Noruz, the Zoroastrian New Year and the first day of spring, is celebrated by Iraq’s Kurds every year on March 21. The holiday is a much bigger deal next door in Iran — ancient Persia is the birthplace of the Zoroastrian religion, and the government practically shuts down for weeks. The Kurds are given fewer days off and hold fewer rituals, but Noruz remains an important holiday, in part because it is used to commemorate one of the founding myths of Kurdish identity.
Legend holds that Kowa, a blacksmith’s son, killed a child-eating giant and, after slaying the beast, lit a fire to signal his terrorized people that they no longer need live in fear. Nowadays Kurds, the descendants of Kowa, light fires during Noruz — often by burning tires — as a symbol of resistance, independence and survival in the face of tyranny. They also do some serious picnicking.
The struggle to survive as a people is a continuing theme for the Kurds, an ethnic minority living in the mountainous border regions of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. I joined the family Noruz celebration on Wednesday of an Iraqi Kurdish friend, who had several relatives (also Kurds) visiting from Sanandaj in Iran.
Over lunch, they complained that oppression by the Iranian government has accelerated dramatically under the current government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s ruling clerics have systematically discriminated against Kurds, whom they see as threats to the ethnic, linguistic, and religious unity of their predominantly Farsi-speaking, majority Persian and Shi’ite nation. Not only do Kurds have their own language; most are also Sunni Muslims. “They hate us twice,” said a young cousin. “We are Kurds and we are Sunni.”
Besides banning political activity and free speech, the Iranian government has been settling ethnic Persians in Kurdish regions, and tempting Sunni Kurds to convert to Shi’ism Islam by offering preferential jobs and treatment, according to my friend’s family. They said that 40 percent of Kurds in Iran are losing their language and their traditional religion.
But the Iranian government hasn’t always been so hard on the Kurds. In the 1990′s, at the height of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Kurds, Iran sheltered thousands of Kurdish refugees, as well as the Kurdish political parties that today run Iraqi Kurdistan and are the key coalition ally of the ruling Shi’ite alliance in Baghdad.
That history is one reason why Kurdish leaders in Iraq, all the way up to President Jalal Talabani, take a much more diplomatic approach to Iran than the more confrontational stance of their U.S. allies. Kurdish leaders protested when American special forces raided Iranian government offices here in Erbil earlier this year, capturing several Iranians whom Americans claim are intelligence agents. And Kurdish leaders have built (or at least allowed for the founding of) a couple of Shi’ite Muslim community centers in Kurdistan, as a gesture of goodwill to their friends in Iran.
Maintaining warm ties with Iran may also be designed to help the domestic political agenda of Iraq’s Kurds, reassuring their more powerful neighbor that an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq or some future independent Kurdistan will not promote Kurdish separatism elsewhere in the region. The days of Kowa and giant killing are over.