Torn between ancient empires and suppressed by modern nation states, Kurdish history has been hidden from the wider world for far too long. A new generation of tech-literate Kurds is taking matters into their own hands by sharing stories with the world through new websites (such as K24) and social media outlets, circumventing repressive governments in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria that have traditionally marginalized their Kurdish minorities (among others). This trend is a thrilling development but more should be done: it is time to systematically organize these stories for posterity, so that the depth and complexity of the Kurdish region can be understood.
The brutal violence against Kurds in Turkey, the exclusion of Syrian Kurdish groups from the recent Geneva talks, routine executions of Kurds in Iran, and the failure of international partners to adequately arm Peshmerga in the fight against Islamic State (IS) can only be understood in the context of history. Kurds have been dealing with persecution for over five hundred years.
Since the sixteenth-century, Kurds have been caught between bitter enemies and dysfunctional states; from the Persians and Ottomans, to modern incarnations of these empires. Kurdish populations were dealt with by forced resettlements, ruthless militaries, genocide, and the empowerment of tribal leaders to create factionalism—tactics that have been used repeatedly over the centuries.
2016 marks the 100-year anniversary of one of the most consequential conspiracies the world has ever known: the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. This secret treaty between the United Kingdom and France shaped the future of an entire region, leading to the creation of dysfunctional states like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and others. Sykes-Picot set the stage for a century of incompetent foreign interference, political upheaval, and senseless violence—all trends that show no signs of abating anytime soon.
Notably absent from this international agreement was a plan for the Kurds--the fourth largest ethnic group in the region--left without a nation of their own. Without a state or borders to protect its heritage, much of Kurdish culture has been hidden, lost, or destroyed. Museums, archives, universities, and research projects in Kurdish areas are sparse and underfunded. Even worse, the legacy of subjugation has taken its toll: valuable records have rotted away in secret archives, and many people are still scared to talk about their Kurdish identity in some countries.
The evidence is everywhere. Last year, I stumbled across an archive of photos of Iraqi Kurdish Jews before they left the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The photographer was an Afghan immigrant who led one of the Sufi religious centers near Akre. These priceless photos were left for decades in a cave, for fear the Ba’athist regime would discover them. No one knows how many countless treasures like these, which reveal the complex identity of Kurdistan, are scattered in private collections.
Luckily, our digital age offers some good news. A vast array of Facebook groups and Twitter feeds have emerged to connect Kurds and Kurdophiles all over the world. The Internet affords individuals more freedom to speak out against government coercion, and opens new channels to lobby for Kurdish rights. Thousands of Kurds are going through their archives and sharing family photos on social media. There is a thirst for recognition on the global scale, and a need to provide a digital legacy immune to the meddling of regional governments.
The need to maintain Kurdish heritage is why I co-founded Tell History, an online platform designed to build history from the ground up. The idea was born in Kurdistan, where there are infinitely more fascinating stories than there are journalists or researchers to tell them. We developed a way for ordinary people to contribute the stories of their relatives, friends, and community members—the people who inspire them—to help make a bigger, better, more democratic version of history.
We invite you to record the stories that matter most to you, the stories you think the world needs to remember so that Kurdish voices are never ignored again.
Alex Whitcomb is a journalist and co-founder of tellhistory.com.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan24.