The Kurds' Last Battle in Turkey: Teaching Kids Kurdish

As Turkey's biggest minority makes peace with the Erdoğan government, the classroom turns into a nationalist battlefield.
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Demonstrators hold Kurdish flags and flags with portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan during a gathering in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir on March 21, 2013. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Following months of talks aimed at resolving a conflict that has spanned three decades and cost more than 40,000 lives, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) began withdrawing from Turkey into their mountain hideouts in northern Iraq this week.

With the launch of peace talks between the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and the banned PKK, Turkey's Kurdish conflict has once again begun making headlines in the international press. Yet amid news of the PKK's gradual retreat from Turkey, plus speculation about the tenability of the ceasefire called by the group's leaders, there has been relatively little talk of what the Kurds themselves expect from the peace process.

Ever since they were allowed a voice on the national stage, the Kurds have demanded one thing more often than anything else -- the right to educate their children in Kurdish.

The list is long -- from ending the arrests of Kurdish activists, to scrapping the 10 percent electoral threshold that prevents Kurdish political parties from entering parliament, redefining Turkish citizenship, and granting amnesty to PKK fighters. Yet ever since they were allowed a voice on the national stage, the Kurds have demanded one thing more often than anything else -- the right to educate their children in Kurdish.

Under Erdogan's watch, Turkey has eased restrictions on the use of the language, allowing defendants to use it in court cases, politicians to use it during campaigns, and prisoners to use it in jails. The government has even launched a Kurdish-language TV station, as well as elective courses in Kurdish in universities and schools.

For the Kurds, this is all well and fine, and a huge leap from an era when Turkey banned their language outright, but not nearly enough. "How can you have elective courses in your own language? How much sense does that make?" bristles Rahmi Kurt, an official from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Hakkari, a town in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. What his people need, Kurt says, is public education in Kurdish.

A visit with one of Mukader Baran's introductory classes in Kurdish literature, at Hakkari University, makes it clear why. The course is an elective, one of the students confides, but Baran, the teacher, "makes sure that we take it." No one appears to mind. The young men and women appear engaged, interested, and alert. There's only one problem. Most of them might speak Kurdish, but they can't read it.

The students take turns making PowerPoint presentations on Kurdish literature. Baran talks about Evdale Zeynike, or, as she calls him, the Kurdish Homer. A few boys take a stab at reading a Kurdish poem in its original. Fezullah, from Mardin, a good 250 miles west of Hakkari, is shaking his head. "It's a course in Kurdish literature, but were doing it all in Turkish," he says dejectedly. Many students have to read the assigned books in their Turkish translation. Young Kurds, Fezullah says, might learn to speak their language at home, but to be able to read and write in it, and to remain literate in their own culture, they'll need it in school.

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Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer for Time, Foreign Policy, and Polityka.

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