Saturday, 06 August 2011, 08:19 GMT
Kurds and cultural festivals

File Photo

The Kurdish Globe
By Dr. Amir Sharifi

Festivals should represent a living, vibrant culture to visitors

Kurdish American Education Society, as with other Kurds in the diaspora, welcome opportunities to participate in citywide folk festivals. As stated by Bauman (1983) "A folk festival thus reframes folk culture as an element of a legitimate, polite, or elite culture, typically under the auspices of institutions representing these interests -- a school, university, or museum, a municipality, a historical site, a public park -- and with the sponsorship of various establishments, foundations, corporations, governments, agencies, and the like."

The unstated purpose of Kurdish communities in participating in these cultural festivals, made possible by cities, municipalities, universities, museums and cultural centers, is to share cultural knowledge and practices. Irvine Global Festival is such an event. KAES annually partakes in this festival to remember, retain, disseminate and transmit Kurdish cultural heritage. A recurring question in attending these events is the need to discover how to represent our understanding and vision of our own culture. We, as cultural messengers and practitioners, need to understand the complexity underlying the meaning of authentic cultural participation in major folkloric festivals throughout North America and Europe. Ideally, we want to enable participants and visitors to engage in and experience different aspects of our culture. By participating, we observe ourselves and other cultural traditions. The question then is: "How can we optimize our mutual and reciprocal participation and contributions to such festivals?" This requires a critical and analytical framework.

Our cultural representation should reflect the essence of our cultural capital and knowledge, a microcosm of the macro culture; yet paradoxically our cultural capital is, on the one hand being threatened by commercial forces of globalization and we as Kurds in diaspora, on the other hand, we are not always keen on enlivening and maintaining our traditions nor are we culturally competent enough to locally represent the authenticity of our culture with authority. Our knowledge of our culture, because of assimilative pressures and life in diaspora, has eroded our meager knowledge. Because we are surrounded by entrenched ideologies that bring their tug of topographical war even to multicultural festivals to challenge our self-representations, we need to be tactful and savvy about our cooperative participation. Although our struggle for the right to self-determination to represent ourselves is not separate from what goes on in the homeland, we should not let narrow political interests or aspirations interfere with our work.

Paradoxically, the main preoccupation in Kurdistan proper (different parts) is not cultural preservation and revival. I personally witnessed a regrettable level of apathy on a trip to Hawler (Erbil), one of the cultural capitals of Kurdistan, where I expected to experience cultural revival and empowerment in a new light, only to be dismayed at its absence. I was shocked to find no Kurdish magazines nor newspapers in major international hotels (publications in Arabic and English were available) nor did I find any local artifacts or crafts or artistry except for some textiles housed in a small museum at the foot of the Erbil Citadel, which as an ancient perpetually inhabited city, poorly maintained and inadequately restored.

Our main task in cultural preservation is not just to display our culture as a static to conserve it, but to be able to reproduce its dynamic and contemporary nature in reversing its demise, in reclaiming and reviving it. On the same trip, I could not hide my disappointment and indignation at a Turkish shopkeeper in Istanbul who insisted on selling me a Kurdish garment as Turkish wedding clothing.

We need to think about and decide what aspects and elements of our culture, and in what form and format, would best represent us. Participation in such festivals as public events enables us to take stock of our cultural resources and their state as we and our youth become involved in not only displaying but recreating viable cultural forms and expressions. Folkloric festivals provide us with the opportunity to publicly represent our culture in visual, aural and kinesthetic modes.

Then, the critical question is what to include in a cultural festival where a kaleidoscope of cultures are represented, We participate mostly to display our symbolic and cultural capital, what is called intangible culture including but not limited to epistemologies, traditions, language, music, dance, oral practices, art, religious beliefs, rituals and celebrations. We could also include some of our tangible culture, such as clothing and musical instruments. As planners and participants, we will display those traditions that have been vibrant and dynamic, reinvented to fulfill contemporary needs.

As practitioners and messengers of our own culture , in the past we have collected and presented ideas and materials from a variety of sources, such as books, museums, maps, television and digital media, but we have to go beyond simply political representation (which is problematic in itself) to animate our cultural presence and participation. We need to be knowledgeable and competent enough to embody our cultural practices and traditions. Unfortunately, bitter political realities have overshadowed even our deep culture and self-expression (See Ahmadzadeh's insightful discussion on the nature and characteristics of Kurdish memoirs, 2003). As Ahmadzadeh rightfully notes the emotive cultural and individual self is lost in the rhetorical fetters of politics.

To the extent we can, our cultural stalls at festivals, such as Irvine Global Festival, should be culturally and architecturally imagined spaces to create a perspective for visitors. We need to be able to imaginatively research and recreate the spatial and temporal expanse of cultural history for visitors so they can be mesmerized by the trance state of Kurdish mystic music as we have them join hands with us in a cacophony of Kurdish dance music. Visitors can sit on Kurdish fine cushions to sip tea; they will see and feel not only the beauty of the Kurdish rugs and carpets, but weavers (or those who have skills) can teach them how to do a few knots. As messengers of our culture, we should appear in our traditional Kurdish clothing. Visitors should be able to try Kurdish cuisine. We should be able to do Kurdish sports and games, with demonstrations so children can be taught to play a Kurdish game or two. We can have workshops during different times of the day or enact different aspects of our culture. Posters and paintings can show visual glimpses of our land and cultural events. Musicians can show Kurdish instruments and how they work; vocalists could show Kurdish musical modes, poets can recite poetry and storytellers can dramatize narratives or recite lullabies.

We should encourage and allow visitors to take pictures or make videos. We will do the same by documenting community participation by taking pictures and digital videos of the events to be made available online to people everywhere. We should have informed and knowledgeable participants to talk to visitors to answer their questions, to help them appreciate our culture and understand the significance of its preservation. It is only through collaborative engagement with the visitors that we can create a genuine cultural space where we can demonstrate the magical force and dialectics of authenticity of our culture. In the virtual space we should create links to the festival and provide background cultural information about our events during the festival.

It is through our engagement in and with genuine cultural activities that we can bring others to experience our culture and living traditions. If festivals are approached in this manner, they can contribute to the Kurdish cultural vitality, preservation and reproduction in diaspora. We call upon Kurds in Southern California and elsewhere as bearers of their culture to help us create the most revealing and appropriate cultural expressions in the upcoming events to shape our vibrant participation in Irvine Global Festival towards this end.

We have yet to develop an informed and consistent dialogue with others about our identities. Because we represent a marvelous diversity, we should instinctively welcome cultural differences and enhance our understanding of the nature and role of diversity in the richness of our lived experiences. However, we have been slow in recognizing this diversity and in making it a part of our critical democratic practices to give voice to who we are and what we stand for. Contrary to the common belief, we are not just one but many and we should respect aspects that are not universally shared.

While KAES has taken the initiative in Southern California to promote informed and passionate participation in Irvine Global Festival , it has long welcomed a broad-based participation of fellow Kurds to foster cooperation in order to claim ownership of our culture that goes beyond simple geopolitical boundaries to include the multiplicity of our cultural being, feeling and acting as we reinvent our living culture in diaspora for our children and posterity.


Dr.Amir Sharifi
Kurdish American Education Society (KAES) President


Bauman, Richard, Inta Gale Carpenter, Richard Anderson, Garry Barrow, Patricia Sawin,

William Wheeler, and Jongsung Yang. 1988. The 1987 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife: An Ethnography of Participant Experience. Bloomington: The Folklore Institute, Indiana University.

Ahmadzadeh, Hashem. 2003. "A Review of Kurdish Life Writing." International Journal of Kurdish Studies.