The Istanbul Project

The Institute for Education in International Media (ieiMedia), a pioneer in journalism education, has been taking students abroad since 2002. It was founded by Andrew Ciofalo, now a professor emeritus at Loyola University Maryland.

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Asserting Kurdish Identity Meets Resistance

By Eve Hersh

When he was a child, Çekdar Türk and his family lived in fear of the Turkish military. Türk remembers looking for places to hide when the military came to his village.

“We knew that when the military would come they would take someone,” he said. Türk was born when Turkey still had strict Kurdish language bans in place. The military would raid homes in the southeast in search of any evidence of the use of the language, leaving Kurdish families in fear of arrest and violence. Though the ban of the Kurdish language was lifted in the late 1980s, Kurds still experience governmental constraints on their mother tongue.

Now, Türk is studying at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul. Türk last saw his father, Ferhan, a month ago when he visited him in Diyarbakir Prison. Ferhan Türk is the mayor of Kiziltepe in the Kurdish province of Mardin province in the southeastern part of the country, and was arrested in December 2009 under suspicion of ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). According to Human Rights Watch, the trials are progressing slowly because the courts haven’t allowed the defendants to speak in Kurdish. Ferhan Türk has spent 11 non-consecutive years in jail, and his son says there is no real evidence against him and that he was arrested based on his role as a civilian leader of the Kurdish issue.

In Turkey, where the Kurdish language has been repressed, Kurds like Türk are working to pass the language on to the next generation. However, in Turkey’s drive to keep a unified Turkish identity, both the government and a large majority of the people often ridicule and target Kurds who fight to preserve their culture. Use of the Kurdish alphabet, for example, is limited in that parents can’t give their children names with any of the five Kurdish letters that aren’t in the Turkish alphabet. Kurdish is not recognized in Parliament, public schools or mosques. Courts only allow Kurdish if witnesses and defendants can’t speak any Turkish.

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey has pursued a cohesive national identity that seeks to deny any cultural or ethnic differences in favor of one Turkish identity—leaving Turkey’s 20 million Kurds with restricted cultural rights. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has officially recognized what it calls the Kurdish problem, but many Kurds still feel there are too few reforms.

But many Kurds want to hold onto their identity. Some even say that greater cultural autonomy would only increase Kurdish loyalty to Turkey. When Kurdish children are taught Turkish in school, they sometimes encounter questions about their identity.

“They come home and ask, ‘who am I?’” said Riza Dalkilic, head of the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association.

Türk and his friend Mehmet Aydin say they don’t just want to make a difference, they feel they need to.

Aydin is Arab but grew up in the predominately Kurdish Kiziltepe as well. He identifies with Kurdish culture, and speaks with Türk in Kurdish. As a young boy, Aydin entered school knowing only Arabic, and had to learn Kurdish and Turkish in order to socialize and learn. When Aydin lost his uncle and cousin to violence in the southeast, he became angry. It was through a teacher he admired that Aydin learned to let go of the anger. He is now a devoted student determined to play a peaceful role in solving the Kurdish issue. Aydin says the hardest part of growing up in a Kurdish area was the language restrictions.

Kurds in Turkey have struggled with their cultural rights for decades. Today, they have more freedom of speech than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, but the struggle to hold onto their cultural identity continues. According to the Kurdish Institute in Istanbul, 80 percent of Kurdish youth do not speak Kurdish, as a result of the government’s denial of their ethnic identity. Statistics on Kurdish speaking Kurds, however, are difficult to find because the government only keeps track of those who do not speak Turkish. Turkey’s census doesn’t record ethnicity.

“There are still restrictions on language,” says Dalkilic. Anyone living in Turkey is considered Turkish, and is not recognized as any ethnic identity. Only recently has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP recognized the Kurdish issue, one small step that many Kurds believe moves towards recognizing the minority’s rights to cultural autonomy. And autonomy from Turkey is exactly the move that Turkish nationalists and the government are resisting.

Primary schools and public universities can only use Turkish. Private universities are permitted to teach Kurdish, but often face challenges when opening these departments. Not only are there a lack of Kurdish scholars, but the government is reluctant to recognize Kurdology departments because the word “Kurd” has a political connotation, says Meylüt Aykoç, the vice president of the Kurdish Institute. Aykoç feels that the government wants to influence these branches within universities so they can remove part of the Kurdish language institutions—making them ineffective. At the same time, in an attempt to cater to the Kurdish base, Erdoğan, recently spoke Kurdish to introduce TRT6, the state-run Kurdish-language television station, and allowed for private institutions to begin Kurdish programs. Some see this as a political move. “It’s just for show,” Dalkilic said.

Woman working on street in Bagcilar, a predominately Kurdish part of Istanbul

As she sorted clothespins and watched children play in the street, Birgün, a 24-year-old Kurdish mother living in Istanbul’s Bağcılar neighborhood, said that even with the current reforms, children still get kicked out of their primary school classes if they speak in Kurdish. Birgün was reluctant to share her full name, in fear of the government.

In July, popular Kurdish singer Aynur Doğan was booed off the stage at an Istanbul jazz concert when she began to sing a song in Kurdish. Her use of Kurdish was perceived by many as an inappropriate political statement, coming soon after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed in a skirmish with PKK militants.

These setbacks to progress on the Kurdish issue are upsetting to Aydin and Türk but also serve as motivation.

“You feel that you are all left alone, lonely and hopeless, but it makes you more passionate about the action for your freedom,”  Türk said.

Aydin says that his dream for equality and full democratic freedoms for the “next generation” of the Kurdish people is what drives him to do well in school. In high school, Aydin and his classmates struggled to get a proper education. He says his school system was poor and teachers would rarely show up, and that during the winter they would study by candlelight as they frequently lost electricity.

Despite the challenges, Aydin’s devotion is stronger than ever, he says he can’t forget his language or culture, and though the language is constrained, the culture has been kept alive, “Nobody can ban me to sing in my heart silently.”

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