Opened with a flourish, Turkey's Kurdish-language schools fold

The EU-prodded reform allowed private classes. But public-school instruction is still banned.

For years, Kurdish language instructor Aydin Unesi had to teach clandestinely throughout this city in Turkey's southeast region, home to the majority of the country's 14 million Kurds. But on April 1, 2004, he found himself presiding over the much-heralded opening of the first official private Kurdish language school here.

"We felt this was the moment, after 80 years of being prohibited, for this language to be permitted," Mr. Unesi says.

The euphoria did not last long. Although the school had a capacity of 480 students for each of its 10-week sessions, it enrolled only a fraction of that number. In early August, it closed with little fanfare, along with seven other Kurdish courses in Istanbul and southeast Turkey. [Editor's note: The original version misstated when the school closed.]

For the government, which allowed the schools to open as part of a wave of European Union-prodded reforms instituted to strengthen the country's candidacy for membership - under discussion this week in Brussels - the closings are proof that Turkey's Kurds are not really interested in learning their language.

Kurdish language activists counter that the desire to learn Kurdish is there, but it must be taught in public schools - a practice that's still banned.

It's a debate that dramatizes Turkey's struggle to defuse tensions with the Kurdish community.

Beyond the now-closed private courses, there is still precious little space in Turkish public life for Kurdish. There are currently no private television or radio stations that are allowed to broadcast in the language, and Turkey's national television has programming in Kurdish for just 30 minutes each week. The language, meanwhile, is still banned for official uses.

"If you learn a second language, like French, it should lead to some benefit, but there's nothing like that with Kurdish," says Suleyman Yilmaz, director of the language school in Diyarbakir, another city in the southeast, where a four-story building painted pink and beige was rented out and renovated in anticipation of a flood of students that never came.

Still, in Diyarbakir and other places in the region, there is strong evidence of a thirst for Kurdish culture and language. In the Asanlar music shop in Diyarbakir, the racks are stocked floor-to-ceiling with Kurdish-language tapes and CDs, banned only a few years ago. Mustafa Orhanciftci, the store's owner, says 70 percent of the music he sells is in Kurdish. He also doing brisk business selling Kurdish-language movies, most of them low-budget productions recently made by local amateurs. "People want these movies in their language," he says.

Unesi says Kurds simply couldn't afford the money or time needed to take private instruction. "It would be better to teach Kurdish in schools." he says. "It's better to study when you're a child."

A coalition of Kurdish grass-roots organizations has already begun a campaign called "I want to be taught in my mother tongue," aimed at pressuring the Turkish government to institute Kurdish language education in public schools. The campaign's organizers say they have already collected more than 300,000 signatures.

Such an initiative has little chance of success, at least without strong pressure from the EU, says Etyen Mahcupyan, director of the Democratization Project at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), an Istanbul-based think tank.

Modern Turkey, built on the remains of the polyglot and multicultural Ottoman Empire, has long looked at the Turkish language as one of the keys to unifying the nation. "I don't think the officials will take it seriously. It is too political," he says.

For now, the issue of Kurdish language education seems to be back at square one, with neither private nor public courses offered.

"We fell for the government's trick," says Mr. Yilmaz, director of the closed Diyarbakir school. "As the director of this school, I'm telling you that this language will never survive only on courses like this."

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