8 Temmuz 2014 Salı

Turkey's Kurdistan: a multicultural society

I have already spoken about the variety of political streams in what the Kurdish citizens of Diyarbakır (Amed) like to call -- without any ulterior motive -- “Turkey's Kurdistan” or “Northern Kurdistan.” It is just a natural name inherited by history. However, the land of Kurdistan is not inhabited only by Kurds. The ethnic and cultural tissue of this land is even more varied than its political structure. “Kurds” and “Kurdish” are appellations that are too general.

A living picture of this multiculturalism appeared when we met some members of the Council of Forty (Kırklar Meclisi) in the courtyard of the Surp Giragos Church, the biggest Armenian church in the Middle East, recently restored at the initiative of Sur Mayor Abdullah Demirbaş. The Council of Forty, organized by Demirbaş, brings 46 members representing various communities in rural Diyarbakır together regularly. Around the table are leaders from the Nakshibendi, Armenian, Syriac, Nur, Keldani, Turkmen Alevi and Domani (Roms of Kurdistan) communities. I must confess that I was not only impressed by this plurality but also became aware of my ignorance in the course of the discussions we had.

I learned, for example, that Zazas who define themselves as Kurds but speak a very different language from Kurdish Kurmanchi are not exclusively Alevis living in Dersim; but some of them are Sunnis living in neighboring provinces and Şeyh Said, the leader of a Kurdish uprising in 1925, was a Zaza. I also learned that there are dozens of Turkmen Alevi villages in Diyarbakır and that there are still four Jewish households in Diyarbakır. They prefer not to reveal their identity, which explains, according to Demirbaş, why a synagogue is lacking on his “Street of Cultures,” where a historical mosque, the Surp Giragos Church, the Keldani Catholic Church and an Alevi house of worship all welcome their own believers side by side. Unlike Jews, every day more people are revealing their Armenian identity. Ergün Ayık, the president of the Diyarbakır Surp Giragos Armenian Church Foundation, told us that in the recent past there were only eight Armenians in Diyarbakır, but now he counts more than 100. Şehmuz Diken, the author of “Gittiler İşte” (They Have Left), a story of Diyarbakır's Armenians, added that hundreds of thousands of descendants of the Armenians who survived the genocide remain in the region and have started to reveal their multiple identities.

After the roundtable we visited the Keldani Catholic Church, also recently restored, which dates back to the fifth century. Yusuf Karadayı, the leader of the Keldani community, gave us an archive document describing the Ottoman census done in 1869. According to the document, in addition to 10,000 Muslims, roughly 8,000 Armenians, 1,500 Syriacs, 1,000 Keldani, 300 Greeks and 300 Jews were living in Diyarbakır. One thinks about how not just Diyarbakır but Turkey might have been different if the tragedies during the building of the nation-state had not occurred.

Demirbaş, tireless defender of multiculturalism, was elected mayor in 2004 with more than 50 percent of the vote, but he was removed from office and jailed in 2007 because he decided to provide local services in six languages. He was re-elected in 2009 with over 60 percent of the vote. Diyarbakır liked and embraced the cultural tolerance. The Sur Municipality erected a monument in the name of the victims of ethnic cleansings. On the monument one can read, “We experienced the pain so that it is not suffered again,” in Kurdish, Turkish, English, Armenian, Hebrew and Pontus Greek. So, it is not so surprising to learn that a demonstration organized by LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual) individuals was recently held in Diyarbakır but it was not possible to hold such demonstration in Bursa.

Before finishing this piece, let me remark that multiculturalism presents a great challenge to offering an education in the mother tongue. Indeed, Kurmanchi, the most used language in the region, may not be the only new language in the future. Education in other mother tongues should also be considered. As I noted in my last column, learning Turkish perfectly is a must in order to prevent inequality of opportunity; a double language education system should be envisaged. The approach of the recently established Selahaddin Eyubi University regarding this issue is worthy of note. They decided to make Turkish the main language of education but to also push the students to learn English through intensive courses given by instructors who are native speakers as well as to encourage all students to learn Kurmanchi. However, Kurmanchi will be obligatory for students in the university's medical faculty. And last but not least, the students in the commerce department have to learn Syriac! 
(This article is published in Today's Zaman, July 8)

Surp Grigor Church before and after restoration

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