x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Kurdish may get a boost in Turkey

Two newly-founded universities are preparing to offer the country's first courses in Kurdish language and literature at college level.

Leyla Zana was jailed for speaking Kurdish during her oath-taking at the Turkish parliament in 1991.
Leyla Zana was jailed for speaking Kurdish during her oath-taking at the Turkish parliament in 1991.

ISTANBUL // In what could become a major step in widening cultural rights, two newly founded state universities in Turkey's Kurdish region are preparing to ask education authorities in Ankara for permission to set up the country's first departments for Kurdish language and literature.

"There is change taking place in Turkey," Ibrahim Belenli, the rector of Hakkari University in the south-eastern corner of the country, said in a telephone interview. He said the offer of courses on Kurdish language and literature by colleges would help to bring "more harmony" to a country where a bloody conflict in the Kurdish region has claimed more than 40,000 lives. Serdar Bedii Omay, the rector of Artuklu University in Mardin, also in Turkey's south-east, is planning to offer Kurdish language and literature courses in the framework of an Institute of Eastern Languages and Religions that would also include courses in Arabic, Farsi and Aramaic.

Although in the middle of Turkey's Kurdish region, Mardin is also close to the Syrian border and lies west of the country's Tur Abdin region, a centre of Aramaic Christians. If all goes well and the higher education board, or Yok, the Ankara-based body overseeing Turkey's universities, gives the green light, the institute can start life next year. "It is a contribution to social peace," Prof Omay said.

That Prof Belenli and Prof Omay are even considering creating Kurdish departments is revolutionary. Turkish universities routinely offer education in English, French, German or other foreign languages. But so far, there is no Kurdish education at a college level. Traditionally, the Turkish state has been reluctant to tolerate moves that may strengthen loyalty to non-Turkish native languages of its people because it is seen as a potential threat to national unity.

The biggest threat is perceived to come from the Kurdish language, because the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a rebel group, has been fighting for more autonomy from Ankara since 1984. In 1991, parliamentary deputies from the Kurdish area were stripped of their seats and imprisoned three years later for alleged membership in the PKK because one of them, Leyla Zana, added a sentence in Kurdish to her Turkish oath as a deputy.

Today, the use of the Kurdish language is less restricted in Turkey, after political reforms in recent years allowed the country's estimated 12 million Kurds to speak Kurdish publicly, to open and attend private Kurdish language courses and listen to Kurdish music. Currently, the government is preparing to start a new television channel that will broadcast in Kurdish and other minority languages. The new channel is to begin with test broadcasts in January. Kurdish is still banned in official usage. Politicians from the Kurdish region have had to appear in court after they sent out official invitations in Kurdish.

The universities of Prof Omay and Prof Belenli are newcomers, with the one in Mardin operating since last year, while another in Hakkari officially open less than a year, but they are not alone in planning language branches that go beyond the normal fare in Turkey. Trakya University in the north-western city of Edirne has already received permission from Ankara to open an Armenian branch in its foreign language department. Courses with 20 students are expected to start next year.

Prof Omay said Turkey's reforms in the framework of its bid to join the European Union had changed the political climate. The country was "moving in a good direction", said Prof Omay, who teaches medicine. He said representatives of local authorities in Mardin had raised no objection to his plans. "Everybody is supporting me. So far there has been no allergic reaction." The debate about Kurdish courses at state universities started when Osman Ozcelik, a Kurdish deputy in Ankara's parliament, tabled a draft law last month that calls for the opening of Kurdish language departments at universities in the metropolis Istanbul and in Diyarbakir, the main city of Turkey's Kurdish region.

After Mr Ozcelik's proposal, Yok signalled it was ready to look at proposals coming from universities. There was no legal hurdle for universities to come forward with the wish for a Kurdish language department, Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, the Yok president, told the daily newspaper Radikal. Halis Ayhan, a senior Yok official, told the same newspaper that universities were "late" in proposing such departments. At the same time, Prof Ayhan was careful to draw a clear distinction between the roles of Turkish and Kurdish. "In the constitution, it is being stressed that Turkish is the language of education. Kurdish is a language that is being spoken by a local group in Turkey."

In Mardin, Prof Omay said he had no intention of making Kurdish a second official language in Turkey. Still, the establishment of courses in Kurdish was "essential" for a university like his. Prof Belenli of Hakkari University said it was important "that people should be able to express their opinions openly". As his university was still in the start-up phase and had no buildings of its own at the moment, the opening of Kurdish language courses was years, rather than months away, he said.

Efforts in Edirne are much more advanced. As it prepares for the new Armenian courses, officials at Trakya University have described the reform as a contribution to the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement that started after a visit by Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, in September. "We go forward with the slogan 'First learn the language of your neighbour,'" Sevinc Sakarya Maden, head of the foreign languages department, told the Hurriyet newspaper. "It is our biggest aim to create relations of peace and understanding."

tseibert@thenational.ae