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Arabization of Kurdish Education

The connection between Kurdish nationalism and the demand for mother tongue education was well known to both the Arab government and the British Mandate authorities who, as an overall policy of curbing this nationalism, tried to restrict instruction in the language.

In his statement to the sixteenth meeting of the League of Nation's Permanent Mandates Commission (June 18, 1931), Sir Francis Humphrys, High Commissioner for Iraq, said:

    I found that there was a unanimous desire among all responsible Kurds for improved educational facilities. They are clearly awakening to the fact that the Arabs are moving far ahead of them in education and learning and they fear that, unless they can speed up their own educational developments, they will in a few years, in spite of any statutory safeguards which may be devised for them, drop into the position of a backward and ignorant minority. (LN., PMC. 1931a:120)

Instead of "statutory safeguards," Kurdish sources of the period report the increasing Arabization of the primary schools, especially in the Mosul, Kirkuk, and Arbil liwas. Arabization was carried out through various channels, e.g., changing textbooks, appointing non-Kurdish teachers, alluring students to shift to Arabic, and direct Arabization of the schools. The policy of appointing non-Kurdish teachers was denounced by the Kurds as early as 1926. Zarî Kirmancî (No. 1, May 24, 1926, p. 16) indirectly criticized the government in a dialogue in which the teacher talks in a mixed Turkish/Kurdish language and the student complains that he does not understand him:

Student: By God, you don't know any Kurdish because you are not a Kurd.

Teacher: You are right; it is about a year since I have become a Kurd to make a living.

Student: What can a Kurdish child learn from you who are disguised as a Kurd, when no one even knows where you are from?

The same magazine reported Arabization of schools in Arbil: "Certain measures have been taken in order not to teach in Kurdish but to teach in... [Arabic] from the very first year-these are being done very delicately... The students are deceived by [promises of] promotion and are regularly sent to the Jewish schools. The Jews are not aware of it..." (Zarî Kirmancî, No. 21, April 6, 1930, p.1). It was also noted that a Kurdish school in Kirkuk had been closed down and was not reopened "in spite of all efforts made." Kurdish students had to learn Turkish for four years and then switch to Arabic. This had resulted in the students' failure to enter the post-secondary schools of Baghdad in the past two years (No. 19, May 26, 1929, p. 10).

Similarly, Zaki (1935:20) complained to King Faisal in December 1930 about "the complete removal of the Kurdish language from all the five qadhas [of Mosul] by the Ministry of Education." Zaki, then a member of the Chamber of Deputies, said that he did not know whether the measure was taken by the Minister of Education himself or by the order of the government. We know now, through the confidential correspondence of the time, that Arabization was a policy pursued by both the Arab government and the Mandate authorities. The Arabization of schools in Mosul liwa was decided by the Minister of Interior, 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Qasab, as early as 1926, with the knowledge and consent of the Mandate authorities. Sir Henry Dobbs, High Commissioner, wrote to Cornwallis on June 25, 1926 that the Minister

    "suggested that an order should quietly issue with regard to the Mosul Liwa schools that Arabic textbooks should be used, as being better drawn up and more suitable for the purposes of instruction, and that wherever the pupils do not understand Arabic the teacher should explain and translate to them in the Kurdish language. He thinks there would be no clamour over this. New schools in the Mosul Liwa should have instruction in the Arabic tongue. (quoted in Sluglett 1976:184; emphasis added)"

The mandate authorities justified this policy in language acceptable to the League of Nations:

    It has been felt that the Kurdish language alone provides too narrow a basis for secondary and higher education. The government has therefore always insisted that Arabic shall be studied in Kurdish primary schools, and in the intermediate schools of Arbil and Sulaymaniya a gradual change over is made from Kurdish to Arabic as the medium of instruction. This example has even been followed by some Kurdish elementary and primary schools in the Mosul Liwa where Kurdish nationalism is less active. In these, Arabic text books are used from the beginning, though Kurdish is the language of instruction and explanation. (G.B. 1920-31:230; emphasis added)

While a few Mandate officials privately showed concern about promises made to the Kurds, the general policy was to disguise and/or justify Arabization at the League of Nations. Thus, when asked "whether the secondary school at Sulaymaniya was Kurdish," the British representative at the Permanent Mandates Commission answered that "the school at Sulaymamya came under the provision of the new Language law, but the education there had always been given in Kurdish, the language of the majority of the pupils" (November 11, 1930; LN., PMC. 1930:105). It must be noted, however, that at this time the Language Law had not passed through the Parliament, while both its draft and final version limited Kurdish language instruction to the primary school level (cf. 5.1.4).

In a secret note on "The Kurdish Question" submitted to the High Commissioner on May 12, 1929, C.1. Edmonds pointed out that promises made to the Kurds had been ignored by "various authorities, both British and Iraqi." Typical cases of "short-sighted activity" of the Ministry of Education were cited:

    (a) the attempt to persuade the people of Sulaimani to accept the use of Arabic instead of Kurdish as the medium of instruction in the secondary schools, (b) the refusal to give Arbil a secondary school unless the people agreed to Arabic as the medium of instruction, (c) the subsequent attempt to change the language of instruction in the 5th and 6th primary classes at Arbil from Kurdish to Arabic, (d) exclusion of Kurdish from the Girl's school at Arbil, (e) the inordinate delay in approving Kurdish school books submitted to the Ministry and the failure to appoint whole time men to translate existing books, and so on. ("The Kurdish Question," No. S.A. 321 of May 12, 1929, Delhi, BHCF. Events in Kurdistan, Kurdish Policy, File No. 13/14, Vol. VI, Secret)

Source: Dr. Amir Hassanpour, "Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan 1918-1985", 1992.

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