My memoris: The Kurdish Language


by Musa Anter


by Musa Anter
Translated by Iskender Ozden



As year followed year, times changed and people changed. "Dinya bu hukumet, Kurmanci rabu" (Ehmede Xane), which means in English: "The world became ruled ! by Government, and being Kurdish has disappeared". The new Turkish Republic was ,’ organising itself. They were founding new villages, towns and cities. It became easier for the gendarmes, tax-inspectors and other Government officials to penetrate villages. The end of the war meant that the Government could deploy more of its armed forces to reach and tyrannise the population of the areas which they had been unable to reach.

One such village was ours, my father was dead and with no elder male family member, my mother was in charge and was the village mayoress. None in our village or in the surrounding region could speak Turkish. It was easy to communicate with the tax-collectors as they were from our region, but the gendarmes when they came, presented problems, because we did not know what they wanted. We did not know if they wanted eggs, chickens, lamb, money or just wood for their army station.

This inability to communicate caused them to get angry and beat up the poor village people. We were prepared to give them whatever the government asked for, but we had no idea what they wanted and so, because of the language problem we suffered. My mother was especially worried about it all. She decided that if she sent me to school, I could learn Turkish and communicate with the soldiers. This was the only reason she had for sending me to school.

There were no telephones, motor vehicles or cavalrymen in those days, so every other day two soldiers would come to the village from Nusaybin with their documents to replace the two soldiers already there who came from our small town Akarsu. In Arabic, their change over was called ‘Telakki’. This exchange often took place in our melon fields. When we saw the soldiers, we children were fi-ightened. So we would quietly hide and watch them. Sometimes we watched the four soldiers destroy as many as 15-20 melons in our field. They were trying to find the ripe ones and imagined the big melons to be the ripe ones. But when they cut them open and found they were green, they would kick the melons and swear at the melon and its owner. Even the children in the village could tell which melons were ripe but because we could not speak Turkish we were unable to tell the soldiers. We were frightened of the soldiers especially because they never treated us as human beings.

When the soldiers had left the field, the older folk from the village would come and remove the destroyed melons to feed them to the animals. We would tell them that it was the soldiers who had done it, but the villagers kept quiet and showed no anger which surprised us. I think the villagers believed the soldiers were allowed to do anything, beat them or swear at them, because they were under orders from the Government. We called the soldiers ‘Romi’ and even today they are called by the same name. When I grew up I decided to investigate the word ‘Romi’. Our famous poet Ehmede Xane, in the preface to his brilliant classic novel "Mem u Zin" says, "Rum u, Ereb u, Ecem", which means ‘Turks, Arabs and Fars’. The nations which continuously and barbarously occupied Kurdistan were the Romans and Byzantines. These were people who came to our land without families and as soldiers did nothing but dishonourable things, and oppression. During the period when the Turks were converting to the Muslim faith, the Kurds allowed them unhindered access across Kurdistan so that they could travel from the East to West Anatolia where they settled. This access was ordered by edict of the supreme Islamic ruler, the Caliph.

In later years, when the Turks came to Kurdistan and behaved tyrannically towards the Kurdish people, it was felt they were no different from the Romans and Byzantines of the past who had shown such disrespect for Kurdish traditions and customs, they (the Turks) were called ‘Romi’ and even today, when such things happen, the Kurds’ say: "Bexte Rome tune ye" which means ‘Romi – Turks – have no mercy’.

It was events such as these which forced me to go to school to learn Turkish. Curiously, the general public of this region looked down not only on manual labour such as blacksmithing, cotton picking but also on scholars who went to state schools feeling that scholars taught locally at theological schools would gain a greater understanding of their Kurdish heritage.

I recollect that when I was at school many people would say to me in a friendly way "Isn’t it a shame that you go to school. You are going to become a Government official tomorrow and make problems for us." In a way of course they were right as most of the Government officials or educated people they came in contact with had been liars, cowards, bribe takers or collaborators with the enemy – the Turks.

In February 1927 my mother sent me to a primary school in Kercows (renamed Gercus). The headmaster, Ibrahim teacher (he later took the surname Oguz) took me on as a guest student.

During holidays, I would return to my village. At first I learnt words such as "bread, water, wood, come and go, what is your name?, cockerel. chicken. egg and turkey". My mother was overwhelmed by my knowledge. That summer we had no problems with the soldiers, so no-one was beaten up. and all because of my Turkish, which proved we had not wanted to give the soldiers any trouble, it was just that we could not communicate.

The following year, I was registered for a primary school in Nusaybin town. It was for five years. The school had two teachers, Tahar Halebiye and Deaf Hamdi. Deaf Hamdi, taught classes 1-2 and 3 where the children would be noisy and swear at the teacher and each other, but being deaf, he could not hear what was going on! After two months, I could no longer put up with the situation and I returned home devastated never to return. A malaria epidemic broke out in he town of Nusaybin and most days you would see one or two coffins pass by. According to the Law, you were not allowed to plant rice within 5 km of the town. But from the Pirincioglu family, Nedim Beg and Mahmut Advan (he later took the surname Deveci) would come from Diyarbakir and bribe the Government officials and get a 5 km authorisation certificate, but would none-the-less plant rice even inside the town. This caused smells and disease and because of this my mother agreed not to force me to go back to school.

At this time the Government (Turkish) started to open boarding schools in villages in Kurdistan to help with assimilation. One was started in Mardin city called ‘The Mardin Village Boarding School’. It was not meant tor ordinary poor children but tor the children of rich landowners and tribal leaders. Amongst the children at the school were: the Omeriyan tribe leader Ahmed Suleyman’s son, his brother’s two sons and his cousins; from thc Sulguci, tribe the leader Isa’s three sons: from Avena’s two children; from Kercews Ekmen’s two children, from Kikan tribe the leader Mahmut’s two sons, from Semirax (renamed by the Turks Mazidagi) village. two children; from Derik, Kiziltepe, Mahserte (Omerli) four children. Altogether there were 90 children which included me. The Government hoped that once the tribal leaders were assimilated, the rest of the tribe would be as well. I am pleased to say that this just did not happen. Neither myself nor any of the others betrayed our identity. We as children did not realise the government’s intention any more than the elders did. Finally the Government realised that their policy was not successful, so in 1935 they closed all the boarding schools in Kurdistan.

In reality what they had tried to do was a continuation of the practice of the Hamidiye Regiments by which, during period of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans trained the Kurds to be soldiers and used them to fight the Ottoman Empire’ s enemies (the Ottomans did this to Christian nations as well). For example, boys as young as five years old, who were children of Christians, would be taken from their families and sent to special military establishments to be trained as soldiers (Janissaries). During the Armenian genocide the Turks killed most of the Armenians (1.5 million). From the city of Mardin, some managed to escape to the city of Allepo in Syria. The building in Mardin city where we attended school had belonged to one such Armenian but, when the Turks took it over it became our school. The house had been made of the famous Mardin stone and was even more beautiful than the small mosque in Topkapi (Istanbul) museum or the Baghdad Villa.


There were five primary schools in Mardin city but only one music teacher. He was a fiddler from the city of Mus, called Tevfik Beg. His nickname was ‘Domiro’ and he was the first teacher to play music on his violin. On finishing, he asked us if we knew what it was that he had just played. Although I recognised the music, I was too frightened to admit it because it was a Kurdish melody.

The Kurdish language was banned inside and outside the city and if anyone was caught speaking Kurdish, they were fined 1 TL (Turkish lira) for each word spoken. This struck Mardin city dumb because unable to speak Kurdish in public meant people used sign language.

I started to raise my hand but frightened, lowered it. But the teacher having seen me asked me not to be afraid but tell him what the song was called. Feeling a little braver now I told him it was ‘Berde, Berde, lawik deste min berde’ (release, release, young man release my hand) and my teacher praised me.

To help you understand the situation, I will give you another example of the difficulties arising from the prohibition of speaking Kurdish.

The villagers used to take wood to the city to sell. They transported it by donkey. They would sell the firewood for about 5060 kurus (pennies). If the donkey and the saddle was in good condition, they could sell it for 5-6 lira. To make the donkey go while riding it, a Kurd would say ‘Co’. Villagers speaking nothing but Kurdish when they arrived at the city would say ‘Co’ and the soldiers would stop them and fine them on the spot for speaking Kurdish. Unable to speak Turkish, the Kurdish villager would attempt to explain to the soldiers in Kurdish and thus the fine built up and up.

A relative of my mothers was set up by the soldiers and in order to pay the fine he sold his firewood and donkey. He received five Turkish lira for them but his fine was 12 lira so he was beaten up and put in a cell for two days. Three and a half months later. when the tax collectors came to our village, they demanded the remaining seven lira outstanding on the fine. If he did not pay up, they would seize his house and belongings. My uncle managed to pay the fine by selling some of his sheep. Such incidents were part of our ordinary, normal daily life. If records of fines had been kept in Mardin city, it would be possible to find many such cases as this. I have many memories of those five years. But the one that really impressed me was this: In our school were the sons of Eliye Ehmed tribal leaders called Ehmed and Senanik. In 1932 in Omeriyan town, there had been an incident and a squad of soldiers arrived in the town from Diyarbakir city. They had been sent on a clean up operation against the Kurds. Most of the men of the village ran away to the mountains. Eli agha, his two brothers and 14 men were confronted by the soldiers in Tuxip mountain. The soldiers opened fire and at the end of the conflict had killed and wounded the Kurds. The soldiers then proceeded (regardless oi whether they were dead or alive) to chop off the Kurds’ heads leaving the bodies.

The story goes that when Ehmede Drei was arrested and then his head was chopped off, he managed to run a short distance without his head!

The soldiers put all seventeen heads into a bag and proceeded to display them to the people as if they were melons. The heads were finally taken to Stelile (Akarsu) where a priest (imam) washed all the heads and put the landowner with his two brothers into one bag and the rest of the 14 heads in another bag and buried them in the graveyard next to our garden.

This was just one of many similar incidents that took place all over Kurdistan. After this particular incident the two brothers whose fathers and uncles had been killed were still at our school. But you could imagine how frightened and upset they were. As a result of this incident the atmosphere at school was very upsetting for a long time.

Everything seemed to be going wrong and in the end they used the excuse that I was underage, to expel me. I was registered as being born in 1924 but later I was to dispute my date of birth in court and it was altered to 1920. Neither of these dates appear to be correct because my mother told me: "Pisti Fermane Fileya tu hati dinyaye" which when translated from Kurdish means "Your were born just after the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks". The Armenian genocide started in 1915 and finished in 1917, so my date of birth must be 1917 or 1918.

This article is the second instalment of "My MEMOIRS" by Musa Anter