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Kurds Reassert Linguistic Heritage

Number of schools using Kurdish as the language of instruction will double next year.
By Shabaz Jamal

This academic year has been unlike any other for Fuad Najmadeen, an 11-year-old pupil now studying in the Kurdish language after years of lessons taught only in Arabic at his school.

Now in his fifth year at Halo primary school, Najmadeen said he used to have problems understanding the Arabic language classes because his family speaks only Kurdish at home.

But now the young Kurd understands the lessons “very well" and said his grades also improved after a number of schools in Kirkuk switched to Kurdish as the language of instruction.

Kurdish is related to the Persian language and written in Arabic script. But the Kurdish alphabet includes letters and other elements not found in Arabic, and it does not use some of the letters found in Arabic.

Under the Baath Party, the former rulers of Iraq, only Arabic could be used as the language of instruction in Kirkuk, home to a large number of Kurds and Turkmons, as well as Arabs

The imposition of Arabic in schools was part of a broader policy implemented by the Baathists aimed at Arabising the ethnically mixed region.

"The Baath party wanted to wipe out the Kurdish language and culture," said Nihad Hussein, 31, a Kurdish taxi driver who was forced to study in Arabic.

Kirkuk education officials now consider the new Kurdish language schools an important step in reasserting the cultural rights of their city’s multi-ethnic population.

"Opening those schools reverts cultural rights to the Kurds, and eradicates the traces of the Arabisation policy," said Fawzya Abdulla Awanis, 53, a deputy of the Kirkuk director of education.

Schools themselves also are being "Kurdicised" by changes in their names.

Under Baath rule, all schools were named after Islamic events or personalities or Baath-related terms. Even the historic name of Kirkuk was changed to Tamim, meaning "nationalisation". It has now changed back.

A secondary school in Ikhwan neighbourhood, formerly called Abdulrahman Bin Awif, after a hero of Islamic history, has been renamed Ahmadi Khani after the Kurdish author of the nationalist epic, Mem-u-zin.

Kurdish schools should bear Kurdish symbols so "the Kurdishness of the school is clear from the name", says Aryan Jamal, 26, a teacher at Ahmadi Khani.

There are now 123 primary schools teaching the Kurdish alphabet, along with 13 primary schools and 13 high schools where all lessons are taught in Kurdish.

The number of primary and secondary teaching only in Kurdish will increase to 300 next year, according to Yousif Saeed Ahmed, 61, the head of Kirkuk’s Kurdish Study Department.

Plans also call for teaching the Kurdish alphabet to all Kurdish students in all schools, Ahmed said. He added that Kurdish speakers understand the lessons better if they are delivered in their native tongue.

Bakir Mustafa, headmaster of Mahwy primary school, gives another reason for changing some schools to Kurdish language.

The fall of the former regime has seen the return of many Kurds who were forced from the city into the self-ruling Kurdish area north of Kirkuk during the Arabisation campaign.

The children of those refugees, who have been studying in Kurdish only, cannot speak Arabic and must be taught in Kurdish.

Students who want to transfer from Arabic language schools to Kurdish schools must submit a formal request.

But the transfer of teachers and students from the former to the latter has caused some problems.

While many speak Kurdish fluently, they cannot read or write the language.

Ala Muhammed, 24, a history teacher in Ahmadi Khani School, is determined to learn the Kurdish alphabet properly, "so I can teach in the Kurdish schools and serve my people".

Muhammed addressed the immediate problem by issuing dictionaries to his students and by enlisting the assistance of fellow teachers who have studied in Kurdish.

Some of the teaching staff for the new language schools have transferred from the Kurdish self-ruling area that had not been under the authority of the former regime since 1991.

All of those schools used Kurdish as the language of instruction, and they employed teachers who were fluent in all aspects of the language.

As a further remedy, the Kirkuk Directorate of Education is planning to hold special Kurdish language courses for the teachers to bring their language skills up to fluency.

A Kurdish NGO, Hamoon, is assisting the effort by providing several Kurdish language courses for teachers and students in the city, said Hidayat Ibrahim, 27, an officer with the organisation.

Ibrahim said the education department needs support from other agencies to carry out language training.

The opening of Kurdish schools and special Kurdish language courses has encouraged some Kurds to attend courses that teach them how to read and write in their own language.

"I cannot write even a single letter in Kurdish as I have not studied in my own language," said Ahmed Najmadeen, 28, a Kurdish baker. "I want to learn how to read and write in the language the Baath has forced us to forget."

Six-year-old Alan Nyaz is a first grader and considers himself lucky. He was able to begin his educational career in Kurdish. "From now on, unlike my elder brothers,” he said, “I will study in my own language.”

Shabaz Jamal is managing editor of Liberal Education in Sulaimaniyah.