By Nicolas LANDRU in Tbilisi, translated by Christian Nils LARSON
© Nicolas Landru (Tbilisi, Kurdish International Centre)
On a sloping backstreet of Mtatsminda in Tbilisi, a basement marks the entryway of the Kurdish International Centre of Culture and Information. In this office, if any part of the community happens to gather for the holidays, it is often the guardian, Erika Mouradian, alone. This time, expectations of musicians to come from Armenia to liven up the Centre will have been in vain: visible and active during Soviet times, today’s Yezidis Kurdish community in Tbilisi has severely diminished. Unstructured and divided, the community is without a doubt the weakest minority in Georgia.
The entryway to the Centre has only two tables and a television, but it is rich in decoration: a Kurdish flag and star; an iconic photo of Lalish—the Yezdis religious center in Iraq—containing religious symbols (a snow-flake, a peacock, three cupolas and an eternal flame); and immense portraits of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the charismatic figure behind the movement for the liberation of Kurds in Turkey, who was arrested by the Turkish secret service in 1999, condemned to death and then pardoned thanks to international pressure.
The events that occurred in Georgia at the same time as Öcalan’s 1999 arrest are revealing of the Kurdish situation there. Several hundred people went out into the streets of Tbilisi in demonstration of their support for Öcalan, leader of the Kurdish cause. Another part of the community, otherwise having no interest in this fight, was opposed to the mobilization.
As for an illustration of the manner by which the Georgian society understands the problems of Kurds, the following incident should shed some light: it is often said that when the Chief of Police in Tbilisi learned that because of Öcalan’s arrest the Kurds were protesting in the suburb of Samgori, the Chief of Police gave his forces the order to free the bandit. Criminals or street sweepers, the women who clean the streets of Tbilisi at dawn are almost exclusively Kurdish, the profession is so designated. Herein lies the universally confirmed image of Kurds in Georgian society. Moreover, whether it be a mere sad coincidence or not, in Georgian, the word Kurd is pronounced “kurti” and thief is pronounced “kurdi.”
To the sound of Kurdish television
In the Centre, Erika has access to six Kurdish television stations including ROJ—the voice of the PKK broadcasted from Denmark, and MED-TV, which is based in Belgium. She is often brought news from Armenia, written in Armenian, Russian and Kurdish. There is no Kurdish newspaper published in Georgian. The Centre is entiredly devoted to the Kurdish international cause: One Russophone newspaper is called Free Kurdistan, another is called Friendship and subtitled, “Öcalan, our leader.”
While facing the constantly blaring television, Djemal explains the injustice Kurds face while all other nations have obtained a territory. The construction of a Kurdish State is her dream. At the announcement of Saddam Hussein’s death sentence, who is accused of executing thousands of Kurds, Erika expressed a joy without limits. Justice had been done.
Another identifying mark of the international Kurdish cause among the Yezidis of Tbilisi is the name the Kurdish team took during an interfaith football tournament organized by the Georgian Football Federation and UNDP in December 2006. The Yézidi team called itself “Barzani” in reference to the greatest Kurdish tragedy in Iraki history. In 1983, Saddam Hussein arrested and dissapeared everyone with the name Barzani.
Kurds or Yezidis?
All the same, this Caucasian population’s identification with the international Kurdish cause is far from apparent. The Centre’s main room, among Kurdish flags and portaits of Öcalan, Yezidi symbols are also proudly displayed. In the rear room there is a temple where adherents come to celebrate the saint’s days. “It’s our Kurdish religion” says Erika.
Moreover, the religious differences among Kurdophones, particularly in the Caucasus, seriously shake up identities. While the majority of Kurds in Turkey, Irak or Syria are Sunni Muslins, the Yezidis practice an ancient religion which venerates the peacock, a symbol of the demon which became in angel, the flame and the sun, and curious syncretism of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Because the collective identities were formed long ago around religious principals, two distinct communities developed. In Georgia the 1926 census counted approximately 10,000 Kurds and 2,000 Yezidis. The Soviet authorities only recognized one Kurdish community. All the same, the majority of were deported by Stalin in 1944 and the Yézidis were counted at 18,329 versus 2,514 Muslims according to the 2002 census. Additionally and separate from the religious factor, Muslim Kurds, like those in Armenia, are well integrated in the Azeri community. They have often been counted as Azeris, and some of them currently present in Georgia even hold Azeri citizenship.
At the heart of the Yezidi community however, rifts are still important. Between “Ethnicly Yezidi”, “of Kurdish ethnicity and Yezidi religious”, or simply “ethnically Kurdish”, different groups, organizations and individuals represent all three options. In the small Centre of Mtatsminda, if the word “Yezidi” were not used, the principal cultural organization of the community in Georgia would be “The Union of Georgian Yezidis”, which does not recognize a link with Muslim Kurds or the PKK movement. Armenian scholarly manuals mention the “Yezidi nation”, but for this reason, several Tbilisi organizations have complained to the Armenian embassy. The community has little chance of arriving at a consensus.
Marginalization and weakening
With nearly 40,000 souls, Armenia is host to the most important Yezidi Kurish community in the Caucasus, which is also the most organized and most visible. In Georgia, they were counted at 33,331 in 1989 and 20,843 in 2002. Local associations however, estimate no more than 6,000.
Are these figures inflated to mask the disasterous emmigration from Georgia? In the 1980’s, the community was still highly visible in Tbilisi. The city containted one of the most reputed theatres of the Kurdish world. Excluded from public positions and the majority of professional tracks, without a port-parole or federal organization, the Yezidi Kurds, according to a report by the International Federation of Human Rights, occupy the most fragile social position in the country.
In the Mtatsminda Centre, the women speak of their sons in Russia and their daughters in Germany, France or Canada. In reality, the community litteraly melted after 1989 and the rate of emigration is the highest among minorities in Georgia.
Another sign of the community’s weakened state is that Yezidi Kurdish youth, without any future in Georgia, often try their hand in Armenia, although the economic situation there is in many regards worse than in Georgia.