Despite the oppression, the Kurdish language and culture will survive, writes STEVE SWEENEY
THERE are around 30 million Kurds who remain the largest stateless community anywhere in the world. Promised a homeland during the imperialist carve-up of the Middle East just over a century ago, the Kurds were to be betrayed, and not for the last time.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the first world war, the Treaty of Sevres contained an agreement for an independent Kurdistan.
However Western imperialists underestimated the resolve of the Turkish people who, under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, won a crucial victory in a war ostensibly against Greece, driving them into the sea at Izmir.
The Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923 created the borders of the modern Turkish state and effectively put paid to the creation of an independent Kurdistan. Ataturk was to create a monocultural Turkish state which banned the Kurds from speaking their own language and practicing their culture.
The failure of the Kurds to attain a nation state saw them spread mainly across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, where 20 million Kurds now live mainly in the south-east of the country.
The words “Kurd,” “Kurdish” and “Kurdistan” were banned in Turkey, even in private, up until 1991.
Ataturk’s motto: “Happy he who is a Turk,” entrenched national unity and a 1924 mandate outlawed Kurdish schools, publications and organisations.
Kurds have long suffered cultural and political oppression which has escalated in Turkey in recent years, particularly following the collapse of peace talks between the government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in an attempt to resolve the so-called Kurdish question.
The largely Kurdish south-east of the country has suffered from years of deliberate underdevelopment with low levels of investment compared to the rest of Turkey.
Political repression has seen the ban of Kurdish political parties and more recently the arrest and imprisonment of pro-Kurdish politicians including Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
A secret war is being waged by authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with whole cities — including Cizre and Nusaybin — flattened under the pretext of fighting the PKK, which the government lists as a terrorist organisation.
Thousands have been killed in the conflict with one million believed to be displaced in the south-east, where the population live under military curfews and the humiliation of military checkpoints.
Nonetheless their cultural history is a rich one and the Kurds have managed to maintain a common culture and language over the centuries which is under continued threat as they talk of a “coup against Kurdish music and culture.”
Kurds can trace their culture and history back to the Sumerians (around 4500 to 1900 BC), one of the earliest known urban civilisations.
The Kurds are one of the oldest indigenous populations of the Middle East and, along with Persian, Kurdish dialects remain some of the oldest languages in the region. Keeping their dialects alive has proved difficult given numerous conquests and the continuous oppression of Kurdish language and culture.
However they have survived through storytelling, poetry and folk tales. Perhaps the best known to a Western reader would be the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem thought to be one of the earliest surviving great works of literature.
Lesser known are the stories of Gilgamesh’s father, Lugalbanda. He appears in a Sumerian story that describes the conflicts between Enmerkar, king of Unug, and the king of Aratta.
Doug Nicholls’s new translation of the tale of Lugalbanda is published this weekend, bringing the epic poem to a new audience.
Lugalbanda: Lover of the Seed sees the eponymous hero of the tale find the chick of the giant Anzu bird. Lugalbanda feeds the chick, pleasing the Anzu bird who grants Lugalbanda the power and ability to travel at superspeed, allowing him to catch up with his fellow soldiers who are laying siege to Aratta where his king, Enmerkar, is experiencing problems.
With the spirit of collective endeavour, Lugalbanda assists in solving the social and political problems of the siege. This enables King Enmerkar to take control of Aratta and bring about a process of change.
The central themes of the poem are those of isolation and togetherness. Lugalbanda is alone on a mountain having been abandoned by his brothers and fellow soldiers where he encounters a “monster-bird” also separated from its family.
But it is the togetherness and solidarity the helps solve the contradictions and as Anzu transforms Lugalbanda, the fortunes of the army are changed and Aratta is civilised.
For Nicholls the text has relevance today as the bold illustration of a society in which consciousness of the human creation of wealth through labour is at an all-time low. He argues that we need an experience of our basic human inclinations and a “renewed sense that the construction of value is a matter entirely dependent in others in common endeavour.”
He invites us to celebrate “the mighty Lugalbanda,” lover and sower of our vital seed.
The publication of the book coincides with this weekend’s inaugural Kurdish Cultural Festival at Quorn Grange, Leicestershire, and is a fundraiser for the Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan Peace in Kurdistan Campaign, established soon after the PKK leader’s abduction and imprisonment in 1999.
Ocalan’s show trial on Imrali island in 1999 saw the Ankara State Security Court find him guilty of attempting to overthrow the government and sentenced him to death. Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002 as part of plans for accession to the European Union.
Under pressure from international organisations Ocalan’s sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole and he has remained in isolation as the only prisoner at Imrali ever since and denied access to visitors, including his family and his legal team.
His freedom would represent an important step in resolving the so-called Kurdish question in Turkey and other countries with significant Kurdish communities. The Freedom for Ocalan Campaign demands his release along with other political prisoners and recommencing of peace talks for a negotiated settlement.
Justice for the Kurdish communities will in part come from securing cultural rights including the right to study and speak in their own language and the right to practice cultural traditions.
Steve Sweeney is Morning Star reporter.
Lugalbanda: Lover of the seed, translated by Doug Nicholls is published by Manifesto Press / Culture Matters. Copies are available on manifestopress.org.uk from Sunday.