A storyteller’s story: a Kurdish Fahrenheit 451

With the peace process in ruins and Kurdish culture under attack, Dengbêj storytellers have re-emerged as contemporary Fahrenheit 451 figures in the battle for free speech. 

Elliott Goat
30 October 2015

Dengbêj. Wikimedia. Creative commons.This is a story about stories, or more specifically a story about storytelling.

Orwell said whoever controls the past controls the future and whoever controls the present control the past.

For this reason stories hold power, they resonate and maintain their importance because whoever controls the narrative controls the agenda.

October’s terrorist attack in Ankara, the worst in Turkey’s history, has prompted a further crackdown on media freedom that had already accelerated in the run up to November’s elections. With journalists imprisoned, newsrooms raided and websites shut down, the AKP government is seeking to present their version of Turkey’s story as truth.

Driving this narrative, not just for the election but in relation to terrorism, ethnicity and secularism are the Kurds.

With the peace process in ruins, pro-Kurdish officials imprisoned and Kurdish fighters once again under attack from the government; an unlikely group of storytellers have re-emerged as a means of circumventing the government’s suppression of free speech. With many afraid speak out about against the government, language has become a battle-field.

The millennia old Dengbêj tradition (literarily translating as deng [voice] and bej [to tell]) of epic Kurdish storytelling not only provides historical legitimacy in the region, dengbêj storytellers have also become frontline fighters in the battle for free speech and Kurdish autonomy.

By associating dengbêj traditions with the separatist Kurdish struggle for independence, Turkey’s leaders have always sought to ruthlessly suppress language under the justification of military necessity.

The banning of the Kurdish language that became official state policy in 1980 following the military coup was enforced with ruthless efficiency by the military and police. Where once those caught speaking Kurdish would be fined for each word they pronounced under the junta those caught speaking, listening or in possession of Kurdish literature or tapes were routinely imprisoned and tortured.

“After they arrested me,” recounts Mehmet Guli, a dengbêj who lived through the period, “they blindfolded me, put me in handcuffs and threw me in jail where they tortured me”.

Some dengbêj report having had their fingers repeatedly broken so they were unable to play instruments.

Most simply stopped singing. Many were discouraged by their own family for fear of reprisals. In this sense, the state’s repression became internalized. Censorship became self-censorship.

In a society based on the transmission of memory, the historical suppression of the Kurdish language equated to the deliberate destruction of collective history.

With many dengbêj’s silenced or forced underground, some stories were lost forever.

Because of this the dengbej have tended to be represented as something ‘hidden’.

“It is a treasure buried in the ground”, said one local, “The dengbej is like gold and as such needs to be discovered, cherished and protected.”

A few chose to defy the prohibition, travelling from town to town to sing in secret, often being smuggled through checkpoints in the back of cars to evade the police. The dengbêj became, as it were, travelling salesmen for Kurdish culture – flogging their wares where and when they could.

As part of the recent shaky ceasefire between Ankara and pro-Kurdish separatist groups the government says it has relaxed restrictions on Kurdish culture and language. It points to streets marked with Kurdish names and the launch of a new Kurdish TV channel TRT6.

A member of the Diyarbakir municipality, who wished to remain anonymous, said while many Kurds accepted these measures as an affirmative step in the peace process, a large proportion remained suspicious of government claims of greater cultural freedom.

“Many see these steps as a means for the government to manipulate [Kurds] about their national values and attempt to craft a national identity”.

Mehmet Simsek, who runs the House of Dengbêj in Diyarbakir where local singers congregate, says that while there is the façade of legality, “in practice there remains pressure on our culture, language and tradition that means that the policy and perspective of the Turkish state has not changed.”

In reality, over the past five years as many as 4000 pro-Kurdish politicians and officials have been imprisoned – arrested in the middle of the night on the pretense that they were secretly working for the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

As Turkish journalist Alec Scott has noted, with huge rewards offered to citizens who anonymously inform on those with suspected ‘terrorist links’ and even the detection of political dissidents via lip-reading, many fear a return to the “state-encouraged paranoia and suspicion” which followed the military coup in the 1980s and 90s.

In the run up to November’s elections the state has sought to tighten control over the media by imprisoning both local and international journalists and accusing those opposed to the Erdoğan regime of collaborating with the PKK and other groups deemed ‘terrorist’ organizations.

Traditionally the dengbêj had little connection with the revolutionary PKK who fought as much against a conservative reactionary Kurdish past, embodied by dengbêj feudalism, as with the Turkish state.

Yet as the death toll rises, for the PKK the dengbêj have become a powerful symbol of a unique Kurdish identity, a symbol it can use to not only disseminate its message of Kurdish autonomy but perhaps more importantly as a means of establishing its historical legitimacy in the region.

For the dengbêj, the violence over the past decade not only sustained it but re-formulated its role within society.

Over 30 years, says Guli, what were songs about love and betrayal have become songs about revolution, bravery and struggle.

“For us it is not something we chose ourselves. Like anybody else in the world we would like to sing about beauty, love, the mountains, joy and pleasure – but we are duty bound to sing about our reality – so we sing about war.”

During the battle for Kobani in 2014, the families of Kurdish fighters along with an exodus of Syrian Kurds flocked to dengbêj houses across southern Turkey turning tales of what they had experienced into stories of Kurdish heroism. Other projects highlight the plight of Kurds around the world from the execution-style murder of Kurdish women in Paris last year to the human trafficking of young girls from Turkey to Western Europe.

For many Kurds the tradition has assumed a new form as a communication or information source: a history, a TV, a book you read, a philosophy that, by its very nature, verbalizes their struggle but leaves no record for the authorities.

What is more, storytelling has become cathartic and the means by which to defy the government in and of itself.

As Mustafaye Boti recounts, “if we are not able to sing openly in public we will be singing in our dreams while we sleep. It is something that is unstoppable”.

Dengbêj have become a paradoxical embodiment of a region torn between its feudal past and globalized future, telling a 5,000 story that has no end.

Let us hope at least some storytellers remain to tell it.

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