Flipping pages: an Overview of Kurdish Periodical Culture

It’s hard to believe how quickly time passes. Sometimes that’s a bad thing: ask anyone with a deadline. But when you’re trying to build something meaningful and comprehensive, it can very handy. That’s how I feel about the collections of Kurdish and Kırmancca periodicals that I’ve been building. Since I first wrote about the holdings at the British Library in 2019, I’ve gone on multiple buying binges (thanks PirtûkaKurdî and NadirKitap!), taking advantage of the declining Lira to beef up what’s on offer in London. Now, almost three years on, I’ve taken stock of what we’ve got, and am shocked by the fact that we’re up to a hefty 98 titles. You can find the entire listing of them in PDF form at the bottom of this piece. Some of these were already in the collections when I first wrote the piece; I just got better at finding them. But lots have been acquired since then. So, for this Roja Zimanê Kurdî, I’m going to treat you to a bit of an in-depth look at what we hold, with a few oldies and lots of new acquisitions.

Before we go into things in detail, though, I should make mention of some great resources that go beyond the sketchy details in this blog. My first plug is the Înstîtûta Kurdî‘s amazing piece Li ser 112 Saliya Rojnamegeriya Kurdî, by far the most comprehensive listing of Kurdish periodicals I have found online. KurdîLit also has a smaller, less comprehensive piece by Dawid Yeşîlmen (‘Kurdish Journals and Magazines’) that is more focused on Turkey and the Diaspora, with a few Kurmancî and Kırmancca publications put into the spotlight. And if you’re looking for digitized copies of many, or even most, of the magazines and newspapers that I describe below, head over to Arşîva Kurd, which is a goldmine of Kurdish periodicals from across Kurdistan.

Onwards and upwards! It makes most sense to start at the beginning. This, of course, is with the newspaper Kurdistan, produced in Cairo, Geneva, London, and Folkestone (oddly, a magnet for exiled Ottoman intellectuals and publishers) around 1900 by Miqdad Midhet Bedirxan. Kurdistan is a milestone for journalism in Kurmancî, and there’s plenty written about it. Check out, for example, Felat Digeş’ Rojnameya Kurdî ya pêşîn, Kurdistan. It’s also been reprinted, as you can find in the 2018 work Kurdistan: yekemîn rojnameya bi Kurdî. Ferhad Pirbal, meanwhile, has collated the immediate impact of Kurdistan in terms of expansion of journalism throughout the first few decades of the 20th century in ‘Pioneer Kurdish Publishers’.

Together with Roja Kurdî, Jîn (neither of these two are at the British Library), Rya Taza (copies on WorldCat), the first Kurdish newspaper in Soviet Armenia, and Hawar (Wikipedia article here; and the reprinted compilation from 1998 and 2018), published in Syria 1932-1943, these five pieces form the best-known pre-1945 periodicals in Kurdish, and are foundational in studies of Kurdish print expression. Check out, for example, Dr. Bilal Çelik’s ‘Translation in the Kurdish magazine Hawar: The making and legitimization of a cultural identity’, Süleyman Çetin’s Masters thesis ‘Kovara Hawarê û Bandora wê ya li ser Zimanê Kurdî’, or Karlênê Çaçanî’s Ji dîroka rojnemevanîya kurdî “Rya teze”: sala 1930-1955 to see the extent to which they have influenced thought on Kurdish journalism and language. Rather than focusing on these works, I’m going to look at the 95 other works that are from the post-War period, and that speak to a wide swathe of Kurdish cultural production.

A foolscap sized sheet of paper with text in Arabic script in black ink. At the top of the page is a handdrawn image of a mountain behind rolling hills, with a sun rising behind the mountain.
The first page of issue 11 of the underground publication Dengî Pişmergê, produced in Iraq as part of the struggle for Kurdish rights.

First up is the Kurdish periodical press in Iraq. Given that this was largely the focus of my 2019 blog, I’ll take only a bit of time to look at some of the newsletters that the British Library holds in its collections. These are mimeographed or otherwise samizdat works produced by revolutionary groups in the 1950s and 60s. The titles of these works – Dengî Pişmerge, Hewalî Kurdistan, and Xebat – all point to their revolutionary and combative nature. Taken together with Kurdistan News Bulletin, which was published in Belgium in English and French, these reflect a desire for intra- and extra-community communication about the struggle for Kurdish rights and autonomy. They also reflect the spread of ideas about Kurdish nationhood, usually inflected with Marxist or other left-wing ideologies. Finally, what I find particularly interesting about some of these works is the mixture of Sorani and Arabic. This is hardly a surprise, as anyone educated in the Iraqi school system in the 1950s and 60s likely would have had to learn Arabic. But it’s also an indication of language use and codeswitching within Kurdish communities and intellectual circles at the time.

From the 1970s and 80s, there are sparse examples, mainly those relating to the items I described in my original post from 2019. Here, it’s a question of quasi-state supported literary and intellectual publications from Iraq, all of them in Sorani with Arabic and English additions. Works such as Nuserî Kurd, Rojî Kurdistan and Roşinbirî Nwê speak to a blossoming of Kurdish expression in Iraq during this period. The sudden drop off in production during the Iran-Iraq War is hardly a big surprise. After all, supply restraints would have collided with the regime’s heightened reliance on Arab nationalism. The situation of Kurdish-speakers in the country deteriorated rapidly, reaching a nadir in 1988 with the Baathist government’s use of chemical weapons in Halabja. Interestingly, the Library also holds issues of the magazine Sirwa, a Sorani-language publication from Iran, from the mid-1980s, providing a Kurdish perspective from the other side of the border during this formative period.

When it comes to Iran, there’s a clear imbalance in the collections. The country has a fairly robust publishing industry in Kurdish with a long history. While it’s not part of the British Library’s holdings, I’d be remiss for not pointing out the SOAS Library has digitized copies of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s newspaper Kurdistan from 1945-46, produced in Mehabad, the capital of the short-lived Republic of Mehabad. The British Library collections relating to Kurdish publishing in Iran, however, only start in the late 1980s. Apart from Sirwa, these include Awêne (occasionally incorrectly Romanized as Avina), from the 1990s, and the journal Mehabad. Both are literary magazines and speak to the cultural and intellectual lives of Kurdophones in the Islamic Republic. What’s most interesting to me is that, despite the preponderance of Sorani among Kurdish communities in Iran, Awêne and Sirwa also carried some pieces in Latin-script Kurmancî. This makes me question whether this periodical was also targeted at pan-Kurdish audiences, and whether it might have been exported to Turkey or the diaspora.

Elsewhere, political newsletters were a common feature of the British Library holdings for the 1990s and early 2000s, especially when it comes to diasporic publishing. As one of six legal deposit libraries in the UK, and the only one to which publishers are required to send a copy of their works, the Library collects, in theory, everything produced in the UK. It should be no surprise, then, that the Kurdish holdings contain 10 UK-based newsletters or magazines: Bin Xetê, Hangaw, Hataw, Kongre, Kurdish Resistance, Kurdname (also at Harvard and Yale), Malband, Rifirandum, Roşinbîrî Kurd, and Youth Peyam. These are a mixture of Kurmancî, Sorani, English, and Arabic works that reflect the broad makeup of Kurdophone communities in Great Britain. Students, political exiles, economic migrants, and second-generation members of various communities contributed. Kurdish Resistance was published in Leeds by the Leeds University Student Union, but the rest were all apparently London-based. None of them seem to be in Înstîtûta Kurdî’s listing, which does imply that there’s still a fair amount of work to do in stitching together contemporary histories of Kurdish journalism and publishing in the UK with those in the homeland.

Many of the diasporic newsletters and journals have names that are common nouns; nouns that seem to pop up in the names of other diasporic newsletters in other countries as well. Hangaw, for example, is also the name of a Kurdish literary journal that was published in Kitchener, Ontario (Woot Woot! Nearly-hometown props!) in the early 2000s. The British Library holds a few examples of these, all from other European countries: Bergeh, Berbang Bîrnebûn, Çira,and Nûdem from Sweden; Agiri, Būlitan-i khabarī-i Kurdistān-i Īrān, Hêvî, Iranian Kurdistan, and Kurdistan from France; Desmala Sure from Germany; and Sîmirg from Belgium. Dr. Martin van Bruinessen provides a succinct overview of what these works meant for many who found themselves in exile in the 1980s and 90s in his Transnational Aspects of the Kurdish Question. Although it’s a bit out of date, the book does provide an interesting counterpoint to the current situation. A broader view of the highly political nature of publishing in diaspora can also be found in Dr. Janroj Keles and Dr. Stephen Syrett’s ‘Diasporas, agency and enterprise in settlement and homeland contexts: Politicised entrepreneurship in the Kurdish diaspora’.

Similar to their British counterparts, these works demonstrate both the contexts of their host countries (inclusion of texts in French, Germany, Flemish, etc.) as well as the composition of Kurdish groups in them, alongside news from the local community. The French examples, for instance, are heavily skewed towards organizations connected to Iran. And some have clearly attracted the attention of researchers in the homeland as well. Not only does Nûdem appear (briefly) in Înstîtûta Kurdî’s listing, but it is also the subject of Mehmet Yonat’s Masters thesis ‘Nûdem Dergisi ve Nûdem Dergisi’ndeki Sürgün İzleri’, which explores themes of exile in the periodical. Nonetheless, Kurdish publishing in diaspora is often in a precarious state, with official support limited to grants, even in more amenable contexts, as seen in Husein Muhammed’s report ‘My Language, My Homeland. Recommendations for the Improvement of the Kurdish-Nordic Literary Field.’

Many of the diasporic publications feel charmingly homemade or low-budget. This is undoubtedly influenced by my nostalgia for 90s tech, as well as hindsight. My initial reaction, of course, fails to take into account production possibilities at their time of publication. It’s clear from a number of the issues that community groups and organizations were taking advantage of new opportunities in cheaper and quicker small-scale printing. Compared to the mimeographed items of the 1950s and 60s, these works were cutting-edge for their time, reflecting the impact of technology on the ability of smaller associations to get out clearer and more professional publications at lower costs.

If you feel that something has been missing so far, you’re not wrong. That something is Turkey (well, and Syria post-Hawar). I realize that it might be more appropriate to speak about Rojava, Rojhilat, Bakûr, and Başûr. But the focus on nation-states helps to clarify the impact of national legislation and majority-culture domination on the fate of Kurdish-language publishing. And it re-contextualizes sporadic bursts of Kurdish written production as acts of resistance and survival in the face of such state actions, rather than as false starts or incapacities. As Dr. Özlem Belçim Galip has explored in ‘Kurdish Voices in Diaspora’ and Gökhan Mülayim in his Masters thesis ‘Publishing the ‘Unpublishable’: The Making of Kurdish Publishing in Turkey’, state repression made long-term Kurdish publishing in Turkey untenable until the 1990s.  

But since the 1990s, periodicals have become a flourishing and exceptionally diverse aspect of Kurdish written and creative expression in Turkey. And they don’t just highlight Kurdish words. While they might not be the very first magazines to appear in Kurmancî in Istanbul, I’m going to start off this section with a look at some of the satirical comics and graphic periodicals that emerged in the last decade of the 20th century. These include Tewlo and Pîne, the first of which was born in 1992 thanks to the work of Adnan Sancar (according to the magazine; Wikipedia says Serhat Bucak instead).

Oddly, comics or graphic magazines don’t figure in the Înstîtûta Kurdî study, but Tewlo does have a page on Kurdish Wikipedia, as does Pîne. There’s not much out there by way of scholarship about either of the magazines, but it’s clear from their content and their contributors that they had a considerable impact on the future of Kurdish journalism in Turkey. Tewlo, which featured works by prisoners in Turkish jails and by established authors and illustrators (including Xelîl Ziravav/Halil İncesu, Doğan Güzel, Musa Anter and İsmail Beşikçi; check out his vakıf),was primarily in Turkish. It did have a number of articles and comics in Kurmancî as well, providing readers with a rare opportunity to use their Kurmancî skills in print (as Zeynel Doğan remembers in this interview about his movie Dengê Bavê Min). Pîne, on the other hand, was entirely in Kurmancî, carrying on the tradition of Tewlo with (occasionally crass, occasionally misogynistic) cartoons and plenty of opinion pieces. It also features letters from readers, providing researchers with opportunities to evaluate reception of the publication as well as its production.

These two satirical magazines might have been short-lived, but they did provide future iterations of Kurdish illustrated satire with a solid foundation. One such example is Golik (here on Twitter), another broadsheet of satirical Kurdish cartoons. Another all-Kurmancî publication, with comics and short articles on social and political issues, Golik has a much more homemade feel to it. The illustrations aren’t quite as slick and the production quality doesn’t seem to have budged from Tewlo and Pîne. But the biting nature of the criticism is still there, and a broader range of issues is now being addressed.

A second illustrated satirical magazine to come out of the TewloPîne complex is Zrîng, which appeared between 2019 and 2021 (when issue 12 marked the end of the run). I have a soft spot in my heart for Zrîng, which published in both Kurmancî and Kırmancca, because I contributed comics to a few of the issues. The magazine didn’t just take direct inspiration from the critical approach of 90s works, it also scored at least one of their illustrators. İmam Cici, a collaborator on Pîne, was also a contributor to Zrîng, all the while working on a completely online publication of his own, GOG (see here for a description in English). Thanks to the magic of online library communities, Zrîng also enriches the shelves of the University of Pennsylvania’s Library (shout out to Heather Hughes!), ensuring that the Kurdish satirical cartoon tradition is accessible to broader audiences of readers.

It’s true that these satirical comic magazines were largely focused on critique of the contemporary socio-political situation in Turkey. But, given that at their core they were held together by a more visual, rather than textual, approach to communication, they also embodied other genres, including the literary. Indeed, literary magazines are a big part of Kurdish periodical production in Turkey. I’m going to leave out Kırmancca examples from this blog (why waste the opportunity for another post?) and just look at some of the Kurmancî examples I was able to acquire. Without being a specialist in contemporary Kurdish literature, it’s hard for me to categorize them in a more detailed manner. It suffices to say, though, that they feature prose and poetry, and aim to reflect a broad swathe of contemporary literary production from across the Kurmancî-speaking space. These include Amida, Bajar, Çirûşk, Derwaze, Destar, Heterotopîa, Güney, Hevsel, Kund, KurdeÇîrok, Nûbihar, Nûpelda, Rewşen-name, Roza, W, Wenda, Wêje û Rexne, and Zarema (here for American libraries).

These magazines are so diverse and varied that they elude all but the most general of sweeping statements. Most were published in either Amed (Diyarbakır) or Istanbul, but there are a few examples among them that represent literary culture in Ankara, Izmir, Mêrdin, and Van. Most take on any type of literary expression, but some, like KurdeÇîrok, rely exclusively on Kurmancî and Sorani short stories. And while all feature original pieces of prose and poetry, there are more than a few that also provide space for literary criticism springing from Kurdish experiences with Kurdish literature, among them Hevsel, Nûbihar, W, and Wêje û Rexne. Some go so far as to include art criticism within their remit, as can be see with Güney, Kund, and Roza. The pull of periodicals as means of distributing both literature and criticism is evidently very strong, bleeding into smaller, less-commercial fields as well. The bilingual Kırmancca/Kurmancî Laser, a fanzine produced by students in Çolig/Çewlîg (Bingöl), for example, mirrors formats found in the works listed above.

An array of multicoloured magazines splayed over a dark green table.
Covers of the magazine Folklora Me published in 2020 and 2021.

The collection of works by named authors, and their categorization according to Euro-Atlantic genres, is not the only way that literature enters the realm of Turkey-based Kurdish periodicals. Two works in particular have been instrumental in collating and giving voice to Kurdish ethnology and popular culture: Folklora Me and Folklor û Ziman. The former, published by the venerable Weqfa Mezopotamyayê, first appeared in 2015. It collects groundbreaking scholarship from across the region on historic and contemporary Kurdish culture, reclaiming the discipline for those whom it traditionally described passively. The latter work is also published by the Weqf, albeit as an international journal, bringing in articles and other contributions in Kurmancî, Sorani, Turkish, and English, and thereby connecting Kurdish ethnography with its counterparts around the world. If I’m going to round out the humanities here, it would be remiss of me to leave out the single-issue Felsefevan, a brief attempt at discussing philosophy and Kurdish intellectual history in Kurmancî, and another example of the changing role of the language in terms of scholarly culture.

Given the highly politicized nature of Kurdish-language publishing in Turkey, and indeed around the world, it would be very surprising not to find magazines devoted to politics, social studies, or the Kurdish struggle. There are definitely more than a few within the British Library holdings, the vast majority of them left-leaning and highly critical of the state. Among these, some publish exclusively in Turkish (Kırrık Saat, Qijika Reş), while others are bilingual (Tigris, Tîroj – here for American holdings). Tîroj is still active and has quite a long back catalogue, having begun in the early 2000s. But most of the other publications are of a short lifespan and speak to precarity of both the economic and socio-political situations of those engaging in print politics in the country.

Kurdish politics, and particularly the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, have long been marked by the prominence of women and women’s issues. Apart from the usual images of all-women groups as part of the PKK or the YPG, Kurdish women have also been at the forefront of parliamentary and non-violent campaigns. Leyla Zana, Leyla İmre, and Leyla Güven are just three examples of a long list of politically active Kurdish women. Two magazines within the British Library’s collections speak to this focus on women’s issues: Jineolojî (American holdings here) and Jina Ciwan. The first, published in Amed in Turkish, is broader in scope and addresses both feminist theory and praxis. Although not tied exclusively to the Kurdish context, its publication in the south-east of the country makes Kurdish politics an inescapable part of life. And the fact that Jineolojî’s website contains English, Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic mirrors sort of implies that they don’t shy away from it either. Jina Ciwan, unlike Jineolojî, isn’t really a standalone magazine, but rather accompanied Tigris (above) as a supplement. Nonetheless, the fact that the publishers of the main periodical felt the need to produce a separate item devoted exclusively to women speaks volumes (pun intended) about the commitment to women’s liberation within the cause and the industry.

PoliSci’s not the only social science of interest for publishers, however, and the collections at the Library have a few different interesting outputs speaking to the spread of Kurdish beyond the humanities. Whether it is history and sociology (Kürt Tarihi, Nûbihar Akademi, Toplum ve Kuram, Zilan Akademî, and Zend) or psychology (Psychology Kurdî), most of these periodicals prove to be more durable than literary ones. What’s more, they reinforce the idea, very forcefully, that the only barriers to the usage of Kurdish in all aspects of life are those placed there by the powers that be, not an innate deficiency in the language itself. Sadly, a groundbreaking publication that would have done the same for the legal profession, Aşdad, only managed to eke out a single issue. But there is, of course, hope that it has paved the way for more successful attempts in the future.

There’s one last periodical that I want to look at briefly before wrapping things up, and that’s Çavreş. This publication, which appeared for a short while in 2008, seems to have been connected to a broader multicultural publishing initiative that included similar works produced in Turkish and Lazuri. I acquired a copy of the Lazuri one after I wrote my post on Lazuri written expression in late-2020. Entitled MultiKulti Deve, it appeared in 2013, several years after the Kurdish version. The articles here are broad in scope, and are all intended to fit into the realm of popular culture (çanda populer; popüler kültür). It’s proof that the flexibility and responsiveness of periodicals does make them an ideal means of building bridges and crafting solidarity across the many boundaries that divide societies.  

What you’ve read up to here is by no means a comprehensive listing of all Kurdish newspapers and magazines produced since the fateful appearance of Kurdistan in 1898. Indeed, the British Library lacks many key newspapers, including the crucial Azadiya Welat, published in Amed until police shut it down in 2016. Not even Kurdish Wikipedia seems to have everything that might have been published on their listing of Kurdish periodicals, so there’s evidently a lot more work left to be done in creating an exhaustive catalogue. If you’re looking for greater information and bibliographies about what exists, check out Hoshyar Karim’s Kurdish Journalism: a history and union catalogue, 1898-1958, Fetullah Kaya’s Kürt Basını, Azadî Kak Mistefa’s Le r̄iwangey bîlbîlekanewe, Cutyar Tofîq’s Bîbliyografyay r̄ojnamegerîy Kurdî le r̄ojhełatî Kurdistan u dereweyda, Azad Remezan’s Binema zimanîyekanî, or Jamal Khaznadar’s Raberî Rojnamegeri Kurdî. These are just the books I’ve found, and a search through either DergiPark or JSTOR will also bring you to lots of great articles, some of which I’ve pointed out through the course of this blog.

And, of course, there are other institutions that hold valuable collections as well. If you’re in the UK, consider checking out SOAS, as well as the Special Collections at the University of Exeter, and the Bodleian and Cambridge University Library. Outside of Great Britain, there’s l’Institut Kurde in Paris, the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and the Kurdish Library in Stockholm, all close to great centres of Kurdish periodical publishing in Europe. And, of course, the ever-valuable Înstîtûta Kurdî in Istanbul, plus the University of Mardin-Artuklu, with its vibrant Kurdish Studies program.

You’ve made it this far, and I wish that there was a pot of gold that I could offer you for coming over the rainbow. Instead, I hope that I’ve left you with a sense of the breadth of Kurdish periodical culture. And of the importance of library and archive work, too, especially as it pertains to collections of lesser-taught, minority, and marginalized languages. It’s through the tireless work of colleagues around the world who have acquired, catalogued, digitized, and written about these works that a view of the richness, complexity, and diversity of Kurdish journalism begins to emerge. This isn’t just about horror at the thought of losing the ephemeral. It’s about documenting an inspiring history. In conditions of state oppression, economic constraint, and bloodshed, the wealth of Kurdish periodical production demonstrates the resilience of the people and their commitment to the language and culture of their communities. And for that, I wish you: Roja zimanê kurdî pîroz be!

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