No really, I think that’s a good idea, Kurdish language classes in Trabzon. And in Denizli, Antalya, Konya and Bursa, for that matter. Everywhere where Kurdish kids are not the majority in school, a few hours per week of lessons in the second language of the country. Why? To bring Turkey’s biggest population groups, Turks and Kurds, closer together.
There is a lot going on in language education. Starting with this school year, parents can choose ‘Kurdish language as an elective class’ for their children from 5th grade on. When there are at least ten children interested at any school, the class can start. The Ministry of Education is surprised that this class is the least popular of all elective classes. Some 25,000 children chose it, and the ministry expected more.
I have talked to several Kurdish parents about the elective class. From what I heard, I conclude that, in general, people have three reasons for not sending their kids to Kurdish class. One: they don’t know it exists. Two: in Turkey’s very competitive school system, they consider elective classes like extra mathematics and extra English to be more important. Three: they principally reject the idea of learning your mother tongue in an elective class, and so they boycott it.
The last group demands Kurdish education, meaning that all classes in school are given in Kurdish in the regions where Kurds have a majority. That is also one of the most important demands of the Kurdish political movement. Not all Kurds support the idea. Some say in Turkey Turkish is the common language and they find it important their children learn it very well to be able to make a living when they grow up.
I find it a very interesting discussion. The supporters of full education in Kurdish say that that is necessary to preserve the language. And that it will be self-supporting: once Kurdish is totally free and more and more people speak it properly, it will once again be the first language spoken in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, and you can make a living speaking it. Teachers will be needed, interpreters, you will have to know Kurdish to work for municipalities, etcetera.
Turkish won’t be lost in this system, they say. Extensive Turkish classes will be given, so that children become bilingual and language will not be an obstacle in life in whichever region of Turkey they choose to live in when they grow up. Besides the Turkish class in school, Kurdish kids’ Turkish will further improve by doing what Kurds are doing already anyway: watching a lot of Turkish TV and reading Turkish papers and Turkish internet.
That’s a very ideal picture, and I don’t know if it’s possible. But I do know that radical steps are needed to preserve the Kurdish language. It is amazing to see how ‘Turkified’ the Kurdish spoken in Turkey is. When I talk to my neighbours in Diyarbakir, I often ask them words in Kurdish and very often they say that words in Kurdish are the same as in Turkish. The words for fruit, vegetable, journalist, and many more, they just don’t know the Kurdish words. And even worse: they are even not aware of the fact they don’t know the Kurdish words. Without language, a culture as well will be lost, and you see the signs of that happening already very clearly.
But language has another role as well. It helps to keep cultures alive, but it can also lead to more understanding between people. That is actually what you see happening in the Southeast of Turkey. People watch Turkish TV all the time and they read news in Turkish media. If you watch the Turkish news and Turkish soaps and listen to Turkish music, you automatically get a good insight into Turkish life, language and culture. And into the Turkish perception of what is happening in Turkey, including the Kurdish issue.
Kurds understand Turks much better than Turks understand Kurds. Do Turks in Turkey get even a glimpse of Kurdish culture? Are they confronted with the Kurdish language systematically, or even at all? Do they watch or read the news from the Kurdish perspective? Do they listen to Kurdish music? Some Turks do of course, but in general: no, they don’t. They don’t even consider it. For many Turks, everything Kurdish has only a very negative connotation, or is even mainly related to terrorism. Some even call Kurdish a ‘terrorist language’.
I will never forget how a few of my neighbours in Üsküdar reacted when I told them earlier this year that I went to Sirnak, Mardin and Diyarbakir. Their faces expressed only one thing: deep disgust. They expressed it with words too. How could I go to a region inhabited by terrorists? Why would I go to a region that is very ugly and where no plants and trees grow? They really said that. Many Turks still don’t consider Kurdish a language, and discrimination against Kurds is widespread in Turkey.
The state is responsible for that. It denied the existence of Kurds for decades, it called Kurdish a Turkish dialect (even though both languages are in different language groups!) and defined Kurds as ‘mountain Turks’. And now the state is responsible for solving the problem. Giving Turks a realistic image of Kurds and their culture and language is not only the moral obligation of the state, but also a very important part of bringing people closer together and thus of solving the Kurdish problem.
Why not start in school, a place where (almost) every kid in Turkey goes? A few hours of Kurdish classes per week. Obligatory. While learning the language, Turkish kids also learn about, for example, Kurdish literature, Kurdish history and Kurdish music and dance. A really fun class when I picture it! Yes, I know many Turkish parents will resist such a class, but is that a reason not to do it? No, it isn’t. The parents, they are not the future of Turkey. Let’s raise the children with a broader view of brotherhood!