Oppressed Kurds express culture in Australia

By Emma Young 2 March 2010
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The largely unseen customs of the Kurdish people, historically banned in many Middle Eastern countries, are now on show in Australia.

IN TURKEY, WHERE she was born, Gulay Baykal wasn’t allowed to identify herself as a Kurd, or to express her distinctive culture. Next month, she’ll put that culture on show.

A rug woven by her mother and plates that she brought with her when she came to live in Melbourne in 1999 will become part of an exhibition on Kurds in Australia at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne.

“Many people in Australia aren’t aware that we exist. This will explain who we are and what our identity and culture is, which is forbidden back home,” she says.

Kurdistan divided

Kurdistan was once a country in the northern Middle East. At the end of World War I, it was divided among Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, where the culture is suppressed. Kurdish migrants began arriving in Australia in the 1960s, mostly from Turkey.

In the 1980s and 1990s, others came here as refugees escaping the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War. The biggest communities are in Sydney and Melbourne, each of which are home to an estimated 3000 people who identify themselves as Kurds.

The exhibition helps to show how Kurds have preserved their culture, says Maria Tence, who is coordinating the exhibition with the local Kurdish community. “We’re able to showcase their customs without getting into a big political discussion, while knowing that there will be other communities who will be challenged by this.”

Banned instruments

Traditional costumes, instruments, hand-made carpets, hand-woven crafts and pewter are among the objects on display. One of Tence’s favourites is a large goatskin tambourine, called a daf, which is played for people to dance to.

“Because it was identified to be particular to Kurdish culture, it was banned,” she says. “But we found a secret film made in Iraq that tells of Kurdish women who play the daf, and one who has been chosen to leave the village to play it more openly. It’s a really compelling piece of video.”

The exhibition also explores the use of symbols, including those that indicate a tribal affiliation, fertility, beauty and love, which are incorporated into carpets, as well as traditionally applied as tattoos, mainly to the face, hands and legs. Young Kurds are now using tattoos as a way to publicly show themselves as Kurds and to support the Kurdish movement, says Tence.

“We are really excited by the exhibition,” Baykal says. “This is a big opportunity for Kurdish people to express their identity.” Survival of a Culture: Kurds in Australia is on at the Immigration Museum at 400 Flinders Street, Melbourne, from 16 March to 25 September 2010.

For more information, visit the Immigration Museum website.