Where possible I have linked the source of the image. Just click on the image to be taken there.
And no, this isn’t my birthday, but rather the birthday of a significant amount of people living in Southern Kurdistan/ Iraqi Kurdistan. While July 1st may have grabbed their attention due to the Euro 2012 Final (and man, the Italy fans must be pissed), for older Kurds who were born in Iraq, it was their birthday.
But how could July 1st be the birthday of so many Kurds? As a young child I did not give much thought as to why both my mother and father shared the same birthday, July 1st. I simply thought it was a coincidence and left it at that, and I would continue believing that until I saw that about every single one of my uncles and aunts were also born on July 1st.
I was probably 12 or so when I asked my father why they were all born on the same day. About this time I had begun to be aware of my Kurdish roots and exactly what it was my parents went through when I was in Iraq. My father explained to me then that they had all been registered that way in the Iraqi government. I didn’t give it much thought then, but as I learned more about the way Kurds had lived in Iraq, the reason for this became more clear. There was another aspect to this that involved the marginalized position Kurds occupied in Iraq since its creation.
When Iraq had began as a Kingdom, the central government mainly relied on forming close ties with the local notables more than providing any sort of services to the people beyond collecting taxes. Public education was nonexistent, and the isolation of people from the central government was probably the greatest in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where villagers tucked away in the sleepy countryside did not give much thought to the central government. As insurrections against Baghdad came and went, the people had become more distrustful of the authorities and avoided any interaction with them. Consequently, many Kurds went by unregistered and thus the government could always release very low figures of Kurdish population figures from those few in the cities like Mosul, Hawler, and Kirkuk that did bother to register.
If a Kurd registered with the government, they could risk many problems- if they were wanted by the authorities for participating in a revolt or otherwise fighting the government in some way, going through to register themselves and their family would have invited arrest. Other Kurds who may have been more nationalistic minded may have balked at the idea of registering themselves as a citizen of a nation that had oppressed and ignored their rights. Some had, in between the numerous revolts and the uprooting that caused, had their mind on more important matters. Ultimately, registering as a citizen brought little advantages to them, as they had seen little benefit from tax collection, no public schools, infrastructure development, no hospitals, nothing.
This trend carried on into the 1950s, where tensions between Kurdish liberation groups and the monarchy grew and many people did not trust the government which they had seen by that point as only interested in serving the needs of the British and the Hashemites. When the coup against the monarchy occurred on July 14th, 1958, a Republican government under the leadership of Colonel Abdul-Karim Qassim was created. In the years afterwards, even after the overthrow of Qassim and the reign of the Arif brothers in much of the 60s and the Ba’ath later on, the government attempted to register all Iraqi citizens, a matter they saw as important in creating a modern administration. Kurds who took up this offer found that they were, many times, unaware of where their birthday would be by the modern calendar. Westerners may take it for granted with the association around a birthday, but for many people outside of Europe and United States in those times it was not really important to get it down to a day as long as they remember when it occurred. As such most Kurds were aware of what year they were born in and roughly what season and sometimes month it was in- this was the way most Kurds recognized the passage of time. Others knew exactly what day they were born in, even by the western calendar reckoning, but this would not be taken into consideration. In the end, a Kurd was more concerned about the family they were born into and their ties to the land more than getting down their birth to a date.
When it came down to the government however, Kurds trying to declare what day they were born on was not important. To expedite the process of registering the hundreds of thousands of Kurds into public record, the government had made everyone born on July 1st. There may have been other “default” days used, but July 1st is the one I am aware of. Consequently whole generations of Kurds found themselves with the same day of birth as a result of the government’s desire to quickly register the large amount of Kurds.
There could be another angle here that once again the Iraqi government had manage to take ownership of yet another aspect of a Kurd’s identity. It would be a common theme starting from the days of the monarchy for any regime in Baghdad to view Kurds as its rightful subjects and nothing more.
Those Kurds that eventually emigrated out of Iraq in the coming years would on their arrival to their new homes in Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere, would show from their identification that they were born in July 1st. Few bothered changing this and as a result many Iraqi Kurds who emigrated out of Iraq before the 1980s tend to share the same birthday. It had almost become an inside joke among the Iraqi Kurd diaspora communities about the many birthdays on July 1st, and even large cakes were made for this occasion. It was interesting to see what had essentially been a cold decision by the Iraqi bureaucracy into another way Kurds could unite around a common experience of oppression, one of many at least.
What did you say? Curd? Like a cheese curd? People? I’ve never heard of them.
I’m sure every Kurd in the diaspora has at least once in their life had to explain to people what a Kurd was and where they come from. The war in Iraq has increased the world’s familiarity with Kurds, though it’s not uncommon to still find people completely clueless about who Kurds are, much less other cultures outside their country.
I remember especially before 2003 my parents would both get excited at just the mention of “Kurds” anywhere, be it on a news broadcast or down to a simple book that mentions Kurds in passing. For many Americans in the 90s, if they heard Kurds at all, it was typically in two flavors. Those with memories of the chaos of Anfal and the media storm over the Kurdish refugee problem in 1991 could remember images of the Kurds crowded on the Turkish border in Iraq attempting to flee from the tumults of Iraq’s counter-attack on the peshmerga groups and genocide against the Kurds themselves. For a few months the world was acquainted to what Kurds had experienced for years- but had been ignored in mainstream western media for the sake of preserving Iraq’s image, a strategic ‘ally’ of sorts against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war for the United States and others. People were treated to the dire straits of the Kurds, one that the United States and others would eventually use among other things (check out Nayirah al-Sabah and her sensationalist testimony regarding Kuwait) to drum up support for intervention. Once this was gone, the world predictably forgot about Kurds, and they faded back into the shadows.
The other reference to the Kurds in the 1990s came in the form of the struggles of the Kurds in Turkey and the PKK. Though often times it was overshadowed by the wars in the Balkans and the Israel-Palestine conflict, the media would occasionally turn to the Kurds themselves. Predictably though this was in a negative manner, which had more or less followed the line established by the Turkish government regarding the Kurdish situation in Turkey. If someone was to hear about Kurds here, it was in the form of ‘terrorism’, not the real issues the people were facing there. Only a few took notice of this outside of Kurdish communities, such as Noam Chomsky. The other issue that compounded this was the divisions between Kurdish groups themselves- my family did not have much sympathy for the PKK and received news of Ocalan’s capture much differently than a Kurd from Turkey would have (for the most part).
Kurds are not well known to put it simply. I’m not sure if even what I do here will matter much, but even if one person comes across this, it is a start. Kurds are becoming important players in the Middle-East, for better or for worse, and they simply can not be kept in the shadows any longer. In the coming days I will expand upon different parts of Kurdish culture and history to those interested. I hope it will be informative.