The Gulan Charity was established in 2009 with the primary goal of celebrating and preserving Kurdish culture within the UK.
“We believe that Kurdish identity, culture, and history is something to be valued and celebrated by all, quite separate from any contemporary political differences,” Gulan’s Creative Director Richard Wilding told Kurdistan Chronicle.
It operates independently of any political associations and actively organizes a variety of cultural events such as exhibitions and fashion shows in the UK, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and internationally.
Della Murad, Gulan’s Artistic Director, added that “the charity was established to promote Kurdish art and culture, and hosts a wide array of events spanning art, culture, music, and poetry, including events and exhibitions that have highlighted the culture of the Yezidis, Christians, and Jews of Kurdistan. We have successfully invited numerous individuals to partake in our initiatives with the aim of building bridges between artists in Kurdistan and in the diaspora.”
“Through culture, we can introduce our history”
Murad highlighted the importance of cultural diplomacy. “For instance, when we did a fashion show in Dubai many years ago, there was a Lebanese journalist,” Murad said. “I spoke there about the Anfal genocide and the horrendous long-lasting impact it had on the Kurdish people. After the event, the Lebanese journalist cried. She told me she never knew about the genocide.”
Murad also underlined that Gulan is not focused only on Kurds in the UK. “The charity serves Kurds worldwide. We organized a fashion show in Dubai and have also hosted exhibitions here in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.”
She added that “our primary areas of focus are the UK and the KRI, but we are open to organizing exhibitions elsewhere." For instance, Gulan sent several Kurdish artists to Italy to take part in the Venice Biennale festival.
In 2009, Gulan held the Runaki Festival – meaning light in Kurdish – at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London, which aimed to help a wide range of people see Kurdish culture in a new light.
“The 2009 Runaki Festival showed our British friends the beauty and richness of Kurdistan’s heritage, by introducing them to our artists, fashions, history, music, and cuisine,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, former Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative to the UK, said at the time.
Introducing Kurdistan to non-Kurds
Murad also said that when Gulan started its events, “Kurdish culture did not attract a lot of interest, if it was not in the realm of music or dance.”
Gradually, the charity managed to introduce many UK Members of Parliament to Kurdish culture. “At that time, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman was the KRG representative to the UK and was very interested in the arts, and because of her support, we had many visitors from the UK Parliament,” she said.
Moreover, three of Gulan’s trustees are non-Kurds. “Those relationships also helped to bring non-Kurds to our events. In our database, there are many non-Kurds, and we always send out invitations,” Murad added.
Gulan also helped to introduce Yezidi culture to people in London a few years before the ISIS genocide against them in 2014. “At that time, many people didn’t know that Yezidis were Kurds,” Murad noted.
“Unfortunately, we always seemed to be introducing our people to the world through genocides or other horrific acts of violence inflicted on us, whether it was Halabja, the Yezidi genocide, or the tragic military attacks on Qamishli and Afrin,” she remarked.
Murad also underscored how important it is to show Kurdistan’s diversity to others, and Gulan has organized events on the history of the Christians, Faili Kurds, Jews, and other minorities in the KRI.
Gulan and Halabja
The name Gulan itself comes from a region in Halabja. “I am from Halabja, and Gulan is the most beautiful area there,” Murad shared. “We used to go for picnics to Gulan, which was situated on a hill. It was so beautiful; it was the main reason for me to choose Gulan as the name for the charity.”
She also added that, sadly, many of the people who died during the tragic Halabja chemical attack in 1988 were buried in Gulan.
Therefore, she said it seemed only right and fitting that Gulan finally organized the exhibition “Halabja in the Golden Days” at the American University of Kurdistan, Duhok from October 18 to 23, 2023 to pay homage to its namesake.
Introducing Halabja to Duhok
“With this project, we hoped to demonstrate that there is much more to Halabja than just the terrible events of 1988. We wanted to show the great diversity of culture that existed before Anfal and build support for a cultural renaissance in Halabja,” Wildling told Kurdistan Chronicle.
“We brought this exhibition to Duhok because we believe it is important that different parts of the KRI share and celebrate each other's history and culture. We wanted to remind a new generation of the beauty and significance of Halabja's past days,” he added.
“If we would have done it in Sulaymaniyah or Erbil, people would already know the history of Halabja. But in Duhok, it helped build a bridge between the two places,” Murad added. “I spoke with so many people in Duhok who didn’t know anything about Halabja, its poets, and its life – they only remember the chemical attacks.”
Paris of Kurdistan
Moreover, Murad added that people only know about Halabja because of the chemical attack. “We are trying to do this to do justice to the people who lived and contributed to a vibrant Halabja during this era – a time of prosperity and peace.”
She mentioned that in the past, Halabja had the reputation of being the “Paris of Kurdistan,” renowned for its culture, music, fashion, and cuisine, recalling a time when a colleague had reservations about being posted to Halabja.
The education official reassured Murad’s colleague, saying, “Halabja is the Paris of Kurdistan. Anyone who drinks the water of Halabja stays.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a seasoned reporter and analyst who specializes in Kurdish affairs, and holds a Master’s degree in Kurdish studies from Exeter University, UK.