Just 10 years ago, Professor Hasan Tanriverdi could have been arrested by security forces, blindfolded and taken to an underground prison and tortured, just for speaking.
Speaking Kurdish was banned under Turkish law.
The language challenged the national myth that all citizens of Turkey are ethnic Turks. So it was treated as a crime against the state. Repression and forced assimilation were so brutal that many Kurds in Turkey no longer speak Kurdish fluently.
But today, Tanriverdi is teaching future teachers of Kurdish language at the state Dicle University.
“Our people are excited,” Tanriverdi said. “A language has just been freed. We are creating a master’s program for teaching Kurdish. For the first time, these teachers are able to learn how to teach Kurdish.”
Professor Tanriverdi says 1,500 students applied for 150 spots in the program.
Sevet Turkoglu is a former history teacher, now a student in the Kurdish course. He says Turkey’s government is righting the wrongs done to the Kurds by helping them learn their language. He says he’s sure he will have a job when he graduates.
“The Prime Minister of Turkey said so,” Tukoglu said. “That’s why they made this course. Kurdish is now an elective course in schools. We hope that all subjects will be taught in Kurdish some day. But for now its most important that we focus on learning our language and culture.”
But not all students trust Ankara’s good intentions. The government introduced an elective course this year for 5th graders in public schools, to learn Kurdish two hours per week. Over the next three years it will expand to more grades — but still two hours per week. Student Adem Kurt says this means the government policy isn't serious.
“It doesn’t work with only one or two lessons,” Kurt said. “That’s how you learn a foreign language. If they are serious about giving Kurds our rights, they should open the way for mother tounge education in all subjects.”
After years of promises, many Kurds are skeptical of any offer by the Turkish government. Some say the government has no political will to really educate Kurds in Kurdish, even Taha Tursun, a student who’s enrolled in the course.
“Even though they are saying that they will hire us as teachers, it’s a lie,” Tursun said. “It’s only a red herring so they can tell society ‘look, we are training graduate students how to teach Kurdish. The Kurdish language problem is taken care of.’”
But the government has made other moves in what it calls its “Kurdish opening.” Bans on the Kurdish language have been wiped from the books. And the state created a television channel in Kurdish.
But the growing demand for teaching all subjects in the Kurdish language has still not been addressed. Didem Collinsworth, from the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, says the demand is common to Kurds from all political, regional and religious backgrounds.
“I can say that is probably the strongest demand they have,” Collinsworth said. “They see it as a recognition of their Kurdishness, of their identity, of their culture. It all culminates in being able to learn Kurdish in schools.”
Collinsworth says that generations of repression has taken its toll on the language. There aren’t many Kurds fluent in Kurdish. They are used to speaking Turkish for all official matters. Even in Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdish nationalism, Collinsworth says none of the newspapers are Kurdish-language only.
“We were told by a Kurdish TV host that they had a hard time finding people to speak on their shows because no one spoke Kurdish that well anymore, good enough to be on TV,” Collinsworth recalled.
The attempt to crush the Kurdish language is now a dark chapter of Turkey’s history. But the battle for making Kurdish a second official language lies ahead.
As Turkey struggles to become a more open society, its Kurdish-speaking citizens may continue to provide the biggest push.