By Yvo Fitzherbert
Banned for decades by the Turkish republic, the Kurdish language was on the verge of being lost. But with recent breakthroughs in Kurdish education, is the language now opening up?
Photograph showing children studying at the Kurdish primary school, Ferzad Kemanger School, in Diyarbakır. Photo by Yvo Fitzherbert
This language was drowning in its wounds, but resisted death. And we, the children of that wounded language, we hurried, even so late, to rescue it from extinction –
Helim Yûsiv, A Kid’s History and Two Languages: A Memoir.
Helîm Yûsiv’s memoir is a history, a history of Kurdish, in Kurdish. For the Kurds, artificially separated by the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria; the battle for language has been at the forefront of their resistance. Language has always been an essential instrument in preserving culture, a way of understanding a people. And in Turkey, where the pressure on Kurdish has been at its worse, the agonising truth is that for many, Kurdish is a forgotten language. A language of the past. This reality is something which many are ashamed of. And for those that do know Kurdish, there is despair about how many don’t: “If we lose our language, we lose everything. Turkish has a completely different way of thinking compared to Kurdish,” a Kurdish friend called Rıdvan told me. “If we don’t know it, if we are assimilated, then this very assimilation is in fact not just changing what we think but how we think.”
In a café in Diyarbakir, I met a young Kurdish student called Fırat. He could not speak his mother tongue. “I am ashamed of this,” he said. “When I was volunteering on the Kobani border, a child asked how I could be Kurdish and not know the Kurdish language. I felt foreign.” To the child, language and identity were intrinsically linked, an inseparable union. And the child has a point, Fırat told me: “to not know Kurdish shows I am that much more assimilated, which, unfortunately makes me less Kurdish.”
An underground language
Kurdish was for many years a forbidden language. The publication and use of kurmanji, the main dialect of Kurdish, was strictly banned in 1924, and fines were imposed on anybody who dared to break this law. Because of this, Kurdish was confined to the household, a safe haven where they could freely speak their language. To many children, who left home in the morning and had to use Turkish at school, coming home and speaking Kurdish was a huge relief. The need for Turkish was obvious in order to get by in the public life, but Kurdish still retained prominence in the domestic sphere as this was the one area the State could not touch.
“In the past, we spoke Kurdish [at home] because our parents didn’t know Turkish,” Ziya told me, “but this is changing. A generation of Kurds has grown up whose entire education was Turkish; they will speak Turkish in the household.” Why will they not pass on the Kurdish tongue? The natural reproduction of language in the home is under threat as the level of Turkish is significantly higher than that of Kurdish. Even if kurmanji is spoken at home, very few know it as well as Turkish because they never had an education in it. “When I was a child, we only used 300-400 Kurdish words in our village because it was all we needed.” Ahmet, a Kurdish student, explained to me. “Now I’ve had had fifteen years of Turkish education. Which language do you think I am better at speaking?”
From 1924 onwards, Ankara refused to acknowledge a separate Kurdish language- or even a separate ethnicity. Their aim was to totally assimilate Kurds into the Turkish identity, and the Turkish state did this by refusing to recognise the existence of Kurds, instead referring to them as “mountain Turks” that had lost their language due to the inaccessibility of the mountains. “We were taught to think of our culture, Kurdish, as a sign of the uncivilised and unruly”, Mehmet, a Kurdish activist told me. “To get anywhere in this country, we have had to assume a Turkish identity. Even to speak Kurdish was seen as a sign of backwardness.” The repression of the Kurdish language by the Turkish state can be seen as a crucial component in the assimilation of Kurdish culture into Turkish society, creating a homogenised mono-linguistic identity. “If we lose our language, what do we have?” Mehmet continued. “Can we continue calling ourselves Kurdish if we only know Turkish?”
Even in Diyarbakır- an ancient fortress whose population of two million, swollen by refugees, makes it the largest Kurdish population centre in the world- Turkish is the language of the streets. “The sad reality of Diyarbakır is that assimilation policy aimed at crushing the Kurdish language has succeeded. I am confronted with Turkish from all sides,” a young Kurdish writer called Ömer Faruk Baran explained. “The first thing I think about when I wake up is whether I will think in Turkish or Kurdish today.”
Despite all this, there has been some improvement over the last decade. No longer are Kurds arrested for speaking kurmanji in public. There are Kurdish newspapers, Kurdish bookshops, even a Kurdish TV channel. Why has Ankara relaxed? Many Kurds point to the PKK and the armed resistance, whose refusal to bow down to state oppression has forced Turkish governments to look for other solutions. Others are more cynical. After two long decades of civil war, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power with a fresh mandate in 2001. Their leaders- Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül – saw potential support within the Kurdish population and immediately began to campaign in the south-east. They emphasised Sunni Islam as a bond which united Kurds and Turks, whilst at the same time lifting restrictions on Kurdish civil rights and the use of kurmanji. A breakthrough in the 2007 elections, the AKP now regularly wins over a third of the Kurdish vote and is a serious threat to the dominant leftist-Kurdish party, DBP.
Kurdish education at Mardin Artuklu University and the government
In response to Ankara’s newly liberal pose, Kurdish in making something of a comeback. A number of institutions have begun to flourish which promote the language. One such institution is Mardin Artuklu University. The “Living Languages Department” teaches Kurdish literature and language as a master’s programme. Set up in 2010, the programme was specifically designed to train Kurdish teachers for secondary school education. The provision of such education has long been a key demand of the Kurdish movement in Turkey; this government, it seems, has accepted the reform as inevitable if the peace process is to be successful.
From the moment the department opened in 2010, it has been a roaring success. More than 1000 students have graduated from the programme, creating a ready pool of trained Kurdish teachers waiting to be assigned schools to teach in. The widely-respected head of the department, Kadrı Yıldırım, is one of the first Kurdish professors in Turkey. As a man who comes from a religious background and who has no immediate connections to the Kurdish movement, Kadrı was ideal for the religious-minded AKP, who were wary of employing someone involved in Kurdish politics.
But the department’s relationship with the government turned sour when he was arrested at the end of November. Along with seventy-eight bureaucratic staff, Kadrı was detained on charges of corruption and spent five days in the police station. In an interview, Kadrı told me that during his arrest the only thing he was questioned about in terms of financial corruption charges was the 50TL charge for the students’ admission exam. “The government are basically trying to find a reason to arrest me. The reason I was taken by the police was political without a doubt,” Kadrı claimed. “They wanted to demean and discredit the name of this institute because our success is not pleasing to them.”
To Kadrı, this has been a long time coming. He believes he is being followed. “In the last few years, the police have demanded that my chauffeurs submit a report detailing who I have been meeting. They have been looking for an excuse to arrest me.”
After five days in jail, Kadrı was eventually released without charge. They failed to find a single charge against Kadrı which could warrant his dismissal from the university. Many of his students have been galvanised by the dramatic episode to press on with their research. “This department is vital for developing Kurdish language studies as a field,” Ahmet, a masters student at the department told me. “I see this as a direct form of resistance to the state’s suppression of Kurdish rights.”
Hunger strikers and the issue of Kurdish teachers
Such acts of resistance took a more forceful approach in August, when eighteen graduates from the department went on hunger strike in Mardin. “We were protesting because the government had failed to follow through on its promise of providing us schools to teach Kurdish at,” Ömer Öncel, one of the hunger strikers told me. After eight days, the government conceded, and finally assigned schools to eighteen teachers- the first Kurdish teachers ever to be employed in Turkey’s state schools.
Whilst the employment of these eighteen teachers was greeted by many as breakthrough for Kurdish education, critics claim it is no more than tokenistic. Mikail Bülbül, the deputy director of the Kurdish program, claims that “employing 18 teachers when there are more than a thousand waiting isn’t exactly a very good record; it raises serious questions about this government’s commitment to integrate Kurdish into the school system.” Mikail and Kadrı’s suggest that the only way to secure progress is to keep fighting. Mikail added, “The hunger strikes were a success. They refused to give up their protest until appointments were made. The very fact that appointments were then made shows that Kurds have to force the issue.”
Why did the government turn against the department? Mikail says the government is not yet ready to give the academy full independence. “They want the department and the studies to be close to them ideologically as a means to control universities.” And this is the point: Kadrı Yıldırım represented to the AKP ideologues someone who could fit into their ideological narrative of a religiously-conservative society. Kadrı and his colleagues, however, refused to play this game when they challenged this government on their failure to appoint any Kurdish teachers. It is clear that the AKP are happy to make some new concessions to the Kurds- such as the establishment of this department- but only on their terms.
Ferzad Kemanger School
Alongside Mardin Artuklu University, there are many other projects which are promoting Kurdish language education. Ferzad Kemanger School, a primary school in Diyarbakir, is one of three schools which were set up in September to teach all subjects in Kurdish. Around 130 children have enrolled here, including 50 refugee children from Kobani. As I sat down in the principal’s office, a young man strode into the room, beaming, with arms outstretched. “How can I send my child to this school? I want my child to have a Kurdish education.”
Ferzad Kemanger School, along with two other schools in the towns of Cizre and Yüksekova, are a new departure for the Kurdish movement. Many of the teachers have a background as Turkish teachers; as rules loosened, they applied to study at the Kurdish language institute, Kurdî-Der. One teacher, Şeymuş, described teaching in Kurdish as a “dream come true.” The Democratic Society Congress (DTK), which helped fund these schools, plans to introduce more. “These are just pilots: if successful, the programme will be rolled out across the Kurdish-speaking areas of Turkey”, a member of the language commission of DTK explained. “Eventually all Kurdish children will have the option of a Kurdish education.”
The police attempted to close the Ferzad Kemanger School in the first few weeks of its opening in September; however, they quickly backpedalled and allowed it to continue. Kurmanji, confined for so long, is now exploding into the public sphere. The language commission of the DTK plan to introduce Kurdish signs and instructions on 21st February, which is World Language day: “We will instruct all municipality workers to write and use Kurdish. Bills will be written in Kurdish as well as street signs. We will make our cities noticeably Kurdish cities.”
Such a project by DTK is an attempt to bring Kurdish into the public eye, and many believe the government will have no choice but to accept it. The increasingly vocal support for Kurdish education shows the growing importance that kurmanji retains in Kurdish minds. To them, it is a constant assertion of what separates them from the Turks.
And as this momentum for Kurdish education continues, there is mounting pressure on the government to show their commitment by taking the initiative. The appointment of Kurdish teachers, arrest of Kadrı Yıldırım, and the establishment of Ferzad Kemanger School embarrassed the government. They attempted to close the school and silence the hunger strikers, but failed. The reason they failed is because Kurdish language education is a natural concession the government has to make in the peace process. To crush such developments would be a sign of renegading on the peace process. For the Kurds there is a new-found self-belief. As Selim Temo, a distinguished Kurdish writer based in Mardin, told me, “the government started to allow us to speak Kurdish because they knew they couldn’t oppress us for ever. Nothing will stop the natural development of Kurdish now.”
Yvo Fitzherbert is a writer based in Istanbul where he writes on Turkish and Kurdish politics. He has previously written Kurdistan and self-determination: How the “other” Kurds are fighting for a democratic revolution for Contributoria. Follow him on Twitter at @yvofitz
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