Middle East Collections

Brothers in Arms: the papers of Nabih and Adil Al-Azmah (EUL MS 215)

The Al-Azmah papers are unusual amongst our collections in that they document the political careers of two brothers, both of whom – in related and overlapping spheres of activity – played a major role in the development of Arab nationalism in the Middle East. Although much of their lives were spent in their native Syria, the Al-Azmah brothers were active across Palestine, Transjordan and Egypt, were involved in training the ikhwahn troops of King Ibn Saud, and also held important political positions in the Syrian government during the eras of the French mandate as well as postwar independence.

Nabih and Adil were was born in Damascus to Abdel Aziz Al-Azmah, and belonged to a distinguished Damascene family who traced their origins back several centuries to Hasan Bey al-Azma, a Turkmen military leader who had settled in Syria. Many family members attained prominent positions in Syria as merchants, landowners, administrators, military and political leaders, as well as in the arts and sciences. These include Nabih and Adil’s uncles, Zaki, Taher and Yusuf Al-Azma, who were all respected army officers, Bashir al-Azma (1910–1992), who was briefly Prime Minister of Syria in 1962, Malak al-Azma, a successful banker whose son Professor Aziz al-Azma, donated the papers of his grandfather and great-uncle Adil and Nabih to the University of Exeter.

 

نبية العظمة   Nabih Al-Azmeh (1886-1972)

Nabih was educated at the Al-Rashdiya Military School in the Yalbugha Mosque in the Al-Bahsa neighborhood of Damascus before travelling to Yemen at the age of twelve where his father had been appointed as an administrator in the Hodeidah district. After returning from Yemen, he joined the Istanbul Military Academy in 1905, graduating two years later with the rank of lieutenant. During the First World War he fought with the Ottoman forces, taking part in the attack on the Suez Canal in 1915 as well as the campaign in Palestine.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman forces at the end of the war, the British took control of Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan, while France took over Syria in 1920. King Faisal was appointed head of the Arab Kingdom of Syria in March 1920 and during his short reign Nabih Al-Azmah served as director of police in Aleppo, while his uncle Yusuf Al-Azmah was Minister for War. However, in April 1920 the League of Nations gave France a mandate over Syria. A few Syrians were prepared to accept French rule, but the majority were strongly opposed to the idea and Yusuf Al-Azmah was one of the foremost advocates of armed resistance. When the French invaded with a force comprising several thousand troops, supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft, Yusuf died a heroic death in the Battle of Maysalun in July 1920. The Arab government in Syria was dissolved and King Faisal was expelled from Syria, although the following year the British had him installed as King of Iraq, an office he fulfilled until his death in 1933.

Following the death of his uncle and the French take-over of Syria, Nabih Al-Azmah left Syria and remained in exile for the next two decades. He moved first to the Druze city of as-Suwaydā’ in southwestern Syria, close to the border with Jordan, and then took up a role as advisor to King Faisal’s brother, Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, the Emir of Jordan. He later moved to Egypt where he worked with King Abdul Aziz in establishing and training the Ikhwan forces in the Saudi army. During the 1930s he was active in Palestine, beginning with the Islamic Conference in Jerusalem December 1931, which had been organised by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni (1895–1974) and Indian Pan-Islamist Shawkat ‘Ali (1873–1938) and reflected the growing interest of Muslims in Palestine and the threat of Zionism – a topic explored in depth in the archive of Abd al-Fattah Al-Awaisi (EUL MS 216). Nabih Al-Azmah became close to the Grand Mufti (who was also a friend of Ernest Tatham Richmond) and there are photographs of them together during this period.

Cover of a pamphlet published by the Hizb al-Istiqlal al-Arabi (Arab Independence party) in 1932 EUL MS 215/7/6

In 1932 he helped establish Palestine’s first political party, Hizb al-Istiqlal, modelled in part on the Syrian nationalist party Hizb al-Istiqlal al-‘Arabi to which he belonged. The following year he was appointed director of the first Arab Exhibition, held in Jerusalem, and he continued in this role for the second Exhibition in 1934.

Al-Azmah also participated in the Great Revolt of 1936-39, a nationalist uprising by Palestinian Arabs against the British administration of the Palestine Mandate. He became head of the ‘Committee for the Defense of Palestine’, providing support and assistance between the mujahideen in Syria and those in Palestine. As head of the Syrian Palestine Defence Committee he attended the General Arab Congress at Bludan in 1937, which strove to strengthen Pan-Arab feeling in the region in support of Palestine.

Letter from Fawzi al-Qawuqji , Commander of the Society for the Defense of Palestine. EUL MS 215/10/1

Like al-Husayni, Al-Azmah’s opposition to the British and the French led him to consider supporting the Nazis during the Second World War, on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy must be my friend’, but unlike some other Arab nationalists he remained very wary of such an alliance; after some initial contact with Axis forces, he withdrew all ties. When the Allied forces arrived in Syria in 1941 he was forced once more to go into exile. He refused to go to Berlin, however, unlike his brother Adil who took refuge in the German capital with the Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. After the war Nabih returned to Syria where he was appointed Minister for Defence in the new independent government of Saadallah Al-Jabri. This only lasted for a brief period, after which he held the position of Chairman of the National Party until his retirement in the early 1950s. He died in 1972.

Conference pamphlet published by the League of Nationalist Action. EUL MS 215/7/6

  عادل العظمة   Adil Al-Azmeh (1888-1952)

Portrait of Adil Al-zmah, from a newspaper report on his death EUL MS 215/6/2

Adil did not share his older brother’s military background, but he was equally active in his work for Arab nationalism. He graduated from the Royal Academy in Istanbul and practised for some time as a lawyer in the early 1920s before joining Nabih in Transjordan, where he campaigned against Jewish immigration into Palestine. Following the failure of the Great Revolt he was one of many Arab nationalists, led by the Grand Mufti, who took refuge in Iraq and supported the pro-German coup d’etat in March 1941. He lived in Iraq in the early 1940s and participated in similar political activities to his brother, including a spell spent in Iraq in the early 1940s. After independence, he occupied various posts of government, including Governor of Latakia (1944-46?) – during which time he played a role in the arrest and execution of Sulayman al-Murshid – Governor of Aleppo (1946-49) and Minister of the Interior. The archive contains copies of his diaries for the years between 1946 and 1948 (EUL MS 115/1/11-14), providing a fascinating glimpse into his political and administrative duties. He died in Beirut in 1952.

EUL MS 215/5/4

Cover of a booklet published by the Governorate of Aleppo in 1947, with an image showing the city’s famous Bab al-Faraj Clock Tower and – in the distance – the 13th century citadel. EUL MS 215/5/4

Although these papers are all photocopies – the original documents are held in Damascus, with the Saudi papers now housed at the Darat al-Malik Ábd al-Áziz in Riyadh – they provide a wealth of information on topics such early Arab nationalism, political networks in the Levant, the activities of Islamic movements in Palestine, and the history of Syria during the transition from the French Mandate to independence. The documents include political correspondence with Arab leaders and key figures such as Fawzi Al-Qawuqji, Hashim al-Atassi, Husni al-Za’im, Fakhri el-Nashashibi, Rashid Rida, Mohamed Ali Ettaher, Asad Daghir, Wajih Al-Haffar, Dr Abd al-Rahman al-Kayyali, Muhammad ‘Izzat Darwazeh and others, state papers, political manifestoes and conference booklets for various political parties, as well as campaign material directed against the French administration in Syria and the British administration in Palestine. There are four indexes to the papers (EUL MS 215/6/4, 215/8/8, 215/11/3 and 215/12/13, which should probably be the starting point for researchers seeking to work with the collection.

The catalogue entries for the Al-Azmah papers can be consulted here

 

 

Exploring the Omar Sheikhmous Archive, Part 4: A Guide to Kurdish Political Parties

In the concluding entry to our series of blogposts exploring the Omar Sheikhmous archive, it seemed a good idea to provide a guide to the various Kurdish political parties, groups and movements for which he hold material in our collections. The complex and convoluted history of Kurdish resistance can be hard to follow, with multiple splits and reunions, confusing acronyms and variant forms of names.

The party emblems and logos are all taken from documents in the Sheikhmous archive.

Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) – EUL MS 403/3/3

 

Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran

Hîzbî Dêmukratî Kurdistanî Êran‎

Persian: حزب دموکرات کردستان ایران

 

 

The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) was founded by Qazi Muhammed in Mahabad in 1945, and we also hold a file on the short-lived Republic of Mahabad that includes copies of periodicals published there prior to Muhammed’s execution in March 1947 (EUL MS 403/7/1/1).

The subsequent repression of the party forced it to operate underground for the next few years, surfacing occasionally for short-lived collaborations in the 1950s and 1960s. When the new Islamic regime rejected calls for Kurdish autonomy, the KDPI joined other Kurdish groups to fight the Iranian government from 1979 to 1981, a conflict that continued intermittently ever since. The KDPI remains prescribed in Iran, with many of its members taking refuge over the border in Iraq.

Most of the material held dates from the 1980s, although there are documents dated between 1978 and 1996 in the file. These include information sheets, leaflets written by KDPI activists, bulletins, press releases, open letters from the KDPI leadership, issues of periodicals and newspapers such as Kurdistan: Organî Kumîtey Nawendîye Hîzbî Dêmukratî Kurdistanî Êran, ‘Talash dar rah-I tafahum: majmu’ah-‘i  asnad and Kurdistan Today, along with personal correspondence such as invitations to meetings sent to Omar Sheikhmous.

One of the most significant figures in the history of the KDPI is Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou, who led the party from from 1973 until his assassination in Vienna in 1989. There are several official KDPI communications from Ghassemlou in the file, along with a separate correspondence file (EUL MS 403/2/1/4) and cuttings on Ghassemlou’s life and death (EUL MS 403/7/5). There is also an open letter written byGhassemlou’s successor as KDPI Secretary General, Abdullah Hassanzadeh, on the subject of Iranian state terrorism with a four page list of victims and a statement about Iranian cleric and intelligence minister Ali Fallahian in relation to the ‘Mykonos’ murder of Kurds in Berlin (1996)

Komala – EUL MS 403/3/4

Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan

Komełey Şorişgêrî Zehmetkêşanî Kurdistanî Êran

Revolutionary Workers’ Society of Iranian Kurdistan / ‘Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan’

كۆمه‌ڵه‌ی شۆڕشگێڕی زه‌حمه‌تكێشانی كوردستانی ئێران كۆمه‌ڵه‌ی شۆڕشگێڕی

[NB Not to be confused with the Kurdistan Toilers’ Party, (KTP) Hizbi Zahmatkêshani Kurdistan, or Hizb al-Kadihin al-Kurdistani, which was founded in 1985 and publishes newspapers and periodicals including Alay Azadi (Banner of Freedom), Pesh Kawtin and Nojan.]

Komala means ‘group’ or ‘society’ in Kurdish, and the recurring use of the word in the names of several different political groups can be confusing.

Emerging from a student organisation in the late 1960s, the Komala party took formal shape in the late 1970s as Komełey Şorişgêrî Zehmetkêşanî Kurdistanî Êran [in Kurdish] or ‘Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan’ until 1984 when it became the Komala Kurdistan’s Organization of the Communist Party of Iran. It remained part of the Communist Party of Iran until 2000 when one of its leaders, Abdullah Muhtadi, led a breakaway faction named the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan (Komala-PIK). Two further schisms occurred in 2007 and 2008, resulting in the creation of other Komala splinter groups led by Omar Ilkhanizade and Abdulla Konaposhi respectively.

The material we hold – which includes leaflets, press-releases, posters and booklets – spans the period between 1965 and 2009 and includes publications issued by Komala, the Communist Party of Iran and various international branches such as the Organisation of Komala Supporters Abroad.

Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – EUL MS 403/3/5

Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê

The PKK was founded in November 1978 in the village of Fis (near Lice), by a group of Kurdish students led by Abdullah Öcalan. During the 1980s and 1990s it was engaged in violent conflict with the Turkish state and military authorities, but in 1999 Öcalan was captured and imprisoned, and since then he has been held in solitary confinement as the only prisoner on İmralı island in the Sea of Marmara.

We don’t hold many PKK documents but there is a large amount of secondary material on Öcalan and PKK activities in the box on the Kurds in Turkey (EUL MS 403/7/6/4), a biographical file on Öcalan (EUL MS 403/7/5) and numerous news reports in Boxes EUL MS 403/10, including statements about the PKK issued by Jalal Talabani.

 

Komkar  EUL MS 403/3/7

 

The Association of Kurdish Workers for Kurdistan

Federasyona Komelên Karkerên Kurdistan [Komelên Karkerên = Kom Kar]

 

 

Among the Kurdish diaspora, it was students who were the first to start forming political organisations, beginning with the Kurdish Students Society in Europe (KSSE). In 1979 groups of Kurdish workers in Turkey came together to form ‘Komkar’, and this federation of Kurdish worker’s associations soon become widely established across Europe.

We hold papers from various European Komkar branches including statements on Kurdish and Turkish affairs, information on the 5th Komkar congress in 1983, correspondence, posters and publications.

 

Kurdistan Socialist Party – Iraq and related Socialist parties

EUL MS 403/3/8 and EUL MS 403/3/20

Kurdistan Socialist Party – Iraq (KSP-I)

الحزب الاشتراكي الكردستاني العراق

al-Ḥizb al-Ishtirākī al-Kurdistānī – al-`Irāq

 

Partiya Sosyalist a Kurdistan (PSK or PASOK)

al-Hizb al-Ishtiraki al-Kurdi

 

The complicated history of the different Socialist parties involved in the Kurdish struggle requires some careful unpicking. The United Socialist Party of Kurdistan was formed in 1979 when a former KDP splinter group led by Mahmud Osman united with another group led by Socialist politician Rasul Mamand (1944–94). It was renamed the Socialist Party of Kurdistan-Iraq  (KSP-I) in 1981. The party was dissolved in  December 1992 when Mamand joined the PUK’s Political Bureau.

In 1993 the KSP-I was revived by a former member Mohammed Haji Mahmoud after he left the KDP, and at its second party congress the following year it changed its name to the Kurdistan Social Democratic Party (Parti Sosialiri Dimuqrati Kurdistan, Al-Hizb al-Ishtiraki al-Dimuqrati al-Kurdistani) – which is not to be confused with the Kurdish Socialist Democratic Movement which was founded in May 1976 by Salih Al-Yousify (1918-81) from which we have a copy of a document issued in 1977.

Meanwhile in Turkey the Socialist Party of Turkish Kurdistan (SPTK) had been founded in 1974 by Kemal Burkay. The activities of the party were disrupted by the coup in 1980, with Burkay and most of its leaders forced into exile, and at the congress in 1992 it changed its name to the Socialist Party of Kurdistan.

We have a small file on the SPTK (EUL MS 403/3/20) but the folder at EUL MS 403/3/8 contains material relating to both the KSP-I and the PSK, as well as the KSDP, including party newsletters and periodicals such as Peyamî Birayetî, Rebazi-Lawan, Regay Azadi (KSP-I), Surîn and Yekgirtin (PSK), draft documents, memoriam posters, military bulletins, correspondence including an invitation from Kemal Burkay and a handwritten letter to Omar Sheikhmous from the Kurdish Socialist Party in Syria, plus various documents from the Socialist International congresses in which Jalal Talabani and other Kurds participated.

Iraqi Communist Party – EUL MS 403/3/9

Title page of the ICP newspaper Ṭarīq al-shaʻb

 

Arabic: الحزب الشيوعي العراقي

[al-Hizb al Shuyu’i al-Iraqi]

 

 

 

The Iraqi Communist Party was founded in 1934, emerging out of organised boycott of the British-owned Baghdad Electric Light Company. After various vicissitudes during the 1940s, it was strengthened in the early 1950s by growing support from Kurds, who gradually took over leadership roles and influenced the ICP’s approval of the principle of Kurdistan’s autonomy in their 1953 charter. Following the 1963 Baathist take-over, however, the ICP faced severe oppression from the government, and in 1967 a breakaway group (led by Aziz al-Hajj, who died earlier this year) split from the ICP and established the Iraqi Communist Party – Central Command. Weakened by the division, the ICP activities gradually focussed more on Kurdish areas and less on Baghdad. The close associaton between the Kurds and the ICP is reflected in the fact that a Kurd, Aziz Muhammad (1924-2017) was Secretary General of the ICP from 1964 until 1993.

Most of the material in this file comes from the late 1970s and the 1980s and includes several issues of ICP periodicals and newspapers such as Ṭarīq al-shaʻb and Rêyazi Pêshmerge, numerous documents on relationships with other parties, including the KDP and the PUK, the Tudeh Party in Iran, as well as other branches of the Communist Party, articles on a range of topics written by ICP members, letters, party reports and press releases.

There is also a smaller file containing seven documents relating to the Workers Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI), [in Arabic: الحزب الشيوعي العمالي العراقي or al-Hizb al-Shuyu’i al-Ummali al-Iraqi, and in Kurdish: Hizbi Communisti Krekari Iraq] which was founded in 1993.

 

 

Political Alliances and Coalitions

The history of the Kurdish resistance movement has, tragically, been characterised by a great deal of in-fighting and self-destructive rivalry, by there have also been several successful attempts to bring together political groups under umbrella organisations that could consolidate opposition and strengthen cross-party collaboration. Although these alliances may not always have lasted long, they were significant steps in the development of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

 

Democratic National Patriotic Front in Iraq – EUL MS 403/3/12

This was an umbrella opposition group founded in November 1980 and consisting of the Iraqi Communist Party, the National Union of Kurdistan and other parties. The file contains four documents, including letters to Omar Sheikhmous from the DNPF leadership (1982-83) and an information sheet (1987)

 

 

Iraqi Kurdistan Front  EUL MS 403/3/13

The Iraqi Kurdistan Front (IKF) was formed in 1987-88 from the PUK, KDP and six smaller parties – including the KPDP, the KSP-I and PASOK –  with the aim of uniting Kurdish factions and strengtheing opposition to the regime in Baghdad. The IKF played a major role during the ‘National Uprising’ of 1991 following the Gulf War ceasefire, as well as preparations for the general elections on 19 May 1992.

Documents include letters and proposals for the formation of the IKF, the first issue of their newspaper Berey Kurdistanî  (September 1989) and joint statements by Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani regarding the forthcoming elections (1992). The IKF subsequently broke up, in part due to the ongoing tension between the KDP and the PUK.

 

Kurdistan National Congress – EUL MS 403/3/6

 

Kongreya Neteweyî ya Kurdistanê (KNK)

كۆنگرەی نەتەوەیی كوردستان

Kongreya Niştimanî  ya Kurdistanê (KNK)

 

 

 

The Kurdish National Congress is a coalition of exiled Kurdish politicians and activists that was founded in 1999 following an initiative by the PKK that began in 1985, and absorbed the former Kurdistan Parliament in Exile.

The KNK’s first president was Ismet Cheriff Vanly (we hold a correspondence file of Vanly’s letters at EUL MS 403/2/13), who had served on the Executive Council of the previous body, and we have various documents relating to the dissolution of the Kurdistan Parliament in Exile and the draft charter for the KNK, as well as correspondence, press releases and publications.

 

Iraqi National Congress – EUL MS 403/3/17

 

 

المؤتمر الوطني العراقي

al-Mu’tamar al-Watani al-‘Iraqi

 

 

The history of the Iraqi National Congress is closely associated with the controversial figure of Ahmad Chalabi (1944-2015). Founded in Vienna in June 1992 as an umbrella organisation of Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’a groups opposed to Saddam Hussein’s government, the INC was comprised mainly of Kurdish exiles but received funding and support from the US government, including the CIA. Over the following decade, Chalabi and others associated with the INC played a significant role in encouraging the development of the US government’s neoconservative foreign policy towards Iraq that resulted in the 2003 invasion and the demise of Saddam Hussein.

The file includes papers from the 1992 INC congress, including a transcript of Jalal Talabani’s speech to the Opening Session, as well as a list of members of the INC, letters from Chalabi to various diplomats, press releases and documents relating to the INC’s involvement in the INDICT campaign for the prosection of Iraqi war criminals (1997).

 

The Independence Party of Kurdistan – EUL MS 403/3/10

 

Partîkarî Serbexoyî Kurdistane

 

The Kurdistan Independence Party was founded in Sweden between 1986 and 1989, and was dedicated to non-violent and democratic means of achieving independence for Kurdistan.

 

Amir Qazi (or Ghazi), Chairman of the Independence Party, was a former member of the politburo of the KDPI and married Efat (1935-1990), the daughter of Qazi Muhammad, president of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. She was killed in Sweden by a letter bomb addressed to her husband, and thought to have been sent by Iranian agents. The folder contains a letter from Qazi, several issues of their periodical ‘Ala’ (1986-), documents and press-releases.

 

Revolutionary parties – EUL MS 403/3/11

The Revolutionaries Union of Kurdistan

Yekêtî Sorisgirani Kurdistan 

The Kurdish Revolutionary Party

الحزب الثوري الكردستاني

al-Hizb al-Thawri al-Kurdistani 

Hizbi Shorishgeri Kurdistan

The Kurdish Revolutionary Party was founded in 1964, before temporarily merging with the KDP (1970-72) and then being revived by members who were unhappy with the KDP leadership. In 1974 it joined the Ba’ath Party approved National Progressive Front (NPF) and consequently lost much of its significance. The file includes the constitutions from 1964 and papers from the party congress in 1970 concerning its relationship with the KDP.

The Revolutionaries’ Union of Kurdistan was founded in May 1991 by an Iranian Kurd, Said Yazdanpanah, who was assassinated five months later. The organisation was then led by his brother Hussein. At a party congress in 2006 it was renamed the Kurdish Freedom Party        [پارتی ئازادیی کوردستان‎] and Ali Qazi – brother of Efat, mentioned above – was elected leader.

None of these parties should be confused with Yekêtî Şorişgirani Kurdistan [Revolutionary Union of Kurdistan], which was a faction within the PUK formed around 1982 by an alignment with some Socialist groups. The file holds several letters to and from this group, with correspondents including Omar Sheikhmous, Omar Dababa, Fuad Masoum and Kemal Fuad, as well as membership booklets and other documents.

 

Kurdistan Democratic Progressive Party in Syria – EUL MS 403/3/16

Partiya Dîmoqratî Pêşverû Kurd li Sûriyê

Al-Hizb al-Dimuqrati al-Kurdi al-Taqaddumi fi Suriya

الحزب الديمقراطي التقدمي الكردي في سوريا

 

The history of the KDPPS is inseparable from the life of its leader, the late Abdul Hamid Darwish (1936-2019), who was one of the co-founders (along with Nûredein Zaza and Osman Sabri) of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria in 1957. Internal disagreements led to the KDPS splitting in 1965, with Darwish leading the more moderate and conciliatory group that became known as the Kurdistan Democratic Progressive Party. Over time the KDPPS came to align itself closely with Jalal Talabani’s PUK, while the KDPS aligned itself with Mustafa Barzani’s KDP, which would have a negative impact upon the two Syrian parties’ relations as the rivalry between the KDP and PUK developed into armed conflict.

Within Syria, however, the KDPPS continued to play an important role in both national politics and Kurdish affairs, with Darwish being elected to the Syrian parliament in 1990 and helping to establish relations between the Kurdish National Council and Syrian opposition groups. Papers in this file are dated between 1977 and 1999 and include numerous copies of the party’s newspaper al-Dimuqrati, a proclamation on the war between Kurds in Iraq and the Iraqi regime (1988), as well as documents and press-releases from the mid-1990s.

Kurdistan Popular Democratic Party (KPDP) – EUL MS 403/3/18

Hizb al-Sha’ab Dimuqrati al-Kurdistan

Parti Geli Dimukrati Kurdistan

The Kurdistan Popular Democratic Party (KPDP) was founded by Sami Abdulrahman in 1979 as a breakaway group from the KDP, which they rejoined in 1993.

Documents include various bulletins and statements issued by the party (1981-85), a list of fifteen KPDP members executed in Mosul in 1985, a supplement to the KPDP periodical ‘Gel’ on the General Scientific Conference of Kurds in the Soviet Union (1990), a photocopy of the first page of issue no 40 of Gel [ al-Sha`b], Document from the 2nd conference (1990)

Kurdistan Democratic Union – EUL MS 403/3/21

 

Yeketi Dimukrati Kurdistan

al-Ittihad al-Dimuqrati al-Kurdistani

The Kurdistan Democratic Union (KDU) was founded by Ali Sinjari in 1977 but was later merged with the KDP in 1993. Documents in the file include a news bulletin (1986), a leaflet Reya Yeketiye (1987), an Arabic press release published in June 1991 to mark the 14th year of the founding of the party and issue no.20 (October 1990) of the KDU periodical Al Sha’lah/Mesxel .

The National Democratic Union of Kurdistan (Yekitiya Netewayî Demokratî Kurdistan, or YNKD) was founded in 1995 by Ghafur Makhmuri – the folder contains a press release issued on 15 November 1995.

 

The Sheikhmous archive does include hold material relating to other political parties and movements, and there also folders containing papers from left-wing Iranian parties as well as Islamic political groups and other bodies, such as the Association of Kurdish Doctors in Europe.

The Sheikhmous papers have now been catalogued and the entries can be consulted here. 

Exploring the Omar Sheikhmous Archive, Part 3: Kurdish Studies and the archive

In the last two blogs, we have looked at what the Omar Sheikhmous archive (EUL MS 403) holds in relation to the activities of both the KDP and the PUK, discussing the collection as an archival record of Omar Sheikhmous’ life and work. In this third blog, we will be looking at the archive within the wider context of Kurdish studies and possible ways in which the Sheikhmous papers might be studied and used.

Part 3: The Omar Sheikhmous archive (EUL MS 403) and Kurdish Studies

A selection of issues of رسالة اَلْعِرَاق‎ [Risālat al-ʻIrāq] the journal of the Iraqi Communist Party, from 1979 to 1980. EUL MS 403/3/5/5

Kurdish Studies: Where Now?

‘Kurdish Studies’ is a relatively new discipline, but for much of its existence it has (understandably)  been shaped by political and nationalist agendas, with the ‘Kurdish Question’ and related issues of Kurdish identity tending to dominate the field. Furthermore, it has faced the additional problem of fragmentation according to the different regions (Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria) in which the studies are undertaken.  (Clémence Scalbert Yücel and Marie Le Ray provide an excellent explanation of these issues in their article, ‘Knowledge, ideology and power. Deconstructing Kurdish Studies’, European Journal of Turkish Studies No.5, 2006.) Matters are improving, however, with greater awareness of comparative methods and more self-reflective, critical thinking about how to address these challenges and develop a more rigorous, multi-disciplinary and transnational approach to fieldwork and other forms of research. A helpful introduction to recent developments can be found in Baser, Toivanen & Zorlu (eds.), Methodological Approaches in Kurdish Studies: Theoretical and Practical Insights from the Field (Lexington Books, 2019).

There are other challenges too: those with an interest in Kurdish studies who wish to work with original material quickly learn that some knowledge of the Kurdish language is helpful, but it may not be enough – there are significant differences between Sorani and Kurmanji Kurdish for a start, but for the wider context it may be necessary to work with documents in Arabic, Persian and Turkish (including possibly Ottoman Turkish), while the Sheikhmous archive also includes large quantities of material from the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, written in Swedish, German, Italian and French.

Examples of Italian language material in the Sheikhmous archive – an issue of Ajò, a Sardinian journal on Kurdish affairs (1982) and material published by the Italian branch of the PUK (1975). EUL MS 403/3/1/2

This does, of course, provide rich resources for those eager to purse topics across regional and national boundaries. Beyond the ‘Kurdish question’ and the traditional issues of political and diplomatic history, there are a plethora of areas of study that could be explored using the Sheikhmous archive (and some of our related collections) – the economics of the oil industry in Kurdistan for example, the role of music and culture in the Kurdish diaspora, tribalism, political parties and corruption, transnational correspondence networks, gender and feminism, women and employment, refugees and migration, comparative studies of language in print publications, graphic design in Kurdish media, folk art and political protest…. and so on.

Research has tended to focus on the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey, with the Kurdish communities in Iran and Syria receiving much less attention. The Sheikhmous archive contains a considerable amount of rare material on Iran, including copies of early publications from Mahabad, papers relating to several Iranian political parties, documentation of Iranian student movements and other papers that touch upon the political upheaval of the 1979 Islamic revolution. These are written in Kurdish, Arabic and Persian, amongst other languages, and include original documents as well as copies. Iranian Kurdish politician Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou (1930-1989) – leader of the KDPI from 1973 until his assassination in Vienna – is represented in the archive through correspondence, presscuttings, reports written by political allies and a recorded interview. There are also papers written by and about Iranian cleric and Kurdish leader Sheikh Ezzedin Hosseini  (1922-2011), as well as correspondence between Hosseini, Sheikhmous and others, and several files of papers relating to Iranian political parties such as the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI)/Ḥizb-i Dimukrāt-i Kurdistān-i Īrān, Komala/Komełey Şorişgêrî Zehmetkêşanî Kurdistan/Revolutionary Workers’ Society of Iranian Kurdistan,

The transnational political life of Omar Sheikhmous

The far-ranging scope of the Sheikhmous archive does of course reflect the trajectory of his life: born in Syria, he fought with the peshmerga in Iraq, lived for a period in both the UK and the US before making his home in Sweden, all the time developing a network of contacts in both Kurdistan and across Europe. As many of the papers have been acquired during this transnational and multi-faceted career, there is the potential here for scholars of Kurdish studies to draw together documents from different countries and pursue much-needed comparative and inter-disciplinary research.

For example, there is a great deal of material (EUL MS 403/4) documenting the activities of the Kurdish community in Sweden, in which Sheikhmous was (and remains) an active member. These includes records and publicity material for cultural activities and political meetings, concerts and literary events, academic seminars and protest marches, to which can be added the files of correspondence with Swedish politicians and journalists (EUL MS 403/2/21). These could be the primary materials for a research project looking at how Kurdish national identities are created and maintained in diasporic settings. How might the experience of Kurds in Sweden compare with those elsewhere in Europe, or in Britain, Australia or the United States? We do have quite a bit of material on Kurdish exiles in Germany and Austria too, and the correspondence between these individuals and associations could provide insight into the workings of diasporic networks. What role to they play in creating and preserving Kurdish national identity?

Another large section (EUL MS 403/5) documents the activities of Kurdish students across Europe from the 1960s through to the late 1980s. There are student newsletters, press releases commenting on events in Kurdistan, publications, protest posters and records of political meetings in Britain, France, Germany, America and elsewhere in Europe. It would be fascinating to look at the contrasts between Kurdish students in eastern and western Europe,or examine the relationship between events in Kurdistan and the way they were perceived by Kurdish students abroad.

Omar Sheikhmous and the Development of Kurdish Studies

Our archive also contains some of the extensive correspondence Omar Sheikhmous undertook with scholars and academics around the world, many of whom were key figures in the development of Kurdish studies as a discipline (EUL 403/3/23).  These include one of the world’s leading specialists on Kurdistan, Martin van Bruinessen (born 1946), the eminent Italian scholar Professor Mirella Galletti (1949-2012), American researcher, Kurdish specialist and founder in 1988 of the Kurdish Heritage Foundation of America, Vera Marion Beaudin Saeedpour (1930-2010), Italian journalist and campaigner for the Kurds Laura Schrader (born 1938), Austrian historian of the Kurds and humanitarian worker Dr Ferdinand Hennerblicher (born 1946), Norwegian sociologist and pacifist Elise Boulding (1920-2010), Polish ethnographer Leszek Dziegel (1931-2005) and ‘Chris Kutschera’ – the pen-name used jointly by French journalist Paul Maubec (1938-2017) and his photographer wife Edith Kutschera.

Studying this correspondence might provide insights into how Kurdish studies has developed through an international network of writers and researchers, many of whom – as the selection above indicates – have  worked in journalism and fields other than academia. Many of these western writers who began showing an interest in Kurdistan during the 1960s and 1970s did so as part of a wider interest in revolutionary struggles against oppression that were taking place across the world. How did their political agendas and outlooks relate to how Kurds saw themselves? Are these relationships reflected in the correspondence between the Kurdish diaspora in Europe – including the Kurdish students’ organisations – and the Kurds who remained living in Kurdistan? How have humanitarian activities and press campaigns helped to influence academic writing on the Kurds? What contribution has been made by institutions such as Vera Beaudin Saeedpour’s Kurdish LIbrary and Museum (New York), the Kurdish Library (Stockholm) and the Kurdish Academy (Ratingen)? There is a mass of original material on all these topics in the Sheikhmous archive that awaits further research.

Vol. 2, no. 3 of the periodical القافلة  al-Qāfilah = Karwan, issued by the Kurdish Students’ Society in Europe,Yugoslavia Branch. EUL MS 403, Box 5. There are also press releases from the Czechoslovakian branch and hundreds of other documents produced by Kurdish students across Europe, America and the UK. Comparative studies between different student groups could be illuminating. Some more examples are shown below:

Archives and Institutions

While on the topic of Kurdish libraries and cultural centres, it would be of great value for the development of Kurdish studies if a comprehensive list of important Kurdish archival collections could be established, in order to aid research as well as to ensure the preservation of materials that might be in danger. More work needs to be done in establishing connections between these different archives, so that researchers can easily be made aware of complementary collections, and where the gaps in one archive might be filled by holdings elsewhere.

Recently we were in touch with the University of Toronto, which holds the archive of Kurdish scholar Dr Amir Hassanpour (1943-2017). The catalogue entries are available to browse here, and there is also an excellent multi-lingual finding aid if you open the PDF version). In addition to the personal papers of Dr Hassanpour, the University of Toronto was also bequested his extensive library, which includes numerous Kurdish books and periodicals. Omar Sheikhmous and Amir Hassanpour corresponded with one another, and there are files of their letters held at both Exeter (EUL MS 403/2/8) and Toronto (B2019-0004/005(32) and B2019-0004/004(04).)

In the Sheikhmous archive at Exeter there is a large section (EUL MS 403/8) dedicated to Kurdish human rights issues, including documentation of the genocidal Anfal campaign undertaken by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Scholars working on this topic should also be aware that Sheikhmous also deposited a large collection of original documents and materials on the Anfal at the Hugo Valentine Centre in Uppsala University. A description of this archive is available here. Related material held at Exeter includes records of Kurdish appeals for humanitarian aid and for recognition of the genocidal nature of the Iraqi campaign, details of medical supplies sent to Kurdistan, documentation of human rights abuses, lists of the names of martyrs and victims of torture, publicity material protesting against the use of chemical weapons, and correspondence between Kurdish activists and western politicians, campaigners and UN officials. This material provides insights into the various strategies used to try and influence public opinion and galvanise international action, as well as the ways in which deaths and pasts sufferings have been commemorated within the Kurdish community.

Records of letters written by condemned Kurdish prisoners in Iraq (1978), EUL MS 403 Box 8.

Art, Music and Dance

While the sufferings of the Kurdish people have often been commemorated through folk songs and literature, it should be emphasised that the Sheikhmous archive also includes much wider material about the celebration and preservation of Kurdish traditions through songs, music, dance, art and literature. There are numerous cassette recordings of traditional Kurdish music, including peshmerga songs and folk music ensembles, posters for concert performances in Sweden and Britain, publicity material for poetry readings, book launches and other literary events, translations of Kurdish poetry, correspondence and other papers by Kurdish writers such as Şerko Bekas (1940-2013), Cegerxwin (1903-84)  and Şahînê B. Soreklî  [a.k.a. Chahin Baker, born 1946), as well as examples of artwork, advertisements for painting and photographic exhibitions relating to Kurdistan and a number of DVDs, videos and recorded interviews covering various aspects of Kurdish life, culture and political history.

This short blogpost has aimed at revealing the scope and diversity of the Sheikhmous archive, and suggesting possible ways in which its riches could be exploited for the benefit of the developing field of Kurdish studies. Anyone interested in undertaking research on these or any other topics is invited to contact Special Collections – although we are still operating a restricted service due to the current pandemic, hopefully it will not be too long before access is available. Cataloguing of the archive has been held up due to the university being under lockdown for much of the spring and summer, but this should be complete by late autumn.

Finally, for those interested in learning more about Omar Sheikhmous, there is an Arabic biography:

جمرة تحت الرماد : محطات مهمة من حياة عمر شيخموس [Jumrah taḥta al-ramād: maḥaṭṭāt muhimmah min ḥayāt ʻUmar Shaykhimūs] is an Arabic translation by Yāsīn Ḥusayn of a text in Kurdish by Newzad ʻElî Eḧmed, based on his interviews with Sheikhmous. It was published in 2017 by the Cairo Centre for Kurdish Studies and an English translation is believed to be in preparation.

This is currently the closest thing we have to a biography of Omar Sheikhmous

 

In the next blogpost, we will provide a guide to the various Kurdish political parties and organisations with some examples of how each one is represented in the archive.

 

 

 

Exploring the Omar Sheikhmous Archive, Part 2: The PUK 1975-2005

Part 2: Omar Sheikhmous and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) 1975-2005

Although Mustafa Barzani had dominated the Kurdish movement since the late 1940s, there was by no means unqualified support for his leadership. Factionalism has been a constant thread throughout the history of Kurdish politics, and even when there was a strong consensus about the need to protect Kurdish rights and achieve a greater degree of autonomy, there were often strongly contrasting views about what the objectives, priorities and strategies should be for doing so. In contrast with the conservative tribal foundations of the KDP, there had long been a rival group, centred around Ibrahim Ahmed and his son-in-law Jalal Talabani, who had different ideas about what form the Kurdish resistance should take. Coming from an urban rather than a rural background, most of these men were academics with an interest in socialist theories and links to underground parties such as Komala, the Iraqi Communist Party, the Kurdish Workers’ League or the Kurdistan Socialist Movement.

The vacuum created by the collapse of the Kurdish uprising and the flight of Barzani and his followers provided the opportunity for this group to come together and establish a new Kurdish political party. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was founded in June 1975 in the wake of three separate meetings in Beirut, Berlin and Damascus – from whence Jalal Talabani issued the PUK’s first formal document. (We have a copy of the PUK’s foundation document, in Talabani’s own handwriting, at EUL MS 403/3/1/1.)

There were seven founding members – Jalal Talabani, Fuad Masoum, Kamal Fuad, Nawshirwan Mustafa, Adil Murad, Abdulrazaq Faili – and Omar Sheikhmous, creator and donor of the remarkable archive from which these materials are taken. This would therefore be a good moment to provide some more information about Sheikhmous.

Omar Sheikhmous: a brief biographical sketch

He was born in the town of Amouda in north east Syria (western Kurdistan) on 7 February 1942, and after basic education in the village school, spent seven years at a private American college in Aleppo where he learnt English and began taking an active interest in politics. He then came to England, in 1962, where he studied for the next five years: firstly taking GCEs at Acton Technical College and then working for a Diploma in International Affairs (1964-1967) at the London Institute of World Affairs, part of the University of London. Having obtained his diploma, he then moved to Sweden to begin postgraduate studies at the University of Stockholm. We have a number of his early writings from this period, including drafts of his MA and PhD theses and a questionnaire on Kurdish nationalism that he used for interviews for his thesis. There are also academic seminar papers and essays written on Kurdish politics and other Middle Eastern topics.

Sheikhmous worked on his PhD from 1972 to 1978, but broke off from academic studies to take a more active role in the Kurdish resistance following his participation in the founding of the PUK. Along with his Swedish wife Agneta, whom he had married in 1974, he joined the peshmerga forces in Kurdistan; there are many photographs of him in uniform with fellow Kurdish fighters, including Jalal Talabani, Adel Murad and Fuad Masoum. Agneta Sheikhmous was the first foreign woman to join the peshmerga, and there are several presscuttings in the archive about Agneta and her contribution to the Kurdish struggle. The PUK were based in Nawzeng, in the mountains of south-eastern Iraqi Kurdistan, but they were driven out of here in 1983 and took up a new position in the Jafati valley.

A poster by a Kurdish artist showing attacks on Kurdish villages by Iraqi planes. EUL MS 403 Box 3/2/2

This was a period of bitter fighting between the PUK and the Iraqi forces, complicated by shifting alliances between other Kurdish groups (such as the KDP-I, the remnants of the KDP, Komala and local militia). Of particular interest are a series of private military bulletins issued by the PUK, including reports on battles, communiques from the PUK Military Bureau and a letter from Nawshirwan Mustafa to a PUK military commander. These cover the period from 1976 through to the late 1980s, and are mostly in Arabic (EUL MS 403/3/1/1-3).

Although the PUK and the Iraqi government were engaged in violent conflict for much of the 1980s, there was a short period when the two sides entered into negotiations to try and find a solution. These took place between 1983 and 1985, before being broken off. There are a series of documents, including an official statement by the PUK as to why the talks had ended, along with copies of photographs showing Jalal Talabani and other PUK figures meeting with senior Iraqi officials.

This photograph was likely taken in the early 1980s, either before or during the PUK’s negotiations with the Iraqi government. In the centre of the picture can be seen Jalal Talabani standing alongside two senior figures from Iraqi military intelligence: Izzat al-Douri on his left, and alongside him, Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan Majid. Both would later oversee the use of chemical weapons in the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, for which Majid – known as ‘Chemical Ali’ – was hanged as a war criminal in 2010. (Photocopy of a photograph, EUL MS 403/3/1/3/1)

In addition to taking part in the PUK’s military activities, Sheikhmous was also in charge of the party’s ‘Foreign Relations Committee’ from 1975 to 1986 and there are various press releases and other correspondence items that he wrote during this time that provide fascinating insights into the Kurdish network in Europe, amongst other things. He returned to Sweden in the mid-1980s where he took an active role in working with, and for, Kurdish refugees in the country. A large section of the archive covers his correspondence with Swedish politicians, involvement in Kurdish cultural events, academic conferences and political activities that reveal the concerns and efforts of the Kurdish community in exile to support the Kurdish cause. As Christine Allison has noted in her chapter ‘The Shifting Borders of Conflict, Difference and Oppression: Kurdish Folklore Revisited’, Sweden became the centre for Kurdish cultural productions by the diasporic Kurdish community until the 1990s (Gareth Stansfield and Mohammed Shareef (eds), The Kurdish Question Revisited (2017) p.120.)  The archive contains numerous examples of such cultural production, including material relating to poetry, dance, music and literature (EUL MS 403/4).

In addition to his involvement in the cultural activities of the Kurdish community in Sweden, Sheikhmous also returned to academic work, and from 1986 to 2000 worked at the Center for Research in International Migration and Ethnic Relations (CEIFO) in the University of Stockholm, as a researcher, lecturer and administrator. In both his academic and administrative work, he focused particularly on the human right issue, studying the experience of Kurdish migrants and refugees, as well as investigating the claims of genocidal campaigns against the Kurds in Iraq that were carried out under Saddam Hussein.

It should be understood that the aim of establishing Kurdistan as an independent nation-state has not been a dominant part of the Kurdish agenda for much of the period in question. Although there are many papers in the Sheikhmous archive arguing the need for varying degrees of autonomy or self-regulation, the most important concern has always been to secure basic human rights for the Kurdish people, including that of speaking and writing in Kurdish, using their own language to educate their children, preserving traditions and dress, and resisting attempts at forced Arabisation of their homelands.  Tragically, the denial of these rights has often been accompanied by brutal forms of repression, particularly in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Due to the significance of such issues in the history of the Kurds, there is a distinct section within the Sheikhmous archive (EUL MS 403/8) dedicated to documenting matters relating to human rights. These include correspondence between Omar Sheikhmous, the PUK and the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies during the 1970s and 1980s, appeals for medicine and aid for children, published reports by Amnesty International (to which Sheikmous has belonged since the early 1960s) and other charitable organisations, international humanitarian appeals, reports of atrocities, and records of the victims of the Anfal campaign (1986-89) and Halabja bombing (March 1988). [As a side note, there is also a section of published works in AWDU on the Kurdish Human Rights Project, including legal documentation and court proceedings, at KHRP 323.]

Sheikhmous continued his advocacy for Kurdish rights during the years (2001-2007) he spent in senior roles at the Kurdish Service of the US multimedia agency ‘Voice of America’ (VOA), providing an international platform to promote the cause of the Kurdish people and provide accurate information regarding human rights abuses and the political realities of life in Kurdistan. Sheikhmous’ work for VOA is represented in the archive by audio and video recordings, e-mail correspondence, interviews and other papers. (EUL MS 403/6.)

An undated letter to the PUK from the KDP in Syria. (EUL MS 403/3/2/1)

While Sheikhmous was devoting his energies to this work in Sweden, the PUK continued its fight in Iraq, alongside the KDP and – during the Iraq-Iran war – with Iranian support.  Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 led in turn to Iraq’s invasion by US-led coalition forces during the Gulf War, and following Saddam’s defeat in March 1991, the Kurds took part in an uprising against what was regarded as a weakened regime. Although the Iraqi government launched a massive retaliation against the Kurdish and Shi’ite Arab rebels, the imposition of a no-fly zone by coalition forces provided some protection for the Kurds and the Kurdistan National Assembly was established in June 1992. The Assembly was a delicate balance between representatives of the PUK, led by Jalal Talabani, and Massoud Barzani’s KDP, but the power-sharing did not last: a bitter civil war broke out between the two parties in 1994 and continued intermittently until the signing of the Washington Agreement in 1998. Thousands died during the fighting. The archive contains numerous documents relating to this civil war, including correspondence from Jalal Talabani, internal PUK communications, PUK press releases, presscuttings and commentaries, as well as parliamentary papers recording the positions and activities of PUK members within the National Assembly.

The 1998 peace agreement led to greater collaboration between the PUK and KDP, with both parties supporting the coalition forces that invaded Iraq again during the 2003 Gulf War. Following the permanent collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003, a new Kurdish Regional Government was established in 2005, with Massoud Barzani elected its president while Jalal Talabani was elected President of Iraq, a position he held until 2014. Omar Sheikhmous acted as personal adviser to Talabani from 2007 to 2012 and the archive contains many papers relating to the autonomous government, including tourism pamphlets encouraging international visitors to return to Kurdistan.

The history of the PUK and the other Kurdish political groups is a complex one, of ever-shifting alliances and rivalries, schisms and reunions. The archive contains material relating to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), founded by Abdullah Öcalan in the Kurdish village of Fis – about 50 miles from the city of Diyarbakır in Turkey – in 1978. Their violent guerilla activities did not appeal to all the Kurdish groups in Turkey, and in June 1988 eight non-PKK groups came together to form TEVGER ( from Tevgera Rizgariya Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Liberation Movement).  The archive has the text of an address to Tevger in Florence in 1992, that seems to have been given by Sheikhmous himself (EUL MS 403/1/7). In 2009 PUK co-founder Nawshirwan Mustafa founded a breakaway party, known as Gorran (In Kurdish بزووتنەوەی گۆڕان or Movement for Change). The archive contains many letters written by Nawshirwan Mustafa to Sheikhmous, Jalal Talabani, Kemel Fuad, Ahmad Bamerni and PUK military commanders during the 1970s and 1980s, providing some fascinating insights into the evolution of Mustafa’s political views.

In the next in this series of blogposts, we will look at the significance of the Sheikhmous archive within the wider context of contemporary Kurdish studies.

 

 

 

 

Exploring the Omar Sheikhmous Archive, Part 1: The KDP 1945-1975

Between 2007 and 2011 Omar Sheikhmous (born in Syria in 1942) generously donated a large collection of personal papers, books and periodicals to the University of Exeter that reflect and record a lifetime’s involvement in Kurdish political and academic activities. A prolific author, lecturer, conference-organiser and broadcaster, Sheikhmous has made an enormous contribution to Kurdish studies over the last four decades, but he has also been closely involved with political activism in his native Kurdistan. His archive offers a uniquely-detailed insiders’ perspective on the formation and activities of major Kurdish political bodies in Iraq, Syria and Iran – including the PUK, KDP, KDPI and Iraqi Communist Party – as well as numerous smaller groups, students’ organisations and exile associations. It also includes rare documents and personal correspondence with the likes of Jalal Talabani, Kemal Fuad, Fuad Masoum and other leading political and cultural figures. In the first of a series of blogposts, we will be looking at some highlights from the archive and exploring what they can teach us about the history of the Kurdish people.

Part 1: The Kurdistan Democratic Party from 1945 to 1975

In 1975 Omar Sheikhmous was a founding member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has often had bitterly hostile relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), especially during the civil war of the mid-1990s. However, the archive contains numerous documents relating to the KDP’s early history, many of them rare and valuable in the insights they provide into the development of the Kurdish movement.

Material relating to the history of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (EUL MS 403/3/2/2)

Origins: the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad and the KDP in Iran

The Komalay Jiyanaway Kurdistan [Society for the Revival of Kurdistan], known as the ‘Komala J.K.’ for short, was founded in Mahabad in 1942 and quickly became the focus for the Kurdish nationalist movement, publishing a journal Niştiman [‘Motherland‘] and devising what became the Kurdish national flag – red, white and green. In 1945 Komala J.K. was disbanded to make way for a new political party that could operate in the open and replaced with The Kurdistan Democratic Party. Emboldened by the setting up of the autonomous Azerbaijan People’s Government in northern Iran, as well as the arrival of a large group of around 1,000 armed Iraqi Kurds and their families, headed by Mustafa Barzani, an independent republic was declared in January 1946, with Qāżi Moḥammed as its president and a parliament of thirteen ministers.declared Mahabad an independent Kurdish People’s Government.

For a short while the little republic flourished. Moḥammed wanted Mahabad to become the centre of a new revival of Kurdish culture, and a newspaper and political monthly – both called Kurdistan – were published in the town, as well as two literary journals, Havar and Hilal. Textbooks were also printed in the Kurdish language, which was used to teach children in the classrooms.

Throughout this time the republic had relied upon support from Soviet Russia, and when this was withdrawn in the autumn of 1946 as part of an agreement with the government in Tehran, the end came swiftly. Barzani and his tribesmen left and Iranian forces swept into Mahabad in December. Qāżi Moḥammed was arrested and hanged with his brothers Seif and Sadr at dawn on 31 March 1947.

We have a number of interesting items relating to Mahabad in the Sheikhmous archive, including copies of some of the Kurdish periodicals and newspapers that were published during the Republic. These include the first three issues of the Persian-language periodical Gir wa Gali Mindalani Kurd (1946), an issue of the periodical Niştiman (1945) and five issues from 1946 of  the newspaper Kurdistan , which like Niştiman was written in Sorani Kurdish. There are also some later materials, such as an undated French leaflet commemorating the Republic that includes a rather gruesome photograph of the execution of Qāżi Moḥammed and his co-leaders. A letter to Omar Sheikhmous from Qāżi Moḥammed’s only son Ali, written in 1991, is also in the archive.

 

Copies of the newspaper ‘Kurdistan’, printed and published by the KDPI in Mahabad in 1946. EUL MS 403/3/2/1

The KDP in Iraq

Although the tragic end of the Republic effectively crushed the KDP in Iran, Barzani had managed to establish the party across the border in Iraq, where the new KDP of Iraq held its first congress in Baghdad on 16 August 1946. Following the fall of Mahabad, Barzani fled to the USSR and did not return until 1958: his place was taken by Ibrahim Ahmad, who had been the head of the Suleymania branch of Komala JK. A talented writer and political leader, Ahmad became chairman of the KDP in Iraq at the second party congress in 1951. He would later become the father of Jalal Talabani, co-founder of the PUK, future Prime Minister of Iraq and a close friend of Omar Sheikhmous: as a consequence of which we have a great deal of correspondence and other documents written by Talabani in the archive.

Over the next ten to fifteen years, the KDP continued to grow in Iraq, often working closely with the Iraqi Communist Party. On 14 July 1958 General Abd al-Karim Qasim led a coup in Iraq that toppled the Hashemite monarchy which had ruled the country since 1920. This was done with the support of the KDP, and under the new regime Barzani was able to return from exile. There was, however, tension between him and Ibrahim Ahmad, whose socialist leanings were not to Barzani’s likings. Good relations with the Iraqi government did not last either, as Qasim broke his promise of granting Kurdish autonomy and instead stirred up trouble among the Kurdish tribes. On 11 September 1961 Barzani led the Kurds in taking up arms against the Iraqi forces, beginning a war that would last until 1975. During this time Qasim was deposed and killed by another coup led by the Ba’ath party; further infighting and coups followed until the Ba’athists consolidated their power in 1968.

A handwritten open letter from the KDP (15 July 1964) – EUL MS 403/3/2/1

We have a number of documents from this period, including a cyclostyled handwritten proclamation to the Kurdish people by the KDP (12 May 1962), a six-page handwritten open letter from the KDP (15 July 1964 – illustrated above) and a KDP press release signed by Mustafa Barzani (10 February 1965).

The KDP and the Ba’ath Party, 1968-75

The Ba’ath Party never had any real desire to promote Kurdish autonomy, but the manifesto drawn up in March 1970 – negotiated with Saddam Hussein – seemed to meet most of Barzani’s demands, recognising Kurdish as an official language and inviting members of the KDP to join a government taskforce for implementing the manifesto. Suspicion remained on both sides however, there was several assassination attempts on Barzani that were likely backed by the Iraqi government, and neither party could agree over the status of Kirkuk. In the background too, Barzani had moved away from Soviet Russia to align his party with the US and Iran, while Baghdad and Moscow had grown closer. In March 1974 Saddam Hussein imposed a revised version of the autonomy manifesto and gave Barzani two weeks to respond. His rejection of the offer launched a full-scale conflict between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi forces, but sadly Barzani would realise too late that the support offered by the Shah and the American authorities was a means to an end rather than a loyal commitment.

Poster by unknown artist commemorating the execution of KDP member Layla Qasim, who was hanged in Baghdad in April 1974. EUL MS 403/7/7

Not for the first time, the Kurds would find themselves exploited by the west and then abandoned in their time of need. The US support failed to materialise, and in March 1975 the Iraqi government persuaded Iran to withdraw their support of the Kurds in exchange for access to the vital Shatt al-Arab waterway connecting the Iranian port of Abadan to the Persian Gulf. The Kurdish uprising collapsed overnight and Barzani, with around 100,000 of his followers, crossed the border to take refuge in Iran. He died four years later.

This was a confusing and complicated period of Kurdish history and one of the great strengths of the Sheikhmous archive is the number of original documents that provide insights into what the different parties were doing and saying at this time, both in private and in public. In addition to correspondence between KDP members, there are press releases, KDP newspapers and publications, open letters to the Iraqi public and communications to the Kurdish community in exile.

In the next blogpost in the series, we will look at the founding of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in June 1975 and the role played by Omar Sheikhmous in the party’s development and activities….

Iran in the Archives

Iran – known as Persia until the middle of the 20th century – is the second largest country in the Middle East, after Saudi Arabia, and is also home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations, possessing an unbroken history that stretches back over six thousands year. In addition to the ancient ruins of Persepolis – one of nineteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country – it is home to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, the Sheikh Safi mausoleum in Ardabil, the architectural wonders of Isfahan and the Golestan Palace, as well as the natural beauties of Mount Tamarvand – the highest peak in the Middle East – the forest and waterfalls of Gilan, and the magnificent rolling green plains of Torkaman Sahra. Much of the country comprises mountains and desert, which has hindered both invasion from the outside and expansion from within.

Detail from a 16th century Persian manuscript, from illustrations compiled by Major William Nassau Weech for his ‘History of Persia’ (EUL MS 233)

Iran is bordered by the Caspian Sea to the north, with the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south; Turkey and Iraq lie to to the west, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia bound its north, while its neighbours to the east are Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran’s strategic location, as well as its oil resources, have long attracted the interest of both eastern and western powers, and understanding the country’s history is crucial to anyone seeking to grapple with the complexities of Gulf politics, relations between the Middle East, Asia and Europe, and the continuing role played by Islam in the cultural and political development of the region. With tensions between Iran and the USA escalating sharply over the last few days, this is an opportune moment to delve into the materials held in our Middle East archives and Special Collections to see what insights they can offer.

Although there are some offprints and journals within the papers of John Craven Wilkinson (EUL MS 119) relating to the early archaeological and ancient history of the country, most of the archival material held in Exeter University’s Middle East collections dates from the last two centuries – so it is perhaps worth having a quick recap of the modern history of Persia. The Safavid and Zand dynasties that had ruled over Persia since the beginning of the 16th century ended in civil war after the death of Karim Khan in 1779, to be followed by the Qajar dynasty that lasted until 1925.  This period was characterised by growing rivalry in the region between Britain in the south – due to Persia’s boundaries with British India (modern Afghanistan and Pakistan)  – and Russia in the north. The Tsar’s attempts to expand into the Caucasus region resulted in mass migration of many Muslims into Turkey and Persia, as well as  two wars between with Russia and Persia in the early 19th century. These events are vividly described in Laurence Kelly’s excellent book, Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran: Alexander Griboyedov and Imperial Russia’s Mission to the Shah of Persia (Tauris, 2002). In the archive, a great deal of interesting material relating to this period can be found among the research papers of Peter Morris (EUL MS 285), a lecturer at Exeter University who had a special interest in Persian history.

A small selection of material from the Iranian research papers of Peter Morris (EUL MS 285)

Although much of the material is secondary, it includes copies of records from Russian archives and policy documents from the India Office, handwritten and typed notes on ethnic traditions, Persian culture, social attitudes and customs, copies of 18th century correspondence and 19th century typed descriptions of personalities in Persia, financial and agricultural statistics, information relating to the army, trade and administration, postcards of Persian paintings, presscuttings from the 19th and 20th century, as well as guidebooks, maps and personal notebooks. These papers would make an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to undertake research into the history of Iran.

The Twentieth Century: reform and revolution

Iran was ruled at the beginning of the twentieth century by Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, who had succeeded his father in 1896 and would reign until his death in 1907. He was ill-suited for office, however, and one of his most poorly-judged decisions was to sign away his country’s oil rights in 1901 to William Knox D’Arcy, who subsequently became director of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) – later British Petroleum (BP) –  and would make a fortune from Iran’s precious natural resources: a cause for resentment by Iranians for most of the century. The Shah’s power was curtailed by the creation of a majles (parliamentary assembly) and democratic constitution, and he died 40 days after this was signed. Concerned over the possible instability of these liberal changes, Russia and Britain signed the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, or Convention between the United Kingdom and Russia relating to Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet, recognising their respective spheres of influence in the north and south of Persia and promising not to interfere either with each other or with Persian sovereignty. This would of course fall apart after the Bolshevik Revolution, and there are various papers on this topic in EUL MS 285/2.

Published works in our rare book collection provide evidence of Britain’s long history of involvement in Iran – in military, missionary, political and mercantile spheres – not only in their printed narratives but also in the material history of the books themselves

Material relating to the oil industry in Iran can be found among the papers of John Wilkinson (EUL MS 119/2/3/13) as well as Charles Belgrave (EUL MS 148/1/17 and elsewhere). The Shah’s son and successor tried to oppose the constitution and was forced into exile in 1909, to be succeeded by his young son Ahmad Shah, who proved weak and ineffective in dealing with civil unrest and the intrusions of Britain and Russia. He lost his throne in a coup d’etat in 1921, to be replaced by Reza Pahlavi, Commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade, who held the posts of Minister of War (1921-25) and Prime Minister (1923-25) before taking the imperial oath as the first shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. It was Reza Shah who insisted in 1935 that foreign countries used the name ‘Iran’ rather ‘Persia’, although his son would later allow the two to be used interchangeably.

Folder containing a typescript and illustrations for a history of Persia by Major William Nassau Weech (1878-1961), written in 1936 and published as part of his ‘History of the World’ (1944) EUL MS 233

Although Iran underwent far-reaching programme of modernisation under Reza Shah, he was unpopular with many Iranians due to his authoritarian rule and reliance on the military to crush dissent. Inspired by Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in Turkey, he ordered the wearing of modern dress, banned the hijab and established a highly centralised secular administration that broke the hold of Islamic clergy on the educational and legal system. This led to growing opposition from traditional Islamists, clergy, tribal groups, marginalised ethnic minorities such as the Kurds, as well as the younger generation of middle-class intelligentsia who resented his crushing of free speech as well as his association with British imperialism. During the 1930s, however, the Shah developed close relations with Germany, who provided technical and engineering support for the construction of railways, industrial plants and other infrastructure projects. Although Iran remained neutral at the outbreak of WWII, the Allies regarded the Shah with suspicion due to his pro-German policies and refusal to expel the large number of Germans – many of whom were Nazi supporters – living in Iran. An Anglo-Soviet invasion in 1941 brought about the forced abdication of the Shah and his replacement by his son, Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In keeping with past convention, the Russians occupied the north of the country and the British and Americans the south.

The Kurds in Iran

The weakening of the Shah’s power during the period of Allied occupation meant an end to the restrictions on political opposition, including the activities of Iranian Kurds who had long engaged in struggles against the centralised authorities in Tehran. In September 1942, in the town of Mahabad in northwest Iran, Kurdish nationalists formed the Komala-ye Žīān-e Kordestān  (Committee of the Life of Kurdistan), whose influence gradually spread throughout the town and surrounding villages, severing all administrative links with the Iranian government in Tehran. They were joined in 1944 by a well-respected local judge Qazi Mohammad, who soon took control of the group. Their aims included autonomy for Iranian and the right to use the Kurdish language in education and administration – and to this end they set up the first Kurdish theatre in Iran, as well as publishing newspapers and periodicals in Kurdish. On 22 January 1946 an independent Kurdish Republic was declared in Mahabad, with its own manifesto, army, girl’s school and a territory that included the nearby Kurdish-speaking towns of  Bukan, Piranshahr, Sardasht, Naqadeh and Oshnoviyeh. We have some interesting material relating to Mahabad in the Omar Sheikhmous collection (EUL MS 403), including copies of the periodicals Gir wa Gali Mindalani (Vols.1, Nos. 1-3) and Niştiman (Vol.1, Nos.7-9) and five issues of the newspaper Kurdistan from 1946, which was published by Qazi Mohammad’s Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (Hîzbî Dêmukratî Kurdistanî Êran). The latter two titles are in Sorani Kurdish. The Republic received the promise of military and financial backing from Soviet forces, as well as armed support from Iraqi Kurdish leader  Mostafa Barzani (1903-79), who brought with him several thousands Kurdish fighters and their families from over the border.

Some of the large number of documents – in Persian, Kurdish, English, Swedish, German and French – in the Omar Sheikhmous archive (EUL MS 403) documenting the history and political struggles of the Kurds of Iran

Mohammad had, unfortunately, overestimated the support of the Russians as much as he had underestimated the wiliness of the Iranian prime minister Ahmad Qavam, who played the various parties off against one another, and offered the Soviet authorities generous oil concessions in exchange for the withdrawal of their forces from Iran. In December 1946 the Iranian army entered Mahabad, ending the short-lived Kurdish republic. Despite the peaceful reconquest of the town, the leaders were shown no mercy: on 23 March 1947, Qazi Mohammad, his brother Sadr Qazi and cousin Sayf Qadr were hanged in the town centre. An undated French leaflet among the Sheikhmous papers is illustrated with a photograph of their execution.

The Latter Years of the Shah’s Reign

One of the most significant crises in Iran during the Cold War occurred in 1952 when Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq – a senior figure in the Communist Tudeh party – sought to nationalize the British-owned oil industry and return its revenues to Iran. This resulted in an economic blockade, an attempted coup, the temporary exile of the Shah, and a complex power struggle between Mosaddeq, the Shah, the military, Islamic clergy and crowds of rival demonstrators who were paid by the American government to instigate trouble on the streets. Mosaddeq was eventually removed in a CIA and MI6 backed coup in 1953, the Iranian oil industry was restored to British ownership, and from then on the Shah pursued a liberal, pro-western policy – branded the ‘White Revolution’ in 1963 – that was nonetheless autocratic, authoritarian and deeply corrupt, relying on rigged referendums and the brutal methods of the SAVAK security forces. It was, however, the Shah’s hostility to Islam that particularly drew the criticism of an outspoken Muslim cleric, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was based in the holy city of Qom. Born in 1902, the charismatic and scholarly Khomeini was widely revered, and rather than risk a backlash by having him executed, the Shah had the 62-year old cleric arrested and deported in 1964. He would spend the next fifteen years in exile in Turkey, Iraq and France.

The Shah’s unpopularity continued to grow during the 1970s, partly due to the way in which the oil boom of that decade seemed to the Iranian people to made the Pahlavi family and their friends immensely rich while leaving much of the country in poverty. British interests in the Gulf region underwent a major change with the withdrawal of British forces from the Gulf in 1971, and Sir William Luce met the Shah several times during the period of his shuttle diplomacy between 1970 and 1971.  (Records of their conversations can be found amongst Luce’s papers, e.g. EUL MS 146/1/3/1, 1/3/7 and 1/3/8.) The Shah also met with Glencairn Balfour-Paul, who was based in Bahrain during the late 1960s as deputy political resident of the Persian Gulf, followed by another post as British ambassador to Iraq (1969-72) – there is an informal photograph of the Shah and his wife amongst Balfour-Paul’s papers (EUL MS 370/6/34.)

On the domestic front, however, the Shah proved unable to control the waves of protest that shook the country during the late 1970s, and eventually fled Iran in January 1979. The papers of Sir John and Lady Richmond contain a file of presscuttings  covering these events (EUL MS 115/19/13). The British, seeing the direction in which events were heading, had already dropped their support for the Shah and took the further step of refusing him asylum. He died in Egypt the following year.

Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran to a tumultuous welcome on 1 February 1979. One of the Shah’s final acts had been to appoint Shapour Bakhtiar as Prime Minister. Khomeini refused to recognise his authority, and after ten days of chaos and fighting Bakhtiar’s weak and isolated administration collapsed, to be replaced by Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran. Over the next ten years – until his death on 3 June 1989 – Khomeini served as Supreme Leader of Iran, a decade that saw the revolution consolidated into an Islamic theocracy as well as a long and bloody war with Iraq.

Detail of a mural in Tehran showing the Ayatollah Khomeini during the war with Iraq. From the papers of Jonathan Crusoe (EUL MS 143)

This was chronicled in detail by Jonathan Crusoe, and among his papers are several folders on the ‘First Gulf War’ (1980-88) between Iran and Iraq as well as other files relating to relations between the two countries (EUL MS 43/10/2/1-6). Iran’s seizure of the Tunb Islands in the Straits of Hormuz is discussed in several articles in the Baghdad Observer, which would make an interesting comparison with Sir William Luce’s accounts of the same event amongst his papers.

Some of the presscuttings and other documents assembled by Jonathan Crusoe on the subject of the First Gulf War between Iran and Iraq (1980-88), many of which offer insights into how Iran’s history, culture and political intentions were perceived by Iraqi

Various scholarly assessments of Khomeini’s rule and the Islamic revolution in Iran can be found among the academic papers of Nazih Ayubi (e.g. EUL MS 129/1/1/9, 129/1/2/5, 129/2/1, 3 and 30.) It should also be noted that there is an audio recording of a conference on Iran held in the El-Awaisi collection (EUL MS 284). Following Khomeini’s death in 1989, Ali Khamenei was appointed the next Supreme Leader and – thirty years on – remains in post. Although the Supreme Leader possesses ultimate religious and political authority in Iran and is responsible for appointing the Prime Minister and all other military and judicial leaders, it has been claimed that he functions as more of a figurehead for other powerful forces within the conservative establishment. There is no denying the significant differences between Khamanei and his predecessor in terms of religious education, cultural tastes and popular standing, and he remains a divisive figure for many in Iran, which has seen widespread anti-government demonstrations over the last two or three years.

The relationship between the Supreme Leader and the government is however, a complex one, as would be expected in a theocratic state. The power structure in Iran includes an array of different elements that includes the Supreme Leader, the President, Parliament and Judiciary, the Council of Guardians – who monitor parliamentary decisions for compatibility with Islamic law, the Assembly of Experts – who elect the Supreme Leader – the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was founded by Khomeini in 1979 to safeguard the principles of the revolution, and is fiercely independent from the regular army.

Those who wish to understand Iran today will need to spend a substantial amount of time working out the dynamics between these different centres of power, studying the personalities and abilities of the key figures, and learning how they operate both within Iran and as part of the wider political, religious and cultural context of the Gulf region – including its involvement in the affairs of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere. Perhaps more than most other countries in the Middle East, commentary on Iran has suffered badly from a vast chasm between how outsiders view the country and how it is seen from within. Anyone seeking to bridge this chasm must begin by acquiring a solid grasp not only of Persia’s long history but also of the diverse and conflicting movements that are currently helping to shape contemporary Iran. The archival materials held in Special Collections provide unique insights into this subject, and can of course be complemented by drawing on the rich resources held alongside in AWDU (the Arabic World Documentation Unit), which include a wealth of ephemera, economic reports, statistical records, leaflets and presscuttings, Iran in the Persian Gulf 1820-1966 (Slough: Archive Editions, 2000) – a six-volume collection of facsimile government papers  – plus official material relating to the oil industry, trade and banking.

For any questions, please contact the Middle East Archivist.

A few of the titles in the rare book section of Special Collections relating to the history of Iran and its neighbours. Many of these are illustrated with photographs and engravings, as well as maps, from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

The El-Awaisi archive (EUL MS 284) and the Muslim Brotherhood

Those familiar with the Muslim Brotherhood will likely associate the organisation with Egypt, the place of its origin and the centre of its activities for much of its 90-years of existence. Founded by Hasan al-Banna in Ismailia in NE Egypt in 1928 – in part as a response to the dissolution of the Islamic Caliphate in 1924 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – the Muslim Brotherhood was one of many small Islamic groups dissatisfied with the secular character of Egyptian society and the continuing occupation by British forces under the liberal monarchy of King Fuad I. By the late 1930s, however, it had over half a million members in Egypt alone and over the following decades would gradually become a powerful force of influence across the Arab world – despite a series of government prohibitions and crackdowns that saw thousands of its members imprisoned or executed.

A transnational movement rather than a political party, the Muslim Brotherhood was never in a position of power until the 2011 uprising that followed the ‘Arab Spring’. The thirty-year Presidency of Hosni Mubarak has been analysed in detail by Nazih Ayubi and many papers in the Ayubi archive offer insights into Egyptian life, society and economy during this period, but human rights abuses and corruption under Mubarak were the focus of the political demonstrations that took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the spring of 2011, leading to Mubarak’s resignation and the first ever democratic election in Egypt’s history. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. A year later, he was deposed in a coup led by General Sisi – who became the new president – and Morsi was imprisoned in jail in Cairo, where he died in June 2019.

The role played by the Muslim Brotherhood in Morsi’s rise and fall is a topic that will continue to be debated for many years, and it will be interesting to see what insights Victor Willi forthcoming book The Fourth Ordeal: A History of the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, 1968-2018 (Cambridge University Press) has to offer. The Muslim Brotherhood’s activities outside of Egypt have perhaps received less scrutiny, which is what makes Abd al-Fattah M. El-Awaisi’s study, The Muslim Brothers and the Palestine Question 1928-1947 (London: Tauris, 1998) so fascinating.

Some items from the El-Awaisi archive

El-Awaisi was born in Palestine, in the Gaza Strip, and after studying at Kuwait University came to Exeter to pursue a Ph.D under the supervision of Michael Adams. His thesis, entitled The Muslim Brothers and the Palestine Question, 1936-1947, was successfully submitted in January 1986, after which he took up an academic post at the University of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied territory of Palestine. He was head of the history department when he was deported by the Israelis in 1992, a traumatic experience that caused him a great deal of suffering and ill-health in addition to separating him from his family. Professor El-Awaisi was later reunited with his wife and children, and held academic posts in Malaysia and Turkey. In 2001 he became the first Principal of the Al-Maktoum Institute in Dundee, where he co-wrote Time for Change: Report on the Future of the Study of Islam and Muslims in Universities and Colleges in Multicultural Britain (2006) with Professor Malory Nye, who succeded him as Principal in 2008. In recent years he was been committed to a new interdisciplinary field designated ‘Islamicjerusalem [sic] Studies’, which aims at exploring an Islamic understanding of the Holy Land through theology, history, geography, architecture and archaeology.

El-Awaisi’s recent work is, arguably, rooted in the research undertaken forty years earlier for his PhD thesis, which examined in detail the Muslim Brotherhood’s belief that Palestine occupied a position of unique significance within Islam, and the ways in which their engagement with this issue played out through three successive phases: that of propaganda, military preparations and armed conflict.

Tapes of Abu Zant with one of El-Awaisi’s index cards

Under Hasan al-Banna, the Brothers began with the fundamental concept of Islamic umma [أمة] which emphasises that all Muslims belong to a ‘spiritual nation’ which transcends geographic boundaries and racial distinction. At first, they adopted a principled and respectful stance towards non-Muslims, both Christians and Jews, as People of the Book, but this changed in response to the Zionist movement and its demands upon Palestine. Believing that Palestine occupied a special place within the Islamic umma and that all Muslims had a sacred duty to defend the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the Muslim Brotherhood took an increasingly hostile stance towards Judaism, including the distribution of ugly anti-Semitic material. The Brothers’ commitment to fighting in Palestine was based on a fusion of the concepts of umma and jihad [جهاد‎ ], so that the defence of Palestine was seen both as a nationalist and a religious cause. At this time however, British policy was aimed at keeping Egypt isolated from the Arab world, with the consequence that Egyptian politicians were much more concerned with domestic issues and showed little interest in Palestine. Even as late as 1931, there was little support in Egypt for Pan-Muslim movements, which is why the Muslim Brotherhood had to devote so much energy to propaganda in its early years.

As El-Awaisi’s thesis reveals, one of Hasan al-Banna’s first actions (in 1927) was to send a message of support to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni – who was, incidentally, a good friend of Ernest Richmond. The Brotherhood’s first activity outside Egypt was in Palestine in 1935, when a delegation of Brothers travelled to Jerusalem to visit al-Husayni before meeting others sympathetic to their aims in Damascus. After returning, their offices in Cairo became a centre for the Palestinian resistance movement, and over the next decade they would take an increasingly active role in military operations within Palestine.

EUL MS 284

El-Awaisi’s account of this history was based on a wide range of Arabic sources from Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, both published and unpublished, as well as records from the Foreign Office. During the 1980s he also travelled to Geneva, Cairo and Palestine to conduct interviews with twelve former members of the Brotherhood, contemporaries of Hasan al-Banna who had been involved in the Palestinian resistance. These interviews were recorded and now form part of the El-Awaisi archive of almost 230 cassette tapes. In addition to the interviews, there are recordings of Islamic and Palestinian songs, a conference on Iran held by the Muslim Institute in London, lectures by Shaykh Fu’ad al-Rifai and Shaykh Ahmad al-Qattan, sermons by Palestinian cleric and militant Abu Anas on ‘Jarimat al-Watan al-Badil’ [‘The Crime of the Alternative Homeland proposal’], and over fifty tapes of the radical Jordanian MP and Muslim Brother Shaykh Abd al-Munim Abu Zant. The value of this audio archive extends far beyond the parameters of El-Awaisi’s PhD research, and will be of relevance for anyone researching the wider history of radical Islam. In addition to a card listing of the tapes’ contents, there are five boxes of index cards – written chiefly in Arabic – providing a subject index to El-Awaisi’s research materials, including book and periodical references. The tapes are in the process of being digitised, although this is a time-consuming practice that will take several months.

The aims, strategies and activities of the Muslim Brotherhood remain a highly contentious issue. Despite long-standing support from Qatar and Turkey, the Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organisation by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, and during 2019 Donald Trump called for the USA to do likewise. Although it officially renounced violence in the 1970s, the Brotherhood’s theocratic ideology can be seen to underpin the agendas of militant groups such as Hamas, al-Qa’eda and ISIS – even if the relationship between these groups ranges from, at best, informal collaboration to outright mutual condemnation – with the writings of Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) playing a significant role in the development of Islamic fundamentalism. Even if the fullness of their commitment to democracy is debatable, the Brotherhood’s emphasis on social transformation, electoral participation and charitable work for the sick and the poor indicates that they may have much to offer as a nonviolent alternative to more extreme forms of Islamism.

Using archival sources is a valuable step towards engaging with a complex and challenging debate such as this, as it encourages the enquiry to go beyond general abstractions (such as ‘The Clash of Civilisation’ trope) and examine primary sources that record the actual words, written and spoken, of individuals at a specific time and place. This is particularly important for anyone studying the Muslim Brotherhood and its various affiliate networks, which have often evolved in different ways according to regional and local contexts, and the political realities of the moment. In addition to the El-Awaisi archive – which has been catalogued here – there are sub-sections of the Ayubi papers dealing specifically with political Islam, Egypt and militant Islamic movements in the Middle East (EUL MS 129/1/2 and EUL MS 129/1/3, see records here) and also a small folder of manuscript notes in the Richmond papers on the 1966 trial in Egypt of Sayyid Qutb and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood (EUL MS 115/41/1, see here.)

Where oil and water mix: the Omani papers of John Craven Wilkinson (EUL MS 119)

Although the archives of John Shebbeare and John Craven Wilkinson (1934-) both relate to Oman, they are very different in both size and scope. Wilkinson is arguably the foremost Western scholar to have worked on the history of Oman, a field of study that he has dominated for the last half century. As his collection of papers is substantially a record of this distinguished career, it will be helpful to offer a summary of Wilkinson’s life and work.

Born in 1934, he was educated at Harrow before going up to Oxford where he matriculated at St Edmund’s Hall in 1955. While still a student, he led a university expedition to NE Kurdistan in 1956 that involved climbing Halguard – the highest mountain in Iraq – and a walk of some 600 miles through the mountainous regions to the north east of Rowanduz as far as the borders with Turkey and Iran. Papers relating to this expedition include correspondence with Cecil J. Edmonds (1889-1979), a former political officer in Kurdistan who was an expert authority on the area and was then Lecturer in Kurdish at SOAS. (EUL MS 119/1/1/1 and 119/3/1).

Correspondence and papers by C.J. Edmonds relating to Wilkinson’s 1956 expedition to Kurdistan

In his published account [‘Oxford university expedition to Iraqi Kurdistan, 1956’, Journal of The Royal Central Asian Society Vol.45:1 (1958) pp.58-64] Wilkinson paid tribute to the assistance provided by the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), who supplied a guide and a landrover as well as other forms of support, and after graduating from Oxford in 1957 he went to work in the oil industry. The Sultan of Muscat and Oman had granted a 75-year concession to the IPC, who set up an associate company called Petroleum Development (Oman) to run the oil operations in the Sultanate. Wilkinson was appointed first to Qatar in 1958, moving to Abu Dhabi the following year and then on to Trucial Oman before he transferred to work for Shell in 1962. After working in Laos and other locations, he returned to Oman in 1965. Many of his papers, including correspondence and reports, relate to his work for PDO during this time. (See for example EUL MS 119/2/3/1-4 and correspondence files.)

Oman and the Oil Industry

Petroleum Development Oman brochure, EUL MS 119/2/3/4

During the 1950s and 1960s Wilkinson witnessed first-hand how the politics of oil clashed with the Imamate society that inhabited central Oman – a topic that, in its various ramifications, would remain at the centre of much of his scholarly work over the next few decades. However, in order to understand this fully, it is necessary to explain a little more about Oman itself.

A water channel in Oman, part of the falaj irrigation system, from an official Omani bulletin EUL MS 119/2/2/4

Oman is essentially an island, bordered on two side by the waters of the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and on the others by the vast sands of the the Rub’ al Khali desert or ‘Empty Quarter’ that separates Oman from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE. Furthermore, the country was roughly divided into two separate parts – the outward-looking, secular, seafaring society along the coast which was governed from Muscat, and the closed, more-or-less self-sufficient tribal communities who inhabited the interior region or ‘Oman proper’, who were led by a an elected Imam who followed the tenets of the Ibadi sect of Islam. (This dual nature was reflected by the country being referred to as Sultanate of Muscat and Oman from 1820 until 1970, when the coup (referred to here) simplified the name to just ‘Oman.’) The tribal organisation of the interior was based around the doctrines of Ibadism and the pattern of village settlements that were founded upon the falaj irrigation system, a complex system of channels that distributed water to owners who paid for specific units of time rather than volume of water. In order to penetrate the interior – where the Sultan’s authority was not recognised – the oil companies needed to deal with the Omani tribal leaders, over whom Saudi Arabia claimed a degree of sovereignty. Events in Oman during the mid-20th century are a complex web of rivalries between the British-influenced Sultan and the Saudi-influenced Imam, between the ambition of American oil companies and British diplomatic strategists and between the religious character of the Imamate tribes and the commercial secularism of the maritime coast, much of it muddied by disputes over boundaries that had been drawn up by British diplomats seeking to consolidate their influence in the Gulf region, but which did not correspond with the topographical and cultural realities of the region.

Understanding these complexities was essential for those working in the oil industry, and Wilkinson applied himself carefully to gathering as much information as he could on the region, its history, people and topography, climate, flora and fauna, Arabic etymology, religion and politics. In 1965 he left Shell and returned to Oxford to work on a doctorate under the supervision of Albert Hourani and Freddy Beeston, whose letters are in the archive. The result was a Ph.D thesis with the title Arab settlement in Oman: the origins and development of the tribal pattern and its relationship to the Imamate (1969), a copy of which is held in AWDU.

Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company report EUL MS 119/2/3/5

From 1969 until his retirement in 1997, Wilkinson taught at Oxford University, holding the posts of Lecturer and Reader, as well as Fellow of St Hugh’s College. During this time he consolidated his reputation as an expert on Oman and the Gulf, publishing a stream of important monographs and journal articles on a range of inter-related topics. Many of the papers in the archive formed part of the research materials he gathered for these publications, and include early drafts, conference papers and correspondence with other leading scholars such as Albert Hourani, Bob Serjeant, Freddy Beeston, Dale Eickelman, Calvin Allen, A.K.S. Lambton, Elizabeth Monroe, Ralph Daly and Daniel Varisco. (See for example EUL MS 119/3/14-20).

In order to understand better the nature of this scholarship, a brief overview of some of Wilkinson’s most significant publications may be helpful.

J.C. Wilkinson’s Published Work

Water and Tribal Settlement in South-East Arabia. A study of the Aflāj of Oman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977)

Wilkinson’s first major monograph was a remarkable, ground-breaking study of the relationships between water, land, community and religion in Oman. Beginning with an account of the arid climate and topography of the country, Wilkinson proceeds to show the vital importance of the irrigation system known as falaj, how this developed from the earlier Persian qānat system, and how this changed following the arrival of Islam as the tribal society developed under the influence of the Ibadi sect. It is a complex book in which Wilkinson applied his skills as a geographer, historian, linguist and Islamic scholar, and is all the more impressive considering most of his materials were drawn from primary sources and fieldwork. One of his most valuable sources – discussed in detail in Chapter X – was the Malki falaj book, a 19th century manuscript recording patterns of water ownership around the cultivated land around Izki, a village in central Oman.

A page from the Falaj Malki manuscript (EUL MS 119/4/1 ) with details of water rights near Izki in the 19th century

The Falaj Al-Malki is divided into seventeen channels that extend over nine miles, distributing to the villages of Al Nazar and Al Yemen and other agricultural areas around Izki. The manuscript has been digitised and can be viewed here.

The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

In his introduction to the book, Wilkinson reveals that he intended to write a dramatic account of the rivalry between oil companies caught up in the region’s political struggles, along the lines of Hammond Innes’ novel The Doomed Oasis (1960) – and it is interesting to note that the diaries of Charles Belgrave record Innes’ visit to Bahrain in 1954 to gather background material for his story. As work progressed, however, Wilkinson’s introductory material on the Imamate gradually came to dominate the book and the chapters on the oil industry were pushed to the very end. The Imamate Tradition of Oman covers well over a thousand years of Omani history, exploring the relationship between the Imamate and the tribal system of the interior in terms of a cyclical power dynamic and the tension between centralised authority necessary for statehood and the decentralised nature of the tribal communities, as well as the disastrous consequences of the involvement of foreign powers i.e. Britain. With regard to the latter, Wilkinson’s account of the demise of the Imamate during the 1950s is severe in its criticism of Sultan Said bin Taimur’s rule.

Arabia’s Frontiers. The Story of Britain’s Boundary Drawing in the Desert (London: I.B. Tauris, 1991)

In both the works above Wilkinson discussed Britain’s role in Omani affairs, with reference more widely to efforts by the British government to negotiate boundaries around the Persian Gulf and in Southern Arabia that would protect its sphere of influence. This was a flawed strategy, made worse by the lack of any valid legal framework to support it, that helped give rise to many of the wars and boundary disputes in the region during the 20th century. (Wilkinson’s book was published just after the Second Gulf War, in which Saddam Hussein had justified his invasion of Kuwait on the grounds that it had belonged to Iraq under Ottoman rule, and the British creation of a separate sheikhdom in 1913 was an illegal act of imperialism that had never been ratified.) The book provides a detailed, objective and often sharply critical analysis of British involvement in boundary arbitration, and the legacy this has left for the Gulf. The Wilkinson archive contains numerous boundary maps from the 19th and 20th centuries, while papers relating to the oil concession negotiations provide a first-hand view of how such disputes played out on the ground.

Ibâḍism: Origins and early development in Oman  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Ibâḍism had been a central element of Wilkinson’s work for over forty years due to its importance in the legal, political and cultural development of Oman, and in this book he revisited some of his earlier research in the light of new sources such as the Kitab ansab al-‘Arab (and other manuscripts made available in the library of the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture following the 1970 change of regime) as well as some of the recent scholarly work done on the history of Ibâḍism since his earlier publications. Dense and detailed, Wilkinson’s Ibâdism uses his encyclopaedic knowledge of the historical framework of the Imamate and Oman to reassess the early origins of Ibâdism during the first six centuries of Islam, beginning in Iraq with the early Ibâdi movement in Basra and tracing its development against a background of tribal migration and settlement through to the twelfth century. The progress of Wilkinson’s thinking on Ibâḍism can be seen in some of his published works on the topic (EUL MS 119/1/1/4) as well as the sources he used, such as the manuscripts EUL MS 119/4/14 and EUL MS 119/4/17. Almost all of Wilkinson’s studies were based at least in part upon careful study of Arabic manuscripts, some from the late medieval period, and his archive contains both original manuscripts and copies in various media forms.

A bifolium legal document in black and red ink, with some marginal annotations (EUL MS 119/3/23)

The Arabs and the Scramble for Africa (Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing, 2015)

Although much of Wilkinson’s research focused on the interior of Oman, on p.332 of The Imamate Tradition (1987) he mentioned that his ‘current research interests’ were being directed towards the study of Omanis in the Congo, and almost thirty years later the fruit of the research was published. This book charts the involvement of Omani Arabs in East and Central Africa over several centuries, while concentrating on the period between 1820 and 1890 with the demise of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which had belonged to a branch of the Omani Al Said dynasty since 1698. Utilising a huge range of archival sources as well as half a century’s accumulated knowledge of Omani history and documentation, Wilkinson also drew on his geographical background to emphasise the importance of land, sea, weather and climate in the decisions made by the Omani colonisers of Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and the Congo. Among his papers is an annotated 12-page typescript copy of a 1932 article, ‘The Al Bu Said dynasty in Arabia and East Africa’,  translated into English [possibly by Wilkinson] from the German of Rudolph Said-Ruete, the son of Emily Ruete (born Salama bint Said), author of Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar (EUL MS 119/1/2/12).

A small selection of Wilkinson’s published work (EUL MS 119/1/4)

Even this brief overview of five major monographs – quite apart from the numerous journal articles and conference papers he has written – will convey a sense of Wilkinson’s erudition across a wide range of interdisciplinary scholarly fields. The papers in this archive provide a rich resource for researchers interested in topics as diverse as the history of Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and East Africa, the petroleum industry, hydrology, irrigation and agriculture, Ibâdism and the early history of Islam, tribal systems, archaeology, kinship and Islamic law, Arabic manuscripts, geology, maritime history and the flora and fauna of the Middle East. As Professor Wilkinson is still working and writing, permission needs to be sought for access to some of the papers, but the catalogue entries for the Wilkinson archive can be examined here and further enquiries can be directed as usual to the Special Collections department.

John Shebbeare and Oman: past, present and future

The papers of John Digby Shebbeare (1919-2004) are one of the smaller collections in the Middle East Archives, comprising just two small files, a photograph album and an envelope of newspaper cuttings, but they nonetheless provide a unique perspective of Oman’s landscape, both in its political and geographical senses.

John Shebbeare overlooking the old town of Muscat

John Shebbeare was born in Oxfordshire, one of three sons of the Rev. Charles John Shebbeare, who was Rector of Swerford and later chaplain to King George V. John was educated at Aysgarth Preparatory School, Yorkshire, Highfield Preparatory School in Hampshire and Rugby College. Following training at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he obtained a commission in the Indian Army in 1939 and saw service in India, Egypt, Persia and Iraq, serving with the Poona Horse and eventually attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His older brother Bill was killed in France in 1944. After retiring from the army in 1948, he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the Bar in 1951. He practised as a lawyer firstly in the family chambers in London and then as a legal advisor in the Department of Health. However, having spent so many years in the Middle East, he was keen to return to the region and secured a job in Baghdad as legal adviser to the consulting water engineers Binnie, Deacon & Gourley.

After spending five or six years in Baghdad, Shebbeare studied Arabic at Shemlan in the Lebanon, then moved to a post as District Resident in Beihan in the Aden Protectorate, (now in Yemen.) When the British withdrew from Aden in 1967 he had no wish to leave the Middle East and contacted Said bin Taimur, the Sultan of Muscat and Oman. Following an interview with the Sultan at Salalah, he was offered – and accepted – the post of ‘Secretary in Internal Affairs’. This was an advisory role in which Shebbeare was meant to guide the Sultan on internal affairs as well as using his legal training to monitor the activities of Oman’s wālis [governors] and qādis [religious judges].

One of John Shebbeare’s many photographs of the Omani falaj system

Oman is a dry and arid country with very low annual rainfall – hence the importance of the irrigation system known as ‘falaj’  أَفْ (plural  أَفْلَاج   aflāj). In classical Arabic, the word أَفْ has nothing to do with water, but refers to the distribution of shares, and as Shebbeare explains in some of his lecture notes (EUL MS 293/1), these are measured in units of time rather than volume. Usually the falaj is owned collectively, with water flowing out from the main channel into individual gardens, for which each landowner buys the right to so many minutes, or hours, per day or week. A nineteenth century document listing the owners of a falaj can be viewed here.

In his notes, Shebbeare describes seeing men cleaning a falaj (an endless talk that has been compared to the proverbial painting of the Forth Road Bridge), as well as some details of their construction, maintenance and ownership. His papers also contain correspondence in English and Arabic relating to a dispute between Seif bin Hamood al Qasimi and the Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) company regarding the reduction of waterflow in the of Falaj al Taibi, – also near Izki – which Seif claimed had been caused by the PDO’s actions in building a pipeline nearby (EUL MS 293/1/). Other papers in the collection relate to a divorce case, offering an insight into the social and marital customs of the region (EUL MS 293/2) within the wider context of village feuds and legal traditions.

Another of Shebbeare’s falaj photos, taken with a camera given to him by Sultan Said bin Taimur

Oman under Sultan Said bin Taimur

Sultan Said bin Taimur (1910-72) had been ruling the country since 1932, when he succeeded his father Taimur bin Faisal as 13th Sultan of Muscat. He inherited a colossal amount of financial debt, owed to Britain and India, as well as a country that was effectively divided into two halves: the cosmopolitan and more secular culture centred on Muscat and the coastal areas, which was controlled by the Sultan, and ‘Oman proper’, the interior region inhabited by tribal groups who were headed by an Imam, the religious leader of the Ibadi sect of Islam.  The latter is described in detail in The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge University Press, 1987) by John C. Wilkinson, whose papers are also held here at Exeter and will be the next collection to be catalogued: watch this space for another blogpost!

Over his 37 year rule Said bin Taimur succeeded in bringing his country out of debt, due in part to the discovery of oil. Extracting this was not easy as the wells lay in areas controlled by the tribes, and tension over the intrusion by oil workers led to violent clashes and a series of armed conflicts between the Sultan’s forces and the tribes. The Imamate finally came to an end in 1959, but this was achieved only through military support from Britain. The Sultan moved his residence 800 km away from Muscat to Salalah, and became increasingly reclusive, refusing to leave his palace and accessible only by appointment or through wireless contact shared with a select few. His determination to avoid returning to debt resulted in decades of financial parsimony, with hardly any investment in infrastructure or technology, an almost complete absence of education, and an isolated, anachronistic society that was described by outsiders as ‘medieval’. Discontent and unrest had been growing since the mid-1950s, especially in the Dhofar region, and the Sultan was increasingly reliant upon the British government for support.

Oman has over 500 castles and forts dotted across its landscape, many of them well-preserved

Suspicious of intrigue among relatives, Said avoided placing significant power in the hands of any senior family members and preferred instead to appoint outsiders – like Shebbeare – to senior positions in his government. Over 60% of the army’s rank and file – and almost all the officers – were British. The post of Minister of Internal Affairs was held by Ahmad bin Ibrahim Al Bu Said from 1939 to 1970, but the Sultan shrewdly limited his power by devolving some of his responsibilities onto Shebbeare, the Governor of Muscat, Shihab bin Faysal, Governor of Al-Sharquiyah, Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Harithi, and Director of Education, Ismail bin Khalil al-Rasasi. Other British officials in the administration included L.B. Hirst, Secretary for Petroleum Affairs, C.J. Pelly, Director of Planning and Development with William Heber-Percy as his secretary. Many of these appointments came in 1967 as oil revenues began to stream in, following the discovery of commercial quantities of oil in 1964.Francis Hughes, Managing Director of Petroleum Development (PDO) wielded more power and influence with the Sultan than many of his senior administrators, to whom Hughes was often asked to pass on official messages.

The Sultan’s distrustful isolationism extended to his treatment of his son Qaboos, who had returned to Oman in 1966 after being educated in England. He was kept under virtual house arrest in his father’s palace, isolated from political activities and contact with government officials except a select few permitted by the Sultan. As Sir William Luce commented in March 1970, the Sultan’s ‘inhuman treatment of his son’ had turned Qaboos into a potential rebel, and his policy of handing all senior posts to British and Indians rather than his own people had made the country ‘ripe for revolution’ (EUL MS 146/1/3/4). Luce (despite accusations made to the contrary) played no part in the forthcoming coup, and his prescient analysis of the situation stemmed from his intimate knowledge of the region and years of experience dealing with Gulf politics and culture.

The Coup of 1970 and Shebbeare’s Departure from Oman

On 23 July 1970 Qaboos forced his father to hand over power in a (relatively) bloodless coup. He was supported in this by the British, including intelligence officer Captain Timothy Landon, who had trained with Qaboos at Sandhurst and had been visiting him in Salalah, and Col. Hugh Oldman, the former commander of Oman’s armed forces who had returned from retirement in February 1970 as Defence Secretary. Said bin Taimur was deposed and sent into exile, spending the last two years of his life in the Dorchester Hotel in London, where he died on 1972. Under Sultan Qaboos the new government was restructured, with most of the British officials – Shebbeare included – losing their posts. Qaboos appointed his uncle, Sayyid Tariq bin Taimur, as Prime Minister of Oman, although such was the extent of the isolation imposed by his father, the two men had never met before. During his preparatory work for the founding of the UAE, Sir William Luce met with Sayyid Tariq bin Taimur at the Bustan Hotel in Dubai on 7 September 1970. He recorded their conversation in detail, and later wrote up a report entitled Thoughts on Oman in which he quotes Tariq as saying: ‘we will keep Oldman, but there are some British officials we do not need’ [EUL MS 146/1/3/7]. Hugh Oldman was indeed one of the few who was kept on, and among the papers in the archive is a letter from him to Shebbeare, dated 20 September 1970, confirming the dissolution of the Interim Advisory Council of which he had been a member. (This had been set up to fill the vacuum created by the departure of the old sultan.)

Letter from Hugh Oldman to John Shebbeare (EUL MS 293/1)

After spending a few months visiting friends in Pakistan, Shebbeare returned to Oman and embarked on a series of travels around the country, walking alone in the mountains as well as exploring regions he had not visited while employed by the sultan. He records these travels in fifty pages of hand-written notes that were used in preparation for a lecture about Oman he gave in the mid-1970s.

Photograph by John Shebbeare

Under Qaboos, Oman embarked on a process of modernization and reform, which included huge advances in education, healthcare and technology. The country’s name changed from ‘Muscat and Oman’ to simply ‘Oman’, and with Sultan Said’s isolationism reversed, friendly contacts were established with other countries in what has proved over time to be a remarkably flexible and well-balanced approach to foreign relations.

Meanwhile, after returning to the UK, Shebbeare became a teacher at Little Hampden Manor School before eventually retiring to East Leigh House in the village of Coldridge near Crediton, in Devon. He retained links with Oman through membership of the Anglo-Omani Society and was also active in local history, being chairman of the Okehampton History Society for many years, attending meetings of the Crediton Area History and Museum Society, and acting as churchwarden and bellringer of St Matthew’s Church, Coldridge. He died in October 2004.

Studying Oman

The next few years are going to be an exciting time for anyone wishing to pursue research into Oman, for a number of reasons:

Sultan Qaboos, now 78, is still the Sultan of Oman, and after 49 years on the throne he is the Arab world’s longest-serving leader. He has no children, and on 3 March 2017 Qaboos issued a royal decree appointing his cousin Sayyid Asaad bin Tariq Al Said as deputy prime minister for international cooperation and the sultan’s special representative – an announcement that was widely seen as indicating Sayyid as his heir and successor. (Sayyid is the son of the sultan’s uncle, former Primie Minister Tariq bin Taimur.) The long reign of Qaboos has been one of relative stability, and it is unclear what the effect might be of a change of ruler. Some have suggested that the Imamate may re-emerge and there have been reports of ‘Ibadi activists’ in recent years seeking to push such an agenda.

Aware of the need to adapt to a rapidly changing world, Oman produced ‘Vision 2020’ in the late 1990s, laying out an ambitious plan for economic diversification, technical development and social equality. Water supply has become a growing concern because of the massive population growth since 1970, with the future development of commodity extraction, environmental issues and the fossil fuel industry all playing a critical role. It will be interesting to see how much of Vision 2020 is realised.

From an archival perspective, 2021 will be of crucial significance as the government papers of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath relating to Britain’s involvement in Oman are due to be released from embargo and should be available for study.  These papers could be profitably augmented with work using Exeter’s archival holdings on Oman, of which the Shebbeare papers form just a small part. The catalogue entries can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Palestine dominates their life’: The Papers of Sir John and Lady Diana Richmond

After retiring from a successful diplomatic career in 1966, Sir John Richmond (1909-90) and his wife Diana (1914-97) settled in Durham, where he had accepted a lectureship in Modern Near East History at the University’s School of Oriental Studies. Following the Six-Day War in June 1967, the Richmonds became increasingly concerned at the suffering of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and the strong media bias prevalent at that time. They were instrumental in founding the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) – along with Michael Adams – and over the next few years devoted themselves to campaigning on behalf of Palestinians.

The extent of this work is evident from the Richmond papers deposited at the University of Exeter’s Special Collections Department, which have now been catalogued and are available for researchers. There are 38 boxes of papers, including correspondence with authors, editors, journalists, diplomats, scholars and activists, folders of press-cuttings, periodicals and pamphlets from the 1920s through to the 1980s, CAABU reports, minutes and newsletters, as well as a wealth of religious ephemera relating to the Richmonds’ work with the CAABU Religious Affairs Group (CRAG) and their interest in inter-religious dialogue. They were both converts to Roman Catholicism and monitored carefully the coverage of Middle Eastern topics – especially the situation in Palestine – in the Catholic press.

Sir John and Lady Diana Richmond at their home in Durham, from a 1979 newspaper article that reported on how ‘Palestine dominated their life’.

The Richmonds’ love for Palestine, as well their attitude towards the Israeli settlement there, owed much to the life and work of Sir John’s father, eminent architect Ernest Tatham Richmond (1874-1955), who had first gone out to the region in 1895 to help prepare illustrations of an ancient temple. An Arabic speaker, he was entrusted with restoration work on Cairo’s mosques and other commissions in both Egypt and Palestine, and at the end of the First World War he obtained an appointment in the British Mandatory Government in Palestine. Although he resigned in 1924 due to his unease about the strongly pro-Zionist policy of his colleagues, Ernest Richmond returned to returned to Jerusalem in 1927 to take up a strictly non-political appointment as Director of the Department of Antiquities, which he held for the next ten years. Among the Richmond papers are several pamphlets and offprints of Ernest Richmond’s scholarly work, and he was referred to frequently in the correspondence and writings of both Sir John and Lady Diana Richmond.

Scrapbook of presscuttings compiled by E.T. Richmond : ‘Palestine, December 1947: some newspaper cuttings describing the events that immediately followed UNO’s decision to partition the country.’ EUL MS 115/25

His son John first visited Palestine as a schoolboy in 1923 and duly followed in his father’s footsteps, learning Arabic, studying antiquities in the Holy Land and taking part in archaeological excavations. During this time his parents became involved with the Ditchling community of Catholic artists and craftsmen, as well as the Dominican priest-scholars of the École Biblique in Jerusalem. Ernest Richmond was received into the Catholic Church in 1924, his wife Margaret in 1928, with John Richmond following soon after while he was a student at Oxford. After a variety of other archaeological expeditions in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere between 1931 and 1936, he joined HM Office of Works, and he was in this position when he married Diana Galbraith on 2 February 1939. Although she had been brought up a Presbyterian, she converted to Catholicism around the time of their marriage.

An offprint of one of Ernest Richmond’s articles, this one offering a strong criticism of the British Mandate and its mistreatment of the Arab population and their grievances. EUL MS 115/25

During the Second World War John Richmond served as an Army Intelligence Officer in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, where his knowledge of Arabic proved invaluable. At the end of July 1946 the Richmonds, with their two young twin daughters, moved to Jerusalem where John had obtained a post as Conservator of Ancient Monuments – with responsibility for the preservation of historic buildings – at the Palestine Museum where his father had worked. This was the time when the British Mandate in Palestine was coming to an end. According to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Britain was committed to providing a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine, but they had also made similar promises to the Arabs in return for military and political support during the First World War. The British were therefore faced with an impossible situation, unable to honour the promises they had made, and increasingly unable to maintain order as Zionist paramilitary groups took up arms to protest against the British refusal to admit Jewish immigrants. The murder of British soldiers, policemen and government officials became a regular occurrence, the most notorious incident being the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on 22 July 1946, with the death of over 90 people.

Excerpt from a letter from Diana Richmond to a nun from The Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, 14 July 1975. EUL MS 115/13/1

This occurred ten days before the Richmonds arrived in the city. As an Arabic speaker like his father, John Richmond developed friendships with local Palestinians and their daughters began attending a convent day school run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion at Katamon, just outside city. However, with the political situation growing increasingly unstable, it became clear that their hopes of settling in Jerusalem and raising their family here would be impossible. Less than a year after their arrival in Palestine, John Richmond was transferred to the British embassy in Baghdad. The British government announced in September 1947 that the Mandate for Palestine would end at midnight on 14 May 1948 and turned to the United Nations for help in finding a solution. After the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recommending the adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine, fighting broke out between Arab and Jewish communities. Over the next few months this would escalate into full-blown war, as the military forces of neighbouring Arab countries responded to the declaration of the new state of Israel on 15 May 1948.

Postcard showing Israeli soldiers by the Suez Canal. EUL MS 115/8/13

During the Richmonds’ subsequent diplomatic postings they continued to visit Palestine and correspond with friends and colleagues in the region, as well as keeping themselves well-informed about developments in both the Arab and Israeli positions. It is fair to say, though, that their support for the Palestinians’ cause and their opposition to Zionism was rooted in the experiences described above, namely the influence of Ernest Richmond and their affection for the land and people they had known prior to 1947. In dozens of her letters, Diana Richmond referred back to her knowledge of this period and the Richmonds’ sense of having a ‘two generation link with Palestine and its peoples’. The strongly personal motives of their later activism gives the archive a fascinating resonance.

A large proportion of the papers relates to the Richmonds’ prolific correspondence with newspaper editors, journalists and representatives of the BBC concerning their coverage of the Middle East and – in particular – Israel’s occupation of Palestine. They monitored the media closely and were quick to challenge anything that they regarded as factual errors, suggestio falsi, biased omissions or misrepresentation. In the days before e-mails, these letters were usually drafted by hand and then typed up; more often than not, they received a personal response, ranging from apologies to defensive counter-arguments and – sometimes – an irritable backlash. Correspondents include William Rees-Mogg, Tom Burns (editor of The Tablet), Gerard Noel (editor of The Catholic Herald), Katy and Soraya Antonius, Dr Israel Shahak, Uri Davis, Dan Gillon, Solly Sachs, Cardinal Heenan, Bishop Ian Ramsey, Sir John Glubb, Norman St John Stevas, Fr. Thomas Corbishley SJ, Herbert McCabe OP, Fr. Henry Wansbrough OSB, Judith Maro, Michael Adams, Mgr. Bruce Kent (CND), Christopher Hollis, Christopher Walker, Stephen Spender, E.H. Gombrich,  Bernard Palmer (editor of The Church Times), US Ambassador Kingman Brewster, Menahem Begin, Laurence Olivier, Mark Braham, Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, various diplomats and Foreign Office officials, as well as MPs such as Christopher Mayhew, Jo Grimond, Roy Jenkins and James Callaghan, Dennis Walters, Andrew Faulds, Jeremy Thorpe and PM Edward Heath.

A page from the Koran, from a pamphlet in the Richmond collection. EUL MS 115/34

Their correspondence related not just to the media but to other activities such as CAABU work, public meetings and lectures, all of which were aimed at raising awareness of the situation in Palestine, encouraging dialogue between the different factions, and promoting a deeper understanding of Islam and the Arab world. Scholars interested in the development of contemporary Islamophobia might be interested in the Richmonds’ efforts to combat the ignorance and hostility shown towards Islam during this period, and what these papers reveal about the cultural positions and attitudes held by those in the media, political and religious circles. The Richmonds were also involved in supporting a range of charitable organisations and activities in the Middle East, such as the Spafford Children’s Hospital in Jerusalem, Musa Alami’s Arab Development Society, UNIPAL and the Friends of Bir Zeit University. They supported the inter-religious dialogue movement Jews-Christians-Muslims (JCM) as well as the British Algerian Society, the Anglo-Arab Association and a number of short-lived or lesser-known groups and publications active in these fields.  They were particularly interested in human rights and collected a large amount of documentary material on conditions in the occupied territories, including reports from prisons and interrogation centres, and material on how the conflict affected Palestinian women and children.

Another significant strand that runs through the Richmond papers and remains of cutting relevance today is the debate over the boundaries between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, particularly in the political sphere where critics of Israeli policy and supporters of the Palestinian cause have often been accused of holding anti-Semitic views. The Richmonds tried to adhere to a definition of Zionism as ‘the political movement arising out of Theodor Herzl’s book, Der Judenstaat, and finding its political expression in part through the series of Zionist congresses’, and were keen to emphasise that their use of the terms ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-Zionist’ could only ever be a political judgment, based on exclusively political criteria. They corresponded with a number of Jewish writers and campaigners, including several non-Zionist Jews, and were at pains to develop a more nuanced debate about the distinctions between sympathy for the Israeli people and criticism of the injustices brought about by Israeli government policy. Unfortunately, they also attracted interest from individuals and organisations who were genuinely anti-Semitic, such as the eccentric but deeply unpleasant National Cleansing Crusade. Anyone with such views received short shrift from the Richmonds, with their communications either unanswered or dismissed with a terse postcard reply, and any material they sent placed in sealed envelopes marked ‘Anti-Semitic Filth.’

A letter from Emile Marmorstein to John Richmond. EUL MS 115/5/12

In addition to the correspondence and writings of the Richmonds themselves – the latter of which include typed articles, talks, memoirs, translations and verse – the collection holds a large amount of secondary material relating to the history of Palestine and political activism, from the 1920s through to the 1980s. These include scholarly papers and offprints from academic journals, as well as a wide selection of more radical publications such as home-made ‘zines’ and student papers that reflect the artwork and graphic design of the underground counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s: a reminder that the Richmonds’ daughter Sophie worked as secretary for the Sex Pistols and helped design some of their iconic artwork.

Just some of the wide range of periodicals and pamphlets and other literature held in the Richmond collection

It is sometimes forgotten now that pro-Palestinian activism in Britain was not a phenomenon that took off in the 1980s, but it actually had a much longer tradition. An examination of the Richmond papers will help researchers gain a better understanding of these activities and their place within the literary, religious and political culture of late 20th century Britain.

The online catalogue of the Richmond papers can be explored here.