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Ömer Fidan is on of the actors in the development of Kurdish literature in Northern Kurdistan (Kurdish regions inside Turkish borders – Baku’) as well as at the international level. An English teacher, he developed an interest in the Kurdish language during his studies.
How was your interest in Kurdish literature born?
I am a Kurd we spoke Kurdish in my family, I had read some classics in the medrese 1. My love of the Kurdish language weighed more than anything else in my decision and I interrupted my university studies in the final year. I started working on Kurdish at Diyarbakır’s Kurdish Institute. I took course for a few months. Because even if I had had a good knowledge of oral Kurdish, that I could read, I wished to deepen and consolidate my knowledge in grammar. I worked intensively. In parallel to this, I began teaching Kurdish to foreigners when they came here. I gave classes in Kurdish and in English. At the Kurdish Institute, we also had a publishing function. I started working there in no time. At first, I made corrections, then I began to work as an editor before being put in charge of edition.
I had started writing short stories while taking courses in Kurdish. As people liked these stories and since magazines and newspapers regularly called for texts, my teacher at the time sent them one of my short stories. My first publication was in the newspaper of the Diyarbakır Metropolis City Hall in 2005. As for translation, I’ve translated over 30 books from English, from Turkish to Kurdish and a few from Kurdish to Turkish. I worked a lot with Kurdî-Der, the Kurdish Institute and taught at the Cigerxwïn Academy. For the past eight years, I have been a board ember of the Kurdish PEN, of which I am currently the secretary general.
What are the objectives for the Kurdish PEN?
We have many members across the world, Syria, Irak, Iran, Europe…With limited means, our ai mis to create links between international and Kurdish writers, to help Kurdish writers with the problems they encounter, and to gain recognition for Kurdish literature. Currently, Kurdish writers are subjected to a lot of oppression, wherever they may be, we try to support those at risk of prison, or who have been sentenced and are forced to leave. We put them in contact with the other PEN groups so they can survive in exile while practicing their trade as writers, as much as possible.
Raising awareness about Kurdish literature is also one of our objectives. For instance, on February 21 for the “International Day of Mother Tongues”, we organized initiatives with the PEN in other countries, explaining the situation of Kurds but also to increase solidarity within our people, so they will “own” their own writers. O n November 15, for example, “World Day of Imprisoned Writers”, during a major initiative with PEN International, we provided testimonials from our friends released from prison, on their carceral conditions, on the 150 or so books that are prohibited, on the dozens of writers currently in prison…
How do things fare for Kurdish literature currently?
There are two ways of approaching Kurdish literature; through the oral or the written tradition. Oral Kurdish literature is thousands of years old, a rich and powerful literature. There are traces of its influence on world oral literature. Efforts are underway to collect, archive, record and distributed what belongs to this domain.
As for written literature, even if we can now access Kurdish literature works several hundreds of years old, the true transition into written literature, particularly modern literature, happened in the early 1900s, mainly during the thirties. In 1932, the publication of the literary review Hawar 2 in Damascus, Syria, marks the beginning of written Kurdish literature.This started to spread, and although they were not in close contact, in Rojilhat 3, in Başur 4, in Bakur, in Rojava 5, a written production begins at this time as if the desire to write contained until then had finally exploded 6
These works carry on little by little, until the 50s. And there, once again, because of the oppression against the Kurds, we observe a time of silence which lasts until the end of the 70s. At that time, there is a slight political opening, accompanied by a revival of literary activity with the appearance of literary reviews, for example… But this period is also short-lived. The prohibitions, the military coup d’état on September 12 1980… People working in the literary field are of course sighted by those in power and find themselves forced to leave the country. It is not easy to keep all this knowledge, these assets, this wealth… In the 90s, in different parts of the world, totally independent from one another, books are published in Kurdish – novels, short stories, poems, tales…
Today, there are both a more scientific approach questioning writing techniques in Kurdish and , at the same time, despite all the prohibitions and the persecutions, every year hundreds of new books are published. New authors emerge, the readership grows, Kurdish publishing houses multiply. Again this year, three new publishing houses opened. Even when very strong, the oppressions can no longer contain the need to write. People are demanding writings.
For Kurdish literature, the question now is selectivity. Twenty years ago, no matter who wrote and how, everything was precious because it was rare. Now, readers can choose, express preferences… If political oppressions play a role, it is more at the level of distribution, less at the level of creation. For example, books are printed in editions of one thousand. The Kurds represent 40 million people. One thousand copies is thus a very limited number. Official distributors do not handle Kurdish literature. There are renowed bookstores a bit everywhere in Turkey, they do not sell Kurdish books, nor do certain websites, by the way. Thus, if creativity is not stifled, distribution is.
Speaking of the literature itself… The main obstacles to its development are, firstly, the fact that the teaching of the maternal tongue, in this case Kurdish, is poorly developed which places a serious limit on the readership. Someone who wishes to master written Kurdish must approach an organization in civil society that teaches Kurdish. These organizations are not found everywhere. Moreover, they are criminalized, forbidden, shut down. Therefore the absence of teaching in Kurdish restrains the progress in writing, in reading, and the spreading of literature.
Secondly: economic conditions. In Turkey, publication and distribution of books are expensive.
Thirdly, the criminalization of the language. For example, no later than last year a youth was killed in Ankara for speaking in Kurdish. In Sakarya, a family was attacked. Dario Fo’s play [a classic of Italian theater] played in Kurdish, was forbidden. When this kind of thing happens, they are trivialized in the media, people keep their distances from Kurdish. Criminalizing the Kurdish language keeps authors from writing in Kurdish, cools the wish of readers to own books in Kurdish in their home. People are afraid to buy the books in bookstores. Or yet again, to order them through internet if the person is a civil servant or the member of a family of civil servants, for fear of losing their work, forcing the person to order in someone else’s name at someone else’s address…
In your opinion, how can one define Kurdish literature?
For a long time, I was the editor of a literary review. In this literary field, literary magazines are the place where an author can first take his or her place. They send in their text and if the magazine’s editing committee considers it publishable, the author pursues work in this direction. It also provides an encouragement.
Currently, a very limited number of Kurdish magazines are published, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. There are very few, thus they cannot play their role of selection. Anyone can publish whatever he or she wants, on social networks or through self-publishing. This reduces the quality of literature. Apart from this there exist blogs, spaces for expression… The reader can keep track of critics, of interviews with writers, why and from what point of view such and such a book is worthwhile… In fact, the readership and the writers grow together. Their numbers increase in parallel and in reciprocity, they mutually balance and amplify one another. A writer who isn’t that good is not much read and does not stand out from the others. Thus, the readership is the one that decides which book to buy, who to read… In final analysis, the readership is the factor influencing selection. And it’s rather a good thing that people should have this capacity.
To call yourself a Kurdish writer, must you necessarily write in Kurdish?
Particularly here in Northern Kurdistan, the latin alphabet is the one in use. There are only a few letters that are different from the Turkish alphabet, which is also the latin one. To read and write in Kurdish for someone who already knows how to write and read in Turkish [the official language taught in school, mandatory in Turkey] is not very difficult. After a few days, the person can learn to write and read in Kurdish. There are no problems at that level…But what we are talking about is writing in one’s maternal language, yes? The definition of the maternal language, internationally accepted including by Unesco states: “the language that shapes a person’s identity is the maternal language”. For example, the population in Diyarbakır is made up of 98% individuals of Kurdish origin, but if you consider solely the aspect of language, only 50% speak Kurdish. Because a large number of people grew up “in Turkish”, unfortunately, particularly in the young generation now aged under 30 and who, following the oppressions in the 90S, had to adapt to the State in order to go to school, to find a job. Kurdish is definitely the language of the mothers, but their maternal language is Turkish.
When you think about it, the question isn’t only whether you’re technically able to write in the language, but also the way your mind has been shaped. Children start kindergarden at 5, and grade school at 6, up until that age, there is the television at home, the sounds on the street, everything is in Turkish… The maternal language is not the one used most intensively at home, either. And when school begins, the current school system tells the children “the Kurdish language is a lie, a mistake.” That child then experiences a trauma. Afterwards, he attempts to learn Turkish and experiences a feeling of rejection against the Kurdish language. When he or she will attend university in another town, even having received the same teachings in Turkish, and even if he or she claims to be Turkish, even when better results than others, his or her origin will be a source of discrimination. This often generated a political awakening that leads to a reappropriation of Kurdicity. But there are 13 years of living between the first grade in school and university. And so, a distancing from Kurdicity during 13 years prior to a return to this identity. Assimilation has done its job. To what extent can a person return to the past. Reclaiming origins required a tremendous amount of energy. Because this time, the person must take a different look on the those 13 years in order to reclaim what was lost. And what was lost during 13 years is hard to find again, even in 50 years Sometimes, it is impossible. How then can that person write?
Currently in Turkey, there is nothing in the formal school system concerning Kurdicity [there does exist an Kurdish option starting at 11 or 12, but it is very seldom available and only offers 2 hours of lessons per week, the same as with an optional foreign language]. Not only is Kurdish not recognized but even worse, it is considered as something foreign, bad, hostile, dangerous, threatening. Returning to one’s Kurdicity is difficult… This is why we always say that as long as there will be no teaching In one’s maternal language in Turkey, there will be no true Kurdicity. People whose blood and ancestors are Kurdish, will not be Kurdish themselves..
What role do publishing houses have in the development of Kurdish literature?
There are currently a number of Kurdish publishing houses. The major problem now is the fact the new generation cannot learn Kurdish. 3 000 Kurdish villages were burned down, destroyed in the 90s 7. Kurds were forced to exile themselves into the towns. The children grow up there. In the villages, there is agriculture and cattle, but this is impossible in town. The only solution in order to survive is to study, become an employee, a civil servant. Thus the Kurds are pulled away from their language, and their culture. A language that is not spoken (or used) by the children is bound to disappear. In all the studies conducted by organizations from civil society there are exchanges on the learning of the Kurdish language by children. There were two, three publishing houses specializing in children’s books but, following the latest coup d’etat [that of July 15 2016] they were pressured into stopping publication. Because their owners are often civil servants [on top of publishing which was not enough to make a living], they can’t work as they would like…
Generally speaking, the publishing houses that cannot contain this explosion of literary creations but cannot distribute the works sufficiently, incur losses. A run of 1 000 costs more than one for 10 000 copies… Small print runs, not enough craving for books to read, too many publishing houses, digital and internet occupying an important space, all this is difficult, economically speaking. Despite all this, they carry on. This year, I think three new publishing houses opened. And every year a number of books are published.
Is independent literature possible here?
Everyone says that politics are very intense in Kurdistan. But politics aren’t everything. In all the writers, there is a concern and an effort to safeguard the Kurdish language. When as a poet you write a poem, you use a word expressing how you feel and which seems adapted to what you want to say, and also seems beautiful and has an agreable sound. Then, you tell yourself “yes, but this word is of Turkish, or Arabic origin, I will replace it with a word in Kurdish.” But it can happen that this word does not carry the same flavor. The worry in your mind may block the exteriorization of the feeling you wish to transmit, or modify it.
When you write, you are forced into a certain self-censorship. “I’m writing the word ‘Kurdistan’ here, will that be a problem? Will my book be banned and pulled out of circulation? Will I be sanctioned? Will I be arrested?” The same thing happens at the political level. If a fictional character is in opposition with the existing political thought, the readership might react. “Millions of Kurds think this way and you, you created a character who thinks otherwise!”
There are many factors… But the main ones are fear and the concern in safeguarding the language because they can modify the feelings and also, take precedence over the literary aspect.
You are also a translator. How important is translation for Kurdish literature?
Kurdish literature is blossoming but, at the same time, it is not sufficiently known at the world level. Economic problems also impinge on translations. What is translate dis not necessarily the best in Kurdish literature but books whose authors have the financial means to have it done, sometimes out of their own pocket… Kurdish translators working in foreign languages are relatively rare. Moreover, this difficult work generates little revenue. This is why translations of foreign literature into Kurdish are often done from the Turkish. But these are not prized very much because the Kurds here all speak Turkish and can access the Turkish version. In any event, the problem is that relations with foreign writers are not strongly established and that the work cannot be done in an organized fashion but only at the individual level. I would prefer that a literary council be created and choose, for example, five of the best books in Kurdish, and translate them in 25 different languages and then publish them. But there is no such thing in existence.
I have an English friend, I have him translate my poems. Not the best poems, but my own…This kind of individual approach is problematic… A few authors are translated this way into other languages, particularly toward German because there are many Kurds in Germany. But these cases are few. We know world literature because we can read in Turkish. But unfortunately, the international world of literature does not know us.
Examples of Kurdish books to be translated?
There are many… I am no authority… It is a difficult question. As I have worked for reviews and taught literature, I can say that each one has a different importance. First of all, you must know the Kurds, For example, the first novels in Kurdish were published in the Caucasus, in Irak and in Iran. They were published in different places, with no prior consultations. They may not be of great literary quality but they have great importance for Kurds. At any rate, those who wish to know Kurdish literature, must be familiar with these books as well as with the life of these authors. How were these books brought to life? Moreover, their authors did not write them as “novels”. They are books written in a surge of awakening of the Kurdish language, in order to spread and develop its use. These are books that tell many things about Kurdish literature. They should be translated… There are many names in modern Kurdish literature. For example, Arjen Arî was a friend I particularly appreciated and I love his poetry very much. There are names such as Berken Bereh, Ahmet Hüseyin…
We have another important problem. The Kurdmandjis do not know authors like Sorânis, Zazas and vice-versa. The Kurdish PEN proposed Abdulla Peşêw as a candidate to the Nobel prize. He is a poet of international standing. In himself, as a character as well as in his way of life, he is a living literary work. His writing has been translated into several languages. In my opinion, he lacks nothing in order to figure highly in world literature. As I am Kurdish and know him well, for me, there are nothing but positives about him. We read many world authors but there are no other poets who bring me as much pleasure as do Abdulla Peşêw and Arjen Arî. For example, Nâzım Hikmet is is very very great poet, we have read all his works but to my taste he does not compare with Arjen Arî who is much closer to me, I recognize myself in his words. Bahtiyar Ali is also a very great Kurdish author. He received a prize. He is sorân but some of his books were adapted into kurmandji. Helîm Yûsiv is another well-known writer in the Arab world. He writes in Kurdish, his books are translated in Arabic, in German and in other languages also. He is a young author and his works are absolutely of a world standing.
How do you see the future for Kurdish literature?
I am convinced that a Kurd familiar with the oral literature could write thousands of works. Because there exists a historical oral tradition, there exists a vast amount of accumulated knowledge, experiences, fine words and art…
I think that if the teaching of the maternal language was put in place, in no more than five, ten years, there could be a world-level Kurdish literature. I don’t mean to say that “a child learning Kurdish in school will become a writer ten years later.” Currently, none of the authors have a professional status. They are employed as civil servants or in business and can only devote a few hours a day to their writing. If the readership increases thanks to the teaching of the language, if literature is more widely distributed so that authors can begin to live from their trade, it will be an encouragement as more time, more information, more access to knowledge will lead to more creation.
Rojava provides an interesting example. With the teaching in Kurdish, with every passing day, literature spreads, new works are published, new authors appear. Now, writers publishing books over here wish to send them over there. Because the readership is much greater there.
I maintain my opinion that with the teaching of the maternal language, there will be a Kurdish literature which, in the short term, will be talked about internationally.