At the Zhin Center, a non-profit foundation dedicated to preserving Kurdish history and heritage, no stone is left unturned and every detail matters.
The center serves as a historical repository of the political, social, cultural, and intellectual life of Kurdistan, and as it claims, is “the guardian of [the Kurdish] national memory,” said Rafiq Salih, the director of the Zhin Center and one of its founders.
“We collect every document and evidence related to Kurds, and, although our center is based in Sulaymaniyah, it belongs to all people from the four parts of Kurdistan,” the director underscored.
A meticulous craft
The center employs an extensive and meticulous procedure to safeguard historical documents, utilizing a range of specialized steps, such as scanning, microfilming, conservation, and restoration, to maintain a library of manuscripts, photos, audio and video recordings, and written records pertaining to Kurdish heritage. Its collection contains books and documents that date to the 19th and 20th centuries or even earlier.
Within the manuscript department, the primary objective is to acquire historical documents penned by renowned Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Kurdish authors and subsequently compile bibliographies and indexes for these manuscripts, ensuring that each piece is accurately categorized within its respective collection.
“We do this because we want to know what the manuscript is about, which field it can be classified as, who wrote it, who re-wrote it, how many pages it has, and how old it is,” said Ali Wahab, the head of the department.
While a significant portion of the manuscripts revolve around Islamic history and sciences, due to the profound geopolitical impact of Islam on Kurdistan, there is a diverse array of subjects covered within these documents, including the fields of medicine, astronomy, engineering, philosophy, and literature.
Literature also occupies a significant place in the collection. Notably, the center houses the works of renowned Kurdish writers such as Rafiq Hilmi, Najmadeen Mala, Piramerd, Taufiq Wahby, Sheikh Mohammed Khal, and Abdul Karim Mudarris.
“In addition to these works, we have the divans of Nali and Mahwi, which were re-written by some famous writers. We have some unique kashkols – anthologies – of Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish poems, and one of them is 700 pages. We have a copy of Mahmud Pasha’s kashkol, which was written before 1900,” said Wahab.
According to the center’s records, there are a total of 1,388 manuscripts distributed across 800 volumes stored within Zhin’s facilities. A notable portion of these date back 250 to 300 years, with some exceptionally rare ones dating as far back as 400 years.
The manuscript department operates in close collaboration with two other departments: the scanning department and the conservation and restoration department. The initial step involves sending the manuscripts to the conservation and restoration department, a specialized laboratory staffed by trained professionals. There, the manuscripts undergo meticulous cleaning and restoration to address any damage caused by previous mishandling or improper storage.
Next, the manuscripts are transferred to the scanning department, where they are scanned for online accessibility. This technique has been developed by the center to facilitate convenient access for researchers and academics, allowing them to easily retrieve and utilize these valuable manuscripts for their scholarly work and papers.
Passionate about the past
Wahab, aged 29, initially started as a volunteer at the Zhin Center in 2017 and subsequently transitioned to a full-time employee. During his university days, he made regular visits to the facility to obtain specific documents and manuscripts for his academic research in Islamic studies at the University of Sulaimani.
“After meeting some of the people at the center, they recognized my potential and thought I could be useful, as I have been passionate about history in general and the history of Kurds and Kurdish scholars since I was a child. That’s why they loved me and gave me this job, and I still continue with passion because what I do is crucial for generations to come,” said Wahab.
The center was quite small when it opened in 2004 in a small house in Sulaymaniyah. It was founded by Rafiq Salih and his brother Sidiq, who now manages the center’s publication and examination departments.
“It’s common practice here that when an establishment is founded, it should have a large number of employees so that it can be recognized as a prominent foundation. But we thought differently. We began very modestly, with the aspiration that we must continue. So, we started in a rented house, and our core duty was just publishing books,” said Rafiq Salih.
The center’s name is rich with meaning. In Kurdish, zhin signifies being, existence, or the essence of life. Naming the center Zhin is symbolic of its mission to breathe new life into old books and other significant materials. It also pays homage to Zhin magazine, which was published in Istanbul in 1918-1919 in both Kurdish and Turkish. Additionally, it honors Zhin newspaper, founded by Piramerd, a celebrated Kurdish poet and journalist, in Sulaymaniyah in 1939. The newspaper continued to be published even after his passing, running until 1963 with a total of 1,714 issues.
A digital repository
It was not until 2009 that the center had its breakthrough. The Sulaymaniyah municipality provided it with its current four-story building, which has a big library consisting of four categories: the core collection, the periodicals collection, the rare books collection, and the personal collections of renowned Kurdish and Iraqi scholars.
“To be honest, it is the government’s duty to try to preserve Kurdish history, but we took it upon ourselves,” said Salih.
He believes that the center’s library is one of the richest in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), containing 70,000-80,000 titles in Kurdish, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, English, and other European languages, most of which have been digitized. “We give priority to digitizing old books from the 19th century through the 1980s to preserve them and so that people can access them. Up until now, we have managed to digitize more than 1,000 Kurdish books,” said Salih.
Among the center’s extensive collection there are crucial historical records and documents related to the Kurdish people. These include materials on the Kurdish revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries across all four parts of Kurdistan (Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria); documents from Kurdish political parties; Ba’ath party records; and notably, documents from the Ottoman Empire, which governed Kurdish territories for over five centuries.
The records department maintains written documents, photo, audio, and video materials. Kirmanj Zirar, 25, is an employee whose responsibility is to organize and collect written documents.
The documents undergo the same procedure as the manuscripts and Zirar’s role is to categorize these materials according to their respective categories. This systematic categorization process ensures that the documents are well-organized and can be readily retrieved when needed by researchers.
“We have managed to collect documents from 1900 to 2003, and the oldest one is an official decree from the Ottoman Empire to important Kurdish individuals,” said Zirar. “We also have documents related to British rule in Iraq and the history of the country from the monarchy to the republican system. All these documents were either collected by the center or were received from important families in the KRI.”
Zirar joined the center’s team in 2020 after graduating from the history department at the University of Sulaymaniyah in 2019. He explains that his work at the center is closely aligned with his academic background, and this fuels his passion for his daily work. He believes that he is contributing to a greater purpose – safeguarding Kurdish heritage.
Chia Sidiq, 30, is another employee working at the center and is responsible for collecting audio, photo, and video materials through which she identifies important cultural and political figures. These materials can be VHS videos, cassettes, or photographic films. There are 700-800 photographs kept in the department.
“I analyze every detail from every picture or video so that I can identify Kurdish political figures who could not be recognized in other videos or pictures. So, every material has importance,” said Sidiq.
The center employs just 15 individuals and has been consistently receiving a monthly government grant of approximately 15 million Iraqi dinars (equivalent to $9,500). Although this funding was totally cut from 2014 to 2018 due to the economic crisis affecting the KRI, the center managed to endure this setback thanks to its prudent management and previously saved funds. The center has also garnered support from individuals through donations and has benefited from facility renovations provided by various governmental figures, among them the governor of Sulaymaniyah.
Rafiq Salih firmly believes that the center’s success hinges on the synergy of teamwork and sound management. He envisions expanding the center’s activities in the future to accommodate a workforce in the hundreds, a goal he is confident can be achieved when the center broadens its operations. This goal also aligns with his conviction that a facility should have the appropriate number of employees commensurate with its operational needs.
“The key to our success is that every employee works the equivalent of four to five individuals in collaboration with an effective management team. With the expansion of our work and the improvement of our financial status, we would very much like to see 200 to 300 people work here to collectively restore and preserve our nation’s history,” said Salih.
Kakalaw Abdulla, an independent journalist residing in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, has made significant contributions to numerous local and international media platforms. He specializes in reporting on political, economic, and social matters within the Kurdistan Region.