Kurds, Zaza, Dersim and nation-states

For much of my research in cultural anthropology, I have worked with people from Kurdish communities, both the diaspora and primarily in what is now called ‘Turkey’ by most people.  The Kurds are an example of what state-making and nation-building by those who have designed today’s maps, have done to people whose lives were diverse and their lives were not concerned with boundaries and borders for liberal market-capitalism.

The Kurdish people have survived strongly, in the face of tremendous odds.  They have multiplied.  They are a thorn in the side of four governments who want them completely subjugated and assimilated.  The Dersim people, who speak a distinct form of Zaza language, are sometimes considered Kurdish.  The main Kurdish religious and cultural identity in Turkey is Sunni Muslim.  In Iran, Iraq, and Syria, where other Kurds live, some are Shi’a.  Dersim’s Alevi religion has Shi’a elements and is sometimes considered a heretical Shi’a sect, even as its religion is also formed by strong connections to the ecology (the Sun, the moon, water, stones, etc.)  With these differences which were not a huge problem in the 18th centuries or so, the massacres visited on the Alevi people, the Kurdish people, and the Dersim people is horrendous.  Indeed they are part of a long-term genocidal promise of nation-states.  Certainly Africans could not be Africans in the slavery days and either they became African-American, losing their original religions and beliefs and ways of living and their language, slowly becoming African-American.

The music of the Sunni and Shi’a Kurds, the Dersim people, and the Alevi faiths are also just a tiny fraction of the many beliefs these people have practiced and were persecuted for.  Many of the songs I heard were laments.  Some were fast and with dancing, others were mournful.  They are not songs of only ‘personal’ sadness.  It is much more historical, ‘deep’ – if I can use that word for now, and traverses the suffering of centuries and generations of loss, violence, torture, and being killed and killing.

I feel a kinship with the Kurdish, Dersim and Armenian communities simply for that fact.  I can relate to their uncomfortable relations with each other, themselves and with the states that govern them. Stateless peoples have survived but the state idea itself, continues to be something that brings continual un-freedoms and struggles.

They are examples of strength and survival, strategies and a reminder to us all.  The troubles they endure will exist as long as nation-states persist in governing along the same lines. The governing is done not alone.  Turkey, for example, is helped in its subjugation and assimilation of the Kurds through its multi-billion dollar military agreements with the United States and other Western powers.  The human rights violations against the Anatolian people are helped by the US turning blind eyes to their plight in favor of elite state maintenance and agreements.  Let us be mindful of their presence with us, and the difficulties of living with these histories.  And let us remind ourselves that most all of us in the world, came through the same histories in our legacies, but now we are born assimilated into our positions in the world.  If we are privileged, we don’t much recognize the other.  The ‘other’ who has to think about how to live with these forms of government today because they are still not compatible with their own lives. For most of the rest of us, we are born into it and adjust to it and do not see it as something urgently needing change.  For others, such as the Kurds and Dersimians, Armenians, Zaza, the Alevi and others, continue to be strangled by inconsistent and violent laws meant to tame them. How will this be done?  Let  us be advocates for liberation with them.

The picture above shows a standing doorway with lost walls, to a village home in the Ovacik district of Dersim (Tunceli) in the 1990s, one of thousands destroyed by Turkish state forces.  (my picture)

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