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Kurdish as Vernacular

From the very start, the British authorities assigned non-Arabic languages spoken in Iraq an inferior status. The official reports invariably refer to Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian, Assyrian, and Hebrew as "vernaculars" (e.g., Ibid. G.B. 1920-31:230). Elsewhere, it is stated that the government "committed itself to the principle of vernacular teaching in Kurdistan" (G.B. 1925:139).

According to this principle of "teaching in the vernacular," Kurdish was used as a medium of instruction only at the primary school level, while students were also taught the Arabic language so that they might continue their education in this language. In spite of continued protest by the Kurds, who demanded the use of Kurdish on all educational levels, various Iraqi regimes refused to allow secondary education in the language until the 1970s.

The League of Nations awarded the disputed province of Mosul to Iraq in 1925 on the condition that, among other things, Kurdish became "the official language" of "teaching in the schools" (cf. 5.1.2). Henceforth, demands for unrestricted use of the language in education grew stronger. However, both the Mandate authorities and the Arab government they had set up in Baghdad insisted on the vernacular policy:

    ...within the last month those Kurds who would have been content with primary education in Kurdish, are now pressing for Kurdish Secondary Schools and a Kurdish Training College. This will mean the duplication of instructions already existing in Baghdad, and therefore will involve heavy expenditure. Besides the economic difficulty there is also a serious mechanical difficulty. Kurdish has hitherto been a spoken rather than a written language, and there are practically no Kurdish books. In the early stages of primary education this is not such a serious defect, but something must be done to meet it in the case of secondary schools. And it is not simply the question of translation that is involved. There is before that the question of transliteration which presents serious difficulties.

Possibly the solution of the problem is to be found in the provision of primary education in Kurdish, at the same time making the study of Arabic as a second language obligatory, and increasing it progressively in the higher primary classes, so that a boy who passes out of a Kurdish primary school would be equipped for an Arabic secondary school. (G.B. 1925:139)

The arguments-i.e., the unsuitability of Kurdish for post-primary school education and the government's financial difficulties-were rejected by the Kurds (cf. below), who continued to press for equality between Arabic and Kurdish in education. The Mandatory power, for its part, continued to justify the policy in the Annual Report to the League of Nations:

    G. B. (1926:129):

    The principle has not been abandoned that Arabic should be studied as a second language up to a high standard of proficiency.

    G.B. (1927:157):

    The Iraq Government quite rightly insists on the maintenance of Arabic as a second language in the Kurdish schools. This is in the interests of the Kurds themselves. If the Kurds would accept this condition with a good grace and concentrate on the standardization of the Kurdish language and the creation of Kurdish school books, their cause would prosper better than it does. As it is, their parochialism has sometimes given openings to their opponents, and embarrassments to their friends.

    G.B. (1928:132):

    It is ... a matter for regret that the standard of Arabic in Kurdish schools is not so high as it should be. Neither legislation nor pledges can save the Kurds from the disadvantages bound to result from ignorance of the official language of the Central Government.

The conflict attracted the attention of the Permanent Mandates Commission in Geneva during the examination of the 1928 annual report. Referring to the annual report's statement, which claimed that the government did not afford separate colleges and schools for the Kurds (cf. quotation below, under B), a commission member proposed a system of bilingual education to meet Kurdish demands:

    Mlle. Dannevig [Member of PMC] pointed out that the Kurds and Assyrians had complained that there were few educational facilities for them (see page 132 of report). Could facilities be given to the Kurds in the higher Arab schools by instituting bilingual teaching in them?

    Mr. Bourdillon [Representative of the British Mandate] replied that it was generally agreed that Kurdish higher education ought to be in Arabic because the language was useful to the Kurds and all the textbooks were in Arabic. (I..N., PMC1921:45)

The Kurdish magazine Zarî Kîrmancî (No. 23, June 4, 1930, p.I) quoted the above conversation and questioned the usefulness of the Arabic language to the Kurds. The magazine article claimed that the Kurdish 'timid (clergy) were more proficient in Arabic than those of Arabia and had compiled more books in the traditional sciences while the Kurdish student in modern schools and in studying modern sciences had never made any use of Arabic. The journal concluded that it was more useful for the Kurdish children to learn European languages while studying in Kurdish.

Source: Dr. Amir Hassanpour, "Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan 1918-1985", 1992.


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