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Faceless, brazen – the story of a play in Kurdish

When I was young, the eldest son of our next door neighbour would go out in their yard to do some mysterious thing every night. I had no idea what he was doing at first. Then I found out. Apparently, he would bury tapes filled with Kurdish music in the yard every night, and dig them out the next day to listen to them in secret. That is how outlawed our language was.

My primary school teacher would tell the class: “Speaking Kurdish is bad. Those who speak Kurdish are also bad.” I would feel bad, so would my classmates, and we would try to correct the words of our parents when we went back home. Our parents were good people. They shouldn’t be bad by speaking Kurdish, we thought.

The ban on our mother tongue has traumatised all Kurdish children. It wasn’t just painful, it also held us back. Thousands of Kurdish children were treated like they were stupid, because they didn’t understand what was being said at school. The ban created rifts among family members, tore children away from their parents and grandparents. Many grew up ashamed of their language and by extension, themselves.

Distancing yourself from a language also distances you from the universe that the language encompasses. We didn’t know. We now know that all Kurdish children, rich and poor, educated and otherwise, carry this burden in different ways.

Last week, Turkish authorities banned a play in Kurdish that was set to be staged at one of Istanbul’s municipal theatres, hours before curtain, because it could “disrupt public order.” When enough people protested, the governor said the play was banned because it included terrorist propaganda.

The play in question was Bêrû, which means “brazen” in Kurdish. The literal translation also means, “without a face.” It is adapted from Italian playwright Dario Fo’s Horns, Trumpets and Parnacchi. The play was written in 1970, before the group the governor called terrorist – the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – was founded.

A prosecutor later started an investigation into the play, and issued this statement:

“Our security forces have come to a conclusion that the whole construct of the play has been transformed into terrorist propaganda that the PKK terrorist organisation has waged against our country. It is utterly unacceptable that a play be turned into propaganda for the PKK terrorist organisation. An investigation has been started into the matter.”

The play was first staged in Turkish, under the name “Yüzsüz” which has the same connotation as in Kurdish, in 2014 by another state-funded troupe. Several Kurdish companies have also staged it in their language over the years. Bêrû has seen sold-out venues throughout Turkey, and in several cities around the world.

It is a political comedy about a worker and his boss. The owner of Fiat is abducted by the Red Brigades, and the car they are in has an accident. As it happens, Fiat worker Antonio is just passing by. He sees the crash, saves his boss, and puts his jacket around the man’s destroyed face. He takes him to a hospital, but leaves without introducing himself. Later, the boss recognises him by his ID card left in the jacket’s pocket, and then takes on his face.

For years, the play has been part of our daily life in Turkey in the saddest way possible. We are Bêrû. Our language was taken away, our songs were buried, our villages were burned down, we gave up on our homeland, but no, nothing is enough. Those who took everything from us still want to take our face as well.