From Shepherds and Princes and Tent-Dwelling Poets, A Language Is Revived
By Hugh Pope, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal (May 24, 2000)

STOCKHOLM–Mehmed Uzun’s education in the power of language began the day he watched a man sear his own flesh with a cigarette.

Then an 18-year-old ethnic-Kurd activist, Mr. Uzun had been arrested and taken to Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish city, on charges of supporting independence from Turkey. Held in a cell with two dozen fellow Turkish Kurds, he found himself next to a terrified shopkeeper with an outlawed word tattooed on his hand: “Kurd.” As Mr. Uzun watched, the man burned it out.

“The torturers will have to thank me for helping them,” the merchant said as he was led away for interrogation.

Princes and Shepherds

Mr. Uzun later fled to Sweden, where he took up a different brand of subversion: creating a modern, literary form of Kurdish, a language once banned by the Turks. His quest involved, in part, entering a Turkish army base in disguise to do research on a medieval Kurdish prince, and flying a shepherd to Stockholm, to pick his brains for entries in a new Kurdish dictionary. Now 47, Mr. Uzun finds that he and his works have become star players in Ankara’s latest clash with the West.

Turkey pretty much crushed a 15-year-long Kurdish rebellion last year. To the surprise of many, it then let a Kurdish Spring ensue. Kurdish culture became fashionable, Kurdish bookshops opened, and Uzun novels started selling fast. His sudden celebrity helped Ankara’s campaign to join the European Union.

When Foreign Minister Ismail Cem visited Sweden last year to promote Turkey’s application for EU membership, he showed off three of Uzun’s novels. The EU made Turkey a candidate in December. Then in February, a provincial Turkish court banned seven Uzun works. Mr. Cem and other Turkish progressives got the order rescinded this month, but not before Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lind talked of freezing Turkey’s EU bid.

Europeans have mistrusted their Muslim neighbors for centuries. In recent years, the Kurds — numbering 25 million and spread out among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria — have become a cause celebre in which many European liberal activists see Turkey as the villain. For their part, the Turks have lurched between scrambling to join Europe and striking out at any EU meddling in their Kurdish affairs.

Mr. Uzun’s role in this drama began with his love of an imperiled language. Years ago, when he said he wanted to write in Kurdish, his friends begged his not to. Use Turkish or his adopted Swedish, they told him: Turkey virtually outlawed Kurdish between 1920 and 1990, fearing its use would strengthen separatists.

“There were no publishers, no market, no critics, no schools, no TV, no proper dictionary, no translators and no readers, ” he says. “The language was in a tragic state.”

So he set out to create a new Kurdish literature, drawing on his childhood in the town of Siverek in southeast Turkey, an area dominated by Kurds. His sheep-merchant father nourished young Mehmed’s love for rural Kurdish life: They would go around to check on flocks, chat with villagers and listen to Kurdish ballads sung by shepherds who accompanied themselves on a kind of wooden flute. As a teen, he seethed watching police beat Kurds in the street merely for speaking Kurdish. Then came arrest in 1971 and torture in prison, where jailers beat the soles of his feet.

During his time in jail, he fell in with a heady mix of Kurdish characters who constituted what Mr. Uzun calls his university. “They taught me to love Kurdish, ” he says. Let out under an amnesty, he wrote a plea in Kurdish to save the language in a nationalist magazine in 1976. Within half an hour of publication, police bundled him off to jail again. Released pending trial, he escaped through a border minefield to Syria and eventually to Sweden.

Collecting Words and Lore

He resumed his linguistic quest in Stockholm, aided by grants from the Swedish government. To collect vocabulary and lore, he visited an Iraqi Kurdish leader in a rebel-held mountain valley of Iraq, spending evenings in a tent listening to Kurd poets and storytellers by the light of an oil lamp. He learned Arabic script to read classical Kurdish poems of the 16th and 17th centuries. Disguised as a Turkish visitor, he risked arrest to tour the ruins of the prince’s castle — now the site of a Turkish army base overlooking the Tigris River.

Later, he hunted down rare copies of a magazine published by Kurdish exiles in the 1920s. The ill-fated adventures of these pioneers form the backbone of two of Mr. Uzun’s novels, which, like all of his fiction, detail the struggles of Kurds through the ages. He also led an editorial board of intellectuals, who would pay for Kurds to fly to Europe to brief them on obscure vocabulary.

From his research, Mr. Uzun published his first attempt at a modern Kurdish novel in 1985, “You.” After that came an anthology he edited of Kurdish literature, the first of its kind. Critical success came with his novel “In the Shadow of a Lost Love.” The story fictionalizes a 1920s Kurdish intellectual’s failed struggle to pursue both his love for a woman and his duty to fight the newly formed Turkish republic. Turkish translations followed, usually outselling the Kurdish versions, since only a few thousand people can read or write the Kermanci dialect of Turkey’s Kurds. His novels began to be translated into European languages in the 1990s, although not, as yet, into English.

Crowds and Autographs

Last year brought a truce between Kurdish rebels and Ankara, and suddenly Mr. Uzun was famous. In January, Turkish police allowed him to visit his home region for the first time in 23 years. More than 3,000 people jammed the city hall of Diyarbakir to hear him read from his new book, “Love Like Light, Death Like Darkness.” Crowds of Kurds lined up for hours to get his autograph on copies of this tale of love between a Kurd rebel and a Kurdish girl, set against the military repression of the Kurds. A Turkish translation became a bestseller, as Turks grew more interested about their Kurdish cousins after the rebellion was put down.

His success has sparked envy, both among Sweden’s exiled Kurdish intellectuals and back home. “He may have created the modern Kurdish novel, but he didn’t invent the language,” says Edip Polat, a much-jailed author living in Diyarbakir. “What about those of us who stayed and struggled for Kurdish literature here?”

But Mr. Uzun has had his brushes with the kind of violence that fills his work. In 1979, gunmen shot dead a cousin as he held his newborn daughter in his arms. In 1992, assassins murdered Musa Anter, the revered author of an early Turkish-Kurdish dictionary, who taught Mr. Uzun to write Kurdish in jail. Two younger cousins were killed in action as rebel commanders during the latest Kurdish revolt.

“That’s why I put no humor in my novels,” Mr. Uzun explains, steering his new silver Skoda car through the orderly streets of Stockholm, far from where he spent his youth, the now dank and dilapidated alleyways of Diyarbakir’s old town. “You could say it’s survivor’s guilt.”