The moment you speak Kurdish in Turkey, you are at a disadvantage. From the Turkish majority cities in the west of the country to the predominantly Kurdish region in the southeast, the Kurdish language is steeped in a history of humiliation. Years ago, I met a woman in Canada who presented herself as Turkish but confided in me that her Kurdish father had not wanted her to learn Kurdish so that she would lead a better life than him. It was not until I spent a year living in southeast Turkey, known as Northern Kurdistan by Kurds, that I understood the degree to which this mindset is ingrained among Kurds in Turkey.
I arrived in the city of Mardin in September of 2014 not knowing any Turkish, having been assured by my colleagues at Mardin Artuklu University that I could easily get by with Kurdish. At that time, Northern Kurdistan was coming back to life after decades of war and systematic Turkification. Protests over the stalled peace process between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Erdogan’s ruling AK Party had given rise to a “democracy package” in 2013 that saw the de-criminalization of Kurdish political speech, alphabet letters, and language classes in private schools. Just five months before my arrival, a young Syriac woman and a veteran Kurdish activist were elected co-mayors of the city on the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) ticket.
It was, to say the least, an exciting time to be in the region, but the wounds of a century of Turkification campaigns run deep. Taxi drivers, store owners, and public servants in Mardin were bemused by my insistence on speaking Kurdish. While most Kurdish adults that I encountered in Mardin were able to speak at least some Kurdish when pressed, very few did so voluntarily. Some found my inability to speak Turkish quaint, something they might associate with their grandparents or people from a remote village. Others were clearly uncomfortable, especially in the presence of Turks or Arabs.
Even Kurdish activists and intellectuals mainly spoke in Turkish amongst themselves, which for me was a source of continual confusion, given how confidently and fearlessly they advocated for Kurdish rights. It was even sadder to see that the children of these activists and intellectuals were not being taught any Kurdish, even at home. In other words, the cycle of Kurdish parents choosing not to pass on a language to their children that would only bring misery and suffering continues. With Turkification comes privileges, and privileges are what parents want for their children. On the surface, it would seem that the state’s Turkification project was a complete success: Kurdish is dying.
While I still mourn this loss, what I initially missed was that the generations of Kurds who have been denied the Kurdish language both by the state and, in many cases, their families, have created a new notion of Kurdishness independent of language. Educated in Turkish universities and armed with the language of the advantaged rather than the oppressed, these generations have rendered the Kurdish struggle more resistant to Turkish politics of eradication. Many of those who lead the contemporary Kurdish movement neither grew up in traditional Kurdish communities nor speak Kurdish. Nonetheless, they have driven the most popular pro-Kurdish and pro-diversity movement in the history of Turkey.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, just around the time that the state’s policies of Turkification should have borne its desired fruit, a new Kurdish revolutionary subject emerged. By virtue of the linguistic privilege afforded to Turkish-speaking Kurds, this emerging subject was able to create some distance from the humiliation attached to Kurdish identity. However, this subject was founded on a deep sense of social and political injustice intensified by her own crisis of identity. Like an “illegitimate” child betrayed by all sides, this new subject set out to turn the oppressive value system upside down.
Gultan Kisanak, the Alevi Kurdish woman who has been the co-mayor of Diyarbakir since 2014 and was arrested on October 25, is a notable example of the new Kurdish political subject. First imprisoned in 1980 at the age of 19 along with thousands of other Kurds in Diyarbakir, Kisanak has been relentlessly persecuted because of her Kurdishness. She was tortured and confined to an aggressive German Shepherd’s kennel for six months for refusing to proclaim “I am not a Kurd but a Turk.” Kisanak and other women in the prison were also sexually abused, which is a widely used tactic to “dishonor” imprisoned Kurdish women.
Yet such barbaric attempts to strip these and other women (and men) of their dignity, to break their spirit, backfired. They not only survived the years of imprisonment and torture but turned their source of humiliation into a source of liberation. The pro-Kurdish, pro-minority, pro-women, pro-LGBTQ movement has become the natural political space for all of Turkey’s oppressed. From university campuses to hole-in-the-wall cafés, the public space in the cities of North Kurdistan is shaped by those for whom resistance is simply a way of life, a mode of existence.
The German translation of this article was published in the Huffington Post on October 31, 2016.