Newroz is a millenniums old near and central Asian holiday which coincides with the March equinox, traditionally celebrated mainly by the Persian and Kurdish people. For the Kurds’ collective identity, Newroz – beyond the beginning of spring – has a mythological, that is, symbolic, cultural and consequently political significance. (See below Mark Campbell’s comprehensive story on the myth of Kawa and Newroz.)
Until the past few decades, the date March 21 did not mean much for the majority of people of Turkey. But since the mid 1980s, in parallel to the Kurdish revival, Newroz began to be celebrated en masse by Turkey’s Kurds, who were in the process of discovery of their long-forgotten ‘glorious past’. It looked as if a tradition was discovered and re-invented with new connotations in line with what the British historian Eric Hobsbawm underlined as the main features of a national revival. Hobsbawm asserted that all nations are usually built through revitalisation of long forgotten traditions in modern times. Modern elites ‘invented’ or ‘imagined’ nations by discovering long-forgotten practices, which usually had ritualistic and symbolic character. These practices insinuate a natural continuation with a suitable past and aim at the instilling of certain values and behavioural norms through repetition. Turkey’s Kurds’ discovery of their ‘glorious past’ through Newroz rituals would be considered as a typical case.
Under this symbolic shelter, an armed conflict was escalating between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrilla units, along with the development of a Kurdish political movement both in the Kurdish provinces of southeast Turkey and in the major cities, a major event of which were the annual Newroz celebrations. Many books were published on Kurdish culture and history in which the legend of Newroz played a significant role. A variety of peculiarly Kurdish symbols, including the Kurdish colours (yellow, green and red); songs in Kurdish; Sheikh Said and Seyyid Riza – regional leaders who rose up in revolt against Ankara – as Kurdish martyrs; Abdullah Öcalan as the nation’s leader along with the myth of Kawa, were blossoming around the country.
The Turkish government viewed this revival from the outset as a matter of counter-insurgency, imposing punitive measures to suppress any cultural or political expression of Kurdish identity. Among these expressions, any attempts to demonstrate on the day of Newroz were quelled with violence. In defiance of the prohibitions, Kurds persistently tried in growing numbers to celebrate Newroz by lighting fires on the hilltops and mass demonstrations in the urban squares.
‘Nevruz’ or névrose
Unable to cope with the growing popularity of the Newroz protests, authorities revised their approach to the opposite pole, suddenly realising that their Turkic cousins of Central Asia had a spring holiday called ‘Nevruz’.
In March 1995, then Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller announced that not ‘Newroz’, but ‘Nevruz’ was in fact a Turkish holiday and would be officially celebrated in Ankara and the Kurdish provinces. Ceremonies were performed with the representatives of the Central Asian ‘Turkic Republics’ to mark the ‘sublime day of the nation’. The Kurdish national colours – red, yellow and green –the wearing of which is still treated as a political crime, were now declared to be ‘Turkish colours’. Since then, official Nevruz has been observed with military parades, official Nevruz fires and ceremonies emphasising how large and sublime the Turkish nation was. The Ministry of Culture has sponsored volumes of books, in which Nevruz holiday is glorified as a centuries-old Turkish tradition.
Beyond that, ‘Nevruz’ was not merely a spring holiday but the day when the founding mythological event of the Turkish nation, Ergenekon, had occurred back in history, just like the Kawa myth of the Kurds. According to Turkish mythology, the Turks’ ‘golden age’ in their imaginary abyss, Ergenekon, was ended with famine and draught, which led an ironmonger among them to melt down the mountain in order to open a passage out to search for new lands. Reflecting this legend, in a message to the schoolchildren, the Ministry of Education declared the following on 20th of March 1996: “Nevruz is a Turkish holiday. Its origin is Ergenekon. Our ancestors celebrated this day for many centuries as the day of Ergenekon”.
When the Kurdish identity is denied, but the denial of New(v)ro(u)z becomes impossible to sustain, the only way to come to terms with the reality is introjection. It becomes part of Turkish folklore and a myth of the Turks, since the prohibited and therefore officially non-existent Kurdish identity cannot possibly have a folklore, myth or tradition as such. What is involved here is an aspect of nationalism, which appears very much like a neurotic symptom, that is, beyond Hobsbawm’s imagination. It is nevertheless worth to note that Hobsbawm distinguished between the adaptation of existing traditions to new situations and the conscious invention of essentially ‘nonexistent’ traditions to meet new needs. This distinction may be explanatory of the difference between the Kurdish Newroz and Turkish Nevruz (or névrose symptomatique).
Looking back over the two and a half decades of these official manifestations of narcissistic disorder, the whole thing looks like a farce, with the provincial governor of Diyarbakır and local bureaucrats in suits jumping over a campfire each year to perform a “purely Turkish” ritual. The sustained attempts to Turkify the myth of Newroz as “nevruz” ended in failure.
Myth and envy
The definition of envy in psychoanalytic theory is the angry feeling that ‘the other’ possesses and enjoys something else desirable, often accompanied by an impulse to take it away or spoil it. Melanie Klein observes that envious impulses, sadistic in nature, lead to the manifestations of primary destructiveness in human psyche. From Klein’s lense, the 2013 Newroz gathering in Diyarbakır and the course of events that followed can be considered as a typical case of envious disorder.
One of the most remarkable Newroz gatherings was the Diyarbakır rally of 2013, where a letter by the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan was read out, both in Turkish and Kurdish from the stage by the pro-Kurdish HDP deputies, declaring a cease-fire that included an end to armed struggle by the PKK. Öcalan’s statement that promised the beginning of peace came after prolonged negotiations between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government on the one side and the HDP deputies on the other, who were also representing both Öcalan and the PKK leadership based in Northern Iraq.
The peace deal, however, would not hold for long: following the HDP’s victory in the June 2015 elections, Erdoğan declared a new war on the Kurds. Since then, Kurdish cities and villages were subjected to military operations, including destruction under tank and artillery fire. Hundreds of Kurdish politicians and activists, including pro- Kurdish HDP leaders and elected mayors of the Kurdish cities have been jailed on ‘terrorism’ charges. Erdoğan’s war also had a cross-border character, aiming to eliminate the emerging Kurdish entity in northern Syria.
The fire of Newroz, however, has continued to grow each year, with more participation en masse in the Kurdish provincial centres and the squares of the major cities, including Diyarbakır and Istanbul, among others. This year’s Newroz did not only trigger the usual annual envious aggression but it also arrived when the frustrating memory of the Gare trauma was still fresh in the Turkish official psyche. Consequently the Turkish reaction to Newroz has been over-aggressive.
Last Wednesday, the Turkish parliament assembled to declare the removal of the MP status of Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The same day, an indictment demanding the closure of the pro-Kurdish HDP and the banning of more than 600 party members from politics was issued by the High Court prosecutor. Gergerlioğlu, who refused to leave the parliament building, was removed by force in the early hours of March 21st. On the previous night, President Erdoğan resolved by
himself to opt Turkey out of the European Commission’s Istanbul Convention of 2012, which rules for the legal protection of women and girls against violence. This year’s Newroz anxiety, it seems, does not merely target the Kurdish identity but also women, which indicate the most feared dissident forces to Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime.
Newroz is an important myth and a concrete symbol of the democratic struggle of the Kurdish and Turkish women and men.
Mark Campbell, ‘Kawa and the Story of Newroz’, Roar Magazine, 20/3/2016.
Eric J. Hobsbawm, ‘Introduction: Inventing Traditions’, in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (1984).