Growing up Kurdish in Istanbul

Relations between the Turks and The Kurds have always been very strained; there have been all sorts of terrorist attacks and massacres staged by both sides in the struggle for freedom in the shared lands of Turkey. They have been involved with an ongoing conflict with one another for over 35 years, and although there have been some times of peace, they are still fighting in the East of Turkey right now.
Kurdish culture has been devastated by these conflicts as it has meant a lot of Kurdish material has been banned. The language of the Kurds used to be banned as well as their music, art, and theatre, and up until five years ago, playing Kurdish music in the street would mean being associated with some form of terrorist group.

Aiwan Ciwan

Aiwan Ciwan

Recently, attitudes have changed significantly to allow much more freedom to express their culture, as well as Kurdish parties holding seats in the Turkish government. However, life is still not plain sailing for the Kurdish people, and many musicians and actors still find it incredibly hard to find places to stage their events in Istanbul. Many Turkish people in the city still hold undue fears and resentment towards the Kurds. I spoke, to Alan Ciwan, a 21-year-old actor working and living in Istanbul. He has not always lived in the city; he moved from his family home in the Kurdish region of Turkey at a young age to study and seek more opportunities. I met him at a Kurdish Music Festival, where many people from all over the city had attended to both get involved and simply enjoy the celebration of their culture. When we met he was fresh from rehearsals for his lead role in a Kurdish Language play that premiered last week in Istanbul.
Alan revealed to me that the Kurds are still suffering from prejudices in the city to this day. He explained that the main issue lies with lack of freedom to express the language of his people. He says this has a lot to do with the history between the Turks and the Kurds. He explained “Many things happened. I don’t know if they are afraid or something else but they are afraid to use their language. I guess the government did very dangerous things for this culture.” He felt to some degree that freedom had improved for the Kurdish people, in the fact that they are now able to speak freely in their mother tongue. However, he feels more should be done.
“Kurdish can’t use their language in a business, for example, in a bazaar they can’t earn money with their language. This is weakening our language. The government says we can use it but we can’t really. I should be able to work with my language.” It appeared that this lack of freedom to use their language is meaning many people are losing their culture as a lot of it is expressed in the Kurdish language.
“A lot of people today know they are from Kurdistan and they know of their language and culture but they can’t speak Kurdish. They know they are Kurdish but it’s not enough for real life. We should be able to do something with that language. We need to make it bigger.”
An example of this was made clear to me when I spoke to another woman at the festival. She told me that she could only sing in Kurdish but not speak it, which seems like an odd paradox, because this woman is clearly passionate about the culture but has not necessarily had the chances to learn the language. This emphasises the sad truth that Kurdish people are being restricted by lack of provisions and encouragement to learn their own language.
Events from the past have also affected the lives of Kurdish people, and negative attitudes are still held by a minority of Turkish people who still feel hostile towards them. Some of Alan’s stories were especially shocking.
For example, a few years ago when his friends were at a restaurant and were speaking in Kurdish, the garçon and his waiters phoned the police to report them. Telling the story now, Alan was able to laugh about but this, but it made me feel uneasy about some of the attitudes that are still present. Prejudices like these seemed to be nationwide. He explained how in Turkey still (not so much in Istanbul but other parts) some Kurdish people faced abuse at work, and in some cases physical attacks on the street. Alan puts this down to the current war and terrorist attacks by Kurdish militants in the eastern cities, but his mother is still so afraid for his safety she refuses to speak to him via telephone on the street if he is out. She is fearful that if he is to speak Kurdish in public, he may face abuse from prejudiced Turks.
He did express that this was abuse was only done by a small minority of people, and life was indeed improving in Istanbul for the Kurds. He explained that as an actor, he has won awards in acting in his own language and was respected for this by all of his acting peers. He said that there are more opportunities now and he is hopeful for the future, but indeed there is definitely a mix of attitudes in the city and more has to be done.
“The government gives just a small part of freedom to people in this city. They say we can do everything but some people they hate- they are Kurdish, they are Armenian, and they are other cultures. The government says you can speak your language but it’s not enough. The people need to change as well though, not just a few words of the government. Not just towards us but all smaller cultures”
I asked in what ways he perceived this could be done. He thinks the solution lies in the media,
“The government has done bad things and they used the media and they used their writers and they used their party. So if they really want to they can fix it again but I don’t believe them. So we will be like this for maybe 100 years.” The interview ended on that gloomy note.
After speaking to Alan, it seems that the main problem for the Kurdish people is to be able to freely speak their language openly, but it is hard to see how to accomplish this goal. The problem leads to many people only being able to partially explore their own culture, or not at all. As Seamus Finnegan once said, “taking a man’s language is to take their identity.” There have been special Kurdish schools opened in Turkey, but Alan told me that these schools often only last for a year before closing due to lack of funding. So for now, there is not an environment for Kurdish children to learn in their native language. He suggested that a change of attitudes is required, which is certainly possible. However, without help from the media this could prove to be potentially very difficult. Integrating a different language into a modern society is of course not without its difficulties. There certainly does seem to be a huge requirement for at least some schools or institutes to be set up for such a large population of the city. Attending the music events at the Kurdish Festival, all the events were full which goes to show there is certainly a crowd of people who are greatly interested in the Kurdish way of life. All they need are more platforms to be able to learn and discover their culture.

 

 

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