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A People without a State: The Kurds from the Rise of Islam to the Dawn of Nationalism.

A People without a State: The Kurds from the Rise of Islam to the Dawn of Nationalism. By Michael Eppel. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 176. $24.95.)

In sharp contrast to the spate of recent publications on modern Kurdish politics and history that largely covers only events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, this work is an accessible presentation of earlier Kurdish history. "The purpose of this book," writes the author, "is to examine Kurdish distinctiveness and identity from the rise of Islam to the first development of the modern Kurdish national movement after World War I" (3). As such, Michael Eppel presents readers with a background that will enable them to know the earlier historical basics and understand how present realities came to be. As the author notes,
because the Kurds had no state of their own that could promote the
writing of a national history, and because the prevailing conditions in
Kurdistan and Kurdish society hindered the development of a modern
educated class, the history of the Kurds has not in fact really been
written--a deficiency that this book hopes in some small measure to
redress. (13)

The relatively short text is based on a large variety of sources dating from such ancient Greek authors such as Xenophon; Arabic ones such as al-Baladhuri and al-Tabari, the famous Sharafnama or History of the Kurdish Nation, published by the Kurdish scholar Sharaf Khan al-Bitlisi in 1595; the Seyahatname, or Book of Travels, published by the Ottoman traveler Evliya Chelebi; to more modern ones, all capably listed in the thorough notes and bibliography. Wadie Jwaideh and David McDowall are two recent authors who cover similar ground.

In his wide-ranging introduction, the author tells readers that "in the histories written by the surrounding states and cultures, the Kurds have been perceived as peripheral, tribal, anarchical, and possessed of a savage culture" and problematically that "the word kurd, or kord, originally meant 'shepherd,' so that it had a social significance as well as a vague socioethnic connotation" (1, 7). However, "eventually the signifier kurd acquired the connotation of 'robber'" (20). Heuristically, he adds that "the absence of a Kurdish alphabet appropriate to the sounds of the Kurdish language limited the possibilities for a cohesive literary Kurdish language" (17). Despite the Kurdish national epic Mem u Xin written in Kurdish in 1695 by Ahmad-i Khani, "the absence of a written high Kurdish language... as well as the dominance of the Arabic-speaking state, relegated local Kurdish dialects to a position of inferiority" (44).

Michael Eppel then quickly surveys Kurdish distinctiveness under Arab, Persian, and Turkish dominance in the early Muslim centuries; the era of Ottoman and Iranian rule; the demise in the nineteenth century of the Kurdish emirates or principalities, which possessed many of the characteristics of a state; the seeds of Kurdish nationalism in the declining Ottoman Empire; the beginnings of modern Kurdish politics; the Kurds and Kurdistan during World War I; and the Kurds and the new Middle East after the Ottomans. Russia and Great Britain began to play a large role in the nineteenth century, although the rise of Kurdish nationalism was largely a reaction to Turkish and Iranian nationalism. He observes, "It was the emphasis placed by the Young Turks on the Turkish identity of the Ottoman state in 1912-1913 that accelerated the consciousness of Kurdish distinctiveness, in contrast to Turkish nationalism" (92). There is, of course, a lot more that space does not permit mention.

Eppel's short volume concludes with two medieval maps, another map of the main Kurdish emirates from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, and a fourth map of Kurdistan according to the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. The notes, bibliography, and index are thorough, accurate, and thus very useful. This is a good, readable analysis that will be valuable for scholars, practitioners, and the intelligent lay public.

Michael M. Gunter

Tennessee Technological University
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Author:Gunter, Michael M.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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