Kurdish City & Child Names: The Battle Over Memory
By Dr. Thoreau Redcrow
“Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried.” — Walter Benjamin
As an occupied people without a state of their own, for the last century Kurds have had all elements of their culture and identity – music, dance, dress, books, holidays, and even colors – forbidden, banned, or erased. But there is another element of daily life which viscerally aims at the heart of Kurdish existence, one that Turkey especially has attempted to annihilate: names. The obsessive degree to which the Turkish state has done so, as well as the other three nation states occupying Kurdistan (Syria, Iraq, Iran) to a much lesser extent, is the focus of this article.
This vernacular assault has been all encompassing, aimed at both personal family identity and human geography. As such, Kurds have seen bans and attempted ‘linguistic cleansing’ on not only the deeply personal names they give their children, but the words they use for everything around them, from the nature of Kurdistan’s rivers, mountain peaks, animals, and flowers – to the cities, towns, and villages that Kurds call home.
By psychologically dividing the Kurdish people from their own lived reality, the hope has been that such cognitive dissonance would cause Kurds to forget who they are and assimilate under the dominant hegemonic states wishing to subsume them. Turkification, Arabization, and Persianization do not happen in a vacuum – they occur first in the brains and on the tongues of Kurds who only know the world as named by their occupier. After all, how can you liberate a place which you cannot properly name?
The critical pedagogist Paulo Freire wrote that liberation of the oppressed first depends upon naming, because he knew that transforming a society first occurs in the ethereal metaphysical world of words, before it transfers into actions. Language and thus words are the ammunition that fuels revolutions in thought and rebellions of arms, which is why nation states wishing to oppress and subjugate a population typically ban their language first before anything else.
Turkey’s Obsession with Eradicating Kurdishness
“Since its creation in the 1920s, Turkey has tried to obliterate the very existence of the Kurds by assimilating them, claiming they were just ‘Mountain Turks’, and legally banning their language, culture and geographical place names, among numerous other tactics. During the 1960s Turkish president Cemal Gursel praised a book that claimed that the Kurds were Turkish in origin, and helped to popularise the phrase ‘spit in the face of him who calls you a Kurd’ as a way to make the very word ‘Kurd’ an insult.”
— Dr. Michael Gunter, Kurdish studies scholar
Of the four states occupying Kurdistan, the actions of Turkey to rename and erase Kurdish reality has been the most fanatical and pronounced. Kurds were also not the sole victims, as in addition to the 4,000 Kurdish names of cities, villages, and places that Turkey renamed throughout Anatolia, they also erased the original names of an estimated 4,200 Greek, 3,600 Armenian, 750 Arabic, 400 Syriac, 300 Georgian, and 200 Laz places.
This verbal ‘cultural genocide’ was deliberate and carried out by specialized governmental commissions created for the sole purpose of erasing any living memory of what indigenous people were historically rooted to the soil where their ancestors were buried. By changing over 28,000 topographical names, the hope was that eventually out of this black memory hole an artificially constructed Turkified nation would emerge, ethnically lobotomized of who they were before “Turkey” was created.
Soon after the establishment of Turkey, the word “Kurdistan” was banned, just as the word “Armenia” had been earlier by the Ottomans in 1880 as a prelude to the Armenian Genocide. In fact, the century-long obsession that the Turkish state has had with erasing Kurdishness, can likewise be observed in the bloody last days of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, where they sought to destroy any remnants of Christian identity.
Similar to a century later when ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would issue fatwas to enslave and murder the Yazidis, in October of 1916 the Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha issued an edict (ferman) declaring:
“It has been decided that provinces, districts, towns, villages, mountains, and rivers, which are named in languages belonging to non-Muslim nations such as Armenian, Greek or Bulgarian, will be renamed into Turkish. In order to benefit from this suitable moment.”
The ‘suitable moment’ of course, was the ethnic cleansing and genocides by the Young Turks, which were already underway. Notably, although Pasha was only targeting non-Muslim minorities at the time – because he saw himself as a representative of the Caliphate – his deadly logic entered the Turkish consciousness, as soon after the Turkish intellectual Hüseyin Avni Alparslan wrote:
“If we want to be the owner of our country, then we should turn even the name of the smallest village into Turkish and not leave its Armenian, Greek or Arabic variants. Only in this way can we paint our country with its colors.”
Those ‘colors’ have usually been the red of the Turkish flag, which matches the blood of the millions of victims who stood in the way of Ankara’s ‘unifying painting’. As a result, by the time the Turkish Republic was declared in 1923, Kurds were the last large remaining minority group, so the government turned their ire on them in the ensuing decades as well.
First came the Zilan massacre of 1930, where those Kurdish residents who took part in the Ararat rebellion were slaughtered and the use of Kurdish language, dress, folklore, and names were banned. This was followed up by the Turkish name-law of 1934, which decreed that every citizen in Turkey had to have a Turkish name, prohibiting all Kurdish ones. The government’s spokesmen Dr. Mehmet Sekban defended its assimilation policy a year earlier, asking in 1933, “Why be afraid of becoming assimilated? The position of the weak, assimilated by the powerful, has always proved better. It is enough if force is not used.”
By the mid 1930’s, the Turkish government had begun renaming Kurdish towns and villages. One famous example was Dêrsim (which means ‘silver door’ in Kurdish), to Tunceli (meaning ‘bronze hand’ in Turkish). The renaming of Dêrsim in particular was a nullifying way to assert control over the local Kurds and weaken their historical memory of the earlier revolts that originated there. Eventually, the implementation of these policies built up and alienated the local Kurdish population, until again, a Kurdish uprising arose in the form of the 1937-1938 Dêrsim Rebellion under Seyîd Riza. Tragically, because of the Turkish state’s heinous response of murdering upwards of 40,000 Kurds for demanding their cultural and linguistic rights, this time period would eventually acquire the alternative and more accurate name of the Dêrsim Genocide.
Around the same time, in November of 1937, Atatürk visited the city known as Amed in Kurdish, Āmīd in Syriac, Tigranakert in Armenian, and Diyār Bakr (Bakr tribe’s houses) in Arabic and expressed that he did not know what the latter’s name meant, so he ordered it to be Turkified and renamed “Diyarbakir” (land of copper) in Turkish. Such switches were done under the guise of eliminating “separatist notions” inside Turkey’s borders.
A decade later, the repression of Kurdish identity in Turkey reemerged, with the passing of the 1950 Press Law. As a result, the Kurdish place names that had already not been erased and changed to Turkish ones for ‘official’ use were, and Kurdish popular culture was drastically targeted. The Kurdish language itself was further banned even for the “expression, dissemination and publication of opinions”, and criminal punishments were laid out for the use of Kurdish in cinema, video, and music, through the ‘Law on Works of Cinema, Video and Music’.
In 1952, Turkey then created The Special Commission for Name Changes, under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior. It was invested with the power to change all names that were not within the jurisdiction of the municipalities: like streets, parks, or places. The commission was staffed with members from the Turkish Language Society, Turkish faculty from Ankara University’s geography, language, and history departments, the Military General Staff, and the Ministries of Defense, Internal Affairs, and Education. Over the next 26 years until 1978, over 35% of all the villages in Turkey had their names officially changed to Turkish ones, many with thousands of years of history under their original names. To show you the importance that the Turkish state gives to historical falsification and erasing Anatolia’s true history, following the 1960 military coup, one of the first actions in the first four months was officially changing the names of approximately 10,000 new villages.
However, controlling personal and place names were not enough, as Turkey even demanded a denial of recognizing one’s own ethnicity. To accomplish this, the Turkish Republic used the term “Mountain Turks” for Kurds from the 1930s to the 1970s, to purposefully obfuscate and erase the very existence of Kurdish people within the country. This classification was changed to the new euphemism of “Eastern Turk” in 1980.
Coup Number Two
Following the 1980 military coup in Turkey, the brutal repression of Kurds throughout Northern Kurdistan (southeast ‘Turkey’) was only increased exponentially. When Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) then began carrying out defensive retaliatory attacks against the state that was torturing Kurds so badly that prisoners were choosing to light themselves on fire, the Turkish state responded by trying to erase Kurdish culture altogether.
Journalist Aliza Marcus, describes the situation following the 1980 coup in her book Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, thusly:
“In the new Turkey the generals fashioned, Kurdish cultural, linguistic, and political identity was eradicated by law. The simplest expressions of cultural identity—giving children Kurdish names, singing Kurdish songs, and certainly, speaking Kurdish in state offices—was seen as a separatist act. Kurds as Kurds ceased to exist in the official, public realm, to the point that a Turkish journalist visiting a Kurdish village two months after the PKK’s attack was only able to write that the people there spoke Turkish with great difficulty. But of the language they did, in fact, speak—Kurdish—there was no mention. The ban on Kurdish-related activities was so complete that the ruling powers could be forgiven for having forgotten that there was, in fact, a Kurdish problem in Turkey.”
Turkey began by changing the names of another 280 mostly Kurdish villages from 1983-1985, focusing on the geographical Kurdish names of rivers or mountains etc. Paradoxically, at the very time Turkey was burning down Kurdish villages, they were also renaming their ruins. And at the very time they were having their Turkish commandos terrorize Kurdish villagers, by beheading them and cutting off their ears to wear as trophy necklaces, they were diligently changing the name of every Kurdish stream, hilltop, or mountain pass where they carried out such massacres. Showing the symbiosis between barbarism and linguistic erasure.
By 1983, the word “Kurd” became synonymous in Ankara’s eyes for “terrorist”, and the Turkish state continued to double-down their repression of Kurdish identity, with the government banning the term ‘Kurdish’ from any use whatsoever, while reiterating their bans on the Kurdish language, Kurdish folk songs, and giving children Kurdish names. Maps soon also became a figurative battleground, and a ‘Maps General Command’ was established for the purpose of functioning as a censorship committee, with all maps being sold requiring their approval. As a report from the lexicographer Sevan Nişanyan noted:
“In an effort to erase the old names completely, very harsh policies were implemented. The printing of the former names, even in brackets, on maps, their entry into the country and their distribution was banned… Publications that presented old names on a local scale were confiscated.”
The military rule that lasted from 1980 to 1983 interpreted any manifestation of Kurdishness, from speaking the Kurdish language to listening to Kurdish music, as a challenge against national integrity. For instance, the infamous Law 2932, which came into effect in 1983, banned the use of the Kurdish language in public and private. The second article of the law stated, “No language can be used for the explication, dissemination, and publication of ideas other than the first official language of countries, recognized by the Turkish state.” The law was carefully formulated to make Kurdish its sole target but never mentioned the word “Kurdish,” as it would mean the official acknowledgement of the existence of Kurds as a people. According to the human rights lawyer Sezgin Tanrıkulu, the Military junta running from Turkey from 1980-1983 also sent a list of Kurdish names to all the registration offices banning parents from giving their children these unapproved names.
Importance of Names to Ankara
The Turkish state places a lot of importance on personal names, which can be seen in their actions. For instance, Turkish media has mostly refused to use the name of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, because his name directly translates to “Servant of God” (in Arabic) + “The Avenger” (in Turkish). This is why for years Turkish officials would simply say “İmralı” for Öcalan, which is the name of the island in the Sea of Marmara where he has been languishing in isolation for the last 24 years.
For similar reasons, Erdoğan’s dictatorship in Turkey becomes incensed when the Western press uses the nom de guerre Mazloum Kobanî, for the Kurdish SDF General Ferhat Abdi Şahin, for two reasons. First, because ‘Mazlum’ means ‘oppressed’ or ‘humble’ in Arabic and often appears in the Quran, and secondly because it references the Kurdish name of Rojava’s heroic city of Kobanê (which Erdoğan insists on calling ‘Ayn al-Arab’ out of petty spite) – the location for the first defeat of ISIS, which Turkey was utilizing as a proxy mercenary force against the YPG/YPJ.
This obsession with names can even be seen in the lengths Turkey went through to alter the name of their country in English to “Türkiye”, because Erdoğan was so overly sensitive at Americans making jokes on Thanksgiving of “carving up the turkey” and mocking how silly the bird’s face can look. And if you doubt the seriousness with which Turkey takes names, try using the phrase “Greek yoghurt” on the streets of Ankara, or referring to Istanbul as Constantinople and Izmir as Smyrna.
As a shocking display of this aforementioned psychological erasure, many Kurds in Bakur are forced to not only carry a last name which is Turkish, but one which means “Turk” with a positive connotation attached, such as the surname Öztürk (pure Turk).
In conjunction with their domestic renaming, the Turkish state also relied on the legal process to suppress Kurdish identity, even against the diaspora who were out of the country in Europe. For instance, Turkish consular offices regularly provided European bureaucrats with lists of officially recognized Turkish names, which was done to prevent Kurds with Turkish passports from registering their newborn children with unapproved Kurdish names while they lived abroad.
This situation mirrors domestic regulations within Turkey, where Kurdish parents are banned from giving their children Kurdish names, and for all intents and purposes are forced instead to give them two names, a Turkish name for public use and a Kurdish one for family and the local community. Additionally, Turkey has pursued an effective ban on the use of names including the letters q, w, and x – which are common in the Kurdish language – due to their non-existence in the Turkish alphabet.
As one example of many, in 2002, Amed’s occupying military police asked the state prosecutor’s office to annul 600 children’s names and replace them with Turkish equivalents. Among the Kurdish names banned as subversive were Berivan (milkmaid), Dilan (dance), Baran (rain), Yayla (high plateau) and Berrak (transparent). In response, Selahattin Demirtaş at the time clarified how:
“Kurds have been naming their children Kurdish names for thousands of years… Culturally, the people in this region consider themselves Kurdish, so naturally, they give their children names from their own language and culture. But for the [Turkish] government, it is an issue of state security. And for some people, it is a rejection of the assimilation being forced on them by the government.”
Dilek Aktepe, a Kurd from Bakur living in Germany, described his own situation, stating:
“It is a matter of identity: many people think I am of Turkish origin because of my name, but I want to be recognized as a Kurd. Even our last name had to be Turkish in occupied northern Kurdistan. A Kurdish name has a deep emotional meaning for me. I will change my name in the near future.”
Arabization & Ba’athification
Suppression of Kurdish identity was also carried out by various Syrian Arab governments and Ba’athists regimes in Western Kurdistan (Rojava), which were even more pronounced (though less violent) than the Ba’athist policies of Saddam in Southern Kurdistan (Bashur). In Syria, these included: a refusal to register children with Kurdish names, a replacement of Kurdish place names with Arabic ones, prohibition of businesses without Arabic names, banning of Kurdish private schools, and the prohibition of books and other materials written in Kurdish.
Contemporary Kurdish film director Mano Khalil – who was raised in Rojava before eventually being granted asylum in Switzerland – described his own childhood as follows:
“I grew up in Syrian Kurdistan in the 1960s in a small Kurdish family understanding no Arabic words—the difference is like the difference between English and Chinese. My mother is from Turkish Kurdistan, my father from Syrian Kurdistan, and I went to an Arabic school where Kurdish was absolutely forbidden—my parents told me never to say anything in Kurdish. On my third day, the teacher showed me a small apple in a book to see if I understood the Arabic. I said sev, the Kurdish word, and he hit me really hard on my hand. It was so bad my mother said she was going to kill him. Our school was a prison. We learned how to hate, not to love. So going to university in Damascus was a big shock. We learned how the outside world works, how we had rights, how it was a shame that Syria put a murderer in prison for three years, but a poet writing in Kurdish away for twelve years… Just to say I’m a Kurd [was] a political act.”
In north Syria (Rojava) Kurds were banned from speaking or teaching the Kurdish language and celebrating Kurdish feast days, and many were barred from holding Syrian nationality. And like in Turkey, the Syrian government officially Arabized the names of hundreds of towns and villages in their registry.
Researcher Zohrab Qado says the Arabization of town and village names “was planned” and accelerated when Syria’s Ba’athist regime came to power in the 1960s but had begun the previous decade under the short-lived United Arab Republic of Syria and Egypt. For instance, the Kurdish city of Dêrik had its named changed by formal decree to Al-Malikiyah in 1957, to honor Adnan al-Maliki, the founder of Syria’s Army. Elsewhere, from 1978-1998, the names of more than 500 villages in Heseke province alone were Arabized, with cities like Kobanê getting renamed to Ayn al-Arab. Typically, all it took for these renamings was a formal letter from the Ministry of Interior, and just like that hundreds of years of history could officially be erased. In addition to place names, newborn Kurdish babies also had to have their names approved and Arabized by security agencies.
More recently, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) which now controls large parts of Rojava (other than the areas occupied by Turkey’s jihadist mercenaries) – has begun to correct these Ba’athist policies and return villages to their original Kurdish names with the Arab ones in parenthesis. To do so, local communities are being consulted on the original Kurdish name of their hometowns. Joseph Lahdo, co-chair of the autonomous municipalities commission in Heseke, described the process, clarifying “We are not renaming towns and villages – we are returning to their original, historical names.”
As an indication of the impact, Sheikhmous Rasho, a Kurdish farmer in his 60s, spoke excitedly of how happy he was when his village’s original Kurdish name of Girsor was restored, stating: “Our village is more than 200 years old. But they changed the Kurdish names to Arabic, so they could say these were Arab villages and distance us from our Kurdish nationality and language.”
And although Kurdish personal names have been in use in neighboring Iraq / Bashur going back to the 1960s, since Iraqi Ba’athism usually cracked down on Kurdishness with literal village razing and genocide – rather than linguistics, there still was pressure to conform to Arab names. Yasser Tamimi, a Kurd from Bashur who later moved to the Netherlands, explained his own situation and how he got his name, recalling:
“I was born in Baghdad in the 1980s. An Iraqi officer with Palestinian roots saw my parents with their newborn at the hospital and told them to name me Yasser. ‘Great men are named Yasser or Saddam’ he told them, referring to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. How could they dare to say ‘no’ to an Iraqi officer during Saddam’s times. Actually, my parents wanted to name me Kawa, like the ancient Kurdish hero. I will definitely change to a Kurdish name.”
Persianization & Islamification
Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the state has forced Kurdish families to pick from a list of approved names for their children, while granting the Supreme Council of Registry the right to reject names it deems non-permissible. The Islamic Republic of Iran argues that unapproved names might insult Islam or could sow ethnic divisions in the country, by reminding the population just how diverse Iran actually is. Consequently, the 10 million Kurds in Eastern Kurdistan (Rojhilat) are often banned from giving their children certain Kurdish names, including the name Kurdistan itself (which ironically is the name of a Province in Iran), and other Kurdish names such as Peshawa (leader), Komar (republic), Qazi (judge), Awara (refugee), and Zrebar (sea lake). The name Qandil is also not allowed since it refers to the Qandil mountains where the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK and PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party) are based.
Like in Turkey, this often forces Kurds in Iran to give their newborns two names, one for official registration or legal documents and a Kurdish one for family and friends. The most famous case of this was the Kurdish woman martyr Jina Amini (whose death sparked the recent Jin, Jiyan, Azadî revolution throughout Iran), but who the world came to first know by her official Persian name: Mahsa.
Wrya Mamle, a Kurdish writer from Mehabad and now a refugee in Norway, said he felt the impact of such bans when he applied to register his daughter’s name, Hana (which means ‘turn to’ in Sorani Kurdish) and was rejected. As Mamle explained:
“They said they couldn’t accept that because it was a foreign name. I told them, ‘No, it is Kurdish.’ After that, they took out a document of about 100 pages containing names that were considered acceptable. They told me Hana is not on the list and therefore, cannot be used.”
Defiance of the Tongue
The novelist Marcel Proust theorized the notion that memory is like a rope let down from heaven to draw you up out of the abyss of not-being. But what if an oppressive state cuts the rope specifically to keep you from achieving your full existence?
Once you realize the great lengths that the states occupying Kurdistan have gone through to erase Kurdish city and village names (in particular Turkey), it becomes obvious why no Kurd should go along with such erasure. Kurds should proudly use the Kurdish names of cities where they live and should never be afraid of voicing the reality that they are indeed from Kurdistan.
Every time a Kurdish person says “Diyarbakır” instead of Amed, they are validating Atatürk’s genocidal policies, the same ones that chased Kurdish mothers off of cliffs in Dêrsim (which should never be called “Tunceli”). Every time a Kurdish person says they are from “Turkish Kurdistan” instead of Northern Kurdistan, they are recognizing the right of the Turkish state to occupy that area and dishonoring all those Kurds who have been murdered by Turkey’s military while defending their right to exist. Names are not mere words; they are verbal political acts. And before liberation can occur in the homeland, it must first occur in the brain and on the tip of your mother tongue.
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