Notes on two recent conferences

Amir Sharifi, Hisyar Ozsoy, and Robert Reigle (Panel: Language, Music, and Identity)

The First North American Conference on the Kurdish Language took place on 05 November 2010 in Los Angeles. From the organisers’ final report (2MB, .pdf) and news from VOA, it seems the event was a success. More than 20 speakers from around the world, including the US, Canada, UK, France, and Turkey, convened at the UCLA James Collins Auditorium to give papers on a range of topics all related to the Kurdish language. Some experts in the field, including Amir Hassanpour and Michael Chyet presented via Skype. By rough estimates, says the KAES report, 180-200 people attended the conference throughout the day.

Michael Chyet (Library of Congress) gives a pre-recorded presentation

I’ve also seen interviews, both audio and transcribed, with some of the presenters on VOA website in Kurdish: Laura Shepherd, Hashem Ahmadzadeh, Jaffer Sheyholislami, and Christian Sinclair.

This was an important milestone for Kurdish Studies in the United States being the first-ever conference of its kinds in North America. Let’s hope there is a Second North American Conference on the Kurdish Language at some point in the future. The conference organisers and sponsors deserve many thanks for this successful event.

And then later in the month, from 18-21 November, was the 44th Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference, also in California (San Diego). I cannot offer too many specifics related to the abundance of Kurdish papers presented at MESA. I saw almost all of them; some were good, some were great, some could have benefitted from more preparation time. What I can say is that many conference attendees spoke of how Kurdish Studies is now coming to the fore and the numerous papers at MESA are a manifestation of the growth in interest in Kurdish Studies. This is great news.

In the past, while there were papers at MESA on Kurdish issues, it was mostly Turkish academics who held a monopoly on the discourse of Kurdish Studies at MESA and other conferences. We are now seeing more and more Kurdish scholars presenting at MESA, and, for the most part, the research is outstanding. Amongst the presenters were also quite a few European scholars and a handful of US scholars.

As usual, most of the research was about Kurds in Turkey…13 papers by my count. Iraq, 4; Syria, 2; Iran, 1; Diaspora, 2. So that’s 60% focusing on Kurds in Turkey. The thematic content varied greatly amongst all the papers, but there’s still a lot on the discourses of nationalism. Papers on Kurdish nationalism in Turkey are getting old, fast!

There is so much else that needs to be researched: folklore, music, language, Kurds in Syria, Kurds in Iran, Kurdish-Kurdish relations across borders.

The only paper on Iran was given by Nader Entessar, entitled Entente Cordiale: Iran and the Kurdish Regional Government. While focusing on the KRG, Entessar gave an overview of economic relationships between Iran and the KRG.

The two papers on Syria provided very different contexts. Ahmet Akturk’s paper (‘Good but Ignorant’: Kurdish Self-View under French Mandatory Rule) looked at Kurdish nationalism through Hawar and other journals published in Syria under the French Mandate. Didn’t really focus so much on Syria as it did the promotion of Kurdish nationalist discourse. The other paper about Syria by Christian Sinclair looked at Kurdish rights under Bashar al-Asad from 2000-2010. The assumption was that Kurds are worse off now under Bashar al-Asad than under the father and the question was what has changed, regionally and otherwise, to affect the changes vis-à-vis the Kurds. The two other papers that were on the agenda about Syria were not presented as the presenters did not show up: Michael Gunter and Robert Lowe. Too bad, I would have enjoyed hearing Lowe speak.

I thought the best paper was the one presented by Nicole Watts (San Francisco State University). Her paper, ‘When Remembrance Isn’t Enough: State-Society Relations and Symbolic Politics in Halabja,’ offered keen insights into the 16 March 2006 demonstrations in Halabja in which protestors set fire to the memorial commemorating the victims of the 1988 chemical bombing attack on the city that killed an estimated 5,000 men, women, and children.

Watts argued that the episode reflected efforts by locals to gain control over the considerable symbolic and material resources Halabja accrued due to its status as a martyred Kurdish city, and, thus, to renegotiate the relationship between citizens and the KRG. She spent quite a bit of time in Halabja doing interviews and reading government documents for her research. A memorable presentation on a sensitive topic.

Several panels evoked lively, healthy debate afterwards with many questions and criticisms. Many of the Kurdish presenters were quick to question some of the Turkish presenters’ interpretations of Kurdish events and history. After one panel late Saturday afternoon, one member of the audience was trying to clarify a point with a presenter regarding the ruling AK Party in Turkey and nationalism on the one hand, and a resolution to the demands by Kurds for equal rights on the other hand. The presenter, Dr. Umut Uzer from the University of Utah, declared: ‘I don’t believe there is a solution to the Kurdish problem.’ There were audible gasps from the audience…and a few outbursts of laughter.

Other papers that are worth mentioning for their merit are: Azat Gundoğan, Binghamton U (SUNY)—From Fellow Townsmenship to Leftist Activism: Kurdish ’68ers, Turkish Labor Party and Eastern Demonstrations; Shayee Khanaka, UC Berkeley—Kurdish Women under Ba’athist Rule; Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler, Western Michigan U—Cemo (paper read by Diane King); Omer Ozcan, U of Texas at Austin—Prison and Fortress: Home in the Kurdish Experience of War; and Susan Benson-Sokmen, U of Toronto—Beyond the Nation: Celebrating the Kurdish “Counter-Diaspora” in the Streets of Toronto.

If you were at either of these two conferences, please leave comments below. Would love to hear your impressions!

2 thoughts on “Notes on two recent conferences

  1. i wish i was there. but its great to hear that the problems of Kurds and Kurdistan are discussed by many people from different countries. We need that – we need all world to hear our voice and to see us.

  2. Thanks KB for this post!! You have picked absolutely the best parts of the MESA conference. Yes, when “Umut Uzer from the University of Utah, declared: ‘I don’t believe there is a solution to the Kurdish problem.’ There were audible gasps from the audience…and a few outbursts of laughter”. Dr. KA from eastern Kurdistan challenged the presenter when this was uttered. It was hilarious to see Umut Uzer’s face.

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