An introduction to diasporic identity

The struggle for Kurdistan[1] emerged in the context of a fragmented nature of existence, occupied by different nation-states, and rulings powers that refused to recognize Kurds. Within diasporic communities the struggle developed into transnationalism, and constructed a Kurdish politics of identity that is in constant search for a national belonging. This struggle helped dispersed Kurds create perceptions of background and identity into a sense of being Kurdish, and in doing so brought with it a consciousness of the Kurdish diaspora. The detachment of Kurds from their land can be characterized as the main factor of fragmentation, and is a key in describing their fractured identity. The second factor that has influenced a fragmentation among Kurds is their affiliation with religion, while political affiliation is the third factor. These above mentioned factors represent the external factors of fragmentation, and debilitate the opportunity to promote a formation of unity among a disjointed people. The Kurdish nation is furthermore fragmented by internal factors such as class, gender, dialects, and alphabet.

The development of a Kurdish diaspora in Europe is a relatively new phenomenon, and constitutes an important role, both culturally and politically. Many Kurds have availed themselves of an opportunity to take part in Kurdish activities by creating organizations, and gain engagement in their community, all the while as relating activities to political developments in Kurdistan. The primary reason for Kurds to organize through associations has been due to the lack of a Kurdish nation. As a result, utilizing the diaspora’s potential to protect Kurdish interests has functioned as a compensation of statelessness, as individuals are free to act as official spokesmen for Kurdish interests while abroad. A large amount of Kurds that fled Kurdistan did not ‘discover’ their Kurdishness prior to their stay abroad.

Identity refers to a cultural and psychological expression of what a person or group perceives itself as, or is perceived as by others. One can say it is wrong to define identity as something that is always present both among groups or individuals, and that one should rather view it as a process. Although no identity is static or ahistorical, through practices of representation, there are always attempts to fix an unambiguous meaning to define what constitutes a Kurd or Kurdishness. A divided society longs for an identity, which can only be gained through unity. A common aim and a common front smooth the progress of unity, and identity is consequently gained. Kurds as a social group define themselves through a collective identity as one distinct people, reflecting a shared self-concept that allows them to classify themselves as one social group.

Based on fieldwork analysis, I have come to the conclusion that diaspora individuals structure subjectivities, belonging and identification in order to claim a modern Kurdish identity. This indicate to me multiple dimensions as not being a ‘real’ Kurd illustrate that no identity is free from internal dissonance. Social arenas such as work place, educational environment, and different Kurdish associations all facilitate as collective arenas. Spaces and places of belonging are thus combined to evoke ideas about who we are, and how others construct identification in order to control crossing of identity boundaries.

Increased ethnic consciousness and political engagement is a common feature for diaspora members as social arenas create and recreate ideas of collective identification. As organized events are linked to a transnational context, there lies within here a contrast to everyday life. Individuals have a need to identify with a collective understanding of who they are, rather than finding it in their own personal characteristics and everyday life. One hardly ever hears a Kurd say I, it is constantly we, and even if they start off with an individual description of themselves it always seems to end up referring to the group. For example, the young Kurds prefer to speak of one language instead of diverse dialects, of no political affiliation rather than separate and conflicting political parties, and of a united Kurdistan without concentrating on different regions. It almost appears as if individuality is evaded because it has historically been problematic. Groupness is favoured, because if the sense of collectivity is lost then the sense of belonging, and being Kurdish is also lost. Reflections of collective identification became stronger in groups, where individuals functioned as a basis for an imagined community.

The first and perhaps most easily identifiable factor of Kurdish identity is ethnicity. Identities as lived experiences are historically situated within specific political contexts, and historical awareness is therefore of importance given that suppression has been a main factor for migration. For diaspora Kurds, it appears that Kurdishness affects how one acts and subordinates other sub-identities, and an ethnic Kurdish identity can provide as a framework for other identities.

Diaspora members identify with a fixed notion of their homeland as a way of categorizing themselves, and showing attachment to a land they do not ‘posses’. Identifying with the physical characteristics of Kurdistan in their own physical features represents how they understand and express being Kurdish. For example, one informant answered the question of how he was Kurdish by exclaiming “What do you mean, my nose represents the Kurdish mountains”. Looking like a Kurd is therefore important in creating boundaries of inclusion and exclusion when dealing with processes of identification and belonging.

The process of moving to the diaspora can create gaps between notions of belonging, and affects how they understood their spaces and places in a new society. Places are culturally constructed through the meanings that are attributed to them, and therefore these meanings are subjected to transformation. Identity formation was according to the informants’ experiences recalled by important markers such as culture, history and language, and had significant impact on their understanding of everyday lives. Even though the informants emphasized the importance of an inherited identity, they did not identify with only one single place, which is why one can speak of multiple identities and belongings.

So where does one draw the boundary between a traditional and a modern understanding of Kurdishness? What are the factors that determine which category a Kurd falls under, and which is one more essential in relation to the other? The understanding of Kurdishness is continuously shaped and reshaped in reference to homeland, and the host nation they live in. Waves of migration and what generation they belong to also contribute to different processes of identification. When ‘being Kurdish’ in a diaspora setting, one reaffirm the famous imagined community concept associated with Benedict Anderson, while acknowledging the problems of the identity concept, as identity or identification depends on the social arenas that informants take part in. Also, identity formation whether it is ethnic, religious, cultural, or national consists of narratives that are reproduced in daily life through community discourses, and entails imaginations and perceptions of how identity should be performed.

(Based on ‘Being Kurdish’: Dynamics of identification in everyday life among Kurdish students in the Netherlands, by Hero Karimi).

1] Defined in the Kurdish National Congressional Pact as the land of all Kurds who are either born or residents there, regardless of their religion and language.