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To defend one language means that one defends all languages

Credits By: Burhan Sonmez, President PEN INTERNATIONAL February 16 2023

After the military coup of 1980 in Turkey, PEN International sent its former president Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter as delegates to the country in order to bear witness to the oppression and to support the intellectuals. The contacts and interactions that were established yielded many results. Among other things, Pinter wrote the play Mountain Language after his return to the UK. Even if no specific country or language is mentioned in the play, it was obvious that its topic was the Kurds and the situation for the Kurdish language in Turkey.

According to the official version of the Turkish state, there was no Kurdistan. The Kurds were plainly referred to as “Mountain Turks”. Because these “Turks” had lived on high altitudes in the mountains for a long time, in isolation from other regions, their language – which originally had been Turkish – had changed and eventually become Kurdish. That was the official explanation. This kind of history writing, emerging in the mid 20thcentury, constituted the denial as well as the “Turkification” of the Kurds.

However, the fact is that Turkish belongs to the Ural-Altaic language group, while Kurdish is an Indo-European language, and the Turks migrated to the areas they populate now only a thousand years ago. That the Kurds have lived in the same area for five thousand years was ignored. The autocracy and despotism worked in similar ways in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurdistan was written into history from Persian or Arabic perspectives and ambitions, according to the dominant ideology in the country. The efforts of the Kurds to formulate their own history has always been strongly opposed and thwarted, especially during the last century. The goal has been to completely eliminate, deny or assimilate their culture. “The Kurdish question” seems ancient and it continues to irritate the Turkish state in the 21st century.

Almost forty years after Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language takes up the Kurdish situation, their ambition to exist as an independent people is continuously being ignored. This is done through a deliberate invisibilisation of the Kurdish culture and the Kurdish language.

While Kurdish intellectuals “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (Hamlet, W. Shakespeare), they try to look to the future with hope, with the new generation’s ambitions and increasing interest in reading and writing in the Kurdish language.

To defend one language means that one defends all languages. To promote Kurdish, or some other oppressed language, also means that one respects the whole cultural plurality of humanity.

In that respect, the efforts of authors and organisations – such as PEN International and the journal PEN/OPP – make up expressions of cultural respect and an offer of a new horizon for mankind.

This issue of PEN/OPP is an attempt at introducing the modern history of the Kurdish literature and to map out the situation for the Kurdish language today. With the help of the Kurdish author Firat Ceweri – who is also the guest editor of the issue – we have collected contributions from some Kurdish linguists, authors and poets. As Ceweri, most of them are from Northern Kurdistan, that is in Turkey.

For a few weeks, we will let the Kurdish language glow.

Burhan Sonmez
President, PEN International

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