Culture without Borders: The Rise of Kurdish Studies at UK Universities

The UK has experienced a rise in students interested in Kurdish Studies in recent years, with several leading universities offering language and history courses covering the different areas of Kurdistan. Though many Kurdish communities across the Middle East are still unable to assert their identities through restrictions on the expression of Kurdish language and traditions, the UK offers a safe haven for the study and celebration of Kurdish culture.

SOAS Kurdish Band in London
SOAS Kurdish Band in London

The University of Exeter established the UK’s first Centre for Kurdish Studies in 2006 with generous support and funding from the Ibrahim Ahmad Foundation and the Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), HE Nechirvan Barzani. The centre has been recognized as a global centre of excellence in research and boasts more than 40 MA and PhD candidates specialising in Kurdish Studies.

What makes the Centre for Kurdish Studies really stand out is that it offers a chance “to study Kurdish society, culture and politics holistically in all its complexity and variation, across and within established nation-states and the global diaspora community”.

Equally, the Centre benefits from internationally acclaimed staff teaching Kurmanji, Sorani and classes on Kurdish culture and society, politics and history among others, as well as having held a workshop covering the Zazaki language. It is lead by Associate Professor Christine Allison who holds the Ibrahim Ahmed Chair of Kurdish Studies; and whose research has specialized in orality, literacy, ethnography and folklore as well as the Yezidis and Kurds in the former Soviet Union.

Other universities in the UK with strong research in the area of Kurdish Studies are Regents University, Middlesex University, University of Cambridge, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the London School of Economics among others.

The Kurdish Studies Network (KSN), established at the Kurdish Studies Conference at the University of Exeter, has also been a driving force in promoting the study of Kurdistan not only in the UK, but around the world. It brings together universities in the UK with others in Iraq, the Netherlands, South Korea, Germany, the United States, Turkey and Sweden. The KSN provides a global research network for scholars of Kurdish Studies, facilitating the exchange of ideas and producing the peer-review academic journal, Kurdish Studies.

Along with the formal Kurdish courses on offer at universities, students have themselves set up vibrant Kurdish Societies to promote Kurdish culture through informal social events, student-run classes and Newroz celebrations. Even universities that don’t offer courses in Kurdish, such as Kingston University and the University of Nottingham, have active Kurdish Societies at their student unions.

SOAS, part of the University of London, not only has a Kurdish Society but also a Kurdish Band, supported by the SOAS Iranian Music Society and the SOAS Daf Society, made up of both professional musicians and students who are learning Kurdish instruments. The SOAS Kurdish Band is led by Peyman Heydarian, a prominent Kurdish Iranian musician who plays no less than eight instruments and also teaches students from all over the world to play Kurdish music.

Peyman Heydarian, organiser of the London Festival of Kurdish Music
Peyman Heydarian, organiser of the London Festival of Kurdish Music

Peyman is organising the London Festival of Kurdish Music on 3rd July 2015 at SOAS which will showcase instrumental and vocal music in Kurmanji, Sorani and Kalhor. The theme of the festival is diversity in the diaspora and musical interactions with other cultures. The festival will also be a tribute to the master of Iranian and Kurdish music, Mojtaba Mirzadeh, who passed away in 2005 and who has been an inspiration to Peyman.

The University of Exeter has also promoted Kurdish music and has in the past hosted the famous Kurdish harp player Tara Jaff, after organising a workshop entitled “The Portrait of a Nation in Poetry and Music”. Newroz celebrations have also provided the opportunity to bring a professional Kurdish musician, Semir Ali, to the university from Belgium to perform as well allowing Exeter students to sample delicious Kurdish foods and see traditional circle dancing.

Kurdish cinema has also found its place among the UK’s academic institutions with screenings of such Kurdish classics as Vodka Lemon, This Was Hasankeyf and Turtles Can Fly at the University of Exeter. Students at the many universities based in the capital benefit from their proximity to the London Kurdish Film Festival (LKFF), which this year will be held on 13th-22nd November at the Hackney Picture House.

This year’s LKFF will be the ninth such festival in London and will this year have a specific emphasis on “the historic resistance against ISIS in Western Kurdistan – Rojava (North Syria) and South Kurdistan (North Iraq) and the humanitarian tragedy that has occurred there”. Not only does the LKFF show the latest and greatest in Kurdish cinema, but it will also provide a platform for Kurdish art, music and food.

With such a thriving scene for Kurdish studies and culture in the UK, universities are providing a formal and accredited platform for young people to learn about the Kurds – past, present and future – that has snowballed into a cultural showcase of the best and brightest Kurdish talents in music, art and cinema. The spread of Kurdish Studies as an internationally respected area of study has facilitated the freedom of Kurdish expression outside the Middle East, bringing Kurdistan to a UK audience.