The embarrassment of an unknown language

“My mom has a complaint. I keep asking her, ‘Mom, do you like my songs?’ She responds, ‘Son, I can’t understand any of your songs.’ My mother does not even know a word of Turkish. She always insists, ‘Why don’t you sing in Kurdish?’ With your permission, in order to appease my mother, I would like to sing a very short, really very short, twenty-second long lullaby that my mother used to sing to me when I was a baby.”

These were the words by Hayri Kasaç on O Ses Türkiye television song contest, a spinoff of America’s The Voice, this week before being eliminated in the semifinals. Kasaç was a Kurdish contestant from majorly Kurdish southeastern province of Mardin.

Kasaç’s statement prompted much debate on social media. Some attacked him, many pointed out how embarrassed he seemed to be in asking for such a small favour, and some congratulated him. As always, people did not really talk about the conditions that pushed Kasaç to ask for this tiny allowance. Of course, it is not Kasaç who should be ashamed, but rather those who make him feel compelled to ask for permission to sing in his mother tongue.

Only three weeks ago, there was another news story published in Yeni Yaşam. The paper reported that Kurdish-language newspaper Xwebun was not distributed to detainees because “the language was unintelligible.” Last month, we learned that Turkey’s Ministry of Health provides services in six languages, but Kurdish is not among them. They provide services in French, Arabic, English, Russian, German, and Persian, but do not provide services in the language of Kurdish citizens, who comprise at least a quarter of the country’s population.

Just like many other Kurdish people, language is one of the issues that I am most sensitive about. Like many Kurdish children, I understand what it feels like to not know one’s own mother tongue, to be torn away from that language and the world encompassed by that language. For Kurdish children of my generation, growing up in an environment in which Turkish and Turkishness were glorified and Kurdish and Kurdishness were punished has been a serious trauma.

As a child who started elementary school in the 1980s, during intensive state-sponsored “Citizen, Speak Turkish” campaigns, I would not only speak the best Turkish I could, in line with the example set by my teachers, but would also encourage people around me to speak the language as best they could. That is what I was taught in school: Turkish was good, Kurdish was bad. Turkish speakers were good, Kurdish speakers were bad. As “good” children, we had to set an example for our families and our surroundings, and ensure that they would be “good” people as well.

When I fell down a flight of stairs at the age of six, I started to dread Fridays. My teeth were in disarray from the fall, and it would take four to five years to set them straight again. Throughout those years, as I sat in the dentist chair every Friday, there was something that scared me more than the dentist: my mother’s inability to speak Turkish well.

I had to go with my mother to Hospital Street (which in my eyes was Soldier Street, due to the large military presence) every Friday, far away from my house. The one hour I spent among soldiers, tanks, and Turkish-speaking doctors (who were quite unkind to Kurdish speakers) felt like torture to me. Starting Thursdays, I would get terrible stomach cramps, fear would engulf me, and I would not recover until I left that street on Fridays.

The truth is, I was afraid. Would something happen to my mother if the doctor asked a question and she responded in Kurdish? With that fear, I would respond to every question the doctor asked my mother, in my own way trying to prevent my mother from making a “mistake”. The doctor would look at this girl, swiftly responding to every answer, and comment on “what a smart girl” she was. When the check-up was over, I would grip my mother’s hand until we left that street, dragging her away from the soldiers and trying to get her out of there as quickly as possible. In my own way, I was trying to protect my mother from “what could happen”.

I put so much pressure on my mother to speak proper Turkish. I constantly corrected her words with their Turkish equivalent. Today, I think back to how hard it must have been for my mom to be treated this way by her children. For many years, until I understood what was being done to us and came to my senses in high school, I pressured my mother to forget her identity.

Not knowing our mother language, being vulgarly torn away from our mother language, and growing up in an environment in which our mother language and identity were constantly insulted inflicted deep wounds in me as well as in many Kurdish children. This linguistic shackles affected our relationships with not only our mothers and fathers, but also with many others around us.

These years have passed, and Kurdish children still cannot receive education in their mother language. Our mother language is still forbidden. Sometimes it is “an unknown language,” sometimes it is “an unintelligible language,” and in the Parliament that is supposed to represent me as a citizen, Kurdish is an X’ed out language. We live in a country in which we ask for permission to speak the language of 20 million people for 20 seconds. Kasaç’s embarrassment in singing a lullaby for 20 seconds should embarrass everyone. He might have sung for just a little bit, but this country should fee; grand shame.

February 21st was International Mother Language Day, but my mother tongue is still banned in my country. I think back on my childhood and my mother. She says “şûşe” in Kurdish. I angrily react, “No, that is not a şûşe, it is a bardak (glass).”