[lg policy] Turkey: Preserving Kurdish Culture Through the Power of Music

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 6 14:06:47 UTC 2012

Turkey: Preserving Kurdish Culture Through the Power of Music
March 30, 2012 - 11:10am, by Alexander Christie-Miller

A traditional Kurdish singer perform for tourists in Turkey’s
southeastern city of Diyarbakir. (Photo: Alexander Christie-Miller)

In a sunny courtyard in the city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey, an
audience listens intently as Mihemede Nenyasi sings of love, war and
intrigue. The 64-year-old Kurdish market trader cannot read or write,
but claims to have engraved in his memory several hundred songs which
he has been learning since the age of seven. “Some last a minute, some
last an hour,” he said. “Each line opens the door for the next, and as
I sing them I remember them.”

Nenyasi is a dengbêj, a singer of Kurdish stories and legends passed
down as part of an oral tradition stretching back centuries. After
decades during which the Turkish state kept a lid on Kurdish culture,
the dengbêj were nearly silenced forever. After the 1980 military coup
d’état, speaking Kurdish in public was banned, and Kurdish singers and
musicians were routinely imprisoned and some tortured.

But now, after government reforms that have eased many of the cultural
restrictions on Turkey’s Kurds, the dengbêj can sing openly once
again. Some, however, can still face harassment. In 2007, Diyarbakir’s
Kurdish-nationalist-oriented city administration opened a house where
around 25 dengbêj, many of whom are poor and elderly, can gather and
perform. “The aim of our project is to bring the dengbêj together and
to record the stories of their lives and their songs,” said Metin
Özçelik, an official from the Culture and Tourism Department of the
Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality.

In its first year, 10,000 tourists visited the Dengbêj House, which
lies in the warren of narrow, black-stone streets in Diyarbakir’s old
city center. The dengbêj regularly perform on local television, and
last year the municipality published an anthology containing brief
biographies of around 120 singers, along with more than 300 of their
songs. Since Kurds have only a small canon of written literature, many
engaged in this work believe they are making a vital contribution to
the preservation of their culture. “Dengbêj is for us like Homer is
for the Greeks,” said Özçelik.

The tradition has its roots in pre-Islamic times, when agas, local
feudal landowners, kept singers to entertain them with legends and
stories, or compose ballads eulogizing their masters’ deeds. Generally
unaccompanied, the singing is bound by no fixed rules, with dengbêj
developing their own styles or adopting those of others they admire.
They sing of romance, war, blood feuds, and rebellions; a spoken
history of the Kurds that runs right up to the still-smoldering
conflict between the Turkish state and the separatist Kurdistan
Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas. “Their loves, their hopes, their
sorrow, the oppression they suffered; they scream out at us from these
songs,” said Weysi Varli, a Kurdish musician and fan of dengbêj.

Between 1975 and 1989, Varli made several albums of traditional
Kurdish music, recorded secretly onto cassettes and then distributed
around Diyarbakir. He paid for it dearly. The 55-year-old bears scars
across his legs, chest and back that he says came from the torture he
suffered at the hands of Turkish civilian and military police. “At
least 20 times I was tortured,” he told EurasiaNet.org, showing the
scars running down his leg. “Once, they broke my thumbs so I couldn’t
play the tambur [a traditional stringed instrument].”

The oppression of those years was particularly damaging to dengbêj,
according to Varli. Mostly illiterate, the singers relied on constant
performances to keep songs in their memories.

One of the first people to recognize that the art form was in danger
of fading away was Ahmet Doğru, a cotton farmer and amateur
photographer from Diyarbakir. “About 15 years ago, the dengbêj art was
almost disappearing, and then I intervened. I took my camera and found
them, photographed them and talked to them.”

It was Doğru who first proposed the idea of the Dengbêj House, a place
where the singers could gather and share their songs, and also help
each other piece back together those they had forgotten. “The dengbêj
almost all live in poverty,” he said. “I told them that someday they
would have their own house and that people would even pay them to
sing. They laughed at me.”

Much has changed since Doğru began his campaign. In 2003, the main
Kurdish nationalist party was able to open the Dicle-Firat Cultural
Center to promote Kurdish traditional music. And in 2009, as part of
an initiative to end the long-running conflict with the PKK, the
government set up Turkey’s first Kurdish-language television channel,
and allowed universities to begin courses in Kurdish literature and

Despite these changes, the dengbêjs’ future remains uncertain. Many of
the singers are now elderly and honed their skills within a
traditional village cultural framework that has largely disappeared.

In Diyarbakir, few young people are learning the art. “People have
become more distant from their original culture,” commented the
youngest, 23-year-old Cafer Akarsu, who has been compared to Şakıro, a
famous dengbêj who died in 1996. So far, Akarsu has memorized 25 to 30
songs, he said. He grew up listening to them on his father’s cassettes
when his family was working as farm laborers in central Turkey’s Afyon
province. “I was singing these songs as I was working. They kept me
going when I was far away from my [Kurdish] motherland,” Akarsu said.


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of the list as to the veracity of a message's contents.
Members who disagree with a message are encouraged to post a rebuttal,
and to write directly to the original sender of any offensive message.
 A copy of this may be forwarded to this list as well.  (H. Schiffman,

For more information about the lgpolicy-list, go to

This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list