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Isolation allowed the Kurds to survive for thousands of years while other cultures faded from history. (Lynsey Addario)

Kurdish Heritage Reclaimed

After years of conflict, Turkey's tradition-rich Kurdish minority is experiencing a joyous cultural reawakening

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In the breathtakingly rugged Turkish province of Hakkari, pristine rivers surge through spectacular mountain gorges and partridges feed beneath tall clusters of white hollyhock. I’m attending the marriage celebration of 24-year-old Baris and his 21-year-old bride, Dilan, in the Kurdish heartland near the borders of Syria, Iran and Iraq. This is not the actual wedding; the civil and religious ceremonies were performed earlier in the week. Not until after this party, though, will the couple spend their first night together as husband and wife. It will be a short celebration by Kurdish standards—barely 36 hours.

Neither eating nor drinking plays much of a role at a traditional Kurdish wedding. On the patio of a four-story apartment house, guests are served only small plates of rice and meatballs. Instead, the event is centered on music and dance. Hour after hour, the band plays lustily as lines of guests, their arms linked behind their backs, kick, step and join in song in ever-changing combinations. Children watch intently, absorbing a tradition passed down through generations.

The women wear dazzling, embroidered gowns. But it’s the men who catch my eye. Some of them are wearing one-piece outfits—khaki or gray overalls with patterned cummerbunds—inspired by the uniforms of Kurdish guerrillas who fought a fierce campaign for self-rule against the Turkish government throughout much of the 1980s and ’90s. The Turkish military, which harshly suppressed this insurgency, would not have tolerated such outfits just a few years ago. These days, life is more relaxed.

As darkness falls and there is still no sign of the bride, some friends and I decide to visit the center of Hakkari, the provincial capital. An armored personnel carrier, with a Turkish soldier in the turret peering over his machine gun, rumbles ominously through the city, which is swollen with unemployed Kurdish refugees from the countryside. But stalls in music stores overflow with CDs by Kurdish singers, including performers who were banned because Turkish authorities judged their music incendiary. Signs written in the once-taboo Kurdish language decorate shop windows.

By luck, we encounter Ihsan Colemerikli, a Kurdish intellectual whose book Hakkari in Mesopotamian Civilization is a highly regarded work of historical research. He invites us to his home, where we sip tea under an arbor. Colemerikli says there have been 28 Kurdish rebellions in the past 86 years—inspired by centuries of successful resistance to outsiders, invaders and would-be conquerors.

“Kurdish culture is a strong and mighty tree with deep roots,” he says. “Turks, Persians and Arabs have spent centuries trying to cut off this tree’s water so it would wither and die. But in the last 15 to 20 years there has been a new surge of water, so the tree is blossoming very richly.”

Back at the wedding party, the bride finally appears, wearing a brightly patterned, translucent veil and surrounded by attendants carrying candles. She is led slowly through the crowd to one of two armchairs in the center of the patio. Her husband sits in the other one. For half an hour they sit quietly and watch the party, then rise for their first dance, again surrounded by candles. I notice that the bride never smiles, and I ask if something is amiss. No, I’m told. It is customary for a Kurdish bride to appear somber as a way of showing how sad she is to leave her parents.

The party will go on until dawn, only to resume a few hours later. But as midnight approaches, my companions and I depart, our destination a corba salonu—a soup salon. In a few minutes we enter a brightly lit café. There are two soups on the menu. Lentil is my favorite, but when traveling I prefer the unfamiliar. The sheep’s head soup, made with meat scraped from inside the skull, is strong, lemony and assertive.

Isolation has long defined the Kurds, whose ancestral homeland is mountainous southeast Anatolia in what is now Turkey. Isolation helped them survive for thousands of years, while other peoples—Phrygians, Hittites, Lydians—faded from history’s pages. Sitting outdoors in a wooden chair, resplendent in a traditional ankle-length Kurdish gown, Semi Utan, 82, smiles wistfully as she recalls her childhood. “In my time we lived a completely natural life,” she says. “We had our animals. We made yogurt, milk and cheese. We produced our own honey. Herbs were used for healing the sick. No one ever went to a doctor. Everything was tied to nature.”

Today there are an estimated 25 million to 40 million Kurds, mostly Muslim, about half in Turkey and most of the others in Iran, Iraq and Syria. They are arguably the largest ethnic group in the world without an independent state of their own—a situation that, for many Kurds, is in painful contrast to their former glory and is a source of frustration and anger.

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