Banned poetry and the Kurdish question

Kurdish writer Firat Ceweri visits Israel to speak on writing in minority languages

Firat Ceweri (photo credit: Courtesy)
Firat Ceweri
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Kurdish writer Firat Ceweri was a teenager in 1980, he stuffed bits of paper into his underwear and fled his native Turkey to Sweden. The papers contained titles of his poems, written in Kurdish, at a time when the publication of Kurdish language materials in Turkey was forbidden. He later re-wrote the poems from memory. The book was called They Attack. At the time, only two Latin-script Kurdish books had been printed in the world. His book was the third. Those who attacked were Turkish soldiers who raided his home in search of forbidden Kurdish literature.
Ceweri (“Jewel” in Kurdish) devoted his life to the promotion of Kurdish literature. He translated John Steinbeck, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoevsky into Kurdish and traveled in Syria years ago to salvage old issues of Hawar (Shout). Published by Celadet Bedir Khan in French-ruled Damascus during the 1930s, the magazine was an enormous step forward in the creation of Kurdish culture.
Khan, inspired by the revival of Hebrew and the efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, suggested a Latin script for Kurdish, which got its name from the magazine.
Visiting Israel for the first time, Ceweri participated in a panel about the choice to write in minority language held at the Van Leer institute on January 16.
Hosting the panel was Dr. Duygu Atlas, the other speaker was Palestinian writer Fida Jiryis. Atlas was present during the interview and translated from English to Turkish.
While discussing Arabic in Israel, Ceweri said that he was happy to see street signs are also written in Arabic as that is a language he can read. Such openness would be impossible in Turkey regarding Kurdish.
Historically, explained Atlas, the Turkish claim is that Kurds speak a broken version of Turkish and are, ergo, Turks of a different sort. To make matters more complex, during the Ottoman Empire Kurds, like other groups in multi-ethnic empires, both worked with the majority culture and against it. Bedir Khan Beg, for example, had no moral issues serving the empire to fight (some would say kill) Yazidis and Assyrians during the 19th century. Only when he suggested setting up a Kurdish zone in the empire, with himself as leader, was he exiled. The creator of the Hawar script is his grandson. Today, the Kurdish people are divided between Turkey, Syria and Iraq with each country posing its own set of challenges and difficulties.
KURDISH FIGHTERS in Iraq are named Peshmerga, “those who face death,” a term closely connected with the Barzani family. In Rojava, Kurdish fighters might be called People’s Protection Units [YPG] by Kurds and terrorists by the Turks. 
Rojava gained interest in Western media when Western people began participating in the war due to the unique ideas that zone is putting in practice, among them direct democracy and mandatory equal representation of women in all levels of government.
These are bold attempts to envision Kurdish nationalism. These Western fighters are working for that cause, not just for feminism or to promote the ideas of Anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin. This is why the Turkish state is so much against it, it is a living proof that it could work.
The Kurdish question is not only an academic issue of which is the better script to employ when writing, Hawar or a Cyrillic-based script created by Heciye Cindi in Armenia; perhaps a return to the Arab script would be better. It is also a powerful political question.
If the Kurds have a language of their own, not broken Turkish, they can demand recognition as a people. If Rojava offers a model of tolerance and co-existence among many groups, not another nation-state only for Kurds, who knows what this might mean for Turkey?
Ceweri is careful to explain that he is not in any way political. He loves meeting Turkish readers who read his books in Turkish translation and get a new insight into Kurdish culture, as it is not taught or often discussed in Turkey.
“We had story tellers who’d travel from one community to the other and present shows based on Kurdish oral literature,” he told the Post. “It is remarkable how modern these plots and characters are.”
This is why Cindi, for example, was so important as a scholar and publisher of Kurdish folklore. Imagine the situation of a people faced with radio, television and online media in a language not their own, being banned from publishing and teaching in their native language, and told they are in reality a different kind of Turk, or Arab.
“Kurds today do not have a country of their own,” Ceweri explained. “This is why modern Kurdish literature was formed in diaspora, in Damascus, Yerevan and Stockholm.”
Having re-printed Hawar, Ceweri ensured Kurdish readers will be able to see they have an accessible tradition of modern literature.
When he is told of the Little Prince Bookstore in Tel Aviv, which stocks copies of the French children’s book in many languages, he shared that he was surprised by the success of the book when he had it printed in Kurdish. “I got calls from all over the world asking for copies,” he said. “Even Japan!”