Caucher Birkar: A Personification of Kurdish Resilience

Kurdish Fields Medal Laureate Adds “People’s Award” to Collection


The eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War was one of the most devastating conflicts that inflicted the modern Middle East. While casualty estimates are disputed, most sources indicate that the war caused at least one million people to lose their lives, Kurds living in Iraq are among the many victims of the war as Saddam Hussein’s genocide campaign known as “Anfal” resulted in the murders of 182,000 Kurds.

Caucher Birkar was born in the Mariwan County of Iranian Kurdistan, which lies right between the border separating Iraq and Iran. As he was only two years old when the war started he spent his formative years caught between the aerial strikes both militaries. But as history has proven time and time again, early trials and tribulations are often the components of character building, and it is these unique troubles that give individuals an unrelenting fortitude to face all of life’s future endeavors. Living in the midst of a conflict zone affected Birkar’s childhood in more ways than one, for instance, his school days were not just a struggle for academic growth they were also a struggle for survival: “We didn’t know when the war would end. It was difficult to make any plan for the future.” Caucher said during an exclusive interview with Majalla. “We (he and his childhood friends) would often be sitting in the classroom and then suddenly airplanes would come to bomb the area and we would run out of the class to escape to the mountains.”

Birkar noted how the positive nature of Kurdish culture helped him through his tough times, “Kurdish culture has an optimistic outlook to life”. He also noted how Kurdish sense of humor would help those who suffered during the devastating war. Birkar would go on to state that he always remembers seeing people laughing and joking, even when they were facing aerial bombardments and displacement.

Regular life comes to a standstill during times of elongated conflicts; however, Birkar never let his external factors come between him and his passions. During his childhood, his elder brother, Haidar introduced him to the world of calculus and instilled within him a deep love for mathematics which remains to this day. “In the beginning of my education, I think my brother had the biggest influence, he in a way determined my educational path. He was very creative, always creating, inventing and building things.” Birkar states that he tries to channel his brother’s creativity when he’s working on his academic tasks and mathematical theorems.


From Left to Right: Mashkhal Ibrahim Malazada, Bafrin Rashid, Caucher Birkar and his son, Shahen Sabir, Ata Mufty and Diman Tofiq. (Hiwa Ahmad exclusively for Majalla) 


Just one year on from winning the Fields Medal, Birkar added another award to his collection. On June 29, 2019, Birkar received the Kurdish People’s Award at the Kensington Town Hall in London. Famous Kurdish sculptor Zirak Mira was the first person to think of the concept of the People’s Award as he wanted to honor Kurds who came up with new innovative ideas in the arts. Eventually a small group of influential Kurds came together to form the People’s Award Committee, this group consisted of Shirzad Hassan, Samin Chiachy, Shahen Sabir, Dr. Chia Zangana, Zirak Mira, Dr. Ako Karim and Mamtaz Heedery and together they founded the People’s Award which was first awarded on September 11, 2018. While it started out as a cultural award, it eventually branched into other fields as it has now been used to credit a mathematician. Furthermore, the award can also be given to non-Kurdish person who made a significant contribution to the Kurdish cause.


Close up of Caucher Birkar's Kurdish People's Award. (Photo by Hiwa Ahmad exclusively for Majalla)

It should not come as a surprise that someone who learned the importance of creativity from such a young age would receive an award that emphasis creativity. Anwar Sultani, one of the speakers at the award ceremony, noted how Birkar’s innovative spirit has led him to present work that benefits both the Kurdish nation and all of humanity. Shaheen Saber, an esteemed guest of honor who came all the way from South Kurdistan, Iraq and is a member of the Founding Committee of the Award, said that Birkar will surely inspire more young Kurds to go into scientific fields, particularly mathematics. She would also state that Birkar has already become a Kurdish icon of persistence and innovation.

Karwan Jamal Tahir, who serves as the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) High Representative to the UK, was also present at the award ceremony. Mr. Tahir said that he was proud to be in the presence of an accomplished individual such as Birkar and was honored to be one of the individuals to present him with the medal. Moreover, he praised Birkar and his accomplishments as he showed that in spite of all the struggles and injustices the Kurds have had to endure, they are able to defy the odds and advance beyond their imaginations simply by utilizing every opportunity that comes their way.  

Audience members at The Council Chamber in Kensington Town Hall listening to santur player Peyman Heydarian (far left). (Hiwa Ahmad exclusively for Majalla)

The man of the hour himself gave his own speech, which did not focus on mathematics or his academic work rather it centered on the state of the Kurdish nation and the importance of national unity and pride, showcasing the respect he had for his Kurdish heritage. Birkar was proud to receive the award, simply because of the fact that it bears the name of his nation. He expressed the desire for the introduction of more national awards such as these since Kurdish people have perpetually faced injustices and external forces that seek only to silence them. He also spoke of the importance of national groups and organizations as they help solidify national unity and pride. He cited the example of the charity group that helped the Kurdish community shortly after the Kermanshah earthquake. The preservation of Kurdish culture was also a part of his speech; this is because he thinks that it is losing some of its authenticity. For instance, some Kurds have started inserting English words and phrases in spoken Kurdish and some Kurdish musicians have adopted Arabic, Persian or Turkish melodies. Luckily for him, two talented musicians took the stage during the ceremony, as both Peyman Heydarian (santur player) and Aygul Erce (singer/guitarist) wonderfully played authentic Kurdish music.  He ended his speech by stating that he and his colleagues are going to establish an academic organization for scientific research and education, an endeavor that the KRG promised to help out with.


From left to right: Diman Tofiq, Caucher Birkar, and Karwan Jamal Tahir KRG High Representative to the UK. (Photo by Hiwa Ahmad exclusively for Majalla) 


Kurdish people have had a long history of suffering and agonizing tragedy. To this day, they are caught between state actors which only seek to crush their spirits and obliterate any hope they have toward statehood. Nevertheless, time and time again Kurdish people have shown robustness that enables them to overcome times of grave anguish and come out even stronger than before. Likewise, Birkar’s early childhood trials have given him immeasurable valor to stand up against any hardship that might confront him. Furthermore, like many members of the Kurdish diaspora, Birkar has shown the tenacity and perseverance to accomplish great things and make his community proud. In the words of Ata Mufty, the organizer of the Kurdish People’s Award, Birkar has brought great joy to the hearts of around 45 million Kurds both in Kurdistan and all around the world. Finally, Birkar has displayed pride and admiration for his culture and aims to do his part to help his nation in any way he can. In more ways than one, Caucher Birkar has truly personified Kurdish national spirit and resilience.