« Who can say that robbing a people of their language is less violent than war? » Ray Gwyn Smith
Nowadays, the likelihood of hearing a Kurd tell you « I am Kurd but I don’t speak Kurdish » is very high. In fact, since the division of Kurdistan at the beginning of the 20th century, the occupying States of Kurdistan wanted to put an end to the existence of the Kurdish people by implementing policies of linguistic genocide because it was very difficult to physically exterminate millions of individuals, despite the many massacres perpetrated, as in Dersim, Zilan, Halabja… So these states (Turkey, Iran, Iraq*, Syria) severely banned the practice of Kurdish in the second half of the 20th century.
Kurds cannot be taught in the Kurdish language, cannot defend themselves before the courts, etc., nor can they even claim that they have a language called Kurdish because Turkey denies the very existence of this thousand-year-old language and registers it as « language X » (X as in « unknown »)!
A look back at a linguistic genocide through the eyes of a survivor
My family lived on an isolated farm in the mountains of Northern Kurdistan (Bakur) under Turkish occupation. During the winter, the only link we had with the outside world was the radio my father had bought for himself and the few guests who came from surrounding villages when there was not too much snow blocking the paths leading to the mountain. One day, when I was still a baby, my father told my mother that from now on all children should only speak Turkish, because the Turkish state had formally forbidden our language under penalty of prison etc.
This ban on speaking our mother tongue was going to cause unexpected trauma for the later generations of Kurds. It took me years to realise how serious it was. Many flashbacks remind me of the slow destruction of a people through its banned language.
Our village, where there was a new primary school, was several kilometres from our farm and the snowy winter months prevented my brothers and sisters from going there. So my father had to send them to a boarding school.
In order to « cut » the Kurdish language at its roots, as early as the 1980s, the Turkish state had decided to create boarding schools** for Kurdish children. From the age of 7, Kurds spent their school year in boarding schools at the mercy of teachers and supervisors whose mission was to instil the Turkish language in children who did not know a word of it and to Turkify them by cutting them off from their families, their culture, their language. I don’t even want to dwell on the psychological, physical and sexual abuse that many Kurdish children were subjected to in these horror boarding schools…
A few years later, we had to abandon our farm and move closer to the small town where my brothers and sisters were interned. That way, they were able to leave the boarding school and return home. But we spoke Turkish between us and our father. Kurdish was reserved for our mother who spoke Turkish very badly.
The fact that the teachers told us all day long that there were no Kurds in « Turkey » (because for Turkey there were neither Kurds nor Kurdistan) made me, as a little girl, feel guilty. Guilty of existing when logically I shouldn’t have, because that’s what our teachers said. Guilty also of speaking, in secret, a language that did not exist. So, one day when our teacher asked if there were children who couldn’t speak Kurdish and they had to raise their finger, I immediately did so. I was the only one and I wasn’t too proud of myself…
With Turkish school, TV and radio, we no longer had to make an effort to forget this clandestine language. The Turkish state had everything planned for us. We just had to let it go. Our Kurdish vocabulary was diminishing day by day, replaced by Turkish, even in our dreams, and this without « any » regret. In any case, we didn’t like this illegal language. Who likes illegality, especially when you are a child who wants to do everything right?
I, the « wise » and « intelligent » little girl, was the darling of my teachers and I even got the nickname « the Turk » in the neighbourhood for having started speaking Turkish before Kurdish, while the other children had more difficulty becoming perfect little Turks overnight. And what can I say about the shame I felt before my mother who had no command of Turkish? Shame for belonging to a people that should not exist, a « backward » people, according to the definition of the colonialist state that wanted to finish us off by Turkifying us as much as possible.
Once grown-up and exiled in a Western country (France) whose language I did not know, I immediately wanted to learn French to get rid of Turkish because this physical exile was the trigger for a mental return to my origins. Suddenly, I began to have flashbacks that reminded me of all the humiliations we had suffered as Kurds and children and the ban on speaking our language on our own land.
I spent my days listening to French-learning tapes, reading, and chatting with non-Kurds to quickly learn French. At night, I had the dictionary « Le Petit Robert » in my bed (I always say that Petit Robert was my first French lover!). In a few months, I managed to get by and, after a few years, French became my first language. But I still didn’t speak my mother tongue properly and my entourage had nicknamed me « The French » this time!
A few months ago, I was chatting with a Kurdish friend who asked me if I was born in France because my French was « very good ». I told him no, that I had come to adulthood without going through the school system. He barely believed me! I told him about my two nicknames related to languages, before adding that I had managed to be Turkish and French and that now it was time for me to become (once again) Kurdish and to finally be called « Kurdê » (adjective « the Kurd », for women)!
Today, I read and write Kurdish, with difficulty, except when it is these orphan poems that knock on my door to take me to the country. But, I do not despair, I am going to succeed in becoming a « true Kurd » who speaks her language, even if it will be difficult, I will have to stumble over the words, fall to the ground, after so many years spent in an imposed linguistic paralysis and long live the revenge of the « vanquished / defeated »! (Keça Bênav « the girl (keç) without name (bênav) »)
*In other parts of Kurdistan, in Iraq, Iran and Syria, we had roughly the same prohibitions. Today, in the autonomous Kurdistan of Iraq and in Rojava, teaching is done in the Kurdish language, while in Iran the Kurdish language continues to be criminalized… This is why, today, many Kurds, especially those in Turkey, no longer speak their language, but many of them are fighting for the right to relearn and speak it; to re-appropriate their music, their customs and habits, plundered and forbidden by their colonizers. The price to be paid by the Kurds to get what they want remains very high. It often costs lives, but they remain determined.
** This decision has been implemented rather successfully, and we easily imagine the devastating effects on the psychic and/or socio-cultural level among Kurdish children and the adults they have become.
To conclude on the issue of linguistic rights or prohibitions concerning languages, here is a story written by a Kurdish writer about the prohibition of Kurdish and what awaited us if we defied it:
« A Bread in Turkish » or how to forbid Kurds to speak their mother tongue
We are in the 1980s, in a Kurdish region under Turkish occupation. A peasant runs to the bakery in his village on his way back from his field and would like to buy a loaf of bread before the sunset which is close, because in this Kurdish region, the Turkish state has declared a state of emergency with a curfew at sunset. The peasant hastily launches « ka nanakî, bi tirkî.** » in Kurdish, which can be translated as « one bread, in Turkish”. This poor peasant can’t speak Turkish, but he must buy his bread somehow.
Now, let’s imagine for a moment that this scene takes place in France, during the Nazi occupation: A farmer from Corrèze, back from his field, runs to the bakery in his village. The sun is about to set, but there is a curfew at nightfall. The Nazis have forbidden speaking the French language and have imposed the German language throughout the country, but our Corrèze peasant does not speak a word of German. So he would probably say, « A loaf of bread, in German.”
Indeed, the Turkish State had banned Kurdish throughout the country, including the Kurdish regions, since the creation of Turkey in 1923. Even within their homes, Kurds could not speak their language under penalty of arrest and/or torture, in addition to paying a fine. (The Turkish State had dispatched officials for this purpose throughout Kurdistan).
Even today, in Turkey, the Kurdish language is still forbidden, even if in private life it can be spoken…
** Ka nanakî bi tirkî / Bana türkçe bir ekmek ver » is the name of a short story by Cezmi Ersöz, a Kurdish writer and journalist.