Professor and former HDP MP Kadri Yıldırım has passed away. It is hard to think of anybody who has made a more important contribution to the preservation, teaching and strengthening of the position of the Kurdish language in Turkey than him.
My tribute to Kadri Yıldırım would be void though if I did not mention the mothers of Kurdistan. It is thanks to them that Kurdish has survived in Turkey in the first place, and that Yıldırım’s work had so much relevance also outside academia.
The first thing I remember about him, is that he was so modest and incredibly kind. It must have been 2012 that I spent a day or two with the undergraduate students at the Department of Living Languages at Mardin Artuklu University, the department that Yıldırım lead. They were studying their mother tongue and were both deeply excited and worried about it. What if the political tide would change and the government would put a halt to their studies? Would it be held against them that they were studying a language that could turn into a taboo again at the snap of the state’s fingers?
The class, I remember, decided in unison to halt all their political activities and didn’t even go to Newroz celebrations that year to make sure nothing could be held against them. ‘We only work with our pens now’, they said – hesitantly, wondering if their decision was right or not.
Yıldırım, to whom I spoke a few days later during a long lunch in his beautiful office, didn’t comment about the student’s decision. It was their decision. He tried to detach the Department’s work from politics. Which was hard of course, because it was deeply entwined with it. Its very existence was a political decision, a way of the AKP to show that it was serious about respecting Kurdish rights. To nobody’s surprise, the hope of those days didn’t materialize – that’s another column but I wrote a story about it some years ago.
Not commenting on politics too much, one of the things that fascinated me about what Yıldırım told me, was that he himself had laid the foundations of his excellent Kurdish at a medrese, or religious school, in his youth. Those unofficial schools gave their education mostly in Kurdish and Arabic, half in secret sometimes. Yıldırım was born in 1959 and he could benefit from them, but by the 1970s, most medreses were closed by the state. He went on to study Theology but worked to improve his Kurdish throughout his life, he translated, wrote books that were used as materials for learning Kurdish, mastered different dialects, developed a curriculum, and contributed to an increasing awareness about the richness of Kurdish literature.
It’s always interesting to ask Kurds who speak Kurdish how they’ve learned it. In the history of the Turkish Repbulic, since 1923, it has never been possible to learn the language officially. Kurds often know their mother tongue to some extent, but it is littered with Turkish and most of them can’t read, let alone write it. I’ve tried to imagine what my Dutch would look like if I had only ever spoken it and never had a grammer, writing or reading lesson in my life. I can laugh at the imagined result, for Kurds in Turkey it is a harsh reality that is not funny at all.
Most Kurds learned Kurdish in their private lives. From their mothers and grandmothers, mostly. Women have been the group least affected by the state’s forced assimilation policies. They either didn’t go to school or attended only for a few years, so they weren’t threatened for years on end with the prospect of God’s fury if they spoke any other language than Turkish. There were uneducated Kurdish men too of course, but they were (are) army conscripts and forced to learn Turkish in uniform. Also in the Labour market, Turkish was obligatory. Only in the relationship with their mothers and grandmothers, children had no other language to turn to than Kurdish. It’s that close intimate relationship that is at the root of the survival of Kurdish in Turkey. If it weren’t for the mothers and grandmothers, Kadri Yıldırım could still have made his contributions, but it wouldn’t have found such a fertile soil to root and to blossom in.
The natural way
The number of women in Turkey that doesn’t speak any Turkish, is diminishing. Turkish TV, Turkish internet, a higher education rate for women, more women on the labour market, and ongoing migration from Kurdistan to cities like Istanbul, Izmir, Adana and Mersin: detaching yourself from the system in a very natural way has become harder, if not impossible. Even though the existence of the Kurdish language is no longer officially denied, it is gradually disappearing. It’s a painful paradox.
Let’s be grateful to the mothers and grandmothers, and to Kadri Yıldırım. Without them, Kurdish wouldn’t be where it is today. Let’s try everything in our power to preserve that legacy, and save the language without which an incredibly rich culture can’t survive.