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Literature as a cultural unity

What is the significance of culture and literature for an oppressed people and a forbidden language? How is literature kept alive when language is strangled? The Kurdish writer Suzan Samancis tries to answer to these questions based on the Kurdish experience.

Susan Samanci was born in 1962 in Diyarbakir. Her first poems were published between 1985 and 1987. She has published a number of critically acclaimed books. Since many years she has switched language and gone over from Turkish to Kurdish. At present she lives in Switzerland.

Credits Text: Suzan Samanci Translation by Joakim Wrethed March 11 2023

’Culture’ has certainly been defined in different ways throughout the times,—but in addition, culture is not something that develops solely by its own accord. To be sure, it needs certain social and political preconditions. Our cultural heritage is invaluable. Culture and art affect people’s inner world, make them grow and they have the capacity to give meaning to life. Culture is the soul of the earth and of time, an unending force with the ability to endow the world with beauty, but also with the power to reveal hidden truths. To oppressed people, art can be the thing that keeps the dream alive, that shows the way out, through itself being a zone of freedom.

Culture and art can be said to make up the true history of any society. There is hardly any society with individual freedom that does not at the same time protect its culture and art. Any society that turns away from art becomes superficial, is struck by social short-sightedness and it loses contact with the wells of life and thereby it loses contact with the fundamenta of freedom. Therefore, there is a strong connection between democracy and a society’s relation to artistic expressions.

Culture and art are antidotes to evil and fanaticism. They cultivate the freedom of the individual, but also percisely through that, they contribute to the spectrum and unity of collectivity. Culture contributes to understanding over cultural borders.

Culture is, on the whole, a form of mixed forest. In this forest, each individual culture stands its ground, on the one hand, but on the other hand the individual culture is built up of other cultures and contributes to them in its turn. This is what I mean by intercultural unity. When a human being gets to know a foreign culture, she changes her conception of her own identity. This is why it is so important that cultures have contact, interact and enrich each other.

But it is of course also of the greatest importance that the individual culture seeks its own root system. This happens in the best way through literature and art.

Kurdish literature is closely related to the history of the Kurdish people. It is also a culture that has first and foremost been orally passed down, rather than having been written down. This is of course a consequence of the fact that Kurdish has been a forbidden language in the anti-democratic Turkey. In this country, the Kurds are officially blocked from access to their own culture. Therefore, the Kurdish culture has been forced to become inofficial. This has, on the other hand, meant that the Kurdish oral culture—and social culture—are very rich.

It is a lucky paradox and an irony of history that the Turkish oppression has in a way favoured the development of the Kurdish language. Kurds who have been forced to flee their country, and especially those who ended up in Sweden, have established a stable foundation for their linguistic identity. Within the boundaries of the Swedish democracy, it is actually possible to speak of a Kurdish “Sweden School”.

During the Osmanic period, Kurdish was allowed and was used in writing and in teaching, and in relation to these activities religious schools played a significant role. But after the first world war, all Kurdish schools were closed. Turkey was supposed to be “one nation [with] one language and one flag.” Kurdish classics, written with the Arabic alphabet, were banned. One could not write, or even read Kurdish. No new literary works were produced during this period. Naturally, the Kurdish language stagnated as a consequence of these circumstances.

The Kurdish novel and the written story are rather young. The Kurdish suffering has only recently started to be written down. Who knows what this literature will look like? Towards the end of the 19th century there were great advancements in the written literature, and during the 1920s the Kurdish art of story telling flourished. This developmen was directly related to the struggle for freedom.

The Torah, the Bible and the Kouran—all three are holy books and examples of early literature. Among their many stories, we find our deram, our fears, our love and our hope. For sure, we have been fostered by the Homeric epic and the history of Herodotos? Are not our own novels branches on Don Quijotes tree? And when we read Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust, did we not share the worlds of the characters, their love, their poverty and anger? Were we not ourselves agents in the French society of that time? Do we not still live with the mighty heroes of Dostojevskij?

In the Russia of Tjechov and Sjolochov, we were travellers from far and wide. Through novels by Hemingway, Heinrich Böll, Stefan Zweig and Tolstoj, we learned how wars affect people. Thanks to Lawrence Durrell, we were let into the mystical atmosphere and intellectual turbulence of Alexandria. Márquez, Fuentes and Faulkner made us familiar with landscapes we had never seen, with people we had never met, with the revolt and the power of imagination. With Nazim Hikmet we learned to embrace the universe, but also to put up resitence. Yaşar Kemal showed us the cruelty and the pain, the summer castle in the devastated land.

Among all of these voices, we should also remember some out of the Kurdish literature: the 17th and 18th century poets Ehmedê Xanî (1650-1706), Feqiyê Teyran (1590–1640) and Melayê Cizîrî (1570–1640). The modern Turkish state has prevented their works from reaching new generations of Kurds. Melayê Cizîrî was greatly inspired by Sufism, his diwan consists of more than two thousand verses. Feqiyê Teyran was the first Kurdish poet who wrote versified novels. Ehmedê Xanî marked the literature and history of Kurdistan in a fundamental way by writing the epic Mem and Zîn, an epic of tragic and mysterious love between Mem and the princess Zîn. His work is known throughout Kurdistan. In fact, behind the love story between the two heroes, the text is full of appeal to revive the Kurdish patriotic consciousness and unity. Ehmedê Xanî is considered the pioneer of the Kurdish national movement. In connection with the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Kurdish language and all Kurdish literature were banned. Several generations of Kurds grew up without contact with Kurdish literature and they were unaware of these literary predecessors. In the last three, four decades, their works have been accessed, republished and brought back to life. Today, their works are read by many Kurds worldwide.

Our liberation is not reached by means of weapons, but through the protection and cultivation of literature and art.

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