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Traveling Kurdistan in the 1960s with Dr. Christensen


Kurdish Herald Vol. 2 Issue 1, February 2010 -

by Natsumi Ajiki


One evening in New York City’s financial district, Kurdish and non-Kurdish audiences had the opportunity of traveling across Kurdistan while remaining in their seats before a lecture given by Dr. Dieter Christensen. Dr. Dieter Christensen and his wife, Nerthus Christensen, M.A., immersed themselves into the rural life of Kurdish shepherds and farmers a half-century ago and earned their place among only a handful of prominent experts on the Kurdish culture. During the evening lecture organized by the Kurdish American Society (KAS), Dieter shared their experiences from the early 1960s with stories about the Kurdish life of that era. Dieter’s intimate stories about Kurdish traditions coupled with unique collections of photography and musical recordings from a time when the Kurdish region was virtually unknown to the world enthralled his audience.


After receiving a PhD in Comparative Musicology and Cultural Anthropology in 1957, Dieter was invited to join the scholars at the Free University of Berlin to explore traces of ancient Mesopotamia in the mountains of Central and Eastern Kurdistan. At the time, scholarly literature - mostly geographic and colonial-historical - was very limited.


As Dieter along with Nerthus, who specialized in Mesopotamian archeology, traveled around the Taurus Mountains in search of water buffaloes and Mesopotamian-style reed houses, they inevitably discovered the indigenous Kurdish people of the region with their unique culture and peculiar political situation.


The borders that had been drawn in the interest of colonial powers during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire showed no consideration towards the locals’ way-of-life, splitting families and tribes. While today these borders are more controlled, Dieter and Nerthus conducted their research at a time when the borders were far more porous.


Photo Courtesy Dr. Dieter Christensen © Kurdish Herald 2010


The two documented the lives of the Kurdish people when they were still able to maintain their nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles around the Hakkari area of the Kurdish region of Turkey. The Kurds’ economy in Hakkari was centered on migrating flocks and the raising of sheep. During the summer, shepherds would go to the highlands for fresh grass, and during the winter they would bring their herds to lowlands to avoid frost. Selling sheep milk, wool and leather around the neighboring villages in Iraq was also essential to their economy. When border enforcement took effect in the 1930s, the local peoples’ way-of-life was interrupted as they lost access to the mountains they once used as grazing land for their sheep. Furthermore, in the following decades millions would be subject to internal displacement as a result of military operations in the region.

With their new interest in the Kurdish people, Dieter and Nerthus continued their anthropological research in other parts of the region. The two travelled to Shemdinan; an important site of Kurdish religious history and where influential landowners traditionally dominated local peasants. They also conducted an ethnographic study in Sirnak, where a mixed population of Christians and Muslims with various ethnic backgrounds lived in a quasi-urban society.

Photo Courtesy Dr. Dieter Christensen © Kurdish Herald 2010


Dieter’s precious collection of photography includes pictures of villages and lifestyles of the region that no longer exist due to the disintegration of nomadic and semi-nomadic societies. However, Dieter’s research and experience is not limited to the Kurdish lifestyle of the past. As an ethnomusicologist, Dieter has extensively studied the continuity of Kurdish life through music making. In his lecture, he passionately explained the variability in music structure, such as epic singing, wedding dance songs, and religious songs, in the different Kurdish regions. Dieter’s research question has not only been about how Kurdish music is formed, but also what music is to the Kurds as he defines music making as a “social fabric.” He has systematically studied enormously high artistic narrative forms and skills found in Kurdish music. As bej (literally means “tell”) in Kurmanci is often used to connote sing, a majority of Kurdish poetry, history, and stories and their metaphor is orally transmitted and kept only in people’s memories.


Hundreds of irreplaceable collections of Kurdish music from the 60s gathered by Dieter and Nerthus are now reserved at the Berlin Phonogram Archive and Columbia University Ethnomusicology Department.


As a professor of Music (Ethnomusicology) Emeritus at Columbia University and the former secretary general of the International Council for Traditional Music (UNESCO), Dieter has taught about Kurdish music internationally. Dieter has also recorded and published scripts and scholarly articles on Kurdish songs in German, English, Russian, Turkish, and Farsi.


Dieter’s passion for the subject dates back to his interaction with the Kurds back in the 1960s. He explains that it was after studying the Kurdish experience through the visits to the various regions where the Kurds lived that “the Kurds became a very personal commitment [..] as well as a scholarly one.”

Approximately one-fourth of Dieter’s scholarly output deals with the Kurds, and still, he proclaims, “I am not finished”. Nerthus wrote her own master thesis on rural architecture in Iranian Kurdistan and went on to publish articles on Kurdish pottery.

After having lived amongst the people in the Kurdish regions, Dieter and Nerthus also seemed to develop an admiration for the people and culture there. Dieter describes the people in terms of their “trust, character, honesty, integrity, valor, and their marginal place in the Turkish nation state.”


Dieter and Nethus have researched in Mexico Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Northern Norway, Sultanate of Oman, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu in Oceania, but as Dieter explains,“nothing has grabbed me so fundamentally as the Kurds.”


He is currently working on an ethnographic book about Hakkari in the 50s and 60s as well as a comprehensive study of Kurdish music, which will be published in English, Kurmanci and Turkish. Dieter enthusiastically says “The beauty of Kurdish oral tradition is yet to be discovered.”


He will soon be reviving more Kurdish oral tradition in his hometown, Berlin.


Photo Courtesy Dr. Dieter Christensen © Kurdish Herald 2010


Photo Courtesy Dr. Dieter Christensen © Kurdish Herald 201



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