Cultural Geography

How cultural differences, ranging from language and religion to sports and music, influence geographical patterns

Economic Disparities and Election Results in Turkey

The Republic of Türkiye (Turkey) is characterized by stark discrepancies in regional economic productivity. In 2021, nominal per capita GDP figures ranged from 153,479 Turkish Lira (17,089 US$) in Kocaeli Province, located east of Istanbul, to 26,837 Turkish Lira (2,988 US$) in Ağrı Province, located along Turkey’s eastern border. Although maps of Turkish per capita GDP by province are readily available, I made my own to highlight these regional disparities, accomplished mainly by using a two-color scheme.

The correlation between economic productivity and ethnicity in Turkey is close, at least on the low end of the spectrum. As can be seen by comparing the two posted above with that posted below, Turkey’s least economically productive provinces are all located in the primarily Kurdish southeast. The most economically productive provinces are concentrated on the other side of the country, in the northwest. This latter region includes both coastal provinces and provinces located in the northwestern quarter of the central Anatolian Plateau.

Historically, Turkey’s western coastal strip was much more productive than most of the rest of the country. Over the past several decades, however, a number of cities on the Anatolian Plateau have seen significant industrialization and rapid economic growth. Several have been deemed “Anatolian Tigers,” defined by Wikipedia as cities that “have displayed impressive growth records since the 1980s, as well as a defined breed of entrepreneurs rising in prominence and who can often be traced back to the cities in question and who generally rose from the status of small and medium enterprises.” Some of these “Tiger cities,” however, are located closer to the coast than the plateau. (The locations of the “Anatolian Tigers,” as defined by Wikipedia, are shown on one of the maps below.)

A comparison of the map of Turkish economic productivity with that of the 2023 presidential election (see the previous post) reveals some interesting connections. To illustrate these patterns more clearly, I have outlined in red the provinces that supported challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, superimposing them on the per capita GDP map.

As can be seen, a majority of the Turkey’s richer and poorer provinces supported Kılıçdaroğlu, whereas most of its mid-level provinces supported Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Closer analysis, however, reveals that other factors are more important than per capita GDP for understanding the election results. For example, Kocaeli, Turkey’s most economically productive province, supported Erdoğan, as did most of its prosperous northwestern neighboring provinces. Support for Kılıçdaroğlu in the poor southeast, moreover, is less a reflection of economic standing than of Kurdish ethnicity, as most Kurds reject Erdoğan’s pronounced and ethnically inflected Turkish nationalism.

An interesting exception to the general patterns of anti-Erdoğan sentiments in the southeast is Şanlıurfa, which is one of Turkey’s poorest provinces; it also has, according to Wikipedia, a Kurdish majority. Yet Şanlıurfa decisively supported Erdoğan, as it had in the past several elections. But Şanlıurfa is more ethnically mixed than the Wikipedia article on it indicates; a 1996 study found that it had a Kurdish plurality but not a majority. Şanlıurfa is home to a substantial Arab community, as well as a very large refugee population. As the paired set of maps post below shows, the Arabic-speaking part of Şanlıurfa voted overwhelmingly for Erdoğan. (The pattern is markedly different, however, in Turkey’s most heavily Arabic-speaking province, Hatay, as will be examined in a later post.)

Kılıçdaroğlu’s other main region of support was the far west and southwest, covering the European portion of Turkey and the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Historically, this was the wealthiest part of Turkey, and it has long been the most liberal and Western-oriented part of the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that it supported the more liberal and Western-oriented candidate.

As the upper map posted above shows, Erdoğan’s main bastions of support are located in the core Anatolian Plateau, with the important exception of those areas dominated by the Alevi religious minority, and the Black Sea coast. Much of this region has seen substantial economic growth and infrastructural investment under Erdoğan’s leadership, has long been noted for its more conservative interpretations of Turkish nationalism. Many of the districts along the eastern half of the Black Sea coast had been heavily populated by ethnic Greeks before the early 1920s; when the local Greeks were expelled, Turks moved in, many of whom had themselves been expelled from Greece at the same time. It is not surprising that the descendants of such people are noted for their pronounced Turkish nationalism.

Two important provinces in the western portion of the Anatolian plateau supported Kılıçdaroğlu the 2023 election. One is Ankara, where the national capital (of the same name) is located, and the other is Eskişehir, which is noted for its large and strong universities. It is not surprising that these more cosmopolitan provinces voted against Erdoğan. Yet both provinces, and that of Istanbul as well, supported Erdoğan in the 2018 election, when his opposition was divided (see the maps below). From 2018 to 2023, Erdoğa lost ground in major urban areas, along the southern Mediterranean coast, and in the far northeast (another area with large ethnic minorities). Yet his overall vote stayed roughly the same, indicating a solidification of support over the core Anatolian region. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi faith may have played a significant role here.

Economic Disparities and Election Results in Turkey Read More »

Georgia’s Three Unique National Scripts

Although many writing systems have been developed over the years and across the world, relatively few are still in use. As the Wikipedia map posted below shows, most countries today use either the Latin, Arabic, or Cyrillic scripts for their own national (or major regional) languages. Only a handful or countries have their own unique scripts that are used to write their own national and official languages. Determining which countries fall into this category – shown on the second map below – is somewhat tricky. The Hangul script, for example, is unique to the Korean language and nation, but that nation is divided into two states: North Korea and South Korea. The Greek alphabet is essentially limited to the Greek language, but Greek is the national tongue of two countries, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus (although the break-way Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus uses the Latin alphabet). The Ethiopic script, or Ge’ez, is employed for official purposes only in Ethiopia, but is also used extensively in neighboring Eritrea (along with the Latin and Arabic scripts). I have included all three of these scripts in the map below. I did not, however, include the Chinese writing system, because it is also used in three countries other than China (exclusively in Taiwan, alongside the Latin and Tamil scripts in multi-lingual Singapore, and in combination with two indigenous scripts [hiragana and katakana] in Japan).

Other than Israel (which uses the Hebrew script), the remaining countries with their own unique scripts used to write their national languages are located either in mainland Southeast Asia (Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) or the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia). In the Caucasus, the Georgian language stands out for having three separate scripts of its own: Mkhedruli, Asomtavruli, and Nuskhuri. Mkhedruli was at one time the country’s “royal script,” but is now used for almost all secular writing. The Georgia Orthodox Church, however, still uses the other alphabets in “ceremonial religious texts and iconography.” As a result, the “living culture of three writing systems of the Georgian alphabet” was granted the national status of intangible cultural heritage in Georgia in 2015 and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016” (direst quotation from this Wikipedia article).

 

(The Wikipedia table above above shows only 14 of 33 letters in the 33 letters of the current Georgian  alphabet.)

Today, the Georgian script (Mkhedruli) used mainly for the Georgian language, but it is also sometimes employed for the three related Kartvelian languages of northwestern Georgia and northeastern Turkey: Mingrelian, Svan,* and Laz. When the Georgian script is used to write Mingrelian and Svan, three additional letters are employed. Svan and Laz are rarely written, however, and Laz is now also expressed in a modified Latin alphabet and may at any rate be dying out as a spoken language. In earlier times, Georgian scripts had been used for several unrelated languages of the Caucasus, including Chechen, Ossetian, Abkhazian, and Avar. As this example shows, Georgian culture was historically influential over a much larger area than that currently included within the Republic of Georgia.

 

*Despite their different languages, Mingrelian and Svan speakers are counted as ethnic Georgians, and almost are fluent in Georgian and generlly employ Georgian when writing.

Georgia’s Three Unique National Scripts Read More »

Ancient Transsexual Pot Smokers? Wildly Divergent Interpretations of Ancient Scythian Culture

The Scythians, who maintained a powerful nomadic state north of the Black Sea during the classical period, have been interpreted in many ways. As we saw in the previous post, historian Christopher Beckwith go so far as to credit them with the origin of philosophy. Ancient Greek thinkers usually viewed Scythians as quintessential barbarians – the cultural opposite of the Greeks themselves. But some Greek thinkers turned the table, portraying the Scythians, or at least some of them, in highly positive terms. According to the historian Ephorus (cited by Stabo), “[T]he modes of life of the Scythians are unlike, for, whereas some are so cruel that they even eat human beings, others abstain from eating any living creature whatsoever,  … and excel all other men in justice …”  The original vision of the “noble savage” thesis is arguably found in the pro-Scythian views of some ancient Greeks. Alfonso Moreno** writes of continuing depictions of “the Scythians of Homer and the Ephorus: the justice and wisest, drinkers of mare’s milk, frugal, nomadic, wagon-dwellers, strangers to money making, communists, invincible warriors, lords of wheat and livestock, the people of Anacharsis …” But as is true of all such “noble savage” depictions, the aim is not that of accurate description but that of criticizing one’s own society. The ancient Scythians of the fourth-century BCE, after all, were very familiar with money-making and their society organized in a class- or even caste-based manner.

Such alternative visions of Scythian society persist to the present. Rather than emphasizing formidable Scythian warriors, some modern writers turn instead to Scythians shamans and healers, especially the enarei. The enarei, a caste-like group, are traditionally depicted as transvestites, as they were biological men who wore women’s clothing and acted in a feminine manner; today they would be more precisely depicted as transsexuals. As such, they are now in fashion – literally.  The design firm Lila Bare, for example, offers a clothing line called “The Enarei,” marketed as the “epitome of non-binary clothing.” The feminine nature of the enarei is also attracting attention. It has been reported, for example, that “Ovid wrote about Scythian shamans known as ἐναρής who were born male, presented as women/feminine, and feminized their bodies using a potion made from the urine of mares in heat.”

The Scythians, and especially their religious practitioners (whether transsexual or not), have also been linked to the use and spread of cannabis as a drug. Recent genetic research indicates that cannabis was domesticated in China, where it was valued for its fibers, seeds, and medicinal properties. Breeding high-THC cannabis for mind-altering purposes, however, is usually credited to either the Scythians or earlier Indo-European pastoral peoples of Central Asia. For interesting and informative YouTube videos on this subject, I recommend “Survive the Jive’s” “Scythian Gods” and “Ancient Cannabis Cult.”

The Scythian use of mind-altering drugs is also linked to that of their Indo-Iranian forebears, who referred to themselves as Aryans. Both the Rig Veda and the Avesta, the earliest accounts of Indic and Iranian peoples, refer to a powerful ritual substance known as soma and haoma respectively. The mystery of the source of soma/haoma has not been solved, and several interpretations are still debated, ranging from the currently favored Epheda, a simple stimulant, to Amanita muscaria, a powerful psychedelic mushroom, to Syrian rue, another hallucinogenic substance. Some writers have speculated that it might have been a combination of cannabis, ephedra, and opium, the residue of which has been archaeologically attested from ritual vessels. It has also been argued that Soma/Haoma was not used by the earliest Indo-Europeans, but was rather borrowed from the people of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, who had an urban-agricultural society and interacted extensively with the early Indo-Iranians.

** Cannabis was not directly smoked by the ancient Scythians. Rather, it was burned in braziers in enclosed spaces, where the fumes were inhaled.

* Alfonso Moreno, 2007.  “Athenian Wheat Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture. In The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges, edited by Vincent Gabrielsen and John Lunn. Aarhus University Press

Ancient Transsexual Pot Smokers? Wildly Divergent Interpretations of Ancient Scythian Culture Read More »

The Circassian Genocide and the Cartographic Erasure of Circassia

The current ethnographic map of the northern Caucasus mountains shows scattered groups of Circassian people, now numbering roughly 750,000 in Russia. In 1850, however, the Circassians occupied the entire northwestern quadrant of the Greater Caucasus range. But as the Circassians refused to submit to imperial Russian rule, the Russian military engaged in a campaign of displacement and extermination. As reported by Wikipedia, “The Circassian genocide, or Tsitsekun, was the Russian Empire’s systematic mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion of 80–97% of the Circassian population.”  Most of the few Circassians who managed to remain in their homeland were Kabardians, members of the easternmost of the twelve Circassian groups (or “tribes”). The western groups were essentially eliminated. As noted in a different Wikipedia article:

The Zhaney were a very powerful Circassian tribe in the past. They lived the north of the Natukhai tribe’s land on the coast of the Black Sea and Azov Sea in Eastern Europe. … As a result of the bloody Russian-Circassian War,  Zhaney tribe was almost wholly destroyed, as only 3 families survived.

After their genocide and expulsion, the Circassian people largely vanished from the historical memory of the West, just as “Circassia” disappeared from its maps. In earlier times, Circassia had been well-know and well-represented, appearing prominently on many maps. On a 1744 map of Asia by George Willdey, for example, “Circassia” is depicted as one of the primary divisions of the Asian continent. As it is difficult to see this representation on the map as it can be reproduced here, I have re-outlined and re-labeled Willdey’s divisions on the second map posted below.

Willdey’s map seems to be an outlier, as no others that I have seen give Circassia such a prominent position. But Circassia was often mapped as covering a large area – much larger, in fact, than the area occupied by Circassian people circa 1850. In a Latin-labeled map of 1716 by Johann Baptist Homann, for example, Circassia is shown as extending along the eastern shore of the Sea of Azov, covering much of the steppe zone north of the Caucasus Mountains. Intriguingly, Homann labels the area as a kingdom: “Circassia, seu Regio Circassiorum.” Similar patterns are seen on French-language maps of the same period. An uncolored Nicholas Guedeville map of 1718, for example, shows “Circassie” as extending from the Sea of Azov to the Caspian Sea. It excludes, however, part of the Circassian homeland along the Black Sea coast, labeling it instead as belonging to Abkazia (“Abcassie”).

Nineteenth-century depictions of Circassia typically exclude some of the northern lowland areas included on Homann’s and Guedeville’s maps, but cover most of the northern Caucasus and its lowland fringe, often extending to the Caspian Sea (see Woodbridge map of 1828 posted below). In an unusual French map of 1863, the coloring scheme depicts “Circassie” as a two-part region, interrupted by the lands of the Ossetian (“Ossetes”) people of the central Caucasus  Range. Maps published in the United States at the time often depicted an expanded Circassia, shown as extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea (see the detail from a Jacob Monk map of the world, published in Baltimore in 1859, that is posted below).

The geographical category of “Circassia” could even extend into the Black Sea itself. In a 1693 map by Vincenzo Coronelli, for example, the waters of the northwestern portion of the sea are labeled “Mare de Circassia Caucaseum”

By the late 1800s, however, the label “Circassia” had essentially disappears from maps made in Western Europe and the United States. Genocide, in other worlds, was followed by cartographic erasure, as will be explored in more detail in the next GeoCurrents post.

The Circassian Genocide and the Cartographic Erasure of Circassia Read More »

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens

As noted in the previous post, the “marginal sea” concept has little utility for geo-historical analysis. More useful is the idea of what might be termed an “enclosed sea,” meaning one whose entrance to the open ocean, or strait, is narrow enough that it could have been controlled by a strong state in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. Such enclosed seas are few. If we limit our attention to parts of the world that had states during these times, there are really only four straits that count: the Strait of Gibraltar, separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic; the Danish straits, separating the Baltic Sea from the open margins of the Atlantic; the Strait of Hormuz separating the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean; and the Bab-el-Mandeb, separating the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. Of these, the 13-kilometers-wide Strait of Gibraltar is the narrowest. The Bab-el-Mandeb, in contrast, is 26 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, whereas the Strait of Hormuz is 39 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent. The Danish Straits do entail some narrow passages, but there are three of them, and the most important, the Great Belt, is 16 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

 

The Mediterranean is not only the most enclosed sea, but is also the largest by far. More significant, it opens up to its own enclosed seas, all of which are connected by even narrower passages. The long and meandering Dardanelles, which links the Mediterranean’s marginal Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, is only 0.75 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, as is the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The Strait of Kerch, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, is much wider, 3.1 kilometers at its narrowest extent, but is still significantly narrower than the Strait of Gibraltar.

Such observations lead to an inescapable conclusion: the Black Sea system, including Marmara and Azov, is a unique physical-geographical entity. There is nothing else remotely like it on earth, an oddly unrecognized fact. It is also noteworthy that the Black Sea lies near the center of the segment of the world that includes the other enclosed seas, as can be seen on the maps posted below.

The enclosed nature of the Black Sea system has been geopolitically important during several historical periods. Consider, for example, the situation of Athens during its heyday in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. After the defeat of the Persian Empire, Athens was eager to secure access to the Black Sea and its many resources. The Delian League that is soon created maintained control over both the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. After its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Athens lost this informal Aegean empire, and thus found itself in a strained situation. It eventually cobbled together a new but less-imperial Second Athenian League, which included cities along the Dardanelles and Bosporus. It was at this time that Black Sea grain became essential for the sustenance of Athens (and several other Greek city states). Securing access to the essential grain supply also entailed maintaining a tight alliance with the culturally hybrid Greco-Scythian Bosporan Kingdom, which sat astride the Strait of Kerch (then called the Cimmerian/Kimmerian Bosporus). Fish supplies from the highly productive Sea of Azov and the rivers that flowed into it were also an important resource for Athens, underscoring the significance of its connection with the long-lived (438 BCE –527 CE) Bosporan Kingdom.

For a fascinating account of this relationship, I recommend Alfonso Moreno’s “Athenian Wheat-Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture,” which is found in an important book entitled The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges. Moreno highlights the close ties between Athenian elites associated with the school of Isocrates (an extremely important although under-appreciated intellectual and political operative), and the Greco-Scythian elites of the Bosporan Kingdom. His final words are worth quoting:

Two things only were needed to ensure the permanence of this system: the good-will of the Bosporan kings, and Athenian control of the route between [the Cimmerian Bosporus and Athens]. As long as Athenian political leadership could provide this, Athens would be fed and a few of its politicians gain enormous power. If correct, we may have here a very different way of understanding this trade: an oligarchic grain supply sustaining a professedly democratic state.

Although the fifth century BCE is usually considered the golden age of ancient Athens, the fourth century BCE was in many respects a more intellectually vibrant period. To a large extent, the culture that allowed such intellectual flourishing was underwritten by the grain and other resources that flowed in from the Black Sea, which in turn entailed maintaining close relations with the states that controlled the crucial choke points leading from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Azov.

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens Read More »

Language, Religion, and the Changing Ethnic Geography of the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia is a clear example of an ethno-national state. According to its 2014 census, 86.8% of its people are ethnic Georgians. Ethnic Georgians are generally reckoned as those people who speak either Georgian or one of its sister Kartvelian languages (Mingrelian and Svan) as their mother tongue. Most ethnic Georgians identify with the Georgian Orthodox Church, although the Georgian-speaking Sunni Muslims of Adjara in the southwest are also included in the ethnic group. As the map posted below indicates, western Georgia (excluding the break-away state of Abkhazia) is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Georgians, whereas eastern and especially central Georgia are more diverse.

Of Georgia’s de facto lands, the south-central area has the largest non-ethnic-Georgian population. Most language maps of the country show four linguistically marked non-Georgian ethnic groups in this region: Azerbaijanis (or Azeris), Russians, Greeks, and Armenians. The latter three groups are of Christian heritage and the first is of Shia Muslim heritage. As was explored in a previous post, Georgia’s Azerbaijani population is essentially stable. It is a different story, however, for the country’s ethnic Russian, Greek, and Armenian communities. As a result of their decline, Georgia has become more ethnically Georgian than it was under Soviet rule, a process also propelled by the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ethnolinguistic mapping, however, has generally not kept pace with these changes.

As can be seen in the table posted below, Armenians and Russians together accounted for more than 20% of Georgia’s population in 1959. By 1989, however, their joint total had declined to a little over 14%. After independence, the Russian (and Ukrainian) population declined precipitously, dropping to less than 1% in 2014. The population of the Armenian community was roughly cut in half in the same period. The Greek population increased slightly between 1959 and 1989, but it too collapsed after independence in 1991. Most Greek communities in both Abkhazia and south-central Georgia migrated at this time to Greece.

Georgia’s Armenian population is concentrated in the south-central part of the country, although Tbilisi still has a substantial community. As can be seen on the map below, two municipalities in the south-center have large Armenian majorities, Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, which are partly located on the sparsely populated Javakheti Plateau. The reduction of Georgia’s Armenian population is related both to local ethnic tensions and to strains between Georgia and Armenia, which are of relatively long-standing. In 1918, the two countries fought an inconclusive border war when they enjoyed a brief period of independence after the fall of Russian Empire. At that time, the large Armenian community in Tbilisi was subjected to various forms of persecution. (In the nineteenth century, Tbilisi had an Armenian plurality.) Since independence in 1991, relations between the two countries have been reasonably good. They are complicated, however, by both Armenia’s military alliance with Russia, which supports Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by Georgia’s close ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main adversaries.

A Wikipedia article outline some of the more specific sources of ethnic tensions in south-central Georgia:

Tensions in Samtskhe–Javakheti have run high at times. One reason is based in the official Georgian language policy that does, officially, not allow the Armenian Language to be used in public or administrative offices, even if citizen and officer speak better Armenian than Georgian.

Some Armenian political groupings of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, among them most notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), claim that Javakhk (the Armenian name for Javakheti) should belong to Armenia,United Armenia shall include all territories designated as Armenia by the Treaty of Sevres as well as the regions of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabkh), Javakhk (Armenian name for Javakheti), and Nakhchivan. However, Javakhk (Javakheti) is not officially claimed by the government of Armenia.

Ethnic Russians in Georgia have historically been concentrated in urban areas, and therefore have a minor presence on language maps of the country. The Russian-speaking area that does appear on maps is found in the now overwhelmingly Armenian-speaking municipality of Ninotsminda. Most of the Russians in this area were Doukhobours, members of a pacifist and long-persecuted religious sect that rejects the Russian Orthodox priesthood and its rituals. The Doukhobours initially settled in the region in the 1840s. Many subsequently moved to Canada, but others remained. In Ninotsminda, they enjoyed relatively “favorable conditions” according to the Wikipedia article on the municipality. After the independence of Georgia, however, most of them abandoned their homes and moved to Russia.

Over the past decade, the population flow between Georgia and Russia has reversed as ethnic Russian now move to Georgia to escape the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Vladimir Putin. According to the official BusinessSetupGeorgia website, “in 2015, the highest number of immigrants in Georgia came from Russia, with a total of 92,937.” This movement accelerated after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Over the next year, more than 100,000 Russians relocated to Ukraine, mostly young men seeking to avoid military service. It remains to be seen whether most of them will remain in Georgia. It is also unclear what effects they are having on the country. According to a VOA article, their presence, along with the money that they carried in, have resulted in an unexpected economic boom, while also driving up rents into Tbilisi. Many Georgians welcome these refugees, sympathizing with their plight and appreciating their technical and economic talents. An article in France 24, however, claims that Russian emigres have found a “bleak new home,” arguing that they have not always been welcomed by local residents.

Many of the former ethnic Greeks of Georgia lived in cities and towns in the Black Sea region, particularly in Abkhazia. Another sizable population, visible on the maps posted above, resided in Tsalka municipality in the south-central region. In 1991, ethnic Greeks constituted roughly three-quarters of the population of the town of Tsalka and its environs. Most of their ancestors had fled the Ottoman Empire and were given refuge by the Russian Empire in semi-depopulated areas. Although identifying as Greek due to their heritage and faith, many if most of these people, known as Urums, actually spoke Turkish (see this 2012 GeoCurrents post on the Urum people). After independence, most members of this Greek community relocated to northern Greece. Some, however, attempted to returned to Tsalka, but found their houses reoccupied, generating another round of ethnic tension.

Religion often trumps language in the generation and maintenance of ethnic identity, as the case of the Turkish-speaking Greek Urums  demonstrates. But in Georgia, ethnic tensions seem to have been more intense among communities divided by language and national origin but united by faith.* Why this should be so deserves further investigation.

*The people in question do not, however, all belong to the same religious branch. The Georgian, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches are in in communion with each other. That is not the case, however, with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which belongs to the so-called Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity. Many Armenians in Georgia, moreover, belong to the Armenian Catholic Church, which is under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Language, Religion, and the Changing Ethnic Geography of the Republic of Georgia Read More »

Orthodox Christianity, Nationalism, and Islam in the Republic of Georgia

A large 2017 Pew Research study found a relatively close connection between religious beliefs and national identity in the Republic of Georgia. According to the Pew data, 89 percent of Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. By some measures, the level of religiosity in Georgia is also high, with 99 percent of respondents reporting that they believe in God (as opposed to 49 percent in Estonia and 29 percent in Czechia). Religious belief in Georgia has strengthened markedly since independence and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Pew, 87 percent of Georgians think that their country is “very or somewhat religious today,” with only 25 percent stating that it was equally religious in the 1970s and 1980s. But at the same time, only 38 percent reported daily prayer and only 17 percent said that they attend church weekly. Information on fasting and other important Orthodox religious practices was not reported. (The teachings of the Orthodox Church on fasting are quite strict.)

The same Pew polling also found a strong sense of Georgia national identity. 78 percent of Georgians surveyed reported that they are “very proud to be a citizen of their country,” the highest figure among all central and eastern European countries covered, with 85 percent agreeing with the statement “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” Georgian culture, moreover, was explicitly linked by most respondents to Orthodox Christianity, with 81 percent agreeing with the statement “being Orthodox is very or somewhat important to truly be a national of your country.”

Such religiously inflected ethnonationalism confronts a challenge in Georgia’s sizable Muslim community, which includes roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. As can be seen on the map posted below, Muslim Georgians are concentrated in two areas, the southwest and the south-center-east. As most Muslims live in rural areas, their presence is exaggerated by this map; of Georgia’s major cities, only Batumi has a sizable Muslim population (25 percent). In Tbilisi, the figure is only 1.5 percent.

Georgia’s two main Muslim areas are demographically distinct. Most Muslims of the southwest follow Sunni Islam and speak Georgian; those of the south-center-east mostly follow Twelver Shia Islam and speak Azerbaijani. Before the 1944, a sizable population of Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims lived south-west-central Georgia; in Adigeni municipality they constituted approximately 75 percent of the population. These so-called Meskhetian Turks were genocidally deported by Joseph Stalin near the end of WWII. Today, only some 1,500 live in Georgia.

But despite the close association of Orthodox Christianity and nationalism in a country with a sizable Muslim presence, there seems to be relatively little overt religious tension in Georgia. One would expect any such tensions as does exist to be most pronounced in the east, where the local Muslim population speaks a language identified with a neighboring country (Azerbaijan) and is largely monolingual. According to the 2014 Georgian census, only 18.7 percent of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia speak Georgian fluently. Not surprisingly young Azerbaijani-speaking Georgians often pursue higher education in Azerbaijan. Yet even so, most members of their community nationally identify with Georgia. As reported in the Wikipedia article on Azerbaijanis in Georgia, “According to the 2008 UN Association of Georgia report, 98% of Azerbaijanis surveyed in Kvemo Kartli considered Georgia their homeland, 96% acknowledged that the problems they face are common to citizens countrywide and around 90% linked their futures with Georgia.”

It is also notable that the ethnic Azerbaijani population in Georgia has increased since independence, rising from 5.7 percent of the national population in 1989 to 6.3 percent in 2014. In contrast, the county’s main non-Georgian-speaking historically Christian peoples – Russians, Greeks, and Armenians – has seen major population decreases in the same period, as will be explored in a later post.

The lack of religious/ethnic tensions in the Azerbaijani-speaking part of Georgia is linked to the generally cordial relations found between the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, which are of long standing. The two countries trade extensively and have cooperated on several major projects, most notably the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Tensions between them have occasionally emerged, however, generally over such issues as football (soccer) rivalries and historical sites. Even the border demarcation remains contentious, due primarily to the presence of a historically important monastery complex that straddles the existing boundary.

The lack of religious/ethnic tension in the Azerbaijani-speaking region of Georgia might also be associated with the general low level of religiosity among the Azerbaijani people. Both Pew and Gallup polling find that Azerbaijan is a largely secular country, with most people reporting that religion is not particularly important in their lives. As the detail of a Pew map of religiosity that is posted below indicates, Azerbaijan groups with Europe rather than the Middle East in regard to intensity of religious belief. Georgia, in contrast, is in an intermediate position.

Orthodox Christianity, Nationalism, and Islam in the Republic of Georgia Read More »

The East/West Divide in the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia exhibits a marked east/west division. This divide is especially notable in physical geography. As can be seen on the first map posted below, western Georgia is dominated but a sizable coastal lowland, with its rivers draining into the Black Sea, whereas eastern Georgia is more elevated and drains into the Caspian Sea. As is also evident on this map, the breakaway Russian client statelet of South Ossetia extends across much of north-central Georgia, partially separating the country’s two macro-regions. As the satellite-based map of Georgia reveals, a band of forested land also marks the divide between the two halves of the country. And as can be seen in the third map posted below shows, the area in which most people speak Georgian and related Kartvelian languages as their mother-tongue is almost bifurcated into eastern and western segments by a band of rough topography that is mostly occupied by non-Georgian-speaking peoples.

 

Eastern and western Georgia are also climatically differentiated. The west experiences heavy year-round precipitation, with its coastal areas approaching a humid subtropical climate. Eastern Georgia, in contrast, is subhumid, with parts of its eastern extremity verging on semi-arid status. In the east, rainfall is concentrated in the late spring and early summer, as can be seen in the precipitation table posted below.

The division between western and eastern Georgia is also found in the historical and cultural spheres. Through much of the ancient period, western Georgia was dominated by the Kingdom of Colchis, whereas eastern Georgia was dominated by the Kingdom of Iberia. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Georgia was united into a single kingdom that became a powerful empire in the 12th and early 13th centuries. In the post-medieval period, however, Georgia was split into several competing kingdoms, and in the sixteenth century the western half of the country came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire while the eastern half came under the rule of the Safavid (Persian) Empire. In the early 19th century, both halves of the country were annexed by the Russian Empire. Independence as a single state did not come until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Western and eastern Georgia are also differentiated on cultural grounds.  Most notably, western Georgia is characterized by a deeper level of cultural diversity. As the map below shows, the northwest has its own distinctive languages, Mingrelian and Svan. Although these tongues are related to Georgian, they broke from the common ancestral language many centuries ago. Today, however, Mingrelian and Svan are declining and are considered endangered, as local people increasingly switch to Georgian. The breakaway statelet of Abkhazia in the far northwest is characterized by pronounced ethnolinguistic diversity, although its diversity was significantly reduced when most of the local Georgian population was expelled after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the southwest, the Adjara region is noted for its distinctive dialect of Georgian and for the prevalence of Sunni Islam rather than Orthodox Christianity in most rural areas. Owning to such cultural distinctiveness, Adjara is officially classified as an autonomous region. (As will be explored in a later post, Shia Islam is dominant across much of south-central Georgia.)

Despite such differences between western and eastern Georgia, the country is characterized by a strong sense of national cohesion, with muted regional divisions. Georgia’s deeply rooted national identity will be explored in more detail in later posts. For the time being, I would only note that it may be of minor significance that the demographic core of western Georgia is offset to the east (in the Imereti region), while that of eastern Georgia is offset to the west (in the Tbilisi region). This pattern is clearly visible in the population cartogram posted below.

It might seem surprising that the core area of western Georgia is not located in the Black Sea coastal lowlands. The historical disease environment helps explain this pattern. Until recently, the humid and flat lands of far western Georgia had a high incidence of malaria, reducing its population and marginalized its political and economic position. Malaria was finally eliminated in the 1970s, but it returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was not fully extirpated until around 2010.

The East/West Divide in the Republic of Georgia Read More »

Lichen-Eating Across the World, and Among the Lichenophilic Limbu of Eastern Nepal

Lichen are one of the most ubiquitous forms of life, found in some of the Earth’s most inhospitable environments. We have long known that lichen are composite organisms, formed from the symbiosis of fungi and either algae or photosynthetic bacteria. Recent research shows that they can be more complicated, sometimes composed of several species of multicellular fungus as well as different kinds of algae and many kinds of bacteria. Single-celled fungi are also sometimes involved; a widely reported 2016 study was summarized in one headline as, “Yeast emerges as hidden third partner in lichen symbiosis.”

 Some 20 percent of fungi species can “lichenize,” or incorporate algae or cyanobacteria to reap the benefits of photosynthesis. The Wikipedia article on symbiosis in lichen includes this quip by naturalist Trevor Goward: “lichen are fungi that have discovered agriculture.” Goward takes this idea several steps further on his own website: “lichens are fungal greenhouses; lichens are algal farmsteads; lichens are ecosystems; lichens are organisms; lichens are emergent property.”

Lichen produce and store carbohydrates, and as a result can be an important source of food for animals, most notably reindeer (including caribou) and northern flying squirrels. They are seldom eaten, however, by people. Although only a few kinds are poisonous, many have compounds that can cause unpleasant effects. More important, the carbohydrates that most lichen produce are indigestible by human beings. But some are both digestible and nutritious. Yet over most of the world, edible lichen are eaten, if at all, only as a famine food. Perhaps this will change. One food specialist now touts lichen as a possible survival resource for a post-apocalyptic future.

Historically, the main areas of widespread lichen consumption were Scandinavia, East Asia, and the Pacific Northwest of North America. In northern Europe, mis-named Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica) was once widely consumed, “cooked in many different ways, such as bread, porridge, pudding, soup, or salad.” Its bitterness can be removed by boiling and its carbohydrates are easily digestible. But as Scandinavians gained access to more diverse foodstuffs, Iceland moss dropped out of their diets. As the Wikipedia notes, “It is not in great demand, and even in Iceland it is only occasionally used to make folk medicines, and in a few traditional dishes.”

Among many indigenous societies of the Pacific Northwest, a horsehair lichen called wila (Bryoria fremontii) was gastronomically important. Care had to be taken in gathering it, as B. fremontii sometimes contains vulpinic acid, toxic to human and most other mammals. Evidently, even the edible specimens produce a carbohydrate that is largely indigestible by people. If so, why would wila have been such a highly desired foodstuff? According to the Wikipedia, “It is theorized that these peoples may consume the lichen because when it is cooked with other foods, it may capture carbohydrates from these other foods that would otherwise be lost in the fire pit method used to cook it, increasing the carbohydrates by 23 to 122%.”

Globally, the most widely consumed lichen are the so-called rock tripes, grouped together in the genus Umbilicaria. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They are edible when properly prepared; soaking extensively and boiling with changes of water removes the bitterness and purgative properties.” In North America, Umbilicaria has generally been a famine food, but in parts of East Asia one variety is consumed on a regular basis, known as iwatake in Japanese and seogi beoseot in Korean. In Japan, traditional iwatake gathering was an arduous process (see the illustration below). This form of lichen is also valued for its medicinal properties. The Korean gastronomic website Maangchi emphasizes its health benefits:

Seogi-beoseot (rock ear mushrooms*) are a rare, precious Korean ingredient that’s prized for its medicinal properties. It’s found high up on rocks deep in the mountains, and is kind of in the shape of an ear, which is probably where it got its name. It’s picked from the rocks, dried, and sold in small quantities. It’s hard to find outside of Korea. [*Despite its Korean name, seogi-beoseot is not a mushroom.]

Among the world’s few lichen-eating cultures, one stands out above all others: the Limbu and related Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A recent article in the Kathmandu Post explores this Limbu proclivity:

The Limbus, an indigenous people from Nepal’s eastern hills, have interesting and unique food traditions. Wild edible lichen, known as yangben, is the community’s signature speciality. Limbus cook yangben with meat, especially pork, to make a variety of dishes. And one of the most loved delicacies is yangben-faksa, pork with lichen. Another popular dish is blood sausage, known as sargemba or sargyangma, which is made by adding lichen to minced meat…

Several different kinds of lichen are grouped together as yangben by the Limbu. A few scientific studies have been conducted on their consumption. In one research project,

Three lichen species …., Parmelia nepalensis, Ramalina farinacea, and R. conduplicans, were chemically analyzed to assess their food value. The lichens were found rich in carbohydrate, fat, crude fibre, and minerals. Their carbohydrate and protein contents were comparable to that of rice. If cooked mixed with other food, these lichens will provide various minerals in sufficient amount and add carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fibre.

Another study examined the “use of seven species of lichens belonging to four families” among several ethnic groups of eastern Nepal. Along with the Limbu, the Sherpa were found to be decidedly “lichenophilic.” Among these groups, one kind of lichen is used extensively to treat wounds; another is hung above the entryways of houses due to the belief that it “wards off evil spirit and maintains peace at home and among family members.”

According to the Kathmandu Post, yangben consumption is spreading to other ethnic groups in Nepal, leading to overharvesting. As it characteristic of lichen in general, growth is slow. The same article also notes that, “there are others who believe that the dust from vehicles that ply the roads built through rural forests have also barred the lichen from flourishing.” This thesis may have merit, as lichen are highly sensitive to air pollution. Lichen health is often used to gauge pollution severity; an organization called UK Air Pollution Information System (APIS) has even developed a mobile “lichen-app” that uses “lichens to assess atmospheric nitrogen pollution effects.”

Although the consumption of lichen has spread from the Limbu to neighboring ethnic groups, other Limbu delicacies seem unlikely to find much appeal outside their homeland. Consider, for example, wachipa, which probably tastes better than it sounds: “Wachipa is a special dish made by cooking rice, minced local chicken meat along with burnt downy feather follicles and offal. It has a unique bitter taste and aroma that you get from firewood roasted meat.”

As a final note on lichen, my quest to find maps of their distribution and used by humans was partially frustrated by the existence of the “map lichen,” or Rhizocarpon geographicum, which dominated most searches. As described by Wikipedia, “the map lichen is a species … which grows on rocks in mountainous areas of low air pollution. Each lichen is a flat patch bordered by a black line of fungal hyphae. These patches grow adjacent to each other, leading to the appearance of a map or a patchwork field.”

I am not sure how map-like map lichen actually are, but they can be strikingly beautiful.

  GeoCurrents will run one more article on the Limbu before turning to the recent Czech election.

Lichen-Eating Across the World, and Among the Lichenophilic Limbu of Eastern Nepal Read More »

The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion

On January 28, 2023, SBS Nepali ran a brief article with the intriguing title “Like the Vedas, the Mundhums are Limbu Community’s Hymns. Now It Has Been Published for the First Time.” Although the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism, are very well known, the religious literature of the Limbu people is extremely obscure. It deserves more recognition, as do the people who created it. Numbering up to 700,000, the Limbu once had their own kingdoms (or kingdoms), recorded in their own annals and written in their own script. The study of Limbu history and the use of the Limbu script were severely curtailed after Limbuwan – the Limbu country – was conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire, later called the Kingdom of Nepal, in the late 1700s. Subsequently, many Nepali speakers streamed into the region, making the Limbu a minority in their own homeland. Today, Limbu scholars are reclaiming their rich history and Limbu activists are trying, although probably in vain, to create their own semi-autonomous region in Limbuwan.

The Limbu people form a subset of a larger group known as the Kirati people, who live in scattered areas of eastern Nepal and adjacent parts of India. The Kirati speak several languages, one of which is Limbu, but their tongues are closely related and they all have similar cultures and histories. Most other Kirati people follow the same ethnic religion as the Limbu, called Kirat Mundum, which has its own body of oral scriptures, some of which have now been published. This corpus is noted for its size, conceptual complexity, and the fact that it is not expressed in ordinary language. According to one recent study:

The mundum is the oral tradition among the Kiratis in east Nepal, and it is also a long-standing, and ancient, though not unchanging, ritual practice. But it is very difficult to say what the mundum is exactly. There are many issues about the mundum which so far have remained untouched by systematic and scientific publications.  …

The mundum language is also seen as a divine language, which is unlike the day-to-day language. It is used only for superhuman beings, like the ancestors, or special ritual ceremonies where the ancestors are evoked. The mundum language is different from the ordinary language in many respects, like the morphology of nouns, politeness register, chanting, etc.

A variety of ritual specialists, referred to as shamans in English, go to great lengths to master this intricate faith. Some must devote more than a decade to study and meditation before they are viewed as accredited practitioners. In the Kirat Mundum religion, nature is regarded as holy and a variety of deities are venerated, two of which, one male and the other female, are generally held as supreme. Some adherents focus their worship on a paramount goddess, Yuma Sammang (“Mother Earth” or “Grandmother”).

The survival of this indigenous religious complex in an area where most peoples long ago embraced either Hinduism or Tibetan Buddhism is rather remarkable. Where local faiths, collectively referred to as animism, persist in the Himalayan belt, it is generally among small-scale (or “tribal”) populations, found mostly in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. But the Limbu and other Kirati peoples retain their animistic beliefs despite having long had sophisticated states of their own that interacted extensively with neighboring kingdoms and empires.

Despite its complexity and persistence, the Kirat Mundum faith is all but cartographically invisible. World maps of religion typically portray Nepal as either entirely Hindu or completely Buddhist, with the better ones showing its as mostly Tibetan Buddhist in the high-elevation zone of the north and mostly Hindu in the lower elevation zones of the center and south. I did, however, find an impressive map world religion map that depicts the inhabitants of eastern Nepal as following an unspecified “folk religion” (see the detail of this map posted below). Unfortunately, I was unable to trace the origin of this map; it came up on an image search linked to a Vibrant Maps web page, but the map itself does not seem to be posted on that page.

The religious tradition of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples is by no means static or disconnected from modern currents of thought. In recent decades, a new syncretic form of the faith has emerged, drawing on Kirat Mundum practices and concepts but synthesizing them with elements from other religious and philosophical traditions. As the abstract of Linda Gustavson’s essay entitled “Yumaism: A New Syncretic Religion among the Sikkimese Limbus” reads:

This chapter discusses localized religious-modernist developments within the Limbu community in the borderlands of Buddhism in the eastern Indian Himalayas. It examines the invention of Yumaism by focusing on the Limbu middle class’ agency in relation to their lived contexts, through an actor-oriented and processual approach. Yumaism draws on elements from indigenous religious traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, scholarly and orientalist discourses, and modernism in general. The proponents of Yumaism are similarly attempting to define their religion as such a way of life, a philosophy that is both rational and modern, while at the same time being steeped in the long historical tradition of the Limbus. While the process of modernization involved in the creation of Yumaism and the impact of Buddhism upon this process should not be underestimated, the dynamics of the modernization of the Limbu religion are grounded in local economic changes, politics, and ethnic relations.

Yumaism is not limited to the small Limbu community in the Indian state of Sikkim. It has evidently spread widely in Limbuwan proper and among other Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A pie chart of “religion in Nepal” (which I found on the website Retreatours.com) indicates that roughly 3% of the people of Nepal now follow it.

The Limbu are characterized by other unique and interesting cultural features, which are outlined in the Wikipedia article devoted to the ethnic group. They have distinctive clothing, architectural forms and decorative motifs, music, and athletic events. Matrilineal cultural patterns are clearly evident. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They believe that lineage is not transmitted patrilineally. Rather, a woman inherits her mother’s gods, and when she marries and lives with her husband she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the household deities.” Alcohol consumption, particularly of millet beer, plays a prominent social role: “Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and conflict resolution involve consumption of alcohol, especially the Limbu traditional beer popularly known as thee which is drunk from a container called tongba.” Limbu cuisine is especially interesting, meriting its own later GeoCurrents post. As a foretaste, it is notable that the Limbu are perhaps the most “lichenophilic” (lichen-loving) people in the world.

A relatively cosmopolitan people, the Limbu have spread widely across the globe. Their main social-service organization in Nepal, the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, has branches in the UK, the United States, the UAE, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany, Portugal, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Macau. Among the main aims of the British branch of the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung are “To plan and carry out appropriate programmes in order to wipe out superstition and ignorance of people about health problems both in UK and Nepal [and] to work for human rights, indigenous rights, and women and child rights.”

Why the important Limbu people have been largely ignored and generally excluded from historical and geographical accounts of Nepal will be the subject of another GeoCurrents post.

The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion Read More »

The Cheetah: Vanishing from Africa but Returning to India

In 2016, National Geographic announced that the cheetah is “racing toward extinction,” with its population expected to decline precipitously over the next 15 years. Only around 7,000 cheetahs, the world’s fastest mammal, live in the wild. Their remaining habitat is dispersed and disjunct, with roughly 77 percent of it falling outside of protected areas. A recent scientific study found that outside of protected areas, cheetah populations are highly vulnerable and declining. The Asiatic subspecies, now limited to Iran’s arid Dasht-e Kavir, is now functionally extinct, its population limited to an estimated 12 individuals, nine of which are male.

Several hundred years ago, Cheetahs inhabited a vast area extending across most of Africa and southwestern Asia. (The map posted below, however, exaggerates and misconstrues the historical range, as is common in maps of this sort; cheetahs never lived in the dense forests of far north-central Iran or in the driest parts of the Sahara, and their range did not abruptly terminate at the modern political border between Iran and Armenia and Azerbaijan.) In prehistoric times, cheetahs also lived in Europe, where, according to one theory, they died out due to competition with lions. But as cheetahs easily coexisted with lions in historical times across most of Africa and southwestern Asia, this thesis is unconvincing. Regardless of where they lived, cheetahs evidently came close to extinction twice, once around 100,000 years ago and again around 12,000 years ago. Due to these near misses, cheetahs have extremely low genetic diversity, making them highly vulnerable to infectious diseases.

But just as cheetahs are vanishing from Africa, they are getting a new lease on life in India. In September 2022, eight cheetahs were transferred from Namibia to Kuno National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where they were personally released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 72nd anniversary. (One of these cats later came down with a kidney ailment is currently undergoing treatment.) On January 25, 2023, South Africa announced that it sill send more than 100 cheetahs to India. Whether Kuno is large enough to sustain a viable cheetah population is an open question, leading some biologists to express reservations about the entire initiative. In the future, they might also have to compete with lions. In the 1990s, Kuno was selected as the main site of the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which resulted in the removal 1,650 Adivasis (tribal people) from Kuno National Park. India’s – and indeed, Asia’s – only remaining lion population has long been restricted to Gir National Park in Gujarat, making it highly vulnerable to extinction. Gujarat, however, has successfully resisted the transfer of any of its lions to Kuno, even though its own population has overpopulated its restricted range.

Cheetahs have a celebrated history in India, where they were widely used by aristocrats as a semi-domesticated hunting animal. According to the Indian author Divyabhanusinh, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great owned some 9,000 cheetahs over the course of his lifetime, although most experts think that this figure is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of numbers, tame Cheetahs figure prominently in Mughal art and were held in high esteem. But cheetahs were also killed in large numbers by elite Indian and British hunters. According to Wikipedia, “Three of India’s last cheetahs were shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1948. The same maharaja “has the notorious record of having shot and killed a total of 1,710 Bengal tigers, the highest known individual score.”

India was not the only place in which cheetahs were used extensively in hunting. Images from the third millennium BCE in both Mesopotamia and Egypt depict leashed cheetahs. According to the Indian blogger Rahultiwary, citing Wildcats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, “Later the cats were widely used in the Middle East, Afghanistan, southern Russia, Pakistan, India, and China. Tame cheetahs were used to hunt goitered [or black-tailed] gazelles, foxes, and hares in Russia and Mongolia, and the sport flourished during the middle ages in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. In 1474, one Armenian ruler owned 100 hunting cheetahs.” In Central Asia and the Caucasus, cheetahs here evidently exterminated in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s they were hunted out of the Arabian Peninsula as well.

The gradual disappearance of cheetahs from Africa, coupled with their reintroduction to India, has important lessons for conservation biology. Many environmentalists who warn about the impending “sixth wave of extinctions” also think that economic growth and development more generally are the root cause of the crisis. According to the noted Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, the primary drivers are “continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich” Continuing economic growth, such authors argue, entails the extraction of ever more resources, which will eventually – and quite soon in Ehrlich’s view – reach the point of exhaustion, resulting in a systemic collapse. Although their dire predictions have all failed thus far, eco-pessimists might be right in the long term , as only time can tell. But in the short term, they are almost certainly wrong. Rampant habitat loss and wildlife destruction is occurring primarily in the least developed parts of the world. Where economic development has reached an advanced stage, habitat is generally increasing and wildlife is rebounding. Economic development is also closely correlated with reduced human fertility; economically surging India now has a below-replacement-rate Total Fertility Rate of around 2.0, whereas in economically troubled Niger the figure stands at 6.6. To the extent that economic development is hindered in tropical Africa for environmental reasons, the destruction of nature can be expected to be intensified rather than reversed. Even in Europe, environmentally justified energy austerity programs are accompanied by increased environmental degradation. When people have difficulty affording power, trees can be quickly sacrificed for fuel, as is indeed occurring in some of Europe’s few remaining old growth forests.

India deserves credit for protecting and restoring wildlife and wild lands at a far higher level than might be expected on the basis on its raw developmental standing. Most of the world’s remaining wild tigers, for example, live in India, even though India accounts for a relatively small portion of the animal’s original range, and even though India is far poorer than most countries that had, or still have, viable tiger populations. The contrast in wildlife conservation between India and China is especially stark and has been apparent for hundreds if not thousands of years. The sad story of China’s long history of wildlife extirpation can be found in Mark Elvins’ well-researched book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.

As a final note, North America had its own “cheetah” (Miracinonyx trumani) until the Pleistocene-Holocene Extinction Event circa 12,000 years ago, which wiped out roughly 85 percent of its large mammals. This large America cat was morphologically similar to the cheetah. It was likewise built for speed, as was its main prey, the pronghorn “antelope.” Recent genetic research, however, has shown that Miracinonyx trumani was much more closely related to the puma (cougar or mountain lion) than to the eastern hemisphere’s cheetah, and is therefore now properly deemed “the American cheetah-like cat.” It came to resemble the cheetah through convergent evolution, not from descent from a common ancestral species.

The Cheetah: Vanishing from Africa but Returning to India Read More »

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection?

The Kurdish national myth links the origin of the ethnic group to the ancient Medes, an Iranian people who supposedly carved out a large empire that was quickly supplanted by that of the much better-known (and closely related) Persians in the 6th century BCE. As the Wikipedia article on the Kurds notes:

Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, and even use a calendar dating from 612 BC, when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes. The claimed Median descent is reflected in the words of the Kurdish national anthem: “We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow.”

Few if any scholars give credence to this theory. The poorly documented language of the ancient Medes does seem to have been closely related to Kurdish, with both languages placed on the Northwestern side-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language tree. But the Median language does not seem to be any more closely related to Kurdish that it is to any of the other modern languages on the same branch. More to the point, historians increasingly doubt whether the Medes ever created a coherent state, let alone a vast empire. What little is known about their political organization comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, with Assyrian cuneiform archives providing a little additional information. Herodotus certainly assigned a prominent position to the Medes, but otherwise evidence about their geopolitical role is essentially lacking.

The Kurdish emphasis on their supposed Median progenitors is not surprising. In ethno-nationalist discourse, powerful and illustrious peoples from bygone eras are often enshrined in an ancestral position to bolster feelings of national pride. Such self-serving stories usually have little historical support and are therefore regarded with suspicion or outright contempt by most impartial scholars.

But if there is no solid evidence that the Kurds are the descendants of the ancient Meads, that does not necessarily mean that they have no cultural, historical, or genetic roots in ancient ethnic formations. Scholarship on such topics is often precarious, however, as the evidence is generally murky and national ideologies tend to intrude. But as long as they are based on some reasonable evidence, such “primordialist” ideas should not be rejected out of hand. Many of them warrant further inquiry, regardless of whether they seem farfetched.

To my mind, the most intriguing thesis on ancient Kurdish roots is found in the early works of Michael Mehrdad Izadi, one of the world’s most preeminent historical and cultural cartographers (his map collection, found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, is a cartographic treasure trove). Born to a Kurdish father and Belgian mother, Izadi has deep and abiding interests in the Kurdish people. Some of his early writings on this topic can be found at Kurdistanica.com. Here he expounds his thesis of partial Kurdish descent from the ancient Hurrians, a Bronze-Age people who were associated with a powerful state (or empire) called Mitanni. Although the Hurrians, unlike the Kurds, were not an Indo-European people, some of their leaders, experts in chariot warfare, evidently were; their personal names, and even some of their deities, link them to the Indic (or Indo-Aryan) branch of Indo-European language family.

If Izady’s thesis is correct, the Kurds would have originated from an amalgamation of the ancient Hurrians and more powerful, mostly male, Indo-European-speaking intruders (initially speaking an Indo-Aryan language and later speaking one or more Iranian language). In global historical terms, this scenario fits into a common pattern. The languages of more military powerful peoples often supplant those of less powerful peoples, but other cultural aspects of the original group often survive with relatively little change. This is what Izady sees when he peers into the distant Kurdish past:

The legacy of the Hurrians to the present culture of the Kurds is fundamental. It is manifest in the realm of Kurdish religion, mythology, material and martial arts, and even the genetics. Nearly three-quarters of Kurdish clan names and roughly half of topographical and urban names are also of Hurrian origins, ….  Mythological and religious symbols present in the art of the later Hurrian dynasties, such as the Mannaeans and Kassites of eastern Kurdistan, and the Lullus of the southeast, present in part what can still be observed in the Kurdish ancient religion of Yazdanism, better-known today by its various denominations as Alevism, Yezidism,and Yarisanism (Ahl-i Haqq).

Izady’s interpretation of Kurdish origins and religious beliefs, it must be noted, has been rejected by many experts in the field. The Wikipedia article on Izady includes some crudely dismissive comments, albeit made by some equally controversial scholars. In the long run, it is usually best to neither embrace nor dismiss evidence-based but non-mainstream interpretations of deep historical processes. Most of our key theories in both the natural and human sciences, after all, were once roundly rejected for contravening the established consensus.

When the language of an elite population replaces the language of a subordinated group, traces of the older language often persist in the form of vocabulary elements, sounds, and even grammatical structures. If Izady’s thesis is correct, one might expect to find such a Hurrian “substratatum” in the modern Kurdish language(s) (or, more precisely, a Hurro-Urartian substratum, as Hurrian’s only known relative was the language of the Iron Age Kingdom of Urartu in what is now eastern Turkey and Armenia). As it turns out, evidence does exist for such linguistic traces. Several years ago, the blogsite Within the Lands of Kurda ran a three-part series on this topic, entitled “The Hurro-Urartian Substratum in Kurdish.” Each of these posts is worth quoting:

It has long been shown by scholars that significant portion of Kurdish toponymy originates from Hurro-Urartian; examples are ”Barzani” which was name of a Hurrian god …

Indeed, there are hardly any cases where there is not a ”native” [i.e. Hurro-Urartian] Kurdish equivalent for the superimposed Irano-Kurdish words.

As can be seen, Kurdish language appears to be a creole language formed after an amalgamation of Hurro-Urartian and Iranic languages. The Hurro-Urartian layer, showing itself as an older substratum in which Urartian is stronger, while the Iranic layer, which began undoubtedly with the Scytho-Cimmerian invasion of Urartu emerges as a superstratum. The Iranic layer was further intensified with a wave of clearly identifiable Middle Persian loanwords under the Sassanid period, during which, Iranic aristocrats played a prominent role in local affairs

The author received some harsh criticism, however, in the comments section of the blog, particularly regarding the idea that Kurdish is a creole language. Linguists have very strict rules for determining such matters, and the author probably took a step too far. All that I can conclude from my own cursory investigation is that a major Hurrian-Urartian substratum in Kurdish as an intriguing possibility that deserves further inquiry.

Perhaps the most interesting line of evidence for the Hurrian roots of the Kurdish people comes from the realm of tattooing. Tattoos are haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, but Muslim Kurds – particularly women – have nonetheless maintained this ancient practice to this day, although it does seem to be slowly disappearing. Traditional Kurdish tattoos, primarily placed on the hands and face, are called deq. They are based on an elaborate symbolic system, sometimes deemed a “secret language.” Izady sees a clear Hurrian linkage here as well:

It is fascinating to recognize the origin of many tattooing motifs still used by the traditional Kurds on their bodies as replicas of those which appear on the Hurrian figurines. One such is the combination that incorporates serpent, sun disc, dog and comb/rain motifs. In fact, some of these Hurrian tattoo motifs are also present in the religious decorative arts of the Yezidi Kurds, as found prominently engraved to the wall at the great shrine at Lalish.

Regardless of any connections to the ancient Hurrians, deq tattooing is a fascinating topic in its own right. Several recent articles have focused on this endangered cultural tradition. I will  conclude this post with quotations from two of these publications. First, from The Bajer:

DEQ is a secret language, mainly among women. … In some cultures, tattoos stand for religion, power, and joy; others believe the practice of DEQ has therapeutic power. According to some women I have interviewed, DEQ is a reminder of loss, a way to immortalize their loved ones. They keep essential memories constantly in mind with powerful symbols on apparent parts of the body, such as the face, feet, arms, hands, and chest.

DEQ differs from the modern tattoo with its unique ingredients and recipe, which varies across different ethnic groups. DEQ tattoo ingredients include sheet metal soot or ash, coal dust, milk from a lactating mother who has weaned a female baby, which is believed to make the tattoo stick permanently, and liquid from an animal’s gallbladder. The application of DEQ includes embroidering the mixture into the skin through one to three needles.

Second, from Daily Sabah:

Deq symbols have different connotations but most of them are believed to protect women from evil forces. They are said to bring good health, cure illnesses and be associated with fertility and tribal affiliations. The figure of an eye is said to divert the evil eye, while an image of a gazelle brings luck. The figure of the sun or the moon refers to an endless and healthy life and an illustration of a millipede is associated with good housekeeping. For beautification, the figure of the moon or a star is preferred. The common “V” symbol is a tribal identifier. Certain geometrical figures or animal images refer to fertility. “Deq” is seen as an accessory, something that elderly women in Turkey’s southeast proudly show. Jodi Hilton, an American photojournalist, visited Syrians who have been displaced by the DAESH [ISIS] siege and now live at refugee camps in Turkey. There, she documented some of the last-remaining tattooed women from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection? Read More »

The Precocious Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Tragic Love Story of Mem and Zin

In the massive scholarly literature on nationalism, a distinction is made between “modernist” and “primordialism” interpretations of the phenomenon. Scholars adhering to the former camp, who constitute the majority, generally argue that nationalism did not emerge until the late 18th century (with the French Revolution) or the early 19th century (with the rise of nationalistic romanticism). Some writers in the latter group, in contrast, argue that nationalistic sentiments can be dated as far back as ancient times, when they were supposedly found among such peoples as the Egyptians and the Israelites. (I have always found this debate somewhat sterile: some aspects of nationalism are indeed of long standing, but nationalism as a coherent discourse emerged more recently.) Almost all scholars agree that modern nationalism emerged in the West. Most trace its origin to Europe, although Benedict Anderson, arguably the most influential scholar on the topic, located its genesis primarily in Latin America. Despite the celebration that his work received, Anderson remained frustrated that other scholars tended to bypass his thesis on Latin America.

One particular form of nationalism, which we might call “state-seeking ethnonationalism,” is almost always traced to Central and Eastern Europe. In this formation, a stateless group of people with a common language and culture seeks to create its own country, either by uniting small states into a much larger ethnic union or by seceding from one or more multilingual empires to establish a new ethnonational state. In Europe, the Germans and Italians are commonly viewed as having pioneered this approach to nation-state formation. After Germany and Italy emerged as states circa 1870, and handful of ethnic groups located further to the east struggled for decades to create their own ethnonational countries. This process began to reach fruition after WW I, with the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, and was finally completed (in Europe at least) after the Cold War, which saw the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

The national history of the Kurdish people, however, tells a different story, as ethnonational consciousness in some form seems to date back at least to the late 17th century. The Kurds at the time were divided between the multicultural Ottoman and Persian empires. Both empires were decentralized by modern standards, and several hereditary Kurdish statelets (emirates, or principalities) enjoyed considerable autonomy, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But despite such local self-rule, the Kurds lacked anything like a state of their own, and some Kurdish intellectuals chafed under their subordination to the imperial rule of other peoples. As a result, an inchoate form of state-seeking Kurdish ethno-nationalism does seem to be traceable to the early modern period.

The key figure in early Kurdish nationalism was Ehmedê Xanî‎ (or Ahmad Khani), a poet, Sufi mystic, and intellectual, who lived from 1650 to 1707. His tragic love story, Mem and Zin (Mem û Zîn) is often regarded as the key work of classical Kurdish literature, and has even been deemed a “consecrated Kurdish national epic.” Based on a true story from the fifteenth century, Mem and Zin centers on two ill-fated lovers from rival clans, and thus bears superficial resemblance to Romeo and Juliet. The inability of the two protagonists to unite in life is usually interpreted as an allegory of the inability of the Kurds to unite and thus gain freedom from their imperial overlords.  One verse from Mem and Zin has been singled out as the quintessential statement of thwarted Kurdish national longings: If we had unity among ourselves, if we all, together, obeyed one another, the Turks, the Arabs, and the Persians would one and all be in our servitude.”

In an insightful analysis of the poem, Michiel Leezenberg argues that its nationalistic aspects were not enshrined and the Kurdish political imagination until the late 19th century, thus giving it a somewhat modernist gloss. Previously, Mem and Zin had been valued mostly for its expression of mystical love. But regardless of how the poem was interpreted in early periods, it does seem clear that Xanî himself was a devoted (proto?) nationalist. Considering the current division of Kurdistan among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as the lack of unity among the Kurdish people, Xanî‎’s vision seems more relevant today than ever.

In 1992, Mem and Zin was made into a motion picture in Turkey, although it had to be filmed in Turkish because the Kurdish language was at the time illegal in the country’s public’s sphere. In 2002, it finally came to the screen in the Kurdish (Kurmanji) language, filmed as a miniseries by Kurdistan TV (based in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan). According to director Nasir Hassan, it was “the most substantial and the most sophisticated artistic work ever done in Kurdistan, … using a crew of more than 1000 people and 250 actors.”

Despite Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish nationalism, it allowed and indeed supported the restoration of the mausoleum of the two historical lovers. According to one source, a staggering 1 trillion Turkish lira (650 million US dollars) was devoted to this Mem and Zin project. As reported by a local mayor who helped guide the restoration, “By restoring a historical piece that has become a ruin, we hope to contribute to tourism and pass it on to the next generations.”

The hope that the restored mausoleum would attract international as well as domestic tourists has apparently not been in vain. In August 2022, a Turkish newspaper reported with some excitement that a Chinese couple had recently paid their respects. The Chinese man, a Muslim convert named Nurettin Dong, has pledged to bring the story of Mem and Zin to China. As he put it, “I translated 2,500 couplets to Chinese. I am excited this will lead to greater recognition of this work.”

The mausoleum of Mem and Zin is located near the Turkish city of Cizre, just north of the Syrian border and not far from that of Iraq. A one-time center of Kurdish culture, as the capital of the autonomous emirate of Bohtan (see the second map below), Cizre has seen its share of tragedy. As summarized by the Wikipedia article on the city:

Under Ottoman control, Cizre stagnated and was left as a small district centre dominated by ruins by the end of the 19th century. The city’s decline continued, exacerbated by the state-orchestrated destruction of its Christian population in the Armenian and Assyrian genocides in 1915, and exodus of its Jewish population to Israel in 1951. It began to recover in the second half of the 20th century through urban redevelopment, and its population saw a massive increase as a place of refuge from 1984 onwards as many fled the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. At the close of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, Cizre has emerged as a battleground between Kurdish militants and the Turkish state, which inflicted significant devastation on the city to retain control.

If Kurdish nationalism can be said to date back to the 17th century, the Kurdish nation itself –stateless though it still is – may have far deeper roots. We will look at this intriguing primordialist interpretation in the next GeoCurrents post

The Precocious Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Tragic Love Story of Mem and Zin Read More »

Grim News from Kurdistan

Recent news from Kurdistan – often regarded as forming the world’s largest “nation without a state” – has been bleak. Protesting Iranian Kurds have been under attack from their own government, as have many other Iranians. Iran has also launched assaults on the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which it accuses of harboring Iranian Kurdish insurgents in the rugged borderlands between the two countries. The Turkish government has been attacking its own Kurdish insurgents in the same mountains. These strikes are not precisely targeted and have killed a number of civilians. Turkey (Türkiye, officially) has also been launching attacks against Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-led autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria, and has been indicating for some time that an outright invasion might be forthcoming.

The situation in Rojava is becoming precarious. Rojava, an autonomous region that is nominally part of Syria, is a unique experiment in political organization. It first emerged in 2012, just after the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and gained control over substantial territories a few years later as its militias drove out the forces of ISIS (ISIL/Daesh), with help from the U.S. military. Although largely Kurdish-led, Rojava is an explicitly multi-cultural and multi-linguistic polity, with Kurmanji Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac, Turkish, and Adyghe (or West Circassian) all serving in an official capacity in all or part of the region. Rojava is highly decentralized, divided into seven semi-autonomous regions, or cantons. Its governance is based of what might be called “bottom-up libertarian socialism.” As the Wikipedia article on the region notes in one breathless sentence:

The supporters of the region’s administration state that it is an officially secular polity with direct democratic ambitions based on an anarchist, feminist, and libertarian socialist ideology promoting decentralization, gender equity, equality, environmental sustainability, social ecology and pluralistic tolerance for religious cultural and political diversity, and that these values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics, stating it to be a model for a federalize Syria  as a whole, rather than outright independence.

This unparalleled political system is based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, an American environmental writer and political theorist who died in 2006. Bookchin’s theories were adopted and reinterpreted in the early 2000s by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant organization of Kurds in Turkey, officially classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the United States.) During the Cold War, Öcalan and his followers adhered to Marxism-Leninism and sought to create an independent Kurdish state. After abandoning authoritarian leftism, Öcalan turned instead to the equally left-wing but decidedly libertarian vision of Bookchin, melding it with several reformulated traditional Kurdish socio-cultural practices. At the same time, the PKK abandoned its goal of outright independence, seeking instead mere Kurdish political autonomy. Many experts think that it has also rejected the tactics of terrorism, and hence no longer deserves the “terrorist” designation.

Whether Rojava’s idealistic system of governance can work in practice is an open question. I was certainly skeptical when I first learned of its existence. But the leaders of Rojava have been employing it for a decade, and evidently with some success. To be sure, they have been subjected to harsh criticism, with some writers claiming that they have authoritarian tendencies of their own and favor Kurds over members of other ethnic groups. The “Libertarian Communist” website libcom.org goes so far as to condemn Rojava as a fraudulent revolutionary organization that has allied itself with the Syrian Assad regime, Russia, and the United States – viscously attacking it, in effect, for doing what has been necessary for its own survival. Overall, what I find remarkable is how little actual reporting has been done on this intriguing political experiment. Considering Rojava’s de facto alliance with the United States, the possibility of an ISIS resurgence in the region, and the existential threat to region’s autonomy posed by the Turkish military, one might expect Western journalists to be keenly interested in what is happening there. But this is not the case. The world at large seems oddly unconcerned about Rojava and its travails.

Rojava’s leaders are worried that their regional autonomy and security might be sacrificed by the United States in the interest of maintaining its own alliance with Turkey, a fellow NATO member. As they point out, Rojava already lost a large strip of land after the Trump Administration acquiesced to the Turkish military occupation of part of northeastern Syria in 2019. A weakened Rojava was also forced into a power-sharing arrangement with the official Syrian regime over most of its northern lands (see the map below). This could hardly have been an easy compromise: in earlier years, Syria’s Assad regime had denied citizenship to many if not most of the country’s Kurdish residents, based on its ideology of Arab nationalism and supremacy.

Although the United States has condemned recent Turkish incursions into Rojava, many residents of the region feel betrayed by the U.S. and the West more generally. As Nadine Maenza recently tweeted, “Turkey is targeting the very people that destroyed the ISIS caliphate, losing 11,000 lives so the United States did not have to put boots on the ground.” This sense of betrayal is a common motif in Kurdish historical thought – and for good reason. As early as 1919, U.S. diplomats offered some support for Kurdistan, including a proposal for an autonomous and eventually independent Kurdish state in what is now southeastern Turkey (see the map below), but they have never followed through. Since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq have generally upheld American political interests in the region, sacrificing many lives in the process. Although a few U.S. politicians, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, have offered some support for Kurdish independence, the State Department remains deeply hostile to the idea, and the U.S. government more generally prioritizes its alliance with Turkey.

One of the biggest problems confronting Kurdish political aspirations has been their own lack of unity. Although the Kurds of northern Iraq have their own autonomous region that verges on independence, it remains geographically divided along the lines of political party, clan leadership, and dialect/language. In the mid 1990s, the Talabani-led, Sorani Kurdish-speaking Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a civil war against the Barzani-led, Kurmanji Kurdish-speaking Kurdish Democratic Party (see the maps below). Although this division was soon patched up, with U.S. help, the two sub-regions of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish polity often find themselves at loggerheads. In 2017, the Kurdish peshmerga military had to retreat from Kirkuk, a city commonly deemed the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and allow the Baghdad government to regain control. This humiliating withdrawal reportedly occurred after the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan covertly pulled out from the operation, reportedly in connivance with Iran. In the process, the Iranian position in Iraq was strengthened, harming U.S. interests. As the Institute for the Study of War reported at the time,

The Iraqi Government and Iran likely signaled their intent to use military force to compel the Peshmerga withdrawals in those provinces, if necessary. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk.

The deeper problems in Iraqi Kurdistan these days seem to stem more from political corruption and mismanagement than from internal conflict. A hard-hitting article from Kurdistan Source focuses on the recent surge of migrants out of Iraqi Kurdistan, blaming it largely on misgovernance. As the author writes

The new model [of governance] is premised on high taxation, aggressive privatisation, authoritarian governance, and eliminating nearly all social welfare. Since 2019, while household income and industrial output have stagnated, the government has increased taxes and service bills by 400% to over 1000%. This has led to nearly 70% of the region’s factories closing within just two years. While on paper, the new model is supposed to encourage private-sector driven growth, in reality, most entrepreneurs and private enterprises are driven out of business by the creation of hurdles. The majority of businesses I have talked to believe the government wants to drive them out of business to help certain companies monopolise each sector. These potential monopolies are often owned by members of the two ruling families* or people close to them.

The Kurdish tragedy will be explored in more detail in coming posts.

 

* Meaning the Barzani and Talabani clans.

Grim News from Kurdistan Read More »

The Paradoxical Position of Bahia in the Brazilian National Imagination

Northeast Brazil has the highest percentage of people with African ancestry in the country. But due to the way that race is classified in Brazil (see the previous post), most of the region’s inhabitants are classified as Pardo, “brown,” or of mixed race. According to official statistics, the northeast’s Black population is relatively small and is significantly outnumbered by its white population (see the second map below). Of Brazil’s northeastern states, Bahia has the highest percentage of Blacks and the lowest percentage whites. Most enslaved Africans brought to Brazil arrived in Bahia, and as a result the state has long had a disproportionately African population. But even in Bahia, whites outnumber Blacks, at least according to official statistics. On the detailed map of racial distribution posted below, only one municipality in Bahia is depicted as having a Black plurality.

Bahia occupies a distinctive and in many ways paradoxical position in the Brazilian national consciousness. It has long been celebrated as Brazil’s site of origin, with its main city, Salvador, having served as the capital of colonial Brazil until 1763. Salvador is famed today for its colonial architecture and is an important tourist destination. But Bahia has also long been disparaged by Euro-Brazilians for its African cultural practices and its large Black population. On a map of Brazilian regional stereotypes (below), Bahia is marked as a land of “Black Witchcraft.” The Urban Dictionary defines the word “Baiano” first as “a person from the state of Bahia” and second as “a derogatory term for a poor, colored, or poorly educated Brazilian (used analogous to the English word n****r*).” According to my Brazilian friends, the second definition is most often used in São Paulo, where many poor Baianos work in construction and in other difficult and dirty jobs.

But the position of Bahia in Brazil’s national imagination is more complicated still. The state is also celebrated for many of its cultural practices that have spread to the rest of the country, centered on music, dance, religion, and cuisine. Such Afro-Brazilian cultural features as samba, candomblé, and capoeira are associated with Bahia but are now often viewed as essential aspects of Brazil itself. On the map of Brazilian regional stereotypes, Bahia is also noted as the land of samba. Many writers have remarked on Bahia’s paradoxical position. According to Anadelia Romo, Bahia is “alternately romanticized and denigrated, it has served both as a cradle of Brazilian national identity and as an embarrassing symbol of Brazilian backwardness.” Similarly, Livio Sansone writes:

[T]his is just part of the paradox: the counterpole of [Bahia’s] political weakness is the prestige and vivacity of Afro-Bahian culture. This is a culture that at times enjoys plenty of official recognition – mostly as regard to the religious dimension (the Afro-Catholic candomblé religious system) cuisine, and music – but which has a major role in the public image of Brazil and Brazilianess at home and abroad…”

Such contrasting images of Bahia have evidently obscured several important characteristics of the state. Annadelia Romo further argues that Bahia has often been misleadingly depicted as a “living museum.” As she writes, “to see Bahia as inherently, essentially rooted in Africa ignores a creative and important process of cultural grafting that has been at work over the course of the 20th century. To see Bahia as a cultural preserve is to see it as static whereas Bahian culture has been anything but.” Scott Ickes focuses instead on the socio-economic aspects the Bahian paradox. As he argues, “Newfound acceptance of these [Bahian Afro-Brazilian] customs was a democratic move forward, but it also perpetuated the political and economic marginalization of the black majority.”

The common stereotypes of Bahia, both positive and negative, pertain most closely to the state’s more densely populated eastern coastal region. Bahia’s deep interior is distinctive in many ways. Far western Bahia, for example, is part of the Brazilian boom zone of highly mechanized agriculture. The city of Barreiras, at the heart of this farming frontier, is rarely discussed either in or outside of Brazil. But as the Wikipedia article on the municipality notes:

In recent years [Barreiras] has experienced an economic boom and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the state of Bahia if not in Brazil. … From the decade of the 1970s to the present, the municipality has gone from 20,864 inhabitants to 120,000 and undergone important transformations. It has received public and private investments that have modified the social and economic profile. After 1990, the intense agricultural activity has caused changes in practically all the economic and social sectors. … Irrigation, the level terrain, and the dry climate with well-defined dry and rainy seasons have made Barreiras a leader in agriculture. … Going along with the development of agriculture, traditional cattle raising gave way in the 1990s to the use of high technology …

Needless to say, this depiction has little connection with the ways in which Bahia is commonly imagined in Brazil. But Bahia is a huge state, significantly larger than California. And as is the case in Bahia, most parts of California also fail to match the stereotypical vision of the state.

*Astoundingly, this slur word is spelled out in the Urban Dictionary.

The Paradoxical Position of Bahia in the Brazilian National Imagination Read More »