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Nationalism and Education in the Mother Tongue

The available evidence suggests that Kurdish political and intellectual leaders regarded full native tongue education as an indispensable tool of national consolidation and a sure way to resist the assimilation efforts of the central government. For their part, the central government considered education in Arabic a necessary means of integrating the independence-seeking Kurds. "Kurdish education" thus turned into a battlefield throughout the Mandate period (cf. Sluglett 1976:182-95, 199-206, 211-16), and has continued to be a major demand of the Kurdish nationalist movement. An examination of the positions and actions of both sides throws some light on the way non-linguistic obstacles affect the standardization process.

A. Education and Language Development

Representing the Kurdish opinion of the time, Kurdish historian Zaki (1935:59), then Deputy in the Chamber, complained to the Higher Commissioner that "limiting the teaching of Kurdish to elementary and primary school level will hinder the progress and development of the Kurdish language" (cf. 5.1.6 on other language related issues raised by Zaki). He further rejected the argument that Kurdish was unsuitable for teaching and writing and noted that the holders of this view were uninformed about several centuries of historical, linguistic, literary and religious writing. Zaki claimed that Kurdish was even richer than Persian and, as such, the defect ascribed to Kurdish was not to be found in the language but rather in the conditions that had not given it "...a chance to be used and to gradually get reformed and developed" (pp. 59-60).

To develop both the language and education in it, seven Kurdish members of the Chamber of Deputies submitted a petition to the Minister of Education on June 1, 1928 in which they outlined seven "most important causes of the retrogression of education" in Kurdistan and sought to remove them by:

  1. establishing a "Translation and Compilation Committee" for preparing school textbooks;
  2. devoting enough funds for hiring competent and readily available teachers for secondary schools and a Teacher Training College;
  3. forming a single Kurdish education office and inspectorate in charge of all Kurdish areas;
  4. the completion of incomplete secondary schools and the opening of new ones, all using Kurdish as the medium of instruction, but teaching Arabic as a second language;
  5. establishing a Teacher Training College in Kurdistan; and
  6. opening schools for females (text of petition in Zarî Kirmancî, No. 5, November 11, 1928, pp. 4-7).

Addressing these and similar demands, the Mandate's 1929 annual report to the League of Nations reiterated government policy (G.B. 1929:139-40):

The opening of three new Kurdish elementary schools has not appeased the discontent of the Kurds with the general educational policy of the Government. This discontent takes the form of complaining: -

  1. that there are not enough Kurdish elementary schools,
  2. that there is no Kurdish training college,
  3. that there are not enough school books in Kurdish,
  4. that the Kurdish schools are handicapped by not being under a separate Kurdish education area.

A fair answer to these complaints is that (a), if true of Kurdistan, is equally true of the Arab speaking areas; (b) that a separate training college is neither practicable nor in the interests of the Kurds themselves; that (c) is true, but is becoming less true every year; that (d) is a reasonable complaint which certainly should be redressed. If it were redressed probably all the other grievances would disappear.

Administrative reorganization of education was not, however, the central issue so far as the Kurdish sources indicate. The main question was teaching in the native tongue. The nationalist figure, Huzni Mukriyani, suggested in his magazine Zarî Kirmancî (No.2, 1926, p. 18) that remaining uneducated was better than receiving education in a foreign tongue:

Between Son and Father

Son: Father, why do you write in your mother tongue?

Father: Son, it is binding on us to write and read in our language.

Son: Then, why they do not teach us in the language?

Father: It should not be [like that]; I send you to school to be taught in your own language.

Son: I like it but my teacher teaches me in another language which I don't understand and find very difficult.

Father: If this is the case, I won't let you go to school.

Son: No, I'll go and study; it is better than ignorance.

Father: You had better become a shepherd, [Or] do ploughing for me. These are better than taking lessons and not understanding them.

Son: You are in enmity with education and knowledge; you do not appreciate progress, that is why you prevent me from going to school.

Father: My dear son, I like education and I am not an enemy of knowledge and enlightenment, but it is better for you to remain ignorant than to be unaware of your identity, not to study in your language and to serve the strangers...

B. The Demand for Schools.

Next to full native tongue education were demands for extending education to all Kurdish areas and for the provision of schools, teachers, budget and facilities on the basis of proportionality, i.e., a share of 17%, according to the official estimate of the percentage of the Kurdish population of Iraq. Here, too, complaints were always made that Kurds did not receive their just share. A representative official response was the following (G.B. 1928:132):

    The opening of 5 new primary or elementary schools in the course of the year in Kurdish areas has satisfied everyone except the Kurds themselves. It is not easy to hold a just balance between the claims of Kurdish and Arab areas for new schools, or to persuade the responsible authorities that the number of pupils is not the only justification for the opening of a new school. If it were so, the Arab areas would get a larger share of new schools than they actually do get. Another difficulty is that whereas the Government holds that the present 30 Kurdish primary and secondary schools represents the maximum to which the Kurds are entitled, most Kurds regard, or profess to regard, this as a minimum. Yet apart from questions of right or wrong, it is clear that the country cannot at present afford a separate training college and separate higher schools for Kurdistan, even if such were proved to be in the interests of the Kurds themselves.

According to the data taken from the Annual Reports, however, the Kurdish share of primary/elementary schools was not larger than 11.43% (cf. Table 51).

Table 51. Number and Proportion of Kurdish Schools in Iraq, 1923-30
Table 51

a. Figure obtained by adding 4 new schools to the 15 of the previous year.
b. Figure obtained by adding 5 new schools to the 19 of the previous year.
c. Figure given in the Report is 30 which include two intermediate schools with instruction in Arabic.
d. Figure obtained by adding 3 new schools to the 28 of the previous year.
e. The decline is apparently due to the Arabization of the Kurdish schools of Mosul liwa.
* Annual Reports are cited under G.B. in the Bibliography.

Least convincing to the Kurds was the government's financial arguments against the provision of more schools. Quoting the latest statistics available, Zaki (1935:62) told the Chamber of Deputies in August 1928 that of the total amount of rupees spent on schools, 4.4 % were devoted to Kurdistan where the population was 17%, while the Turkmen share was 3%, although their population was 8% and Arabs and others got 92.6% with a population of 81 %. In the same year (1927), the government had spent only 1 % of the revenues from Sulaymaniya and 2.50% of those from Arbil on education in these liwas, whereas the allocation for Arab liwas was 38% (Baghdad), 18% (Karbala) and 21% for Basra.

Another limitation on Kurdish education was the government's reluctance to introduce Kurdish into the old or newly-established schools of some Kurdish areas. Zaki (1935) showed that only three out of 20 schools (15%) were Kurdish in Kirkuk liwa, whereas 51 % of the population were Kurds. The remaining schools, "except one or two" (i.e., 75% to 80%), taught in Turkish, which was the language of no more than 21½ %. There were no Kurdish schools in Kirkuk city. According to Zaki, the situation "pushes the Kurdish inhabitants either to refuse to send their children to school since they do not want to accept Turkish, or to do so unwillingly... That the government lets this strange situation prevail cannot be interpreted except by the government's wish to encourage their [the Turk's] language and its spread in order to harm the Kurds..." (pp. 18-19).

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


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