Storytelling troupe revives Kurdish culture

Sages say every folktale is an undiscovered wound on the soul. As you listen, the wound stings at first, but then it begins to heal itself.

Not so long ago, Turkey’s electricity grid failed to reach many Kurdish villages in the country’s remote southeast. As soon as we got home from school, we would whip off our uniforms and wait eagerly for what was coming. I remember that moment, just after the dinner that we’d gulped down without chewing because we were so excited. The whole village would gather at the home of Derviş Dede, our local dengbêj, or bard, and listen to folktales.

I was at that house with my grandmother the first time I heard Mem û Zin (Mem and Zin), an ancient Kurdish love story. In the middle of the house, a sputtering gas lamp hung from a wooden post. However much Turkish we spoke, Kurdish was the language of our memories.

Derviş wove the narratives together down to the tiniest detail as we listened, rapt. We were crushed when it was over. Derviş told his stories like cliff-hangers; Mem û Zin lasted 10 days, and after that, it was Kuto, Kesxatun, Ruto, and more.

Like a fairy tale, those story-filled evenings eventually came to an end. Electricity arrived in the villages. Derviş became ill, and everyone started gathering at the houses that had television. It played the role of “idiot box” quite well.

Many Kurds can tell you stories like this from their childhoods. The years passed, the wheels turned, and now a new generation has picked up the torch.

All of the sudden, young Kurds are telling the stories their grandparents used to tell, and they’re doing it meticulously and professionally. They go to unions, organizations, clubs, and cafes, telling folktales, sometimes until daybreak. They’ve been quietly doing this for two and a half years.

Founded in Diyarbakır, the Amîdart Kültür Sanat Bileşkesi (Amîdart Intersection of Culture and Art) has been telling folktales for a while. Amîdart’s slogan is “no place but everywhere,” and they do more than tell stories. They also host concerts, folklore nights, workshops, and seminars about art, architecture, music, and more. The name for the organization comes from Diyarbakır’s old name, Amîda, and their goal is to revive Kurdish culture and pass this knowledge on to future generation. Their mission is to make sure Kurdish folklore is never forgotten.

“Folktales are a powerful way to pass traditions along,” said Amîdart member Murat. “Remembering the roots of these stories helps to keep society alive. By telling these stories, we form a bond with history—the things that happened, the sadness, and the joy. We build a bridge between the storyteller and the listener.”

One reason to tell stories is so society can face trauma. Amîdart’s members believe that the more stories they tell, the more they keep cultural memory alive and the more human and social knowledge gets passed along. In the old days, people believed storytellers knew the secrets of life.

“At Amîdart, we intend to bring this key back to the people and open forgotten doors one by one,” said Murat. “Thanks to our project and the storytellers who’ve joined us, we’ve been able to perform all over Diyarbakır in our mother tongue or in a second language of choice.”

Amîdart crowned its storytelling project this past September with the 1st Ancient Folklore Festival. Six gatherings were organized alongside a one-day workshop. Participants shared folktales and taught others how to tell stories.

Experienced bards discussed drama, improvisational storytelling, how to analyse folklore through body language, and techniques for using storytelling as therapy. People of all ages told stories in Kurmanji, Zaza, Arabic, and Turkish, as well as Kurdish.

Turkish-language storyteller Nuroj Nupel Yılıdırım believes that storytelling has the power to open new lines of communication, increase solidarity, and make people happy. “In our collective, we all believe that folklore gives solace,” she said. “Its magic is universal. The emotions and values that stories evoke can bring all different people together under one roof. We’ll keep telling stories in Diyarbakır. We’re planning to take them out into the streets soon.”

Gülesra is one of the founders of Amîdart. Diyarbakır is home to many ancient cultures, and she feels that one of the organisation’s greatest successes is keeping those cultures alive while building and strengthening the next generation’s ties to their past. “We noticed that people in our city didn’t have any dreams, and we thought we could all be happy again if we could find our dreams,” she said.

Amîdart also focuses on non-violent communication. Gülesra explains why this is so important in a region where life has been shaped by war and conflict.

“Non-violent communication is something people are just starting to hear about here, but the concept has been around since the 1960s,” she said. “The idea is that people are naturally compassionate, and speaking from the heart with empathy is the language of peace. We can also preserve our inner peace in this way, and peaceful language holds us up when we face problems.”

Gülesra tells us that non-violent communication techniques are also useful when they run into problems organizing events. “Sometimes there are issues with the venues or with our followers, but we’re careful to use a language of peace,” she said. “We listen with empathy and open our hearts, and it helps us figure things out.”

Amîdart’s events have been well received in Diyarbakır. “People are really excited about some of our workshops,” said Gülesra. “We’ve also gotten some good feedback on our contributions to the public and the entertainment we provide. There are people who celebrate our work, the things we share, and the language we use. Others ask if they can join our collective. This makes us very happy.”