‘Kurdistan’ and the art of self-censorship in Turkey

Recent news reports have shed light on the extent of censorship and self-censorship in Turkey’s publishing and entertainment sectors, with references to Kurdistan being removed or toned down in international works ranging from the 2005 film “V for Vendetta” to Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi’s iconic 17th century travel book, the “Seyahatname”.

The Turkish state’s advocacy of a nationalism that is deeply at odds with the country’s minority populations, particularly its largest ethnic minority, the Kurds, is at the heart of this propensity for censorship, experts say.

This has led to serious contradictions between Turkey’s official version of history and – besides the scholarship widely recognised around the rest of the world – documents and artefacts from its own imperial history.

Thus, the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during World War One, which is recognised as genocide by most scholars and many nations, is dismissed by Ankara as self-defence amid the chaos of war, according to Turkish writer Perihan Mağden, who has faced multiple lawsuits for her work. 

Similarly, the state’s official history, and some iterations of nationalist Turkish scholarship, have at times denied the existence of a Kurdish ethnicity, describing them instead as “mountain Turks.” The word “Kurd,” this reading of history explained, comes from the sound of footsteps in thick mountain snow. 

This denial of Kurdish identity is so entrenched in Turkish public life that the word “Kurdistan” is viewed by the state as an indicator of links to outlawed Kurdish political groups, as a recent court case showed. 

Depending on setting and context, the word can be either a geographical term -- referring to the contiguous Kurdish majority areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey -- or a political objective, referring to a long-envisioned independent state. 

Ankara’s logic seems to be that any person who uses the word “Kurdistan” must support the creation of an independent Kurdish state -- the initial objective of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has been fighting an insurgency in Turkey for 35 years. In recent years, the PKK has shifted to a demand for equal rights and Kurdish autonomy. 

In the southeastern province of Batman, a suspect used the word while giving testimony. This led to the prosecutor asking for “membership in a terrorist organisation” to be added to the charges and requesting the highest possible sentence.

When defence lawyer Şirin Şen objected, stating that “Kurdistan” referred simply to a geographical area, the court demanded a defence from her, as well.

Meanwhile, senior figures in the AKP use the word when it suits them, as the party’s candidate in this year’s Istanbul mayoral election, former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, did in an attempt to win over Kurdish voters. This was a stroke of luck for Mehmet Sanrı, who was on trial for using the word himself. The charges were dropped on the basis that government officials had used it.

“If Mr. Yıldırım hadn’t said the word ‘Kurdistan’, I would have been punished, or that’s how it seemed to me,” said Sanrı.

Others have not been so lucky. Istanbul-based Avesta Publishing has faced a slew of lawsuits for printing books that include the word “Kurdistan”. The fear of similar legal action has led to self-censorship among translators, said Avesta editor Abdullah Keskin.

Even though according to Turkish law it is the publisher or editor who would be legally responsible, Turkish translators hesitate to translate the word.

“Some of them do it out of fear, others because they hold the same beliefs as the state. There are even some who have written books trying to prove that Kurdistan doesn’t exist,” Keskin said.

“But we don’t make any compromises. So, if a work from 100 years ago uses the word ‘Kurdistan’, we stay true to what it says,” he added. “There could be a number of things that our readers won’t like. We’ve approached them in the same way, because hiding the truth means deceiving your readers.”

Avesta has published texts on Kurdology, some of which Keskin described as including parts that could cause the company problems. Most other publishing outfits show less respect for the original text; Keskin recalled a book by Iranian thinker Ali Shariati in which “Kurds” was replaced by “Turks”. 

“You’re not changing Shariati by doing that – the truth sooner or later will come out,” he explained. “This isn’t a case of freedom of expression, it’s a historical reality: Kurds are the local people of this area. They’ve lived there for centuries, and everyone from Western travellers to (Turkey authors) Orhan Kemal and Yaşar Kemal have called it Kurdistan.”

The name was first used 800 years ago by a Sultan Sencer of the Seljuk Turks, and only came to be the subject of censorship in waves starting with the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, he said.

In the mid-19th century, the late years of the Ottoman Empire, references to a Kurdistan region had not yet been proscribed. Ottoman documents displayed at a recent exhibition showed that one of 77 boats owned by an Istanbul ferry company was named “Kurdistan”. 

Writer Hüseyin Siyabend noted that books and academic works had sought to marginalise the cultural impact of Kurds by attributing the fine works of art and craftsmanship created in Kurdistan to other ethnicities – silverwork to Jews, masonry to the Assyrians, architecture to the Armenians, and Kurdish works to Turks.

“We must come to terms with the narrative regime, still ongoing today, that pushes aside Kurds’ contributions to humanity, Islam and self-knowledge, that neglects Kurds’ history and legacy, and seeks to deny them any historical legacy besides that of the ‘noble savage’,” said Siyabend.

This censorship aims to create a new and improved state version of history, according to Siyabend. The state published studies detailing the beginnings of the Turkish people, their grammar, geography and ethnography, and in doing so created distorted texts that depict a world without Kurds yet have become foundational to the state.

The intentional alterations follow a pattern of “denial, destruction and assimilation” policies that have been levelled against Kurds in Turkey, said Ali Duran Topuz, chief editor of Turkish independent news site Duvar. He described the alterations to Turkey’s history as part of the country’s “Kurdophobia”. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.