About Ahmet Kaya and a young woman

The whole evening, actually the whole Kurdish question came together in one young woman last night. I saw and heard her during a break in the commemoration night for Ahmet Kayak, a Kurdish singer who died ten years ago in exile in Paris. She was being interviewed on camera about what Ahmet Kaya meant for her. The journalist wanted her to answer his questions in Kurmanji, her Kurdish mother tongue. I saw her hand tremble, she stumbled over her words and was so overwhelmed with emotion that she just couldn’t do it. After a few broken sentences in Kurmanji, she switched to Turkish.

What happened last night was unimaginable ten years, or even five years ago. In those days, the Kurdish question officially didn’t exist and Kurdish couldn’t be spoken in public. Ahmet Kaya was on one hand loved by both Kurds and Turks, but was also a man prosecuted and pressured so much in Turkey that he went into exile. He died in Paris, even though he wanted to die in his own country. Could he have come back now, if he were still alive? Could he have continued in Turkey with what he did indefatigably: call for everybody’s right in Turkey to be who he or she is, living peacefully together with everybody’s rights fully recognised?

I don’t know, but the undoubted fact is that Turkey has changed. The opening speech was in both Kurdish and Turkish. Another Kurdish singer in exile, Sivan Perwer, sang a song and spoke in Kurdish on screen with Turkish subtitles, and activist slogans were heard in both languages. All the major television stations were there to record it, and the audience was exploding with emotions. During a documentary about Ahmet Kaya’s life, in which concerts, interviews, scenes of his life and his funeral were shown, the audience behaved as if they were there: applauding, cheering, booing, finger whistling, standing ovations, tears.

But the fact that a lot has changed doesn’t mean that the past has been dealt with (or that there isn’t a whole lot that remains to be done before the Kurdish question is solved, for that matter). The past is deep in people’s systems. The past of forced assimilation, the past of denying people’s identities. That’s what became apparent in the young woman.

Her eyes were red from crying, her hands were shaking, she was bursting with emotion and wanted to speak confidently and proudly in her own language – she told me when we spoke afterwards walking away from the concert hall. But her own language just never had a chance to really take root in her. It was overshadowed by Turkish, the only language allowed for so many years. Even at home little Kurmanji was spoken, because her parents knew that their kids would have a better chance in Turkey if they spoke proper Turkish. She learned Kurmanji from her grandparents, and was now taking a course with a group of friends to learn her own language better. Her first public performance in Kurmanji sure wasn’t fluent, but it couldn’t have been more symbolic.

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