If you are planning to visit Turkey soon, keep in mind that singing a Kurdish song, choosing a Kurdish name for your child, or just saying a few Kurdish words is still unacceptable and might even constitute a crime.
Nudem Durak, 24, a musician who sings and teaches Kurdish folk songs at the Mem û Zîn Culture and Art Center in the Kurdish town of Cizre has recently been arrested and sentenced to 10.5 years in prison for “being a member of a terrorist organization.”
“All kinds of activities that Kurds engage in – cultural, linguistic or even personal ones – are used as evidence against them in their court files,” Rojhat Dilsiz, Durak’s lawyer said. “Even the telephone conversations that Durak had with fellow artists were used as evidence against her.”
Durak was first arrested in 2009 and spent about eight months in jail until her first trial, as a result of which she was released pending trial. But after the Supreme Court approved of her punishment, she was arrested again.
Dilsiz said they will now take the case to Turkey’s constitutional court, and if even the constitutional court affirms the decision, then they will take it to the European Court of Human Rights.
For decades, Kurds in Turkey have systematically been constrained from speaking their mother tongue or uttering the name of their historic land and faced censorship, violence or imprisonment when they did so.
In December, 2013, Halil Aksoy, an MP of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), delivered a speech at Turkey’s parliament in which he criticized the Turkish state “for not attaching importance to the Kurdish works of art” and read a Kurdish verse by Sherko Bekas, a well-known Kurdish poet, and its Turkish translation at the end of his speech.
The Turkish version of the poem was directly written to the minutes whereas the Kurdish version was written as “...” (Triple dots). The minutes also referred to the Kurdish verse as “words which are not Turkish.”
The use of the phrase “Turkey’s Kurdistan” by the BDP in its budget report caused another crisis in the parliament in 2013. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as the opposition parties – the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – unanimously agreed to omit the word from the report, claiming that it was against the constitution.
Ever since pro-Kurdish political parties were allowed to enter Turkey’s parliament in 1991, the use of Kurdish under the roof of the parliament has created several inglorious reactions reflecting the country’s failed democracy.
Leyla Zana, for instance, the first Kurdish woman to win a seat in the Turkish parliament, made history in 1991 when she also became the first MP to dare to speak Kurdish and wear the Kurdish colors in the ribbons in her headband in the parliament.
After taking her oath in Turkish, Zana uttered a single sentence in Kurdish: “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.”
In normal countries, simply speaking your mother tongue or wearing a headband with the national colors of your people would not make one a “national hero,” but when Zana made this statement in Kurdish, it had been illegal for decades to speak Kurdish both in private and public in Turkey. Hence, many Kurds have embraced this act of Zana as a form of national resistance proclaiming to Turkey that Kurds do exist.
Zana’s parliamentary immunity protected her until March 2, 1994, when the parliament stripped the Kurdish MPs of their impunity. The next day, along with other Kurdish MPs, she was detained and on December 8, 1994, was sentenced to 15 years in prison “for being a member of a terrorist organization.”
Not only Kurdish politicians but also Kurdish letters have been the victims of the Turkish persecution of Kurds – in other words, an unprecedented type of apartheid.
The letters Q, W and X in Kurdish, which are not included in the Turkish alphabet, cannot be used in official documents in Turkey – but only when they are used in Kurdish words.
One of the victims is a seven-year-old Kurdish child named Welat (a Kurdish word for “homeland.”) A citizen of Germany where his father lived as a political refugee, Welat was not allowed to enter Turkey at the airport in June 2008 because his name included the letter W.
Welat was sent back to Germany by plane while his mother and two siblings were allowed to enter Turkey.
Another victim who was prevented from giving his child a Kurdish name is Hayrettin Celik, the former president of the Free Journalists Association in Diyarbakir.
In December, 2013, Celik wanted to name his newly- born baby “Warjîn,” which means “the land of life” in Kurdish, but the local birth registration office did not give permission.
“The letters Q, W and X are used in international alphabets. If using the letter W constitutes a crime in Turkey, then the state officials should close down all websites and Turkish TV channels,” Celik said.
“For more than 13 months, we struggled to make the birth registration office accept the name, but when the child got ill, and hospitals did not treat him without an identity card, we had to name him ‘Varjin’ – without the letter W – to finally get him an identity card,” Sebahat Altun Celik, the child’s mother, explained.
According to Kasim Ergun, the president of the Kurdish Culture and Research Foundation, this problem stems from the official ideology on which the Turkish state was established.
“When Turkey was founded, its official ideology was based on the denial and annihilation of other nations.
Turkey should get rid of this shame. It should recognize the language, identity and all other rights of Kurds, including their right to self-rule.
“This practice which bans names and languages is an affront to humanity and it is peculiar to Turkey. If you talk about it in any other part of the world, people will find it ridiculous and impossible.”
But all of this is experienced in 21th-century Turkey.
In 2011, the Sur Municipality of the Kurdish province of Diyarbakir hung out a sign which read in Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and Assyrian “Welcome to Our City” at the entry of the town. A year later, the Turkish Interior Ministry launched an investigation against the municipality regarding the multi-lingual sign.
Perhaps the welcome signs all across Turkey as well as on the border cities between Turkey and her neighboring countries should be redesigned to read: “Welcome to Turkey, but if you have a Kurdish name, just leave,” or perhaps, “Welcome to Turkey, but do think twice before you speak Kurdish here.”
Or possibly “Welcome to Turkey, which still sees itself as a candidate for EU membership.”
The author is a Turkish journalist based in Ankara.