely, such as Soane, Hay and Hamilton, to name but a few, don’t hesitate to assert their view of the Kurds as superior to their Arab, Turkish or Persian neighbours, and prophesise for them “a bright future”.

By the same token, while Kurdish periodicals of the Ottoman period deplore the backwardness of the Kurds, and lament in particular the situation of Kurdish women, the papers edited by the Bedir Khan of Levant, deem that Kurdish women are freer than their counterparts in the Middle East. This discourse, which tends to present the Kurds to the Western public as a “civilized” people, is well supported by French kurdologists. Thomas Bois affirms that, “in Kurdish culture women have far more freedom than in other Muslim cultures”.

Kurdish intellectuals have naturally taken up this discourse, which assigns to Kurdish popular culture, rather than a sign of backwardness, this treasured aspect, to be conserved and integrated into their publications in order to evoke sympathy from Westerners. However, it would also be integrated into their nationalist discourse, giving rise to a certain “syncretism”. The reciprocal determination of these actors to define Kurdishness is complex. Kurdishness has been the object of multiple constructions; that of Kurdish intellectuals, in opposition to Turkishness, but also of third parties, namely, kurdologists and orientalists.

Paradoxically, the so-called Kurdish “national character” is not really different from the Turkish one. The proximity of these definitions of Turkishness and Kurdishness is due to the determination of the ideologists of these two peoples to construct an image that is compatible with Western standards, inscribed in a shared framework, creating a mirror-image effect. In other words, the opposition between Kurdish and Turkish nationalism compels both elites to continually adapt their discourse while observing the opposite, the “enemy”. Hence, a kind of mimicry, in a dual sense, is established between the “dominant” and the “oppressed”.

This mirror-image effect on Kurdish and Turkish national characters is evident in the example that, according to Bedir Khan, the Kurd, like the Turk for the Kemalist elites, is less influenced by religion than his neighbours, reserves a special place in society for women, exhibits an exemplary courage in situations of necessity, and speaks a language that is similar to occidental languages, etc. If this discourse has the advantage of being understood by both Kurdish and Turkish intellectuals, it is also accompanied by certain sizable inconveniences.

On one hand, while the Kemalist elites can count on certain indispensable tools (a State and related institutions, including schools and a military) to fully realise their feat of social engineering, Kurdish intellectuals were only successful in finding a limited field of action in exile. Without the official support of a local power, any efforts to produce nationalist propaganda and a cultural renaissance were undertaken in a precarious material and temporal context. If the elites of the two groups shared similar objectives,  Kemalist leaders alone were in a position to realise them. Consequently, the political program of Kurdish nationalists, including the promises of a better economic future, suffered from a lack of credibility and realistic potential.

            In effect, this creation of the Kurdish identity, marked by extreme social isolation had a significant consequence: the “Westernised Kurdish elites” had to come to inhabit a social and symbolic community that differed dramatically from the community inhabited by traditional elites (sheikhs and tribal chieftains) and non-elites.

Despite this fact, it is important to recognize that the majority of myths and symbols of Kurdish nationalist doctrine developed during the first half of the twentieth century will constitute a cultural and political heritage, forever capable of being revived while at the same time adaptable to the requirements of each moment, for the “needs of the cause”.




The intellectual relationship between Kurdish elites and French kurdologists brings about a sort of consensual nationalist doctrine that is almost familiar. In this sense, it becomes difficult to know who is at the source of this new ethnic discourse that seeks to legitimize the Kurdish aspirations to establish a state since 1919 and to place Kurds among the modern nations.

Thus, the active role of Kurdish elites in the process of construction of the “hommus kurdicus”, according to the western standards, invites us to underline the need to avoid the slightly static vision given by Edward Said in his book, Orientalism. Modifying his famous expression, we should claim that the West alone has not constructed the East. In other words, Eastern elites have actively participated in this ideological construction. In this sense, the Bedir Khan’s doctrine must be understood as both a program for modern innovation and an indigenous culture of invented tradition.


(*) Historian and sociologist, Switzerland