I took a “dolmuş” mini-bus ride between two towns some hours apart in the south-eastern, Kurdish part of the country. For part of the way, I sat next to a teacher, who said he taught English. It was apparent that he didn’t speak much English, a fact of which he was painfully aware, and he soon asked for my permission to borrow the English-Turkish dictionary which I had just been using. He was to use it a lot during the conversation that followed — I suspected he thought it was a lot safer to talk in English than in Turkish, even if difficult, and I was certainly happy he made that choice.
The first word he looked up translated as “compelled”. He had been compelled to teach English, he said, despite his protests that he didn’t speak the language. He did speak Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic, as do many people in this part of the country. He taught a variety of subjects, since in his school there were 600 overwhelmingly Kurdish children, and only five teachers. He wanted to know how many students there were in the average U.S. classroom, and I said 25-30. To that, he offered that the children in his classroom were crammed three to a seat. On top of that, he said that he was paid only $800 monthly for this work and had to live apart from his wife. I asked him why he decided to become a teacher, and he said that he loved children and he loved his people. He more than once during this conversation took out his cell phone and showed me a picture of his smiling child, to make sure that I understood his motivation.
He spoke with intensity, and he even rode past his stop because he wanted to continue the conversation as long as possible. I asked if he taught in Kurdish, and he smiled wryly and said that in his own classroom he was allowed to speak English or Turkish — but not Kurdish. I was surprised by this and said that I had heard otherwise, but he said that it was only in the universities that Kurdish was allowed. He looked up the word that translated as “assimilation”, and pointed to it, and I got the point. He added that the Turkish government had recently begun allowing Kurdish history to be taught, but only the version that it wanted, and not the version he believed to be true. He could not tell them that the country’s revered founder, Ataturk, had suppressed Kurdish rebellions. “So you could not, for example, tell them about the mass hangings of Kurdish leaders in Diyarbakir back in the 1920’s and 1930’s?” “Absolutely not”, he replied. “We can’t even call Diyarbakir by its Kurdish name, which is Amed”. (See http://www.kurdsat.tv/news.php?id=831&type=kurdistan)
He apologized before stating that he didn’t want to have to speak ill of the United States, but he thought it supported the Turkish government in its oppression of the Kurdish people. He wanted to know why the US government did this. I had never liked being asked to defend my country’s foreign policy, having generally low opinion of an inward-looking country to understand the rest of the world. I said that the first reason was that the U.S. didn’t understand this part of the world, and the second reason was that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) organization used terror tactics to achieve its goal of separation. Yes, he said, but the US is not doing anything to help find a solution. I asked him what he thought the solution was.
There is no “hak”, he said, looking up its English translation, “justice”. “We don’t want very much, just what is fair.” “And what is fair?” “We want to control education, and we want to be able to call our towns by their proper names”. That’s all? “Yes, that’s all”. Then he wanted to know what I thought the solution might be. I explained that in countries like the U.S. and Canada, there is a federal system, where the central government controls some functions, while the state or provincial governments controlled other matters such as education and health care. He said that this was exactly the kind of government that they wanted and needed for the Kurdish people. He couldn’t quite pronounce the world “government”, so he simply gave up and used the Turkish word “devlet”. I wanted to know what party he thought would best be able to get the Kurdish people what they want, and asked him first about the main Kurdish party in the Turkish parliament, the BDP. He didn’t think much of them, and rattled off an alphabet soup list of party names, including the BDP and the ruling AK Party, and said they were all the same and they were all in it for the money. He thought the BDP started out with the right idea, but became afraid — he didn’t say so, but we both knew that many of that party’s parliamentary members were in jail, with others under threat of jail. The only party that he thought represented the Kurds and wasn’t afraid was the PKK. He didn’t support the PKK policy of armed resistance and killing — he mimed the act of shooting a rifle — but he thought they fought for the right issues. He leaned in closer and had heard of Abdullah Ocalan, the former leader of the PKK who has been held alone in an island prison in the Sea of Marmara since the late 1990’s and whose name was once and perhaps still is all but forbidden to mention by Kurds. “Some things he did were right, others were not”, was as far as he would go.
To make sure I really grasped the predicament of Kurdish men like him, he said that he had not yet done his military service, but would soon have to do so. “I may be killing my uncle, my cousins, my brothers.” I asked if members of his family had been killed or wounded in the fighting between the Kurds and the army, and he replied with great sadness that his brother had been killed, fighting for the Turkish Army. He paused to let that fact sink in, or just to collect his thoughts. “It was a great loss and a great waste”, he continued. “My brother was a good man, an engineer, he studied at one of the best universities in Istanbul, and he spoke wonderful English too. It was a loss to his family and a loss to the country too.” He handed the dictionary back to me, and got off the bus.