Nader Entessar, Kurdish Ethnonationalism (Lynne Rienner, 1992).

Philip Kreyenbroek and Stefan Sperl, eds., The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview (Routledge, 1992).

Sheri Laizer, Into Kurdistan: Frontiers Under Fire (Zed, 1991).

Martin van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan (Zed, 1992).

These books were published to take advantage of the international interest generated by the Kurds’ mass exodus out of northern Iraq in March 1991, following the collapse of their rebellion against the government of Saddam Hussein. Although the authors present differing perspectives, they agree on the reasons why the Kurds received scant attention in the past and why they may face the same treatment in the future. Kurdistan, with a population estimated at 18 to 22 million, extends over parts of six countries — primarily Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, with enclaves in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Kurdish aspirations for national independence thus threaten existing regimes.

For more than 50 years, the chauvinistic nationalism promoted by various Arab, Iranian and Turkish states tended to alienate rather than to assimilate the Kurds, and reinforced their aspirations for autonomy or independence. Regimes responded to their demands by crushing the fearless few and intimidating the rest into silence. Repressive policies included efforts to suppress Kurdish culture, especially in Turkey before 1990 and in Azerbaijan during the Soviet period. Turkey (officially) and Iran and Iraq (de facto) prohibited research and publication about Kurds. Consequently there has been a dearth of literature pertaining to this very sizable national community.

A few persistent scholars have nevertheless managed to publish valuable material that fills some gaps in knowledge. Probably the most important study is Martin van Bruinessen’s Agha, Shaikh and State, a social history of rural Kurdistan, initially published in Holland in 1978 but not widely circulated and virtually unavailable for the past several years. (It was reviewed in MERIP Reports 85.) For this edition, van Bruinessen has added about 20 pages of new text to chapter one, updated the conclusion, and included in the bibliography relevant books and articles published during the 1980s.

Although van Bruinessen is an indispensable resource for those who want to learn about the structure of political power among rural Kurds, especially during the final 50 years of Ottoman rule, his book does not address the history or patterns of political authority in urban Kurdistan. Despite the fact that a majority of all Kurds now live in cities, there are no studies on the significant transformation of Kurdish society since 1970 under the twin impacts of urbanization and industrialization. An article by A. Sherzad in The Kurds does mention the statistical dimensions of the rapid growth of Kurdish cities in Iraq, and suggests that urban-based political leaders have influenced the evolution of Kurdish nationalism. Unfortunately, Sherzad’s article is too brief and too descriptive to provide insights about Kurdish urbanization.

Like Sherzad, the other contributors to The Kurds are scholars and specialists with a long-standing concern for the Kurds: Hamit Bozarslan, Jane Connors, Fereshteh Koohi-Kamali, Philip Kreyenbroek, David McDowall, Munir Morad, van Bruinessen, Ismet Cherif Vanly and Sami Zubaida. The articles are descriptive, rather than analytical, but they provide essential information unavailable elsewhere. Especially useful are Bozarslan’s article about the Kurds in Turkey and two by Vanly on Kurds in Syria and in the former Soviet Union.

Nader Entessar’s basic thesis in Kurdish Ethnonationalism is that the modernization programs of the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish central governments promoted a single national identity based on language — Arabic, Persian or Turkish. This intensified the Kurds’ pride in their own ethnicity and led to rebellions, at different times, in all three countries. The solution to the Kurdish problem, says Entessar, is democratic and pluralistic governments in the three countries where the majority of Kurds live.

Although his basic thesis is plausible, Entessar’s efforts to document the rise of Kurdish ethnonationalism are confusing and even contradictory. For example, he misunderstands the significance of the 1946 Mahabad Republic in Iran to the development of Kurdish nationalism, inaccurately attributing that event to Soviet manipulation. He also places too much emphasis on Iranian, Israeli and US involvement with the Iraqi Kurdish rebellion of the 1970s, while providing inadequate analysis of the ideological and other motives of Kurdish leaders. Later Entessar underestimates the impact of Iraq’s 1988 chemical bombing of Halabja, failing to relate that event to simultaneous chemical attacks on other Kurdish villages in the area, all of which were part of Baghdad’s concerted and successful effort to destroy the bases of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan guerrillas.

Kurdish Ethnonationalism is largely based on secondary sources, which may account for its questionable interpretations and factual errors. Some chapters do seem to have been researched more carefully than others. Entessar’s discussions of the Kurds in Turkey and US policy toward Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s, for example, provide accurate and useful background information. Overall, the book’s problems are probably a result of its hurried preparation.

Sheri Laizer’s Into Kurdistan is an interesting travelogue by a New Zealand woman married to a Turkish Kurd. Part one recounts her experiences with her husband’s extended family and provides glimpses into Kurdish everyday life, especially that of women. Laizer writes about her own interrogation by Turkish security police in Urfa, who warn her to abandon “Kurdology.” She also includes anecdotes about urban Kurds in Istanbul. Part two, intended as three essays on Kurdish nationalist politics, is replete with stereotypes and simplistic analysis. The appendices include an interview with Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani.

How to cite this article:

Eric Hooglund "Recent Books on the Kurds," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

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