Turkey: Kurds Get Brad Pitt as Erdogan Breaks Turkish Taboo on Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jan 14 18:43:34 UTC 2009

Kurds Get Brad Pitt as Erdogan Breaks Turkish Taboo on Language

By Ben Holland

Jan. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Turkey's government is hoping Brad Pitt will
succeed where two decades of armed force failed.

State broadcaster TRT on Dec. 31 started its first channel in Kurdish,
a language once banned outright and still forbidden in schools and
government offices. The new channel, TRT6, shows films, news, chat
shows and soap operas via satellite. Pitt's "Spy Game," among the
foreign movies dubbed into Kurdish, will be aired in coming weeks. "I
got home last night and my mom, who doesn't speak Turkish, was
watching TRT6 and laughing," said Osman Ciftci, who sells satellite
dishes and digital receivers in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey's
largely Kurdish southeast. "She said, 'Look, son, now I have a channel

Until now, Turkey refused to grant cultural rights to its 15 million
Kurds, even after the European Union backed their demands to broadcast
and teach in Kurdish. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking
to convince Kurds that he's willing to break those taboos, and also
trying to counter EU criticism that his bid to join the bloc is losing
direction. Turkey may also soon loosen the ban on Kurdish-language
teaching. The Higher Education Board said this month that departments
of Kurdish studies may be permitted in Istanbul and the capital
Ankara, although not at universities in Kurdish regions.

"Maybe there's a growing recognition in Turkey that the way to deal
with the Kurds is to make sure they are part of Turkish society," said
James Ker-Lindsay, a fellow in European studies at Kingston University
in London. "It's also the sort of thing that scores Turkey some
brownie points in Europe."

Rebellion Put Down

Turkey's government quashed a Kurdish rebellion in 1925, just two
years after the country was founded from the remnants of the
multiethnic Ottoman Empire. For decades after, official policy denied
the existence of the Kurds. The war with Kurdish separatists has left
40,000 people dead since it began in 1984.

Ciftci said he installed TRT6 in about 100 homes in the past week,
including 20 on New Year's Eve, when he worked until 2 a.m.

Still, for many Kurds in the region, the new TV channel is a gimmick,
and no guarantee of better treatment by the state.

"Saddam Hussein set up a Kurdish channel too," said Ali Bedir over
breakfast at his stall in Diyarbakir's cheese market, in a reference
to the late Iraqi dictator who ordered massacres of his country's
Kurdish minority. "Kurdish songs were playing on TV when he gassed the

Last year, Erdogan, 54, authorized an escalation of attacks on the
Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is classified as a terrorist
group by the EU and the U.S.

Bombing the PKK

The army says it killed about 240 PKK fighters during a weeklong raid
on the group's bases in northern Iraq in February. Another wave of
bombings by Turkish jets began in October after the PKK killed 17
soldiers at an army outpost.

Bedir said he and his friends prefer to watch Roj TV, the pro-PKK
channel that's broadcast from Denmark despite repeated Turkish efforts
to get it shut down.

Roj's main fare is political debate. TRT6 aims to be "apolitical,
entertainment for the family," said Sinan Ilhan, the channel's

Abdurrahman Kurt, a lawmaker from Erdogan's party who helped set up
the new channel, remembers covertly listening to Kurdish music when he
was at university.

"We used to listen in the Turkish bath or under the bedclothes," said
Kurt, 40. "You couldn't even write the singer's name on the cassette.
And when we played them at weddings, we got beaten up by the police."

Those same musicians are now invited to perform in Kurdish on state
television. That's a breakthrough, Kurt said, even if some of the
singers have so far refused. Germany-based Sivan Perwer, for instance,
said he wouldn't appear because Turkey still oppresses its Kurds.

Mind Your Language

Erdogan, whose party is seeking to take control of Diyarbakir in March
local elections, and President Abdullah Gul introduced TRT6 on New
Year's Eve by wishing the channel good luck in Kurdish on the air.
Even so, many Kurds find that using the language -- which is related
to Persian, while Turkish has its roots in central Asia -- carries

Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir, for example, faces more than 30
lawsuits from Justice Ministry prosecutors, almost half sparked by use
of Kurdish in brochures, posters or municipal services, according to
his office.

Diyarbakir's top lawyers are due in court next month as defendants.
Their alleged crime: distributing the local bar association's
calendar, which names the days, months and holidays in Kurdish as well
as Turkish. Prosecutors say that's abuse of office, an offense
carrying a three-year jail sentence.

It's good that a state TV channel is using Kurdish, "but let other
people do it too," said Mehmet Emin Aktar, head of the bar
association. "The problem is that in Turkey the law works differently
depending on who you are."


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