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The incident was filmed in a commercial street in the Kadıköy neighbhorhood in Istanbul. Among the bodies obstructing the view, we see a man, holding an amplifier, attempting to stop another, with short hair and a powerful build, who is attempting to grab his instrument. He is then brutally grabbed by other men surrounding him. Filmed on April 2 and largerly shared on social media, the video shows policemen in civilian clothing confiscating the saz of Kurdish musician Siwar because he was singing and playing Kurdish music in public.
On the same day, 1 500 km further East in Diyarbakır, the cultural and political center of the Kurdish regions, MED-DER, a center dedicated to the teaching of the Kurdish language, called for a demonstration in front of the tribunal in reaction to the prohibition made to spokesperson and historical activist of the Kurdish Women’s movement (TJA) Ayşe Gökkan from defending herself in her maternal language during her trial on March 31. When she spoke, the center copresident Şilan Elmaskan said: “The Kurdish people and Kurdish women will never bend before these policies of denial.”
Since its foundation by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, the Turkish Republic has attempted to impose a single identity across its territory, notably by the exclusive use of the modern form of the Turkish language which appeared following the 1928 linguistic reform. Among other things, this reform established the use of the latin alphabet. The Kurdish languages were particularly targeted in their role as supporting a specific identity. In Kurdish regions inside the Turkish borders, kurmancî and zazakî (or kirmanckî dimli) are the main languages spoken. The policies of assimilation were largely inspired from the model used during the French revolution and notably by abbé Grégoire who wrote a Report on the necessity and the means for annihilating dialects and universalizing the use of the French language, presented to the national Convention on June 4 1794. Almost 200 years later, its content were echoed in another report, this time written by Ismet Inönü, Atatürk’s Prime Minister, titled Restructuration of the East, which details a program for the assimilation of the the Kurdish people occupying the Eastern part of the country. It states notably: “There is no sense or reason in educating Turkish and Kurdish children in separate schools. They must be taught together in primary school. This will be very useful in Turkifying the Kurdish people.”
“You couldn’t speak Kurdish at school” says Metin Ewr, a film director who has just completed a documentary on the struggle led by the Kurdish media. “In a remote village in Kurdistan, a teacher would be appointed who did not speak a single word of Kurdish. The children were all Kurds and did not speak Turkish. But the teacher represented the State, assimilation. He or she established a punitive system for students speaking Kurdish. Your identity, your culture, your language were denied. You experienced all this and to this day, you still pay the price… In order to express ourselves, we must use our own tongue. Even today, when speaking Turkish, I have problems. It’s not the same in Kurdish. What I feel, I experience in my language and it is in this language that I can best express myself.”
Read also: Cultural resistances #3: Kurdish cinema
The Middle-Eastern Cinema Academy is an association established in 2012 in Diyarbakır as an answer to the needs of Kurdish film makers. An interview.
Under the Erdoğan regime, the policy of assimilation targeting the identities of various people in Turkey continues, even if it takes forms and objectives different from the Kemalist-nationalist policies, notably with a greater emphasis on the religious, and a pseudo-acknowledgment of the existence of different peoples, the better to extinguish their rights to self-determination.
Mirad is one of the copresidents of the MED-DER center. He greets us in a small cluttered office and requests to answer our questions in Kurdish.
“There are approximately 25 million Kurds in this country, but the State does nothing for them. For instance, a document has just been published against violences against women, in several languages, including European ones. But not one word in them is in Kurdish. If at the Parliament a deputy says “hello” in Kurdish, he is told he is speaking in an incomprehensible language. It is humiliating. In official institutions, the Kurdish language is forbidden. This has been going on for a century. Against these pressures, there are activitist who fight by claiming this is their maternal language and that they cannot be deprived of their existence. Why should Kurds not be allowed to speak Kurdish? Several people are in jail because of this. There are even martyrs, killed for having stated that the Kurdish language exists. Kurds and Kurdicity will not disappear as long as there is awareness.”
He also insists on the fact that as a Turkish citizen paying taxes, being able to speak his maternal language is not a request, but a right.
“The government takes our money forcibly but when it builds governmental institutions, why is there no Kurdish among them? I am Kurdish, you take my money and that of my mother. She does not speak Turkish, when she goes to the post office, she cannot make her requests understood, she must go home. Whereas it is not only a wish or a favor, it is a right we have been denied for one hundred years and that must be given. The State should even apologize. It is a shame both on the Kurds and on the Turks. We will never accept this and we will fight for our language. We will not let it disappear. At the same time, we call on the Turkish government to give it an official status. We organize campaigns and platforms for this…” This will for recognition, Mirad extends to the whole world and notably to the large organizations calling for human rights, such as the United Nations, the European Union…
During the dark years in the 90s, the Turkish State practiced a scorched earth policy in Kurdish regions, emptying and burning down close to 3 000 villages and chasing their inhabitants towards the towns, while organizing extra-judiciary executions and the torture of Kurdish activists. Both Kurdish language and culture were then strictly forbidden, which traumatized an entire generation and blocked inter-generational transmission. “This is our crime,” Beshir says gravely, speaking of the fact that families who emigrated toward the West did not teach the Kurdish language to their children. “Of course the State exerted pressure, but we must also bear our own responsibility,” he adds. Ömer Fidan, Kurdish writer, translator and co-president of Kurdish PEN, an activist for the use of the Kurdish language, explains this phenomenon:
“Kurds were forced into exile in the towns. Children grew up there. In the villages, there was agriculture and the raising of livestock for survival, but this was impossible in the towns. The only solution was to study, become an employee, a civil servant. This is how Kurds were led away from their languages, their culture. A language that is not spoken by the children is destined to disappear. For example, the population in Diyarbakir consists of 98% of person of Kurdish origin, but only 50% of them speak Kurdish. Several people grew up “in Turkish”, unfortunately, particularly among the new generation now under 30 years old who had to adapt to the State in order to go to school, and to find employment. Their mothers’ tongue is Kurdish but their mother tongue has become Turkish.”
Read also: Cultural resistances #2: Kurdish Literature
Conversation with Ömer Fidan, one of the actors in the development of Kurdish literature in Northern Kurdistan as well as internationally.
Wrong option in school and symbiotic resistance strategy
In 2013, a Masters program in Kurdish languages and culture opened at Artuklu University in Mardin, allowing the Turkish State to claim that the Kurdish language was no longer ostracized and could be used freely. An opinion not shared by a number of activists defending the languages. But strategies diverge. Some choose to integrate the State system, following in this what E. Olin Wright calls in his work Real Utopias a symbiotic strategy which he considers inefficient for winning a struggle. While others choose to build alongside the State, in what the author qualifies as an interstitial strategy.
Under the coordination of the Kurdish languages specialist and one-time HDP deputy Kadri Yıldırım, who died at the end of March 2021 1 the training of teachers was then handed over to Bingöl University, a much more conservative institution, in the wave of repression that followed the coup attempt in 2016. 500 students obtained their diplomas in the first of the Master’s promotions. “But only 17 teachers were appointed, 14 for the kurmandjî dialect and 3 for the zazaki”, explains Xiyas who began teaching in 2014. After this, the numbers decreased every year. In 2021, 4 teachers were appointed, 3 for kurmandjî and 2 for zazakî.
“Every year, I teach some 400 to 500 students”, Xiyas explains. “We have two hours of lecture per week for each group, but only for those at the 5th level. In order to learn a language, this is largely insufficient. Moreover, in Turkey, the students’s learning is targeted at exams. They concentrate on these, students working much more in the subjects involved. For instance, Turkish, Math, Sciences, Social Sciences, English and religion…”
For Ömer Fidan, the choice “is offered to the child once he is assimilated, by offering Kurdish as an option, in the same manner as a foreign language. A Turkish child could learn Kurdish and choose these optional courses. But the fact that a Kurdish child taking courses in his maternal language only gets two hours of classes per week makes no sense.”
The official program and the content of the courses in Kurdish language are prepared in Turkey by the Talim ve Terbiye Kurulu [which can be translated as “Council for practice and training”, which is linked to the Ministry of Education]. An examination of the teaching material shows, notably, iconography with inexact references concerning the veil worn by women, for example, and is largely influenced by a religious approach. Some pages serve as a relay for State propaganda. Thus, one encounters a file praising the manner in which certain monuments in the centuries-old village of Hasankeyf were displaced before the State drowned the village under the waters of the Ilısu dam. Mostly, the first manual opens on the national anthem under a large Turkish flag.
If the option exists on paper, in practice, choosing it is not so simple. Registration periods are extremely short and populations are not informed. A child who misses the registration period cannot sign up before the following school year. School administrations, under pressure from the State, advise against choosing the Kurdish language option “you are already Kurdish, you know the language, why don’t you study the prophet’s life instead, or arabic”… Sometimes they say “there are no Kurdish teachers in the school, even if you choose that option, your classes will turn into empty periods, don’t take it”… Mirad from the MED-DER explains, adding angrily: “They intimidate the families, this is why many parents do not want their children to learn kurmancî. They want people to flee from this language and, at the same time, they claim before other States that Kurds have the right to choose to study their language. It is also a form of humiliation to appoint a few teachers here and there among millions of citizens. They mean to say: we have given the Kurds this right, but they themselves are ashamed to learn the kurmancî language. The true humiliation is that kurmancî be considered optional. When all the inhabitants of a village are Kurmancî, why should their children not be educated in this language? Or why could they not learn two languages ?”
Nonetheless, some consider these courses should be supported so as to render truly visible the demand and confront the State with it. Beyond a simple option, as underlines Ömer Fidan, “what we need is not only the teaching of Kurdish but, teaching IN Kurdish of Math, Physics, Chemistry, everything…imagine, we are talking about 40 million Kurds, at least 25 million of which are in Northern Kurdistan…” The teaching of maternal languages is a battle led notably by the Teachers’ Union Eğitim-Sen, which is the majority union in the Kurdish regions, with thousands of members. During a meeting in Diyarbakır with the Union’s Secretary General, Necla Kurul, an academician fired by the State because of her political positioning, to the question as to what where the main battles in the Diyarbakır section, the teaching of maternal languages came back a number of times as a vital right, politely but very firmly expressed by the participants in the assembly who often have the feeling they are not heard by their Turkish colleagues. One teacher underlined the difficulties encountered by the children in learning the grammatical logic which is necessarily different as a foundation to the two languages. A child whose maternal language is Kurdish will have trouble adopting the grammatical structures of the Turkish language.
Alternative teaching and interstitial resistance strategy
For most activists, public schooling is not a satisfactory solution for the development of the Kurdish language. In Diyarbakır, the MED-DER Institute has missioned itself as Mirad explains “in order to preserve, develop and keep alive the Kurdish language in society” and acting as “the manifestation of a resistance saying that Kurds are alive, that they live here, that their language is Kurdish”. It opened in 2017 following the shutting down by decree of preceding structures in the wave of repression following the failed coup of July 2016. Besides teaching, one of the center’s activities consists of producing materials for the teaching of Kurdish and thinking about the language’s development. Mirad anchors this work in an historical heritage. “The Kurds have been fighting for the right to their maternal language since the 19th century. In 1913, Kurdish journalists and activists carried out research and debates in Kurdish, on how to have a complete and precise language. Following the creation of the Turkish State, these struggles were marginalized but the Kurds did not give up on this right. Since 1930, they have received a heritage through the publication of “Hawar”, inciting them to carry on as did persons such as Jalal Adin Badr Khan who worked hard on the Kurdish language. Since then, efforts for its development intensified until 1990 when newspapers such as Welat and Azadi Welat were published in Kurdish. This is the inheritance on which we rely in order to carry on.”
If because of the pandemic, the courses are now offered on Zoom, “attacks against the Kurds have never ceased, never.” Mirad testifies. “The police does not attack the centers directly but stands in front of them and requests that people show their ID. They don’t shut the doors but they say they will do something to keep people from coming here. They conduct surveillance of the activists in these centers and on those who come here. These attacks are not open but they are nothing new and they will not be the last. They want to destroy the Kurds, and in order to do that, they must also destroy the Kurdish language. A new law was adopted according to which centers such as ours must also pay taxes. Why should a center not making any money pay taxes? They adopt such laws because they know society supports us.”
Problems raised by late learning
Late learning of the Kurdish language, after a schooling done in Turkish and the devaluing of maternal languages, leave their marks on children who often have trouble, as Xiyas explains, in crossing over into Kurdish in class, prefering to speak Turkish. “For the past seven years, I have taken long periods during which I explain to the students that speaking Kurdish is not vulgar. When one of them speaks in Kurdish, the others must not laugh. After a month, in some classes, we manage to speak entirely in Kurdish”, says the teacher.
For Ömer Fidan, the problem is a complex one and has an impact of the children’s psychology.
“It’s not only a question of being competent in writing the language technically speaking, but also of the way one structures thought. Children enter grade school at age 6. Before that, there is TV at home, sounds in the street, all of this in Turkish… The mother tongue is not necessarily used at home. And when school begins, the current education system tells children ‘the Kurdish language is a lie, a mistake’. At that point, they experience a trauma. Then, they attempt to learn Turkish and experience a rejection toward Kurdish. When they attend university, in another town, although they have received the same education in Turkish, and even if they claim to be Turkish, even if they succeed better than others, they will be discriminated against because of their origins. This often generates a political awakening leading to a reappropriation of one’s Kurdicity. But between the first year in grade school and university, there has been a distancing of 13 years. Assimilation has done its work.”
He concludes by asking: “To what extent can a person return on the past? Returning to one’s origins requires enormous energy. Because this time, one must look at 13 years of one’s life in a different perspective, and locate what has been lost. And what has been lost in 13 years is hard to recover, and often impossible.”
Student profiles at MED-DER are varied. “I have students of every age,” Mirad explains. “Among them, we have academics, workers, civil servants, housewives, children, adolescents who wish to recover their identity through their maternal languages. Language is our existence, our conscience, our future. It is also the color of life. If someone forgets his or her language, there is a loss of self, culture, existence, future, the loss of life’s beauty.”
Standardization and the future of the language
“For centuries, Kurdish was not the language of teaching. Yes, it is spoken between individuals. But there is no standardization,” Xiyas explains. As an example, he mentions the many ways of expressing the verb “to speak”: axaftin in the Hakkari region, xaberdan in Van, staxelin in Mardin. In the more cosmopolitan Diyarbakır, one uses peyivîn, warxaftin, xaberdan, qesekirin. “Since there is no standardization, five students meet, each one speaks Kurdish very well since he or she speaks it at home, but once they are together, they do not understand each other. Suffixes, even words, may be different. Works of standardization exist, but people do not have access to them. There is an avant-garde of Kurdish linguists. For example, 10 or 15 years ago, the word “spas” seemed strange to people in Hakkari. But now, people know that it means “thank you”. Formerly they used “Xwedeste razi be” (the equivalent of May God bless you). In its essence, this is a fine expression, but it does not mean “thank you”. Currently, we are working on standardization. We have common books. We are some 70, 80 teachers, each with a minimum of 200 students per year. I always tell the children that the Kurdish they speak at home is correct, the Kurdish they hear on the street is also correct, and so is the Kurdish in this book. If all of us spoke the Kurdish in the book, we would have no trouble in understanding one another. But this diversity is also part of our wealth. Standardization is ongoing, but people can’t manage to find the time for learning.”
The work done by State-appointed teachers does not match up with that done in the institutes that are active in the teaching of Kurdish. For Mirad, standardization is but one problem among others, and not necessarily the most pressing. In his opinion, priority must go to strengthening the struggle in favor of the language.
“We’re not setting aside the work on standardization, but we don’t give it all our energy. That the right to the Kurdish language be insured, that attacks against it cease, then we will be able to also attempt standardizing with the help of linguists from different regions of Kurdistan and the diaspora. It is but one problem among others. For example, there is the question of materials in Kurdish, of educational methods. We also must deal with the problem of the addition of universal knowledge to the Kurdish language. We are preparing for the future. How to act in the future and how to integrate the Kurdish language into the digital world? Everything is in Turkish, technologies, newspapers, histories, schools, army, post office, bank, etc. One of the dangers for the future of the Kurdish language is also the threat hanging over the ‘kîrmanckî’ language.
The rights of Kurds and their language are in danger. And we need the help of those in the world who support the Kurdish struggle. Currently, it is insufficient in the face of one hundred years of attacks against the Kurdish language. Support could organize joint programs with us, support our activities, organize large conferences, take on ambitious projects because our own opportunities are limited over here. As our language progresses, the future looks brighter, but this is done through much hard work and effort. If the struggle stops, the attacks will increase.”
On February 22, a Kurdish language platform was launched calling for its recognition as a language in teaching, with 10 demands that quickly gathered large support:
- Opening a Kurdish branch of your institution in Diyarbakır or opening a Kurdish branch/chair in the center of Ankara.
- Hiring Kurdish language experts
- Conducting a full study of the Kurdish dictionary
- Conducting an etymological study of the Kurdish dictionary
- Working on a digital version of the Kurdish dictionary
- Creating a dictionary of Kurdish idioms and proverbs
- Publishing a digital Kurdish dictionary
- Organizing an International Symposium on Kurdish languages
- Quarterly publication of a review on “Kurdish Grammar”
- Publication of works done in the area of Kurdish grammar
Following Mrs. Elmaskan’s words before the Diyarbakır Tribunal, the crowd consisting of representatives of progressive unions such as Eğitim-Sen, of the HDP, of women’s associations and of representatives of civil society, chanted “Bê ziman jiyan nabe”, “Zimanê me rumeta meye”: “no life without language”, “my language is my dignity”. A few days later, on April 24 she was arrested in the early morning along with 22 Kurdish women involved in the political struggle for the recognition of rights for their people and in the fight to counter violences against women.
Cover photograph: March 8 2021, Amed “Our maternal language is our identity” (Photo Loez)
Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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