Abdullah Demirbaş: On Sur & Celebrating Amed’s Diversity
Interviewed by Dr. Shilan Fuad Hussain
“I wanted everyone to have an education in their mother tongue. I wanted them to be able to learn in Kurdish; oppressed people like Kurds are not allowed to study in their mother tongue. For all those reasons and because of all the projects I began, they [Turkey] wanted to put me in prison for 300 years. The state declared me a terrorist due to these activities.”
Abdullah Demirbaş, the former mayor of Sur in the heart of Amed (Diyarbakir) – the de facto capital of Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) – is a man who sincerely believes that religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity is a strength in society worth protecting. This philosophy put him at odds throughout the years with the Turkish state’s official unitary ideology, which lead to him being removed twice from office in 2007 and 2009, and later imprisoned.
Following his last removal from office, he defiantly professed: “My dismissal won’t change the fact that there is cultural diversity in this country. Like those who judged Galileo and wanted to execute him, that didn’t change the fact that the earth was revolving around the sun.”
Demirbaş’ purported ‘crimes’ were providing government services to the people of Sur in their own non-Turkish mother tongues: Kurdish, Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic – while also restoring and honoring the rich religious traditions that have called Sur home through the centuries. Now, forced into exile in the European diaspora following Erdoğan’s crackdown in 2015 on Kurdish civil society – when he was also put on an assassination list – Demirbaş has not given up his mission of celebrating the cultural mosaic that once called Amed home, as he did.
In fact, he recently visited Pope Francis at the Vatican and presented the pontiff with several Kurdish gifts, including a copy of Ehmedê Xanî’s classic love story ‘Mem û Zîn’ (1692) and a carpet from Rojhilat. Demirbaş also asked The Pope to pray for a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish issue within Turkey and gave him a letter where he described the historical persecution of the Kurds living “under the control” of the four states (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria) ruling Kurdistan.
Demirbaş learned about such suppression at an early age, as his commitment to diversity was born out of his own traumatic experience at age six on his first day in school, when the state-assigned teacher picked him up by his earlobes as punishment for him being unable to say “my teacher” in Turkish (since he only spoke Kurdish at the time).
Years later, he made it his life’s work to make the city of Amed and its historical old center of Sur, into a beacon of tolerance for the entire nation of Turkey. A commitment that cost him his job, freedom, homeland, and could have cost him his life. Tragically, in 2016, the narrow majestic old streets of Sur which he speaks of with such reverence in the following interview, would largely be destroyed by the Turkish military as well. But to preserve that history, the following interview covers Demirbaş’ time as mayor of Sur, which should be of interest to anyone seeking answers to the ‘Kurdish question’.
As the former mayor of Sur municipality, can you speak about what Sur meant to you and what made it such a special place?
Sur was a living fairy tale that enriched my individual history with its unique and rich cultural motifs. It was a magical space where you could feel the culture of thousands of years in every street and within every person. I can still hear the vivid sounds which accompanied the games I played as a child, the unique tunes that I listened to when I was young that caressed my soul.
But this charm also made Sur a defiant political symbol because it disproved the Turkish state’s official policy of ‘One Nation, One Language, One Culture’. Sur was multinational, multilingual, and multicultural. This diversity of life and thought in Sur made it a target of Ankara’s ideology and mentality that denies such Anatolian richness. Rebuilding this cultural heritage which Turkey wanted erased from living memory became a part of my mission and reason to exist. Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arabs, Jews, Alevis, Yazidis, and Zoroastrians had all lived there at one time in history.
This made Sur a living time capsule that carried within it a 9,000-year-old culture, which hosted 33 different civilizations and nations through the ages. In place of that, the Turkish state wanted to implant a 50-year-old makeshift identity that denied this mosaic of our past and severed the Kurds from understanding our place within the flower bed of peoples in the region. But in trying to erase our history, they only made us more determined to resist and preserve it.
As Mayor of Sur, you decided to conduct municipal business in the diverse languages of the local population. However, because of this you were arrested many times by the Turkish Government. Can you speak about why you believed multilingualism was worth being jailed for?
As someone who understood my city and the electorate’s needs, I realized that we had no other choice but to utilize multilingual services. This was confirmed by a 2004 survey we conducted with 9,500 families, which showed that 72% of them spoke Kurdish (Kurmanji) as a mother tongue, with only 24% of them speaking Turkish. We also discovered that 3% spoke Armenian, Syriac, and Zazaki, while 1% spoke Arabic in their daily life.
In the light of this data, we started to provide our services and activities in Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian, and Arabic—but we even added Hebrew and English, for the smaller numbers who could benefit from those. The presentations and maps prepared by the municipality were printed in many languages and we were open to any new linguistic requests. A website where the history of Sur was told was also made available in several different languages. Then municipal interior signs, the official sign of the municipality building, and the signs of the villages were presented to the public in many languages as well. We then opened courses and schools for languages that were in danger of extinction in the city.
Moreover, we created a project called ‘Three Languages, Three Books, Three Streets’ where we published the works of writers Şeyhmus Diken, Mıgırdiç Margosyan, and Naum Faiq in Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Syriac, and English. These three writers, a Kurd, Armenian, and Assyrian with historical roots in Amed, personified the city’s legacy. We also named the streets where they were born after these authors.
Beyond symbolism, on a day-to-day basis we offered many language options on our call-in city telephone system and ensured that all of our cultural events would be multilingual. We then asked all of our staff to learn the other languages spoken in the city and paid a bonus to any who learned to speak one of the less dominant languages.
To ensure ethnic and religious representation, we established the ‘Council of Forty’. There were 40 people in this assembly; comprised of Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Domanis, Jews, women, young people, shopkeepers, Muslims, Alevis, Yazidis and members of different political views. As a Council we then built a Monument of Common Conscience in honor of all the victims of genocide in Turkey, including those from the Armenian Genocide, the first of its kind within Turkey. We then inscribed this monument in Kurdish, Armenian, Syriac, Greek, Hebrew, English and Turkish languages, putting forth our collective wish that such a pain would never happen again. The monument read: ‘This memorial is dedicated to all peoples and religious groups who were subjected to genocide in these lands.’ As a Council, we also visited Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.
Because the city of Amed and Sur has such a rich religious tradition, we then built and restored a Chaldean Catholic church, an Armenian Gregorian church, an Alevi house of worship (Cem house), a Yazidi temple, and a mosque. We had planned to open a synagogue, but the Jewish community was hesitant because of the risks they can often face within Turkey. Our aim with all of these initiatives was to create a peaceful and honorable place of coexistence in Sur, which bridges the past to the present. As a result of these efforts and this philosophy, I was ultimately dismissed and removed from office in 2007 by the Turkish state, and a government chosen trustee was appointed in my place. The City Council was then dissolved, and all our activities were terminated.
A lot of your work has focused on helping children to embrace their mother tongues, and you had a project which aimed to create a nightly story for Kurdish children and other minorities to read. Can you speak about the importance of children in your past work?
Children were very important to everything we did, as they are the inheritors of the world we wanted to create. To capture and consider their dreams alongside our own, we established a multilingual Children’s Council. We also established children’s libraries, and published a magazine called Şemamok (after the fruit), which we published in Kurdish, Armenian, and Syriac. We then formed a multilingual children’s choir, so they could all hear their mother tongues sung and appreciate the beauty of how each of them sound. They ended up singing songs in nine different languages. Alongside that, we held an annual international multilingual children’s festival, and formed a children’s group of kids from the Dom people, who often suffer from not being accepted socially.
As for the story night you asked about, that is true. We carried out a language learning project for 5,000 families under the headline “Every school has a nightly story” (Sere shevê çirokek her mal dibistanek) – which consisted of 365 stories, one for every night of the year. The objective was to convince families to read the stories each night and learn a new language together. In this way, we transformed every home into a school. Indeed, one twelve-year-old girl was then so inspired by this, that she turned a room of her house into a language center and began teaching Kurdish to her classmates.
Sadly, all of these efforts drew the wrath of the Turkish state authorities. Soon lawsuits were brought against us, and we were removed from office, and replaced with an appointed trustee. Before our removal, our municipality office was shot at twice and we constantly received death threats and assassination attempts from Turkish ultranationalists. The Turkish state requested that all of us serve hundreds of years in prison for our “treason” of promoting diversity within Turkey’s borders. Soon we would be sentenced extra-judicially in corrupt show trials that had no basis in actual law and order. The sad irony is that while we were punished and attacked within Turkey, the outside world loved our efforts and took inspiration in our programs.
As mayor you were charged with numerous “language crimes” such as printing health pamphlets in Kurdish and giving a Kurdish blessing at a wedding. Why do you feel the Turkish state is so afraid of multilingualism and multiculturalism? And what steps should Turkey make to fix this?
The founding ideology of the Turkish State is: ‘One Language, One Culture, One Religion, One Nation’. This ideology takes its source from the Committee of Union and Progress, which was connected to the ‘Young Turks’. According to these beliefs, everyone is a Turk, their language is Turkish, their religion is Sunni Islam, and their cultural inheritance is the Turkish culture. Apart from that, there are no different cultures, identities, or languages in their misguided eyes. Those who oppose this idea are automatically branded as separatists and terrorists – as any Kurds who assert their identity are.
But this is a policy of denial and destruction. Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Kurdish, Alevi, and Yazidi genocides have all been committed under this ideology, as Turkey is founded on a series of religious and cultural genocides through both mass murder and mass assimilation. This is also the ideology that fuels the Turkish war machine that propels them to launch expansionist invasions throughout the Middle East.
The philosophy we lived by in the Sur municipality was different though. We wanted an honorable peace and coexistence between all peoples. To us, humanity was a garden, and each flower had its own different scent, color, and type. Those differences between the flowers are what made the garden beautiful and gave it variety. However, Turkey argues that such a garden is dangerous and even terroristic. They felt threatened by our ideas and ultimately did not stop until they were able to storm into our flower garden and rip out everything. They want the people to forget their own languages and cultures and be swallowed up by the state that tells them all to be the same.
As mayor of Sur, you published a map of Amed in Armenian and you were committed to preserving the Armenian heritage of the city. Why was this important to you?
What we wanted for ourselves, we wanted and did for everyone we lived alongside. Like the Kurds, the Armenians and Assyrians are also an ancient people of these areas. For example, what the Armenians view as Western Armenia and what the Kurds view as Northern Kurdistan largely overlap in many places, because historically they lived side-by-side.
I myself am Kurdish. I take care of my own culture, language, belief, and values. However, at the same time, what I want for myself, I want for all the peoples, cultures, and beliefs with which I live around. We wanted the same for all the Armenian, and Syriacs of Sur. We understood that if we ignored them while keeping our Kurdish language and culture alive, we would hypocritically be no different from the official Turkish ideology that we were resisting against.
As one example, we decided to change the name of Sur Municipality to ‘Tigran Amed’ based on a recommendation of the Assembly. But the Turkish state refused our request. The reason we chose that name was Armenians referred to Sur as Tigranagerd, Kurds called it Amed, and Assyrians called it Amida. By renaming the ancient city we wanted to ensure peace and partnership with a name that signified all three cultures and peoples together. But this was not allowed.
Likewise, we sought to form sister cities between Sur and other places around the world, including throughout Greater Kurdistan. So, we first formed sister cities with Dihok in Bashur, Qamişlo in Rojava, and Ûrmiye in Rojhilat (in Southern, Western, and Eastern Kurdistan respectively). However, Syria and Iran’s regimes did not allow official linking in the case of the latter two. We were able to sister city with Gyumri in Armenia however. Later, we did the same with Ramallah in Palestine and Mevaseret Zion in Israel, showing our wish for peace in that conflict.
You have spoken about the rich cultural history of Sur and how many different ethnicities all had roots in the city. Can you elaborate on why all Kurds should embrace this multiculturalism and multifaith reality?
Sur is a vibrant and resistant historical city, that survived millennia despite many similar places all having been destroyed. 33 different civilizations in history can trace their lineage to Sur. It is also the longest walled city in the world, with a length of 5.5 km. Sur is the heart of Amed (Diyarbakir), which itself is in the heart of the Middle East. Therefore, we adopted the motto that if the heart is at peace, there will be lasting peace throughout the entire ‘body’ (the Middle East region). All of human civilization owes parts of itself to the Middle East and the advancements created there, and so it is tragic to see it as the scene of such conflicts and turmoil.
We viewed multilingualism, multiculturalism, multi-religiousness, and multi-identity in Sur as being the prototype for coexistence throughout the entire region. Just imagine if all of the fractured states and religious sectarian conflicts took the same approach as we did. The diversity of the Middle East should be its strength, not its weak spot to be exploited by outside powers for geopolitical gain. In our opinion, the model in Sur was a blueprint for democracy, freedom, and peace in the Middle East. Today this model has also been adopted and made its way to Rojava and been implemented by the Autonomous Administration there. It is our dream that this philosophy will eventually spread not only throughout the four states that occupy Kurdistan but the entire Middle East and world.
What are the steps that the Turkish state could make to give the Kurds in Turkey and all other ethnic minorities and religions their full rights?
A dramatic transformation is required in most state institutions. With a new democratic and liberal constitution, perhaps Turkey could learn to accept all identities, beliefs, and peoples, and establish equal citizenship. State education must also be multilingual and respect children’s mother tongues. Multilingual services should be provided in the public sphere. The old names of all the destroyed settlements and villages should be restored. All of the genocides and massacres must be admitted to and apologized for. A truth and reconciliation commission must be established where the state reveals all of their crimes against the people. All political prisoners must be released and those driven into exile should be invited to return. Democracy, freedom, and justice demand these steps. Such accountability is the only way to have coexistence and an honorable peace.