x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Freedom in their own words

Turkey is reappraising its relationship with the culture of its Kurdish minority who make up 15 per cent of its 72m residents.

A different generation: the Quran will be translated into Kurdish in Turkey, where the language was outlawed in 1923.
A different generation: the Quran will be translated into Kurdish in Turkey, where the language was outlawed in 1923.

ISTANBUL // Muhsin Kizilkaya was still at school when a teacher told him that if he ever spoke or wrote a word of Kurdish he would be punished because the language was illegal in Turkey. It was a defining moment in his life after which he "went mute" and did not speak for days, he said. The ban on Kurdish was lifted in 1991, and Kizilkaya, 46, has since made up for lost time, authoring 10 books on the language, history and culture. But the ban's removal has not brought complete freedom for Turkey's roughly 14 million Kurds, who still face harassment, discrimination and even prosecution for using a language that for many non-Kurdish Turks is still associated with a violent separatism movement.

So it was seen as a historic move when Istanbul's Bilgi University last week hosted a Kurdish writers' symposium, attracting about 150 mostly Kurdish men and women. The private non-profit university has also announced that starting in September, elective courses will be offered in Kurdish literature and language to master's degree students. Several other major universities, including Istanbul and Ankara are expected to follow suit.

The Turkish religious affairs directorate, a government body, announced in March that the Quran will be translated into Kurdish, an Indo-European language. The state broadcaster TRT began airing on April 1 a Kurdish radio station following the launch of a 24-hour Kurdish television channel three months ago. "It goes without saying there are great improvements," said Kizilkaya, a noted literary figure in Turkey's capital. "We have seen today it is not the end of the world when we speak our language in public."

Turkey seems to be reappraising its antagonistic relationship with its Kurdish minority who make up 15 per cent of its 72 million residents. The reforms were praised by the US President Barack Obama who, in an address to the Turkish parliament on Monday, went as far as comparing the situation of the Kurds to his own experiences in racially divided America. "Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens," he said. "I say this as the president of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be president of the United States."

The reforms, however, are contradictory and sometimes conflicting and Kurdish intellectuals and activists are constantly testing the limits of their new freedoms. In 2002, for example, authorities imprisoned 17 university students in Malatya in eastern Turkey on charges of promoting separatism and inciting hatred because they were demanding the right to study their own language. Last month, Ahmed Turk, a Kurdish legislator, spoke to party members in parliament in his native language but the speech was cut short by the state broadcaster - the same one which has both a Kurdish TV and radio channel - because technically he violated the constitution.

Yet, the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked about the arrival of the 24-hour channel to a group of voters in Kurdish without censure. Unlike the Armenians, Rums and Jews, the Kurds are still not recognised by the constitution. The US state department's annual human rights report in 2008 stated that "Kurds who publicly or politically asserted their Kurdish identity or publicly espoused using Kurdish in the public domain risked censure, harassment, or prosecution".

Three court cases are pending against Mr Turk and prosecutors have accused his pro-Kurd Democratic Society Party of separatism and threatened to shut it down. The Kurds are a tribal people whose ancient lands straddled the modern borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey where the populations are still concentrated today. Their history and heritage is rich: Saladin the great Islamic warrior during the Crusades was a Kurd. After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, the Kurds were promised a homeland by the Treaty of Sevres, but it never happened.

Instead, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic in 1923, outlawed the language; Kurds were fined for every word they were caught speaking. As a result those who have advocated reforms have been accused of supporting separatism or the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which is considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the US for its violent campaign to separate from Turkey.

For the current generation of Kurdish intelligentsia who were secretly taught the language by their parents at home as young children, the struggle is to preserve the language and oral literature. "The stories and folk tales, the rebellions of the Kurds against the shahs of Iran, or the Mim e Zen epic have survived because they were passed from one generation to the next by dengbej; they are like cultural ambassadors wandering from towns to villages passing on the stories," said Kizilkaya, the Kurdish author. "This is what has led to the preservation of our social memory."

Even though the restrictions have been lifted, Kurds, nonetheless, are still wary of being too outspoken. "I don't want to say anything political, nothing political," said Aylin Unek, a Turkish writer, smoking a cigarette in the sunshine during Sunday's symposium. "But Turkey has undergone so many changes in the last decade, so many things have changed. That is all I will say." Ilter Turan, a political scientist, said the move to accept Kurdish showed Turkey was maturing.

"I think for a long time secular Turkish governments thought ensuring ethnic harmonisation was the best way forward to hold society together," he said. "Turkey has a bigger place in the world than it used to, it feels more confident and is capable of dealing with problems. At this moment it is a transitional stage. A lot of people find this stage problematic but some feel we should move ahead, and we are."

Others said Turkey is feeling pressure from the European Union, which it cannot join unless it conforms to EU standards and rules regarding the treatment of minorities. "Our government is rushing to create its own Kurdish cultural model as an extension of its American policies. America wants to have a model in the Middle East and Turkey is that model," said Mehmet Akyuz of the Mesopotamia Cultural Centre, which was cofounded by Musa Anter, a literary giant and advocate of Kurdish nationalism who spent years in jail before he was killed by unknown gunmen in Sept 1992.

How best to bring Kurdish out of the shadows is still up for debate. Ahmet Gokcen, 30, a history student, believes there is too much focus on the past. "Personally I think until there is radical change we cannot talk about a Kurdish renaissance. There is nothing but a reproduction of existing literature or re-creating the past based on verbal culture. It is more about politics rather than literary developments."

Erdal Ceyiz, 37, a theatre director, says that change will come slowly. He has adapted a Kurdish play based on an old folk tale of a doctor seeking immorality, called King of Snakes, that has been running at the Seyr-i-Mesel theatre near central Istanbul's Taksim Square. "There is a growing interest in Kurdish plays but we are still trying to expand its usage among young people," he said. For Kizilkaya, who remembers being hit at school for speaking Kurdish, the shift is nothing short of revolutionary.

"When I look at the past I feel reproach and I say to myself, why did I live in grief all those years ago? I was in grief because they made us feel that if we speak Kurdish in public we were murderers." hghafour@thenational.ae