New book documents folktales of Turkey's troubled Dersim

A group of villagers - men women and children - gather around a fire after as an elder shares folktales in Dersim in eastern Turkey, an area where most of the inhabitants belong to the country’s biggest ethnic minority – the Kurds – and its biggest religious minority – the Alevis, a heterodox Muslim sect that has for years been sidelined and often persecuted in Turkey.

The scene was repeated many times as author and film director Caner Canerik travelled the area, known as Tunceli in Turkish, to collect the stories and compile them in a book entitled “Dersim Masalları 1” (The Stories of Dersim 1) published last month. The book shares 49 folktales from the area, part of his effort to keep alive the traditions of the town and province of the same name.

Dersim was subject to one of the most painful chapters in Turkish history when troops brutally suppressed an uprising by Alevi Kurds, killing an estimated 13,000 to 70,000 people in 1937 and 1938. The leader of the revolt, Seyit Rıza, was executed in 1937.

Born in Dersim, Canerik spent the 1990s in Istanbul where he worked for various TV stations and newspapers. In 2004, he began conducting research for his first novel “Gulazare”, which he wrote in 2007 and published in 2011. He also has made 11 movies.

Canerik worked on the folktales project for a year to record the stories he believes are dying out with the tradition of storytelling in the heavily forested and rugged mountainous area whose villages are often cut off for months by snow in the winter. Dersim, like much of the Kurdish majority east and southeast, is home to the Dengbêj tradition, coming from the words deng (voice) and bej (tell).

“Stories live as long as they are told. The moment they are written down, it is as though we’ve placed a period at the end. They are now confined to a single frame, ” Canerik said.

“It is unfortunate that stories are no longer being narrated to new generations. If today we are talking about Dersim’s culture fading away, then surely we have all played a role in this. I wish we could continue the tradition of folktale narration alive,” he said.

Folktales are not narrated for fun, he said, but as stories of times past that are meant to serve as lessons, particularly for children.

Canerik said one of the storytellers he worked with, Abbas Saylı, had recently passed away. The author said he felt blessed to have recorded the stories of a man he called, “among the most brilliant storytellers of our time”.

“Today, most of the storytellers are women. Many of the leaders who have committed stories to memory unfortunately see storytelling as a form of entertainment; maybe this is how it was perceived during their youth and they don’t wish to waste time telling stories,” Canerik said.

One night after an elder shared a folktale, Canerik asked the source of the story.

“This story was shared by Seyit Rıza to his friends and family at home. And someone who heard it there shared it with me,” the person said.