American Geographical Association’s first Panel on Kurds & Kurdistan

Dr Amir Sharifi – Notes on the American Geographical Society’s First Panel on Kurds and Kurdistan.

24.4.2013 – The American Geographical Society held its annual meeting in Bona Venture hotel in Los Angeles on Saturday April 9- 13, 2013. – What was exciting and novel about this year’s meeting was that for the first time since its inception in 1904, this scientific and scholarly society included a panel on Kurds entitled Kurdish Geographies of Space, Place, and Power, organized by Jessie H Clark (chair) – University of Oregon and Christian Sinclair, the Kurdish Studies at the University of Arizona. This was a milestone development in the history of AGS, which had hitherto ignored such an important topic.

As AGS stated in the purpose of the panel “this session responds to this void and works to initiate a fruitful dialogue on a people and place(s) often excluded from regional studies on the Middle East.” AGS and other Geography Associations in the U.S and Europe have much to offer to promote interest in Kurds and geography among students and scholars of geography. This emergent scholarship has fortunately been taking shape and growing in various domains, bringing Kurdish geography from obscurity to greater visibility. In a real sense, this event set a historical precedent to draw attention and contribute to scholarship about the geopolitics and history of the geography of Kurds. This burgeoning preoccupation with geographical imagination can generate and spark interest in research and more attention to be paid to establishing and supporting geographic studies about Kurds in various academic institutions.

Another unique feature of the panel was that presenters were young and aspiring scholars, heralding the advent of a new generation of researchers who with their impassioned professionalism will continue to cultivate interest in geographical research and knowledge about different aspects of a cartography that has been made, remade, and manipulated by imperial, colonial, and post- colonial states, histories, diverging and converging factors and actors, turning the topic into an explosive and contentious issue.

Christian Sinclair from The Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Arizona in his talk “Kurds in motion: Mapping migration and movement across “boundaries” of Syria retraced the ethno linguistic, cultural , cognitive, and geographic history of Kurdish displacement and depopulation and tension between Kurds and Syria in the past decades; he chronicled the trans-boundary movement of Kurds in Syria , tens of thousands of whom since 2012 have returned to the North East, which at one point for a variety of reasons had abandoned ; they are reclaiming their identity. Marijn Nieuwenhuis – University of Warwick, Political Department in “ Marginalized Cartographies: Kurdish and Uyghur Geographies” compared the development of a distinctive Kurdish and Uyghur cases as “two unmapped, marginalized groups because of encroaching form of state nationalism which not merely obliterates alternative cartographies but effectively forces them to be forgotten.” It was argued that the formation of the territorial state is instead responsible for enacting a desire to imagine geography of resistance for stateless nations. Bilal Gorentas in “On the Edge of The Imagined Geographies and Communities: A Study of Border at Turkey’s Iran/Iraq Borders” explored Turkey’s borders with Iran and Iraq as problematic sites for the states that claim these areas not inhabited by their people but Kurds. Borders were analyzed as significant sites for physical, historical, political, and social constructions and identity formation in interaction with socio-economic formations and intergenerational perspectives in borders regions of Iran and Iraq with Turkey. He argued for “modern constructs of identity as being multilayered and imagined and that geography is a complex process of social, political, and discursive spaces both material and symbolic when it comes to imagined geographies.

”Carl T. Dahlman from Miami University and Sanan Moradi – Miami University in their joint talk “From Serbexoy to Federalism: Decentralization and the New Kurdish Geopolitics, revisited the origins and development of Kurdish nationalist movement and discussed how the dilemma of Kurdish map and the partition of the Kurdish home land and the ways in which Kurdish earlier independence seeking movements failed to change the territorial order. It was argued that Kurdish movements have shifted from independence and autonomy to federalism as states shift towards being decentralized as in the example of the successful decentralized order of Kurdish Regional Government that increasingly values decentralized autonomy and federalism over independence. Dilan Okcuoglu from Queen’s University in Canada in her talk “State policies of domination in Turkey’s borderlands” laid out a focused yet evolving research agenda for her unfolding work in the area far beyond the borders of academia and geography into the domains of political discourse and ethnography. She meticulously laid out an inquiry into exploring the ways in which Van, at the borders of Iran and Turkey has is the site of power structures and resistance and how structured forms of domination have affected people’s lived experiences and their strategies of coping with the dominant power.

What came to the fore was the desire to understand the complexities of the Kurdish geography, traditionally caught between what Kurdish nationalists’ insistence on what Shea has termed as “topophilia” while opponents and even some advocates of Kurdish rights attempt to detach Kurdish demands from geography, arguing that cartographic solutions are implausible and that the Kurdish identity is to be grounded in shared abstract and imaginary and imagined cultural values. However, as clearly illustrated in the panel discussions Kurdish borders continue to be the site of persistent resistance to territorialization and forcible assimilations that limit and oppress Kurdish people. The panelists highlighted to different extent the obvious and subtle associations between geographical representations and imaginations and Kurdish identity as pointed out by O’Shea “the geography of Kurdistan, and in particular its topography has played a vital role in the relationship [of] the Kurds to Kurdistan, even in the Diaspora.” (O’ Shea 2004: 193).

In an impassioned and dynamic dialogue during the post session, a thoughtful and fruitful conversation ensued. The Board members of Kurdish American Education Society (KAES) also attended the post session discussion, attended by all the panelists except for Jesse H. Clark who in in the subsequent panel was presenting her ongoing research entitled “From Cynicism to Ambivalence: Rethinking State Subject Relations” on tensions and feelings of ambivalence among women as development participants in Southeast Turkey and their dealings with the Turkish state and challenges these Kurdish women pose to the dominant political narrative. The participants stressed the need for creative and critical understanding of the multiplicity of approaches and perspectives on the fluid and dynamically diverse Kurdish identity and the shifting demographics of Kurdistan. The participants recognized the pressing need for pioneering work yet to retrace Kurdish cartography on historical, political, economic, material, and cultural dimensions through innovative geopolitical approaches to enhance our understanding of Kurdish geography which despite dominant discourses of denial continues to define Kurdish identity within a vast area defined by multiple interrelated yet separated, intersecting borders, an area that has during the past one hundred years often been afflicted with death, destruction, depopulation, deforestation , displacement , and in short, physical and cultural genocide primarily because regional and international politics and interests have triumphed over geography.

Future panels can explore the complex and multilayered nature of maps not simply as spatial and temporal but discursive domains. The fact of the matter is the dominant discourses be it by central governments and major global powers and their mediatized representations will likely continue to undermine Kurdish territorial legitimacy and ties to their homeland, a reality compellingly illustrated by Culcasi, in her probing analysis of American journalistic cartography of Kurdistan. Her research shows the American media in covering political tensions in Iraq, Iran, or Turkey, have reechoed the central governments’ dominant discourse of deleting the word “Kurdistan” in their reporting and depicting Kurds as “violent rebels and backward victims” in what she characterizes as Orientalizing dominant geopolitical discourses that “. . marginalized Kurds by questioning their territorial claims.”(Culcasi, 2006). The Kurdish American Education Society (KAES) will be keenly interested in further exploration of these issues with Kurdish and non-Kurdish geographers and experts. Future panels can further examine the pivotal role of integrated notions of physical, cultural, historical geographies and gendered dynamics of space both real and imagined in understanding the dialectical interrelationship between boundaries, borders, power, resistance, freedom and acts of imaginings and remapping in the socio- cultural construction of identity in the Kurdish struggle and quest for recognition.

Refrences – Culcasi, K (2006). Cartographically constructing Kurdistan within geopolitical and orientalist discourses. Political Geography 25 .

O’Shea, Maria (2004). Trapped Between the Map and Reality: Geography and Perceptions of Kurdistan. Routledge.

– Dr Amir Sharifi, is the president of the Kurdish American Education Society KAES, Los Angeles, California and Lecturer at California State University, Long Beach.