Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mehmet Uzun: The Slap & the Lie

A friend once told me he'd gone to a protest in Turkey and the as the crowd of about a hundred people chanted "Human Rights Now!" the police who numbered about two thousand shouted "Down with Human Rights." This was back in the 90's, but these days not much has changed. It was pretty common knowledge that the words "Human Rights" were often interpreted by Turkish authorities as a sign of "supporting terrorism", and there are many semi comical accounts of foreign journalists running into trouble because some official discovered the incriminating phrase "human rights" in a reporters notebook; leading to detainment and quick deportation. This is how language a has been turned inside out and upside down and made into what the great Kurdish novelist Mehmet Uzun called "The Lie"

For reasons that have nothing to do with my own will I came into the world as a Kurd, and since then my life has been marked by two things: suffering and the lie.

He goes onto describe the lesson of "the slap":

The first lesson goes back to 1960, the year I was seven. On a hot, clear day at the end of summer, the very day on which, dressed in new clothes from head to foot, I was beginning grammar school, I received a violent slap in the face in the guise of a lesson on the importance of language and words. I had been born and raised in the shelter of a Kurdish tribe. My family possessed no books except for the Koran, which hung on the wall, and had neither a radio nor a television set. In this enormous house, its garden planted with some pomegranate trees and an equal number of peach trees, the garden where roses bloomed, there was nothing besides my father's bilur (shepherd's pipe), the stories and legends told by my grandfather, and the beautiful strans (traditional songs) that my grandmother sang in the Zaza dialect of Kurdish. It was a universe forged in the feelings, ideas, norms, and values of the Kurdish language.

I was seven years old and loved this universe that I was part of. But from the first hour of the first day that I set foot in school I was instructed by a slap in the face, ineradicably engraved in my memory, that my universe was meaningless, useless, primitive, and taboo, and that I had to leave it. While I was joining the ranks of my classmates in the yard of the grammar school, which was named after the poet Ibrahim Rafet, the teacher, who came from central Anatolia and was fulfilling his civil service, called me to order by a violent slap because I was speaking with a classmate in my maternal tongue. "It is forbidden to speak Kurdish!" The real meaning of this injunction, pronounced in Turkish, only came to me years later.

The lesson I drew from this slap is that language and the word are of great importance.

I hope you will read the entire essay at the link above. he was such a great writer.

Today there's an article in Zaman that illustrates the continuation of "THE LIE" how little has changed since "The Slap" was written.

Prosecutor focuses on religious exploitation in Nevruz protest indictment
The Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office has completed its indictment of 14 people arrested on charges of inciting hatred among the public during Nevruz incidents that erupted in March.

The indictment focuses on the exploitation of religion by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), accused of spreading propaganda and inciting hatred among the public.
Fourteen alleged PKK supporters were arrested in southeastern Diyarbakır province last month over incidents that erupted during Nevruz celebrations in March. In the indictment the Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office accuses these 14 individuals of using religion as a means to influence people, raising tension in society and spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organization.

One has to ask- seriously, what does this mean? Some people were talking about religion and the PKK. Now they'll go to jail. By being a "supporter" one just has to feel sympathy, not to give arms, raise money or go to the mountains. One just has to say the wrong words the wrong person.

And here's the "Human Rights" angle that makes the whole issue much more "serious"

The indictment also mentioned a meeting between Barbara Anne Lakeberg, the alleged founder of a human rights organization in northern Iraq, and H.B. and A.T., two suspected PKK supporters who were arrested during Nevruz protests in Diyarbakır in March.

“The outlawed PKK tries to regain popularity among people in the region by exploiting people’s religious beliefs. TV stations, Web sites and newspapers belonging to the group serve this purpose. The group is in close cooperation with such organizations as the Kurdistan Islamic Party, the Imams’ Association of Kurdistan and the Patriotic Imams’ Association of Kurdistan to appeal to Kurdish citizens’ religious sensitivities,” reads the indictment.

The prosecutor’s office also stresses in the indictment that the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, made a call to the organization to prepare the groundwork for the establishment of a faculty of theology in southeastern Şanlıurfa province.

“Öcalan once called on the PKK to focus on Şanlıurfa denizens’ sensitivity toward Islam. He told the group to dwell on Şanlıurfa being a city of prophets in its propaganda,” said the indictment.

“Lakeberg, an American citizen who can speak Kurdish, got in contact with H.B. and A.T. and told them she is the founder of a human rights organization in northern Iraq and that she wants to establish a similar organization in Diyarbakır as well. She also told the two men that she has close contacts with Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] officers. The three exchanged views on religion, religious sects and the PKK’s propaganda on religion during their meeting,” the indictment said.

It's "incidents" like this that make Turkey seem like such a spiteful petty little joke state, and if it weren't for the ruin that comes to so many people's lives, I'd laugh.

Mehmet Uzun goes on to describe his second "lesson":

The second lesson came during the course of the summer of 1976. Arrested on March 21 of that year for my responsibilities as managing editor of a Kurdish-Turkish magazine, I was accused of "separatism" and incarcerated in Ankara's central prison. Some time afterward I became aware of the nature of the indictment against me, and presented myself for the first hearing of what was called a Court for State Security, similar to the tribunal that is currently banning my books. I no longer remember the month or the day, except that it was a dog day in the summer of 1976. The atmosphere in the concrete chamber, windowless on all four sides, was horribly suffocating. We were all sweating heavily: myself, "the accused" Mehmed Uzun, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and linen pants; the tribunal made up of five people, two soldiers and three civilians all obliged to wear their official dress; the prosecutor, who I later found out was a Kurd from Agri (1); my counsel; my relatives who had come to be present at the trial; all of us were drenched in sweat. In answer to the prosecutor's brief, which was no longer than two pages, I had prepared a response of seventy-six pages attempting to prove in a pretty awkward and puerile manner the existence of the Kurds and the Kurdish language. The prosecutor's argument was that the Kurds and their language had no form of existence. Whoever claimed the contrary was considered a separatist and deserved to be punished.

The prosecutor hammered home his arguments while looking me straight in the eye. As for me, I pronounced some phrases in the Kurdish language one after the other and then said to him: "That's the language whose existence you deny. It also happens to be my maternal tongue. Did you understand any of it?" The prosecutor, naturally, refused to answer and repeated his arguments. The trial was adjourned. It was only in the sealed army van that was taking me to prison that my eyes stopped watering. Not so much because of the overpowering heat but because of my impotence, my inability to establish a dialog with the prosecutor and the tribunal: because I had been incapable of unmasking a horrible lie that was misrepresented as truth by power, violence, the law, and official values. The lesson I drew from that inane day was that the word must preserve its dignity, its respectability.

Because the Kurds, like the other ancestral communities of Mesopotamia, such as the Assyrians, Syrians, Armenians, Jews, Chaldeans, Nestorians, Yezidis, or Alawites, who find themselves in a situation far more difficult than that of the Kurds, are confined in an irrevocable mode of life. These communities, which have received from history a slap in the face like the one I received at the age of seven, have been condemned to disappear. Completely deprived of their legitimate democratic role, human rights, the right of equality, and freedom of conscience, delivered over to ignorant and wilful military dictators who could not care less about law and justice, to shameless religious leaders who push religious conservatism to an extreme, in a region governed by arrogant politicians who only pay lip service to the words civilization, happy future, and justice, but who are in reality totally insensitive to the real needs of their fellow citizens and completely befuddled by the technical and economic progress to which they reduce all reality, these populations always hear the same message repeated: "Accept your fate. Your forehead is marked with the stamp of death. Do not struggle in vain, history's slap is mortal. Do not expect any help from outside, because you are alone, no one will hear your long cry. Do not hope to open yourself to the world, still less to rejoin it. You have no other choice but to sting those around you like a scorpion--before stinging yourself and disappearing. Everything that belongs to you--including your linguistic and cultural heritage--will be nothing but dead knowledge. You can speak your language in your family if you wish, and even create a literature of the oppressed, capable of awakening in others a feeling of pity. Within your confined universe you can cry out, howl, quarrel with your neighbors. But do not try to open yourselves to the world or to offer it anything at all. Your only chance for survival is to forget everything, to abandon everything that belongs to you and conform to the official vision that defines you. Be ashamed of your own language, your identity, your cultural heritage, and admit that they are primitive and from now on useless. Turn to money, celebrity, pleasure, comfort, kill what you carry in your soul, your brain, your heart. Come, join us ..."

That is what has been repeated for two centuries to the custodians of the oldest cultural heritage of humanity. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the stories of the Bible, the parables of the prophets, the paradise gardens of the Euphrates and the Tigris, the ghats of Zoroaster, Babylon, Nineveh, Ur, Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and an innumerable number of other human treasures belong to them. Still, it is deemed necessary that all this be retained as an ornament evoking the past, but a past not in any way enriched by evoking new voices, new breath.

To paraphrase Ovid, what would happen if, incurring guilt for having seen certain things, you would understand that the reality to which you are required to adhere is a tissue of lies, and you were to insist on giving to this cultural heritage, to those of its languages still capable of being revived, a new voice, a new breath consistent with their spirit? The answer is to be found in Tristia by this same Ovid: The gods never pardon those who--even unknowingly--rise up against them. And so it is with a goal of blocking you that whole armies are set in motion, police, laws, information services, squadrons of death, universities, newspapers, television and radio networks, censorship bureaus, walls raised in heads and minds, tribunals, prosecutors, judges, prisons, torture centers, all in league to impose the lie as the sole reality and determined to make this lie triumph.

This excerpts from this essay were taken from Uzun's article in The International Journal of Kurdish Studies.

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