Kurdish Heritage Reclaimed

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

Isolation allowed the Kurds to survive for thousands of years while other cultures faded from history. (Lynsey Addario)
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Young Kurdish writers, too, want to bring the long tradition of storytelling into the modern age. In 2004, Lal Lalesh, a 29-year-old poet from Diyarbakir, founded a publishing house that specializes in Kurdish literature. He has commissioned translations of foreign works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and has issued more than a dozen out-of-print Kurdish classics. His main purpose, though, is to publish new writing.

“Before, our writers concentrated mainly on Kurdish subjects,” Lalesh says. “In the last few years, they’ve started to deal with other themes, like sex, individuality, the social aspects of life. Some are even writing crime novels. For the first time, Kurds are breaking out of their isolation in their own society, and also breaking barriers that were imposed by the political system.”

Another group is turning to cinema. More than a dozen have graduated from film school and gathered together at the nascent Diyarbakir Arts Center. In the past two years they have produced nearly 20 short films.

“Most of our artists have broken out of the nationalist shell and gone beyond being from one group or loving one nation,” says Ozlem Orcen, 28, who works at the center. “Twenty years from now, I could imagine some of them reaching a high level, an international level.”

And yet, there is still “a great sense of belonging to the Kurdish nation,” says Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University and co-author of Turkey’s Kurdish Question. “In a way, globalization has enhanced the sense of identity among Kurds. It’s the same phenomenon you see in Europe, where even small populations are feeling drawn to their primordial identity.”

One expression of that identity is a return to nomadic life. Kurds who were forbidden during the civil war to live as nomads may now do so again. I visited one such group, made up of 13 families, at a remote mountainside encampment several hours from Hakkari. The route took me over rugged hills, along the rims of vertiginous gorges, and past the haunting ruins of a church, destroyed in the convulsions that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.

Soon after arriving at the camp, I was invited into a large, airy yurt for lunch. Sitting on a carpet and leaning against soft cushions, I feasted on fresh yogurt, honey, piping-hot flatbread and four kinds of cheese.

These nomads move through the hills for about half the year, then return to lowlands in winter. They tend a herd of more than 1,000 sheep and goats. Twice a day, the entire herd is brought to the camp and eased through a funnel-shaped, chicken-wire enclosure, at the end of which women on stools wait to milk them. They work with amazing dexterity, taking barely an hour to finish the entire job. The milk will be made into cheese, which the nomads sell to wholesalers for delivery to grocery stores across the region.

The elected leader of this group is a thoughtful, taciturn man named Salih Tekce. Standing outside his yurt, framed by the wild mountains Kurds have always loved, he tells me that his village was burned and that he had to move to town, scraping by as a taxi driver for 12 years.

“It was terrible,” he said. “I hated it. I felt like I was carrying each passenger on my shoulders.”


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