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By Nick Ward
Photos by Ainslie Coghill

It is estimated that the Kurdish population is somewhere between 30-40 million, making them one of the world’s largest groups without a nation state. 

The majority of the Kurds live in Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, and on their traditional territory called Kurdistan in mountainous Western Asia. However, due to continued political unrest in the Middle East, the Kurdish people face increased persecution.

This ongoing vulnerability has left many Kurds no choice but to leave their homelands, and subsequently, the growing Kurdish diaspora is currently projected at about 2 million people. 

Astonishingly, Kurds have been struggling for sanctioned autonomy since the beginning of the 20th century when independence was suggested in a post-war Treaty of Sèvres. In fact, commotion for Kurdish nationalism can be traced as far back as the Ottoman Empire’s crumbling during the 1890s. 

Throughout this one hundred- and thirty-year (and counting) pursuit of sovereignty, instituting linguistic rights has been considered as a crucial step towards their legitimacy and independence.

And while the Kurdish language has held some legal standing in Iraq since the 1930s, prior to 2013, Kurdish had no official status in Iran, Turkey, or Syria, where the language has either been officially banned or severely marginalized in all formal domains, including education, public administration, and even media. 

During the summer of 2020, Professor Jaffer Sheyholislami of The School of Linguistics and Language Studies (cross-appointed to ICSLACCultural Mediation) was able to contribute to the purpose of Kurdish legitimacy by teaching Kurdish Studies online at the newly founded and already transformative University of Rojava based out of north-eastern Syria.

“In the context of the Syrian civil war, and towards the end of the Arab Spring, the Kurds of Syria, along with other ethnic groups living in the north of the country, started to establish autonomous cantons in 2013,” explains Sheyholislami. “And for the first time in the history of modern Syria, the de facto autonomous region of Rojava embarked on multilingual education.”

In 2016, higher education institutions of Rojava began to offer tertiary courses in a variety of subjects including Kurdish linguistics and literature – two disciplines which for centuries were non-existent in Syria.

“At the same time, in both elementary and secondary school systems, students were given the opportunity to receive education in their mother tongue including Arabic, Kurdish, and Syriac-Aramaic,” says Sheyholislami. 

The University of Rojava

The University of Rojava is an unprecedented programme that intends to establish a robust academic space for Kurdish language and culture to be taught through the modern perspectives of international Kurdish specialists such as Sheyholislami. The hope is that this will lead to a significant increase in the number of future Kurdish experts, teachers, and researchers – an outcome that would help expand understandings of Kurdish around the globe. 

“Not long ago, one would be lucky to find a chapter about the Kurds in a book devoted to the Middle East or the minorities of the world,” says Sheyholislami.

“From the middle of the 20th century when the Kurds began to be recognized as important political players in the Middle East, occasionally, Kurdish language courses were offered in Russian, French, German and English universities, but it was not until about twenty years ago or so that we started to see a greater number of entire monographs devoted to various components of Kurds and Kurdistan,” he says.

More recently, over two dozen books, including manuals and encyclopedias on various aspects of Kurdish life, have been published and made available by various prestigious printing houses.

Sheyholislami is aware of at least three major handbooks currently in the works, which will be devoted to explicit areas of research related to the Kurds. Each of these will conclude at approximately 1000 pages and examine topics such as history (The Cambridge History of the Kurds) and literature. Sheyholislami is the leading editor of the forthcoming book, The Oxford Handbook of Kurdish Linguistics, set to be released in 2021.

The Necessity of Academic Space for Kurdish Linguistics

In 2005, Kurdish was designated an official language in Iraq, where approximately 5-6 million Kurds live with a degree of variable freedom. However, Kurdish people living in the Middle East remain persecuted outside the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and the self-declared autonomous Rojava region.

In these countries, Kurdish culture and language have often been marginalized or outright banned from formal domains such as public administration and education. Sheyholislami says this reality underscores how important the courses taught at Rojava University are for the Kurdish people, especially since they were made available to Kurds from all countries free of charge. 

“We have a responsibility towards them. We must protect them from tyrannical regimes in the region and help them to maintain and develop institutions that harness gender equality, freedom of sexual orientation, and linguistic rights for all minorities, including Assyrians, Armenians, and the Arabic speaking community that forms a minority in that region,” he says.

“This will be easier to do if we understand them better. This is why Kurdish Studies becomes important more than ever.”

The precariousness of Kurdish lives was brought into the international limelight in 2014 when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suddenly appeared as a presence.  

During this time, Kurds proved to be the most important allies to Western nations. They battled to quell the growing power of ISIS, and international media often chronicled these stories. Particularly, the Women Kurdish Fighters’ stories captured headlines – reports that invalidated many Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern cultures.

“With this increased media attention came an exponential global interest in Kurdish politics, geography, social structures, culture, and language, and for the first time in decades, the Kurdish dream of self-determination seemed within reach,” says Sheyholislami.  

Connecting with Rojava

In January of 2020, Sheyholislami was on sabbatical when he was invited to join the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto as Visiting Professor teaching Kurdish language and literature. He accepted eagerly, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he taught the course online from his home in Ottawa.

The digital delivery had some drawbacks, but it also presented opportunities that would have been otherwise inaccessible for many people. 

“In addition to University of Toronto students taking the course, there were about 50 graduate students, post-docs and professors who attended the classes from across four continents,” says Sheyholislami. 

The course’s virtual nature allowed him to invite an array of guest experts from universities and institutions from all across the globe. It was also well-publicized on social media, reaching a wide range of Kurdish and academic communities interested and working in Kurdish studies.

“Before my course as a Visiting Professor at the University of Toronto had ended, I received an invitation from the Rojava Kurdology undertaking to deliver several lectures on sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, language policy, and academic research and writing for the summer of 2020. I was among a dozen university professors who had been invited from the USA, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, UK, Germany, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, among others.”

“Several professors for Rojava were ethnic Kurds, but teaching in non-Kurdish universities and others were non-Kurdish Western scholars who conduct research on Kurdish issues and who also speak the language,” explains Sheyholislami. 

The Classes

Sheyholislami’s lectures were attended by over 300 participants, mostly from the Rojava region but also from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and diasporic communities. The lessons covered the span of his expertise but were particularly focused on critical discourse analysis, language policy and planning, language standardization, and lexical variation. 

“In my lectures, I have tried to relate concepts, theories, and methodologies from these areas to the Kurdish context so that students could see what was possible in their own immediate environment as far as research and knowledge sharing is concerned,” he says. “For example, areas like language policy and planning, language standardization and lexical variation could be very relevant to their situation.”

His students were thoroughly engaged.

“They were not there to fulfil a degree requirement but to learn or to share what they already know, and I was extremely interested in the latter.”

Professor Jaffer Sheyholislami teaching virtually.

“Many of these students were those who faced ISIS in Kobane or Raqqa, and now they were eager to learn more about, and more critically, their identities, politics, culture, and language.”

Towards the end of the course, the organizers asked the students to present a project based on one of the research areas offered during the lectures. 

“On the first day of presentations, the partner of one of the registered participants asked to be heard. When she was asked if she had registered in the course and whether she was one of the participants, she said that she had not registered for the online course but that she had heard all the presentations as she was present in the room where her husband, a registered student, was listening to lectures. Now, she had some comments and a question.” 

“We were all delighted to hear this.” 

This anecdote is indicative of the greater impact of the courses and how, in environments where an entire family may share a small space, knowledge sharing has transcended the traditional classroom environment. “The information has the potential to be shared among all members of the family, who can then relay it to others,” says Sheyholislami. 

That students, many of whom are separated by rigid political borders, were able to congregate on a single online platform to share their experiences, learning, and conversation in standardized Kurdish language varieties was a powerful achievement for someone such as Sheyholislami, who is devoutly passionate about the Kurdish language and identity. 

Moreover, he believes that students will be additionally motivated should the courses eventually count towards a degree. For this to happen, collaboration with one or more recognized universities would need to occur.

For Sheyholislami, this whole bridge-building process of sharing his research expertise with international communities who are struggling for peace and integrity is an example of post-secondary institutions at their best.  

“Overall, it has been a wonderful opportunity for intellectual engagement and knowledge exchange at the community and global level,” he says. 

Keeping with this objective, over the pandemic Sheyholislami has also held two sessions with the Kurdish community in Ottawa, delivered an invited lecture to the University of Kurdistan in Sanandaj in Iran, and been interviewed by several Kurdish concerned media outlets mostly located in America, Europe, and the Middle East. 

Teaching During a Pandemic

Despite the tragedy and challenges posed by the pandemic, Sheyholislami believes the shift to virtual teaching and learning has connected communities in unprecedented ways that would not have occurred before 2020. 

“It is not that we could not do this before,” he says. “The technology was there, and so was the motivation and eagerness of the audience, I think.

“But, for some reason, before COVID-19, online activities were not deemed quite as authentic, natural, and useful as they have been during the pandemic.

“Yes, we have to utilize technology now. This may sound negative because we have no other choice, but I think it has made us go to places that for various reasons we had not gone before.”

He cites his course as an example.

“I never contemplated travelling to Rojava. I usually said that it could wait until there is more stability. Also, inviting a guest would be a burden for some because communities are trying to survive under several states’ military activities in that region.”

“The Kurds are famous for being hospitable. If they know they cannot treat you really well, they may not invite you at all because they fear embarrassment,” he says.

Sheyholislami offers the reminder that necessity is the mother of invention. Now, more than ever, we rely on the communication and the pedagogical affordances of social media and digital technology. 

“When this is all over, we will start enjoying face-to-face teaching and discussions, but I think for many of us, including those who never utilized technology in their profession in any significant way, we will continue to include them, to various degrees, in our work and relationships.”

Mostly, Sheyholislami hopes his experience at Rojava and his students’ success punctuates the shared responsibility towards the linguistic human rights of minorities. 

“If it were not for the de facto Kurdish autonomous region of Kurdish in Syria, the language would have been endangered in Rojava, just as it is in many parts of Turkey and Iran. 

“Minority languages cannot survive under official languages’ hegemonic forces in a modern, urbanized, literate society, and the countryside is no longer a sanctuary for the survival of lesser-used languages that oppressive policies have ignored,” he says. 

“I believe it is our obligation to raise awareness about the endangerment of minority languages, on the one hand, and assist communities in revitalizing and further developing their languages, on the other, so that they can have access to modern educational institutions that are multilingual, multicultural, and multidisciplinary.”

Professor Jaffer Sheyholislami

A note Sheyholislami received from a student when it was announced that he was set to teach a course on Kurdish language and literature:

Hello Professor Sheyholislami,

I am an international freshman at Princeton University, and I cannot explain how ecstatic I felt upon seeing such a prestigious acknowledgement of the Kurdish culture and heritage. I am Kurdish, partly-Kurmanji partly-Zazaki, which is beautiful in its diversity and cultural riches, but hard to access for an individual living in Turkey. Because of Turkey’s oppressive culture and ethnicity politics, I have never had a chance to receive proper education on my own culture or language, so I know as little about myself as any foreigner does, perhaps even less. 

It is my greatest, dearest desire to learn about Kurds, the Kurdish culture, and the language binding a group dispersed to four different, strict countries that are not welcoming to a diversity of any kind…Being involved in this course make the most meaningful summer of this bizarre, pandemic-heavy summer for me, starting my journey to learn about myself and my people, who are still suffering deeply wherever they live.

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