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Project Spotlight: Dr. Khezri

By Jaime Bue


Dr. Haidar Khezri is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS) and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Middle East (CSME) at Indiana University Bloomington. He joined IU in 2014 to develop Kurdish language curriculum for North American universities through a U.S Department of Education Title VI grant award from the Center for the Study of the Middle East (CSME).  The IAUNRC sat down with him to speak about his research and Kurdish studies.

Dr. Haidar Khezri grew up bilingual in Mahabad, a city in northwestern Iran. He began by explaining that Kurdish has three dialects: Sorani, the central dialect spoken in Iran and Iraq; Kurmanji, the northern dialect spoken in Turkey and Syria; and Southern dialect. He is a native speaker of Sorani Kurdish and learned the other two dialects during his time in university.

Dr. Khezri’s research examines comparative literature in the Islamic and Islamicate world, specifically with Kurdish, Persian, Arabic, and occasionally Turkish literature. He also works in poetry, Islamic studies (with focus on Yarsanism, The Yezidis (Izadis), and Alevism), post-colonial literature, translation, world literature, gender studies (with focus on Kurdish culture),as well as genre in Middle Eastern literature and East-West cultural encounters.

He earned his MA from Tarbiat Modarres University in Teheran. Dr Khezri has continued to expand his research from his thesis entitled “A Comparative Study of the Romantic School in the Contemporary Arabic and Persian Poetry”. He completed his dissertation “Comparative Studies between Arabic and Persian Literatures” from Damascus University. His first book “Comparative Literature in Iran and the Arab World 1903-2012” (Samt 2013), deals with Middle Eastern literary genres. Beyond his work on Kurdish language, literature and culture, Dr. Khezri’s other projects include atranslation and introduction of “Kafka's Message” by Sadiq Hedayat (that is set to be completed in 2016); and “Origin of Poetry in Islamic/ate Literary Cultures”. Sadiq Hedayat, known as the foremost novelist and short story writer in Iran, published “Kafka’s Message” in 1948 as commentary on the denial of justice in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”.

When asked about his favorite poets, Dr. Khezri did not hesitate to nameForough Farrokhzad, one of Iran’s most influential poets in the 20th century. Dr. Khezri’s second book “It is Only Sound that Remains” looks at the life and legacy of Forough Farrokhzad, and includes translations from Persian to Kurdish of two collections of her poetry “Another Birth” and “Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season”. The book includes an introduction to gender in Kurdish culture as Dr. Khezri was interested in how Kurdish Classic Nationalism shaped the discourse of the earliest orientalists who went to Kurdish societies, and how this western scholarship later shaped in another way, the modern Kurdish nationalism discourse about women. This had previously been missing in scholarship regarding gender and feminism in Kurdish culture. “It is Only Sound that Remains” has been published by Salahaddin Univesity Press in Kurdish. Dr. Khezri’s long-term academic and professional goals are to give another voice to U.S. perceptions of Kurdish culture.  Through elucidating the Kurdish language and literary tradition, he hopes to expand perceptions of Kurdish culture that currently dominated by military image of Kurdish culture.

Upon finishing his PhD, Haidar Khezri became a faculty member for Mardin Artuklu University in southern Turkey teaching Kurdish, Arabic, and Persian languages and cultures. He helped with the founding of the Department for Kurdish Language and Culture in the university. This was the first and the only Kurdish Department in Turkish higher education and developed out of the Kurdish peace process efforts. During his time at Mardin Artukulu University the Department for Kurdish Language and Culture developed Kurdish textbooks for teachers and primary education, and developed Bachelors, Masters, and later PhD degrees in Kurdish Language and Literature. Dr. Khezri noted that prior to Mardin Artuklu University’s Kurdish department, under auspices of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq was the only other place to study Kurdish formally as it is not taught in Iran, and only recently began in Syria. Due to Turkish interests in joining the European Union and EU interests in Turkish-Kurdish relations, the university attracted many EU diplomats.   

After learning of Mardin Artuklu University’s Kurdish department, the Center for the Study of the Middle East (CSME) extended an invitation for Dr. Khezri to come to Indiana University to develop Sorani Kurdish instructional materials for North American universities through the center’s Title VI grant from the U.S. Department of Education. He is nearing competition of a two year communicative Kurdish textbook. Dr. Khezri followed the American Council for Teaching Foreign Languages’ guidelines when designing the book and accompanying audio exercises. In fact, he uses this textbook in his Kurdish language classes. This project is in coordination with the Center for the Study of the Middle East, although Kurdish instruction is taught through the Department of Central Eurasian Studies.

Dr. Khezri noted that there are many obstacles when it comes to learning and teaching Kurdish. Firstly, most sources of funding focuses on major languages in the region; for example departments that cover Turkey, the Arab World, or Iran and receive donations often have to use those donations to teach Turkish, Arabic or Persian, leaving nothing for Kurdish. Funding from the U.S. government follows similar patterns, Dr. Khezri pointed out that in the entire U.S. there is not a full-time faculty position for Kurdish language, literature, and culture. The University of Central Florida (UCF) established the Jalal Talabani Endowed Chair of Kurdish Political Studies,in 2008, formalized it in 2014, and appointed first chair in October 2015 as the only such position in the country, however this position only covers Kurdish politics. The Kurdish region is important for oil, water sources, and U.S. security interests- especially after the first and second Gulf War and now recently after the emergence of ISIS. These interests drive current discourse to speak about Kurdish Peshmerga forces, oil, and security issues but produces a knowledge vacuum about Kurdish language, literature, culture, history, and results in a shallow understanding of the Kurdish people.

Funding also presents unique challenges for students, as Kurdish programming- if funded- is often funded for a limited amount of time, usually one or two years. Arizona is one example of this with its Kurmanji Kurdish program recently cut.  Student opportunities oftentimes reflect a program’s funding capabilities, and so student fellowships, scholarships, and travel grants to go to Kurdish regions are severely lacking. Dr. Khezri hopes to change this paradigm in Kurdish studies.

Despite these setbacks, Dr. Khezri mentioned there were plenty of opportunities for students to pioneer research in Kurdish studies. Kurds have a rich history, literature tradition, and is an interesting field for many disciplines including: folklore, religious studies, comparative literature, linguistics, and even food studies. Although it might seem strange to call the largest group of people in the world without a state a minority, Dr. Khezri asserts that studying Kurdish is necessary to fully understand the Middle Eastern region.