Stories from Kurdistan

Fueling Kurdistan: Stories More Precious Than Oil

The following article was originally published in Rudaw on December 17, 2016.

When asked recently about the role of storytelling in Kurdish culture, renowned filmmaker and novelist Kae Bahar said, “I believe storytelling is the most important part of our life. It’s much more important than oil.”

He has a point.

For centuries, storytelling has served as a kind of cultural fascia for the Kurds – binding families to villages, villages to regions, and regions to the dream of an independent nation-state. This dream has never faltered, despite war, occupation, forced migration and all manner of suffering brought upon their people by the Mongols, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Safavids, the Baathists, the Turks and most recently, ISIS.

Each of these powerful forces tried to either eliminate or dominate the Kurds. Each of them failed. Meanwhile Kurdish storytelling – and with it, the Kurdish Story – continued.

The Kurds’ cultural survival is all the more impressive when you consider that this nation of 40 million people shares neither an official language nor even a single alphabet. What they do share is an unshakeable national identity that has been informed and inspired – one might even say fueled – by folktales, myths and epic legends dating back to pre-Islamic times.

Historically, Kurdish authors often wrote in the dominant languages where they lived: Arabic, Persian, or Turkish. And during those ancient days, relatively few Kurds were educated well enough to read their mother language.

That is why such a rich oral tradition emerged – the Kurds needed storytelling as a means to transmit their history from one generation to the next, regardless of the ruling power or its preferred language.

One of the hallmarks of Kurdish folklore, as Kurdologist Christine Allison has explained, is the dynamic interplay between its oral and written literature. Some Kurdish tales originated from spoken sagas that were later recorded as literary works; others began as published texts that were adapted for storytelling performances. This cross-pollination stands in stark contrast to the norm in many other cultures, where folktales typically evolve in only one direction: verbal to written.

Turning to the verbal side of the equation, a good deal of credit for transmitting the Kurds’ collective memory goes to the dengbêjan, professional minstrels who have been recounting epic tales of love and heartbreak, heroism and derring-do for at least 1,000 years.

Once described as the “traveling salesmen of Kurdish culture,” the dengbêjan capture the pathos of the Kurdish struggle and then disseminate it far and wide through their poetry and ballads.

These days, the dengbêjan are performing new material about political arrests in Turkey and the ongoing battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Although public interest in their performances is on the rise, the dengbêjan are currently being driven underground by the same forces that seek to silence every form of Kurdish storytelling – especially journalism.

Since the failed coup attempt on July 15, the Turkish government has imprisoned 148 journalists and shut down 185 media outlets. Kurdish language media – including the children’s broadcaster Zarok TV – have been specifically targeted by the government under the guise of counter-terrorism.

Ankara’s attempt to censor the Kurds is not only brutish; it is also doomed to fail in our digitized, hyper-connected world. Every day a new generation of professional photographers, filmmakers, pop singers, bloggers and comedians is harnessing digital technology to share their stories across national boundaries. And that’s not to mention social media. On an average day, the hashtag #twitterkurds is viewed by up to 3 million people.

While Turkey struggles to enforce a futile gag order, beyond its borders the Kurdish narrative is thriving in multiple forms – from film festivals in London, to musical concerts in Nashville, and a plethora of monodramas that are currently being performed in Erbil and throughout northern Europe.

Recently The Kurdish Project, a California-based non-profit, launched an essay-writing contest to encourage young Kurds from across the diaspora to write personal narratives about their experiences.

“We believe that one of the best ways to improve cross-cultural understanding is to tell human stories that go beyond mainstream media headlines,” explained Eric Facas, the organization’s co-founder. “In this spirit, the My Kurdistan story contest challenged Kurdish youth to reflect upon their heritage and consider how their aspirations might someday shape a future nation.”

And so the Kurds’ ancient tradition of stealth storytelling continues – from the forbidden lyrics of a medieval dengbêj, to the soulful observations of a 10-year-old essayist on YouTube.

This tradition persists – in the absence of a robust and independent media. It perseveres – without the support from any established cultural infrastructure. It thrives – because a global audience is listening attentively, and from their perspective, sometimes a story is more precious than oil.

The article above was originally published in Rudaw.

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