“Where are you from?” the difficult question! An introduction to Kurdistan

„Where are you from?“ The difficult question!

An introduction to Kurdistan

„Where are you from?“
The difficult question!

An introduction to Kurdistan



No official capital

Language: Kurdish (with different dialects – mainly Kurmanji and Sorani


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“Where are you from?” This question might seem very simple and easy to be answered. It is generally true, but not for all, especially for the Kurds.
Since I have started my study in Germany’s beautiful city of Marburg last September, I have encountered this question tens of times. I have multiple ways to answer this simple question, depending on the situation and my mood.
If the situation allows a relatively lengthy discussion and I am in the mood to talk, my answer would only be “Kurdistan”, and then I will wait! One thing is for sure, the discussion will not end there, and more questions will follow. If the person, by mere coincidence, knows anything about Kurdistan and has heard the word before, perhaps the follow-up question would be “which part of Kurdistan?”. Hence, I am forced to say that my Kurdistan part is located within Iraqi borders. And then, in most of the cases, more discussions will come afterwards.
However, if have neither time nor the mood for a lengthy discussion, when I am asked, “where are you from?” my answer would be “Iraq!” or in the best case, “Iraqi Kurdistan!”. Nevertheless, this answer hurts me deep inside because I have never felt like I was an Iraqi citizen for one day! My people have suffered a lot under the rule of the Iraqi state, from genocide to exodus, chemical weapons and any kind of repression that one can think of. The same is true for the Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria.
But who are the Kurds? Why do they not have their state as the other 193 countries worldwide recognised by the international community and members of the United Nations?
I am personally entirely against the current international order based on nation-states. Moreover, I oppose any nationalistic idea as I do believe that nationalism has only brought misery, hate and discrimination to the majority of people around the world in the past few centuries, while only an elite has benefited from the idea of nationalism. However, what would be your situation if your entire nation were kicked out of this already unjust international order?
Kurds are an ethnic group in the Middle East and are often described as the largest stateless nation in the world. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, Kurdistan, which means the land of the Kurds, was divided among four states; Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Since then, Kurds have been suffering and treated as second-class citizens, and any resistance has been suppressed with an iron fist by those states. Due to the lack of a precise census and all the assimilation processes that the Kurds have undergone for almost a century now, it is difficult to present an accurate number for the Kurdish population in the four countries and the diaspora. Still, some estimate that there are between 30 and 40 million Kurdish people.

Kurdish Dance © JuzzTV

Kurdish dance (known as Helperkê or Govend) is usually performed by a chain of men and women standing shoulder to shoulder in a semicircular form. Kurdish dance can only be performed in accordance with a particular type of Kurdish music. Unlike dances of other cultures, it is almost impossible to do Kurdish dance as an individual, or even as a couple; the rule is that: the more dancers you are, the better dance you would have.

Kurds in Turkey

Over 20 million Kurds live within Turkey’s borders, primarily in the country’s south-eastern regions, the land called Kurdistan by the Kurds. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the end of the first world war, the Kurdish areas became part of the modern state of Turkey. At first, the founder of the Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, promised to permit the Kurds to govern themselves in their regions and give them some autonomy. Nonetheless, the Kurds were never allowed to do so; instead, they became a target of the Turkish nationalists and were subjected to intense efforts of the „Turkification“ process to assimilate the minorities living in the country into a uniform Turkish identity. For example, Kurds in Turkey were called „Mountain Turks,“ and the words „Kurd,“ „Kurdistan,“ „Kurdish“ were entirely banned until recently. The Kurdish language and their traditional clothes were also prohibited.
As the consequence of years of oppression in Turkey, in 1978, a group of Kurdish youth, led by Abdulla Ocalan, founded the Kurdistan Workers‘ Party (PKK), a revolutionary group aiming at liberating the Kurdish regions in Turkey. In 1984, the PKK declared a guerrilla insurgency against the Turkish state, its army and security personnel. Although the PKK was initially a separatist group and fought to establish an independent Kurdistan, since 1993, it has changed its strategy claiming that its only aspiration is to gain self-rule for the Kurdish people and protect the rights of the Kurds within the existing borders of the Turkish state.
Although the Kurds in Turkey have gained some cultural rights in the last few decades, people are still often accused of supporting ‘terrorist groups’ if they attempt to organise any cultural event or try to conduct education in the Kurdish language. To date, in parallel with pro-Kurdish political parties in parliament, the Kurdish armed struggle against the Turkish state continues.  

Kurds in Iraq

With a population of six million, Kurds are estimated to form 17% to 20% of the total Iraq population, living as a minority in the Arab-dominated state of Iraq. After decades of rebellion and guerilla fights against the central government in Baghdad, the Kurds created a de facto region and a government recognised by the international community after the First Gulf War in 1991.
The Kurds in Iraq had fought for freedom for almost a century, during which they endured genocide, mass killing, destruction and assimilation in certain areas. The Anfal genocide was a counterinsurgency operation carried out by the former Iraqi regime that killed over 100,000 civilian Kurds and destroyed over 4000 Kurdish villages in the late 1980s. During the same period, the Kurdish town of Halabja was attacked with a chemical weapon by the Saddam Hussein regime. This incident is believed to be the most significant chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history, killing between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injuring 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians.
Compared to other parts of Kurdistan, the Kurds in Iraq have gained more political freedom and cultural rights. They have their autonomous region, recognised by the Iraqi constitution, with a Kurdish parliament, government, army, and an education system independent from the rest of Iraq.

kurdistan city
The city of Slemani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. © wikimedia commons

Kurds in Syria

Kurds are the biggest ethnic minority in Syria, with an estimated population of 2.5 million, some 10 per cent of the country’s population. Since the complete independence and the end of the French mandate of Syria in 1946, Kurds have been marginalised and persecuted by the successive governments in that country since those governments embraced Arab nationalism and considered the Kurdish minority a threat to “the unity of an Arab Syria”. Furthermore, since 1961 the country’s official name has been changed to the Syrian Arab Republic — to deny recognition to any non-Arab minority in the country.

Since then, most Kurds in Syria’s eastern Hasaka region have been deprived of citizenship, leaving hundreds of thousands of „stateless Kurds“ unable to get any official Syrian documents and consequently unable to go to schools, universities, or obtain any state services. As per the United Nations figures, the number of stateless Kurds has reached at least 300,000 in 2003. In the wake of widespread Arab Spring protests in 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree to grant Syrian nationality to the Kurds living in the region.

Since the first days of the eruption of the Syrian protests, the Kurds have backed the movement against the Assad regime, especially through the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which was the most organised and popular Kurdish party back then and considered a sister party of the PKK. While the Kurds pursued their democratic rights, neither the Syrian government nor the militarised opposition parties acknowledged their demands. Therefore, the Kurdish movement in Syria opted for a third path: it would side neither with the regime nor the opposition. Would it defend itself? Yes. Would it participate in the civil war? No.

After choosing the third path, the Kurds defended themselves and their lands by arming their people. Consequently, the Kurds, led by the PYD, established a self-ruling administration unit in Syria’s Kurdish territories. Despite all the attacks and challenges imposed by the Syrian regime, Syrian opposition groups, al-Qaeda affiliated militias, Islamic State (ISIS) and the Turkish army, the Kurds successfully maintained control over the Kurdish areas and put an end to the decades-long persecution of the Syrian state.

After taking control over a large area in the North-East of Syria, the Kurds started to form an autonomous administration to govern the people, praised for boldly promoting women’s rights, bottom-up democracy, and minority rights. Nevertheless, this administration is yet to be recognised by the international communi

kurdish fighter
A Kurdish fighter in Rojava (Kurdistan part in Syria). © wikimedia commons

Kurds in Iran

Kurds comprise around 10 per cent of the population of Iran, estimated to be over 8 million.
Like the Kurds in other countries, the Kurds in Iran have also been deprived of self-rule and political rights, therefore resistance has been ongoing for a long time. The first Kurdish self-ruling entity in modern history was established in Iran in 1946, but it only lasted for 11 months, and the Iranian royal dynasty hung all significant leaders of that Kurdish entity. Kurds have suffered under the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran between 1925 and 1979 and the subsequent Islamic Republic.

Struggles for independence in the Kurdish regions continued after the 1979 so-called Islamic revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini warned Kurdish leaders in 1979 that any attempts towards independence would attract the harshest response. A well-organized rebellion by the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Komala was nevertheless launched in spring 1979. The Iranian regime responded harshly with the banning of the Kurdish Democratic Party, followed by an armed campaign against the Kurds. After the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, both sides became engaged in the ongoing violence to bring the Kurdish areas under their control and wipe out the Kurdish guerrilla fighters. Hundreds of villages were bombed, with their lands seeded with landmines, and its populations dispersed.

Kurds in Iran have been relatively better-off regarding cultural rights and freedom of the Kurdish language. Nevertheless, this is very fragile and can be broken at any moment. For example, a Kurdish language teacher and activist was recently sentenced to five years imprisonment in Iran on national security charges for teaching the mother tongue to Kurdish children. Moreover, the Iranian regime is very harsh on any political demands from the Kurds. Therefore, several Kurdish guerilla groups are still in the Kurdistan mountains fighting the government.

Where are you from?

After reading this article, I assume you have gained some basic knowledge about the Kurds, the history of their struggle and the current situation of this nation, I wonder what would be your reaction when you ask someone “where are you from?” and the answer is “Kurdistan”?

Renwar Najm

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2 Anmerkung zu ““Where are you from?” the difficult question! An introduction to Kurdistan

  1. Nizar Sabir

    „Kicked out of the world order“, Kurdistan, which used to be an innocent ethno-geographical deskriptive word before WWI, has become a sensitive political term in the modern age. „Where are you from?“, an innocent question, evokes sensitivity and irritations both in millions of Kurds and the questioners. That means, at least, that something wrong with international politic is waiting impatiently to be corrected. A very comprehensive, passionate an though objective article from my dear fellow Ranwar Najm.

  2. Anonymous

    What a heartfelt article! I feel it all the time. I am still living with the struggle to provide an answer to that question


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