The op-ed below was originally published in Rudaw on March 11th, 2016.
When we hear the term “cultural genocide,” devastating images typically spring to mind: the destruction of “degenerate” art in Nazi Germany, the burning of the Sarajevo Library, the tear-down of the Buddhas at Bamiyan. Last September, UNESCO condemned ISIS for destroying the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, describing these monstrous acts as “new war crimes.”
As the Syrian civil war rages into its 6th year, cultural criminality continues.
Beneath the headlines, however, ISIS is claiming yet another cultural victim: Kurdish literature and with it, the multi-dialectal Kurdish language.
Linguicide A Hidden Cost of War
In this particular case, there will be no shocking visuals, nor is it even clear that ISIS has identified Kurdish literature among its intended targets. Instead, linguicide lurks as one of the hidden cultural costs of this war, just as it has in so many previous conflicts.
Languages never die in dramatic, explosive events like Palmyra. Linguicide happens incrementally, like the slow burn of a famine.
The modern chapter in Kurdish linguistic suppression can be traced to 1924, when Turkey passed legislation forbidding Kurdish publications, schools and libraries. Even writing the words “Kurd” or “Kurdistan” – in any language – was declared illegal by the nation where the vast majority of Kurds live.
Despite this censorship, as well as bans on Kurdish literature in Syria and Iran, an international, clandestine network of Kurdish intellectuals and activists never stopped publishing – even when they were subjected to imprisonment, torture and assassination. Sometimes they printed books illegally and published them under fake imprint names. At other times they photocopied books, bound them and distributed them in secret.
One of these activists is Abdullah Keskin, founder of Avesta Publishing in Istanbul, which is now the world’s largest Kurdish publishing house. “We worked under the shadow of death,” he says, recalling business conditions in the 1990s, “and apart from the security problems, we were publishing books in a language that almost no one could read.”
Pressure in Turkey
In Turkey, the immense pressure on Kurdish writers and publishers finally began to lift in 2000 – when the government relaxed bans on public speech, publishing and broadcasting in an effort to curry favor with the European Union. Meanwhile, in Syria under the Assad regime, Kurdish literature was still officially forbidden, but a robust trade in black market books evolved. And in Iraq, Kurdish made significant gains when it was declared one of two official languages by a new national constitution in 2003; a proliferation of print and broadcast media were soon to follow.
The Syrian crisis effectively ended this Kurdish literary surge and put the publishing industry back into a choke hold – by scattering Kurdish communities, destroying the livelihoods of millions of families, and interrupting the education of an estimated 2.7 million children, many of them Kurds.
At the Erbil International Book Fair last August, most vendors reported declining sales figures, citing the conflict in Syria and the widespread sense of economic insecurity that it has engendered across the region.
Children’s Books Suffering
With the bottom has falling out from underneath the international market for Kurdish literature, children’s books – which are the lifeblood of every written language – were among the war’s first literary casualties.
Avesta stopped publishing children’s books altogether because colorful imagery is very expensive to reproduce. Apec Förlag, the leading Kurdish publisher of children’s books in Europe, currently has plans to publish no more than 10 children’s titles this year.
From a linguist’s perspective, the Kurdish language is currently in critical condition, and publishing houses in Istanbul, Stockholm and Sulaymaniyah are functioning like emergency wards in a hospital. The fate of the Kirmanckî dialect (also known as Zazaki) is of particular concern; Kirmanckî was listed by UNESCO in its 2010 Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
Without the ongoing creation of new literature – particularly children’s literature – the Kurdish language has little hope of survival. Although the Syrian war’s chilling effect on Kurdish publishing doesn’t lend itself to grotesque visuals, the cultural consequences – disappearing dialects and a generation of Kurdish children who are deprived of education in their mother tongue – are no less egregious than a smashed sculpture or an exploding temple.
E.A. Nolan is the author of GRANIA’S TEARS (Apec Förlag, 2016), one of an estimated 10-15 Kurdish children’s books that will be published worldwide this year.