BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana University has become the first university in North America to offer a class in the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish, a language spoken throughout several Middle Eastern lands, including Iraq and Iran.
Kurmanji Kurdish is spoken by nearly 15 million of the estimated 27 to 30 million Kurdish speakers worldwide. It also is spoken in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey and is the exclusive Kurdish dialect in the former Soviet Republics of the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia. It also is common in Western Europe, where close to 1 million Kurds have been reestablished.
“Until recently, few Kurdish areas were accessible to scholars, with Iraq and Iran closed and an insurgency in the Kurdish areas of Turkey,” said John Walbridge, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Program at IU.
“However, now the Kurdish area in northern Iraq is prospering, and the Kurdish areas of Turkey are largely at peace and more open. This gives our students and faculty a unique opportunity to acquire the language skills to work with an important and understudied group,” he said.
By the end of this course, the 10 students enrolled this semester will be able to converse with native speakers, read and discuss simple texts and write basic essays in the Kurmanji dialect. The IU course is being taught by Kutbettin Killiç, a native speaker of Kurdish and Turkish, who is a doctoral candidate from Turkey.
IU has a distinguished legacy for the number of languages it teaches, particularly for the languages of the Middle East and Central Asia, Walbridge said. More than 75 languages are taught at IU Bloomington, and include many important in the region, such as Arabic, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Pashtu, Persian (also known as Farsi), Turkish, Turkmen and Uzbek.
The Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region, which is one of only 14 National Language Resource Centers, develops teaching materials for many of these languages.
“Kurdish is spoken in half a dozen Middle Eastern countries, but it is practically never taught, even in the Middle East. We’re proud of the number of rarely taught languages we have here. Kurdish is only the newest pearl on the string,” Walbridge said.
The offering of Kurdish at IU also is significant because of the legacy left by the late Wadie Jwaideh, a native of Iraq, who founded the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and the Middle East and Islamic Studies Program at IU in the 1960s.
In addition to leading the program to international prominence, Jwaideh was one of the most accomplished scholars anywhere on the Kurds. He died in March of 2001, but his widow, Alice, continued to work with Syracuse University Press on publication of his thesis into a book, The Kurdish National Movement: Its Origins and Development, which was published in the last month.
“In Professor Jwaideh’s time, there were few scholars in the United States working seriously on modern Iraqi history and almost none who studied the history of the Kurds. Now we can understand his foresight. It’s a reminder of how far in advance we must plan and invest if we expect our country to have adequate expertise on other parts of the world,” Walbridge said.
The Wadie Jwaideh Memorial Lecture will be given on Nov. 3 by Robert Olson, professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at the University of Kentucky and one of Jwaideh’s former doctoral students, who will be speaking about the Kurds.
Martha Held, a graduate student in Arabic linguistics, helped to organize the Kurdish class and has studied how minority language policies affect ethnic identity. She points to history and noted that the Kurds have been prevented as a people from participating in the world scene because national boundaries have not coincided with where Kurdish is spoken. But she thinks that situation may be changing due to current events in Iraq and elsewhere.
“The economic situation around the world is changing at a really fast pace and that’s going to change the nature of nationhood as well as the relationships between ethnic groups in different countries,” Held said. “It’s really important that this language be taught, because at this time it’s not able to be used in education for the purposes of participating in the modern world. It’s really important that this language be recognized and be saved. These people need a voice in the economy. Otherwise, there will be terrible consequences.” Kurmanji Kurdish has been identified by the U.S. government as a critical language, thus creating employment opportunities for IU students.
“Many of our students eventually work for the government and public sector,” Walbridge said. “Whatever the outcome of the war in Iraq, it is clear that the Kurds will be an important factor in the Middle East in coming decades.”