Nurcan Baysal
Mar 06 2018

Criminalising Kurdishness

I was watching a video recorded last year during the Newroz (Kurdish spring festival) celebrations at Dicle University in Diyarbakır. Kurdish university students were whistling a Kurdish song. A group of police came, began to beat them and dragged them across the ground.

Last week, we learned what happened to those university students. The Diyarbakir Prosecutor’s Office accused 12 university students of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation” and “committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organisation”. The prosecutor demanded a seven-year sentence for whistling a Kurdish song.

Last weekend, two musicians were arrested for singing Kurdish songs at a wedding in Istanbul. The wedding singers and the wedding hosts were accused of promoting a terrorist organisation. They are still in prison.

These events reminded me of our elders' stories. Seventy-five years ago, a prominent Kurdish writer, journalist and intellectual Musa Anter, known as Apê Musa (Uncle Musa in Kurdish), was taken to the police station and beaten because of whistling in Kurdish. Anter was shot dead at the age of 77 in 1992. Prosecutors accuse gunmen acting on behalf of the intelligence wing of the Gendarmerie police of carrying out the killing in an ongoing case that first opened in 1999.

In one of his interviews, Anter said:

"In 1943, I was the principle of the Dicle student dormitory in Istanbul. One day, two police officers came and collected me. They took me down to the local police department. Inside, two to five police officers assaulted and hit me. I asked them why and the police sergeant said, ‘You son of a traitor, do you know what your crime is?’ and I said, ‘No.’ ‘Don't you have a radio?’ he asked and I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have a record player?’ and I said, ‘I've got that, too.’ ‘Well, then, you son of a dog, while there are so many beautiful Turkish records, why do you whistle in Kurdish?’ ” 

Another prominent Kurdish intellectual, Tarık Ziya Ekinci, while talking about his memories, said that for each time you spoke Kurdish you were fined five kuruş (an average family salary was 20 kuruş a month at that time). During the 1930s, 40s and 50s there were “Citizen! Speak Turkish!” campaigns. At the end of the 1970s, there was a relative relaxation in using Kurdish, but after the military coup of September 1980, speaking and writing Kurdish was again banned. I remember the sign “No Turkish, No Service” written on the walls of hospitals when I was a child. Kurdish music cassettes and Kurdish songs were also prohibited. Many people were arrested, tortured and even killed just because of having or selling Kurdish music cassettes, books or newspapers. My neighbour, Adnan, was killed in 1993 in front of his eight children just because of selling Kurdish newspapers in his small shop in our district of Diyarbakır.

Some positive developments emerged after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Private Kurdish courses were legally permitted the same year. In 2009, the state broadcaster launched a Kurdish channel with a large ceremony. It was followed by the opening of Kurdish language departments in some universities and two hours of optional Kurdish lessons were launched in some primary schools. Kurdish magazines and books became commonplace and openly published.

With the end of the peace process between the Turkish state and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2015, everything changed. Kurdish language departments were closed. Kurdish courses were closed. Optional Kurdish lessons were cancelled.

With the declaration of the state of emergency in July 2016, Kurdishness was banned again. NGOs and institutions concerned with Kurdish language and culture were closed. Kurdish names were removed from public parks, streets and every corner of cities. Kurdish cultural and linguistic symbols were destroyed.

Monuments erected to commemorate dead Kurdish politicians, writers, intellectuals and Kurdish children shot by security forces have been removed or destroyed. The Kurdish names of our cities, like Amed, the Kurdish name for Diyarbakır, were also taken off public billboards. The state is trying to wipe out the Kurdish heritage of these lands.

Today, not only Kurdish songs and Kurdish music, but also whistling a Kurdish tune is prohibited. I really do not know the difference between whistling in Kurdish or Turkish.

I purse my lips and whistle in hope that my song reaches you.

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