Turks grow wary in easing up on Kurds

A pending war in Iraq is raising fears of separatism, even as a language banloosens.

When Melike Irmak plays her most requested song, her shoulders sway and her head begins to bob. It is called "Garibim" - Kurdish that roughly translates to "I am poor and alone" - and is all the more popular because it has been legal to play it on the radio for only a few months.

Ms. Irmak - or DJ Melike, as she is known - walks a fine line musically, playing three Turkish songs for every Kurdish one. That in itself is a huge departure from the past. But she is still not allowed to speak Kurdish, her mother tongue, on air.

Just last August, Turkey lifted the ban on broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language. The parliament's vote to do so represented a push for social change - and a shove from the European Union (EU), which Turkey hopes to join.

But Kurds, who make up as many as 20 million of Turkey's 68 million citizens, say the changes are not being implemented quickly enough.

Here in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, which borders Iraq, many are worried that their drive for more civil freedoms will be set back by a US-led war against Saddam Hussein. Turkey's Kurds have benefited in the last three-plus years from a dissipation of hostilities after Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the banned PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], was captured and convicted - and called on his comrades to lay down their arms.

Still, one of Turkey's war concerns is for the "territorial integrity" of Iraq, code for Turkey's ardent opposition to an independent state Kurdish state in northern Iraq. US officials say that's not what they have in mind for a postwar Iraq, but the potential for Kurdish empowerment - or a new flood of Kurdish refugees into Turkey - has Turkey concerned it could again face a Kurdish separatist uprising.

None of that helps put the changes on the front burner - and it leaves Melike feeling frustrated. "We're only playing some Kurdish songs. It's like having one foot on the ground and the other in the air," she says. "It's my language, and when I hear it, I'm feeling good."

New regulations passed by parliament mean it is no longer illegal to use Kurdish on the radio. But the law stipulates there can be only four hours of spoken Kurdish radio programming per week, and only on state-run stations. The same goes for TV, but only two hours per week are currently allowed, according to the Supreme Council of Radio and Television in Ankara. Radio programming in Kurdish must be followed by Turkish translation; TV programming in Kurdish must include Turkish subtitles.

"It's very short. If you divide the four hours up over the course of the week, it's about 20 minutes a day. It's not enough for real programming," says Melike, who works for a private station here staffed by local Kurds, most under 30. Founded in the mid-1990s, it was closed for breaking the law and reopened in 2000 under a new name - "Gun" [Day] Radio and Television.

The new laws are specific, a broadcast official in Ankara says. For TV news, standard studios must be used and not altered for Kurdish viewers. "Reporter and anchors should appear in modern dress," the law states, according to the TV authority; ethnic Kurdish dress is banned.

Veysi Bolcat, the general director of Gun, says last August's changes are a good first step, but there are mountains to climb. A state prosecutor brought a $20,000 case against Gun in November, he says, for playing banned songs.

He reaches into his desk and grabs a list of 450 cassettes - 70 percent of them Kurdish, the rest far-leftist - which are banned. "If you can't use your language, it's like you're only half alive," he says.

Nazif Ulgen is waiting to teach fellow Kurds about the other half. He moved to Istanbul more than 25 years ago and later founded language schools called English Fast. His children speak English well enough to study at US universities, but they cannot communicate with their own grandmother, who speaks only Kurdish.

Immediately after the law was changed, he asked for permission to hold Kurdish classes. "The answer was that we were not allowed because anyone who wants to must establish a new building and a new organization," says Mr. Ulgen. "They decided this is an ethnic language and not an international language, so you can't teach it here or in an existing school teaching a language such as French or German."

Schools and universities are still not allowed to offer Kurdish classes. Private schools are - but the hurdles to opening a new school have made it impossible to find any school, in Istanbul or in the southeast, where Kurdish is being taught.

"This is a basic human right. But Turkish culture and history are not ready to change just like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "It takes time," he says, pointing to the 30,000 people who were killed in 15 years of violence between Kurdish militants and the Turkish Army. Over the next two years, he says, the demands of joining the EU will force Turkey to implement change more quickly.

In the southeast, many are trying to fight - or at least test - City Hall. Metin Boran, the director of the City Theater of Diyarbakir, is planning to produce the theater's first Kurdish play. Mr. Boran, who sports a beard and black turtleneck, has produced Kurdish plays while living in various Kurdish communities in Western Europe - but never here. The text of the play, he says, must be submitted to a review board before it's performed.

His biggest worry, however, is that young people will not be able to understand it. Many young Turkish Kurds grew up forbidden to speak Kurdish in public or to learn it in school. "Maybe the next generation can learn their culture," he says.

DJ Melike says that when she's free to play what she wants, she'll keep playing Turkish songs. "I just want Kurdish to be included, and maybe for us to run to a Kurdish news program."

That way, her mother - who speaks no Turkish - would know what her daughter was saying. "I hope after we join the European Union, something will change," she says. "I'd like to speak on the radio and have my mother understand."

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