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It’s All Greek To Me


By Sera Keleş: On a recent trip to Hasankeyf with a small group of friends we met two very bright local kids. A friend spoke to me in English, and one of the boys piped up: “She speaks Turkish you know!”

On a recent trip to Hasankeyf with a small group of friends we met two very bright local kids. A friend spoke to me in English, and one of the boys piped up: “She speaks Turkish you know!”

“Yes, I do know that,” he replied.

“But then why don’t you speak in Turkish?” demanded the boy, completely puzzled and unable to understand why we chose to converse in a foreign language. We laughed. After all, between themselves the kids were speaking their own language: Kurmanji, a form of Kurdish.

Language is deeply personal and evocative. Turkey’s National Education Ministry drew a slew of reactions in early December announcing mandatory Ottoman language lessons for high school students. This was later revised to be an elective course yet remains mandatory for İmam Hatip religious school students. One of the key arguments for revival of the Ottoman language is the alienation from one’s own history: the inability to read newspapers, notes written on the back of faded sepia photographs or tombstones from less than a hundred years ago.

The sensitivities are such that there is even disagreement over terminology; should we be referring to it as Osmanlıca (literally, ‘Ottomanese’) or Osmanlı Türkçesi (‘Ottoman Turkish’)?

While the desire to connect with one’s own heritage is understandable, the debate to reinstate Ottoman within the curriculum sits uneasily alongside the still unmet demand of Kurdish lawmakers and activists to introduce the right of mother-tongue education. Kurmanji is much more noticeable now than ever before: on news stands, in songs, spoken on the streets. Yet its written use has not been adopted as widely as one might have expected. This is partly due to a lack of standardisation, which is difficult given that there are five dialects of Kurmanji that can be loosely identified. And partly because Turkish is so prevalent: a shopkeeper in the border town of Nusaybin told me it simply hadn’t occurred to him to have his shop sign written in any other language.

“But we will,” he assured me. “When we need a new sign, it’ll be in Kurdish. It’ll be for us.” It seemed bizarrely apt that the only written Kurmanji I saw in Nusaybin was either anti-government graffiti or on banners hung by the Greater Mardin Municipality.

In the politically conflicted Turkey of today, the practicalities of teaching and learning such languages are hotly contested. That debate would do well to learn from Istanbul’s Yeşilköy district, where the small Syriac minority has begun to send its children to a new primary school that teaches their own language among others. It is the first of its kind in 86 years. The bond between language and identity runs very deep.

Families that were economic migrants in the past decades, moving to Istanbul or Ankara seeking better prospects, tend to speak two types of Turkish. The formal, ‘proper’ Turkish heard on TV and used in the public sphere, and the dialect, which reveals what region or village the family originated from and is used more privately. Meeting someone in a large urban jungle who speaks the same dialect creates an almost instant affinity and rapport. It is like sharing a common secret and does not necessarily mark only geography or ethnicity: Lubunca is an ever-evolving coded slang language initially mostly used by transgender sex workers, but is being reclaimed by the wider LGTB community.

The debate around languages, while much needed, contributed to its politicisation. This in turn exacerbates the seemingly ever-growing polarisation within Turkey. There are a striking number of pundits who fail to understand President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rhetoric on occasion due to their unfamiliarity with the Qur’an or the poetry of Yunus Emre. While it could be argued that politicians should use language that everyone understands, defining what that language would be in Turkey is a tough challenge. What is paramount is the attempt to understand the other and realise that every language, and by extension every identity, is part of a tapestry.

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