When you grow up with dengbej, as is the case with all Kurds who were born and raised on their ancestral lands, it will be part of you for the rest of your life. For Kurdish singers, that is even more the case.
Acclaimed Kurdish singers Şivan Perwer and Mem Ararat talked to Ahval about the influence the old Kurdish story-telling tradition has had on their art. Even when life took them far from where their cradle stood, it is the dengbej tradition that they continued to build on.
As one of the oldest cultural expressions in Mesopotamia, dengbej should be added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. This is according to opera singer Pervin Chakar, who has started a petition to gather support for and raise awareness about the importance of dengbej, an ancient Kurdish storytelling tradition. Chakar, who is originally Kurdish, lives in Germany and performs all over Europe, told Fanack, “Collecting signatures is only part of the campaign. I want to cooperate with music and cultural institutes to make this happen.”
(This is a story from summer 2018 that was already on my website but not archived, and newsletter subscribers will get an alert that it’s ‘published’ now.)
The Amsterdam based Foundation for Literature gave Kurdish poet and translator Kawa Nemir a chance to catch his breath after arriving in the Netherlands from Turkey, where he was under increasing political pressure; Nemir became a writer in residence in the foundation’s program ‘Refuge City’. But Nemir is not the kind of man to catch his breath: he has been working hard ever since he landed in Amsterdam four months ago. ‘I am like a guerrilla’, he says in a cafe in a side street of one of Amsterdam’s famous historic canals. ‘I take my task very seriously and I never quit.’ The task ahead: publish hundreds of books in Kurdish, both Kurdish and international classics. Now that publishing in Kurdish in Turkey had become close to impossible, Nemir is aiming to make Amsterdam a hub for literature in Kurdish.
QANDIL – As soon as Chopy Fatah leaves the backstage tent, it starts: girls in guerrilla outfits or in traditional Kurdish glitter dresses want to give her a kiss, journalists want a quote and PKK members can’t wait to get a picture taken with her.
Dutch-Kurdish singer Chopy – living in the city of Amersfoort – was born in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and moved to the Netherlands with her family when she was just a toddler. She can’t turn down all the requests, and doesn’t want to either: ‘These people love me, they are my fans. Look at these adorable girls, how could I possibly say that kisses would mess up my make up?’
It’s Newroz, 21 March. The first day of spring when Kurds (and many other nations in the region) celebrate the beginning of the new year. Location of the celebrations: a green meadow between the rugged ridges of the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan on the Turkish border, an area that has been under the military control of the Kurdish armed movement the PKK for years. A few hundred guerrillas have come down from their camps to this meadow, just like thousands of their followers from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. On stage there is Kurdish music and speeches by politicians and high PKK members. By the fence between the stage and the public five guerrillas are standing guard, two men and three women. On the meadow people are dancing and picnicking in groups.
Chopy Fatah (30), who is usually dressed in wide dashing glitter dresses, is performing today in guerrilla outfit: wide green trousers, coat, keel. ‘It was made especially for me and I love it’, she says. But the fact that she is here, does that also mean that she supports the PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the EU and US? ‘I support the Kurds’, she says. ‘I don’t speak out about politics. I prefer to contribute via culture and music.’
But in Qandil everything breaths politics. And even more so during Newroz, a centuries old celebration that was brought back to life over the last couple of decades in Turkey, instigated by the PKK. It’s for a reason that PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan picked Newroz as the day to announce a ceasefire and a withdrawal of PKK forces from Turkey, now exactly a year ago.
The AKP government, lead by Prime Minister Erdogan, was supposed to carry out democratic reforms, but nothing much happened apart from a few half-hearted measures. One of the most important problems, the constitution that breaths Turkish nationalism, remained untouched.
The PKK is becoming impatient. The withdrawal of the troops has already been put on hold last fall, and this month a PKK leader said the peace process would be over if the government doesn’t start reforms soon after the local elections of 30 March. The threat wasn’t made more concrete.
Several guerrillas express their disappointment in the peace process,which started so promisingly. But they prefer not to talk about it too much today. Today there are celebrations. While Dutch Chopy is getting ready to go on stage, a guerrilla says: ‘It’s important that Chopy is here. She represents Kurdish unity for me. Because she makes pure Kurdish music, and also because she doesn’t speak about politics. She is very popular in our camps, did you know that?’
A tour of the Kurdish production of a classic play opens a new frontier for the language.
Eager spectators squeezed into whatever standing or sitting room they could find — aisles, stairs — because the theater’s 1,500 seats were all taken. Thunderous applause marked the end of the show as some viewers succumbed to tears.
Theater producer Celil Toksoz still gets goosebumps when he thinks back to the first Kurdish-language performance of “Hamlet” in his native Diyarbakir. He attributed the emotional outpouring to the historic revival the Kurdish language has undergone in recent years as restrictions on its use have been rolled back.
“It’s such an important historical play, performed in a language that was fully banned in Turkey for such a long time, and finally this is possible,” Toksoz told SES Türkiye. “It makes people feel like they’re being recognised as Kurds.”
Toksoz and his Amsterdam-based RAST Theatre company, in co-operation with the Diyarbakir city theatre, are behind the ongoing international tour of a Kurdish production of Shakespeare’s classic play. After an autumn stint in the Netherlands, the production made its Turkey premier in Diyarbakir last month. Toksoz’s crew will perform in cities across Turkey before heading for northern Iraq and Germany around February.
For the director, the tour is about more than theatre: it’s a way to develop his mother tongue, which was suppressed in Turkey for decades. Indeed, Toksoz said he got the idea when many years ago he heard a politician said Kurdish “isn’t a real language you could perform ‘Hamlet’ in.”
“It became a dream to produce a Kurdish ‘Hamlet’,” Toksoz told SES Türkiye.
Language of civilization
A more permissive attitude towards Kurdish has prevailed in recent years. The most restrictive bans were lifted in 1991, and as part of Turkey’s EU membership bid, private Kurdish courses opened in the early years of the the AKP’s tenure.
Elective language classes in secondary schools introduced by the government earlier this year allow students to study Kurdish for two hours a week. A state Kurdish-language TV channel has aired since 2009.
But because the language was stifled for much of Turkey’s history and Turkish is still the medium of instruction in public schools, some Kurds still struggle with the language.
In a television interview earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Aric said the government was opposed to full education in Kurdish.
“Even if there was no constitutional obstruction, do you think education in Kurdish would be of good quality? Is Kurdish language of civilisation?” Arinc said. “We’re not thinking of any mother tongue education like that. Turkish as the language of instruction secures unity, and Turkish is also a language of civilisation.”
Some linguistic trouble
Translator Kawa Nemir told SES Türkiye the “Hamlet” production team had some linguistic trouble.
“Kurds are not educated in Kurdish, so there is a lack of understanding of their own language,” Nemir said, adding that some actors didn’t understand some words in the script.
“That’s a sign that it is probably more difficult for the audience, so I adjusted the language by using more commonly used words,” Nemir added.
Firat, 21, said he struggled at some points of the Diyarbakir performance, but that didn’t take away from his experience.
“I didn’t know all the words, but I didn’t mind; the feeling came across 100 percent,” said the university student who attended the Diyarbakir performance. “In daily life, Kurdish is not as advanced as in this play.”
In light of these difficulties, Toksoz and other Kurds have taken the initiative to revive and enrich their language. An increasing number of projects, like his, aim to develop the language in areas outside of daily life, such as theater and science.
“The people, the history, the language, a people that still wonders who they are, if they can be or not be who they are. My home city, that’s what I have been working for,” the artist, who grew up in Turkey but spent most of his adult life in the Netherlands, told SES Türkiye.
A fiery speech on Kurdish rights
The play has been warmly received elsewhere in Turkey, including an Ankara performance attended by Minister of Culture Ertugrul Gunay, CHP Vice Chairman Sezgin Tanrikulu, and BDP co-chair Gultan Kisanak.
“That’s recognition too, that representatives from all these parties were there,” Toksoz said. “I talked to the minister of culture. He said the play as we performed it suited ‘Hamlet’ and the Kurdish people very well.”
The tour hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has become entangled with politics at certain points. Two people unveiled pro-Kurdish banners on the stage in Diyarbakir as the audience delivered a standing ovation; the applause grew louder.
Diyarbakir Metropolitan Mayor Osman Baydemir thanked the actors for their performance before launching into a fiery speech on Kurdish rights.
Toksoz dismissed the controversy.
“I was asked several times why there is politics around the play. It wasn’t my intention, but it’s just what happens,” he told SES Türkiye.
“It’s unavoidable, since the Kurdish issue is part of people’s daily lives,” Toksoz added. “The play gives people an opportunity to express themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Rehearsals are under way for the world premiere of the Kurdish version of Hamlet, which will be performed in eight cities across Turkey at the end of the year to celebrate Kurdish language and promote a message of peace.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become more than a classic play to a group of busy artists, giving them a unique way to celebrate Kurdish language and culture and offer gesture for peace. “It is a dream come true to direct a Kurdish Hamlet,” director Celil Toksöz told SES Türkiye.
He recalled a Turkish politician who was quoted years ago saying Kurdish was not a real language and actors couldn’t be used to perform Hamlet. “I never forgot that,” he said. “Of course, you can perform Hamlet in Kurdish. It’s a very rich language and Kurdish is a very rich culture.” The upcoming performances are proof that the so-called “mountain language” is relevant, he said “This play is my way of singing my language out loud,” Toksöz said.
The rehearsals for the first ever Hamlet in Kurmanci, the Kurdish language spoken by most Kurds in Turkey, are in full swing at the Cegerxwin Cultural Centre in Diyarbakir. Hamlet and Laertes practice their fencing match, Ophelia’s funeral is done once again and Hamlet rejects Ophelia.
But this will not be a classical performance. The play has been modified and music plays a much bigger role than in the classical version. Parts of Shakespeare’s original text have been adapted into songs in the Kurdish musical tradition accompanied by traditional instruments, such as the daf and davul (percussion), the zurna (a woodwind instrument), saz and banjo.
Toksöz also included dengbej singers. In Kurdish tradition, dengbej is a melodious way of telling stories. Once on the verge of disappearing, the practice is being revived. The dengbej singers will guide the audience through the performance. They connect the scenes with introductions and commentary.
Toksöz said Hamlet is the right play at the right moment as its themes are current in Kurdish society. “One of the main emotions of Hamlet is doubt, and in extension to that revenge, love, betrayal, murder. Universal themes, but they fit the situation of Kurds very well,” he said. “Kurds are in doubt about their identity, about how Turkish they may have become, and about how to react to suppression. Should revenge be taken, should we accept the situation as it is, should we beg for our rights or take other action, and are we prepared to sacrifice lives for it?”
For Kurds, Toksöz said, it all comes down to the key sentence in Hamlet. “In Europe, where I live, the matter of ‘to be or not to be’ is something individual,” he said. “But for Kurds it’s about a whole nation. Do we choose to be or not to be? Do we choose to exist, or not to exist? And with which sacrifices?”
Toksöz, 52, came to the Netherlands in 1986, after growing up in the predominantly Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir and Elazig. He is now the artistic leader of Rast Theater in Amsterdam, and cooperates with the Diyarbakir City Theater to produce the Kurdish Hamlet. One of their actors, Yavuz Akkuzu, plays the title role.
Because songs are so important in this version, Toksöz decided to work with three professional singers for other key roles: Gülseven Medan plays Ophelia, Ali Tekbas (who also wrote all the music) plays Horatio and famous Kurdish performer Rojda is Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. The play is scheduled to premiere October 17th in Amsterdam, then the troupe will tour in the Netherlands. A tour in Turkey will follow in early November, with performances slated for Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Diyarbakir, Van, Batman, Sanliurfa and Mardin.
In Turkey, the text will have subtitles for the audience. Toksöz said both Kurds and Turks will come see the play. “Besides celebrating Kurdish language and culture, I want to make a peace gesture with this play,” he said.
Rojda told SES Türkiye she does not fear negative reactions in the wake of PKK violence. “People will come to the theater because they love plays, because they like Shakespeare, because they are curious about what it looks and sounds like in Kurdish,” she said. Rojda said she believes especially now, after this violent summer, that art is important. “Art can open doors to more understanding,” she said. “We keep hoping for peace and hope this Kurdish Hamlet can contribute to it somehow.”
In the Cegerxwin Cultural Centre, only short breaks are taken during the rehearsals, which started on September 1st and have to be completed October 14th, when the group flies to Amsterdam for the premiere. Akkuzu, the actor, says he is proud about his role, but nervous, too. “My Kurdish is good and I have performed in Kurdish plays before, but the translation was on such a high literary level that I didn’t always understand it,” he said.
He worked with the translator, Kawa Nemir, to use more ordinary Kurdish, which he said was better for him and the audience. The addition of music, especially dengbej, helps the actors convey the play’s meaning and emotions of the characters, he said. “It made my worries disappear,” Akkuzu said. “Now I feel very lucky to be in this play.”
Toksöz, the director, admits the performance is historic. “I don’t think of that too much,” he said. “You know, when you are working hard, you forget everything around you. But yes, when after a day of rehearsals I turn on the TV and see the news which is full of violence, I do realize that gestures of peace are very necessary.”