East Timor, spring 2003. The country, formerly a part of Indonesia, which is again formerly a colony of the Netherlands (but East Timor was, before becoming part of Indonesia, not colonized by the Dutch but by Portugal), had been in existence for one year. I jumped on a plane and flew there to make stories about the then youngest country on earth. I think a lot about that trip these days, while many people are talking about the Kurds taking their opportunity in disintegrating Iraq to carve out their state. East Timor too was building a nation.
East Timor is a tiny little country, only a bit more than 15,000 square kilometers, so about the size of Diyarbakir province. Still, it is so rugged that several languages existed there: people living two villages apart from eachother could sometimes hardly communicate since visiting each other had been too hard for centuries.
Contributing to the lack of unity of East-Timor were the occupiers and oppressors, Portugal and Indonesia, who for centuries did not allow an own East-Timorese identity to develop. Eventually – long story, google that – the people managed to gain independence on 20 May 2002.
Then – among others – a friend of mine came in. He worked for an international NGO and with a team of locals he published a youth magazine. Its goal was to help create a nation, a unified people. The children of East Timor were for the first time to hear about their land, their history from their perspective, their national heroes, and were for the first time getting a sense of belonging to a nation. The magazine even made a contribution to standardizing the language, Tetun, which had many different dialects.
East Timor was a nice example of a general truth: nations can only really develop when they have a state. Do you think that, for example, Italy was a unity before the space there in the south of Europe was actually called Italy? And, closer to home, was there a unified Turkish nation before Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey? There wasn’t: Atatürk not only founded the country, but shaped the nation – the people – as well. What does it mean to be a Turk? All necessary ingredients were added: a national anthem, a flag, an army, a ‘purified’ language and brand new alphabet, a state version of Sunni Islam, national heroes and holiday’s, even the ethnicity ‘Turk’ was constructed.
It’s what the Kurds have been doing for the last thirty years. They don’t have an official state (yet?) but they are building a nation already. Their nation has always been different one than the Turkish one, but especially the last thirty years they have added symbols to work on unity and construct the Kurdish identity.
Not 10 November (the day Atatürk died in 1938) is an important date for them to mourn, but 15 February, the day their leader was captured in 1999. Not 19 May (the day the War of Independence started in 1919) is commemorated passionately, but 15 August, the day in 1984 on which the first attacks against the Turkish state were carried out by the PKK.
The same counts for national heroes. Not Atatürk, but Öcalan. Not Sabiha Gökcen, who bombed Dersim, but Seid Riza. Not the Turkish soldiers who gave their lives (although Kurds do care deeply about their lives too), but the fighters in the mountains who died for Kurdistan. Not the Turkish national anthem Istiklal Marsi, but for example Herne Pêş (youtube that).
Not the Turkish flag that was painted red with their blood – both as fighters next to Turks in the war of independence and as victims of state massacres carried out for Turkish nationhood starting right after the war was won – but the Kurdistan flag in red, white and green with a yellow sun. Not Hürriyet, but Azadiya Welat. Not TRT, but NûceTV (formerly RojTV). Not the alphabet Atatürk introduced, but their own language, including the letters q, x, w, ê, î and û, with with you can write for example Cegerxwîn, one of the most important Kurdish national writers and poets – but I’m sure Nazım Hikmet is appreciated in Kurdistan too. Not ‘Happy is the one who calls himself a Turk’, but ‘I am a Kurd’.
The Kurds in Turkey have worked hard on their nation-building and they have come far. But they can’t strengthen it without independence or autonomy, since that is needed to develop your nation further, for example by setting up an education system that serves your needs. Let’s face it: even if you allow state schools in Turkey to educate kids in Kurdish, what use is it when they learn nothing about their own history but are still taught Turkish state truths? When they don’t read Kurdish writers, but only the grand names of Turkish literature? In the same category: what is the use of TRT6, for which the state changed the language from Turkish to Kurdish but not the Turkey centred message it delivers?
But there is no nation building together with Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Syria either. There are after all different Kurdish languages with even different scripts, which hampers mutual understanding. There are different geographical realities that give Kurds in different regions sometimes opposing interests. There are tribes and clans, and those who oppose them.
I often hear that it’s logical that the Kurds don’t have a state because of all these differences. But what if they had one? Imagine that. They could develop an education system, choose several official languages, they could have public TV broadcasting in these languages (which NûceTV is already doing, by the way) about the news in their own country, they would have a UN representation, a national anthem and their soccer team playing in the World Championship (you bet they’d qualify!) and statutes of their national heroes on town squares. All impossible now.
So, let’s turn this common narrative around that the Kurds don’t have a state because they have no unity, and make it compatible with what is known about the unity of nations. It’s exactly the opposite: the Kurds are no unity because they don’t have a state.