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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

“If you don’t accept the existence of a culture or an ethnicity, of course it cannot be permitted to have music or art or literature,” he said. “The Turks don’t recognize our identity, so they don’t recognize our culture. That’s why our culture is so politicized. Just to say that this culture exists is taken as a political act.”

Still, everyone I met—even the most outspoken Kurdish nationalists—told me they wanted their homeland to remain part of Turkey. Traveling across the country, it’s easy to understand why. Turkey is by most standards the most democratic Muslim country—a powerful, modern society with a vibrant economy and extensive ties to the international community. If the mainly Kurdish provinces of the southeast were to become independent, their state would be landlocked and weak in a highly volatile region—a tempting target for powers such as Iran, Iraq or Syria. “We don’t want an independence that would change borders,” says Gulcihan Simsek, mayor of a sprawling, impoverished borough of Van called Bostanici. “Absolute independence is not a requirement today. We want true regional autonomy, to make our own decisions and use our own natural resources, but always within the Turkish nation and under the Turkish flag.”

In Istanbul, I asked Turkish President Abdullah Gul why the Turkish state has been unable, over the course of its nearly 90-year history, to find peace with its Kurdish citizens, and what chance there is for it now.

“Some call it terror, some call it the southeast problem, some call it the Kurdish problem,” he responds. “The problem was this: the lack of democracy, the standard of democracy....When we upgrade that standard, all these problems will find solutions.” In practical terms, that means stronger legal protections for all citizens against discrimination, whether based on gender, religious belief or ethnicity.

That process is already beginning. Since my conversation with President Gul, the government has licensed a Kurdish television channel and allowed a university in Mardin, a historic town near the Syrian border, to open a center for the study of Kurdish language and literature. Steps like these would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, and government leaders say there will soon be more like them.

The European Union (EU) has made it clear that a key obstacle to Turkish membership is the continuing “Kurdish problem.” Turks have good reason to want to join. The EU requires member states to implement free elections, prudent economic policies and civilian control of the military—making membership as close to a guarantee of permanent stability and prosperity as the modern world can offer. And Turkish acceptance as part of Europe would be a powerful example of how Islam and democracy can blend peacefully.

“If we solve this one problem, Turkey can become the pearl of this region,” says Soli Ozel, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University. “There would be almost nothing we couldn’t be or do. People in power are starting to grasp this reality.”

Although Kurdish culture has traditionally been defined by its isolation, the young people I met seem determined to change that. They are proud of their Kurdish identity but refuse to be confined by it. They want to be the first globalized Kurds.

Current trends in Kurdish music reflect that impulse. Like many nomadic peoples, the Kurds developed a strong folk music tradition they use to pass down their stories from one generation to the next. They sang songs about love, separation and historical events, accompanied by such instruments as the def (a bass drum) and the zirne (a kind of oboe). Young Kurds today favor rock-oriented bands like Ferec, which was setting up at a restaurant I visited in Hakkari. Ferec is an evocative Ottoman-era Turkish word variously translated as liberation, emancipation, overcoming adversity and coming to a positive state of mind.

“Ten years ago it was not easy to do what we do,” said the band leader (who asked that I not use his name because “we’re a group and don’t want to be seen as individuals”). “Now it’s better. But our more extreme political songs—we still can’t play them....Some boys in our society are eager to fight. They want to be set on fire. We’re careful with them. We don’t want to do this.”

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