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Kurd: The Forbidden Word in Turkey - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Diyarbakir, Asharq Al-Awsat – Many of the Turks dislike the city of Diyarbakir; the ‘political capital’ of the Kurds worldwide. Located southwest of Turkey, it is considered the second-largest city in the Anatolia region after Gaziantep.

When the name Diyarbakir is mentioned in Ankara, Istanbul or Izmir, comments made by the Turkish people include “city of thieves”, “city of violence and death”, “city of poverty… there’s nothing there” and “city of dust and terrorists”.

A carpet vendor in Istanbul’s bazaar, in response to a question by a customer whether the carpets made in Diyarbakir were cheaper, said “Who would go to Diyarbakir to buy carpets? Diyarbakir has nothing but thieves.”

But the truth is that Diyarbakir is not as many have described it; it is a beautiful city that suffers from poverty and neglect. However, the residents of Diyarbakir describe this poverty and neglect as intentional on Ankara’s behalf and that it aims to break the moral spirit of the Kurds and preoccupy them with the obstacles of earning a living, rather than politics.

However if this is the intention then it has most certainly failed since the Kurds in Diyarbakir only discuss politics and the Kurdish issues and those relating to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), their problems with the authority in Ankara and what must be done about it. The residents of Diyarbakir are significantly more politically inclined; it may prove to be difficult to discuss political activities with Turkish students whereas the Kurdish students at Diyarbakir are extremely politically active.

Due to the recent security and political developments and the social problems in Diyarbakir, including unemployment, it is quite normal to witness dozens of Kurds sitting in cafes all over the city playing dominoes or chess. And when they tire of playing they discuss politics, then they resume their game. No signs of rest or happiness appear on their faces; rather, the signs of fatigue and exhaustion are visible.

“Life in Diyarbakir is hectic. All the Kurdish youth who obtain a good education and find work in Istanbul or Izmir or Ankara leave the city and do not return except during Kurdish holidays, such as Nowruz [New Year celebrated on 21 March]. In cities like these, they forget about the problems related to identity and become preoccupied with making a living. Some of them do not even admit that they are Kurdish Turks, except when their Turkish accent gives them away,” according to Omar, a 23-year-old Kurd.

Despite the fact that the Kurds in Diyarbakir try to lead a normal life to the best of their abilities; the heart of the city is seething with political, economic and cultural conflict and concern for the Kurdish identity in Turkey. Abdul Raziq Sagakin who works in the Sur municipality [one of Diyarbakır’s metropolitan municipalities] told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Turkey is gradually retreating with regards to the few cultural reforms that it granted the Kurds with its aim to join the European Union (EU). Today, all that remains is a few hours of broadcast in Kurdish on Turkish television. The Kurds do not believe that this is sufficient and it does not represent recognition of the Kurdish identity. These are only temporary solutions.”

Diyarbakir is part of Turkish Kurdistan which constitutes approximately one-third of Turkey. It is also considered part of the mountainous region of Kurdistan, which is home to the majority of Kurds worldwide. The mountains of Kurdistan range between northern Iraq, northwest Iran, northeast Syria and southeast Turkey; however, Iraqi Kurdistan also ranges between southwest Armenia, Lebanon and Azerbaijan.

The recent clashes between the PKK guerrillas and the Turkish forces is not a new development; there is a general sentiment among the Kurds that there has been an international alliance against them as a “people” since World War I when the major powers agreed to divide the Kurdistan region and the Kurds between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey after the Treaty of Lausanne in 1922.

Conflicts between the Turks and Kurds did not emerge until during Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s regime after he made the Turkish language and culture the only official ones and closed down Kurdish schools and banned the use of the language in government institutions, official bureaus and schools, and even in books, magazines and newspapers. He also banned the formation of political parties.

Since the Turkish republic was in its early stages, and thus was relatively still gaining strength, the Kurds, along with other minorities, including Arabs, Circassians and Armenians staged a rebellion [Sheikh Said rebellion] under Sheikh Said Piran (1865-1925) in an attempt to gain their freedom and cultural rights, however it was quickly quelled and Piran and his aides were executed on 30 May 1925.

Following this rebellion, the Turkish authorities tightened its control over the Kurds and according to Western sources throughout the past nine decades over one million Kurds have been killed. Today, the number of Kurds in Turkey is unknown and there are no accurate figures available; however, estimates indicate that they form between 30-40 percent of the Turkish population that numbers approximately 75 million. According to this estimate, the Kurds would number approximately 20 million inhabitants.

Nowadays the word “Kurd” is still forbidden in Turkey; an example is the broadcast of Kurdish news on the official Turkish television channel in which the phrase “local residents” is used rather than the “Kurds of Diyarbakir”. According to Jalal Akin of the Kurdish Cultural Center the word Kurdish is not allowed to be used to the extent that the center in Diyarbakir is known as the “Cultural Centre” and the Kurdish Arts Centre in Diyarbakir is known as the “Arts Centre” and the same applies to the “Music Centre”.

Akin told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Kurdish Cultural Centre was established in 2002 with the intention of educating the new Kurdish generation in Kurdish culture and art. “Today Kurdish youth just want quick fame. The doorway to that is through singing in Turkish, not Kurdish. What we are trying to do is to teach Kurdish youth about traditional Kurdish art and heritage and to hold on to that rather than follow the trend of singing in the Turkish language. The truth is that all the prominent singers in Turkey today are Kurds who sing in the Turkish language.”

He added, “No one supports the center financially, all the teachers work voluntarily and do not receive any pay. We need help from Kurds who are capable of supporting us. Even the smallest cultural centre is in need of financial support. We wanted to set up a studio to record Kurdish songs, but that too requires money.”

Akin pointed out that there was a small studio in the city where Kurdish songs are recorded and illegally distributed but that they cannot be distributed through the official Turkish distribution companies. During our exchange, a young Kurdish man walked in with a lute and began to play a sad song, singing the words, “I am my mother’s only child,” to which Akin said, “Kurdish songs contain a lot of grief.”

Serdar Sengwl, foreign affairs adviser at the Diyarbakir mayor’s office told Asharq Al-Awsat that he was forced to complete his PhD studies outside of Turkey because the university refused to discuss his dissertation, which included the word “Kurd”. He explained that, “In 2001, I decided to resume my PhD studies in anthropology. I applied to Hacettepe University, which is a liberal university that adopts an open approach to study. I passed the written examination and all that remained was an oral examination and an interview with the department professors. During the interview they asked me what my proposal was and I told them that I wanted to examine Kurdish schools in Turkey, stressing that it was important and that a study of modernization in Kurdistan would be impossible without considering the impact of schools. They asked me if I would use the words ‘Kurd’ or ‘Kurdistan’ in my thesis, ‘of course,’ I replied.

They looked at me briefly and said, ‘It would be best if you did not use these words.’

‘But why?’ I asked, ‘This is an anthropology department, do you want to eliminate Kurdish ethnicity?’

‘Of course not,’ they said, ‘however, we believe that the words ‘Kurd and Kurdistan’ are banned from use in academic studies and if you use them the department will be shut down and we will all be sent to jail.’”

“This is one example,” Sengwl said, “Another is the case of the Turkish sociologist Ismail Besikci who used the word ‘Kurd’ in his thesis 30 years ago and was jailed for 20 years.”

Sengwl moreover revealed that Kurdish letters were also forbidden from official use, such as the letter ‘w’, which does not exist in the Turkish alphabet and that whoever uses it is tried before courts.

The people of Diyarbakir feel indignant at the way the Turkish government portrays the Kurdish situation to this day, the most recent of which was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement that the Kurds do not know what they want.

In response to that, Sengwl said, “Erdogan does not know what he is saying… We want our identity and our cultural rights; the first of which is the right to speak our mother tongue. We have been saying this for a century. Why is it difficult for them to understand? Why are identities at war? I am Kurdish, I was born into another language that is not Turkish, so why must I eliminate my Kurdish identity to become Turkish? Why can’t I keep my Kurdish identity and still be a Turkish citizen simultaneously?”

Diyarbakir is a Kurdish ‘ghetto’, over 95 percent of its inhabitants are Kurds and the rest are Arabs, while Turks are a rare minority. Due to political and economic problems there have been increasing rates of migration over the past few years, especially amongst the younger generations.

Binyamin, a Kurd in his early twenties living in Diyarbakir, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he wanted to study medicine so he applied for a scholarship granted by the Kurdistan government in Iraq, because he knew that they give grants to Turkish Kurds to resume their studies in universities in northern Iraq.

“I love Diyarbakir but I hope to study abroad. Here we suffer human rights violations. There are Kurdish children in Turkish prisons. We have suffered massacres and forced displacement. Four thousand Kurdish villages were vacated of their residents in 1980 following Kenan Evren’s military coup. Mehdi Zana who was the mayor of Diyarbakir at the time was arrested and imprisoned for 15 years  of course, there was no other choice… elements of the PKK fled to the mountains after the coup and began to carry out armed operations against the army. What do you expect the people to do?”

Diyarbakir is a city that lacks color, it is a desert land and the climate is hot and dry. Most of its streets are unpaved, and unlike Turkish cities Diyarbakir is not clean; the streets are filled with heaps of garbage and muddy water. When you raise these concerns with the mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir or any other official in the city, the response you always get is that the Turkish government grants a “politicized budget” to Diyarbakir and that the officials cannot fulfill their roles or establish new projects or even improve the infrastructure of the city.

Anyone visiting Diyarbakir is always asked, “Which Diyarbakir did you visit?” In reality the city is divided into two cities; the old city with its historical tall walls, the second-highest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China, and the so-called modern city. Despite the fact that the old city is unpaved and despite the difficult economic situation and the unemployment rates, the worn out buildings are still characterized by unique architecture. The narrow alleys are crammed with buildings and passing pedestrians.

As for the ‘modern’ city; it is mainly a number of long paved roads and tall brightly colored buildings, painted red and yellow for example. In the heart of this part of the city is a huge building belonging to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is an Islamist-inclined party that the Kurdish residents accuse of attempting to reinforce the Islamic movement in Diyarbakir as a means of countering the Kurdish national force.

Some may assume that Diyarbakir has a higher percentage of veiled women than the rest of Turkey and mistake it for a growing Islamic influence, however the reality is that the traditional Kurdish garb for women is modest and it includes a head cover. However, Diyarbakir remains to be in contact with the outside world, there are McDonalds and Burger King franchises in the city.

The modern part of the city is inhabited by government officials and middle class Kurds. The city suffers as a result of its weak economy and many of the Kurdish politicians accuse the government of Ankara of deliberately neglecting Diyarbakir economically. There are small textile factories and small-scale foodstuff manufacturing factories; however they cannot absorb the workforce, which results in high levels of poverty and unemployment in comparison to Turkish cities.

The average monthly salary ranges between US $100-500, which is less than half the average monthly salary around Turkish cities. The rampant poverty in Diyarbakir has generated a number of alarming social phenomena, such as children begging and dropping out of school or running away to the extent that the Turkish government in cooperation with the Diyarbakir municipality has launched a project entitled “Let’s Go to School Girls” to urge poor families in Diyarbakir to send their daughters to school instead of sending them to factories or letting them beg in the streets.

The Kurds of Diyarbakir agree that the crime levels are high and that there are cases of theft; however, according to Abdul Raziq Sagakin who works in the Sur municipality, “After 4000 Kurdish villages were displaced following Kenan Evren’s military coup, many Kurds headed to Diyarbakir in a random manner to take up residence there. The problem is that their lives in the villages were much better; they were farming and raising cattle on land that they owned. After that coercive displacement many, as a repercussion of unemployment, were forced to steal.”

A Kurdish citizen who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said, “I fled from Turkey to Syria at the beginning of the ‘90s because of security reasons and I returned three years ago. Now I want to leave again due to economic conditions and the harassment. If I didn’t have a family I would have fled by now. I do not even use my real name so as to avoid security pursuing me. There are children in Diyarbakir today who only speak Turkish while their parents only speak Kurdish. I do not want to be in this situation with my children.”

But this is not only what causes discontent among the Kurdish community; stereotypes of Kurds on television and in cinema also raise objections, “A Kurdish person is either portrayed as one who causes hardships or who is a simpleton. It is not overtly stated that he is Kurdish; he appears as a rural character who speaks Turkish with an accent. This means he is Kurdish and this is the distorted image that we suffer from,” said Sagakin.

As a result of these stereotypes Sagakin added, “The Kurds themselves are influenced by these stereotypes and they try to speak Turkish without an accent. The Kurdish accent sets you apart socially and culturally and makes it difficult to secure a job and live among Turks. Many Turks who look for work in Ankara, Istanbul or Izmir conceal the fact that they are Kurdish.”

But Gogercin Gul who is a Turkish girl who has never visited Diyarbakir disagrees, “many of the top-level bureaucratic posts are occupied by Kurds, no one asks them about their origins.”

However, Abdullah Demir Paasche, the head of the municipality of Sur in Diyarbakir argues that Ankara’s claim that it had permitted Kurdish language classes is unfounded. “These classes that they refer to are extra classes that you get charged for. Those are two conditions that would make anyone try to avoid them. Kurdish people teach the language to their children at home so why would they send their children to classes they would have to pay for? This is Ankara’s excuse to tell the world, we set up Kurdish language classes and no one attended,” he said.

It is difficult for Kurdish newspapers and magazines to survive whenever a new publication is founded; it faces the possibility of being closed down. ‘Welat’ (Nation) newspaper was closed down so it began republishing under the name ‘Welat Ma’ (Our Nation) and after it was banned again it was reissued under the name ‘Azadiya Welat’ (Freedom of the Nation).

A journalist from ‘Azadiya Welat’ told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “The problem with the unbearable constraints on our freedom of expression is that many journalists have fled abroad. There are too many hardships to confront. We have a distribution of 10,000 copies, which we deliver by hand because the [distribution] companies refuse to distribute Kurdish newspapers.”

On the walls of the newspaper office are pictures of youth and children, which the journalists said were “martyrs” who were killed by Turkish security men.

Back in Diyarbakir there is only one Kurdish magazine called ‘al Harf’, its Editor-in-Chief, Omar Azad told Asharq Al-Awsat, “We began publishing in 2004 and our objective is to protect the Kurdish language. We focus on Kurdish culture, art, poetry and prose. We publish small books from time to time. Since we fund ourselves, we publish a book and when it sells, we publish another. We do not receive any financial gain from this; the truth is that we pay for it ourselves.”

The lack of television channels means that many Kurds tune into Kurdish satellite channels that are broadcast from Belgium, which some Turkish Kurds partially finance.

So what do the Kurdish people want?

“We want recognition of our identity in return for integration. We cannot fully integrate into the Turkish republic and stop all the PKK activities if the Kurdish cultural rights are not recognized first. Our demands are simple and not difficult to fulfill: We want the Kurdish language to be recognized as a second official language, and that it be used in schools. However, some in the hard-line secular and nationalist circles absolutely oppose that and believe that it would lead to the secession of the Kurds and the fragmentation of the unity of the state.”

Abdul Raziq Sagakin said, “For a long time I have felt that our issue has not been fairly [tackled] because the Turkish media has frequently portrayed us as terrorists. We often forget how just and humane our demands are because support for us abroad is limited.”

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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