The Unspeakable

Shoes at the resistance monument in Besiktas

Shoes at the resistance monument in Besiktas

[Spanish translation here]

Istanbul, July 1

Dear people,

As millions of people took the streets in Egypt and millions of Spaniards finished to vote on popular democracy in a nationwide plebiscite, Istanbul celebrated the biggest Gay Pride parade in its history. It was the grand finale of LGBT week. As expected, the people of Gezi Park joined them in an extravaganza of colours, joy and rhythm, a celebration of diversity and resistance. It was a styleful conclusion of a month that people in Turkey will not lightly forget.

Gay pride at Taksim, June 30. Photo by Latif Şimşek.

Gay pride at Taksim, June 30. Photo by Latif Şimşek.

There had been a demonstration in Taksim the day before that had been smaller and definitely less gay, but no less significant. Some 20.000 people came to the square on Saturday night in solidarity with the Kurds who were killed and wounded in an attack in Lice. It’s maybe a thousandfold as many people as would have demonstrated before Occupy Gezi happened. But sensitivities don’t vanish overnight. With everyone well aware of this, no-one dared to bring a Kurdish flag, though someone waved a Basque flag as a proxy.

I have personally noticed that many Turks have a bit of a problem with history, with the present, with the language to describe it, and with language in general. If I speak about ‘Kurdistan’ for example, I am sure to get angry reactions from people who say that there is no such thing.

To describe the same concept, a nationalist would say something like “The geographic area inhabited by a majority of Kurds.” This place stretches out over eastern Turkey, the northern parts of Iraq and Syria, the northwestern part of Iran, and up into Armenia. In total there are about 35 million Kurds. Almost as many as the Spaniards, or the Poles.

Yesterday after the pride march, we drank tea with a group of girls, veterans of Gezi Park. Two of them were Turkish, two of them were Kurdish. One of them was a student of linguistics. All in all they could tell us a thing or two about the issue. As a matter of fact, the linguistics girl had gotten into a fight with a nationalist girl over the very word Kurdistan, the day before. She proudly showed us her bruises.

#DirenLice demo. Taksim, June 29.

#DirenLice demo. Taksim, June 29.

During Occupy Gezi, there was a guidebook going around on the Internet about ‘how to resist together with nationalists’ and how to talk to them. One of the pressing suggestions was in fact ‘never say the word Kurdistan’. Also don’t talk about the PKK, to avoid having to name them, ‘terrorists’ or ‘guerrillas’ or ‘freedom fighters’. Instead talk about the villages that were burned. About police and the army using unprovoked violence against civilians. When you’re there at the barricades, shoulder to shoulder, with tear gas cannisters flying in, talk to them about something they can relate to. Make them understand what Kurds have had to deal with for decades.

The repression of Kurdish culture and language, and the hysteric aversion among nationalist Turks to mention anything that might resemble a Kurdish nation are all relatively recent. Like Kurdish nationalism itself.

For most of modern history, Kurds and Turks have lived peacefully together as two of the largest populations of the Ottoman Empire, favoured by a degree of tolerance that was much higher under the Sultanate than under the Turkish Republic that rose from its ashes.

During the violent transition years, nascent Turkey expelled or massacred the larger part of its Christian minorities, Greeks and Armenians respectively. Adding to the complications of yet another thorny issue in Turkish history, the Kurds actively participated in the Armenian g*n*c*d*. They used to form a large part of the Ottoman army and the ethnic Turks regarded them foremost as fellow Muslims. In the new scheme of a homogeneous Turkish nation-state, the Kurds were simply expected to stop being Kurds and start being Turks.

DirenLice demo, June 29. Solidarity from Besiktas.

DirenLice demo, June 29. Solidarity from Besiktas.

Their culture was not oppressed or criminalised as such. It went beyond that. Kurdishness was bluntly denied existence. Only recently people have started to re-admit that there exists such a thing as a ‘Kurd’. But that doesn’t mean they have a right to their own language yet. Let alone their own homeland.

In reality the Kurdish language has been around for a while. As have the Kurds themselves. For at least a thousand years they had already inhabited their current lands when the Turks were still living as nomads on the steppes of Central Asia. It follows not only from the historical record, but from the language itself.

Kurdish is an Indo-European language, related to Farsi (Persian). The Turkish language is Altaic, related to the languages spoken in the Central Asian republics, in Siberia, Mongolia and Chinese Turkestan. When the Turkish tribes invaded Anatolia in the 11th century, they drove a wedge between the Indo- and the European branch of the world’s dominant language family.

Because of the division of Kurdish territories, there is no standard Kurdish language. The dialects are divided in different branches and often not mutually intelligible. Add to that the script. A unique feature of the Kurdish language is that you can find it written in five different alphabets. Latin, Arabic, Persian, Armenian and Cyrillic.

Next to the language side, there is the political and ethnic side of the question. The Kurds are mountain people. They have a strong left wing tradition, and an affinity with Latin American guerrillas and independence movements from Catalonia and the Basque country. In the roaring 70s, when political violence of everyone against everyone else was a day to day reality in Turkey, the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded to fight for an independent socialist Kurdistan.

The TV says 'Lies'. Taksim, June 29.

The TV says ‘Lies’. Taksim, June 29.

After the army took power in 1980, the new regime launched a violent repression of the PKK and Kurdish culture in general as part of a latter day crackdown on communism. Speaking Kurdish could earn you jail time. For (the suspicion of) anything more severe you could end up under torture or killed. In 1984, Kurdish militants began armed resistance. They have engaged in guerrilla attacks, bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and so fort in Turkey, Iraq and Western Europe. The PKK has observed a unilateral five year truce between 1999 and 2004, after its leader and founder Abdullah Öcalan was captured, tried, sentenced to death and shipped off to an island in the Marmara sea to sit out a transmuted life sentence.

With the fall of the wall and the end of the bipolar world, the Kurdish conflict transformed from a political struggle into a nationalist struggle. Its primary objectives are no longer independence or socialism, but autonomy and recognition of the Kurdish language, the Kurdish culture and the Kurdish nation.

Earlier this year PKK declared an end to the armed resistance, and the first hesitant steps of a peace process have been undertaken. It’s going to be long, but Occupy Gezi has done a lot to accelerate popular support.

On the road to the tea house, in the alleys around Taksim, the Kurdish girls sang a partisans’ song in their native language. It was a translation from a Chilean original. ‘Venceremos’. Which would translate into something like ‘We shall overcome’.

It still takes considerable courage to sing this song. But nowadays, there is no lack of courage in Turkey. Least of all among the Turkish girls. There’s a saying about them, which can be applied in many cases. “They don’t fear the state, and they don’t fear Allah. They only fear their fathers.”

The peace process will have succeeded when nobody needs to be afraid anymore to speak in a certain language, to mention certain words, to sing.

‘We shall overcome’. Kurdish version.

Gay pride.

Gay pride.

 Gay pride. Photo by Latif Şimşek.

Gay pride. Photo by Latif Şimşek.

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Library at the Resistance monument in Besiktas.

Library at the Resistance monument in Besiktas.

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2 Comments on “The Unspeakable”


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