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Linguistic rights
15 min read

Falling apart

The right to use the Kurdish language has been a major controversy in Turkey all through the Republic’s existence. Ciwanmerd Kulek belongs to the younger generation of Kurdish writers who out of principle write in Kurdish. “My mother was one of the strongest motivations for my writing in Kurdish. She never spoke any other language,” says Ciwanmerd Kulek in a personal text for PEN/Opp where he depicts his family history and why the Kurds’ right to their own language is more important than their territorial claims.

Credits Text: Ciwanmerd Kulek November 01 2019

I have had some guests this summer. My parents, together with my younger brother and my niece, came to stay with me for two months. In spite of a twenty-hour long exasperating bus trip from Diyarbakir to Istanbul they soon forgot their exhaustion the moment they met their two-year-old granddaughter with her mother waiting for them at the door (my younger sister and her daughter had been staying with me for a while too). I am one of ten siblings, and if I add on all my parents’ granddaughters and grandsons and grand-grandsons and grand-granddaughters it seems unlikely that my parents in their lifetime would be able to get together with all of them under one roof to pose in a single picture.

They were delighted to be with their family though—no matter that it was only a small part of it and for such a relatively short period of time. I realized that this must have felt a bit strange to them compared to the traditional life where they grew up seeing everyone they knew being born and dying in almost the same place—usually within walking distance. They grew older just to see too much change and are finding themselves somewhat left behind. I was a little worried that they would not be comfortable staying here since Istanbul does not look like any places they have been to before. Towards the end of August, after they left all four of them on the same bus all the way back home, I reflected over their visit and thought about our predicament, about the fate and prospects of my native language, the extent of the transformation of our culture, and the strains and struggles to survive and adapt while trying to promote what we were about to lose for good, and I realized that in the end I have in fact never stopped thinking about these things since the time I decided to write in my mother tongue Kurdish. Let me tell you.

My mother was one of the strongest motivations for my writing in Kurdish. She never spoke any other language. She was brought and raised in a typical Kurdish village near Mardin where everyone spoke the same language, practised the same faith, wore the same kinds of clothes, and knew each other over generations. She was born in a house where I would also be born twenty-seven years later; at the time she was the only child to survive out of twenty measles-stricken children in the village. As a stroke of luck (or ‘ill fate’, in her words), since her elder brother had fallen in love with my paternal aunt and was to marry her, my mother had to be given in marriage to my father in return. Many years later when she still regretted her ‘ill fate,’ things began to drastically change. The country was becoming unsafe due to the struggle between the PKK and the Turkish Army and she was drained of hope while waiting for the return of her husband who had gone to work in a distant place and was not overly willing to come back and look after his family.

One day she simply grabbed hold of her seven children and moved to a town near Diyarbakir, called Bismil, where her parents also lived. It was in 1990, she was thirty-three and I was six, her only son, born after four girls; in Bismil, when she enrolled me at school, I came across the Turkish language for the first time. Luckily, the kids there spoke Kurdish, most of them being children of families who had fled their wrecked villages. So, living in a new town didn’t mean a lot of change, because, seeing that the newcomers formed the greatest part of the population one could even call it simply a new bigger (Kurdish) village. I had the chance to play and grow up with the kids from all those villages around ours in the same neighbourhood, and since these newcomers would frequently pay visits to each other after dinner our parents enjoyed gatherings at one another’s homes. The rooms in those ramshackle houses would be crammed with people and nightlong conversations would be pursued.

However, Bismil would not be the final destination for many of these families; fear and hopelessness would push them further afield and some would settle down in cities I hadn’t even heard of before. As regards where they were leaving for, one name in particular stuck in my memory: Anatolia. I remember my mother during dinners sometimes breaking the news to my father (who had finally returned!) that a certain family or acquaintance was moving to Anatolia to find work or refuge. And I often saw this name in my textbooks; on the last page of our textbooks there were maps showing the seven geographical regions of Turkey. Where we lived was named the South-Eastern Anatolia Region. If the far western place where all those families were fleeing to was also called Anatolia, I always wondered, then on what part of the earth did we live? It seemed that nobody dared to ask the question or say the name—as if it was unpronounceable. In the 20th century Kurds lost their territorial sovereignty and the trauma of its loss defined the homeland as the leading element of the Kurdish identity at the time. Later on I found out how this obsession with having a sovereign country of their own has dominated the lives and minds of prominent Kurdish figures in the past century.

Looking back at the constant movement and flight of the 90s, I feel that all those people leaving their villages for towns and cities—moving further into Anatolia and many of them ending up in places like Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, the three biggest cities in Turkey—they must have felt like travelling in time as well. What they had once lived, believed, worn, spoken or thought so far had actually been subjected to change or persecution, not only as from the 1990s, but as far back as the 1920s, after the land the Kurds had been living on for thousands of years finally became part of the four nation-states with nationalist policies to repress their demands for territorial, cultural, and language rights. Kurds’ institutions of education, their speech, the teaching their language, and their national identity had been forbidden long before the 90s, but it was as if the mailman had not reached to the skirts of the mountains to deliver the new order to the people living there. Maybe that is why they could preserve their language, culture, and traditions for so long after they were declared improper by that quartet of almost newly born states. However, the addressees eventually found themselves at the door of the mailman and there they were dictated to as to what they were not allowed to speak or think.

Now that the Kurds were torn from their native places and ways of living they became more vulnerable. Their arduous journeys had ended up in places where Turkish was the sole language in all areas of life and the use of Kurdish was basically a ‘criminal’ act. Their new episode in these ‘modern’ cities resulted in circumstances under which their mother tongue Kurdish turned into a grandmother tongue since parents felt insecure in conveying it to their children. They were instead contented with being translators between their children and their parents. Hereby, the supposedly most cherished asset of our Kurdish identity has been downgraded by the mothers into a sign of ill fate and bad fortune, while the same mothers are always praised in Kurdish political discourse for being the greatest reason behind the culture’s survival in the face of all the challenges of the past. At best, Kurdish has become a second language for many families. Now, in the 21st century, Kurds face the danger of losing another homeland: their language. And, in this age of constant migration and displacement I believe this homeland precedes the territorial one in importance and the trauma of its loss is likely to place it as the foremost element of our identity this century.

Ten days after my parents visited us a re-election was to be held in Istanbul to elect the mayor. The votes of all those who have settled here since we left our village was thought to be decisive for the outcome. Everyone talked about the approximately four or five million Kurds living in Istanbul and the various intensely polarized political camps strove to gain their support. To keep my brother’s hopes up a few weak statements by two candidates as regards offering Kurdish courses as a municipal service inspired me to tell my brother that he would finally stand a chance of getting a job, but it sounded more like a dull joke. My brother has a degree in Kurdish and he is the only one in my whole family who is able to read my books. Earlier there had been at least one hopeful period during which what I said to my brother would have sounded rather like a serious opportunity: beginning in 2009 a relatively favourable political scene was in sight; for the first time in the history of the Republic, Kurdish Language Departments were opened at a couple of universities and my brother had excitedly enrolled. Also, the TRT, the state’s official media, had launched a Kurdish TV channel and it was unbelievably impressive no matter how meagre it might sound compared to all that was being done to promote Turkishness. Everyone knew that being on equal terms required acknowledgment in the first place. And the first steps towards acknowledgment were encouraging enough to make one begin to dream of a better future. It ended a few years later though, precisely in 2015, at the outbreak of a fierce fight between the PKK and the Government that took place in the cities where people who had had to flee their villages 20-25 years earlier had settled in. As a result the process of democratization hadn’t just stopped, everything had begun to deteriorate.

A few days before my family left Istanbul for home I read with great disillusionment that the first and most important Kurdish Institute at the Mardin Artuklu University, where my brother graduated, in an attempt to close it completely was about to be stripped of its separate status. The political atmosphere has become so tense since then that everything any minute is very likely to change for the worse. In the last four years my editor has occasionally expressed his last bits of hope that the worsening situation at some point would end and everything would be put back on the right path again; however, in this past year nine books about Kurds published by his publishing house have been banned and, after a decade of considerable freedom, he has recently been put under surveillance. Turkish bookstores are very reluctant now, he says, to include his publications on their shelves. Apparently, from a heated political atmosphere you cannot expect anything better than you can from an over-heated climate.

My fourth guest, my thirteen-year-old niece, lives in Bismil only a block away from my parents. She plays on a street full of the noise of Kurdish kids playing, singing, and shouting—in Turkish. I remember very well when, during armed fights going on in Kurdish towns and cities in the summer of 2015, her mother, like many others, explained that for her to speak Turkish with her children was due to her concerns for their future safety. The assimilation process has now reached its peak and has infiltrated every corner. My niece told me that she had tried hard to select the Kurdish course together with her classmates the year before, but the school principal had not allowed anyone to select any course other than the three he himself had determined. These two-hour selective courses for secondary schools were also a fruit of that short peaceful period in the early 2010s. But today, what my niece went through is probably one of the most common scenes in the schools where Kurds live: their demands are rejected with the excuse that there are no teachers for the courses, while many graduated Kurdish teachers like my brother are desperately waiting to be appointed. On the other hand, I do not think that many parents would be all too eager to fight to implement the course or to complain officially about the officials who are breaking the law by not letting them benefit from their legal rights. As I mentioned before, the political atmosphere usually overrides the law.

Despite all my worries as to whether my parents would feel at home during their stay in Istanbul or not, there were times when my mother would return home in a cheerful mood. If she was to go out one of us always had to accompany her, mostly for translation purposes. When she got back home she sometimes told us about the special attention she drew on buses, in the street, and at the market places due to her headscarf. Also, she was approached in the only language she could speak, and some Kurdish vendors had once even given her bags of fruits for free. All was thanks to a white cotton muslin scarf she has been wearing since she got married forty-seven years ago, a scarf worn over a long dress of the kind she has been getting tailored and wearing all her life—one that people from her country were quick to recognize. I have seen her in this outfit all my life; up until a century ago in Kurdistan in fact you could tell the nation, dialect, region and almost tribe of a person by their dress. After their move to Istanbul, however, many women have to some degree changed their ways of dressing and confined the muslin headscarf for indoor use.

The day before they went back home I took my mother to the hospital to get her rising blood pressure checked. My father was awake before everyone else and broke the news that the newly elected mayors of the three biggest Kurdish cities had been expelled early that morning. All his life he has listened to or watched the political news rather than any other programs and he has always lived as if there must be some good news yet to come and has kept waiting for it. On our way to the hospital, my mum pointed at some people across the road; she was surprised to see so many elderly Turks on the streets during her stay in Istanbul, and remarked: ‘How come they can manage by themselves outdoors!’

My visitors final day arrived and they must leave. My mother was feeling a bit low, especially after having left her youngest granddaughter, my two-year-old niece. At the bus terminal she said she could not forget her crying at their moment of parting. My niece was born when her mother was still waiting for a UK visa for a family reunion, and the day she got it her baby was a month old and needed an application of her own to join her parents in London. Problems prolonged the process until she could speak a few words—in Turkish. She is yet to get a visa, and the moment she gets it there will be another parting, and later when she speaks with full command I do not think Kurdish is even going to be her second language, and I wonder what kind of translation will be needed for her to be able to communicate with her loving grandmother.

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