A three-year-old library in Brooklyn seeks to give back to one of the world's oldest, and now disenfranchised, cultures a small portion of its language, literature, and place names - the stuff of which a culture is made. The Kurdish Library is situated on the parlor floor of a privately owned brownstone in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. It is slowly becoming the repository for rare Kurdish books, costumes, and ancient maps, many of which are illegal in the countries that now claim portions of Kurdistan - a mountainous, river-hewn land that has all but vanished from most modern maps.
Today the name Kurdistan is given only to a province within the borders of Iran, according to the Kurdish Times, a periodical published by the Kurdish Program. The program is a privately supported effort to publicize the plight of the Kurds.
Yet for centuries the Kurds have occupied a vast area stretching from the rolling uplands of southeastern Turkey through the dun-colored mountains of northern Iraq and into western Iran, including small pockets of Syria and the Soviet Union.
``My native tongue is Kurdish, but I never saw a Kurdish book until I came to this country,'' said Samande Siaband, an Iranian program associate at the Kurdish Library. ``We are losing our identity as a people. That is why it is so important to have this library.''
The Kurdish Library, according to its director, Vera Beaudin Saeedpour, is the only library in the Western Hemisphere that is devoted to the Kurdish people.
The Kurds were nomadic herdsmen who have a distinctive history, language, and culture. Warred over since the 7th century, Kurdistan's boundaries were abolished in the aftermath of World War I, when it was divided by the newly created nation states of the Middle East.
The Kurds, who number between 15 million and 20 million and are the fourth-most-numerous people of the Middle East, have been rising in uncoordinated revolts since 1925. They have been suppressed by the Iranians, the Turks, and most recently, the Iraqis.
Thousands of Iraqi Kurds lost homes and lands to a government that last year razed hundreds of their villages and forced them into Turkey. Ironically, the Turkish government has imprisoned Kurds for speaking or writing in their own language, Mr. Siaband says. The Iranian government has largely crushed the Kurdish movement for autonomy.
The Kurdish motto, ``We have no friends,'' takes on added poignancy for Kurdish immigrants in the United States, most of whom have settled in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, and California. Many Kurds here repress their ethnicity out of fear of government retaliation against family members back home, and fear of being denied permission to return to their native country.
``In a sense, the Kurds here remain prisoners of their country of origin,'' says Mrs. Saeedpour.
The Kurdish population in New York, which unofficial estimates put at 1,500, is so hidden that on several occasions Saeedpour has answered her doorbell to find a Kurdish book in a brown paper wrapper, and the donor nowhere in sight.
Naurooz Shadman, a Kurdish immigrant living in New Jersey, has been unable to contact his family in Iraq since last summer, when Iraqi forces began a major offensive against Kurdish rebels. At times, Mr. Shadman despairs of ever seeing his family again.
Shadman feels that unless he can one day reunite his new American family with his family in Iraq, Kurdistan will have little meaning for his three young children. For him and many other Kurdish immigrants, Kurdistan is more a state of mind than a homeland.
``If I can expose my children to their people and language, they will have a feeling for their culture that they can pass on to their own children,'' says Shadman, who emigrated to the US in 1972. ``Otherwise, they'll never know who they really are.''
Though she is the widow of Hommayoun Saeedpour, a Kurdish scholar who died in 1981, Mrs. Saeedpour traces her interest in the Kurdish cause to the history of her own people. The daughter of an Orthodox Jew, she is keenly aware that people have been persecuted simply because of who they are. She sees a link between the world's silence at the time of the Holocaust and current indifference to what she calls the persecution of the Kurds.
``For the West to put economic and strategic interests ahead of the defense of the Kurds is to forfeit the whole rationale behind condemning the Holocaust,'' she says.
In 1981, Mrs. Saeedpour established the Kurdish Program and obtained recognition from Cultural Survival Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving threatened societies. Five years later she founded the Kurdish Library.
On a recent morning, six stained-glass windows diffused a low-lying sun, backlighting a large silver samovar centered in the small, elegant library. Enlarged color photographs of the craggy, rugged land and children clothed in dazzling fabrics of green and red, purple and orange, decorate the walls. Alongside the prints are maps dating to 1807 that define the former boundaries of Kurdistan.
Glass cases display musical instruments and flat woven Kilim rugs. Mannequins wear skirts made of hand-loomed goat hair from Turkey, and brocade and velvet dresses from Iran and Iraq.
The library contains more than 1,000 works on Kurdish history and culture written in Kurdish, English, French, and German. Many of the books were smuggled out of the Middle East.
Among them is the only alphabet book published in northern Kurdistan - most of the copies were confiscated by Turkish authorities and its author was imprisoned for four months; and ``Scharef Naneh,'' a rare history of the Kurds written by a Kurd.
The library, open by appointment, is used by scholars, journalists, and Kurds who want to keep their culture alive for their immigrant families. Accordingly, the Kurdish Library is initiating an educational program for children so that they ``may learn things Kurdish,'' said Saeedpour, ``without a shroud of secrecy and shame.'' The Kurdish Library is located at 345 Park Place, Brooklyn, N.Y.