As a young man, Jaffer Sheyholislami walked for four nights from Iran to Turkey to escape the Iran-Iraq war. He secured a visa to Canada, became an academic, and dedicated himself to his great passion: his mother tongue, Kurdish, a minority language spoken in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria that has survived many official attempts to suppress it. Sheyholislami, now an assistant professor of linguistics at Carleton University, is on sabbatical leave to pursue fieldwork in Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq where, thanks to oil money and U.S. support, his language is finally thriving. But his research has once again landed him in a war, this time a war of ideas.
At the heart of this battle is the question of what the official language of Iraqi Kurdistan should be. Central Kurdish, also known as Sorani? Or both Central Kurdish and Northern Kurdish, also known as Kurmanji? To outsiders, this may look like an easily resolved local dispute. But in a region shattered by tribal clashes and separatist strife, where language has been a tool of oppression as much as of communication, the answer could make the difference between a thriving society and civil conflict.
Some scholars are urging the regional government to make Sorani the official language of Kurdistan. The regional government has voiced support for such a move but is now treading more cautiously, for fear of angering Kurmanji speakers. Defenders of language rights argue that both dialects should be made official. But when Sheyholislami aired this view at a conference in the Kurdish city of Erbil late last year, a young man came up to him and accused him of sowing discord.
"He said, 'Professor Sheyholislami, you're dividing the Kurdish nation—why do you do this?'" Sheyholislami says by phone from Soran, a Kurdish Iraqi city, near the border with Iran, where he is spending his sabbatical. "And my response was, 'Well, how could I do that? I have no power to do it. I'm here to tell you that it's already divided, so if you're smart, you will do the right thing and not let it further divide.'"
The majority of Iraq's four million to six million Kurds speak Sorani and write it in an adapted Arabic script. Public subsidies, fueled by oil revenues, have helped pay for the publication of books in Sorani, whether medical dictionaries or Hemingway translations. About one million Iraqi Kurds, however, speak Northern Kurdish, or Kurmanji, according to an estimate by Geoffrey Haig, a professor of linguistics at the University of Bamberg, in Germany. Kurmanji is also spoken across the border, in Turkey, despite past efforts by the Turkish government to suppress it. But the Kurds in Turkey use the Latin alphabet, which means that the medical dictionaries on the other side of the border are not much use to them.
A pan-Kurdish script, many agree, would make things much simpler. But which script? Advocates for the Latin alphabet say it best reflects the sound of Kurdish. Their opponents make the same claim for Arabic letters, which carry additional significance as the sacred script of the Koran.
Muhammad Kamal, a senior lecturer in Western and Islamic philosophy at the University of Melbourne's Asia Institute, is one of several scholars who favor Sorani as the only official language for Kurdistan. "I write complex philosophical texts on Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Heidegger in Sorani," he writes in an e-mail. "I have not come across any philosophical and scientific text in Kurmanji."
Kamal argues that the Sorani dialect has functioned as an undeclared official language for the past century and a half in southern Kurdistan, and that a large number of Kurdish intellectuals speak that dialect.
Then there are fears that a two-language solution, recognizing both Kurmanji and Sorani, would weaken and eventually destroy Kurdish hopes for a nation-state.
"As long as we are as a distinctive ethnic group called the Kurdish nation, we should have a common unified standard language," Sudad Rasool, a Kurdish translator who currently lives in Britain, writes in an e-mail. "We are fully aware about the consequence of bi-standard, which would eventually lead to our nation being divided; the result would surely be two different nations with two different languages."
They and other scholars describe Sorani as advanced, rich, literary, and filled with prestige.
Some language-rights activists bristle at such words. After all, describing one dialect or language as more advanced or evolved than another is an age-old way of suppressing minority ways of speech. In the Occitan language, spoken in southern France, among a few nearby places, the word vergonha was coined to refer to central-government policies that discouraged the use of Occitan by branding it as primitive and backward, while portraying Parisian French as refined and intellectually superior. The literal meaning of vergonha is "shame."
The Kurds themselves are no strangers to the concept of vergonha. Often described as a nation without a state, they have for centuries longed to build a resilient homeland where their language and culture are valued. Ehmede Xani, a 17th-century poet celebrated as the Kurds' own Shakespeare, warned that a language without a sovereign to protect it was like a worthless currency that lacked the seal of an official ruler.
"He explains that if a language doesn't have a state that recognizes it as an official language, it becomes a language that's seen as a crime," says Sandrine Alexie, a librarian at the Kurdish Institute of Paris, who has translated Xani's epic Mem and Zin, a tale of star-crossed lovers, into French. "To perceive that was very, very much ahead of his time."
After all, in the 20th century, using the Kurdish language did become a crime. Turkey, Syria, and Iran have tried to stamp out the Kurdish language altogether. In Turkey even the word "Kurd" was banned at one point. Today the ban has been lifted. However, Article 222 of the Turkish penal code still states that anyone who breaks the law on the use of the Turkish alphabet shall be sentenced to imprisonment of two to six months. That makes using the letters "x," "w," and "q" illegal: They are not in the Turkish alphabet. But they are in Kurdish words such as Newroz, the Kurdish new year. Pressure is mounting on Turkey to change that law.
When Alexie traveled to the town of Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, she observed that Xani's worst fears for his stateless language had come true. Young Kurds listened to her questions, in fluent Kurmanji, and answered in Turkish. "They told me, you talk just like my grandfather back in the village," Alexie says.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, the Kurdish language is flourishing in print, on the radio, and on television. Praised as "the other Iraq" by foreign investors, the Kurdish enclave has in many respects fulfilled America's vision of a secure and prosperous ally. The regional government has invested heavily in scholarships and universities, attracting Western scholars as well as diaspora Kurds. Some believe it will eventually sever ties with Baghdad and declare independence. That means, of course, that the roughly 30 million Kurds in the region are watching Kurdistan as they dream of a place where Kurdish—whatever that means—can finally be the official language.
"Kurdish nationalism has developed enormously between 1980 and today," says Joyce Blau, treasurer at the Kurdish Institute and a professor of Kurdish at the University of Paris. "Iraqi Kurdistan shines like a star in the sky. Everyone looks at that star and thinks, if they managed to do that with a population of four, five million, well, in Turkey we're 20 million—we'll do it even better."
The same goes for Kurds in Iran and even in Syria, where they have used the broader conflict to try to carve out a territory for themselves. Some sense a chance for Kurdish unity. This raises the pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan to come up with a language policy that will neither alienate Kurmanji speakers nor accentuate differences within the Kurdish community.
Ahmed Ferhadi, a linguist who fled Iraq under Saddam Hussein and is now a clinical professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, is also on sabbatical, conducting fieldwork in Erbil. He has found some dialects that combine the phonology of Sorani with the syntax of Kurmanji and could serve as a potential compromise. The problem, he says, is that the Kurdish language is so intertwined with politics. Kurdish Iraq's two dominant parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, fought a civil war in the 1990s. Ordinary words turned into shibboleths. Using the word afrat for "woman" revealed a link with the KDP; the PUK used the word zhin. Today, the two parties share power. This has resulted in an attempt at linguistic fusion that makes Ferhadi shudder: whenever political leaders refer to women, they say "afrat and zhin" to show that they have overcome old divisions.
"People find it laughable," Ferhadi says. He compares it to saying "I'm going to sit down on the couch and sofa," or "I'm going to teach a class to students and pupils."
Such political complexities enhance the allure of a single language as a neat, simple symbol of national unity. During his preliminary fieldwork, Carleton University's Sheyholislami interviewed more than 20 students, professors, and cabdrivers in Soran. Most of them said that a nation must have one language; two meant fragmentation. Asked which language that should be, their proud response was: Kurdish, of course! But pressed on which type of Kurdish, Sorani or Kurmanji, they said they didn't know—though it had to be one of them, for sure.
That view is not unique to Kurds. Abbé Henri Grégoire, a cleric in postrevolutionary France, lamented in 1794 that his country was a Tower of Babel where only a minority spoke French, the "language of freedom." For him, forging a single linguistic identity was part of building an indivisible republic. At the time, his opinion was shared by nation-builders across Europe.
The irony is that many European governments have loosened up since then. Britain finances Welsh poetry books; Finland, Sami radio stations; even France subsidizes Occitan schools. Young democracies tend to adopt several official languages. South Africa has 11. Sheyholislami points out that Europe's old language policies were developed at a time when minority voices were more easily muffled.
"There was no such a thing as a charter of human rights, of linguistic rights," he says. "There was no ethnicity awareness. There was no communications technology that could instantly gather thousands of signatures for a petition on language rights."
Amir Hassanpour, who retired as an associate professor in the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto, argues that people are more flexible and adaptable in their habits of speech than many nationalists believe. In the 20th-century diaspora, with exiled Kurds from different dialect groups mingling and working for a common cause, Kurmanji and Sorani speakers learned to understand each other. Kurdish students in Europe even meshed their dialects into "Sormanji." Both dialects could be used in Iraqi Kurdish passports and on banknotes, Hassanpour suggests, emulating the French-English compromise in his adopted country. He sees it as a question of language rights.
"The idea that there should be one nation, one language, one dialect, one alphabet, this is the idea of many nationalists, but that's not how the world is," he says.
Himself a Sorani speaker, Hassanpour says his argument has angered the Sorani purists so much that they no longer invite him to debates. In 2009 he found himself unable to attend a conference in Erbil and instead sent a letter explaining that both dialects should be used as the official language. Participants later told him that the organizers had read out a letter that contradicted those views, claiming it was from Hassanpour. (The organizers did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Kurdish regional government's take on the spat is harder to unpack. In 2011, President Massoud Barzani was quoted by the Kurdish Globe, an Erbil newspaper, as urging linguists to help develop a single unified language. People could keep their spoken dialects, but should read and write in one standard language, he was quoted as saying.
However, several scholars say the government is avoiding the topic altogether now, for fear of alienating either side. A spokesman at the Kurdish Regional Government's Culture Ministry was unable to find someone who would comment.
The bitter disagreement does not surprise Dilan Roshani, a Kurdish engineer who moved to Sweden as a teenager and was given extra lessons in Kurdish at his Swedish school.
"The language issue is one of the most sensitive issues in Kurdish society," he says. As someone who has benefited from Sweden's support for minority languages, he is grateful for the opportunities he has been offered and is keen to give back. His own, technology-inspired solution is a unified alphabet called Yekgirtu. Different dialects, he argues, are not a problem as long as everyone uses the same script.
Now vice president for scientific affairs at Koya University, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Roshani envisions Yekgirtu's being taught alongside existing scripts. He says some diaspora Kurds in Norway and Sweden are already teaching it to their children. Whether such an alphabet can thrive in the face of political divisions back in the homeland remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Kurds who dream of a single official language can console themselves with the fact that they are not alone. Last year a politician far from the mountains of Kurdistan told his country: "A common language is the most powerful source of unifying force for any nation. Over the course of history, common languages have created cohesive cultures and have helped prevent division."
The speaker was U.S. Representative Steve King, of Iowa, who sponsored a bill that would make English the official language in a country that does not have one: the United States.