In Turkey, Kurdish writers once needed pseudonyms. Now they have a master's program.

The first graduate program in Kurdish language and culture is a rare bright spot in Turkey's initiative to improve the cultural rights of its Kurdish minority, whose language was banned for decades.

Scott Peterson / Getty Images
Led by senior Kurdish politicians such as Selahattin Demirtas (center), co-chair of the pro- Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), thousands of Turkish Kurds hold a protest march to the courthouse in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, on November 11. Kurds in Turkey may be seeing a change, as the study of the Kurdish language is now a graduate-level program there.

For 20 years, Tekin Cifci explored his native Kurdish language in secret, hiding behind a pseudonym when writing for semi-underground Kurdish magazines. For much of that time in Turkey, the use of Kurdish was banned – an utterance on the street could mean time in jail.

But today Mr. Cifci is writing the thesis for his master’s degree, in Kurdish and about Kurdish – and under his real name – as part of Turkey’s first-ever graduate program in Kurdish language and culture.

“I’m still not used to this new period,” says Cifci, who is part of the pilot Kurdish program of Mardin Artuklu University in southeast Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish heartland. The region has been plagued by civil war between Kurdish rebels and the state security forces since 1984, and witnessed tens of thousands of deaths.

That conflict has eased in the past decade. And the Turkish government last year announced a “Kurdish Opening” aimed at improving the lives of ethnic Kurds, by restoring some long-denied cultural rights.

But while many Kurds feel that little has changed – and point to some 1,500 Kurdish politicians and activists rounded up and jailed across the region since the “opening” – the Kurdish language program is planting new seeds that could transform attitudes.

New opportunity

“Each time our teachers explain about Kurdish language and culture, I find myself in a different world,” says Cifci. “It’s like coming into the world again, like being reborn to the culture…. Kurdish was a forbidden language for many years; never mind academic work, even speaking was forbidden.... Now the Kurds are recognized as a nation in Turkey.”

Cifci says he is proud to be one of Turkey’s first crop of “Kurdologists,” one of 30 accepted for the two-year master’s program. The university began its work in Kurdish last summer, teaching a crop of 50 language instructors whose certification will allow them to teach elsewhere in Turkey as new Kurdish programs are founded.

The interest was overwhelming. Some 550 people applied for the three-month summer course, and 350 to be candidates for the master’s degree.

“It’s incredible for me to see the numbers,” says Abdurrahman Adak, assistant chairman for the “live languages” program, which will include the Syriac and Arabic languages, as well as Kurdish. So far only Kurdish faculty have been chosen. “This is making preparation for coming years, if Turkish universities have these [Kurdish] branches. We are preparing from now.”

When setting up the program, the directors visited other well-established Kurdish programs at universities in northern Iraq and in Europe. In coming weeks Mardin will host a number of experts from the Center for Kurdish Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

President Abdullah Gul visited the Turkish university last month and praised the new language program. The Kurdish language also received an unexpected vote from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who last June used some Kurdish words when speaking to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

“Kurdish is one of the languages for which we should have respect, and it is also a language that is used by a considerable part of our people,” Mr. Davutoglu explained last week. “I addressed Massoud Barzani as ‘Kak.’ This means ‘mister.’ This respect is part of our culture. My duty is not to create enemies for Turkey, but to create friends.”

The limits

But there are limits: Even though there is now an official Kurdish-language state television channel, TRT6, and Turkey’s Higher Education Board has announced that Kurdish is an official language for academia, that board has so far refused permission for creation of a Kurdology institute.

And legal hurdles remain: In a court case against 153 Kurds in Diyarbakir – among them 12 elected mayors – judges in recent weeks have dismissed efforts to mount defense arguments in Kurdish, writing that it was an “incomprehensible language.”

The conflict also continues to simmer beneath the surface, and the main rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which still has wide popular support and declared a ceasefire until next summer, is deemed a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the US, and the European Union. Some factions continue attacks, and Turkish forces also counter them in southeast Turkey and at PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Yet at the university in Mardin, a project is under way to create a library of original historical handwritten Kurdish texts, and to play catch-up with more established Kurdish programs in the region and beyond, in a bid to make Mardin the recognized center of Kurdology.

“In the beginning, we had difficulty finding some educators, because in Turkey there is no one whose official profession this is,” says Dr. Adak, who himself speaks five languages. “But this university has found us and brought us together…. It is a very important step. We believe this will impact Turkish society, and help bring peace.”

Graduate student Cifci says he wants to be there, on an academic front line where Kurdish writers and intellectuals no longer need pen names for their poetry.

“We are not discussing anymore if there is a Kurdish nation or not, but how the education of Kurds can be in their mother tongue,” says Cifci. “Now more and more people accept that the Kurdish issue is not a terrorist issue…. When I started this program, the rector asked: ‘Where were you until now?’ I replied: ‘I was among those hiding my name.’”

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