Kurdish culture

17/07/2015 20:33

Written by Geoff Hann, Karen Dabrowska and Tina Townsend-Greaves


The Kurds like to celebrate. Nowruz, or spring rites (similar to Easter), is the main festival, which welcomes spring on 21 March, the Kurdish New Year. It is also the Kurdish national day. The Kurdish calendar begins in AD380, the fall of the last Kurdish kingdom – the Kavusakan Dynasty – with an extra seven years added on. Spring is a joyous time in contrast to the hardship of winter. It is the most beautiful season, with clear skies, pleasant sunshine and the blossoming of a fascinating range of flowers. Festivities last for more than a week and include breaking pottery for good luck, resolving misunderstandings and giving children presents.

A few days before Nowruz, bonfires are lit to signify the end of the dark winter season and the beginning of spring, the season of light. Evil spirits are scared off with fire crackers. According to ancient legend, 21 March is also the day on which the blacksmith Kawa smashed the head of the tyrant Zuhak. Zuhak was suffering from a brain disease and doctors advised him to eat the brains of young people. Kawa offered Zuhak a number of his children but when he wanted to take his last son, Kawa revolted and killed him, emerging as a national hero.

Seasonal festivals, such as the first lambing, are also a feature of rural life. At harvest time the first sheaf reaped is offered to a stranger who passes by.

Saz Kurdistan Iraq by Eric LafforgueThe saz, a traditional Kurdish instrument © Eric Lafforgue

Music and dance

The comment by the late Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the most renowned Kurdish leader of the 20th century, that ‘one who cannot dance is not a Kurd’, illustrates the importance of dance in Kurdish culture. Traditional dance is often used by peshmerga, politicians, as well as villagers, to make a political statement when Kurdish culture is suppressed. The dances resemble the Lebanese dabka and consist mainly of handholding group dances round a circle. Musicians who play for the dancers are often also singers. Kurdish music, which influenced that of Iran and Turkey, tends to be melancholic, a reflection on the trials and tribulations of life. In Iraq, Kurdish music has been influenced by the fast, joyous tempo of Arabic music. Kurdish folk songs, or story songs with heroic, amorous, religious and political themes, are stories told to the accompaniment of music. Travelling Kurdish balladeers once sang about the achievements of epic heroes.

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