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Agha, Sheikh and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan.

Agha, Sheikh and State. The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan By Martin Van Bruinessen Zed Books, 57 Caledonian Road, London N19BU Price 19.95 [pounds]/$35 paperback. 373 pages ISBN 1-85649-019 Pb

MUCH HAS been written about the Kurds and their current problems, as well as their history, by journalists, historians, social scientists and by some of the Kurdish nationalists themselves from Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Some of this writing has been ephemeral, superficial or frankly partisan. But the steady stream of publications includes some distinguished and valuable works..

At a particularly opportune moment, Zed Books have now published a new and revised edition of Martin Van Bruinessen's fascinating study off the Kurds, also too rarely seen outside specialist libraries because it was originally brought out in a limited edition by Utrecht University back in 1978.

With verve, great objectivity, compassion and wit he has written a book about the Kurds and Kurdistan which certainly deserves to reach a wide public. With a firm grasp of history and international politics, and often using personal observations from his travels to Kurdistan as well as anecdotal evidence, he explains and analyses the actions of Kurdish leaders and local communities.

This is a study of the complex forces at work in Kurdish society, in which the influence of the state is shown to have heavily influenced and often distorted the tribal structures of the Kurds. It is the "primordial loyalties" which Van Bruinessen refers to, by which he means, in the Kurdistan context, those to the family and tribe and to the agha or tribal chieftain, as well as to the sheikh or leaders of the Sufi religious orders. As he writes in his introduction, "Kurdish nationalism and the tribal and religious loyalties stand in an ambivalent relation to each other."

Kurdish communities are made up of tribesmen and dependent peasants, as well as townsmen living often far away from the Kurdish regions of the Middle East. The author claims it isk probably impossible to distinguish originally tribal Kurds from those who have become tribalised.

This book explodes many myths. For example, it debunks the nationalist view that all tribes in Kurdistan have a common racial origin. Over the centuries, there have been Kurdish tribes that were "turkicised" and Turkish tribes that gradually identified themselves as Kurdish. There has also been a parallel process of gradual intermixing between Kurds and the Arab tribes in their shared territories, as well as between their Christian neighbours, both Armenian and Aramaic speakers living in Kurdistan.

History has long been (and certainly remains) an essential element in Kurdish nationalism. The fifth and last chapter of Van Bruinessen's book is concerned with Sheikh Said's revolt in 1925 throughout a large region of eastern Turkey. Though it failed and was crused with great ferocity, this revolt marked a new stage in the history of Kurdish nationalism, according to the author. In essence, the revolt was neither purely religous nor purely natioanalist, but a combination of sentiments shrewdly exploited by Kurdish traditional leaders.

The author disclaims any comprehensive view of Kurdish society. But he does identify two general processes which he believes in the long run will work to undermine the loyalties of Kurdish tribesmen and peasants alike to their traditional leaders, the aghas and sheikhs.

First, the relationship has steadily become more openly exploitative and is increasingly being questioned. Secondly, Van Bruinessen states the tribal and religious ideologies which have for so long backed up the leaders "have almost everywhere come under attack. Modern education and radio disseminate quite different values from those in traditional society." This is particularly true of Turkey, where the majority of the Kurds live.

Much has changed in Turkey since the era of Kemal Ataturk. But official recognition of the Kurds as an important but culturally distinct part of the population has been grudging and slow. Even now, many Turkish nationalists refuse to give due recognition to the ancient Kurdish culture as something other than that of so-called "mountain Turks" who have somehow "forgotten" their old Turkish language and identity.
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Author:Hyman, Anthony
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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Next Article:Crimes of honour.

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