Turkey’s Kurds Slowly Build Cultural Autonomy

New York Times: Turkey’s Kurds Slowly Build Cultural Autonomy


Published: June 1, 2011, New York Times

BALEFUL love song wafted from the Vizyon Muzik A Market. Not so long ago playing Kurdish music over a loudspeaker into the streets here might have provoked the Turkish police. Just speaking the names of certain Kurdish singers at one time could have landed a Kurd in prison.

These days hundreds of CDs featuring Kurdish pop singers fill one of the long walls in the small, shoebox-shaped Vizyon Muzik. The discs face a few dozen Turkish ones. Abdulvahap Ciftci, the 25-year-old Kurd who runs the place, told me one sunny morning not long ago that customers buy some 250 Kurdish albums a week. “And maybe I sell one Turkish album,” he calculated, wagging a single finger, slowly. “Maybe.”

Turkey is holding elections in a few days. For months pro-Kurdish activists have been staging rallies that during recent weeks have increasingly turned into violent confrontations with the police in this heavily Kurdish region of the southeast. Capitalizing on the Arab Spring and the general state of turmoil in that part of the world, as well as on Turkey’s vocal support for Egyptian reformers, the Kurds here have been looking toward elections to press longstanding claims for broader parliamentary representation and more freedoms, political and cultural.

Not that there’s ever much difference between politics and culture for this country’s Kurds. Since the 1920s, when Turkey started forcibly assimilating its Kurds, roughly 20 percent of the population, in a struggle to forge a nation-state out of the broken remnants of the Ottoman Empire, they have resisted. Since the mid-1980s tens of thousands on both sides have died. This must now be the world’s longest bloody conflict.

In March a Turkish movie, “Press,” opened in Istanbul, recounting the torture and killing of dozens of investigative journalists working for Ozgur Gundem, a newspaper here at the epicenter of the Kurdish struggle. More than 75 of its employees were killed from 1992 to 1994, when the paper was shut down by the government. Only just recently it went back into print. Still, the movie’s 38-year-old director, Sedat Yilmaz, told me recently, the police wanted to make sure he used fake copies of Ozgur Gundem, not real ones.

“It is now at least possible to talk about issues a little more openly,” Mr. Yilmaz said. We spoke over a din at the film’s opening in a basement theater in Istanbul, amid a crush of young Turks engulfed, as usual, in a thick nimbus of blue cigarette smoke. “The best way to do this is through films and plays and music, which is finally starting to happen.” At the Istanbul International film festival in April “Press” won the Turkish equivalent of an Oscar for its exploration of human rights abuses.

But change comes slowly, incrementally, if at all here. Concessions by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2009 made way for the first Kurdish national television station, and the government also permitted the teaching of Kurdish language classes in private universities (but not public ones). Token gestures, they made front-page headlines: first because they were signals to the outside world that a democratic state run by an Islamic leader will not automatically become xenophobic or tribalist, and second because even small steps toward acknowledging Kurdish culture can provoke political firestorms inside the country. Turkish nationalists raised a ruckus. Nationalists regard even the most basic Kurdish demand — that their language also be allowed in grade schools and at official settings where Kurds are involved — as treason.

Turkish Kurds respond that increased cultural freedom only encourages their loyalty to the Turkish state. But in this deeply patriotic country, where sentiments are old and entrenched, Mr. Erdogan’s government, guarding its tenuous majority in Parliament on the verge of the elections, has assumed a more and more hawkish line lately. The arrests of large numbers of Kurdish political activists have fed the Kurds’ concern that the government never really had true democracy in mind for them but just cooked up some window dressing for Western consumption. Recent clashes in this city between the police and hundreds of protesters attending the funerals of separatist militants proved how fragile the peace is in the region.

That said, Mr. Yilmaz, the filmmaker, wasn’t the only one I found to express cautious hope. “The changes are meaningful but still not sufficient,” is how Burhan Senatalar, a Turkish professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul, long involved in Kurdish relations, described the climate in light of gestures like the state-run television station and private university language instruction.

“If you asked Turks today whether, in the abstract, people should be able to speak their mother tongue, most of them would say, of course, no problem,” he said. “But with Kurdish, fear clouds the picture. Language is the biggest Kurdish demand because language equals identity. It’s the root of any culture, and many Kurds, having had their language repressed, no longer even know the basics of Kurdish grammar. So the debate has inevitably turned to language. To have cultural demands beyond language you need qualified people to write plays and make art, and during the 1980s you had so many Kurdish people tortured that they didn’t have time to think about cultural questions, which means there’s still a long way to go.”

And more hurdles keep cropping up: among them, armed elements in the Kurdistan Workers Party, who have lately threatened Kurds who might cooperate with the state-approved Kurdish television station. On the other side I found researchers looking into bilingual education in Turkey — a seemingly harmless baby step toward, someday, perhaps, allowing Kurdish to be taught in bilingual grade schools — saying they must run a gantlet of skittish Turkish state bureaucrats prone to censorship just to win approval to speak publicly about what they learn.

“With the state banning Kurdish in public schools, the trend is that in a few decades we could lose our language altogether,” Gulten Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, which is widely perceived as the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party, explained when I found her one evening in her office, exhausted after a long day campaigning outside Diyarbakir. She had been delivering political speeches in Kurdish, a crime in Turkey for which she can’t be prosecuted only because she is a sitting member of Parliament.

“That’s why our leading political demand is really a cultural demand: the use of our mother tongue. In our estimation, assimilation is a human rights violation,” she said. “It’s a natural part of urbanization too, and Turkish urbanization has steadily threatened Kurdish culture, our music, our lullabies and fairy tales, which, coming from our villages, used to be how we transferred our heritage to new generations.”

But that’s not the whole story. There are now more Kurdish-language books to be found in bookstores here. I visited with a theater troupe that stages productions in Kurdish in Diyarbakir. Ms. Kisanak’s party also sponsors Kurdish acting and vocal groups across the region.

And Kurdish music, including Dengbej, the traditional Kurdish sung-speech, is everywhere. Back at Vizyon Muzik, Mr. Ciftci told me how his brother started a recording business for Kurdish singers during the mid-1990s. The Turkish culture ministry wouldn’t grant licenses to distribute albums of Kurdish music, so his brother had to copy tapes one by one, on the sly, using an old tape recorder and cassettes he smuggled from Iraq. He went to prison several times.

During the past decade the situation improved. The family company, Asanlar Music Production, now has some 160 Kurdish artists under contract. The government continues, sometimes capriciously, it seems to Mr. Ciftci, to deny licenses to albums.

Songs about revolution and the Kurdistan Workers Party are illegal, and he said he fears the police may only be more likely to crack down in light of violent attacks last month by the party, among them the ambush of Mr. Erdogan’s election campaign convoy in the Black Sea region, where a police officer was killed. Such acts swing Turkish public opinion against the Kurds, despite constant reminders that the party, listed as a terror organization by the European Union and the United States, and Kurds are not one.

“But compared to the past, we’re better off,” Mr. Ciftci insisted. “Eighty percent of our identity as Kurds is in our music. If you are Kurdish today, even if you don’t speak the language, you can hear a song in Kurdish, and your soul roars. It makes you feel part of a struggle.” At that moment, over the loudspeaker in the street, a Kurdish singer named Dengbej Arif was crooning a love song. “If only once I could touch your hands, look into your eyes, listen to your sweet voice,” Mr. Ciftci translated the lyrics.

At the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research, Nurcan Baysal and Dilan Bozgan, researchers in their 30s, said that like many Kurds of their generation they never learned their own mother tongue because it was stigmatized in schools. But they grew up hearing it in Kurdish music. Ms. Bozgan said her own young children don’t want to learn Kurdish because their Turkish classmates and teachers tell them Turkish is the only language that really matters, and after that, English. “If you don’t give prestige to a culture,” she lamented, “people won’t value it, and it will die.” But conversely, when a culture does gain prestige, it can incite a revolution. Turkey’s Kurds look to revivals of Corsican, Catalan and other formerly oppressed European languages as examples of cultural change leading to political upheavals.

Ms. Bozgan then echoed Mr. Ciftci’s thought that music is special to Kurds in this regard, having for centuries passed along Kurdish history and tradition, through Dengbej but also, more recently, through Kurdish music that has assimilated elements of jazz, pop and rap. “Music was for a long time the only semi-free zone for Kurds to express themselves in their own language in Turkey and also a kind of therapy,” she elaborated. “When my grandmother is alone, I hear her singing about her past.”

Ms. Baysal nodded. She has a grandmother too, she said, who sings at home. “My grandmother, who turned 100 lately, doesn’t speak a word of Turkish, and I don’t know Kurdish. If you lose a language, you can lose your family, because you lose your link to the past. But when I ask my grandmother about her life 100 years ago she starts singing. It’s how we communicate.

“I put my hand on her knee,” she said. “She sings. I may not be able to understand the words. But I can understand the feelings.”