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There are thousands of studies on the Kurds living in Kurdistan and the countries dividing it. Even the relatively more recent Kurdish communities in Europe gained more research attention than the older Kurdish community in Lebanon. This article therefore fills a serious research gap in the area of Kurdish studies. The paper is divided into six parts. The first part provides a general background of the Kurdish community in Lebanon, including history, population, language, and geography. The second part discusses the issue of citizenship (or lack of it) and its impact on the people. The third part describes the socioeconomic status of the Kurds. Part four explains the political status of the Kurds within the larger Lebanese clientalist system (defined in that section). Part five discusses the impact of the 1975-1991 civil war on the Kurds. Part six discusses the social and political organization of the Kurds. This part also includes a detailed survey of the Kurdish voluntary associations and political parties and their roles in the Lebanese Kurdish society.
Kurdish presence in Lebanon dates back to the arrival of the Ayyubids in the twelfth century A. D. as well as to the large number of families that were sent to Lebanon by the Ottomans, primarily to maintain order in various parts of the empire. These Kurdish families settled in and ruled many areas of Lebanon for long periods of time. Examples of these families include the Sayfa emirs (princes) in Tripoli, the Mir'bi family in 'Akkar, the Junblat's and the 'Imads in Mount Lebanon, and the Hamiyya family in Baalbeck. Detached from their homeland for so many years, these Kurdish families became fully integrated with Lebanon's social and political structure and were completely Arabized by the end of the nineteenth century.
Following World War I, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced out of Ottoman Kurdistan. Some moved to the newly established state of Syria while others moved to other countries including Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The presence of the Kurdish community in Lebanon, however, is not solely a product of World War I. In fact, the first major wave of Kurdish immigration took place in the two decades following Sheikh Sa'id's rebellion in 1925, when thousands of Kurds fled the violence and poverty that struck Kurdistan. Most of these Kurds moved to Lebanon from the villages of Mardin/Tur 'Abdin. The second major wave took place in the period between World War II and the early 1960s. While a large number of these new immigrants arrived from Turkey, the vast majority moved to Lebanon fleeing the socioeconomic, cultural, and political repression that began in Syria in 1958 (see below). The relative improvement in the living conditions of the Kurds in Lebanon, as well as the country's proximity to Kurdistan, played another important role in encouraging these new immigrants to choose Lebanon as their new home.
All of the Kurds in Lebanan are Sunni Muslims. The majority are divided into many tribal or communal groups. Each group is linked to the village or region from which it came, such as Fafeh, Jibl-Graw, Kinderib, Marjeh, Marska, Ma'sarteh, and Matina. These communal groups speak the North Kurmanji (also called Bahdinani) dialect. Another Kurdish communal group in Lebanon is the Mhallamis, who are originally Arabs. Centuries ago, they moved from northern Iraq to the area located between Mardin, Midyat, and Diyarbekir. Prominent clans or tribes among the Mhallamis today include al-Mnezilis, al-Rashidiyeh, al-Mkhashniyeh, and Zeini. To these clans belong several large families, such as 'Atris, Fakhru, Fattah, Harb, Miri, Ramadan, Rammu, Sha'bu, Sharif, Shaykhmusa, Siyala, 'Umari, 'Umayrat, and al-Zein. These groups speak a distinct dialect--a mixture of Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, and Turkish--with Arabic and Kurdish as the dominant languages. Kurmanji speakers understand Mhallami (or Mardinli) more easily than vice versa.
The designations of Mhallamis and Kurmanji are rarely if ever used in Lebanon except by the Mhallamis and the Kurds. Both groups use the designations to differentiate themselves from each other. Despite this, it is not uncommon to find many Mhallamis who identify themselves as Kurds and participate in Kurdish social and cultural activities. This paper covers the Kurdish community as a whole, including the Mhallamis.
There are twenty different religious and ethnic groups living in Lebanon today. (1) Of these, the Kurds represent the second largest non-Arab group, outnumbered only by the Armenians. Unlike the Armenians, who are officially recognized as a distinct ethnic and religious group, Lebanese Kurds are considered only as Sunni Muslims; that is, no special status is accorded to their ethnicity. Because of this, and because no official censuses have taken place in Lebanon since 1932, there are no official or accurate Kurdish population figures. Estimates of the number of Kurds prior to 1985 varied between 60,000 and 90,000. (2) Given that thousands of Kurdish families fled the country during the civil war, it is believed that their population in Lebanon, unlike many other groups, did not grow naturally. Estimates today range between 75,000 and 100,000.
Most of the Kurds who moved to Lebanon between the 1920s and 1960s settled in different low-income areas in Beirut, including 'Ayn al-Mrayseh, al-Basta, Burj al-Brajneh, Burj Hammoud, the down-town sector, Furn al-Shubbak, Raml al-Zarif, and Zqaq al-Blat. Others, especially those who came from Syria, settled in the impoverished area of al-Karantina-al-Maslakh. Outside Beirut and its suburbs, most Kurds stayed in Sidon, Tripoli, and the Biqa' valley near the Syrian borders. The Kurds' residential compounds primarily reflected their tribal organizations, each according to its lineage.
Like their kinsmen elsewhere, many Lebanese Kurds have experienced various forms of forced resettlement. For example, in early 1976, most of the Kurds who survived the Christian Maronite massacres in al-Karantina-al-Maslakh moved to West Beirut area, Khaldeh, al-Jnah, and other areas of the Belt of Misery, where new low-income residential areas were being built. (3) By 1978, almost all Kurds living in the downtown sector, Furn al-Shubbak, and Burj Hammoud were forced by the Maronites to move to the Belt of Misery and other areas where large concentrations of Kurds already lived. Then, in the 1980s, Lebanon lost approximately one-fourth of its Kurdish population when whole families began to emigrate to Europe as a consequence of the 1982 Israeli invasion, harassment by Christian-dominated government forces in 1982-1983, and internal conflicts with the Lebanese Shi'ites in 1984-1987 (see below). (4) The fourth major forced resettlement of the Kurds took place in the 1990s when the government destroyed almost all of the low-income residential areas illegally built during the war by the Kurds, Shi'ites, and Palestinians, forcing thousands of families to move elsewhere. Kurdish, Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian families living in houses evacuated by the Jews in the 1950s and 1960s and by the Christians in the 1970s and 1980s were also forced to move out of their homes. Only a few of these families were financially compensated.
THE CITIZENSHIP ISSUE
A 1995 survey of 308 people found that the adverse socioeconomic and political conditions of the Kurds in Lebanon were largely a result of their lack of Lebanese citizenship. (5) Their poverty, lack of property and occupational skills, high illiteracy rate, feelings of insecurity and alienation, and ill treatment by various Lebanese groups were found to be significantly related to the Kurds' status as noncitizens. How and why most Lebanese Kurds remained noncitizens for so many decades, and what was the impact of lack of citizenship on the people, is discussed below.
Since Greater Lebanon was established by France in 1920, the numerical balance of different confessional and ethnic communities in the country has been a critical matter. At that time, Christians were outnumbering the Muslims and that predominance increased with the influx of thousands of Armenian refugees who escaped Turkish genocide during World War I. In 1924, France gave Lebanese citizenship to all erstwhile Ottoman citizens living in Lebanon. Unlike Kurdish refugees, virtually all Armenians applied for and were granted the citizenship. Later, Christian hegemony was formalized after the 1932 census, which showed that Christians outnumbered Muslims by a ratio of 6:5. In order to maintain political predominance in the country, the Christian Maronites, threatened by the high birthrates among Muslims, made every possible effort to prevent the taking of any new census, and to deny citizenship to Muslim immigrants.
Most Kurds failed to recognize the value of citizenship until it was nearly impossible for them to acquire it. They lacked interest in acquiring citizenship for two main reasons. First, many thought of Lebanon as only a temporary place of residence. Sooner or later, they thought, they would return to an independent Kurdistan. This thinking rendered it meaningless to acquire Lebanese citizenship. Second, before Lebanon's independence in 1946, international travel usually required proof of citizenship but it was also possible for Lebanese noncitizens holding certificates issued by the French authorities. According to a Kurdish local, more Kurds would have applied for citizenship had it been a requirement for travel, especially since many Kurds regularly traveled to Syria and Turkey.
The introduction of wartime rationing in 1941 drove home the value of citizenship. During World War II, the …