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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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