Tag Archives: Kurdish studies

Rya T’eze and the Kurds in Armenia

As much of the Kurdish material we hold in the library and archives relates to Kurdistan – the area that covers territories within Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), Syria (Western Kurdistan) and Turkey (Northern Kurdistan) – it is sometimes forgotten that there is a large Kurdish diaspora that lives outwith this region, with historically established communities. In this blogpost I am going to look at the newspaper Rya T’eze, which was the first Kurdish newspaper to be published in Latin script.

The Kurds in Armenia

Most of the Kurds in Armenia originally came from Turkey, beginning to settle in numbers around 1828 to escape from fighting during the Russo-Turkish wars, with migration increasing during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of them belonged to the Yezidi community, who follow a religion that fuses elements from Islam and the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism.

Over half of the Kurds in Armenia live in the capital city, Erivan, previously known as Yerevan, or ‘Rewan’ in Kurdish. This city, as will be discussed below, has played a significant role in the development of Kurdish culture.

In 1921 Kurds here began to use a Kurdish alphabet that was derived from Armenian characters; this lasted for about eight years before it was replaced by a Latin alphabet, which was created by a Yezidi Kurd named Arab Shamilov (in Kurdish, Erebê Şemo/Ә’рәб Шамилов or Ereb Shemo), working closely with an Assrian named Isaac Marogulov. Born in 1897 in Kars in eastern Anatolia (NE Turkey), Shemo had fled to Armenia with his family after the First World War. His book Xwe bi Xwe Hînbûna Kurmancî [Teach Yourself Kurmanji], was published in 1928 and was the first Kurdish book to be printed using the new Latin alphabet.

Between 1930 and 1937 there was a flowering of Kurdish education and culture in Armenia, with almost thirty Kurdish schools established, children taught to read and write in Kurdish, and a regular stream of Kurdish-language books published each year. Shemo’s novel Sivane Kurd [The Kurdish Shepherd] came out in 1935, followed by his anthology Folklora Kurmanca. It was against this background that Rya T’eze appeared.

Rya T’eze 1930-1937

Image of the front cover of the first issue

The first issue of Rya T’eze

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Рйа  Т’әзә or Rya T’eze (sometimes spelled Riya Teze) means ‘New Path’, and the first issue was published on 25 March 1930, printed in Kurmanji Kurdish but using the Latinised alphabet of Shemo-Marogulov. It had four pages and came out twice a week, with a circulation of some 600 copies. Celadet Alî Bedirxan’s magazine Hawar [The Cry] was not published until 1932, making Rya T’eze the first Kurdish language newspaper in the world. This was acknowledged in an article in Hawar (No.8, 1932), written by Herekol Azizan:

Produced under the auspices of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia, the Supreme Council and the Council of Ministers of the Armenian SSR, Rya T’eze was bound to reflect Soviet ideology, and even though it was written in Kurdish, there is perhaps a disappointingly sparse amount of material on Kurdish culture. At first the newspaper was run by three exiled Armenians who knew Kurdish – Kevork Paris, Hraçya Koçar and literary critic Harûtyûn Mkirtçyan – before Kurdish linguist and author Cerdoy Gênco took over as editor in 1934. That was also the year that the first ever pan-Soviet Congress of Kurdology was held – in Yerevan, naturally – which called for the creation of a Kurdish dictionary and historical grammar. An education academy had already opened in Yerevan with the aim of training Kurdish language teachers. 

However, under Stalin’s increasingly tight grip on the Soviet Union there was little place for dissent or devolution, and the resources and freedom open to Kurds in Armenia began to decline. Kurdish-language teaching and publishing were discouraged, and the Cyrillic alphabet was imposed on Kurds to encourage them to learn Russian, Armenian or Georgian (and therefore abandon their own language.) Between 1937 and 1944, Caucasian Kurds were deported to settlements within places such as Uzbekhistan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia, where they faced severe restrictions on freedom of expression and movement. Ereb Shemo was himself among these, and he would not return until 1956. Publication of Rya T’eze was shut down in 1937, and would not resume for almost twenty years.

Rya T’eze 1955-2003

Image of front page of newspaper in Cyrillic, dated 1 February 1955

Front page of the revived Rya T’eze, 1 February 1955 – the first issue in our holdings.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953 and the more moderate governance introduced by his successor, Nikita Khruschev, publication of Rya T’eze recommenced in 1955, still in Kurdish but this time printed in a Cyrillic alphabet that had been devised by Heciyê Cindî, another Yezidi Kurd who had worked on Radio Yerevan, and also spent time in exile during the 1940s. Nonetheless, Cindî had managed to complete a doctorate in Kurdish folklore while in exile, and was also the author of a Kurmanji reader and other Kurdish books. The new editor was Mîroyê Esed (1919-2008), who would continue to run the paper until 1989.

 

This again was another period in which Kurdish culture was able to flourish in Armenia, and the local radio station also began broadcasting in Kurdish in January 1955. Gayané Ghazaryan has written a fascinating blogpost about Kurds in Armenia and the work of Casimê Celîl (who wrote Kurdish poetry for Rya T’eze) and his family for Radio Yerevan that can be read here.

Other Kurdish authors who contributed to Rya T’eze after its relaunch in 1955 included Qaçaxê Mirad, Şekroyê Xudo, Xelîlê Çaçan, Babayê Keleş, Têmûrê Xelîl, Tîtal Mûradov, Egîtê Xudo, Eliyê Ebdilrehman, Hesenê Qeşeng, Pirîskê Mihoyî, Rizganê Cango, Porsora Sebrî, Tîtalê Efo, Karlênê Çaçanî, Şerefê Eşir, Egîtê Abasî, Paşayê Erfût, Letîfê Emer and Gayanê Hovhannîsyan. As before, much of the paper’s content reflected the dominant focus of the Armenian SSR on Soviet politics and history, agricultural and factory production, and so on, but there continued to be articles, poems and other material of Kurdish interest, such as this article from 9 October 1955 p.1 on the Armenian poet Хачатур Абовйан (Khachatur Abovyan, 1809-48), who was a pioneer in the study of Kurdish language and folklore, writing extensively about the Kurds and recording many of their local legends and folk tales. Abovyan laid the foundations for the development of Kurdish studies in Russia. 

The article reproduces the famous painting of ‘Abovian Among the Kurds’ by Mkrtich Sedrakyan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the 1970s, circulation figures rose from around 2,800 to 5,000 copies, although by the mid-1980s this had dropped back to about 4,000, with occasional changes in the frequency of publication. The death of Erebê Şemo in May 1978 was not overlooked, with a substantial article published on 5 June:

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 placed serious financial pressures on the newspaper, which had been funded by the Armenian SSR and relied heavily on the support of the state. Tîtalê Efo took over as editor from Esed that year, only to be succeeded in 1991 by Emerîkê Serdar, who ran the paper until he was forced to resign due to illness. During this time, the alphabet reverted to Latin in 2001, and the newspaper became a monthly publication with a print run of 500 copies in an effort to reduce production costs.

One positive outcome from the collapse of the Soviet Union was that Rya T’eze began to focus more on matters of general Kurdish interest, rather than adhering closely to the programme of the Armenian SSR. This was probably due in part to the growing reliance of the newspaper on the wider Kurdish diaspora for financial support, but these years saw regular coverage of events in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

An article on Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani from 2001, showing the newspaper’s return to Latin characters and improved coverage on matters of Kurdish interest outside Armenia

However, despite the efforts of the editor and Kurdish donors to keep the newspaper afloat – including an injection of money, the assistance of Kurdish volunteers and support from organisations such as the Lalish Foundation – it was clear that production was no longer financially viable. Publication wound down at the end of 2003, and after a few sporadic issues over the next two years, the press finally closed with No. 4818 in October 2006, which included a review of Dr. Khanna Omarkhali’s book on the Yezidis, Йезидизм (2005) and a tribute to Kurdish writer Emînê Evdal (1906-64), another Yezidi contributor to Rya T’eze during the 1930s and a pioneer in Kurdish language instruction.

Rya T’eze remains a remarkable record of the Kurdish community in Armenia, and is also of particular interest to scholars researching the history of the Yezidis and their culture. Our holdings of the newspaper are probably the most extensive outside the former Soviet Union, and this is a fantastic resource for postgraduate study, either from our own Centre for Kurdish Studies or further afield. Enquiries about access to the newspaper should be directed to Special Collections. 

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 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….