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A few days ago, during the show “O Ses Türkiye”, a young man from Mardin, Hayri Kasaç, wanted to sing a lullaby in Kurdish. To do so, he asked the animator’s permission.

All Hayri Kasaç wanted to do was to softly sing a lullaby his mother would whisper in his ear when he was a baby. He said his mother could not understand the words to the songs he sings and he only wanted to please her. Perhaps while he took 20 seconds to ask for permission to sing in his maternal language, this young man only wished to please his mother, but he was forgetting many things. In order to sing a lullaby in Kurdish, it was not enough for Hayri to seek authorization from the animator, but truly, he had to overcome imposed prohibitions. A language is not only a means of communication but also a fundamental instrument in defining a person’s identity and the society to which he or she belongs. Without language, existence is changed, the person is no longer the same, torn from his or her moorings.

For a lullaby he thought to present in 20 seconds, Hayri had to offer apologies and reasons for double that length of time. Then, he explained about motherhood and childhood. He attempted to express that his wanting to sing in his mother tongue on stage was not political, that he wasn’t making any demands. When, in fact, it was his natural right to do so.

We may have already heard real stories, a countless number of them, tied to the chain of prohibitions on the Kurdish language, we have testified about this, but it is no longer a secret that Kurds do not follow these imposed rules and that they refuse them. Of course, we could speak countless words concerning the condition of oppression caused by such a landscape of prohibitions but here, I would like to focus on how a tongue spoken in whispers has become a people’s resistance.

Turkey is a country living under the ethos of a powerful “monism”. To such an extent that in everyone’s eyes it is apparent that the Turkish State, built out of the cosmopolitant structure of the Ottoman empire, but conceptualizing a purety it wishes to create, uses for this purpose the elevation of Turkish as dominant language, and censors all other languages, going so far as to annihilate them. The Turkish nation-State does not only forbid Kurdish but also the names of villages, of Kurdish regions, of fountains, mountains, plains, Kurdish birth names for children. It considers as gravely criminal to express the fact that Kurds are a people, that their language and their culture exist.

parle turc
Images 1 and 2: In 2013, posters in a classroom in a school in Varto, a Kurdish town. On the left “Let us protect our Turkish tongue”, on the right “Speak Turkish or shut up!”
Image 3: Diyarbakır prison, visitors’ hall “Speak Turkish, speak more”. To this day in prison, disciplinary sanctions are still applied…
Image 4: For sale online, an object labelled “Teacher’s mug” with the inscription “Speak Turkish or shut up!”

Following the [military] coup on September 12 [1980], this policy was implemented through legilsation dictating to the people, through force and torture, the slogan “Citizen, speak Turkish, speak more”. In attempting to suppress Kurdish culture and language, it adopted as main objective to void young Kurds of their memory. Meanwhile, on the other side, there exists a people resisting all these strategies for its annihilation and that will not submit to order. When the Kurdish language was totally forbidden in public, it transformed through the intermediary of bardes dengbêj and çirokbêj, into a language circulating from one mouth to another, in whispers. Despite everything, it could not be destroyed in daily use. Those who gave their heart to Kurdish music recorded moving melodies, hiding in small dark back rooms. Those cassettes circulated from hand to hand. They were listened to in homes, at low volume. Through these songs and lullabies, our childhood, like that of Hayri, found incredible meaning. From them were born resistance fighters, both male and female, fighting for their tongue without waiting for approval nor expecting gratitude.

In fact, I am speaking about the millions who resisted torture, who were imprisoned for speaking their mother tongue, who resisted despite the genocidal efforts of the forces at the service of those in power and of their barbaric policies of destruction. Even when forced to be mute, to annihilation, to the negation of their identity, these millions belong to a people that maintains its language in its soul, like a panorama for its children. There can be no doubt that this people has faced the most cruel, vilest and lowest practices imaginable.

Seeing Hayri, once again we lived through the sadness and the anger of psychological oppression. We all knew that this reflected only one part of reality. The other side of the medal is found in resistance. Like with Ahmet Kaya, proud and head held high, being attacked because he had sung in Kurdish!

Finally, even in Hayri Kasaç we see a striking example that reflects the socio-political situation created by the imposed non-existence on a people, young Kurds have long been aware of the fact that, being torn from their language despite so much lost blood and lives, means being condemned to a tearing up of their roots. This is why they want more than what the State deigns grant: they want what belongs to them. This is why they do not want to speak their language while having to show gratitude for doing so. So, faced with the resistance shown by a people, sometimes tempted to allow itself to be torn away from itsel in order to be put into a different mold each time, can prohibitions and oppressions still have any kind of legitimacy?

Sara Aktaş

February 21 2020 for the “World Day on Maternal Languages”.

Lorî Lorî by Groupe Lilith, and the English translation of the lullaby…

Lullaby, Lullaby, My Little Baby
We are long-way migrants
We are wounded, our wound is deep
We are thirsty and hungry in these deserts
We are old and elderly, we are women and we are young
Lullaby, lullaby, my little baby
Patience and peace of my life
You’re melting in front of me
I can not do anything
Like the giants they fired their eyes
They attacked with Napalm
They did spring the dark and black
They split the sweet life
My son’s sweet and expensive life
It goes cheap today, this way
A death as that
It is very difficult, painful and unsteady

Sara Aktaş
Sara Aktaş, poet, writer and Kurdish feminist activist, is a member of the Free Women’s Congress. She has published two books of poems, “Aksi Yalandır”, (The Opposite would be a lie) 2013 and “Savaş Yıkıntıları”, (War Ruins) 2005.
Jailed on a number of occasions and at risk of long years of incarceration, she took the decision to seek refuge in France. She continues writing for different media.

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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