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The Kurds: Their Character And Customs -ar191603
THE AMERICAN REVIEW OF REVIEWS
THE KURDS: THEIR CHARACTER AND CUSTOMS
BY YOUEL B. MIRZA
In the closing years of the nineteenth century, the Kurds attracted the attention of the civilized world by falling upon the Armenians and massacring them. Taking advantage of the cataclysm in the Western world, the Kurds and the Turks appear now to be determined upon settling once for all the question of exterminating the Armenian race. The wholesale murder of the Armenians is not due to religious hatred, as it was at first supposed. A chief reason for this slaughter is economic jealousy. The Armenians are thrifty, industrious, and, for the most part, a well-educated people. Practically all the rug industry in the Orient is controlled by them. They live and dress better than their neighbors. Such things have always hurt the false Kurdish pride The recent atrocities inflicted upon the Christian races by the Kurds in this war have been observed and published broadcast.
The aim of this article is not to review the well-known subject of Armenian massacres, but rather to give the reader information gathered from first-hand observations of the Kurds, their land, and their predominating characteristics.
The origin of the Kurds has not been satisfactorily settled, but it is believed that in their veins flows the blood of Chaldeans, Babylonians, and Assyrians. In early times the Kurds preferred mountains for their place of habitation, and took great pride then, as they do now, in being called "Gurdu," a title which signifies "warrior."
Today the "Gutu" are better known in the Occident as Kurds, and number about two million, five hundred thousand,1 and have their abodes mostly in Kurdistan. Their land, which is extremely mountainous, rises to the east of the upper Tigris in the direction of Urumiah. The area of this space is sixty thousand square miles. There is not a mile of railway in the whole country and neither is there a road fir for traveling except by caravan.
No people are more mistrusted by the Persians and the Turks than the Kurds. They do not consider a man's religion and standing; they would rob a Turk or a Persian as well as an Armenian or a Greek. The Ottoman Porte and the Persian Shah have not the power to interfere; for that very reason, I Believe, the Russian rule in northern Persia was a great blessing to the peace-loving peasants, as Russia was the only government which was able to establish order and to create fear among the Kurds. Of two million, five hundred thousand Kurds, there is no one who calls himself lawgiver and ruler, no one who assumes the authority to punish his fellow Kurd. Law with a Kurd is a personal matter. Each individual considers himself his own king and prince. A monarchy of self-control is unknown among them. The Kurdish mind is his constitution , his gun and sword the means by which he enforces his law and justice. Such a state of affairs is not, of course, favorable to the establishment of a stable government, nor is such an atmosphere conducive to the development of the better qualities of human nature.
Occasionally some queer stories have been told by visitors to Kurdistan; one of these remains in my memory as exemplifying the schooling of a young Kurd. My grandfather, who had been doing missionary work among the Kurds, related the following conversation with a chieftain: "You have several sons, I understand?"
"Yes," answered the chief.
"Are they all married?"
"All but poor Ali, and no girl will marry him, because he is not a successful thief and robber."
"Well, what are you going to do about it?"
"Oh, I have advised him," responded the chief, "to carry with him a gun and a sword, and I have explicitly impressed upon his mind, that no matter how bloody and evil the deed he might commit, it will only add respect and honor to his name and family."
Such is the advice of the Kurdish father to his son. The word kill is the most used term in the whole Kurdish vocabulary. If tow Kurds were in conversation, it would not be very long even for one who knows nothing about the language to detect the word "ulderam,"2 "I shall kill him." It would indeed be very unusual to see a young Kurd without a club in his hand, a dagger in his belt, or a gun on his shoulder.
Allegiance of any description is, according to philosophers like Rousseau, a folly, if not a crime, and quite beneath the dignity of a human being. Such is the philosophy of the Kurds. They love personal liberty and under no condition will they willingly subject themselves to any ruler. The Kurds take no interest in modern reforms. They dislike the light of civilization. We hear of every known nationality and people in America except the Kurds. Civilization has never penetrated the Kurdish character; they have preferred their barbaric freedom to law and justice. They have no established homes; in summer they live in tents of goats-hair on the mountain tops, and in winter in mud villages. Their usual diet consists of bread and buttermilk, and cheese made of goat's milk. They have experienced little change since "Noah's Ark rested on the Mount of Ararat." James Bryce, in his "Transcaucasia and Ararat," p.256,gives a graphic picture of the Kurds:
Through the Empires of Assyria and Persia and Macedon, through Parthian Arsacidæ, and Iranian Sassanidæ, through the reigns of Arabian Khalifs, and Turkish Sultans, and Persian Shahs, these Kurds have roamed as they roam now, over the slopes of the everlasting mountains, watering their flocks at this spring, pitching their goats-hair tents in the recesses of these lonely rocks, chanting their wildly pathetic airs with neither a past to remember nor a future to plan for. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the Kurds is great devotion among the members of families. This is exemplified in the following incident. A chief from the mountains of Kurdistan descended into the plains of Urumiah and there engaged in plundering, the property of the citizens of the state of Azerbaijan. The militia was ordered to trap the culprits. The chief was subdued. They were brought into the city, and all were sentenced to death except the chief, who was spared for his gray hairs.
Among them was a youth of twenty, strong and healthy; his rugged appearance made an instant appeal to every spectator, and the cry rose, "Save him, save him!" Immediately the old chieftain, whom the Governor had forgiven on account of his age rushed forward and demanded, before they proceeded with the execution, to speak to the Governor. After the poor old man had experienced much rough treatment was granted. In true Oriental fashion, he thus addressed the Governor: O, eye of my home and of my family. We did come from the mountains to carry some food to our families and to our herds. We admit that we have done harm to your law-abiding citizens. You have sworn that the guilty men should die, and it is just, but I, who am pardoned on account of my age, come here to demand a favor of my lord. The youngest of my family is with me; he came here because I asked him. This is his first offense. He is young, and has hardly tasted the sweets of life; is just betrothed. I am here to die in his stead. Inshallah, inshallah (in the name of God) let a worn-out old man perish, and spare a youth, who may long he useful to his family, to feed the flocks and tend the sheep. Let him live to drink of the waters flowing from the fountains and silvery streams of Kurdistan, and to till the ground of his ancestors.
The Governor was greatly moved by the old man's appeal. He granted the chief's wishes, and the old man went to meet his fate, while the youth cried wildly and became distracted with grief because the Governor reversed his decree and took the more valuable life of the aged chief. This is characteristic of a system which bears today more clearly than any other traces of the patriarchal government.
[1 There are no means by which we can obtain with accuracy the exact population of Kurds, for neither in Persia nor in Turkey has a government census been established.]
[2 The word "ulderam" is Turkish in origin, as the Kurdish language is largely intermingled with the Turkish and Persian languages.]
p. 130 Photograph by Underwood & Underwood, New York
KURDISH TROOPS IN THE TURKISH ARMY
p. 131 YOUNG KURDISH WOMEN AT COTNI, MUSH PLAIN
A hard copy of this article or hundreds of others from the time of the Armenian Genocide can be found in The Armenian Genocide: News Accounts From The American Press: 1915-1922