A literature in search of its language

Ciwanmerd Kulek charts the ongoing struggle for the Kurdish language, and whether being a language that is now more written than spoken threatens it in new and troubling ways‘I am ready to die for Germany,’ said Ciwan Haco, the world-famous Kurish musician, in a recent interview for a Turkish TV channel, ‘because it gave me my freedom, my language. Not for Turkey, not for Syria, not for Iraq or Iran – but for Germany… Do you see how bitter this is?’ It was hard not to notice the bitterness in the face of the singer who had fled his homeland, the Kurdish region of Syria, because he had not been free and couldn’t sing in his native language there. Many things have changed over the years in the four countries mentioned by Haco – between which almost all the population and territory of Kurdistan is split. In particular, technological changes have broadened perspectives, bringing new challenges and expectations.One of the hottest issues for the Kurdish population in Turkey– where most of Kurdistan is, and where most Kurds live (according to Turkish sources there are 13-14 million of Kurds there, while Kurdish researchers say 20 million) – is education in the mother tongue, an issue which dominates disputes between the Turkish government and Kurdish political movements. The challenge, or as some like to put it ‘the threat’, posed by the 21st century for Kurds is not the struggle to exist as such, but the struggle to exist within their own language, to preserve and promote it without it being destroyed by  repressive regimes. According to some, current discussion of linguistic rights in Turkey suggests that Kurdish is no longer a forbidden language and ‘Kurdishness’ no longer a suppressed identity as it was until recently. They argue that we have reached a good standard of democracy and solved a big part of the problem – whereas the Kurds regard even discussions about the legitimacy of mother tongue education as an outrage.The beginning of this academic year in Turkey has revealed new problems. 160,000 public school students have chosen additional Kurdish lessons in their 5th and 6th grades. But giving the right to choose an optional two-hour weekly course for only 5th and 6th grade students is not enough. Reports say that in some places parents are actively deterred from choosing Kurdish courses for their children. To make matters worse not a single Kurdish language teacher has been appointed in 2013 even though ‘900 students have graduated from the Kurdish Teaching programmes so far,’ according to Prof. Kadri Yıldırım, vice president of Mardin Artuklu University, the most prominent and active official institute carrying out studies in that area. And while Prof. Yıldırım fights to voice the expectations of families and graduates, he cannot conceal his frustration at the negligence of the administration and the ministry of education. Kurdish intellectuals are concerned that Kurdish has the status of an ancient relic or curio, confined to few academic institutions, away from the energy and resources of everyday life.A couple of decades ago, teaching in Kurdish, or even abolishing the language ban itself, would have helped the language greatly. At that time, most Kurdish people lived in the countryside with limited access to schooling. They rarely needed to speak Turkish, except for military service, or in some rare official cases. However, mass destruction of Kurdish villages and migration to cities, especially in the beginning of the 1990s, brought new patterns of behaviour introduced by modern life. The Kurdish people began to feel the urge to preserve their language and culture in the face of this modernisation. The issue of language began to be as significant as that of land. That is why the recent legal amendments, described as a ‘package of democratisation’ by the government, including changes like the freedom to use characters like W, X and Q that are common in the Kurdish Latin alphabet, were far from meeting people’s expectations and were seen as too little too late. It’s hard now to explain to new generations that it used to be forbidden to use those characters in official documents. And that is why, indeed, the 263 books published in Kurdish last year don’t give much consolation to those dissatisfied with the slowness of the process, even though the number is the highest in the history of the Turkish Republic, during most of which a single written Kurdish word could cause great suffering.Kurdish publications in the past were very few and almost all of them appeared abroad. After the launch of Kurdistan (1898) in Cairo, the first newspaper published in Kurdish, some short-lived journals were published from 1908 to 1919 in Istanbul, the capital of Ottoman Empire at the time. The literary magazine Hawar (1932), published in Damascus in Syria, was the first publication in the Kurdish Latin alphabet common among the Kurdish population in Syria, Turkey and the diaspora. The first Kurdish novel, Şivanê Kurmanca (1935), was published in Yerevan in Armenia, a republic of the Soviet Union at that time.The reintroduction of the Kurdish language was helped by the publication of other invaluable works by intellectuals exiled in Europe, together with a law in 1992 which ended the language ban. The millennium brought an atmosphere of semi-freedom and greater tolerance.However,the situation is still far from ideal. We might have more people reading or writing in Kurdish, but we have fewer people speaking in Kurdish. Over the years the language has gradually been given less space in the relentless assimilation policy pursued by the state. Loss of language is as shocking as land sliding away from under your feet. The fact is, people don’t only want to be at home, but they also want to ‘feel at home’ in their own language, especially after their suffering over the years; they want to escape the assimilation process which forces them out of their ‘homes’.Due to this political situation, there isn’t a single Kurdish author with even a year of schooling in his native language living in his homeland. If the government keeps erasing the Kurdish language from people’s minds, memories and daily routines, Kurdish poets and writers will resemble prehistoric figures who just add Kurdish names and phrases randomly in their works, like the characters in Marquez’s town of Macondo, who forgot the names of objects and had to name them again.We must let the Kurdish language travel along its natural path, not be hampered by politics. Maybe this is the only remedy for past suffering: to eradicate and heal trauma, we need to free language, so that it can flow through the dreams of its people and nourish its literature.About the authorCiwanmerd Kulek was born in 1984 in the Kurdish region of Turkey, in a village in the south-eastern part of the country, and has lived in Bismil, a small town by the river Tigris, in the Diyarbakır province, where he works as a teacher of languages. He graduated from the Foreign Language Teaching Department of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara in 2006. He is the author of three novels in Kurdish, published by the Diyarbakir-based press Weşanên Lîs, Nameyekji Xwedêre (A Letter To God, 2007), Otobês (The Bus, 2010), Zarokên Ber Çêm (Children By The River, 2012). He has translated literary works from English, Spanish and Turkish into Kurdish, by writers such as J. M. Coetzee (Disgrace) and William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying), while other translations by Gabriel García Márquez (Cronica de una muerte anunciada), Juan Rulfo (El Llano en llamas), James Joyce (Dubliners) and Orhan Pamuk (White Castle) are being prepared for publication.