Kurds are fortunate to have some of the most visible aspects of their popular culture authenticated to remote antiquity. Some sections of well-known pieces of ancient literature read like compendiums to a lost encyclopedia of the Kurdish ethnic character and culture, as soon as one has identified the site of the events and the characters involved.
The most interesting evidence of the unusual antiquity of the Kurdish popular culture is in fact the oldest. Digging for the paleolithic remains at the Shanidar Caves of central Kurdistan, the archaeologist R. Solecki complains throughout the first few chapters of his excavation report book, Shanidar: The First Flower People (1971), of the preoccupation of his local Kurdish manual workers with wild flowers. He watches in exasperation while the Kurds continue attaching flower bouquets to their axes and picks, the water trucks, caves’ walls, and of course to their already riotously colored costumes. He fascinates his readers when he reports laboratory results showing that a 56,000-year-old Neanderthal man, uncovered from the cave by his flower-bedecked Kurdish workers, was buried in a bed of flowers of many kinds. Old habits die hard.
This national preoccupation with flowers, or rather their colors, is one of the strongest traits of the Kurdish national culture, consistent in every niche and corner of the land and in every segment of the society—more uniform and pervasive than any other single national characteristic or trait.
This may well go back to the roots of Kurds’ way of treating nature as she inhabits the mountains, like a loving treatment of one’s living mate, or more: one’s own doppelgänger. The rocks, the waterfalls, the animals, plants, the spirits, and the personages who inhabit them are each a constituent part of nature’s whole that in its totality a Kurd seeks to simulate as a mirror image—an authentic doppelgänger. Many of these elements are revered and held in religious respect. Almost any large solitary tree growing by a spring or a natural pond is heavy with pieces of colorful cloth and ribbons fastened to its branches as a sign of vigil for a wish. The tree, the pond, and the animals living in and around them are all important elements in the picture of nature as a whole, one that is just a material reflection of the ethereal Universal Spirit. These entities often house lesser spirits, including the souls of human beings on their evolutionary passage up to the station of “human,” or conversely, the spirit of those humans who are demoted to receive punishment for their previous evil lives. As such, they must be respected and kept from being needlessly defiled. The most important of the nature spirits is by far Khidir, “the living green man of the ponds”.
The rich colors of the landscape: rocks, lichens, flowers, the varied nature of the plant and animal life all have been combined and used by this people to create a taste known pejoratively or complimentarily as “Kurdish.” But any traditional Kurd will find this a compliment, a recognition of an important national trait most readily discerned by outsiders. Riotous and gaudy colors, many, many of them, thrown together seemingly haphazardly, with absolutely no control or care to match them, is the trademark of the Kurdish taste. It makes a Kurd stand out in any crowed of conventionally dressed people, in the ancient times as now. Plutarch made note of this colorfulness when singling out the costumes of the consort of the Pontian Mithridates V.
Many modern appliances making it to Kurdistan are “house-broken” by being instantly painted in various colors. Graves are covered by brightly colored, gaily patterned fabrics until the time that flowers can grow on it to give rest to the soul of the dead. It is sadly amusing to non-Kurds present at the burial of a Kurdish infant that the body is treated in a fashion that a Western observer can explain only by the term gift-wrapped. The bright flower-patterned burial shroud is supplemented by colored bows.
Their colors are also what distinguish unmistakably the modern Kurdish paintings from others in the area and the world: the painter has seemingly no notion of “matching and coordinating” his colors, or even controlling his greed for more and more of them. The modern Kurdish painter Mansoor Ahmed announced to the audience at a recent exhibition of his works in Göttingen, Germany, “For me painting is a way of altercation and coping with a given situation. In association with colors I find my distant home, I find my own self”.
As far as this author is aware, old Kurdish culture, as preserved in the tenets of the native Cult of Angels, is the only culture which ascribes specific colors to the seven days of the week: Sunday is red, Monday black, Tuesday white, Wednesday blue, Thursday purple or violet, Friday green, and Saturday yellow. In fact the seven divine avatars of the Universal Spirit in this religion have their own specific colors as well, with the supreme deity represented by color combination of white and blue.
The themes of Kurdish folklore are those events that have taken place as a part of nature, in relation to nature, or about nature. Even the epics and war stories exalt the ultimate superiority of nature and the interconnection between man and nature. Two important cases of this man-nature relationship in the folklore are the stories of the self-alienated sculptor Farhâd and the ancient protagonist Enkidu. But even in the more recent epic of Mem o Zin, this relationship plays its part. From the blood of Bakr, the slain antagonist, grows, as if expectedly and naturally, a thorn bush, which sends down its roots of malice between the adjoining graves of the two lovers, separating them after their death.
The subject of religion is rarely used in Kurdistan to create derogatory literature and ceremonies. The exception is the Shi’ite regions and the ceremony of omar sowzân, i.e., the burning of Umar. Umar was the third Muslim Caliph in the 7th century. He is highly respected by the Sunnis, but the subject of abuse by all Shi’ites, who consider him a usurper. Effigies of Umar are burned at stakes on the anniversary of his assassination in the Shi’ite-dominated regions of Kurdistan, but particularly where Sunnis are also present in some numbers. A large number of abusive rhymes and signing accompany the ceremony, giving it on the whole rather a carnival air, as children’s participation is also encouraged. Many folk theaters also participate to make the occasion as splendid—and abusive to the Sunnis—as possible. Bloody riots can break out, ending in tragedies for all sides, but every year the ceremony is repeated. Paradoxically, under the revolutionary Islamic Shi’ite rule in Iran, the ceremony has been banned, in an attempt to reduce the degree of alienation of non-Shi’ites from the regime.
Certain Sufi orders, like the Rafâ’is, or quasi-Sufi orders practice some ancient rites of magical quality. They entail drum beatings, chanting of names and formulas, and bodily motions meant to bring about a state of trance in which the physical body may be tormented and tortured without any pain brought on to the subject or any lasting effects after the process is completed and the state of trance is broken. Driving swords and other sharp objects into the limbs, tongues, and the sides of the trunk take place at such moments of ecstasy. Fire walking or flame inhaling are also reported to be common practices.
Faith-healing also takes place at just such ceremonies, but the belief in its curing power is not as strong or as widespread as, say, in the church-based faith-healing ceremonies in the United States
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