Rohat Alakom. Svensk-kurdiska kontakter under tusen år, Stockholm: Rohat Alakom & APEC Förlag AB, 2000. Pp. 235.
Rohat Alakom is a Kurdish author who lives in Sweden and has his own publishing house in Stockholm. Since 1987 he has published ten volumes in Kurdish, Turkish, and Swedish on various aspects of Kurdish issues in Istanbul, Stockholm, and Köln.
His last publication is Swedish-Kurdish Contacts Over A Thousand Years in Swedish. The author, who does not have a background in the historical field, compiled a primary study on this issue widely using all available sources. The foreword is written by Olof G. Tandberg. This illustrated book consists of an introduction, four parts, bibliography, and notes.
The first part of the book is called “Kurds and Vikings.” The second part -“Swedes on the Kurds”-contains various mentions of the Kurds in Swedish sources. Perhaps the most interesting part is the third one, “Swedish Missionaries Among the Kurds,” where the author has compiled a rich array of information culled from books written by Swedish missionaries. The last part is devoted to Cherif Pasha, a Kurdish figure who lived for a while in Sweden.
I wish to take issue chiefly with the first two parts of the book. Although the subject of the “thousand year old contacts” between a Scandinavian culture and a Middle Eastern people seems to be exotic and rather recherché, one can easily detect, even from a brief acquaintance with the subject, that many facts and issues concerning the antiquity of those relations have been artificially inflated and exaggerated. Given the fact that Russia was considered as a gate to the East for the Norsemen, Alakom devotes the first chapter of the first part of the book only to Russia and Russo-Scandinavian relations (pp. 18-22). As a rule, the author draws upon a range of data and does not hesitate to expatiate on all possible subject that might bear even a very distant connection to the Kurds. For example, he is confident about the location of Paradise in Kurdistan and that the four Edenic rivers are actually the Tigris, Euphrates, Kura and Araxes (p. 126). And taking into account that those rivers have their sources in the mountains of Kurdistan, the author considers the poem Euphrates written by a Swedish poet, as the “reflection of a Kurdish motif in Swedish literature” (p. 106). In the dearth of sufficient historical material at hand, Alakom remarks that “there are many published and unpublished sources about direct or indirect contacts between Swedes and Kurds” (p. 13). Thus, he grants himself the license to present all kinds of irrelevant information as data from indirect sources. In discussing past contacts, he does not quote any source where the ethnic term “Kurd” or “Kurdish” is mentioned-hence the necessity to appeal to indirect sources instead. In his view, the Kurds have always been involved in all the issues concerning Near Eastern peoples as a whole. For instance, after writing about the runic stones erected in memory of Vikings who died in the Near East, Alakom concludes that those stones are “living proof of the contacts Vikings had with various Near Eastern peoples, including the Kurds” (p. 25). In the chapter “Works Relating to the Kurds in Swedish Translation” he enumerates many historical works, starting from Xenophon’s Anabasis and Marco Polo’s traveling notes (p. 113), despite the fact that they never refer to Kurds by that name. The first chapter is an attempt at exploring the possibility of such contacts during the Vikings’ raids in the Middle East. The author notes that during the years 800-1050 the Vikings launched “three or four campaigns in the Orient” (p. 17). He is not aware that, from 850 onwards, the Vikings, together with Slavic tribes, actually conducted more than ten campaigns throughout the Byzantine Empire and Caucasia. Alakom considers 943 as the date of the first Kurdish-Viking encounter, for in this year the Vikings reached the city of Berda (Berda’a). According to the author, this city was located near the Terter river, in the province of Arran, which was “between the rivers Kura and Araxes in Azerbaijan” (p. 25). He calls the River Terter (now Tartar or Tharthar) “Kurd-Elm’s water,” but never mentions that it is located in the territory of the historical Armenian province of Artsakh, presently Nagorno Karabagh. Though the Swedish archaeologist Tornberg, whom Alakom quotes frequently, alludes to Berda as an Armenian location (see Carolus Johannes Tornberg, Numi cufici regii numophilacii holmiensisquos omnes in terra Sueciae reportos, Uppsaliae, 1848, p. XXIV), our author ignores any connection this region had to the Armenian geography and history. It is a well-known fact that Arran was one of the eastern provinces of Armenia, and Berda (its ancient name was Partav) was the capital of the eastern part of Armenia since 462. Nowadays there is a small town of Berda (not far from the historical city, totally destroyed by the Mongols), which became part of the territory of Azerbaijan because of Stalin’s nationality politics. Alakom also locates Dvin in Arran, although the city, one of the ancient capitals of Armenia, is not “between the rivers Kura and Araxes in Azerbaijan,” but is not far from Erevan.
One of the chapters in the first part is titled “Gotland: the Largest Horde of Kurdish Coins.” Here the author states that 70,000 coins have been found on Swedish territory, 50,000 of them on the island of Gotland. Alakom considers some one hundred of those coins as Kurdish, for ten of them had been issued in Berda, and the rest in Diarbekir during the reign of the Marwanids (p. 39). In Alakom’s view, Kurdish coins were often referred to as Arabic, Islamic, or Kufic. It is true that the dynasty of Marwanid emirs (Mrvanean in Armenian) was of Kurdish extraction and that they ruled over some Armenian territories conquered by the Arabs. However, this fact does not allow us to call Marwanid coins “Kurdish” as it is out of the question that a nation which has never had its own state structure, could have minted its own coin. By the same logic, we should consider all Byzantine coins from 867-1050 as Armenian, because during this time the so-called “Macedonian” dynasty (of Armenian origin) was on the Byzantine throne.
For Alakom, as is true of most Kurdish authors, the geographical term “Kurdistan” applies not only to the southern part of present Turkey or the northern part of Iraq, but also the whole territory of historical Greater Armenia or Western Armenia (now the eastern part of Turkey, called “Eastern Anatolia”, inhabited by a large Kurdish population). This axiomatic view informs Alakom’s appropriation of all the Swedish sources, which have even the slightest information about the towns of this region: Erzerum (p. 34, 54), Diarbekir (p. 36), Manzikert (Manazkert, p. 43), Van (p. 46), Bitlis (p. 95). He even considers Mosul as a Kurdish city (p. 46). The toponym “Armenia” is related, for this author, to the region of Mount Ararat; thus, he mentions the Swedish traveler Nils Matson Köping’s visit to Armenia, in the regions of Ararat, from an intermediary source (p. 54). Or he recalls Swedish archaeologist K. F. Johansson’s article about excavations in Armenia (p. 106). Viewed within such a paradigm, one might conclude that Armenia is a part of Kurdistan or, at least, its neighbor with a quite restricted territory. Lacking sufficient specific information on purely Swedish-Kurdish relations, Alakom often mentions data relating to Swedish-Armenian relations and Swedish contacts with Near Eastern countries in general, which are absolutely irrelevant in the context. When he cites the name of Swedish writer Ludwig Nordström, he does not forget to add that for twenty-nine years he was married to Marika Stjernstedt, who had political interests concerning the “Armenian tragedy of 1915” (p. 73; the Kurdish author refrains from employing the term “genocide” about those events). Or he quotes in full the poem Ararat penned by missionary E. John Larsson (p. 128).
In the chapter “The Kurdish Motive in Swedish Fiction, Literature, and Art,” Alakom mentions almost everything in the works of Swedish writers that might have any close or distant relation with the Kurds. No matter that those data treat Iranian, Zoroastrian, or Muslim culture in general, for this Kurdish author, they can be applied to Kurds. Thus, among such “Kurdish motives” one can find, for instance, a poem which mentions the Iranian epic hero Rustam Zal in Carl Johan Love Almqvist’s work; August Strindberg’s interest in the Avesta and the fact that he acquired a version of the Qur’an, Verner von Heidenstam’s mention of Saladin’s name in one of his poems (pp.107-109), etc.
Swedish orientalists seem to accept all these facts as unquestionable truth (see Ulla Ehrensvärd’s review of Alakom’s book in “Dragomanen,” no. 4, 2000, pp. 109-111). I am sure Alakom’s book would have gained accuracy and relevance if it had contained information strictly pertinent to Swedish-Kurdish relations, without trying to make them span a millennium or including irrelevant information. It would have also benefited from the services of a good editor. For example, he mentions “Byzantine” language (på bysantiska, p. 22) instead of Greek, as one might talk of an “Australian” language instead of English. This is because of the unprofessionalism of the author, which is evident in many aspects of his work.
In conclusion, I would like to note the tendency of Turkish, Azerbaijani, and Georgian historians over many decades to appropriate many Armenian artifacts and values (geography, history, and art) for their cultures. Unfortunately, this trend is visible also in Rohat Alakom’s current volume. I have profound respect for the Kurds’ attempts to advance their national self-affirmation. However, it is my conviction that this aspiration should not be pursued at the cost of arrogating to oneself the values of other neighboring cultures.