by Sevin Marie Gallo±
This review essay offers analysis of the proceedings of the first ever Kurdish Studies Summer School held in June of 2016 and hosted by the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester. The review discusses the organisation and structure of the conference, but primarily focuses on the significant themes presented and the different ways student-participants engaged in learning over the three-day program. This review contextualises the conference within the current state-affairs of Kurdish studies as an academic discipline.
Keywords: Area studies; Kurdish studies; program review; pedagogy.
Kurdish studies is a growing field. The success of this journal and the membership and participation in the Kurdish Studies Network (KSN) virtual community and other social media forums attest to the expansion of the discipline and increased scholarly opportunities. However, focus on the Kurds remains somewhat limited and/or tangential in most Middle East Studies centers and across the departments at universities (See Hirschler, 2001; Scalbert-Yücel and Ray, 2006; Klein, 2010; van Bruinessen, 2014). Most academics, outside of the Kurdistan Region, engaged in research that centres on Kurds and Kurdistan, can only dream of what it would be like to study in a program where students take courses in Kurdish languages, and multiple courses on Kurdish history, politics, society, economics, culture, and literature (the University of Exeter and Erfurt University being the obvious exceptions). Working toward filling this void and to serve the demand created by the current boom in Kurdish Studies, Dr. Ipek Demir, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Leicester, created a summer school to allow participants a taste of the benefits of joining a cohort of similarly focused learners to study with and under some of the most experienced scholars and researchers working in Kurdish studies.
At a time when area studies has come under criticism, Kurdish studies continues to carve out space in academia and make the case for increased scholarly focus on the Kurds and Kurdistan as a unique interdisciplinary global project. Kurdish studies has the potential to simultaneously amend the international scholarly record that has neglected the Kurds while contributing to an understanding of the historical and contemporary processes that have systematically curtailed and oppressed Kurds.. On June 27-30, 2016, the University of Leicester’s Department of Sociology hosted the first international Kurdish Studies Summer School titled “Kurdish Politics and Society: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives.” Dr. Ipek Demir, a scholar of Kurdish and Turkish diasporic communities, organised this intensive three-day academic program that brought together renowned scholars, graduate and post-graduate students, activists, journalists, and independent scholars to share and discuss major trends in Kurdish studies.
The school was organised into six thematic focuses taught by leading scholars in their respective subsections of Kurdish studies: “Kurdish Language, Literature, Popular Culture and Folklore in Kurdistan”, “Coercion and Violence in Kurdistan and in the Middle East”, “Kurdish Diaspora”, “The Contemporary Kurdish Movement: Key Questions and Developments”, “Ethics and Challenges of Doing Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Shadow of the Kurdish Question”, and “Gender and Kurdish Studies”. The days were balanced into sessions taught by the invited lecturers, student research presentations and discussions, and student rapporteurs, who led wrap-up sessions. All aspects of the summer school centred on teaching and learning, setting it apart from a traditional research conference. Even when the day turned to the student research panels that undoubtedly resembled a conference presentation, the experience retained the learning focus of the school. Presenters engaged in a helpful discussion of their work with experienced Kurdish studies professors and an interdisciplinary peer group that summarily reminded me of the very best graduate seminars, with the added benefit of multiple engaged professors offering specialist insights and essential questions. Keeping with the ultimate graduate seminar-like experience, Demir circulated suggested readings assigned by the featured lecturers one month before the summer school. Based on the level of lively, informed participation, students seized this opportunity to come to the table with insight into important debates in the multiple areas discussed over the three-day school.
Professor Christine Allison, Ibrahim Ahmed Chair of Kurdish Studies at the University of Exeter, led the first lecture session dedicated to “Kurdish Language, Literature, Popular Culture and Folklore in Kurdistan”. Expressing an understanding of the diverse scholarly backgrounds of the participants, Allison provided an overview of the history and politics of folklore studies in the Kurdish home-states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the diverging experience of Kurdish studies in the former Soviet Union, where researching folklore was not policed as an act of nationalist resistance. Then, she discussed how the various representatives of the Kurdish nationalist project have used, perceived, and represented folklore. After spending some time discussing the theory and methods of folkloristic textual analysis, Professor Allison divided the students into two groups tasked to put their new or revived knowledge into practice by examining a text that Allison had recorded in Qosh Teppe, Northern Iraq-Kurdistan. Splitting the students into small groups with a stated task so early on in the program allowed the participants to learn more about one another’s interests and strengths and work together with the common goal of applying folkloristic analysis to Allison’s chosen text, “A Barzani Woman Laments.” Students read the text in Kurmanci and English and focused on the context, the themes and events described in the text, as well as the politics and activism associated with lamenting for/to an audience. Several students were able to draw comparisons between the Barzani woman’s lament and the context and subject of Kurdish dengbêj singers. Christine Allison’s opening lecture and applied learning activity set the tone for the supportive, collaborative, and challenging learning environment that Demir planned, and indeed continued herself in a lecture and discussion concerning the Kurdish diaspora.
Dr Demir’s presentation on the Kurdish diaspora focused on methods for analysing identity formation in the diaspora, including insights from studies of transnationalism and translation. Demir drew from her research focused on the Kurdish and Turkish diaspora in London. She explained two of her key contributions to diaspora studies, the “diaspora battlespace,” an alternative space where Kurds can create and articulate a narrative of the Kurdish question that is different than the hegemonic Turkish narrative, and “de-Turkification”, the processes of shedding imposed identities brought from home in diaspora. Demir’s explanation of the process and intent of translating Kurdish identity and culture by Kurdish “brokers”, to both British audiences and second-generation Kurds, led to important discussions concerning translation as not only a site of discovery and perhaps understanding, but also of re-writing. Several participants had a visceral experience with identity formation in the diaspora, and the groups spent some time discussing personal and political experiences of the diasporic self. Although the expertise and focus of students and lecturers at the summer school spanned many disciplines and varied between Kurdish languages and regions, the hegemony of scholarship concerning Kurds became a key aspect of analysis among the students throughout the next two days.
Professor Hamit Bozarslan, Director of the Center of Turkish, Ottoman, Balkan and Central Asian Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, lectured on the history of “Violence and Coercion in Kurdistan and the Middle East” on day two. Bozarslan weaved a discussion on historiography and theory concerning violence as a tool for change into the narrative of Kurdish relationships with hegemonic states and imperialism from the late-Ottoman period to the present. The session ended with a lively discussion concerning the authoritarian extremism of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL or IS) compared to the pluralism of Rojava/Syrian Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. This discussion centred on the relationship and tension between consensus and dissent in democracy and nationalist resistance movements, an intense topic that the group returned to throughout the rest of the conference.
Dr. Ulrike Flader, member of the University of Manchester Sociology Department, presented a survey of the state of the field concerning “The Contemporary Kurdish Movement” that gave students the opportunity to learn and discuss the diverse approaches to examining the spectrum of Kurdish movements. Even the most informed student undoubtedly learned something new or surprising from Flader’s comprehensive lecture that featured key authors and arguments concerning the Kurdish movement in policy studies, historical approaches, cultural politics, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK), women and gender studies, individual or everyday resistance and identity, youth, political parties, and more. Flader followed this survey of the field with a candid discussion of the trials and best practices of fieldwork. To help create a comfortable, empathetic group discussion, Flader requested that the students leave their desks and join her in a circle in the centre of the classroom. The standard, formal classroom setting morphed even further into a supportive, mentoring experience. Flader shared her experiences of doing research in the Kurdish regions of Turkey while studying everyday resistance. She encouraged participants who had completed their field work to tell their stories, too. The discussion and questions focused on the ethics and precautions that are particular to scholars doing fieldwork in the many sites of resistance and conflict associated with Kurdish studies. Participants who were formulating their research plans asked questions concerning access to the field, safety of their informants, how to gain the trust and confidence of their subjects, and how to deal with their own positionality. Participants remarked how meaningful these conversations were. All the participants welcomed this opportunity to discuss these issues with a cohort of students who share these concerns and understand the importance of trying to navigate and situate the Kurdish human rights struggle within their own projects.
On the final day of summer school, Dr. Necla Acik, Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, presented her lecture titled: “Gender and Kurdish studies.” After discussing the politics of representation and the image of the Kurdish woman within nation-building processes, Acik explained how the Kurdish women’s movement in Turkey has undergone major changes from grassroots mobilisation to formal representation in local municipalities and in the national parliament. She started by giving a survey of the existing literature on gender and the Kurds and discussed the activities of the International Kurdish Women’s Studies Network in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as Kurdish women’s rights groups in Turkey/North Kurdistan. Instead of simply telling the group about the major concerns and focus of the Kurdish women’s movement, Acik directed a primary source examination of a variety of Kurdish women’s magazines and journals printed in Kurdish, Turkish, English, and German that represented more than three decades of Kurdish feminist activism. She asked students to consider context, language, and change over time, which led to an energetic, evidence-based discussion on transnational feminism, the discourse of the “native informant”, and the relationship between the Kurdish women’s movement and the Kurdish nationalist movement since the 1980s. This discussion flowed neatly into the final sessions of student presenters who similarly focused on women and gender as well as in the school’s concluding session when participants discussed issues of canonisation in Kurdish studies. Demir asked students to reflect on the consequences of the dominance of Kurdish studies scholars from Turkey in this field, as well as the gendered aspects of citation and canonisation in the field of Kurdish studies.
Throughout the duration of the summer school, student presenters, postgraduate students, independent scholars, and journalists, travelling from Mexico, Belgium, Germany, the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Italy, and within the U.K., had the opportunity to share their research projects in a panel presentation format that complemented the lecturers’ themes. The friendly and informed audience provided insights from across the disciplines on research topics focused on identity in the diaspora and in diasporic communities in Kurdish home-states, representation of the Kurds by dominant cultures, the impact of the Kurdish women’s rights movement on other hegemonic movements around the world, urban planning in Kurdistan, regional security studies, and the politics of “official languages” in Kurdistan. Most presenters had some conference experience, but remarked on the differences between a conference presentation and a summer school research presentation. Most participants were thrilled to finally be in a group of students, regardless of their various phases of research, who shared a common focus on the Kurds and Kurdistan. They were eager to discuss their work and receive feedback from an informed and understanding peer group, as well as from the experts in the field who were participating in a teacher/mentor role. The community-building aspect of the school was very successful and participants were delighted to carry on these work-related discussions at dinner or in the pub each evening following class.
On the final day, students were quick to ask Demir if she planned to organise another summer school, underscoring the significant value of the project for students and early-career scholars. The students built contacts and friendships that they planned to foster in future research adventures. They shared dissertation chapters and contacts at research centres and in the field. Students from around the world made plans to travel together to the Kurdish Cultural Centre and Kurdish Community Centre while in the U.K., and immediately formed their own Google group to maintain the important conversations and relationships sparked at the first-ever Kurdish Studies Summer School.
Programs like Demir’s summer school will ensure that the field continues to grow in rewarding ways, even in the current environment where access to the field is often a considerable challenge. The field of Kurdish studies has grown exponentially in the last decade, particularly in relation to the existence of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. The KRG has supported Kurdish studies inside the region and supplied financial support for international programs like The University of Exeter’s Center for Kurdish Studies, the World Kurdish Congress, and The University of Erfurt’s Mustafa Barzani Research Center for Kurdish Studies. However, with persistent economic and military crisis in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria, continued funds for these programs from the KRG are not secured.
The earlier success of the KRG coincided with the seemingly brief experiment in the democratisation of education in Turkey. However, steeply rising authoritarianism in recent years has impeded the work of Kurdish studies scholars in Turkey. Despite many obstacles from Turkish nationalists and the state, Kurdish studies in Turkey had been growing since the late 1990s, and as recently as 2014 academic publications and journalism concerning Kurds, appeared to be on pace to match or possibly even outnumber those coming from Europe, the dominant centre of Kurdish studies over the last century (van Bruinessen, 2014). However, this tacit optimism proved to be very short lived. The devastating academic purges and the state takeover of much of the independent press has, once again, made researching and publishing anything that runs counter to the dominant state narrative concerning the Kurds nearly impossible inside Turkey (Akkoyunlu, 2017). Geopolitics in all regions of Kurdistan has continued to underscore the critical need for alternative spaces for academic freedom and scholarly association.
The success of the journal Kurdish Studies, in addition to the growing social media networks, and established Kurdish institutes and libraries, created a common space for a rather far-flung scholarly community, and helped develop the demand for an arena for young scholars across the disciplines to broaden their knowledge of the Kurdish past and present. The Sociology Department at the University of Leicester provided the structure and dedicated space for these early-career scholars to form an active learning community. The participants benefitted from the experience and teaching of multiple senior lecturers in this intensive, accelerated forum that was ultimately a resounding success.
Fortunately, Demir is organising another summer school in July 2017 at the Kurdish Institute in Paris. More information on the 2017 Kurdish Studies Summer School can be found at: https://kurdishstudiesnetwork.net/2017/ 01/25/kurdish-studies-summer-school-2/.
Akkoyunlu, K. (2017, March 17). As Turkey’s Academia Faces Desolation, A Call for Solidarity for Imperiled Scholars. Huffington Post, URL: http://www. huffingtonpost.com/entry/as-turkeys-academia-faces-desolation-a-call-for-solidarity_us_58cc8fe8e4b0537abd9570d5).
Hirschler, K. (2001). Defining the Nation: Kurdish Historiography in Turkey in the 1990s. Middle Eastern Studies, 37(3), 145–166.
Jayasuriya, K. (2015). Beyond the culturalist problematic: Towards a global social science in the Asian Century? In Johnson C., Mackie V., & Morris-Suzuki T. (Eds.), The Social Sciences in the Asian Century. Canberra, ANU Press. 81-96.
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Scalbert-Yücel, C. and Le Ray, M. (2006). Knowledge, Ideology and Power: Deconstructing Kurdish Studies. European Journal of Turkish Studies, 5, URL: http://ejts.revues.org/777.
Swantzon, D. (2004). The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines. Los Angeles and Berkley: University of California Press.
University of Leicester Department of Sociology (2016). Kurdish Studies Summer School, 27-29 June 2016, URL: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/ sociology/ research/conferences-and-workshops/kurdish-studies-summer-school.
Van Bruinessen. M. (2014). Kurdish Studies in Western and Central Europe. Weiner Jarbruch für Kurdische Studien, 2, 18-96.
Zürcher E.-J. (2007). Region or discipline? The debate about area studies. Groen A. in ‘t, Jonge H.J. de, Klasen E., Papma H., Slooten P. van (Eds.) Knowledge in Ferment. Dilemmas in Science, Scholarship and Society. Leiden, Leiden University Press. 243-256.
± Dr Sevin M. Gallo, Assistant Professor of World History and Global Studies Degree Coordinator at Northwest Arkansas Community College, 1 College Dr, Bentonville, AR 72712, USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 See Kanishka Jayasuriya (2015) “Beyond the culturalist problematic: Towards a global social science in the Asian Century?” in The Social Sciences in the Asian Century for a discussion of the multiple critiques of traditional area studies programs. Jayasuriya offers insights into the ways in which advocates for area studies have responded to criticism and continue to assert their relevance when many cultural definitions of place or territoriality seem increasingly problematic in a globalized world. See also Erik Zürcher’s (2007) “Region or discipline? The debate about area studies” and David Szanton’s (2004) The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines.