İrfan Aktan • Aunt Zehra has a tongue

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Zehra, a woman from a village neighboring where I was born, is only 60 years old. But suffering from a herniated disc, she cannot even climb stairs.

For close to twenty years, I have been accompanying sick people from the Eastern part of Turkey. The fact these people do not speak Turkish is the source of this need for accompaniment.


Kurdî | Türkçe | English | Français | Castellano

It usually always starts the same way: the sick person or one of the relatives calls from the country and asks if I know a doctor.

I then start looking for a doctor through my acquaintances. Then, I pick up the person at the airport and take him or her to the hospital.

After attacking the hardest part, which is to say that we have paced up and down long corridors, waited in long queues, and settled registration matters, I hand over the sick person to the “Turkish doctors” and go back to work.

This time, after five days of research and thanks to medical doctors I know acting as go-betweens despite their breaks or their exhaustion, we finally find a doctor to examine Zehra.

The doctor tells us aunt Zehra needs treatment. Fine ! But she also says she cannot take the patient in at the hospital “because that one has no tongue” !!!

Leaving Zehra in the examination room where she’s writhing in pain, we move onto the next room where the assistants gather. I tell her: “Doctor, Zehra has a tongue, but you don’t know it.” At first she answers me: “Since she lives in Turkey, she is obliged to speak Turkish”.

I underscore the fact no law states that, in order to receive treatment, a patient must speak Turkish. “Of course she must speak Turkish. What if she runs a fever or has a problem during the night, how will she communicate with us?” she asks.

I say “yes, but her son is with her.”

She asnwers: “In a room with a female patient, we do not accept a male accompanist.”

I say: “Her son could wait in the hallway until morning.”

She replies, “yes, but the female patients here won’t accept that.”

Vexed, I repeat the formula suggested by the medical doctor who sent us here: “The aunt has a phone. If there’s a problem, she can call her son and he can translate his mother’s problem immediately over the phone.” I receive the answer: “We don’t do this here. That one doesn’t have a daughter, a Turkish-speaking sister?”

Aunt Zehra’s son speaks up: “I have a sister, she is handicapped. She can speak but she has trouble walking,” he says.

Making a tremendous effort of self-control, I tell her she is a medical doctor and is duty-bound to exercise certain legal and ethical responsibilities, that Zehra could just as well be a mute woman with no family, and that would not be a reason for refusing to take her into the hospital. If I were to tell her I’m a journalist and that I will publish this, or if I made threats of denunciation, I would certainly frighten her, but I would also ruin all possibility for Zehra’s treatment… At best, Zehra would be hospitalized then sent home after a botched “treatment”…

I repeat to her constantly repeated insistence that “that one has no tongue”, that Zehra has a tongue, that her “tongue” is called Kurdish, that she is under no obligation to know Turkish, and that the State should provide each hospital with translators in Kurdish, Arabic, Farsi and English. But of course Madame the Doctoress sides with the State! Sticking a menacing smile on a face that holds a harsh expression since the beginning of our conversation, she says “The State has no such obligation.”

Luckily, thanks to another phone call by another medical go-between, the doctor hospitalized Zehra, conditional to her bringing from Yüksekova her daughter, paralyzed following a difficult childbirth.

No doubt some readers will says “there will always be this kind of isolated case.” But with my twenty years as accompanist I can state this is not an isolated case but a common one. The aunt from the East has no tongue was the title of another article I had published already in 2011 concerning another aunt. I could have used the same title for this one.

But the aunt has a tongue and a language. The Kurds have a language.

And faced with those who play at hunting down skulls from the thirties, faced with those who, by annihilating another language, threaten the lives of those who speak that language now, faced with the number growing daily of cretins repeating absurdities such as “Kurdish does not exist” in pursuit of the intensification of their racist aggressions, there is no point in attempting to prove that a tongue called Kurdish exists.

So let’s say Kurdish doesn’t exist. And if Kurdish is truly Turkish 1, how is it that the Turks don’t understand us? They have no tongue?

Let’s assume that 80% of Kurdish is based on Turkish with the rest being imported from Arabic and Farsi. Let’s even assume that there does not exist even one word originally in Kurdish. For one last time: what is it to you? What scares you so much in a language? Be brave and spit out that stale morsel weighing on your tongue.


İrfan Aktan began in journalism in 2000 on Bianet. He has worked as a journalist, a correspondent or an editor for l’Express, BirGün, Nokta, Yeni Aktüel, Newsweek Türkiye, Birikim, Radikal, birdirbir.org, zete.com. He was the Ankara representative for IMC-TV. He is the author of two books: “Nazê/Bir Göçüş Öyküsü” (Nazê/A tale of exodus ), “Zehir ve Panzehir: Kürt Sorunu” (Poison and antidote: The Kurdish Question). He presently writes for l’Express, Al Monitor, and Duvar.

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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*A word to English-speaking readers: in all instances where the original text is in Turkish or Kurdish, the English version is derived from French translations. Inevitably, some shift in meaning occurs with each translation. Hopefully, the intent of the original is preserved in all cases. While an ideal situation would call for a direct translation from the original, access to information remains our main objective in this exercise and, we hope, makes more sense than would a translation provided by AI…
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