A three-day academic conference on the past, present and future of Arab-Kurdish relations in the Middle East opened in Doha on Saturday, 29 April, 2017. A total of 40 panelists will present their work during the three-day “Arabs and Kurds: Interests, Fears and Commonalities” conference.

Speaking on the first panel, Iraqi historian Sayyar Al Jamil delivered a paper focused on the specific circumstances of Mosul, the northernmost major city in Iraq which sits on the frontier of Arab and Kurdish linguistic spaces.

Jamil argued that the area around Mosul had for centuries been a melting pot for three major ethnic groups which observed a cordial but well defined division of territory and economic activity: “the desert for the Arabs; the steppes for the Turcoman; and the mountains for the Kurds”. Nonetheless, this did not prevent intermarriages between the Arab and Kurdish groups within the boundaries of the city of Mosul and beyond. In fact, Jamil pointed out, an entire population, made up of the descendants of intermarried Arabs and Kurds, known as the Jarjeri grew up as a distinct ethnic group in Iraq. By 1743, when Mosul was already an ancient city, Kurdish and Arab Muslins worked hand in hand to thwart the invasion of Persian invader Nader Shah.

Speaking on the same panel, Syrian historian Jamal Barout extended this coexistence, predetermined by geography, to Aleppo, linked to Mosul through the region known as the Syrian Jazira. With the onset of the post-colonial state, the Syrian authorities conducted a census in the far north of the country where they finally required individuals and families to register their personal information and, by default, their national or ethnic identities. It was at this point that large numbers of Kurds living in the country fell afoul of the new biopolitics approach pursued by Damascus, and were designated as foreigners in territories they had been living in since before Syrian independence.

Saad Iskander, speaking during the second panel, explained why the desire by central authorities in newly established national capitals would unavoidably clash with established practice. “People have long assumed that the Kurds were traded between successive empires in the Middle East”, said Iskander, “but in fact, local Kurdish communities have been ruled by ‘princely’ local rulers for centuries”.  Iskander moved forward to describe the birth of Kurdish nationalism—how, with the birth of nation-states in Iraq and Syria, political oppression led to the underground development of Kurdish separatism. With time, a rural Kurdish identity transformed into an urban national consciousness in cities like Mosul.

The third panel dealt with the suppression of Kurdish identity in the wake of Iraqi independence. Shirko Kirmanj argues that the Iraqi State attempted to erase the Kurdish existence and refused to acknowledge the Kurdish identity in order to maintain control of lands and natural resources under Kurdish majority control. Nasser Dureid Said, in the fourth panel drew upon the “othering” of Kurds in Iraq and Syria. He argues that it is only after years of authoritarian oppression that the Kurds developed an identity based on the idea of an independent nation state, that has become gradually militarized and increasingly widespread.

Ammar Alsamr, the final speaker of the day, brought the discussion up to date, with a presentation titled “The Kurds of Iraq: from the Collapse of the Iraqi State to the Rise of ISIL”. Alsamr made clear that the political leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan were single-minded on the need to eventually establish a separate, Kurdish state in the northern provinces of Iraq. In order to achieve this aim, Kurdish leaders needed to shape the post-2003 constitution of Iraq. Eventually, this would mean that a Kurdish state would take control of the valuable oil resources in mixed areas such as Kirkuk, in which many Arabs live. It would spell the gradual collapse of a centuries-old cultural pluralism and rather than solving the conflict between Kurds and Arabs, it marked the beginning of a new stage in Arab Kurdish hostilities.