Radio Yerevan and Kurdish: the "unknown" language in Turkey

Kurdish broadcasts by Radio Yerevan touched many lives, and today they still resonate as the Kurdish language is ignored in Turkey

Erdal and I made our acquaintance in September 2008. I remember it very well: it was a few days after I had arrived on a regular Armavia flight from Istanbul to Yerevan in the middle of the night for the 2010 World Cup qualifying match between Armenia and Turkey. Yerevan was teeming with Turks in the days before and after the match. These were the days of "football diplomacy" that began with Turkish President Abdullah Gul's acceptance of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's invitation. Along with Gul, many journalists, NGO workers, academics and businessmen we were familiar with from the Turkish press were in the city. We were all eager to see where this rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia would lead. That was our agenda in those days.

I don't remember another occasion when I heard so much exchange in Turkish in Yerevan. On one of those days, after an exciting and crowded discussion at the terrace café of the Marriotte Hotel on Republic Square, I was on my way to another meeting at Yerevan State University when I overheard Erdal speaking on a corner of Sayat Nova Boulevard. "Radio Eriwan ur da?" he was intoning to the Armenian cab driver. Since "ur da" means "where" in Armenian for no one else but Erdal, the cabbie did not understand and kept repeating the Russian word for sorry "извините- izvinite." Erdal's few words in Armenian, which only he understood, and the cab driver's Russian, which he assumed was a lingua franca, did not allow them to understand each other. I decided to step in this noncommunication.

In Turkish, I asked him if he was from Turkey. He replied, for an unknown reason, in English, "Do you speak Turkish?"

"Yes," I said, "where do you want to go?" Radio Eriwan, Erdal replied. "Come along," I said, "I'm going that way." It was only a ten-minute walk. Erdal had come to Yerevan from the border province of Kars, which lies in the plains north of Mount Ararat, to see "beyond the mountain" and visit this city he had heard so much about for years. We could only chat a little; we exchanged names, discussed the soccer match, exchanged our wishes for the opening of the border between the two countries, and maybe one or two other things. I told him we were there and left him in front of the radio building. He gave me his thanks and we parted.

I was already running late, so I hurried to join my academic advisor, but I noticed that something was strange. It was two o'clock, as we had agreed, but it was very quiet in the area. When I got to the door of the building and saw that it was closed, I realized that it was Sunday, not Monday. The schedule was packed, the days were chaotic and I was a day early for my appointment. Angry at myself, I was retracing my steps more calmly from the same street when I saw Erdal still standing on the street corner where I had left him, looking at the radio building. We greeted each other again. "The radio is closed," he said. Yes, I replied, it's Sunday, everyplace is closed...

We took a seat in one of the cafes nestled among the trees accross from the university and overlooking the back of the chess house, where we could see the statue of Yeghishe Tsarents, a poet, writer and one of the most important figures of 20th century Armenian literature, and a fellow poet from Kars. Under the gaze of his countryman, Erdal spoke, and I listened. For me, that day was the day that I was to discover "Radio Eriwan." The reason for all the coincidences, for his noncommunication and my forgetfulness, was that we met Erdal and he was to tell me what the Armenian broadcasts of Radio Yerevan meant for the Kurds...

Erdal recounted how Kurds in Turkey had been closely following Kurdish-language broadcasts since they began in 1955, and the impact these broadcasts had on Kurds. I listened to the stories of the revival of a language that was ignored, banned, and sought to be obliterated, with a radio broadcast from across the border, and the joy and hope it brought, even if it was just twice a day.

He told me how, when the announcement "Eriwan xeberdıde, guhdarén eziz, naha bıbizın deng u behsén teze" (Radio Eriwan presents the news, dear listeners, now you are going to listen to the news) was heard on the radio, young or old everyone became ears.

While Erdal was telling me about the access of Kurds in Turkey to Kurdish music, culture and literature, and how he had listened to the programs featuring dengbêjs as a child and how impressed he was, I found out and understood exactly what these broadcasts, about which I knew very little, actually signified. Afterwards, I made it my mission to read everything I could find on the subject. Casimê Celîl, the founder and director of the broadcasting in Kurdish, and the Kurdish intellectuals who contributed to broadcasts in Kurdish made a significant contribution to recording Kurdish songs, tunes and folkloric works, preserving them and bringing them into the present. They acted to ensure that the tradition of the dengbêj was not lost. At a time when it was forbidden to speak Kurdish in Turkey, I'm not sure if I would have fully realized how amazing and empowering it would have been to listen to news, music, plays, stories and poetry in one's family language on a radio broadcasting from Armenia, had I not met Erdal.

The on-screen designation by TV host Didem Arslan Yilmaz of Kurdish, which is recorded as an "unknown language" in the minutes of Turkey's Grand National Assembly, as "the language of the East" has once again brought to the public attention that the Kurdish language is being denied the recognition it is entitled to in Turkey. The exclusion of the Kurdish language everywhere, from the public sphere to the education system, is really just a manifestation of ignorance towards Kurdish people. Just as for years people were called "Easterners" and not Kurds, this time the Kurdish language is being sought to be reduced into this single word. Unfortunately, much of society has internalized this sense of oppression, and an attitude that denies the status quo by declaring, "I am not an 'Easterner', I am a Kurd," continues to be accused of identity politics. Recently, with the demand for mother-tongue education for the Kurds resurgent, I thought of Erdal. I reminisced of a little boy listening to his "forbidden" mother tongue on the radio, in a near but distant land; his memories of how a single radio was worth the price of two to three cows, how there were only one, maybe two radios in a village, and how neighbors got together to listen to Kurdish news and songs...

The very first day one arrives in Yerevan, looking for the radio building to commemorate one's elders and to reminisce one's memories, looking at it from afar like a monument is something to reflect on. In his study "The Development of Kurdish in the USSR," published by Yerevan State University, Kurdish scholar A. Drboyan, while seeking an answer to the question why the Kurdish language and culture were strengthened in Armenia and not in Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan, despite the fact that Kurds were more numerous in the USSR, notes that the first Kurdish radio broadcasts in Armenia began in 1928 but ceased in 1937 due to financial difficulties. As Drboyan relates, after the "Summit of Caucasian Kurds" held in Leninakan, Armenia, in 1925, the newspaper "Ryu Taza / New Road," founded in 1930, the Kurdish Writers' Union, established within the Armenian Writers' Union in 1932, and the Kurdish Pedagogical Faculty in Yerevan, founded in 1931, were among the important steps taken for the Kurdish language in Soviet Armenia. It is reported that by 1939 there were two Kurdish-language radio stations in Iraq and Iran, Radio Baghdad and Radio Urmia, respectively, but they were not very popular among Kurds because their broadcasts were influenced by Persian and Arabic. The reason why Radio Yerevan in Soviet Armenia broadcasts in the dialect of Igdir, Kars, Ardahan and Agri was undoubtedly because Casimê Celîl, who was in charge of the Kurdish broadcasts, was an orphan boy who fled the village of Kizilkule in the Digor district of Kars in 1918.

There are many more accounts and information about the Kurdish radio broadcasting. For those interested, I recommend the book by researcher and writer Zeri Inanc titled "Kurdish Voice at Radio Yerevan" published by the Ismail Besikci Foundation Publications. In the book, published bilingually in Turkish and Kurdish, Inanc recounts the adventure of Kurdish broadcasting, which began in 1955 at Radio Armenia, and its impact on the Kurds. On a final note, it is essential to mention in this context that almost 900 Kurdish-language broadcasts of Radio Yerevan have been archived digitally and made available to listeners, thanks to a project initiated last year by the Kurdish-German Cultural Institute (Deutsch-Kurdisches Kulturinstitut).

*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the +GercekNews Portal.

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