- The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone
No doubt as a group or as individuals the Kurds actively participate in the unfolding histories of the countries they live in. Yet the teleological and ethnocentric conceptions of the past that have dominated the Middle Eastern historiography for too long have preferred to silence their voices and deny them any sort of agency in the making of history. Propagating an incomplete version of the past, this historiography still facilitates the continuing denial of Kurdish rights and responsibilities. To secure the predominance of their selective and exclusivist narratives, the nationalist regimes that the Kurds live under have not shied away from using all means at their disposal. Intimidated by the judicial, political, and security apparatuses of these regimes, most in academe have passively participated in the reproduction of their distorted narratives. Fear of losing access to the archives, libraries, and research facilities of countries like Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria has prevented many from "touching sensitive issues." A combination of this complicity and the rampant orientalist attitudes toward the Kurds that [End Page 459] still dominates parts of academia has left the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East at the margins of the historical profession as well as of the states in which they live. Consequently the number of academics studying issues related to the Kurds remains undeservedly small. Yet a small group of mostly young scholars is breaking the silence and making significant contributions to the historiography of the Middle East.
Janet Klein is one such historian, and The Margins of Empire is a book that should set the standard for the upcoming studies not only on Kurds but also on the late Ottoman Empire and inter-communal conflict. One of a few academics fluent in Kurdish and Turkish, Klein spent considerable time learning the intricacies of the Ottoman Turkish, but "due to the sensitivity of the topic" she was denied access to all research facilities in Turkey, including the Ottoman archives for a considerable time (6). It was after finishing her dissertation on which the book is based that she was permitted to do research in the arsiv. Notwithstanding that vital impediment to her research, Klein successfully integrates Ottoman, British, and French documents along with rarely used Kurdish sources to produce a well-researched and theoretically informed monograph on the Hamidiye Light Cavalry Corps. Using interdisciplinary tools and the Hamidiye as a lens through which to examine various issues, the book also succeeds in taking a step toward bridging the gap between historical studies and scholarship on state and state-society relations. Most important, however, it succeeds in showing that what has hitherto been explained as ethnic or communal conflict actually began as a struggle over concrete material resources and only became ethnicized over time.
As the author notes, "The Hamidiye Light Cavalry Regiments (Hamidiye Hafif Süvari Alaylari) were an irregular militia composed of select Kurdish tribes, created in 1890 by Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909) and his trusted confidantes Sakir Pasha and the marshal (Mehmed) Zeki Pasha" (3). Hamidiye has received some attention as a result of its infamous role in the Armenian tragedy and its controversial role as a precursor of the thousands of Kurds the Turkish government employs as tribal militia or village guards against the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), or the Workers' Party of Kurdistan, guerillas. Writing this militia of the "tribal zone" into the larger history of the region, Klein highlights the Kurds as agents and actors of their own story. As such, she offers an inclusive history of Kurds, Armenians, and Ottoman Kurdistan more generally by integrating this story into the larger history of Ottoman state consolidation and its efforts at "transforming the political geography and demography of its frontiers" (9).
Part of the Ottoman efforts to build state at the peripheries and "civilize" its inhabitants, the Hamidiye project also aimed to organize the rather unruly Kurdish tribes into light cavalry regiments à la Cossack as well...