The following story is part of a series written by Zanyar Omrani, a Kurdish filmmaker and human rights activist who visited Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, in the spring of 2015. You can watch his film “Without Helmets” here.
The History of Kurdish Language in Rojava
by Zanyar Omrani
Recognition of the Kurdish language in areas where Kurds live, is one of the most essential demands that Kurds have sought in all the four parts of Kurdistan, in the last century.
Reviewing the political changes and evolutions in the last hundred years in Kurdistan, one can say that at the moment Kurdish language (Sorani dialect) is the official language in Iraqi Kurdistan, but in Iran and Turkey, this language suffers from some limitations.
Most Syrian Kurds (Rojava) speak Kurmanji dialect with few differences. Imposing strict policies and prohibiting the use of written and oral form of Kurdish in Syria, has left some harmful effects on the development and expansion of using the language.
However, in the Soviet Union, there was some attempts in order to develop and publish books in Kurmanji Kurdish, and founding Radio Yerevan was an influential step toward preserving the heritage of Kurmanji language.
Nevertheless, the primary efforts were taken in the era where France mandated Syria.
Dr. Jaladat Badrkhaan and his family were the pioneers of modernizing the Kurmanji language and literature. Jaladat who was fluent in German, French and English, had a remarkable role in the use and spread of Latin alphabet in the written Kurmanji.
“Hawaar” and “Ronaahi” magazines were the ones that published and spread Jaladat’s and his friend’s ideas.
Besides the Badrkhaans, the poet Jegarkhwin and Osman Sabri along with some other Kurdish poets and writers, continued their individual efforts in the form of Khuibowen Society (a semi-independent society founded by the Kurdish intellectuals in Syria), who faced many problems, as the then government of Syria imposed pressure on them and the French stopped supporting the Kurds.
After the establishment of Baath party of Syria, the limitations grew and the Kurdish language become completely banned. Parallel to such incident, ignoring the citizenship rights of so many Kurds and changing the demography of the Kurdish areas, became the top list of the racist policies of the Baath regime. This procedure had been severely continued until 2011.
Kurdish language after the events in 2011 in Syria
In the midst of July 2011, and when the revolution had just been ignited in Syria and Rojava, the Kurdish Language Institute was started.
In the Social Contract of the Autonomy of the Rojava Cantons, in the first section “General Principles”, Article 9 reads:
The official languages of the Canton of Jazira are Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac. All communities have the right to teach and be taught in their native language.
In the second section and in the “Basic Principles”, Article 23 says: “Everyone has the right to express their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and gender rights.”
There are two institutes in the Rojava for developing and spreading the language which are Language and Education Movement (TZP in Kurdish) and the Kurdish Language Institute (SZK). These institutes, hold annual conferences in order to define and review their strategies and educational procedures.
In the conference of Kurdish Language and Education held last year in Qamishli, the policy of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and also the passivity and suspension of the Kurdish language in Iran were condemned. After completing the education courses, these institutes give certificates to the Kurdish language students.
The first Kurdish language academy in Rojava was named after Farzad Kamangar, the late Kurdish teacher in Iran. At the moment, the Kurdish language and literature academies have been opened in Qamishli, Serikani, Kobani and Afrin. Most of the teachers and organizers of these academies are women. For instance, in Afrin Canton, more than 90 percent of the teachers and tutors are women.
The Kurdish Language Institute in Kobani, was ruined during the war and conflicts with the ISIS, like the other parts of the city. The Language and Education Movement is now preparing the schools for holding the Kurdish language classes once again, by clearing the area and the debris and reconstructing the schools.
Various Kurdish parties also have established their own Kurdish language education centers. Jegarkhwin, one of the pioneers of teaching Kurdish language in Amuda, says: “unfortunately, here, in this case, we do not have common language policy as well.”
The education takes place in the three levels of elementary, intermediate and advanced. After spreading the education of these levels, some other institutions, have been responsible for editing and publishing the books of various fields in Kurdish, so that the other subjects and fields be taught in Kurdish.
Also, in big cities of Syria such as Damascus and Aleppo where there are considerable number of Kurds, Kurdish language institutes are established. In Aleppo, 7 elementary schools officially teach Kurdish languages.
Besides these proceedings, one cannot neglect the powerful effect of Kurdish-speaking satellite channels (Ronahi TV), Radio, papers and magazine.
Most Kurdish books taught in Rojava, have been edited and published in the Kurdish Language Institute in Istanbul, Turkey.
Kurdish Language before the 2011 Events
Feryad Suleyman, is one of the women teaching Kurdish language in Serikani. She speaks of the Syrian Bath regime in order to arabize the Kurdish areas, and says: “when the Bath regime took over, all the names of Kurdish villages and towns were changed into Arabic. For instance, Direk was changed to Al-Malikiah , Kobani to Ayn al-Arab, and Serikani to Ras El Ain”
According to this Kurdish teacher, even using Kurdish names for naming babies were forbidden. She adds: “the arabization process was executed in several phases. If any person spoke Kurdish, for each Kurdish word, he/she was fined some Syrian pounds.”
Jegarkhwin learned the Kurdish alphabet via the Kurdish self-study books that were trafficked into Syria from Lebanon, and which were distributed secretly among the houses.
Jegarkhwin says: “Getting used to Latin alphabet was a little time-consuming and at first, we wrote Kurdish with the same Arabic script.”
Before declaring autonomy in Rojava and in the Bath regime era, personal compassion and love for the Kurdish language, was the incentive that the people would attempt to learn Kurdish language in small groups secretly.
Delil Delgash, who is in charge of Kurdish Language and Education Institute in Amuda: “we were children, but we knew that we had different language. We would hide our pen and paper inside our clothes and we would go to a certain house, where the classes were held in the basement.”
According to him, Kurdish language was regarded as a foreign language by the government, and they thought Kurds wanted to disintegrate Syria, using their language and they called Kurds as “foreign nation”. If anyone spoke Kurdish, he/she would be arrested by the state officers.
The Kurdish Language Education Institute was founded secretly in 2005. Their first conference of this institute was held in Aleppo in 2007, which was attended by the Kurdish lovers from various cities of Rojava.
Delgash was present at that conference and says: “we were around 100 people and it took four days for us to gather at a certain hour. After the conference, many of the teachers attending the conference, were arrested. I was one of them. They said Arabic is the official language. We said that when the Christians had special schools, why not we have one? And they answered : ‘you are not like them, you make troubles’”
The second conference was held in 2009, in Kobani. A statement was read in this conference which said: “let the Kurdish be the official language in the country.” The third conference was held officially in 2011, in Amuda.
The Next Steps
Delil Delgash on the current status and the more active presence of language students in the schools says: “we are now doing the arrangement for editing and publishing Kurdish books in various subjects and then we will distribute and teach them in the schools.” But the Syrian state is still making problems for them: “Assad’s regime does not recognize Kurdish language and we know for certain that if he gets control over the Kurdish areas again, he will use the previous procedures.”
In Delgash’s opinion, the popular Revolution in 2011, gave them a pure historic chance for them and made it possible to develop the Kurdish language in Rojava.
Delgash continues: “at first, there were just Kurds in the classes, but now we have Arab and Assyrian students in the classes.”
In regard of state reformations of Bath regime, it was declared that Kurdish language will be taught in Damascus University. But it was also said that Kurdish will be taught in Arabic script, the issue which was thought as a political deceit, proposed too late. Delgash believing that still, the chauvinistic presupposition has not been ruled out in the centralized Bath regime, states: “in Geneva II, they wanted to say that they have really reformed their methods. It was so ironic that while they disturb the affairs of the Kurdish schools, they at the same time propose to teach Kurdish in universities. Why universities are ok, and schools are not!?”
The number of Kurdish language teachers has been estimated to be 1325 in Jazira, 930 in Afrin, and 400 in Kobani cantons. Vian Amaara was one of the Kurdish teachers who was killed in Kobani war. He is now the symbol of language and education movement in Rojava.
Arshek Barawi, is a veteran Kurdish language teacher in Amuda. He has taught Kurdish since 1980. In his early youth, Arshek had made many efforts to learn his mother tongue, but as he says, no one was there to help him. “So I decided to learn it on my own. There were three secret Kurdish parties in the city, and when I asked them to help me, they said they would, if I joined their parties. At first, I just got so disappointed that I gave up going for learning my mother tongue.”
Arshek was the only son in the family, with no sisters. He had heard that in Lebanon, there were some Kurdish gatherings; “My father always told me a free fox is better that a caged lion, so he respected my decision and paid the journey costs to Lebanon and there I could gradually learn Kurdish.”
In Turkey, Ataturk had spent a lot of money and had invited 70 eminent linguists of the world to Turkey in order to promote and develop the Turkish language. Arshek says: “On the contrary to Turkish, our language is the underground and secret one which was the result of the efforts taken by the intellectuals who would do any job just for making the ends meet. For instance, someone like Jaladat Badrkhaan, farmed at the last years of his life. All of them were exiled.
According to Arshek, there are still many obstacles in the way of teaching Kurdish, such as few number of teachers who are fluent in Kurdish; lack of sufficient facilities and the fear that the wages of the teachers and educational staff would be cut off by the officials of the Education Ministry in Damascus.
Ranya, is a second stage student (Intermediate) of Kurdish in Serikani. He had been taught Arabic in school, and now he is learning Kurdish. Ranya says that previously he had paradoxes and lacked confidence, but now he feels proud.
Mohammad Mahmoud Haju, the man in charge of coordinating the affairs of the Language and Education Institute in Serikan, says that people at first was fearful of learning Kurdish, because the presupposition remaining from the Bath regime was still there. Haju also says : “ we changed this attitude, by working hard and constant activities. Our people fear learning Kurdish, because it is always possible that the Bath regime may return.”
In addition to the said institutes, there are other organizations and academies whose main focus is to develop Kurdish.
Zozaan Haji Ahmad, the common official of Language and Education Movement of Jazira Canton and the Kurdish Language Academy in Qamishli, says that the purpose of establishing Kurdish Language Academy was to improve and update the academic levels of Kurdish.
Supervising the Kurdish language institutes and consulting them, holding various conferences, supporting Kurdish writers, editing and publishing Kurdish books in various fields, training Kurdish language teachers, editing Kurdish dictionaries into various languages, and communicating with linguistic organizations in the world, is the main tasks of different committes in the academy.
Rojda Forat, a member of the Coordination Council of the Mesopotamia Social Sciences Academy, regards the aim of establishing the Social Sciences Academy in Kurdish, as a response to the efforts taken for actualizing the Kurdish language’s potentials in sociological grounds and in human sciences. He says that the academy is aimed to create infrastructure, translate the human sciences books and build new words. Azad Qamishlu, another member of the Coordination Council of the Mesopotamia Social Sciences Academy, also adds: “Comprehensive edition of the translation of the human sciences books and developing the two-way communications with academic institutes in the world, are the purposes and activities that must be done first. We also ask expert linguists and translators to cooperate with us and let us use their experiences.”
Foreign Guerillas and Learning Kurdish Language
Shuresh is twenty-four years old and has come from Catalonia in Spain, to help the people in Rojava. He says that he must learn Kurdish so that he can communicate better with the people.
“I think Kurdish is a very nice and pleasant language, though learning it is very difficult. I think there are many reason for that; as the language is very rich and has wide range of words. Lack of educational resources in other languages is another reason for the difficulty of learning Kurdish.”
I ask him if there is any similarities between Catalan and Kurdish languages, and while bursts into laughter, answers: “yes, just one word; “you”! (Tu in Kurdish and Catalan). But the grammar is completely different.”
Shuresh says: “When Franco took over in Spain, he tried to eliminate Catalan language and Culture. Many were arrested, tortured and even killed, but nowadays, Catalan language is alive more than ever. So, I think the assimilation process and the efforts to eliminate Kurdish in Turkey, Syria and Iran which is in the top list of the educational planners in those countries, is in vain and it just makes the gaps more evident and explicit.”
“At the end of each interview, I was asked a common question to which I had no answer but a flat smile, and that question was: “whereabouts you live, how is the Kurdish language teaching there?”